Monday, March 30, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, March 30, 2015

James Stavridis, a retired four-star US Navy admiral and current Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argues that the United States should implement a 'Plan Central America' based on lessons learned from 'Plan Colombia,' according to an essay in Foreign Policy (3/18). According to an assessment in Insight Crime, this is "a tenuous proposition that relies on oversimplified analogies and a questionable understanding of current conditions in the region." Stavridis says he is not calling for a new 'War on Drugs' but rather a 'smart power' approach: "a combination of diplomacy, and economic, financial, security, and development aid." Insight Crimes identifies significant differences between Colombia's situation in the late 1990s and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America today that Stavridis fails to mention. A post on CEPR (3/27) takes another tack: "Child Rapes and 'Sex Parties' by US Forces are Latest to Tarnish Plan Colombia’s Image." (Separately: U.S. Counter-narcotics operations in Colombia and Afghanistan are compared in a blog post on International Affairs Review, 3/24).

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, said that West African governments should decriminalize narcotic drugs to avoid wasting scarce resources fighting a war that cannot be won, according to a press release in the Cameroon Concord (3/30). "The region has become an important trans-shipment point between Latin America," and Annan's own Ghana "recently dissolved its board in charge of fighting narcotics over suspected complicity of officials aiding drug cartels to escape security checks at the country’s airport."

Venezuela's Pres. Maduro announced he is ready to shake Pres. Obama's hand (El Universal, 3/26) even as his Foreign Minister delivered a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, "energetically rejecting" the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration (El Universal and Tal Cual, 3/27). Opposition leader Henri Falcón also published a letter to Pres. Obama categorically rejecting the sanctions but also asking for reconciliation between the two countries. In a twist, Cuba will be losing half of its oil supply from Venezuela, according to Mexican daily Excelsior and the Associated Press (3/27).

Washington’s sanctions on Venezuela "have been great for Pres. Maduro," writes a columnist in Foreign Policy (3/27) and it’s unclear what broader U.S. strategy the economic measures are meant to serve. The author asks if the U.S. "risks entering another long and fruitless campaign like the one against Havana, which only served to empower Fidel Castro’s anti-U.S. bona fides." Barbara Kotschwar (Peterson Institute for International Economics), adds "Venezuela is a national security threat only to itself" and that their "four-tier currency system benefits corrupt insiders but hurts the poor and middle class," in a blog post (3/24). (Kotschwar is the author of Economic Normalization with Cuba: A Roadmap for US Policymakers, 2014). And the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail has a long essay on how Venezuela went from being a regional powerhouse to a pauper (3/27).

A columnist for Colombia's El Tiempo wonders if Venezuela no longer qualifies in being labelled a competitive authoritarian country (3/30) while Andres Oppenheimer (3/28) argues that Maduro to show he is still a democrat has a chance in the upcoming elections. Jorge Castañeda, meanwhile, wonders if the sanctions on Venezuela are all about Cuba, in his essay in the Huffington Post (3/27): "Obama may be trying to force these countries to choose sides: either support Venezuela explicitly or support the U.S. in opposing its leaders' policies."

  • PRISONS  The Brazilian incarceration system allows prisoners to use hallucinogens during short  furloughs as a way to "ease pressure on Brazil’s prison system," according to the NY Times (3/29). The article profiles Acuda, a prisoners’ rights group, that offers therapy sessions in yoga and meditation to the inmates. "Two years ago, the volunteer therapists at Acuda had a new idea: Why not give the inmates ayahuasca as well?" (A similar story ran last year in the Folha do Sao Paulo.) Separately, women's prisons in Mexico are often overcrowded and run by mafias, with inmates suffering extortion, sexual abuse and sometimes even forced prostitution, says a 'Mujeres Privadas de la Libertad en los Centros de Reclusión,' a report by the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, according to their press release (3/29), a lengthy assessment in Sin Embargo and a summary in the Associated Press.  "The commission said that a serious problem in the female prisons was self-rule by inmates, with gangs controlling cell space, privileges, conjugal visits, carrying out punishments and demanding extortion payments." 
  • Brazilian corruption waves grow larger as auto manufacturers Ford and Mistubishi and banks Bank of Boston, Bradesco, Santander, and Safra are among the companies investigated in a widening tax fraud scheme, according to Estadao do Brasil (28/3).
  • Bolivian opposition candidates won the La Paz governor's race and El Alto's mayor’s seat, according to the Associated Press and Reuters (3/30). Pres. Morales was re-elected in October but his party has been set back by "beset by corruption scandals."
  • Peru's GDP almost doubled between 2004 and 2014 and now "boasts one of the world’s most spectacular long-run growth spurts since the 1990s," but Wall St Journal columnist Mary O'Grady (3/30) says that nationalism and populism are threats in the 2016 elections. Some "chavistas," she suggests, "make the spurious claim that corruption and the market economy are somehow linked."  Separately, Peru is part of the free-trade Pacific Alliance, which together with Mexico, Colombia and Chile, "is a bigger economy than Brazil, and they're expected to grow three or four times faster than [Brazil] over the next few years," according to CNBC (3/26).
  • Mexico's spending on defense equipment, intended for use in combating organized crime, "has skyrocketed the past year, raising doubts about the Mexican government's willingness to scale back militarization of the country's drug war," according to a cover article in Mexico's Proceso (3/28) and a focus in Insight Crime (3/25).
  • Mexico's freedom of the press is an important issue in the firing of investigative journalist Carmen Aristegui, according to the NY Times (3/29).  "Even her critics ... argue that her dismissal removed one of the few broadcast journalists in Mexico who openly challenge authority." Outside the capital, the situation is worse where "reporters face reprisals from organized crime and local officials."
  • Mexico's union leaders are using tactics from their efforts in U.S. agricultural fields, in their continued labor strike in Baja California, according to the LA Times (3/30). "Farmworker strikes of this scale and duration are rare. The walkout began March 17 and is the first in decades in Baja California."
  • Clarín investigation (3/30) peers into whether Argentina's ex ambassador to Venezuela had bank accounts in Iran w/ nearly $50 million. Separately, Pres. Kirchner's 'human rights policy' is praised by many but what is usually meant is "a well-publicized determination to make military men ... pay for crimes that were committed over thirty years ago, according to an op-ed in the Buenos Aires Herald by James Nielson (3/29). "The human rights business is dominated by relatives of the 'disappeared' or the youngish men and women who were killed fighting for the Montoneros or some Marxist-Leninist-Peronist combat unit."

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