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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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CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot recently appeared on The Diane Rehm Show to discuss Escalating Tensions Between The U.S. And Venezuela. The audio of the show is available here, and a transcript follows.

The Diane Rehm Show
Wednesday, March 11, 2015, 10AM

Thanks for joining us, I am Diane Rehm.

The US and Venezuela have not had full democratic relations since 2008. This week President Obama ordered sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials allegedly linked to human rights violations and corruption.

Here to talk about the escalating friction with Venezuela is Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Joining us from a studio in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, of the Kellogg School of Management; he is also a political columnist with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.

I hope you will join us at 800 433 8850, send in email at wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

And welcome to all of you.

ALL: Thanks for having us, Diane.

DIANE REHM: Good to see you. Michael McCarthy, talk about what prompted the White House to issue the executive order on Monday freezing American assets of seven of the Venezuelan officials.

MICHAEL McCARTHY: It is a great question. The timing of this executive order is very interesting I think. I would like to highlight two preceding events that I think are very important. On February 19 the Venezuelan government through its security forces detained the elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, in a highly militarized fashion. And he was jailed on charges of being involved in a coup attempt. And this suggested the Venezuelan government, I think, had crossed a new line in terms of its relationship with the opposition. Subsequently the Venezuelan government decided at the end of a rally held – an anti-imperialist rally – to announce sanctions against the United States in terms of visa restrictions for US officials. I don’t think that the US was willing to let that action stand unchecked in some fashion. So that leads us up to the recent Executive Order on Monday, in which the US has implemented, in effect, a law passed by the Senate last summer, and put into place by the President in December. And this takes us a step further in terms of going beyond visa restrictions and to freezing assets, which the US had not done yet, under the recent legal basis created by the law and by this executive order.

REHM: Why designate Venezuela as a national security threat?

McCARTHY: My understanding is that is the legal basis, and it is necessary for the US government to take the action of freezing assets of Venezuelan government officials for these specific accusations, for these specific problems that they have committed in terms of human rights. For example in 2008 the US government sanctioned three Venezuelan members of the armed forces for their involvement with narco trafficking, with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. But that action was taken under the authority of a legal declaration made about the US’s relationship with Colombia, with the state of Colombia, in which it said that Colombia presented a national security emergency. And since these Venezuelan armed forces officials had been in cahoots, so to speak, with the FARC guerrillas that this gave them a basis to sanction those Venezuelan officials; for the Colombian state of national emergency. Up to today we have a different situation in which the president has claimed that the political conflict and situation in Venezuela, presents and unusual and extraordinary threat to American national security, and thus it was necessary to make this declaration, according to the administration. I think that the rhetoric is highly inflammatory, we never saw this rhetoric even during the worse relations between the United States and Chavismo, the political movement that is in power in Venezuela now since 1999, and in particular after a coup in 2002 that the Bush administration tacitly supported. So this is a new low in US-Venezuelan relations, but it is important to note that the commercial relationship is still very strong. The United States still receives a lot of petroleum from Venezuela, it is its fourth most important supplier. And Venezuela depends quite a lot on the United States for this export market.

REHM: Michael McCarthy, he is a research fellow at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Turning to you in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez how do you feel about the sanctions, do you feel they are important, do you feel they come at the appropriate time?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I feel they are important, they will be very relevant for the discussion going on internally in Venezuela, and I think it will highlight what is happening in Venezuela in the United States, through programs like this. That will call attention to conflicts that have been going on in Venezuela for a very long time. I am a little bit conflicted internally about the actual sanctions themselves. I feel that the US will be on the right side of history, as a result of having spoken out against Chavismo, which in its current state has become significantly more authoritarian than its previous incarnation. President Maduro inherited a system that took certain things for granted, a charismatic front-man, a high popularity rating, and very expensive oil. And in a very short time, he has shown himself to have neither the first two, and he has lost the latter. So he has entered an emergency mode in which there has been a lot more suppression of independent media, you have a lot more political prisoners than you had under Chávez, and you are seeing a darker side of Chavismo, which may have existed under Chávez but was at least not as visible.

REHM: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Mark Weisbrot, you’re opposed to the sanctions, talk about why.

WEISBROT: First I want to say that every government in the hemisphere is against these sanctions. The Community of Latin America and Caribbean Nations [CELAC] put out a statement (that’s every country in the hemisphere except for the United States and Canada) and they said that we reiterate our strong repudiation of unilateral course of measures that are contrary to international law. And that was the last set of sanctions in December that Obama signed into law. So I want to tell your listeners, and I thank you very much for having an honest discussion here because this doesn’t happen, almost ever, in the United States. If you remember the media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war where most of the country was convinced that Iraq was involved in 9-11 (it wasn’t your fault, I know) but that’s actually, the coverage of Venezuela is worse than that, because there were notable exceptions during that period in the major US media. And there is almost nothing now, it is all kind of, you know, if you read George Orwell, “four legs good, two legs bad,” It is all bad news. So one of the things you are missing right here is this incredible isolation of the United States, for making this ridiculous statement, which, by the way, I haven’t heard a reporter even question them, how is Venezuela an extraordinary national security threat to the United States? What are they doing? A terrorist plot? Are they invading somebody? This is the situation we are facing, you had statement from CELAC and UNASUR immediately after these sanctions; you talk about rhetoric between the US and the Venezuelan government, it is not just the Venezuelan government. Here is the president of Bolivia, he called for an emergency meetings of CELAC and UNASUR against the aggression of the United States and this “unusual and extraordinary threat to national security of Latin America,” okay. And then President Correa of Ecuador, called it a “joke” and “bad taste,” and said this is reminiscent of the darkest days of imperialism, when the United States invaded countries and installed dictatorships. That is how Latin America is looking at it, and I am even going to make a prediction here, which I usually don’t like to do, I think because it is considered so outrageous, in this hemisphere, what the Obama administration just did, that they are going to have to take it back. Just like in April of 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry was the only foreign minister in the world who refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, and he had to take it back, because he had no support and the South American countries, which made quite a bit of noise about it.

REHM: So do you believe these charges against the actions of, first, the seven Venezuelans, and then saying that Venezuela has become a national security threat to the US has been totally concocted out of nothing?

WEISBROT: First of all, every government in the hemisphere, every president, every foreign minister, and I’m talking about any of the countries, okay, really just about anybody, they know that this has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. The Colombian military executed civilians, 5,700 between 2000-2010. What did the United States do? They just stepped up military support. In Honduras right now the security forces engage in extrajudicial executions; again the United States is just increasing military and security aid. So nobody believes this has anything to do with human rights.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy. A short break, and we will be right back.

REHM: Welcome back. We are talking about the escalating friction between the US and Venezuela that has truly been intensifying for months, and this week the White House declared that Venezuela is a national security threat, and as you have heard, sanctioned seven top officials. Here is a comment from our website: “Venezuela is on the road to become, or more likely is, the next failed state. I don’t know what anyone could have done to prevent it, certainly not anyone in this country, they will have to resolve their own problems themselves.” Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, how do you respond to that comment?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I think it is a great viewpoint to carry, at the same time touching back on one of the things Mark said before the break, I do think there is a human rights component in this. I am a South American, and I do believe there is an element of this that is human rights based. What makes Venezuela a human rights problem, and what makes it a risk, is not so much the death count necessarily, it is the culture of the lack of accountability in government. There is a culture of impunity at work. A couple of weeks ago, a 14 year-old boy was shot through the head for protesting. Yesterday, Roy Chaderton, a high-ranking Venezuelan official, made a joke about how when a bullet goes through an opposition member’s head it travels quickly and sounds hollow. In few countries would that be acceptable, and it speaks to a darkening relationship between the government and the opposition. When you have no independent judiciary, no independent investigative agencies within the state, the state can fail very quickly. Already you have rumors of narco-trafficking being on the rise, and rumors of instability. A failed state in the region is not something that is going to help the US foreign policy, and is not going to help Colombia in policing its border. And it could cause a crisis that could escalate quickly.

REHM: What’s fascinating to me, Michael McCarthy, you said the US and Venezuela continue their economic activity, we continue to get some of the petroleum. How can this go on in the face of that kind of friction?

McCARTHY: Well, money talks. We know that. And so we have a situation where the commercial relationship is so interdependent; it has been for a very long time. I think that the truth of the matter is, the cost for Venezuela of changing the way that it exports its petroleum in terms of its markets, the costs of making that change are very high. Some estimates are that if it were to move petroleum to different markets the shipping costs would cause it to lose about 15 percent of the value of its exports on a daily basis. It is right down the Caribbean, a little over a thousand miles away. It is a very close market to the US, and there are very close cultural ties at the level of human relations, in terms of different people. I want to come back to this issue though of the national security issue, which is raised by the comment. Venezuela is a thorny foreign policy challenge; it is not a security threat to the US. It is true that the broken state of the judicial system, and the really problematic situation with the rule of law, does create the domestic problems that could have a transnational nature, in terms of narco-trafficking in particular. But we haven’t seen these accusations of collaboration with the FARC or collaboration with Iranian funded groups really grow to be very important or to be a direct threat to the United States.

REHM: Therefore you don’t think that the national security threat label should be applied?

McCARTHY: I do not think it is an accurate characterization of the Venezuelan challenge, as it is represented.

REHM: All right, Daniel, I know you wanted to get in.

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Yes, responding to Michael directly, the national security threat language is a piece of legalese that has been used in the last 20 or 30 sanctions that the US has made through this mechanism. So I think we need to be careful in gauging the importance of that. And secondly building on why I think commercial ties have stayed as strong as they have, even as political ties have continued to grow weaker. It bears a strong dependency for Venezuela on dollars, Venezuela can’t really produce anything domestically, 94 percent of its exports are petroleum, which is dollarized. But because labor costs are higher, it is next to Colombia but it imports sugar, coffee, it imports basic grains; and without an ability to import, Venezuela starves very quickly. There is no medicine. So as a result of that you have a situation where Venezuela needs to get its hands on dollars essentially in any way it can, and the easiest way to do that logistically is to keep trade high with the US. Even its Asian partners like China—Venezuela has no Pacific coast. It is less efficient and it costs more.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot, talk about the people in Venezuela, and how they are faring right now.

WEISBROT: I mean it is tough; they had a recession last year. The GDP fell by about 3 percent. The inflation was about 68.5 percent for the year, there are widespread shortages, which you read about in the newspaper every day, of consumer goods. So they are going through a period that is much tougher than they have had for a while. These problems, as they are now, are really about two years old. The economy grew very fast in 2012. And they were doing, if you go back 10-11 years, since the government got control over its own oil industry, which they didn’t have for the first four years, and the opposition controlled it. And used it as they stated publicly to overthrow the government. Since that time they have done pretty well.

REHM: So what happened? What happened to turn the situation, turn the tide for the Venezuelan people and for the economy to contract by 3 percent?

WEISBROT: There wouldn’t be much disagreement with this. I think there are problems in the exchange rate system. You have the two official rates 6.3 and12 Bolivares Fuertes, which is the domestic currency per dollar. And most of the foreign exchange is given away at that price, and that is just not sustainable. It is completely overvalued exchange rate. That is why I think it is fixable. But in terms of the people, 75 percent, according to opposition polls, are still against these sanctions.

REHM: And president Maduro himself denounced president Obama’s decision. He said: “President Barack Obama, representing the US imperialist state, has personally decided to take on the task of defeating my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it.”

WEISBROT: One other thing you have to keep in mind is this government has won almost every election, almost, 14 out of 15 elections in the last 15 years. That is because the vast majority of people, even today, are much better off than they were before Chávez was elected. The economy actually shrunk for 20 years before this government came in. Inflation was even higher than it is today. That is why you have a very strong, hardcore base, around 35 percent, that is going to vote for this government anyway. And the rest will depend on what happens to the economy.

REHM: So now Maduro is asking for decree powers. Michael?

McCARTHY: It looks as though he is going to ask for decree powers, but one quick point on the economic overview of the Chávez period which began in 1998. Going back in history, Venezuela has seen boom periods before, and it has also seen the bust period kick in. In other words, there was an opportunity to learn from the previous boom and bust cycle, and the Chávez policy makers completely failed to learn the lessons of the boom and bust cycle of the 1970s and 1980s. Venezuela did not save for the rainy days. And while it is correct like Mark is suggesting, that people are better off than they were in the 1990s, it is possible with poverty rising, and the statistics are not in from last year, and the national government’s statistics bureau, that poverty could be increasing again this year. In other words, we could be back in the same position we were in the early 1990s.

REHM: Daniel, does the US want to see the overthrow of President Maduro?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Building quickly on what has been said, it is important to note that oil was at $8 a barrel when Chávez was elected and for most of the time he was president it was much higher than that. You had record prices, so yes, there were a lot of programs that were made for the poor, they weren’t terribly efficient in many cases, and there is a question, an open question, as to if pretty much any Latin American government, even terrible right-wing governments, would have also had social programs with that much easy spending money at hand. But to answer the question you gave me, I think there is an extent to which the region would benefit from having a stable Venezuela. That said, you don’t have as much of a stake from the US perspective, as Maduro seems to think that the US does. Maduro has claimed on 16 separate occasions since coming to power two years ago that there has been a coup against him. That is 16 separate coups. And most academic reports on coups around the world don’t have 16 coup attempts anywhere in that same period. In the African coups, the Middle East, add them all up. The attempts and the successful ones, and it doesn’t reach the number of times that Maduro has claimed that Joe Biden launched a coup against him, that local companies have launched a coup against him.

WEISBROT: He didn’t say that. He didn’t say Joe Biden launched a coup against him. I’m sorry, but this is what is wrong. You can say anything you want about Venezuela in this country, and it doesn’t matter if it is true, so long as it is bad. Biden—he didn’t say that.

REHM: What did he say?

WEISBROT: What he said was ambiguous, and it was misreported in the press. He was referring to a statement that Biden made in the Caribbean, at a meeting of countries, of governments.

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: The meeting was in Washington, for what it is worth.

WEISBROT: Okay, it was in Washington, fine, if that was the meeting where he said it. And he was telling these countries that this government may not be around for very long, so you are getting oil from Venezuela and you should be planning for something else. So Maduro took that as him saying that we wanted to get rid of this government, and that is kind of how he said it. And he didn’t say Biden was launching a coup.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot from the Center of Economic and Policy Research, and you are listening to the Diane Rehm show. So Mark, do you believe that the US wants to see Maduro out of office?

WEISBROT: The whole world knows that. Yes, of course. That is what these sanctions are for: the US government has been trying to get rid of the Venezuelan government for 15 years here. And they were involved in the 2002 coup; this is something that is not reported here. But there is a pile of documents from the US government, including the US State Department, which said that the Bush administration provided training and institution building, and other support to individuals understood to be actively involved in the military coup that ousted the president for 48 hours. Then they stepped up funding to the same people, who by the way are the same leadership now that we are talking about, in Venezuela, and they have continued to do everything they can. Obama himself has tried to change policy a couple of times, there were a couple of times he tried to restore ambassadorial relationships and he was blocked by the extreme right here in Congress – the same people who pushed him to do these sanctions. So you can say he has gone back and forth. Now, Michael mentioned the US was very angry about Venezuela placing visa restrictions on US government officials, who actually are guilty of human rights violations. These are people who have committed war crimes, some from the Bush administration, so that was in retaliation for the US putting restrictions on their government officials, whose connection to any kind of human right violations, is much more tenuous. So that is true, and it is a mafia-like mentality I would say. You know, “We do whatever we want, we are the United States, and if you do the same thing, we are going to get you one way or another, even if it is illegal under international law.”

REHM: Daniel, tell us how strong the opposition is in Venezuela, and how effective has President Maduro been against that opposition?

McCARTHY: Maduro has been very effective against the opposition, and it brings me back to a point that Mark was saying just now, that you can say anything negative in the US about Venezuela as long as it is negative. And that is something that in Venezuela you simply can’t do. I have worked in Venezuela for long periods of time, and I was recently fired from a newspaper along with 30 colleagues, because I was being critical of the government. Companies or NGOs that don’t toe the party line are fired all the time, or they have their assets seized, or their leaders are thrown in jail. So it is easy to sit here and criticize that the US does X and Y, but the fact you are allowed to have that criticism is something that the Venezuelan opposition could sorely use, because right now they are very disorganised and they are very much under siege. And I think the 75 percent of Venezuelans who are against the sanctions, a large part of that is that they are scared that the existence of the sanctions is going to give the government an opportunity to, as Maduro requested formally yesterday, use emergency powers to throw more people in jail, to close down more newspapers, to seize more assets from the private sector.

REHM: So are you arguing that the Obama administration actions are actually hurting the opposition, more than they are hurting the Maduro administration itself?

McCARTHY: In the short-term they are risky; there are a lot of risks that come about with the sanctions. The Venezuelan government has traditionally, and it started with Chávez but it has grown stronger since Maduro took over, blamed the US for a lot of the things that go wrong domestically. And Obama at various times has not been as easy a boogeyman to use as the Bush administration was, because of the Bush administration’s international reputation. As a result you have a situation where anything the US says or does against Venezuela can give ammunition to the government for cracking down.

REHM: We will take a break. When we come back we will open the phones for your comments, and I look forward to speaking with you.

REHM: Welcome back. Mark Weisbrot is here in the studio. He is from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Also Michael McCarthy; he is at American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. On the line with us from Chicago: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez; he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. We have an email here, which says, “Mark claims the government has popular legitimacy but if so, why does it need to shut down critical media outlets, why does it jail judges who don’t rule in favour of the government, why are outlets of the state used to promote the election campaign of the ruling party?”

WEISBROT: Well, I don’t want to defend. I don’t defend any government, I voted for Obama twice and I don’t defend the bad things he does either. But I don’t think we should exaggerate either.

REHM: You think we are?

WEISBROT: Daniel says the opposition doesn’t have a voice, I mean just go to the web, go to the major newspapers including, El Nacional, and El Universal, and Ultimas Noticias, there is an enormously critical reporting, probably more than you have in the US. The TV …the Carter Center did a study of the television coverage during the last presidential election in 2013, and if you look at those numbers, the opposition candidate has at least equal and probably more TV time than Maduro did. So there is a voice, and opposition leader María Corina Machado got on television, on the national TV, which would never happen here, and called for the overthrow of the government during the protests.

REHM: Let me ask you this, if in fact you believe that the charges against the Maduro government are being exaggerated, then people are talking about Venezuela in inflated and combative ways, the question is, why?

WEISBROT: That’s easy to answer, Venezuela has been the number one or the number two target for regime change for the past 15 years, and this you can see there is a mountain of evidence. I mean even what Kerry did in 2013 refusing to recognize the results of an election that nobody had any doubts about. The world knew, he got [OAS Secretary General] Insulza, and the right-wing government of Spain to back him, and then they backed off. This has been continuous, they don’t like this government. There is more than 100 years of history of the United States doing this to governments they don’t like. Everybody in this room knows that. Did something change in the last few years? I don’t think so.

REHM: I’m going to open the phones now, first to Miguel, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You are on the air.

CALLER: Good morning to all, it is good to hear such a good discussion. I am a Venezuelan national, I came to this country as a child, and I have since become a US citizen. I have lived most of my life here, except that I have roots there in Venezuela and I go constantly back and forth to see family and friends. The bottom line is, as all these gentlemen are talking about the economic situation, the oil situation, the change of regime, but we are not focusing on the right subject. The right subject is what created all of this? And what Chávez legacy is for Maduro? It is the Raul and Fidel Castro brothers, they have had a tremendous amount of influence, and send tens of thousands of advisors to Ecuador, to Venezuela, to Nicaragua, and to Argentina. And Chávez, with his oil and his power at the time, the oil was at the peak of its price, provided the means for Cuba to allow this penetration in all Latin American countries. Unfortunately the US got hit with September 11, and our focus became the focus of the Middle East. And since we have been focusing on the Middle East, and we have a mess out there, started decades ago, we have not focused on the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela is right now in a state of anarchy, I have a friend who got shot eight times the other day for no reason at all. People are in the streets with weapons. There is no food, there is no oil. Let’s focus on the human factor, and where all this came from, opening relationships with Cuba is the worst thing we can possibly do.

REHM: And Daniel, do you want to come in?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I agree wholeheartedly that the situation of the average Venezuelan is overlooked in the media, and that finding the roots of that is very important. The crime situation in Venezuela has gotten very, very out of control. I have not lived there in a couple of years. But the years before I left I was kidnapped. I have been mugged several times and I don’t know that many people in Venezuela who have not had a similar experience, and when I tell my kidnapping story in the US people are shocked. They probably have not met someone who has been kidnapped before, but in Venezuela, sadly, people are waiting to hear me stop talking so they can share their own kidnapping story, or mugging story, or tell me about their brother who was shot.

REHM: Daniel, why were you kidnapped and how were you freed? Why were you freed?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: It’s a funny story. It was actually my first date with the young lady who is now my wife. We were in a Volkswagen, which was about 5 years old, which is a reasonably okay car. And we were targeted and kidnapped for 9 hours, held for ransom. And luckily we were able to get out of it. But that is sadly a tragically common occurrence in Venezuela today. And on top of the shortages, and on top of the difficulties in not having medicine, and not finding gasoline, I think what makes people really leave, the reason Venezuela is hemorrhaging its middle class, its educated class right now, is because people are scared to be outside, and you can’t put a price on that.

REHM: And to you, Michael McCarthy, with the wealth that was coming in from the oil, the petroleum that Venezuela was selling, what was happening to all the money and why wasn’t it going to the people themselves?

McCARTHY: Arguably there was enough to skim quite a bit off the top and to give to the people, during the high point of the commodities boom between 2006 and up until 2008. Venezuela had enough money for corrupt officials to take their share and for there to be significant distribution in terms of social assistance programs. I would argue that a lot of the social assistance took place through cash assistance programs, which is the trend all throughout Latin America, and I think that is a problem for sustaining some of the progress made. That changed some of the expectations of the living standards of the population and what they had hoped for in their futures, and in terms of creating families. So right now within the Venezuelan population there is a sense of desperation about the future, and a changing sense of hope, as there being a sense of hope before with Chávez, and now it’s a much more gloomy picture going out over the future. On the issue of the media I do want to make a comment, in regard to what Mark said. There have been very significant changes since 2012 when Chávez was alive, and he had his last presidential race against Henrique Capriles in the election. During that race the opposition had a mean to get its voice out to the public via television and radio, much more easily than it does today. And television and radio are the main ways the average Venezuelan receives their news, not via the newspapers. Since 2012 we have seen a visible change in the media landscape in which the government has exerted much more control over the airwaves and I think this is much different situation. In fact, the study Mark cites about the Carter Center, I was a part of the Carter Center in the 2012 election study mission, I think it is the 2012 study…

WEISBROT: No it was 2013; it’s on the web.

McCARTHY: Well, I don’t think the 2013 study revealed the same thing as the 2012 study. That I’m pretty sure of, since I was a member of both study missions.

REHM: I want to go to Los Angeles, California. Antonio, you are on the air.

CALLER: Thank you for having me on. I have been in Venezuela many times, and I speak Spanish. From what I have been able to figure out, until Chávez was elected Venezuela was the kicking boy of the United States. The US bought off all the corrupt presidents, who were paid millions in exchange for giving away the petroleum, which is the country’s patrimony. Venezuela has the largest deposits of petroleum in the world; some of them haven’t been used, though, and that does not come out very often, but there are there, in the Eastern part of the country. The people got nothing at that time, and then since Chávez the people are living much better. The government built 1 million houses for the poor; that doesn’t seem to be something that comes out in the US media. Food is subsidized and much cheaper. The Maduro government had been putting those people who hide the food in jail, the word is acaparadores — I don’t know the word in English. The right-wing has been taking the food and the goods and services away from the stores and hiding them in deposits. So that is why there was scarcity. Chávez’ greatest achievement was the creation of UNASUR, so that other Latin American countries could get out from the yoke of the US influence. Several Latin American countries now have independence and dignity and can deal on an equal level with other countries. People should read the constitution of Venezuela, for example, where it says that housewives get a minimum wage, stipend, for working at home. The people who hate Chávez are the rich, whose illegally owned properties have been expropriated for the common good. In other words, maybe 100 years ago, maybe I am making this up, but it is certainly borne out by history.

REHM: All right, thank you so much for your call. And you are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Mark Weisbrot, there was a lot in that call.

WEISBROT: It is mostly true, you have these shortages and the other problems right now. I was there at the height of the protests, and I walked all over Caracas, everywhere, and the protests were confined to some of the richest areas: Alta Mira, Los Palos Grandes. That is where you saw there protests; they were not peaceful. But the rest of the city was fine. The people hardest hit by the shortages, the ones who have to wait in line, they don’t have servants, they don’t have storage space like the upper middle classes do. Those are not the ones who went out into the streets to protest the government. It really is the upper classes, and everybody knows that too.

REHM: What would happen if Maduro was removed from office, Mark?

WEISBROT: I don’t think that is going to happen, and I don’t see how that happens. There would probably be an insurrection to restore him, like when Chávez was removed in 2002.

REHM: Daniel?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Mark raises an important point of the protests being confined to middle and upper class areas. A lot of that has to do with groups called colectivos that are pro-government, that have been armed by the government, and that tend to fill a lot of the community roles in some of the lower income areas. They have very close ties to the government, and there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable voicing negative opinions of the government in areas with a heavy colectivo presence. I think it is tricky to try and assume that all the people at these massive protests in middle class areas, like the middle of downtown, are people who live there. And the second part is that there are ways, even if the United States wants regime change in Venezuela, and I want regime change in Venezuela, there is a democratic way to do it. Maduro is at 22 percent popularity right now, and we haven’t talked about this yet but there are national assembly elections coming up in December. There can be a recall referendum next year. Chávez narrowly avoided a recall referendum right after the general strike, and he was polling much higher than Maduro is today. So I think there are peaceful ways out of this. But confusing self-defense from coups and self-defense from criticism are totally different things. And the government has used the under-siege, coup excuse to try and get rid of any negative feedback or proposals for change. And I think that represents a big problem.

REHM: Michael McCarthy, what do you see as the main differences between Chávez and Maduro?

McCARTHY: Great question. It is part of the reason the US has stepped up its role in this conflict between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Everyone in Venezuela whether they are opposition or supporters, will tell you Maduro is not Chávez. What they mean by that obvious statement, is he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, he is unable to illicit emotional responses with his public discourse, with is rhetoric, and he doesn’t seem to have control over his own cabinet, and over other institutions of the state. There is a real issue with the extent to which he has power, in that sense and the ability to exercise that leadership in a way that generates a sense of respect and symbolic power for the presidency itself. This contributes to the centrifugal forces within Chavismo, to a certain extent. But I don’t think that Maduro is about to fall off tomorrow, or anything like that. His position is certainly in a precarious place, but I don’t think it is about to change in the short term. But I do think the US government realized, or decided, during the Chávez period that a more robust US presence in this political conflict would have been exploited by Chávez much more effectively than Maduro might be able to exploit it currently. Although the sanctions are going to help Maduro in terms of fitting his narrative of being able to claim he is under attack in an international conspiracy fashion.

REHM: Do you agree, Mark?

WEISBROT: Which he is, I mean that is the part that is always left out. They say Maduro is going to use it to say the United States is trying to get rid of his government. Well the United States is trying to get rid of his government; it could hardly be more obvious. So this is the thing the whole world knows, this is why the Obama administration is so isolated, and more than the Bush administration was. You don’t see that from the press. Obama gets really good press, Bush didn’t. So everybody could see it. That’s why you have to look at the government, that is where the media never goes. They don’t ask the foreign ministers. They don’t ask the other presidents: “well, what do you think of this?” Because they know what they would say, they are saying it everyday through these organizations that include every government in the hemisphere, and that doesn’t get reported, that is what is really going on. The US is more isolated that it has ever been in the hemisphere and it is going to remain that way until they change their policy towards Venezuela.

REHM: That has to be the last word. Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. And Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Thank you all so much.

ALL: Thank you.

REHM: Thanks for listening, I am Diane Rehm.

CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot recently appeared on The Diane Rehm Show to discuss Escalating Tensions Between The U.S. And Venezuela. The audio of the show is available here, and a transcript follows.

The Diane Rehm Show
Wednesday, March 11, 2015, 10AM

Thanks for joining us, I am Diane Rehm.

The US and Venezuela have not had full democratic relations since 2008. This week President Obama ordered sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials allegedly linked to human rights violations and corruption.

Here to talk about the escalating friction with Venezuela is Mark Weisbrot from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Joining us from a studio in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, of the Kellogg School of Management; he is also a political columnist with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.

I hope you will join us at 800 433 8850, send in email at wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

And welcome to all of you.

ALL: Thanks for having us, Diane.

DIANE REHM: Good to see you. Michael McCarthy, talk about what prompted the White House to issue the executive order on Monday freezing American assets of seven of the Venezuelan officials.

MICHAEL McCARTHY: It is a great question. The timing of this executive order is very interesting I think. I would like to highlight two preceding events that I think are very important. On February 19 the Venezuelan government through its security forces detained the elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, in a highly militarized fashion. And he was jailed on charges of being involved in a coup attempt. And this suggested the Venezuelan government, I think, had crossed a new line in terms of its relationship with the opposition. Subsequently the Venezuelan government decided at the end of a rally held – an anti-imperialist rally – to announce sanctions against the United States in terms of visa restrictions for US officials. I don’t think that the US was willing to let that action stand unchecked in some fashion. So that leads us up to the recent Executive Order on Monday, in which the US has implemented, in effect, a law passed by the Senate last summer, and put into place by the President in December. And this takes us a step further in terms of going beyond visa restrictions and to freezing assets, which the US had not done yet, under the recent legal basis created by the law and by this executive order.

REHM: Why designate Venezuela as a national security threat?

McCARTHY: My understanding is that is the legal basis, and it is necessary for the US government to take the action of freezing assets of Venezuelan government officials for these specific accusations, for these specific problems that they have committed in terms of human rights. For example in 2008 the US government sanctioned three Venezuelan members of the armed forces for their involvement with narco trafficking, with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. But that action was taken under the authority of a legal declaration made about the US’s relationship with Colombia, with the state of Colombia, in which it said that Colombia presented a national security emergency. And since these Venezuelan armed forces officials had been in cahoots, so to speak, with the FARC guerrillas that this gave them a basis to sanction those Venezuelan officials; for the Colombian state of national emergency. Up to today we have a different situation in which the president has claimed that the political conflict and situation in Venezuela, presents and unusual and extraordinary threat to American national security, and thus it was necessary to make this declaration, according to the administration. I think that the rhetoric is highly inflammatory, we never saw this rhetoric even during the worse relations between the United States and Chavismo, the political movement that is in power in Venezuela now since 1999, and in particular after a coup in 2002 that the Bush administration tacitly supported. So this is a new low in US-Venezuelan relations, but it is important to note that the commercial relationship is still very strong. The United States still receives a lot of petroleum from Venezuela, it is its fourth most important supplier. And Venezuela depends quite a lot on the United States for this export market.

REHM: Michael McCarthy, he is a research fellow at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Turning to you in Chicago, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez how do you feel about the sanctions, do you feel they are important, do you feel they come at the appropriate time?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I feel they are important, they will be very relevant for the discussion going on internally in Venezuela, and I think it will highlight what is happening in Venezuela in the United States, through programs like this. That will call attention to conflicts that have been going on in Venezuela for a very long time. I am a little bit conflicted internally about the actual sanctions themselves. I feel that the US will be on the right side of history, as a result of having spoken out against Chavismo, which in its current state has become significantly more authoritarian than its previous incarnation. President Maduro inherited a system that took certain things for granted, a charismatic front-man, a high popularity rating, and very expensive oil. And in a very short time, he has shown himself to have neither the first two, and he has lost the latter. So he has entered an emergency mode in which there has been a lot more suppression of independent media, you have a lot more political prisoners than you had under Chávez, and you are seeing a darker side of Chavismo, which may have existed under Chávez but was at least not as visible.

REHM: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Mark Weisbrot, you’re opposed to the sanctions, talk about why.

WEISBROT: First I want to say that every government in the hemisphere is against these sanctions. The Community of Latin America and Caribbean Nations [CELAC] put out a statement (that’s every country in the hemisphere except for the United States and Canada) and they said that we reiterate our strong repudiation of unilateral course of measures that are contrary to international law. And that was the last set of sanctions in December that Obama signed into law. So I want to tell your listeners, and I thank you very much for having an honest discussion here because this doesn’t happen, almost ever, in the United States. If you remember the media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war where most of the country was convinced that Iraq was involved in 9-11 (it wasn’t your fault, I know) but that’s actually, the coverage of Venezuela is worse than that, because there were notable exceptions during that period in the major US media. And there is almost nothing now, it is all kind of, you know, if you read George Orwell, “four legs good, two legs bad,” It is all bad news. So one of the things you are missing right here is this incredible isolation of the United States, for making this ridiculous statement, which, by the way, I haven’t heard a reporter even question them, how is Venezuela an extraordinary national security threat to the United States? What are they doing? A terrorist plot? Are they invading somebody? This is the situation we are facing, you had statement from CELAC and UNASUR immediately after these sanctions; you talk about rhetoric between the US and the Venezuelan government, it is not just the Venezuelan government. Here is the president of Bolivia, he called for an emergency meetings of CELAC and UNASUR against the aggression of the United States and this “unusual and extraordinary threat to national security of Latin America,” okay. And then President Correa of Ecuador, called it a “joke” and “bad taste,” and said this is reminiscent of the darkest days of imperialism, when the United States invaded countries and installed dictatorships. That is how Latin America is looking at it, and I am even going to make a prediction here, which I usually don’t like to do, I think because it is considered so outrageous, in this hemisphere, what the Obama administration just did, that they are going to have to take it back. Just like in April of 2013, when Secretary of State John Kerry was the only foreign minister in the world who refused to recognize the Venezuelan presidential elections, and he had to take it back, because he had no support and the South American countries, which made quite a bit of noise about it.

REHM: So do you believe these charges against the actions of, first, the seven Venezuelans, and then saying that Venezuela has become a national security threat to the US has been totally concocted out of nothing?

WEISBROT: First of all, every government in the hemisphere, every president, every foreign minister, and I’m talking about any of the countries, okay, really just about anybody, they know that this has absolutely nothing to do with human rights. The Colombian military executed civilians, 5,700 between 2000-2010. What did the United States do? They just stepped up military support. In Honduras right now the security forces engage in extrajudicial executions; again the United States is just increasing military and security aid. So nobody believes this has anything to do with human rights.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the Experts Got Wrong About the Global Economy. A short break, and we will be right back.

REHM: Welcome back. We are talking about the escalating friction between the US and Venezuela that has truly been intensifying for months, and this week the White House declared that Venezuela is a national security threat, and as you have heard, sanctioned seven top officials. Here is a comment from our website: “Venezuela is on the road to become, or more likely is, the next failed state. I don’t know what anyone could have done to prevent it, certainly not anyone in this country, they will have to resolve their own problems themselves.” Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, how do you respond to that comment?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I think it is a great viewpoint to carry, at the same time touching back on one of the things Mark said before the break, I do think there is a human rights component in this. I am a South American, and I do believe there is an element of this that is human rights based. What makes Venezuela a human rights problem, and what makes it a risk, is not so much the death count necessarily, it is the culture of the lack of accountability in government. There is a culture of impunity at work. A couple of weeks ago, a 14 year-old boy was shot through the head for protesting. Yesterday, Roy Chaderton, a high-ranking Venezuelan official, made a joke about how when a bullet goes through an opposition member’s head it travels quickly and sounds hollow. In few countries would that be acceptable, and it speaks to a darkening relationship between the government and the opposition. When you have no independent judiciary, no independent investigative agencies within the state, the state can fail very quickly. Already you have rumors of narco-trafficking being on the rise, and rumors of instability. A failed state in the region is not something that is going to help the US foreign policy, and is not going to help Colombia in policing its border. And it could cause a crisis that could escalate quickly.

REHM: What’s fascinating to me, Michael McCarthy, you said the US and Venezuela continue their economic activity, we continue to get some of the petroleum. How can this go on in the face of that kind of friction?

McCARTHY: Well, money talks. We know that. And so we have a situation where the commercial relationship is so interdependent; it has been for a very long time. I think that the truth of the matter is, the cost for Venezuela of changing the way that it exports its petroleum in terms of its markets, the costs of making that change are very high. Some estimates are that if it were to move petroleum to different markets the shipping costs would cause it to lose about 15 percent of the value of its exports on a daily basis. It is right down the Caribbean, a little over a thousand miles away. It is a very close market to the US, and there are very close cultural ties at the level of human relations, in terms of different people. I want to come back to this issue though of the national security issue, which is raised by the comment. Venezuela is a thorny foreign policy challenge; it is not a security threat to the US. It is true that the broken state of the judicial system, and the really problematic situation with the rule of law, does create the domestic problems that could have a transnational nature, in terms of narco-trafficking in particular. But we haven’t seen these accusations of collaboration with the FARC or collaboration with Iranian funded groups really grow to be very important or to be a direct threat to the United States.

REHM: Therefore you don’t think that the national security threat label should be applied?

McCARTHY: I do not think it is an accurate characterization of the Venezuelan challenge, as it is represented.

REHM: All right, Daniel, I know you wanted to get in.

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Yes, responding to Michael directly, the national security threat language is a piece of legalese that has been used in the last 20 or 30 sanctions that the US has made through this mechanism. So I think we need to be careful in gauging the importance of that. And secondly building on why I think commercial ties have stayed as strong as they have, even as political ties have continued to grow weaker. It bears a strong dependency for Venezuela on dollars, Venezuela can’t really produce anything domestically, 94 percent of its exports are petroleum, which is dollarized. But because labor costs are higher, it is next to Colombia but it imports sugar, coffee, it imports basic grains; and without an ability to import, Venezuela starves very quickly. There is no medicine. So as a result of that you have a situation where Venezuela needs to get its hands on dollars essentially in any way it can, and the easiest way to do that logistically is to keep trade high with the US. Even its Asian partners like China—Venezuela has no Pacific coast. It is less efficient and it costs more.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot, talk about the people in Venezuela, and how they are faring right now.

WEISBROT: I mean it is tough; they had a recession last year. The GDP fell by about 3 percent. The inflation was about 68.5 percent for the year, there are widespread shortages, which you read about in the newspaper every day, of consumer goods. So they are going through a period that is much tougher than they have had for a while. These problems, as they are now, are really about two years old. The economy grew very fast in 2012. And they were doing, if you go back 10-11 years, since the government got control over its own oil industry, which they didn’t have for the first four years, and the opposition controlled it. And used it as they stated publicly to overthrow the government. Since that time they have done pretty well.

REHM: So what happened? What happened to turn the situation, turn the tide for the Venezuelan people and for the economy to contract by 3 percent?

WEISBROT: There wouldn’t be much disagreement with this. I think there are problems in the exchange rate system. You have the two official rates 6.3 and12 Bolivares Fuertes, which is the domestic currency per dollar. And most of the foreign exchange is given away at that price, and that is just not sustainable. It is completely overvalued exchange rate. That is why I think it is fixable. But in terms of the people, 75 percent, according to opposition polls, are still against these sanctions.

REHM: And president Maduro himself denounced president Obama’s decision. He said: “President Barack Obama, representing the US imperialist state, has personally decided to take on the task of defeating my government and intervening in Venezuela to control it.”

WEISBROT: One other thing you have to keep in mind is this government has won almost every election, almost, 14 out of 15 elections in the last 15 years. That is because the vast majority of people, even today, are much better off than they were before Chávez was elected. The economy actually shrunk for 20 years before this government came in. Inflation was even higher than it is today. That is why you have a very strong, hardcore base, around 35 percent, that is going to vote for this government anyway. And the rest will depend on what happens to the economy.

REHM: So now Maduro is asking for decree powers. Michael?

McCARTHY: It looks as though he is going to ask for decree powers, but one quick point on the economic overview of the Chávez period which began in 1998. Going back in history, Venezuela has seen boom periods before, and it has also seen the bust period kick in. In other words, there was an opportunity to learn from the previous boom and bust cycle, and the Chávez policy makers completely failed to learn the lessons of the boom and bust cycle of the 1970s and 1980s. Venezuela did not save for the rainy days. And while it is correct like Mark is suggesting, that people are better off than they were in the 1990s, it is possible with poverty rising, and the statistics are not in from last year, and the national government’s statistics bureau, that poverty could be increasing again this year. In other words, we could be back in the same position we were in the early 1990s.

REHM: Daniel, does the US want to see the overthrow of President Maduro?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Building quickly on what has been said, it is important to note that oil was at $8 a barrel when Chávez was elected and for most of the time he was president it was much higher than that. You had record prices, so yes, there were a lot of programs that were made for the poor, they weren’t terribly efficient in many cases, and there is a question, an open question, as to if pretty much any Latin American government, even terrible right-wing governments, would have also had social programs with that much easy spending money at hand. But to answer the question you gave me, I think there is an extent to which the region would benefit from having a stable Venezuela. That said, you don’t have as much of a stake from the US perspective, as Maduro seems to think that the US does. Maduro has claimed on 16 separate occasions since coming to power two years ago that there has been a coup against him. That is 16 separate coups. And most academic reports on coups around the world don’t have 16 coup attempts anywhere in that same period. In the African coups, the Middle East, add them all up. The attempts and the successful ones, and it doesn’t reach the number of times that Maduro has claimed that Joe Biden launched a coup against him, that local companies have launched a coup against him.

WEISBROT: He didn’t say that. He didn’t say Joe Biden launched a coup against him. I’m sorry, but this is what is wrong. You can say anything you want about Venezuela in this country, and it doesn’t matter if it is true, so long as it is bad. Biden—he didn’t say that.

REHM: What did he say?

WEISBROT: What he said was ambiguous, and it was misreported in the press. He was referring to a statement that Biden made in the Caribbean, at a meeting of countries, of governments.

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: The meeting was in Washington, for what it is worth.

WEISBROT: Okay, it was in Washington, fine, if that was the meeting where he said it. And he was telling these countries that this government may not be around for very long, so you are getting oil from Venezuela and you should be planning for something else. So Maduro took that as him saying that we wanted to get rid of this government, and that is kind of how he said it. And he didn’t say Biden was launching a coup.

REHM: Mark Weisbrot from the Center of Economic and Policy Research, and you are listening to the Diane Rehm show. So Mark, do you believe that the US wants to see Maduro out of office?

WEISBROT: The whole world knows that. Yes, of course. That is what these sanctions are for: the US government has been trying to get rid of the Venezuelan government for 15 years here. And they were involved in the 2002 coup; this is something that is not reported here. But there is a pile of documents from the US government, including the US State Department, which said that the Bush administration provided training and institution building, and other support to individuals understood to be actively involved in the military coup that ousted the president for 48 hours. Then they stepped up funding to the same people, who by the way are the same leadership now that we are talking about, in Venezuela, and they have continued to do everything they can. Obama himself has tried to change policy a couple of times, there were a couple of times he tried to restore ambassadorial relationships and he was blocked by the extreme right here in Congress – the same people who pushed him to do these sanctions. So you can say he has gone back and forth. Now, Michael mentioned the US was very angry about Venezuela placing visa restrictions on US government officials, who actually are guilty of human rights violations. These are people who have committed war crimes, some from the Bush administration, so that was in retaliation for the US putting restrictions on their government officials, whose connection to any kind of human right violations, is much more tenuous. So that is true, and it is a mafia-like mentality I would say. You know, “We do whatever we want, we are the United States, and if you do the same thing, we are going to get you one way or another, even if it is illegal under international law.”

REHM: Daniel, tell us how strong the opposition is in Venezuela, and how effective has President Maduro been against that opposition?

McCARTHY: Maduro has been very effective against the opposition, and it brings me back to a point that Mark was saying just now, that you can say anything negative in the US about Venezuela as long as it is negative. And that is something that in Venezuela you simply can’t do. I have worked in Venezuela for long periods of time, and I was recently fired from a newspaper along with 30 colleagues, because I was being critical of the government. Companies or NGOs that don’t toe the party line are fired all the time, or they have their assets seized, or their leaders are thrown in jail. So it is easy to sit here and criticize that the US does X and Y, but the fact you are allowed to have that criticism is something that the Venezuelan opposition could sorely use, because right now they are very disorganised and they are very much under siege. And I think the 75 percent of Venezuelans who are against the sanctions, a large part of that is that they are scared that the existence of the sanctions is going to give the government an opportunity to, as Maduro requested formally yesterday, use emergency powers to throw more people in jail, to close down more newspapers, to seize more assets from the private sector.

REHM: So are you arguing that the Obama administration actions are actually hurting the opposition, more than they are hurting the Maduro administration itself?

McCARTHY: In the short-term they are risky; there are a lot of risks that come about with the sanctions. The Venezuelan government has traditionally, and it started with Chávez but it has grown stronger since Maduro took over, blamed the US for a lot of the things that go wrong domestically. And Obama at various times has not been as easy a boogeyman to use as the Bush administration was, because of the Bush administration’s international reputation. As a result you have a situation where anything the US says or does against Venezuela can give ammunition to the government for cracking down.

REHM: We will take a break. When we come back we will open the phones for your comments, and I look forward to speaking with you.

REHM: Welcome back. Mark Weisbrot is here in the studio. He is from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Also Michael McCarthy; he is at American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. On the line with us from Chicago: Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez; he is a weekly political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. We have an email here, which says, “Mark claims the government has popular legitimacy but if so, why does it need to shut down critical media outlets, why does it jail judges who don’t rule in favour of the government, why are outlets of the state used to promote the election campaign of the ruling party?”

WEISBROT: Well, I don’t want to defend. I don’t defend any government, I voted for Obama twice and I don’t defend the bad things he does either. But I don’t think we should exaggerate either.

REHM: You think we are?

WEISBROT: Daniel says the opposition doesn’t have a voice, I mean just go to the web, go to the major newspapers including, El Nacional, and El Universal, and Ultimas Noticias, there is an enormously critical reporting, probably more than you have in the US. The TV …the Carter Center did a study of the television coverage during the last presidential election in 2013, and if you look at those numbers, the opposition candidate has at least equal and probably more TV time than Maduro did. So there is a voice, and opposition leader María Corina Machado got on television, on the national TV, which would never happen here, and called for the overthrow of the government during the protests.

REHM: Let me ask you this, if in fact you believe that the charges against the Maduro government are being exaggerated, then people are talking about Venezuela in inflated and combative ways, the question is, why?

WEISBROT: That’s easy to answer, Venezuela has been the number one or the number two target for regime change for the past 15 years, and this you can see there is a mountain of evidence. I mean even what Kerry did in 2013 refusing to recognize the results of an election that nobody had any doubts about. The world knew, he got [OAS Secretary General] Insulza, and the right-wing government of Spain to back him, and then they backed off. This has been continuous, they don’t like this government. There is more than 100 years of history of the United States doing this to governments they don’t like. Everybody in this room knows that. Did something change in the last few years? I don’t think so.

REHM: I’m going to open the phones now, first to Miguel, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You are on the air.

CALLER: Good morning to all, it is good to hear such a good discussion. I am a Venezuelan national, I came to this country as a child, and I have since become a US citizen. I have lived most of my life here, except that I have roots there in Venezuela and I go constantly back and forth to see family and friends. The bottom line is, as all these gentlemen are talking about the economic situation, the oil situation, the change of regime, but we are not focusing on the right subject. The right subject is what created all of this? And what Chávez legacy is for Maduro? It is the Raul and Fidel Castro brothers, they have had a tremendous amount of influence, and send tens of thousands of advisors to Ecuador, to Venezuela, to Nicaragua, and to Argentina. And Chávez, with his oil and his power at the time, the oil was at the peak of its price, provided the means for Cuba to allow this penetration in all Latin American countries. Unfortunately the US got hit with September 11, and our focus became the focus of the Middle East. And since we have been focusing on the Middle East, and we have a mess out there, started decades ago, we have not focused on the situation in Venezuela. Venezuela is right now in a state of anarchy, I have a friend who got shot eight times the other day for no reason at all. People are in the streets with weapons. There is no food, there is no oil. Let’s focus on the human factor, and where all this came from, opening relationships with Cuba is the worst thing we can possibly do.

REHM: And Daniel, do you want to come in?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: I agree wholeheartedly that the situation of the average Venezuelan is overlooked in the media, and that finding the roots of that is very important. The crime situation in Venezuela has gotten very, very out of control. I have not lived there in a couple of years. But the years before I left I was kidnapped. I have been mugged several times and I don’t know that many people in Venezuela who have not had a similar experience, and when I tell my kidnapping story in the US people are shocked. They probably have not met someone who has been kidnapped before, but in Venezuela, sadly, people are waiting to hear me stop talking so they can share their own kidnapping story, or mugging story, or tell me about their brother who was shot.

REHM: Daniel, why were you kidnapped and how were you freed? Why were you freed?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: It’s a funny story. It was actually my first date with the young lady who is now my wife. We were in a Volkswagen, which was about 5 years old, which is a reasonably okay car. And we were targeted and kidnapped for 9 hours, held for ransom. And luckily we were able to get out of it. But that is sadly a tragically common occurrence in Venezuela today. And on top of the shortages, and on top of the difficulties in not having medicine, and not finding gasoline, I think what makes people really leave, the reason Venezuela is hemorrhaging its middle class, its educated class right now, is because people are scared to be outside, and you can’t put a price on that.

REHM: And to you, Michael McCarthy, with the wealth that was coming in from the oil, the petroleum that Venezuela was selling, what was happening to all the money and why wasn’t it going to the people themselves?

McCARTHY: Arguably there was enough to skim quite a bit off the top and to give to the people, during the high point of the commodities boom between 2006 and up until 2008. Venezuela had enough money for corrupt officials to take their share and for there to be significant distribution in terms of social assistance programs. I would argue that a lot of the social assistance took place through cash assistance programs, which is the trend all throughout Latin America, and I think that is a problem for sustaining some of the progress made. That changed some of the expectations of the living standards of the population and what they had hoped for in their futures, and in terms of creating families. So right now within the Venezuelan population there is a sense of desperation about the future, and a changing sense of hope, as there being a sense of hope before with Chávez, and now it’s a much more gloomy picture going out over the future. On the issue of the media I do want to make a comment, in regard to what Mark said. There have been very significant changes since 2012 when Chávez was alive, and he had his last presidential race against Henrique Capriles in the election. During that race the opposition had a mean to get its voice out to the public via television and radio, much more easily than it does today. And television and radio are the main ways the average Venezuelan receives their news, not via the newspapers. Since 2012 we have seen a visible change in the media landscape in which the government has exerted much more control over the airwaves and I think this is much different situation. In fact, the study Mark cites about the Carter Center, I was a part of the Carter Center in the 2012 election study mission, I think it is the 2012 study…

WEISBROT: No it was 2013; it’s on the web.

McCARTHY: Well, I don’t think the 2013 study revealed the same thing as the 2012 study. That I’m pretty sure of, since I was a member of both study missions.

REHM: I want to go to Los Angeles, California. Antonio, you are on the air.

CALLER: Thank you for having me on. I have been in Venezuela many times, and I speak Spanish. From what I have been able to figure out, until Chávez was elected Venezuela was the kicking boy of the United States. The US bought off all the corrupt presidents, who were paid millions in exchange for giving away the petroleum, which is the country’s patrimony. Venezuela has the largest deposits of petroleum in the world; some of them haven’t been used, though, and that does not come out very often, but there are there, in the Eastern part of the country. The people got nothing at that time, and then since Chávez the people are living much better. The government built 1 million houses for the poor; that doesn’t seem to be something that comes out in the US media. Food is subsidized and much cheaper. The Maduro government had been putting those people who hide the food in jail, the word is acaparadores — I don’t know the word in English. The right-wing has been taking the food and the goods and services away from the stores and hiding them in deposits. So that is why there was scarcity. Chávez’ greatest achievement was the creation of UNASUR, so that other Latin American countries could get out from the yoke of the US influence. Several Latin American countries now have independence and dignity and can deal on an equal level with other countries. People should read the constitution of Venezuela, for example, where it says that housewives get a minimum wage, stipend, for working at home. The people who hate Chávez are the rich, whose illegally owned properties have been expropriated for the common good. In other words, maybe 100 years ago, maybe I am making this up, but it is certainly borne out by history.

REHM: All right, thank you so much for your call. And you are listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Mark Weisbrot, there was a lot in that call.

WEISBROT: It is mostly true, you have these shortages and the other problems right now. I was there at the height of the protests, and I walked all over Caracas, everywhere, and the protests were confined to some of the richest areas: Alta Mira, Los Palos Grandes. That is where you saw there protests; they were not peaceful. But the rest of the city was fine. The people hardest hit by the shortages, the ones who have to wait in line, they don’t have servants, they don’t have storage space like the upper middle classes do. Those are not the ones who went out into the streets to protest the government. It really is the upper classes, and everybody knows that too.

REHM: What would happen if Maduro was removed from office, Mark?

WEISBROT: I don’t think that is going to happen, and I don’t see how that happens. There would probably be an insurrection to restore him, like when Chávez was removed in 2002.

REHM: Daniel?

LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Mark raises an important point of the protests being confined to middle and upper class areas. A lot of that has to do with groups called colectivos that are pro-government, that have been armed by the government, and that tend to fill a lot of the community roles in some of the lower income areas. They have very close ties to the government, and there are a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable voicing negative opinions of the government in areas with a heavy colectivo presence. I think it is tricky to try and assume that all the people at these massive protests in middle class areas, like the middle of downtown, are people who live there. And the second part is that there are ways, even if the United States wants regime change in Venezuela, and I want regime change in Venezuela, there is a democratic way to do it. Maduro is at 22 percent popularity right now, and we haven’t talked about this yet but there are national assembly elections coming up in December. There can be a recall referendum next year. Chávez narrowly avoided a recall referendum right after the general strike, and he was polling much higher than Maduro is today. So I think there are peaceful ways out of this. But confusing self-defense from coups and self-defense from criticism are totally different things. And the government has used the under-siege, coup excuse to try and get rid of any negative feedback or proposals for change. And I think that represents a big problem.

REHM: Michael McCarthy, what do you see as the main differences between Chávez and Maduro?

McCARTHY: Great question. It is part of the reason the US has stepped up its role in this conflict between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Everyone in Venezuela whether they are opposition or supporters, will tell you Maduro is not Chávez. What they mean by that obvious statement, is he lacks the charisma of his predecessor, he is unable to illicit emotional responses with his public discourse, with is rhetoric, and he doesn’t seem to have control over his own cabinet, and over other institutions of the state. There is a real issue with the extent to which he has power, in that sense and the ability to exercise that leadership in a way that generates a sense of respect and symbolic power for the presidency itself. This contributes to the centrifugal forces within Chavismo, to a certain extent. But I don’t think that Maduro is about to fall off tomorrow, or anything like that. His position is certainly in a precarious place, but I don’t think it is about to change in the short term. But I do think the US government realized, or decided, during the Chávez period that a more robust US presence in this political conflict would have been exploited by Chávez much more effectively than Maduro might be able to exploit it currently. Although the sanctions are going to help Maduro in terms of fitting his narrative of being able to claim he is under attack in an international conspiracy fashion.

REHM: Do you agree, Mark?

WEISBROT: Which he is, I mean that is the part that is always left out. They say Maduro is going to use it to say the United States is trying to get rid of his government. Well the United States is trying to get rid of his government; it could hardly be more obvious. So this is the thing the whole world knows, this is why the Obama administration is so isolated, and more than the Bush administration was. You don’t see that from the press. Obama gets really good press, Bush didn’t. So everybody could see it. That’s why you have to look at the government, that is where the media never goes. They don’t ask the foreign ministers. They don’t ask the other presidents: “well, what do you think of this?” Because they know what they would say, they are saying it everyday through these organizations that include every government in the hemisphere, and that doesn’t get reported, that is what is really going on. The US is more isolated that it has ever been in the hemisphere and it is going to remain that way until they change their policy towards Venezuela.

REHM: That has to be the last word. Mark Weisbrot, he is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Michael McCarthy at the American University’s Center for Latin American Studies. And Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, he is a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. Thank you all so much.

ALL: Thank you.

REHM: Thanks for listening, I am Diane Rehm.

Woman farmer in Ecuador

(Photo credit: FAO)

Experts have argued for some time that small farms can play an important role in the struggle against climate change and that governments should prioritize strengthening and protecting small and medium-sized farms. Yet small farmers continue to be the victims of land displacement, killings, and other human rights violations, often perpetrated by state security forces, private companies, and paramilitaries, in many parts of Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. Rural workers face the destruction of their environment and culture, lack access to basic needs, and rarely have a say in the policymaking processes that affect their lives.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), says his organization emphasizes that such “smallholders are among the most effective clients for public funds for dealing with issues around climate change.” Yet a focus on making profits for agribusiness has led to the breakup of Indigenous organizations; increased hunger; environmental destruction; migration from rural areas to cities; and unregulated, unsafe, and low-wage work. As Diego Montón from la Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo points out, agribusiness and its transnational companies have transformed food into a commodity at the mercy of financial speculation. Through mechanisms such as the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture and General Agreement on Trade in Services [PDF], corporations wield enormous influence over how prices of goods, agricultural models, and trade mechanisms are determined, including the standards for quality, efficiency, and distribution.

The implications for human rights and climate change are dire. Naomi Klein explains in her latest book, This Changes Everything, that it will be necessary to radically change our economic system if we want to effectively tackle climate change.  In this transformation, localized economies and small farmers will be essential. Klein notes how the global export of industrialized agriculture has contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions:

…the trade system, by granting companies like Monsanto and Cargill their regulatory wish list – from unfettered market access to aggressive patent protection to the maintenance of their rich subsidies – has helped to entrench and expand the energy-intensive, higher emissions model of industrial agriculture around the world. This, in turn, is a major explanation for why the global food system now accounts for between 19 and 29 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an IFAD 2013 report titled “Smallholders, Food Security, and the Environment,” of the 500 million small farms in the world, 80 percent are managed by smallholders (defined by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as farms of a maximum of 2 hectares). Smallholders provide more than 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa combined, while small farmers in Latin America occupy 35 percent of the total cultivated land. The report concludes:

With their immense collective experience and intimate knowledge of local conditions, smallholders hold many of the practical solutions that can help place agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable footing. To do this, they need help to overcome market failures and other disincentives for sustainable land use, including insecure land tenure, high transaction costs and weak institutional support.

But corporate-led globalization threatens to destroy the potential for sustainable food systems and livelihoods in favor of greater consumption, trade, and investment rules that favor corporations. This particularly hurts smallholders, who struggle with insufficient incomes, malnutrition, and evictions. As the report explains, small farmers are often pushed onto unfertile and increasingly smaller plots of land, and comprise the majority of the world’s undernourished population, as well as those living in absolute poverty.

Small farmers in Latin America, whose sustainable agricultural practices could help mitigate climate change, provide a clear example. In Honduras, campesinos in the Bajo Aguán suffer from forced evictions, harassment, threats, and murders [PDF] by security forces acting in the interests of private companies, such as the Dinant Corporation. From 2008 to 2013, about 128 people, most of them farmers, have been killed in the conflict, according to the Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguán. Dinant owns an estimated one-fifth of agricultural land in the Aguán region; its owner, Miguel Facussé Barjum, was a strong supporter of the 2009 coup. Other landowners include René Morales and Reynaldo Canales, who have concentrated agricultural activities in palm oil production, leaving subsistence-farming families in a perilous situation. Moreover, about 3,300 male farmers and 700 female farmers face judicial proceedings for land invasion, theft of fruit, and illicit demonstrations. As Food First’s Eric Holt Gimenez commented recently on Huffington Post, “With all the high talk these days of saving the world from hunger, how is it no one steps forward to protect farmers when they are gunned off their land?”

In Paraguay, repression of small farmers is also an ongoing problem. As I pointed out in a recent blog post on the Curuguaty Massacre, the violent land eviction of Marina Cue in June of 2012 led to the deaths of 11 farmers and 6 policemen. Although clearly two parties were involved in the conflict and more farmers than policemen died, only farmers have been subjected to investigation and are currently under house arrest. As in much of Latin America, there are deep land distribution inequalities in Paraguay, with 77 percent of the land controlled by 1 percent of landowners. A 2014 independent investigation carried out by delegates from FIAN International, La Vía Campesina, the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform-Central America, Friends of the Earth International and others examines the massacre and the negligence and failure of the authorities to bring about justice, as well as related extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, death threats and torture. The report concludes:

The Curuguaty massacre is emblematic of a worrisome trend of increasing violence against peasant communities, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders in Paraguay and throughout Latin America. The case also demonstrates the inordinate influence of large landowners and agribusinesses in protecting their interests and tightening their hold on power.

The story repeats itself in many other communities where farmers and rural workers are threatened by mining, oil drilling, palm oil production, or dam projects, as in Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador and elsewhere.

Trade agreements such as NAFTA also have impacted small farmers. Under NAFTA, millions of Mexican farmers, competing with subsidized U.S. agricultural products and environmentally damaging production methods, were displaced, as a CEPR report [PDF] explains. The country as a whole did not benefit either, as Mexico instead has experienced “decades of economic failure by almost any economic or social indicator.”

Over the last decade, even though poverty and extreme poverty have been reduced in Latin America, inequality between urban and rural areas is still very high. For example, in 2010 rural poverty was double that of urban poverty and rural extreme poverty was four times higher than urban extreme poverty (which can be attributed in part to the hegemony of big corporations and the lack of minimum wage, social protection, and other labor market institutions in the rural areas). Yet experts and some policymakers are telling us that these rural workers could be some of the most important contributors to the fight against climate change and food insecurity.

Recent developments like last year’s COP20 Summit do not signal a strong and ambitious commitment by governments to do what is necessary to tackle climate change. The policy responses necessary to sustainably and effectively address poverty, inequality, food insecurity, and climate change (all interrelated issues) would require strong intervention by governments, but they could be subject to sanctions through mechanisms under the WTO, NAFTA and other trade regimes that protect the interests of big corporations.

Will these powerful corporations continue to defeat small farmers, some of the most critical agents in the fight against climate change? If global warming is to be limited to the few degrees Celsius threshold that most scientists have proposed to avoid catastrophe, small farmers will need to be empowered and allowed to move agriculture back to more sustainable and earth-friendly practices. This means protecting their rights and rolling back trade and investment regimes that have allowed corporations to run roughshod over them.

Woman farmer in Ecuador

(Photo credit: FAO)

Experts have argued for some time that small farms can play an important role in the struggle against climate change and that governments should prioritize strengthening and protecting small and medium-sized farms. Yet small farmers continue to be the victims of land displacement, killings, and other human rights violations, often perpetrated by state security forces, private companies, and paramilitaries, in many parts of Latin America and elsewhere in the developing world. Rural workers face the destruction of their environment and culture, lack access to basic needs, and rarely have a say in the policymaking processes that affect their lives.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), says his organization emphasizes that such “smallholders are among the most effective clients for public funds for dealing with issues around climate change.” Yet a focus on making profits for agribusiness has led to the breakup of Indigenous organizations; increased hunger; environmental destruction; migration from rural areas to cities; and unregulated, unsafe, and low-wage work. As Diego Montón from la Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo points out, agribusiness and its transnational companies have transformed food into a commodity at the mercy of financial speculation. Through mechanisms such as the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture and General Agreement on Trade in Services [PDF], corporations wield enormous influence over how prices of goods, agricultural models, and trade mechanisms are determined, including the standards for quality, efficiency, and distribution.

The implications for human rights and climate change are dire. Naomi Klein explains in her latest book, This Changes Everything, that it will be necessary to radically change our economic system if we want to effectively tackle climate change.  In this transformation, localized economies and small farmers will be essential. Klein notes how the global export of industrialized agriculture has contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emissions:

…the trade system, by granting companies like Monsanto and Cargill their regulatory wish list – from unfettered market access to aggressive patent protection to the maintenance of their rich subsidies – has helped to entrench and expand the energy-intensive, higher emissions model of industrial agriculture around the world. This, in turn, is a major explanation for why the global food system now accounts for between 19 and 29 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an IFAD 2013 report titled “Smallholders, Food Security, and the Environment,” of the 500 million small farms in the world, 80 percent are managed by smallholders (defined by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as farms of a maximum of 2 hectares). Smallholders provide more than 80 percent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa combined, while small farmers in Latin America occupy 35 percent of the total cultivated land. The report concludes:

With their immense collective experience and intimate knowledge of local conditions, smallholders hold many of the practical solutions that can help place agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable footing. To do this, they need help to overcome market failures and other disincentives for sustainable land use, including insecure land tenure, high transaction costs and weak institutional support.

But corporate-led globalization threatens to destroy the potential for sustainable food systems and livelihoods in favor of greater consumption, trade, and investment rules that favor corporations. This particularly hurts smallholders, who struggle with insufficient incomes, malnutrition, and evictions. As the report explains, small farmers are often pushed onto unfertile and increasingly smaller plots of land, and comprise the majority of the world’s undernourished population, as well as those living in absolute poverty.

Small farmers in Latin America, whose sustainable agricultural practices could help mitigate climate change, provide a clear example. In Honduras, campesinos in the Bajo Aguán suffer from forced evictions, harassment, threats, and murders [PDF] by security forces acting in the interests of private companies, such as the Dinant Corporation. From 2008 to 2013, about 128 people, most of them farmers, have been killed in the conflict, according to the Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguán. Dinant owns an estimated one-fifth of agricultural land in the Aguán region; its owner, Miguel Facussé Barjum, was a strong supporter of the 2009 coup. Other landowners include René Morales and Reynaldo Canales, who have concentrated agricultural activities in palm oil production, leaving subsistence-farming families in a perilous situation. Moreover, about 3,300 male farmers and 700 female farmers face judicial proceedings for land invasion, theft of fruit, and illicit demonstrations. As Food First’s Eric Holt Gimenez commented recently on Huffington Post, “With all the high talk these days of saving the world from hunger, how is it no one steps forward to protect farmers when they are gunned off their land?”

In Paraguay, repression of small farmers is also an ongoing problem. As I pointed out in a recent blog post on the Curuguaty Massacre, the violent land eviction of Marina Cue in June of 2012 led to the deaths of 11 farmers and 6 policemen. Although clearly two parties were involved in the conflict and more farmers than policemen died, only farmers have been subjected to investigation and are currently under house arrest. As in much of Latin America, there are deep land distribution inequalities in Paraguay, with 77 percent of the land controlled by 1 percent of landowners. A 2014 independent investigation carried out by delegates from FIAN International, La Vía Campesina, the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform-Central America, Friends of the Earth International and others examines the massacre and the negligence and failure of the authorities to bring about justice, as well as related extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, death threats and torture. The report concludes:

The Curuguaty massacre is emblematic of a worrisome trend of increasing violence against peasant communities, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders in Paraguay and throughout Latin America. The case also demonstrates the inordinate influence of large landowners and agribusinesses in protecting their interests and tightening their hold on power.

The story repeats itself in many other communities where farmers and rural workers are threatened by mining, oil drilling, palm oil production, or dam projects, as in Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador and elsewhere.

Trade agreements such as NAFTA also have impacted small farmers. Under NAFTA, millions of Mexican farmers, competing with subsidized U.S. agricultural products and environmentally damaging production methods, were displaced, as a CEPR report [PDF] explains. The country as a whole did not benefit either, as Mexico instead has experienced “decades of economic failure by almost any economic or social indicator.”

Over the last decade, even though poverty and extreme poverty have been reduced in Latin America, inequality between urban and rural areas is still very high. For example, in 2010 rural poverty was double that of urban poverty and rural extreme poverty was four times higher than urban extreme poverty (which can be attributed in part to the hegemony of big corporations and the lack of minimum wage, social protection, and other labor market institutions in the rural areas). Yet experts and some policymakers are telling us that these rural workers could be some of the most important contributors to the fight against climate change and food insecurity.

Recent developments like last year’s COP20 Summit do not signal a strong and ambitious commitment by governments to do what is necessary to tackle climate change. The policy responses necessary to sustainably and effectively address poverty, inequality, food insecurity, and climate change (all interrelated issues) would require strong intervention by governments, but they could be subject to sanctions through mechanisms under the WTO, NAFTA and other trade regimes that protect the interests of big corporations.

Will these powerful corporations continue to defeat small farmers, some of the most critical agents in the fight against climate change? If global warming is to be limited to the few degrees Celsius threshold that most scientists have proposed to avoid catastrophe, small farmers will need to be empowered and allowed to move agriculture back to more sustainable and earth-friendly practices. This means protecting their rights and rolling back trade and investment regimes that have allowed corporations to run roughshod over them.

In response to Wednesday’s announcement that the United States would work to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Mexico’s former ambassador to Cuba revealed that his country had pursued a strategy of provoking the Cuban government in order to gain favor with the Bush administration. Ricardo Pascoe, who served as Ambassador from 2000-2002, says that Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda worked to appease the White House by damaging Mexico’s ties with Cuba, while he fought to maintain the bilateral relationship. Pascoe says his position is now vindicated since Mexico, a natural interlocutor between the U.S. and Cuba, which could have played a large role in the two country’s negotiations, lost out to Canada as host for secret bilateral talks.

“Mexico was in the worst position of all: completely left out,” said Pascoe, also exclaiming: “They didn’t choose Mexican territory for the talks (as would have been natural in other times). But with Fox and Castañeda we lost our historic standing with the island!”

Pascoe explained that the bilateral relationship between Mexico and Cuba could not be repaired under the governments of Felipe Calderón and current President Enrique Peña Nieto. For Pascoe, this not only demonstrates the failure of Mexico’s foreign policy toward Cuba, but more generally the country’s foreign policy toward Latin America.

Speaking more broadly about global issues, Pascoe said that President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba has significance beyond the domestic Latino/Latina vote and even considerations of Obama’s own legacy. Taken together with the previous day’s announcement that the European Union was removing Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations, Pascoe suggested that this can be seen as an indication that circumstances are forcing our political leaders to support more sensible and pragmatic policies.

Pascoe said: “This shows that in such a tumultuous world it is in the interest of political leaders to reduce the level of conflict wherever they can. It is clear that they chose these two cases because [the former policies] didn’t make the least bit of sense anymore.”

In response to Wednesday’s announcement that the United States would work to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, Mexico’s former ambassador to Cuba revealed that his country had pursued a strategy of provoking the Cuban government in order to gain favor with the Bush administration. Ricardo Pascoe, who served as Ambassador from 2000-2002, says that Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castañeda worked to appease the White House by damaging Mexico’s ties with Cuba, while he fought to maintain the bilateral relationship. Pascoe says his position is now vindicated since Mexico, a natural interlocutor between the U.S. and Cuba, which could have played a large role in the two country’s negotiations, lost out to Canada as host for secret bilateral talks.

“Mexico was in the worst position of all: completely left out,” said Pascoe, also exclaiming: “They didn’t choose Mexican territory for the talks (as would have been natural in other times). But with Fox and Castañeda we lost our historic standing with the island!”

Pascoe explained that the bilateral relationship between Mexico and Cuba could not be repaired under the governments of Felipe Calderón and current President Enrique Peña Nieto. For Pascoe, this not only demonstrates the failure of Mexico’s foreign policy toward Cuba, but more generally the country’s foreign policy toward Latin America.

Speaking more broadly about global issues, Pascoe said that President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba has significance beyond the domestic Latino/Latina vote and even considerations of Obama’s own legacy. Taken together with the previous day’s announcement that the European Union was removing Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations, Pascoe suggested that this can be seen as an indication that circumstances are forcing our political leaders to support more sensible and pragmatic policies.

Pascoe said: “This shows that in such a tumultuous world it is in the interest of political leaders to reduce the level of conflict wherever they can. It is clear that they chose these two cases because [the former policies] didn’t make the least bit of sense anymore.”

Theresa Jessouroun’s new documentary, “A Queima Roupa” (“Point Blank”) tells the story of the past 20 years of massacres committed by the Rio de Janeiro military police. These chacinas are frequently committed in retribution for a killed police officer and traditionally involve coming into a poor neighborhood and killing random, Afro-Brazilian youth. In the film, Ivan Custódio, a former police officer and member of the “Cavalos Corredores death squad that orchestrated the notorious chacina in Vigário Geral, tells how police hide most of the bodies, and claims to have killed more than 300 people. The film focuses on Rio de Janeiro, but could have been made anywhere in Brazil. Last month in the city of Belém, after an officer was killed, off-duty cops announced their massacre on Facebook and proceeded to go into a slum and kill an estimated 35 people. As usual, most of the victims were Afro-Brazilian teenagers who had no criminal record and were killed to create a climate of terror in their neighborhood.

As solidarity protests spread around the world over racially motivated police violence in Ferguson and New York, it is important to note that this problem is not limited to the United States (or Mexico). In 2012, approximately 23,100 Afro-Brazilian males between the ages of 15 and 29 were murdered in Brazil, according to Amnesty International.  A large number of these were executions, perpetrated by death squads, militias or vigilantes, three groups that are primarily made up of off duty or former police officers. A 2009 study by economist Daniel Cerqueira [PDF] found that Afro-Brazilians are twice as likely as whites to suffer violence from the police. The ratio of police officers to citizens killed by police this year was 21:1, and the National Public Security Forum estimates that 2,212 people were killed by the police in 2013, but some experts believe the actual numbers may dwarf these estimates.

Alexandre Ciconello, the researcher responsible for Amnesty International Brazil’s “Jovem Negro Vivo” campaign against what many call the genocide of young, Afro-Brazilian males, says, “We don’t know how many people the police kill in Brazil. All we have are estimates. Some states don’t report on the issue or provide very poor information. Some states include homicides committed by police outside of working hours, and others don’t. When you look at a state like Rio de Janeiro, which doesn’t calculate murders committed by off-duty police, this becomes a problem because of the militias.”

Militias are organized crime factions typically run by of off-duty and former police officers [PDF] who make money by extorting small businesses, selling pirate cable TV and cooking gas, and administering a parallel justice system in poor neighborhoods that typically metes out severe punishments such as beatings for perpetrators of domestic violence and summary execution for recreational drug use and rape. According to estimates, militias control 45 percent of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The recent arrest of Military Police Special Forces Commander Coronel Antonio Fontenelle and 22 other policemen for running a militia in Rio during their days off highlights the level of involvement between the military police and death squad activities.

In a recent interview about her documentary, Jessouroun made it clear that there are no indications that the problem of systematic violence committed against Afro-Brazilian youth will disappear unless structural changes are made. There are two problems, resulting from the failure to fully transition from military dictatorship to democracy, which activists and progressive lawmakers have been trying to resolve for years, against fierce opposition from conservatives.

The first issue is that military police regulate themselves in a separate court and prison system and are not regulated by the rule of law which applies to the rest of the nation. One of the official goals of the Workers Party (PT) for the past two decades has been to dissolve the military police. Like many of its goals, such as agrarian, political and urban reform, the results to date have been meager and critics question the government’s commitment. Shortly after this year’s elections, the PT leadership met with President Dilma Rousseff to officially remind her to work toward this and other party objectives. Last year, PT Senator Lindberg Farias introduced a bill, PEC 51, to dissolve the military police, but it hasn’t come up for a vote yet due to fierce opposition, some of which comes from within the PT’s governing coalition.

The second issue is that that internal investigations are not required for citizens whom police claim were killed while resisting arrest.  In 2012, Paulo Teixeira, a PT congressman from São Paulo, introduced bill 4471/12 to require cases of people killed resisting arrest to be investigated as homicides. It is coming up for vote in the lower house this month, and there is a good chance that it will pass. If not, it will be harder next month, when the most conservative congress in decades takes office, with a strengthened “Bullet Caucus” made up of former military officers and policemen and its allies in the Evangelical Caucus.

Social movements and civil society activists who fight police violence are doing everything they can to ensure that these measures are passed into law. If this happens, it will be an important step in the right direction.  If not, Rio de Janeiro State University violence researcher Dr. Ignacio Cano’s recent comment that in Brazil “Ferguson happens every day” will remain as pertinent as ever.

Brian Mier is a geographer, writer and member of the Brazilian National Urban Reform Form executive secretariat who has lived in Brazil for 19 years.

Theresa Jessouroun’s new documentary, “A Queima Roupa” (“Point Blank”) tells the story of the past 20 years of massacres committed by the Rio de Janeiro military police. These chacinas are frequently committed in retribution for a killed police officer and traditionally involve coming into a poor neighborhood and killing random, Afro-Brazilian youth. In the film, Ivan Custódio, a former police officer and member of the “Cavalos Corredores death squad that orchestrated the notorious chacina in Vigário Geral, tells how police hide most of the bodies, and claims to have killed more than 300 people. The film focuses on Rio de Janeiro, but could have been made anywhere in Brazil. Last month in the city of Belém, after an officer was killed, off-duty cops announced their massacre on Facebook and proceeded to go into a slum and kill an estimated 35 people. As usual, most of the victims were Afro-Brazilian teenagers who had no criminal record and were killed to create a climate of terror in their neighborhood.

As solidarity protests spread around the world over racially motivated police violence in Ferguson and New York, it is important to note that this problem is not limited to the United States (or Mexico). In 2012, approximately 23,100 Afro-Brazilian males between the ages of 15 and 29 were murdered in Brazil, according to Amnesty International.  A large number of these were executions, perpetrated by death squads, militias or vigilantes, three groups that are primarily made up of off duty or former police officers. A 2009 study by economist Daniel Cerqueira [PDF] found that Afro-Brazilians are twice as likely as whites to suffer violence from the police. The ratio of police officers to citizens killed by police this year was 21:1, and the National Public Security Forum estimates that 2,212 people were killed by the police in 2013, but some experts believe the actual numbers may dwarf these estimates.

Alexandre Ciconello, the researcher responsible for Amnesty International Brazil’s “Jovem Negro Vivo” campaign against what many call the genocide of young, Afro-Brazilian males, says, “We don’t know how many people the police kill in Brazil. All we have are estimates. Some states don’t report on the issue or provide very poor information. Some states include homicides committed by police outside of working hours, and others don’t. When you look at a state like Rio de Janeiro, which doesn’t calculate murders committed by off-duty police, this becomes a problem because of the militias.”

Militias are organized crime factions typically run by of off-duty and former police officers [PDF] who make money by extorting small businesses, selling pirate cable TV and cooking gas, and administering a parallel justice system in poor neighborhoods that typically metes out severe punishments such as beatings for perpetrators of domestic violence and summary execution for recreational drug use and rape. According to estimates, militias control 45 percent of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The recent arrest of Military Police Special Forces Commander Coronel Antonio Fontenelle and 22 other policemen for running a militia in Rio during their days off highlights the level of involvement between the military police and death squad activities.

In a recent interview about her documentary, Jessouroun made it clear that there are no indications that the problem of systematic violence committed against Afro-Brazilian youth will disappear unless structural changes are made. There are two problems, resulting from the failure to fully transition from military dictatorship to democracy, which activists and progressive lawmakers have been trying to resolve for years, against fierce opposition from conservatives.

The first issue is that military police regulate themselves in a separate court and prison system and are not regulated by the rule of law which applies to the rest of the nation. One of the official goals of the Workers Party (PT) for the past two decades has been to dissolve the military police. Like many of its goals, such as agrarian, political and urban reform, the results to date have been meager and critics question the government’s commitment. Shortly after this year’s elections, the PT leadership met with President Dilma Rousseff to officially remind her to work toward this and other party objectives. Last year, PT Senator Lindberg Farias introduced a bill, PEC 51, to dissolve the military police, but it hasn’t come up for a vote yet due to fierce opposition, some of which comes from within the PT’s governing coalition.

The second issue is that that internal investigations are not required for citizens whom police claim were killed while resisting arrest.  In 2012, Paulo Teixeira, a PT congressman from São Paulo, introduced bill 4471/12 to require cases of people killed resisting arrest to be investigated as homicides. It is coming up for vote in the lower house this month, and there is a good chance that it will pass. If not, it will be harder next month, when the most conservative congress in decades takes office, with a strengthened “Bullet Caucus” made up of former military officers and policemen and its allies in the Evangelical Caucus.

Social movements and civil society activists who fight police violence are doing everything they can to ensure that these measures are passed into law. If this happens, it will be an important step in the right direction.  If not, Rio de Janeiro State University violence researcher Dr. Ignacio Cano’s recent comment that in Brazil “Ferguson happens every day” will remain as pertinent as ever.

Brian Mier is a geographer, writer and member of the Brazilian National Urban Reform Form executive secretariat who has lived in Brazil for 19 years.

On December 9th, CEPR Senior Associate for International Policy Alex Main testified about the human rights situation in Honduras before the Subcommittee of International Human Rights of Canada’s House of Commons.  The Subcommittee asked Alex to discuss the state of human rights in Honduras since the November 2013 elections, focusing in particular on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and justice sector workers.  He was also asked to comment on government measures designed to address human rights abuses, on the implementation of precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and on Honduras’ electoral process.

In his opening statement, Alex discussed these points and others, including the growing militarization taking place in Honduras, and in conclusion said:

Honduras’ human rights situation remains as dire as ever and, in many cases, targeted attacks against members of at-risk sectors – including human rights defenders and journalists – have recently increased in number.  Meanwhile, impunity around these and other crimes remains appallingly high. 

The government’s response to this situation over the last 12 months has been grossly inadequate and, in some areas, completely counterproductive.  The processes by which the government claims to address corruption and criminality within the security forces and the judiciary are arbitrary and ineffective.  Genuine police reform appears to be off the agenda, following the dissolution of a reform commission whose proposals were systematically ignored, despite the backing of the human rights community.  The government’s plans to further militarize law enforcement activities, and to involve the military in other traditionally civilian tasks, including state-sponsored extracurricular activities for young people, is an alarming, negative trend that will further undermine human rights and democracy in Honduras.

In short, the government’s record over the last 12 months indicates that it has little real will to address Honduras’ human rights crisis.

The statement was followed by a series of recommendations to Canadian lawmakers.  Here are the top three:

  • The implementation of the Canadian-Honduran free trade agreement of 2014 as well as bilateral security assistance and Canadian support for IFI programs in Honduras should be contingent on genuine and substantive progress in the prosecution of human rights abuses.
  • Canadian private companies should be urged to ensure that their operations and investments in Honduras are not directly or indirectly contributing to human rights abuses, environmental degradation, or violation of the laws of Honduras.
  • The Canadian government should use its voice and vote in international financial institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, and in international organizations including the Organization of American States and the United Nations to uphold the above principles and to make respect for human rights and the rule of law in Honduras the first priority regarding all matters dealing with Honduras. In particular, the Canadian government should use its voice and vote to ensure that the IADB, World Bank and IMF are not contributing to human rights abuses or environmental degradation through funding for projects in Honduras.

You can read the full written testimony here

On December 9th, CEPR Senior Associate for International Policy Alex Main testified about the human rights situation in Honduras before the Subcommittee of International Human Rights of Canada’s House of Commons.  The Subcommittee asked Alex to discuss the state of human rights in Honduras since the November 2013 elections, focusing in particular on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and justice sector workers.  He was also asked to comment on government measures designed to address human rights abuses, on the implementation of precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and on Honduras’ electoral process.

In his opening statement, Alex discussed these points and others, including the growing militarization taking place in Honduras, and in conclusion said:

Honduras’ human rights situation remains as dire as ever and, in many cases, targeted attacks against members of at-risk sectors – including human rights defenders and journalists – have recently increased in number.  Meanwhile, impunity around these and other crimes remains appallingly high. 

The government’s response to this situation over the last 12 months has been grossly inadequate and, in some areas, completely counterproductive.  The processes by which the government claims to address corruption and criminality within the security forces and the judiciary are arbitrary and ineffective.  Genuine police reform appears to be off the agenda, following the dissolution of a reform commission whose proposals were systematically ignored, despite the backing of the human rights community.  The government’s plans to further militarize law enforcement activities, and to involve the military in other traditionally civilian tasks, including state-sponsored extracurricular activities for young people, is an alarming, negative trend that will further undermine human rights and democracy in Honduras.

In short, the government’s record over the last 12 months indicates that it has little real will to address Honduras’ human rights crisis.

The statement was followed by a series of recommendations to Canadian lawmakers.  Here are the top three:

  • The implementation of the Canadian-Honduran free trade agreement of 2014 as well as bilateral security assistance and Canadian support for IFI programs in Honduras should be contingent on genuine and substantive progress in the prosecution of human rights abuses.
  • Canadian private companies should be urged to ensure that their operations and investments in Honduras are not directly or indirectly contributing to human rights abuses, environmental degradation, or violation of the laws of Honduras.
  • The Canadian government should use its voice and vote in international financial institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, and in international organizations including the Organization of American States and the United Nations to uphold the above principles and to make respect for human rights and the rule of law in Honduras the first priority regarding all matters dealing with Honduras. In particular, the Canadian government should use its voice and vote to ensure that the IADB, World Bank and IMF are not contributing to human rights abuses or environmental degradation through funding for projects in Honduras.

You can read the full written testimony here

On November 14, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the three countries that comprise Central America’s Northern Triangle – presented their “Alliance for Prosperity” plan [PDF] at an event at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). The plan was originally made public in September, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández presented it to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. General Assembly. But the Washington event was the real “coming out” party for the proposal, as it appears key funding will emanate from the IADB, the U.S. government and other Washington-based sources.

Ostensibly a response to the root causes of migration that led to this summer’s child refugee “crisis,” the plan appears to be nothing less than a blueprint for a major economic and social transformation of the region, including large-scale reforms in education, policing, energy, finances and legal and justice systems, and requiring sizeable investments in areas such as infrastructure, job creation and crime reduction. To say the plan is ambitious is an under-statement.

The leaders of the three countries telegraphed the rough concept for the plan during their July visit to D.C. in which they called for a “Plan Colombia” for Central America. It is notable that two major proponents of Plan Colombia’s creation during the Clinton administration – Vice President (then Senator) Biden and IADB President Luis Moreno (then with the U.S. Mission in Colombia) – spoke at the IADB event.

Biden’s remarks on November 14 suggest a reversal from his earlier response to the presidents, in which he said that the U.S. would not invest in a “Plan Colombia” for Central America because “Central American governments aren’t even close to being prepared to make some of the decisions that the Colombians made, because they are hard.” As a Senator, Biden had pushed for support for the Colombian military to be a key part of Plan Colombia, saying that the military “have never been accused themselves of doing human rights abuses.” (In the wake of the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military was caught killing civilians and dressing them like FARC, Biden’s comments seem especially shocking, but the Colombian military’s human rights record was already scandalous at the time.)

But on November 14, Biden struck a different tone, explicitly referencing Plan Colombia and saying that today the Colombian people “enjoy significant security and growth.” Moreno also referenced Plan Colombia in his opening remarks, and other speakers returned to the theme of Colombia’s “success” and how Central America could replicate it, event attendees noted.

Hernández went further, saying that Mexico, like Colombia, used to be in a difficult situation but that they had turned it around. Mexico’s “successes” are often exaggerated in Washington and in the U.S. media, but this must have seemed a bit much even to some in the audience, considering recent events.

Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina remarked, “The crisis has become a huge opportunity.”

This may be more honest, for while the plan describes numerous social ills that undoubtedly are holding back the Northern Triangle countries and that push people to leave – poverty, crime, violence, poor education and others – it is unclear how much that the plan envisions will help to eliminate these problems or whether, in some areas at least, it might make them worse. Instead, the plan brings to mind various past cases of crises exploited for economic gain, as Naomi Klein detailed in her landmark book, The Shock Doctrine.

The plan notes that “more than half of the population of our countries still lives in poverty,” and that “20% of the wealthiest segment of population accounts for more than half of overall national income.” It also describes challenges posed by insufficient tax revenue:

We need to improve infrastructure and address social needs, but our fiscal space is limited. Although we recently implemented tax reforms along with measures to improve management of public finances, these steps have not yielded the results that were expected. Fiscal revenues have remained between 10 and 14% of GDP, below the average in Latin America.

So what measures does the plan propose in order to tackle these problems? Considering, for example, that poverty and inequality have increased since the ruling National Party administrations have been in power in Honduras, does this mean that the Honduran government is about to change course and implement a raft of different policies? Will it significantly increase taxes on Miguel Facussé and the other richest people in the country?

If so, there is no mention of it. Instead, the plan talks vaguely of

…improving tax revenues and their management through an overhaul of our tax systems and how they are administered. We will strengthen the systems, processes and the professionalization of human resources in our tax and customs administrations, with the goal of making them perform better.

Elsewhere, the plan describes the “creation of special economic zones” as one route toward prosperity:

With the goal of encouraging development in the most underdeveloped areas, we propose the creation of special economic zones that will grant preferential treatment to new investment. We expect that the companies that establish themselves in those zones will generate high quality jobs, while the State will provide the infrastructure and public services needed to stimulate economic activity.

While the plan itself does not make explicit mention of the Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs) being planned in Honduras, the reference to such “special zones” calls them to mind. Boosting trade, in part through such zones, appears to be a major component of the strategy, yet some of the plan’s assertions in this regard seem at odds with its vows to “boost quality control systems (livestock and crop health and safety, food safety and product traceability) so goods can reach market unencumbered.” The plan states:

…we are convinced that there is room to deepen our existing trade agreements and facilitate the achievement of the Plan’s goals. For instance, we could use the certification of goods that are produced in the prioritized regions or value chains and grant them temporary advantages and access to the United State market. Preferential treatment via quotas and more flexible rules of origin could also be established for exporting certified goods to the United States.

Yet the largest market for the Northern Triangle’s goods, the U.S., has long promoted a trade policy in which health and safety standards (not to mention labor and environmental protections) – are harmonized downwards. “Boosting quality control systems” has not been part of the trade schemes that the plan references either; tougher quality control for products is seen instead as a barrier to freer trade.

Similarly, when the plan talks of “improving labor market conditions,” it seems more likely that this means “improvements” that will benefit employers (known as increased “labor market flexibility” in economic-speak), not workers. The plan makes no reference to greater bargaining power for workers, higher wages or increased benefits, let alone labor unions – all of which would indeed help to reduce inequality and poverty. Meanwhile, repeated, illegal violations of workers’ rights in Honduras led the AFL-CIO to file a complaint with the U.S. government in 2012, urging that it take action under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement. (For its part, the U.S. government has yet to act on the complaint – despite being mandated to do so within 6 months.) Dozens of trade unionists have been murdered in Honduras since the coup, and last year Guatemala surpassed Colombia for the distinction of being “the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist,” according to the International Trade Union Confederation [PDF].

The plan’s concepts for police and judicial reform seem at odds with the current realities of rampant corruption, impunity and death squad activity. Over 100 members of the U.S. Congress have urged restrictions on U.S. support for the Honduran police and military over human rights concerns, and the Leahy Law is supposed to ensure that such funds do not go to known rights abusers. The Alliance for Prosperity Plan could bypass this and channel huge sums to corrupt Honduran and Guatemalan security forces.

Tourism and agribusiness are other focuses of the plan, and both sectors from which U.S. companies could potentially make big profits. Both are also related to areas of intense violence and state-backed oppression in Honduras, as wealthy businessmen attempt to push off or defraud campesinos and Garifuna communities (in the Bajo Aguán, Zacate Grande, the Northern coast and elsewhere) from their land in order to make way for development projects.

From all these major components, it seems that private businesses – and especially foreign businesses — have much to gain from the “Alliance for Prosperity,” especially with “the State …provid[ing] the infrastructure and public services”; the Obama administration contributing hundreds of millions in aid to the region; the IADB supporting the plan; and USAID backing a high level executive team comprised of delegates from the three governments — all from which foreign investors can benefit. The IADB event was geared at private businesses, as Vice President Biden made clear when said there were “important people here,” with “none more important than those in the private sector.” Jodi Bond, Vice President of the Americas for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – one of the most powerful business lobbies in Washington – moderated the second panel.

“The feeling that I had walking out of that room was that it was really an event for buy-in,” Natalia Escruceria of the organization Just Associates, who attended the event, said.

Whether or not private investors buy into the plan, the Northern Triangle’s deep problems of violence, crime, weak institutions, corruption, poverty and inequality are not likely to go away any time soon considering the governments’ proposed solutions.

On November 14, the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the three countries that comprise Central America’s Northern Triangle – presented their “Alliance for Prosperity” plan [PDF] at an event at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). The plan was originally made public in September, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández presented it to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the U.N. General Assembly. But the Washington event was the real “coming out” party for the proposal, as it appears key funding will emanate from the IADB, the U.S. government and other Washington-based sources.

Ostensibly a response to the root causes of migration that led to this summer’s child refugee “crisis,” the plan appears to be nothing less than a blueprint for a major economic and social transformation of the region, including large-scale reforms in education, policing, energy, finances and legal and justice systems, and requiring sizeable investments in areas such as infrastructure, job creation and crime reduction. To say the plan is ambitious is an under-statement.

The leaders of the three countries telegraphed the rough concept for the plan during their July visit to D.C. in which they called for a “Plan Colombia” for Central America. It is notable that two major proponents of Plan Colombia’s creation during the Clinton administration – Vice President (then Senator) Biden and IADB President Luis Moreno (then with the U.S. Mission in Colombia) – spoke at the IADB event.

Biden’s remarks on November 14 suggest a reversal from his earlier response to the presidents, in which he said that the U.S. would not invest in a “Plan Colombia” for Central America because “Central American governments aren’t even close to being prepared to make some of the decisions that the Colombians made, because they are hard.” As a Senator, Biden had pushed for support for the Colombian military to be a key part of Plan Colombia, saying that the military “have never been accused themselves of doing human rights abuses.” (In the wake of the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military was caught killing civilians and dressing them like FARC, Biden’s comments seem especially shocking, but the Colombian military’s human rights record was already scandalous at the time.)

But on November 14, Biden struck a different tone, explicitly referencing Plan Colombia and saying that today the Colombian people “enjoy significant security and growth.” Moreno also referenced Plan Colombia in his opening remarks, and other speakers returned to the theme of Colombia’s “success” and how Central America could replicate it, event attendees noted.

Hernández went further, saying that Mexico, like Colombia, used to be in a difficult situation but that they had turned it around. Mexico’s “successes” are often exaggerated in Washington and in the U.S. media, but this must have seemed a bit much even to some in the audience, considering recent events.

Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina remarked, “The crisis has become a huge opportunity.”

This may be more honest, for while the plan describes numerous social ills that undoubtedly are holding back the Northern Triangle countries and that push people to leave – poverty, crime, violence, poor education and others – it is unclear how much that the plan envisions will help to eliminate these problems or whether, in some areas at least, it might make them worse. Instead, the plan brings to mind various past cases of crises exploited for economic gain, as Naomi Klein detailed in her landmark book, The Shock Doctrine.

The plan notes that “more than half of the population of our countries still lives in poverty,” and that “20% of the wealthiest segment of population accounts for more than half of overall national income.” It also describes challenges posed by insufficient tax revenue:

We need to improve infrastructure and address social needs, but our fiscal space is limited. Although we recently implemented tax reforms along with measures to improve management of public finances, these steps have not yielded the results that were expected. Fiscal revenues have remained between 10 and 14% of GDP, below the average in Latin America.

So what measures does the plan propose in order to tackle these problems? Considering, for example, that poverty and inequality have increased since the ruling National Party administrations have been in power in Honduras, does this mean that the Honduran government is about to change course and implement a raft of different policies? Will it significantly increase taxes on Miguel Facussé and the other richest people in the country?

If so, there is no mention of it. Instead, the plan talks vaguely of

…improving tax revenues and their management through an overhaul of our tax systems and how they are administered. We will strengthen the systems, processes and the professionalization of human resources in our tax and customs administrations, with the goal of making them perform better.

Elsewhere, the plan describes the “creation of special economic zones” as one route toward prosperity:

With the goal of encouraging development in the most underdeveloped areas, we propose the creation of special economic zones that will grant preferential treatment to new investment. We expect that the companies that establish themselves in those zones will generate high quality jobs, while the State will provide the infrastructure and public services needed to stimulate economic activity.

While the plan itself does not make explicit mention of the Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs) being planned in Honduras, the reference to such “special zones” calls them to mind. Boosting trade, in part through such zones, appears to be a major component of the strategy, yet some of the plan’s assertions in this regard seem at odds with its vows to “boost quality control systems (livestock and crop health and safety, food safety and product traceability) so goods can reach market unencumbered.” The plan states:

…we are convinced that there is room to deepen our existing trade agreements and facilitate the achievement of the Plan’s goals. For instance, we could use the certification of goods that are produced in the prioritized regions or value chains and grant them temporary advantages and access to the United State market. Preferential treatment via quotas and more flexible rules of origin could also be established for exporting certified goods to the United States.

Yet the largest market for the Northern Triangle’s goods, the U.S., has long promoted a trade policy in which health and safety standards (not to mention labor and environmental protections) – are harmonized downwards. “Boosting quality control systems” has not been part of the trade schemes that the plan references either; tougher quality control for products is seen instead as a barrier to freer trade.

Similarly, when the plan talks of “improving labor market conditions,” it seems more likely that this means “improvements” that will benefit employers (known as increased “labor market flexibility” in economic-speak), not workers. The plan makes no reference to greater bargaining power for workers, higher wages or increased benefits, let alone labor unions – all of which would indeed help to reduce inequality and poverty. Meanwhile, repeated, illegal violations of workers’ rights in Honduras led the AFL-CIO to file a complaint with the U.S. government in 2012, urging that it take action under the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement. (For its part, the U.S. government has yet to act on the complaint – despite being mandated to do so within 6 months.) Dozens of trade unionists have been murdered in Honduras since the coup, and last year Guatemala surpassed Colombia for the distinction of being “the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist,” according to the International Trade Union Confederation [PDF].

The plan’s concepts for police and judicial reform seem at odds with the current realities of rampant corruption, impunity and death squad activity. Over 100 members of the U.S. Congress have urged restrictions on U.S. support for the Honduran police and military over human rights concerns, and the Leahy Law is supposed to ensure that such funds do not go to known rights abusers. The Alliance for Prosperity Plan could bypass this and channel huge sums to corrupt Honduran and Guatemalan security forces.

Tourism and agribusiness are other focuses of the plan, and both sectors from which U.S. companies could potentially make big profits. Both are also related to areas of intense violence and state-backed oppression in Honduras, as wealthy businessmen attempt to push off or defraud campesinos and Garifuna communities (in the Bajo Aguán, Zacate Grande, the Northern coast and elsewhere) from their land in order to make way for development projects.

From all these major components, it seems that private businesses – and especially foreign businesses — have much to gain from the “Alliance for Prosperity,” especially with “the State …provid[ing] the infrastructure and public services”; the Obama administration contributing hundreds of millions in aid to the region; the IADB supporting the plan; and USAID backing a high level executive team comprised of delegates from the three governments — all from which foreign investors can benefit. The IADB event was geared at private businesses, as Vice President Biden made clear when said there were “important people here,” with “none more important than those in the private sector.” Jodi Bond, Vice President of the Americas for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – one of the most powerful business lobbies in Washington – moderated the second panel.

“The feeling that I had walking out of that room was that it was really an event for buy-in,” Natalia Escruceria of the organization Just Associates, who attended the event, said.

Whether or not private investors buy into the plan, the Northern Triangle’s deep problems of violence, crime, weak institutions, corruption, poverty and inequality are not likely to go away any time soon considering the governments’ proposed solutions.

In 2012, a congressional coup brought down Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo over allegations that he had mishandled the conflict between rural workers and the family of the late businessman and ex-senator Blas Riquelme over a 2,000 hectare territory named Marina Cué located in Curuguaty in the department of Canindeyú. In June of 2012, the conflict that had been escalating for years erupted in a violent land eviction effort that ended with the deaths of 11 farmers and 6 policemen. Federico Franco, the Vice-President, replaced Lugo and ruled until Horacio Cartes, from the Colorado Party, won elections in April 2013 and took office in August. Today the conflict remains unresolved and the drama is being played out in a scenario that reflects the vast and historic injustices for rural workers, an alarming concentration of land, and a nation with inadequate public institutions to serve and protect its citizens.

More than two years later, justice remains elusive. The trial of 13 farm workers accused of killing the 6 police officers, which had been scheduled for last Monday, November 17, has been postponed to June 2015. By then, the landless farmers, who face charges of land invasion, criminal association, and attempted murder, among others, will have completed 3 years of detention without having been convicted. They are unable to work and provide for their families, who are now in an even more precarious situation than when they settled in Marina Cué.

As many have noted, it is questionable that the investigation is led by the police and the Public Ministry, instead of by an independent commission like the one established by ex-President Lugo, which was to have been overseen by the Organization of American States (but was dismantled by Franco as soon as he took power). The government investigation’s one-sided conclusions blame the farmworkers for the killings, even though 11 of the 17 killed were farmworkers. The official version is that the farmers ambushed the policemen, and the police responded accordingly. Meanwhile, nobody is under investigation for the deaths of the 11 farmers. To the farmerworkers’ dismay, the Public Ministry quickly discredited alternative investigations that claimed there was no ambush attempt on the part of the farmworkers and that instead the police had fired on them indiscriminately.

Vicente Morales, a lawyer representing 11 of the 13 farmers, pointed out that “The cops were more than 300, with machine guns, helicopters, shotguns and grenades. And the peasants were no more than 50, malnourished, sick with dengue, and with children from one to three years-old that supposedly were being used as bait.” He also pointed out that the ownership of the lands in Marina Cué is still in question, since it is an area, as is much of the land in Paraguay, that the dictatorship and post-dictatorship governments gave away to friends and family members. Nevertheless, the defendants are being charged with land invasion. This represents how superficial the current process is, paying no attention to the roots of the conflict and reflecting the still prevalent inequality, impunity, and favoritism for wealthy families. As Raul Zibechi of the Center for International Policy explains:

1% of the landowners control 77% of productive land, and 40% of farmers own only 1% of the land. 9.7 million hectares are concentrated among just 351 landholders, while there are 300,000 landless campesinos.

To reach these levels of land concentration and foreign ownership, the [Paraguayan] state and landowners have unleashed a war against the campesinado. In the 25 years since the end of the Stroessner dictatorship, they got the rural population to fall by almost 50%. The Chokokue Report, 1989-2013 by the Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (Codehupy) reflects this reality.

The repression and violence against rural workers in Paraguay and elsewhere in Latin America is nothing new, but the cynicism of the current administration regarding the “Curuguaty Massacre” is perhaps unprecedented.

Fortunately, the conflict has caught the attention of some policymakers in the United States who have called for a just ending to this conflict. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy read a declaration [PDF] in front of the U.S. Senate on November 12, 2014, urging Presdent Cartes to resolve the dispute and allow the families affected access to land. Leahy and 11 other representatives signed a letter [PDF] to Cartes that read in part:

On that day, 11 farmers and 6 police lost their lives and many were injured during the forced eviction of some 60 landless farmers by over 300 police in riot gear from government land that -­ while claimed by a private company — is recognized by institutions in your government as belonging to the Paraguayan State and intended for land reform.

As you know, accountability of public institutions is essential for societies to thrive. We therefore urge you to pursue a clear and fair resolution to this land dispute case, including a full investigation to ensure those responsible for the murders and reported human rights abuses on June 15, 2012 are brought to justice.

We also urge you to continue to move forward with implementation of agrarian reform policies consistent with Paraguay’s existing laws; this would help enable farmers in Curuguaty to acquire rights over the Marina Kue property in order to feed their families and ensure the livelihood of their community.

Additionally, La Via Campesina, Oxfam America, the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) and other organizations joined with a coalition of more than 40 organizations in Paraguay to push for an independent and fair investigation and comprehensive land reform. Six months of strong mobilization, as Oxfam Paraguay points out, brought together thousands of volunteers and support from countries in Latin America as well as from Germany, Spain, and the United States. The international campaign “Jóvenes sin tierra = Tierra sin futuro” (“Youth without land = Land without future”) collected 37,000 signatures of support from 60 different countries.

It offers hope that policymakers, organizations, and activists around the world are paying attention and pressuring the government of Paraguay to carry out a fair and independent investigation to bring justice to all the victims of the conflict. This would shed light on the irregularities of the current process and hopefully serve as a starting point to bring about more justice, transparency, and real agrarian reform in a country in which 1.6 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land.

In 2012, a congressional coup brought down Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo over allegations that he had mishandled the conflict between rural workers and the family of the late businessman and ex-senator Blas Riquelme over a 2,000 hectare territory named Marina Cué located in Curuguaty in the department of Canindeyú. In June of 2012, the conflict that had been escalating for years erupted in a violent land eviction effort that ended with the deaths of 11 farmers and 6 policemen. Federico Franco, the Vice-President, replaced Lugo and ruled until Horacio Cartes, from the Colorado Party, won elections in April 2013 and took office in August. Today the conflict remains unresolved and the drama is being played out in a scenario that reflects the vast and historic injustices for rural workers, an alarming concentration of land, and a nation with inadequate public institutions to serve and protect its citizens.

More than two years later, justice remains elusive. The trial of 13 farm workers accused of killing the 6 police officers, which had been scheduled for last Monday, November 17, has been postponed to June 2015. By then, the landless farmers, who face charges of land invasion, criminal association, and attempted murder, among others, will have completed 3 years of detention without having been convicted. They are unable to work and provide for their families, who are now in an even more precarious situation than when they settled in Marina Cué.

As many have noted, it is questionable that the investigation is led by the police and the Public Ministry, instead of by an independent commission like the one established by ex-President Lugo, which was to have been overseen by the Organization of American States (but was dismantled by Franco as soon as he took power). The government investigation’s one-sided conclusions blame the farmworkers for the killings, even though 11 of the 17 killed were farmworkers. The official version is that the farmers ambushed the policemen, and the police responded accordingly. Meanwhile, nobody is under investigation for the deaths of the 11 farmers. To the farmerworkers’ dismay, the Public Ministry quickly discredited alternative investigations that claimed there was no ambush attempt on the part of the farmworkers and that instead the police had fired on them indiscriminately.

Vicente Morales, a lawyer representing 11 of the 13 farmers, pointed out that “The cops were more than 300, with machine guns, helicopters, shotguns and grenades. And the peasants were no more than 50, malnourished, sick with dengue, and with children from one to three years-old that supposedly were being used as bait.” He also pointed out that the ownership of the lands in Marina Cué is still in question, since it is an area, as is much of the land in Paraguay, that the dictatorship and post-dictatorship governments gave away to friends and family members. Nevertheless, the defendants are being charged with land invasion. This represents how superficial the current process is, paying no attention to the roots of the conflict and reflecting the still prevalent inequality, impunity, and favoritism for wealthy families. As Raul Zibechi of the Center for International Policy explains:

1% of the landowners control 77% of productive land, and 40% of farmers own only 1% of the land. 9.7 million hectares are concentrated among just 351 landholders, while there are 300,000 landless campesinos.

To reach these levels of land concentration and foreign ownership, the [Paraguayan] state and landowners have unleashed a war against the campesinado. In the 25 years since the end of the Stroessner dictatorship, they got the rural population to fall by almost 50%. The Chokokue Report, 1989-2013 by the Human Rights Coordinator of Paraguay (Codehupy) reflects this reality.

The repression and violence against rural workers in Paraguay and elsewhere in Latin America is nothing new, but the cynicism of the current administration regarding the “Curuguaty Massacre” is perhaps unprecedented.

Fortunately, the conflict has caught the attention of some policymakers in the United States who have called for a just ending to this conflict. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy read a declaration [PDF] in front of the U.S. Senate on November 12, 2014, urging Presdent Cartes to resolve the dispute and allow the families affected access to land. Leahy and 11 other representatives signed a letter [PDF] to Cartes that read in part:

On that day, 11 farmers and 6 police lost their lives and many were injured during the forced eviction of some 60 landless farmers by over 300 police in riot gear from government land that -­ while claimed by a private company — is recognized by institutions in your government as belonging to the Paraguayan State and intended for land reform.

As you know, accountability of public institutions is essential for societies to thrive. We therefore urge you to pursue a clear and fair resolution to this land dispute case, including a full investigation to ensure those responsible for the murders and reported human rights abuses on June 15, 2012 are brought to justice.

We also urge you to continue to move forward with implementation of agrarian reform policies consistent with Paraguay’s existing laws; this would help enable farmers in Curuguaty to acquire rights over the Marina Kue property in order to feed their families and ensure the livelihood of their community.

Additionally, La Via Campesina, Oxfam America, the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) and other organizations joined with a coalition of more than 40 organizations in Paraguay to push for an independent and fair investigation and comprehensive land reform. Six months of strong mobilization, as Oxfam Paraguay points out, brought together thousands of volunteers and support from countries in Latin America as well as from Germany, Spain, and the United States. The international campaign “Jóvenes sin tierra = Tierra sin futuro” (“Youth without land = Land without future”) collected 37,000 signatures of support from 60 different countries.

It offers hope that policymakers, organizations, and activists around the world are paying attention and pressuring the government of Paraguay to carry out a fair and independent investigation to bring justice to all the victims of the conflict. This would shed light on the irregularities of the current process and hopefully serve as a starting point to bring about more justice, transparency, and real agrarian reform in a country in which 1.6 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article covering Wednesday’s protests in Ecuador against President Rafael Correa, but key facts were missing and the article contained several misleading statements.

First, it is curious that the WSJ chose to focus on a protest of reportedly “around 3,000 protesters,” when a much larger demonstration took place on Saturday in favor of the government’s labor reform policy. The pro-government rally had participation from 100,000 people, according to organizers, and news outlets such as EFE reported participation of “tens of thousands of workers.” Perhaps an argument can be made that protests are more interesting than rallies supporting measures championed by the government, but the WSJ used the same word, “thousands,” to describe the number of attendees at both events.

The piece also includes a line that reads, “Mr. Correa took office in early 2007 and promptly engineered a new constitution that allowed for his re-election.” In reality, a constitutional convention (i.e. adopting a new constitution) was one of Rafael Correa’s campaign promises the year he was first elected (with 56.7 percent of the vote). Further, the old 1998 constitution allowed for indefinite re-election, though not consecutively, for the presidency, while the 2008 constitution set a limit of two-terms for the presidency, which could be served consecutively. Neither of these basic facts was mentioned in the article.

Finally, the motivations for the protest are selectively reported. Besides vague references to the government’s allegedly “authoritarian attitudes,” two issues are mentioned: “union leaders said the government is looking to divide them by creating new government-dependent organizations and undermine their rights, especially to strike” and “protesters are also rejecting proposed constitutional amendments that would open the door for indefinite re-election of Mr. Correa.” Regarding the first point, the author seems to be referencing the creation of a national workers’ united center (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), a union federation similar to those in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. No argument was given as to why this organization would undermine workers’ rights.

Second, the constitutional changes would allow the indefinite re-election of any office holder (as the WSJ has previously reported), not just Correa. Reasonable people may disagree with this reform, but unlimited re-election is not always seen as inherently anti-democratic. In the Western Hemisphere alone, Canada and Nicaragua allow unlimited re-election, and countries including Peru, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica allow indefinite re-election for non-consecutive term.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article covering Wednesday’s protests in Ecuador against President Rafael Correa, but key facts were missing and the article contained several misleading statements.

First, it is curious that the WSJ chose to focus on a protest of reportedly “around 3,000 protesters,” when a much larger demonstration took place on Saturday in favor of the government’s labor reform policy. The pro-government rally had participation from 100,000 people, according to organizers, and news outlets such as EFE reported participation of “tens of thousands of workers.” Perhaps an argument can be made that protests are more interesting than rallies supporting measures championed by the government, but the WSJ used the same word, “thousands,” to describe the number of attendees at both events.

The piece also includes a line that reads, “Mr. Correa took office in early 2007 and promptly engineered a new constitution that allowed for his re-election.” In reality, a constitutional convention (i.e. adopting a new constitution) was one of Rafael Correa’s campaign promises the year he was first elected (with 56.7 percent of the vote). Further, the old 1998 constitution allowed for indefinite re-election, though not consecutively, for the presidency, while the 2008 constitution set a limit of two-terms for the presidency, which could be served consecutively. Neither of these basic facts was mentioned in the article.

Finally, the motivations for the protest are selectively reported. Besides vague references to the government’s allegedly “authoritarian attitudes,” two issues are mentioned: “union leaders said the government is looking to divide them by creating new government-dependent organizations and undermine their rights, especially to strike” and “protesters are also rejecting proposed constitutional amendments that would open the door for indefinite re-election of Mr. Correa.” Regarding the first point, the author seems to be referencing the creation of a national workers’ united center (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), a union federation similar to those in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. No argument was given as to why this organization would undermine workers’ rights.

Second, the constitutional changes would allow the indefinite re-election of any office holder (as the WSJ has previously reported), not just Correa. Reasonable people may disagree with this reform, but unlimited re-election is not always seen as inherently anti-democratic. In the Western Hemisphere alone, Canada and Nicaragua allow unlimited re-election, and countries including Peru, Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica allow indefinite re-election for non-consecutive term.

During a visit to Washington in late July, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina jointly called for a regional security initiative modeled on Plan Colombia in response to the rampant violence sweeping their countries.  In an October 29th Congressional briefing, human rights advocates from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia made a distinctly different appeal.  Describing how militarized security programs cut from the same cloth as Plan Colombia had undermined human rights and democracy in their countries, they earnestly called on the U.S. Congress to reconsider its ongoing support for these programs. 

The briefing, hosted by the office of Representative Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and co-sponsored by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Just Associates, CISPES and CIP-Americas, was entirely videotaped by CEPR, and can be viewed here (in Spanish with no subtitles). 

For those who are interested in these issues but don’t speak Spanish or have limited time, we provide a translation of key excerpts from each of the four powerful presentations made by the human rights defenders.

First, a quick summary of the event:

Iduvina Hernández Batres, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, discussed how the U.S. security agenda in Guatemala undermines citizen security. Bertha Oliva, Coordinator of the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), talked about how abuses by U.S.-backed security forces have increased, while judicial authorities justify rather than investigate the violence. María Luisa Aguilar López of the Mexican human rights organization Tlachinollan, explained how the recent disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero is not an exception, but rather a representative case in a country that has recorded at least 22,000 forced disappearances since the U.S.-backed, militarized drug war began in Mexico in 2006.  Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination, described the dire effects of Plan Colombia on human rights and democracy in Colombia, including thousands of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, and how the U.S. is now helping export the Colombian model to other countries. 

Kathryn Johnson, from the Washington office of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, moderated the panel.  In her introductory and closing remarks she shared passages from a statement by the MesoAmerican Working Group on the impact of U.S. security assistance on human rights in Mexico and Central America, including policy recommendations for U.S. lawmakers.  The statement is available here [pdf].

Here are translated excerpts from each presentation:

Iduvina Hernández Batres, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, Guatemala.  

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Hernandez

“What does it mean when our governments and authorities develop security agendas and policies based, not on the needs of the population and on their responsibility to guarantee the right to life, the right to freedom, and the full enjoyment of every right, but instead on the interests and concerns of another country, in this case on the anti-drug policy of the U.S. government, on its anti-terrorist policy, on its anti-immigration policy? (…) This has [for Guatemala] meant a process which, over the last ten years, has led to virtual disappearance of civil security forces.

“I ask you to imagine that, instead of police forces in the streets of each one of your cities and states, you constantly see members of the armed forces; that, instead of filing a criminal complaint before judicial authorities, you actually must do it before a military authority.  This is the reality we live day by day. (…) Similarly to what occurred during the internal armed conflict of the 1980s, there is a military deployment that stretches across all of the national territory.”

She notes that the Guatemalan armed forces haven’t been purged since the 1980s despite enormous human rights abuses; how military equipment, like grenades has ended up in the hands of drug cartel members; and how the military apparatus is working to destroy the limited independence of the judiciary. Otto Pérez Molina, a former general suspected of responsibility for human rights abuses during the 80s, is asking the U.S. government for support to further strengthen the army, saying that “they need more support to guarantee that this institution remain in charge of citizen security for Guatemala.”

“I come to you with the voice of my brothers and sisters in Guatemala (…), with the voice of pain of the disappeared, with the pain of the bus drivers that are killed on a daily basis. (…) We don’t want the strengthening of institutions that, instead of protecting our lives, continue to put them in constant danger. (…) We want to walk in the streets as you do here (…) enjoying the possibility of walking without fear of being detained at any moment and becoming victims of illegal actions on the part of security forces like the armed forces, that haven’t been trained to deal with citizen security.  We’ve come to ask you that, before authorizing a security policy based on the needs that could arise over here, you consider that this policy shouldn’t be pursued if it creates victims in our societies.”

 

Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).

 “We have returned to the old days [of rampant militarization], we’ve gone back something like 30 years when we first began looking for victims of disappearances… We’re seeing the reappearance of the odious practice of forced disappearances that we thought was a thing of the past. 

“It is the same actors that have committed crimes against humanity that are, in the name of security and democracy, committing new, strong violations of human rights. We can’t advance, and it can’t be said that there is an interest in our country in strengthening the democratic state, because democracies don’t grow stronger with military troops in the streets.

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Oliva

“We’ve seen the return of civil-military actions, sometimes attributable to the military police [force], sometimes attributable to military policing, but that combined have led to profound human rights violations.

“When we talk about militarization, it’s not just about seeing military troops in the streets.  It’s about the effects of their presence that we experience on a daily basis. (…) We’re talking about torture (…), extrajudicial executions.

“Violence and insecurity is growing worse.  Now it’s not one, but two to seven people that are killed in a single incident (…) and there is no action on the part of judicial agents that is oriented toward investigating and sanctioning those who are responsible.  (…)  Judicial authorities limit themselves to producing information about the victims:  ‘they were gangsters, or they were members of an organized crime group’ (…) it appears as if they’ve prepared a profile of the person to justify the killing.

“International accompaniers [of human rights defenders and of communities defending land rights] are also subjected to illegal and arbitrary detentions (…) and the state is incapable of investigating.   It is only capable of justifying.”

She reminds the audience of the constant threats and intimidations that human rights defenders face in Honduras, including herself.  “Today I’m fearful of speaking. (…)  A year ago, there were two of us here speaking about Honduras (…)  Before we’d even returned to our country there was a campaign and an official report stating that we were discrediting our country and that, therefore, we were bad Hondurans.”

“Why are so many young [Hondurans] going to the U.S. today?  It’s because of bad security policies.”

 

María Luisa Aguilar López, Tlachinollan, Mexico.

“Mexico is a country that, outside of Mexico, is portrayed as being a country of reforms, a country that’s in the vanguard, that’s progressive, that’s among the 20 strongest economies of the world.  And within Mexico we see a country that is deeply damaged, with a social fabric that is completely torn apart, with a human rights situation that is truly deplorable (…) with many documented cases in which public authorities and organized crime are completely co-dependent (…) with an economy based on extortion.”

She discusses the creeping militarization throughout Mexico, how the country’s public institutions have become progressively militarized.  She discusses the gendarmería, a new militarized police force (similar to the new military police force of Honduras) involved in law enforcement but with military training. [Editor’s note: in mid October, Mexico’s Minister of Finance told investors that the gendarmería would provide security for private companies’ projects around the country, provoking cries of protest from Mexican human rights and environmental activists].

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Aguilar

She discusses the case of the 43 missing students in Guerrero, which has sparked protests throughout Mexico and the world. “It is a representative case, not an isolated case,” she says, noting that there have been over 22,000 disappearances since the U.S.-backed drug war started in 2006. 

“It demonstrates how the judicial system is incapable of properly investigating an enormous crime.” 

She notes that over a month has passed since the 43 students disappeared and that all that investigators have produced so far are 11 mass graves, none of which appear to contain the remains of the students. [Editor’s note:  Mexican authorities announced in early November that gang members admitted to incinerating the students after they were handed over to them by local police, but parents of the missing students have expressed deep skepticism regarding official accounts.] 

“There is a clear problem of forced disappearances in Mexico…  There is a clear problem of violence in Mexico.  The U.S. needs to acknowledge this problem, as a neighboring country.  To date, the U.S. government hasn’t recognized that just beyond its borders there is a grave problem of generalized violence, of forced disappearances, that can’t be solved by continuing to train and fund the armed forces.”

[In addition to Lopez’s presentation, CIP Americas distributed a fact sheet at the briefing entitled “Mexico in Crisis: U.S. Drug War Funding, Ayotzinapa and Human Rights Violations” which can be viewed here].

 

Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination:

He describes some of Plan Colombia’s main features: states of exception that sideline the rule of law; the creation of paramilitary groups, acting in coordination with military agents; clandestine operations, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial execution (false positives).  He discusses the findings of a report co-authored with John Lindsay Poland [PDF] that looks at the role that U.S. security assistance played in the 5,763 “false positive” cases of extrajudicial civilian assassinations by Colombian military units.  As these abuses occurred, between 2000 and 2010, Colombia received $6 billion in military assistance from the U.S. and sent military advisors to train troops and accompany operations.  The Colombian army grew from 230,000 troops to a half million, thereby becoming the biggest army in Latin America.

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Yepes

He goes on to describe “the empowerment and preponderance that the military acquires over Colombian society (…) a veritable untouchable caste.  These half million men have a big influence over the political system and even impact electoral campaigns in order to favor the candidates that are most supportive of the militarization of the country, as was witnessed in the last electoral campaign.   Even more worrying is the military’s refusal to respond to the crimes committed during the armed conflict (…) They permanently demand that military troops not be investigated by ordinary [civilian] justice; the military has (…) imposed constitutional reforms and reforms to laws to ensure that the investigation and prosecution of military crimes is carried out (…) through military judicial authorities.

“This is the model that the U.S. has presented as a successful model. An export model that should be extended to other countries (…)  Basically [this model] seeks to promote Colombia, or the Colombian army, to be used to build local capacity in the fight against organized crime.  Colombia has thus been turned into the nerve center of U.S. security policy for the entire continent.”

He lists the quantity of troops trained by Colombian trainers in various countries:  Mexico: 13,000 troops trained by Colombians; Panama: more than 3000; Honduras: around 3000; Guatemala: close to 2000, etc.

“Through proxies, the U.S. is involving itself in internal conflicts, doing the same sort of training that the U.S. used to provide at a lower financial and political cost.  This development of military capacity has also been extended to the paramilitarization of other armies. You all know the Blackwater company, that later changed its name to Xe Services [Editor’s note: and then changed its name to Academi].  It has also been training in Colombian scenarios in order to export [the Colombian methods] to other parts of the world.

“There are also reports of retired Colombian military agents that have later participated in the training of police that have later lent their services to criminal groups, such as the Zetas in Mexico. 

“So, let’s not believe that the Colombian model can be a successful model.  The statistics of 30,000 disappeared in the internal armed conflict and close to 6,000 victims of extrajudicial executions doesn’t bode well for the possibility of exporting this experience to other countries.”

“(…) Finally, we consider that U.S. policies are incoherent.  On the one hand, you have policies of the Department of Defense that basically seek to provide a lot of military support, a strong militarization, and strong support for the militaries in each country, and using indicators based in methods that ignore human rights considerations.  On the other hand, you have parallel efforts in which the Department of State imposes conditions of respect for human rights, but that don’t manage to diminish the excesses and abuses that occur.”

During a visit to Washington in late July, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina jointly called for a regional security initiative modeled on Plan Colombia in response to the rampant violence sweeping their countries.  In an October 29th Congressional briefing, human rights advocates from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia made a distinctly different appeal.  Describing how militarized security programs cut from the same cloth as Plan Colombia had undermined human rights and democracy in their countries, they earnestly called on the U.S. Congress to reconsider its ongoing support for these programs. 

The briefing, hosted by the office of Representative Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) and co-sponsored by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Just Associates, CISPES and CIP-Americas, was entirely videotaped by CEPR, and can be viewed here (in Spanish with no subtitles). 

For those who are interested in these issues but don’t speak Spanish or have limited time, we provide a translation of key excerpts from each of the four powerful presentations made by the human rights defenders.

First, a quick summary of the event:

Iduvina Hernández Batres, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, discussed how the U.S. security agenda in Guatemala undermines citizen security. Bertha Oliva, Coordinator of the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), talked about how abuses by U.S.-backed security forces have increased, while judicial authorities justify rather than investigate the violence. María Luisa Aguilar López of the Mexican human rights organization Tlachinollan, explained how the recent disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero is not an exception, but rather a representative case in a country that has recorded at least 22,000 forced disappearances since the U.S.-backed, militarized drug war began in Mexico in 2006.  Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination, described the dire effects of Plan Colombia on human rights and democracy in Colombia, including thousands of extrajudicial killings and disappearances, and how the U.S. is now helping export the Colombian model to other countries. 

Kathryn Johnson, from the Washington office of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, moderated the panel.  In her introductory and closing remarks she shared passages from a statement by the MesoAmerican Working Group on the impact of U.S. security assistance on human rights in Mexico and Central America, including policy recommendations for U.S. lawmakers.  The statement is available here [pdf].

Here are translated excerpts from each presentation:

Iduvina Hernández Batres, Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, Guatemala.  

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Hernandez

“What does it mean when our governments and authorities develop security agendas and policies based, not on the needs of the population and on their responsibility to guarantee the right to life, the right to freedom, and the full enjoyment of every right, but instead on the interests and concerns of another country, in this case on the anti-drug policy of the U.S. government, on its anti-terrorist policy, on its anti-immigration policy? (…) This has [for Guatemala] meant a process which, over the last ten years, has led to virtual disappearance of civil security forces.

“I ask you to imagine that, instead of police forces in the streets of each one of your cities and states, you constantly see members of the armed forces; that, instead of filing a criminal complaint before judicial authorities, you actually must do it before a military authority.  This is the reality we live day by day. (…) Similarly to what occurred during the internal armed conflict of the 1980s, there is a military deployment that stretches across all of the national territory.”

She notes that the Guatemalan armed forces haven’t been purged since the 1980s despite enormous human rights abuses; how military equipment, like grenades has ended up in the hands of drug cartel members; and how the military apparatus is working to destroy the limited independence of the judiciary. Otto Pérez Molina, a former general suspected of responsibility for human rights abuses during the 80s, is asking the U.S. government for support to further strengthen the army, saying that “they need more support to guarantee that this institution remain in charge of citizen security for Guatemala.”

“I come to you with the voice of my brothers and sisters in Guatemala (…), with the voice of pain of the disappeared, with the pain of the bus drivers that are killed on a daily basis. (…) We don’t want the strengthening of institutions that, instead of protecting our lives, continue to put them in constant danger. (…) We want to walk in the streets as you do here (…) enjoying the possibility of walking without fear of being detained at any moment and becoming victims of illegal actions on the part of security forces like the armed forces, that haven’t been trained to deal with citizen security.  We’ve come to ask you that, before authorizing a security policy based on the needs that could arise over here, you consider that this policy shouldn’t be pursued if it creates victims in our societies.”

 

Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).

 “We have returned to the old days [of rampant militarization], we’ve gone back something like 30 years when we first began looking for victims of disappearances… We’re seeing the reappearance of the odious practice of forced disappearances that we thought was a thing of the past. 

“It is the same actors that have committed crimes against humanity that are, in the name of security and democracy, committing new, strong violations of human rights. We can’t advance, and it can’t be said that there is an interest in our country in strengthening the democratic state, because democracies don’t grow stronger with military troops in the streets.

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Oliva

“We’ve seen the return of civil-military actions, sometimes attributable to the military police [force], sometimes attributable to military policing, but that combined have led to profound human rights violations.

“When we talk about militarization, it’s not just about seeing military troops in the streets.  It’s about the effects of their presence that we experience on a daily basis. (…) We’re talking about torture (…), extrajudicial executions.

“Violence and insecurity is growing worse.  Now it’s not one, but two to seven people that are killed in a single incident (…) and there is no action on the part of judicial agents that is oriented toward investigating and sanctioning those who are responsible.  (…)  Judicial authorities limit themselves to producing information about the victims:  ‘they were gangsters, or they were members of an organized crime group’ (…) it appears as if they’ve prepared a profile of the person to justify the killing.

“International accompaniers [of human rights defenders and of communities defending land rights] are also subjected to illegal and arbitrary detentions (…) and the state is incapable of investigating.   It is only capable of justifying.”

She reminds the audience of the constant threats and intimidations that human rights defenders face in Honduras, including herself.  “Today I’m fearful of speaking. (…)  A year ago, there were two of us here speaking about Honduras (…)  Before we’d even returned to our country there was a campaign and an official report stating that we were discrediting our country and that, therefore, we were bad Hondurans.”

“Why are so many young [Hondurans] going to the U.S. today?  It’s because of bad security policies.”

 

María Luisa Aguilar López, Tlachinollan, Mexico.

“Mexico is a country that, outside of Mexico, is portrayed as being a country of reforms, a country that’s in the vanguard, that’s progressive, that’s among the 20 strongest economies of the world.  And within Mexico we see a country that is deeply damaged, with a social fabric that is completely torn apart, with a human rights situation that is truly deplorable (…) with many documented cases in which public authorities and organized crime are completely co-dependent (…) with an economy based on extortion.”

She discusses the creeping militarization throughout Mexico, how the country’s public institutions have become progressively militarized.  She discusses the gendarmería, a new militarized police force (similar to the new military police force of Honduras) involved in law enforcement but with military training. [Editor’s note: in mid October, Mexico’s Minister of Finance told investors that the gendarmería would provide security for private companies’ projects around the country, provoking cries of protest from Mexican human rights and environmental activists].

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Aguilar

She discusses the case of the 43 missing students in Guerrero, which has sparked protests throughout Mexico and the world. “It is a representative case, not an isolated case,” she says, noting that there have been over 22,000 disappearances since the U.S.-backed drug war started in 2006. 

“It demonstrates how the judicial system is incapable of properly investigating an enormous crime.” 

She notes that over a month has passed since the 43 students disappeared and that all that investigators have produced so far are 11 mass graves, none of which appear to contain the remains of the students. [Editor’s note:  Mexican authorities announced in early November that gang members admitted to incinerating the students after they were handed over to them by local police, but parents of the missing students have expressed deep skepticism regarding official accounts.] 

“There is a clear problem of forced disappearances in Mexico…  There is a clear problem of violence in Mexico.  The U.S. needs to acknowledge this problem, as a neighboring country.  To date, the U.S. government hasn’t recognized that just beyond its borders there is a grave problem of generalized violence, of forced disappearances, that can’t be solved by continuing to train and fund the armed forces.”

[In addition to Lopez’s presentation, CIP Americas distributed a fact sheet at the briefing entitled “Mexico in Crisis: U.S. Drug War Funding, Ayotzinapa and Human Rights Violations” which can be viewed here].

 

Alberto Yepes, coordinator of the Human Rights Observatory of the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Coordination:

He describes some of Plan Colombia’s main features: states of exception that sideline the rule of law; the creation of paramilitary groups, acting in coordination with military agents; clandestine operations, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial execution (false positives).  He discusses the findings of a report co-authored with John Lindsay Poland [PDF] that looks at the role that U.S. security assistance played in the 5,763 “false positive” cases of extrajudicial civilian assassinations by Colombian military units.  As these abuses occurred, between 2000 and 2010, Colombia received $6 billion in military assistance from the U.S. and sent military advisors to train troops and accompany operations.  The Colombian army grew from 230,000 troops to a half million, thereby becoming the biggest army in Latin America.

Security-briefing-10-20-14-Yepes

He goes on to describe “the empowerment and preponderance that the military acquires over Colombian society (…) a veritable untouchable caste.  These half million men have a big influence over the political system and even impact electoral campaigns in order to favor the candidates that are most supportive of the militarization of the country, as was witnessed in the last electoral campaign.   Even more worrying is the military’s refusal to respond to the crimes committed during the armed conflict (…) They permanently demand that military troops not be investigated by ordinary [civilian] justice; the military has (…) imposed constitutional reforms and reforms to laws to ensure that the investigation and prosecution of military crimes is carried out (…) through military judicial authorities.

“This is the model that the U.S. has presented as a successful model. An export model that should be extended to other countries (…)  Basically [this model] seeks to promote Colombia, or the Colombian army, to be used to build local capacity in the fight against organized crime.  Colombia has thus been turned into the nerve center of U.S. security policy for the entire continent.”

He lists the quantity of troops trained by Colombian trainers in various countries:  Mexico: 13,000 troops trained by Colombians; Panama: more than 3000; Honduras: around 3000; Guatemala: close to 2000, etc.

“Through proxies, the U.S. is involving itself in internal conflicts, doing the same sort of training that the U.S. used to provide at a lower financial and political cost.  This development of military capacity has also been extended to the paramilitarization of other armies. You all know the Blackwater company, that later changed its name to Xe Services [Editor’s note: and then changed its name to Academi].  It has also been training in Colombian scenarios in order to export [the Colombian methods] to other parts of the world.

“There are also reports of retired Colombian military agents that have later participated in the training of police that have later lent their services to criminal groups, such as the Zetas in Mexico. 

“So, let’s not believe that the Colombian model can be a successful model.  The statistics of 30,000 disappeared in the internal armed conflict and close to 6,000 victims of extrajudicial executions doesn’t bode well for the possibility of exporting this experience to other countries.”

“(…) Finally, we consider that U.S. policies are incoherent.  On the one hand, you have policies of the Department of Defense that basically seek to provide a lot of military support, a strong militarization, and strong support for the militaries in each country, and using indicators based in methods that ignore human rights considerations.  On the other hand, you have parallel efforts in which the Department of State imposes conditions of respect for human rights, but that don’t manage to diminish the excesses and abuses that occur.”

Karen Spring of the Honduran Solidarity Network writes that in a recent meeting

… Juan Orlando Hernández (President of Honduras), Daniel Ortega (President of Nicaragua), and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (President of El Salvador) defined their nation’s [sic] interests in projects that would develop the [shared area of the Gulf of Fonseca] and came to an agreement on investments in the following sectors: Infrastructure, tourism, agroindustry, and renewable energy.

The meeting declaration mentions, among other projects

…the “implementation of a Employment and Economic Development Zone (ZEDE) [known as a Model City] that includes a logistics park.” The idea is to convert the Gulf into a “Free Trade and Sustainable Development Zone.”

Radio Progreso has noted that the Honduran government is courting investment for the projects from “the European Union [and] the Inter-American Development Bank and is seeking investors in Panama and the United States.”

The ZEDEs, or “model cities,” are areas in which large portions of the Honduran constitution will not apply, including various sections that apply to fundamental and internationally-recognized human rights.

A National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation recently traveled to Honduras to investigate the legal implications of the proposed ZEDEs. In a report released in September, the NLG described how few articles of the constitution residents of the ZEDEs would actually enjoy:

Chapter I, Article 1 of the ZEDE law states that Articles 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 19 of the Constitution are fully applicable. These provisions define the territorial limits of Honduras, obligate Honduras to international treaties and forbid the ratification of treaties that damage Honduras’ territorial integrity or sovereignty. The remaining sections of the Honduran Constitution, a document of 379 articles, will have only the effect that they are given by an agreement between the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices (CABP), the independent governing board of the ZEDEs and the corporate promoters seeking to develop the land. [Emphasis added.]

Many fundamental rights of Honduran citizens who live within the borders of ZEDEs are not protected under the new ZEDE law. These rights include: the right to Habeas Corpus or Amparo 20 , Article 183; the inviolability of a right to life, 65; guarantees of human dignity and bodily integrity, 68; the guarantee against the extraction of forced labor, 69; freedom of expression, 72; protections for a free press, 73; freedom of religion, 77; guarantees of assembly and association, 78, 79, and 80; freedom of movement, 81; the right to a defense, to court access, and to counsel for indigents, 82 and 83; and freedom from non-legal detainment, 84 and 85.

Who is this CABP who will govern the ZEDEs and determine which basic human rights will be granted to their residents?

The 21-member CABP, which was announced in February 2014, includes nine US citizens, three Europeans and only four Hondurans. The CABP is dominated by neoliberal and libertarian activists, several with close connections to former President Ronald Reagan [including Grover Norquist and Mark Klugmann].

Ironically, the ZEDEs are being promoted by some libertarian intellectuals and “activists” as perhaps “the freest cities in the world” despite the fact that the zones will shred another fundamental right, and one usually considered sacred to libertarians: property rights. The NLG explains:

A further particularly troubling aspect of the ZEDE law relates to the provisions that allow for the placement of ZEDEs in areas of “low population density,” and in municipalities in the departments adjoining the Gulf of Fonseca and the Caribbean Sea, without prior consultation with the affected communities.

As an example, the report cites the historic Garifuna community of Rio Negro at Trujillo in Colón, which was disrupted by shady land deals ahead of foreign investment. “ZEDEs have created an increased the fear of such incidents in the future,” the NLG states.

Further down, the report elaborates that “ZEDEs do not present Hondurans with authentic choice because they can be imposed on unwilling communities without any referendum,” and that “If the Honduran National Statistics Institute declares the area to have a lower than average population density for a rural area, Congress may impose a ZEDE on any existing communities in that area without even the basic protection of a referendum.”

The NLG notes that “These provisions …violate international law.”

As both the NLG report and Radio Progreso describe, communities in Zacate Grande and Amapala are among those threatened with losing property to ZEDEs that might be “imposed” on them. As attorney Lauren Carasik, one of the authors of the NLG report, wrote in Foreign Affairs in August, “If Zacate Grande is subsumed into the first ZEDE, the island’s 5,000 inhabitants will lose the right to help determine what happens to its land or its resources.”

This is why, as Spring reported,

Last week on October 23, communities and individuals from all over Southern Honduras (El Transito, Nacaome, Amapala, Zacate Grande, Tegucigalpa, etc) crossed the beautiful Gulf of Fonseca – from Coyolito to Amapala – to participate in a march against the ZEDE project proposed for the area. While some participants handed out copies of the ZEDE law, over 500 people marched from the Amapala dock to the municipality office.

Amapala and neighboring communities are being sidelined from the decision-making process that could lead to ZEDEs in their region of Southern Honduras. Radio Progreso reports that while the Korea International Cooperation Agency is funding a feasibility study for the Gulf of Fonseca region, the study has not been presented to the mayors of the relevant municipalities, Alianza, Nacaome and Amapala en Valle. Residents of the areas being considered for ZEDEs are being told very little. NLG investigators explain that

Virtually everyone in the Gulf of Fonseca region who spoke with the delegation voiced concerns about the government’s unwillingness to explain the effects that ZEDEs will have on existing communities within their borders.

…despite the ZEDEs’ potential to nullify existing labor contracts and labor laws in their territory, members of the union of workers at the port that operates in the Gulf of Fonseca have been told nothing. They fear that the arrival of a ZEDE will spell the end of their jobs when a proposed port at Amapala replaces their livelihood.

The Gulf is just one of 14 “potential zones” the Honduran government is considering.

As Radio Progreso notes, the Liberty and Refundation (LIBRE) party is hoping to see the repeal of the constitutional amendment and the organic law facilitating establishment of the ZEDEs. Instead, LIBRE is proposing forms of investment that don’t involve “the surrender of national sovereignty and territory.”

Karen Spring of the Honduran Solidarity Network writes that in a recent meeting

… Juan Orlando Hernández (President of Honduras), Daniel Ortega (President of Nicaragua), and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (President of El Salvador) defined their nation’s [sic] interests in projects that would develop the [shared area of the Gulf of Fonseca] and came to an agreement on investments in the following sectors: Infrastructure, tourism, agroindustry, and renewable energy.

The meeting declaration mentions, among other projects

…the “implementation of a Employment and Economic Development Zone (ZEDE) [known as a Model City] that includes a logistics park.” The idea is to convert the Gulf into a “Free Trade and Sustainable Development Zone.”

Radio Progreso has noted that the Honduran government is courting investment for the projects from “the European Union [and] the Inter-American Development Bank and is seeking investors in Panama and the United States.”

The ZEDEs, or “model cities,” are areas in which large portions of the Honduran constitution will not apply, including various sections that apply to fundamental and internationally-recognized human rights.

A National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation recently traveled to Honduras to investigate the legal implications of the proposed ZEDEs. In a report released in September, the NLG described how few articles of the constitution residents of the ZEDEs would actually enjoy:

Chapter I, Article 1 of the ZEDE law states that Articles 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 19 of the Constitution are fully applicable. These provisions define the territorial limits of Honduras, obligate Honduras to international treaties and forbid the ratification of treaties that damage Honduras’ territorial integrity or sovereignty. The remaining sections of the Honduran Constitution, a document of 379 articles, will have only the effect that they are given by an agreement between the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices (CABP), the independent governing board of the ZEDEs and the corporate promoters seeking to develop the land. [Emphasis added.]

Many fundamental rights of Honduran citizens who live within the borders of ZEDEs are not protected under the new ZEDE law. These rights include: the right to Habeas Corpus or Amparo 20 , Article 183; the inviolability of a right to life, 65; guarantees of human dignity and bodily integrity, 68; the guarantee against the extraction of forced labor, 69; freedom of expression, 72; protections for a free press, 73; freedom of religion, 77; guarantees of assembly and association, 78, 79, and 80; freedom of movement, 81; the right to a defense, to court access, and to counsel for indigents, 82 and 83; and freedom from non-legal detainment, 84 and 85.

Who is this CABP who will govern the ZEDEs and determine which basic human rights will be granted to their residents?

The 21-member CABP, which was announced in February 2014, includes nine US citizens, three Europeans and only four Hondurans. The CABP is dominated by neoliberal and libertarian activists, several with close connections to former President Ronald Reagan [including Grover Norquist and Mark Klugmann].

Ironically, the ZEDEs are being promoted by some libertarian intellectuals and “activists” as perhaps “the freest cities in the world” despite the fact that the zones will shred another fundamental right, and one usually considered sacred to libertarians: property rights. The NLG explains:

A further particularly troubling aspect of the ZEDE law relates to the provisions that allow for the placement of ZEDEs in areas of “low population density,” and in municipalities in the departments adjoining the Gulf of Fonseca and the Caribbean Sea, without prior consultation with the affected communities.

As an example, the report cites the historic Garifuna community of Rio Negro at Trujillo in Colón, which was disrupted by shady land deals ahead of foreign investment. “ZEDEs have created an increased the fear of such incidents in the future,” the NLG states.

Further down, the report elaborates that “ZEDEs do not present Hondurans with authentic choice because they can be imposed on unwilling communities without any referendum,” and that “If the Honduran National Statistics Institute declares the area to have a lower than average population density for a rural area, Congress may impose a ZEDE on any existing communities in that area without even the basic protection of a referendum.”

The NLG notes that “These provisions …violate international law.”

As both the NLG report and Radio Progreso describe, communities in Zacate Grande and Amapala are among those threatened with losing property to ZEDEs that might be “imposed” on them. As attorney Lauren Carasik, one of the authors of the NLG report, wrote in Foreign Affairs in August, “If Zacate Grande is subsumed into the first ZEDE, the island’s 5,000 inhabitants will lose the right to help determine what happens to its land or its resources.”

This is why, as Spring reported,

Last week on October 23, communities and individuals from all over Southern Honduras (El Transito, Nacaome, Amapala, Zacate Grande, Tegucigalpa, etc) crossed the beautiful Gulf of Fonseca – from Coyolito to Amapala – to participate in a march against the ZEDE project proposed for the area. While some participants handed out copies of the ZEDE law, over 500 people marched from the Amapala dock to the municipality office.

Amapala and neighboring communities are being sidelined from the decision-making process that could lead to ZEDEs in their region of Southern Honduras. Radio Progreso reports that while the Korea International Cooperation Agency is funding a feasibility study for the Gulf of Fonseca region, the study has not been presented to the mayors of the relevant municipalities, Alianza, Nacaome and Amapala en Valle. Residents of the areas being considered for ZEDEs are being told very little. NLG investigators explain that

Virtually everyone in the Gulf of Fonseca region who spoke with the delegation voiced concerns about the government’s unwillingness to explain the effects that ZEDEs will have on existing communities within their borders.

…despite the ZEDEs’ potential to nullify existing labor contracts and labor laws in their territory, members of the union of workers at the port that operates in the Gulf of Fonseca have been told nothing. They fear that the arrival of a ZEDE will spell the end of their jobs when a proposed port at Amapala replaces their livelihood.

The Gulf is just one of 14 “potential zones” the Honduran government is considering.

As Radio Progreso notes, the Liberty and Refundation (LIBRE) party is hoping to see the repeal of the constitutional amendment and the organic law facilitating establishment of the ZEDEs. Instead, LIBRE is proposing forms of investment that don’t involve “the surrender of national sovereignty and territory.”

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