Thursday, March 5, 2015

Top Latin American Stories, March 5 2015

Venezuela continues to be a puzzle wrapped in an enigma for most but it remains clearly at the center of continued ideological battles. Several analysts have tried to decipher what lies ahead and most focus on the bilateral relations with the United States.

David Smilde reviews U.S./Venezuela relations including their tit-for-tat sanctions, in a 17-minute interview with NPR/WBEZ (3/4). Smilde, who is in Venezuela, tries to sort out conspiracies from fact and (with a sigh) says that sometimes theories turn out to be facts in the tortured relations between the countries. For example, he questions the evidence of U.S. backing of a coup attempt but concedes that history shows it's not implausible. He also notes the impact of fracking and lower oil prices to Venezuela and highlights a recent conference on "F#&*&% Fracking" that was accompanied with a social media campaign. Through it all, the government is becoming increasingly repressive.

Greg Grandin's link-laden blog collects a roundup of experts (mainly U.S. academics) who try to explain what is happening in Venezuela, in The Nation (3/2). Most express qualified support for the Maduro government, are skeptical of mainstream news coverage on Venezuela, but agree that Caracas is in a "tight spot," and "a crossroads." Miguel Tinker Salas (Pomona College) compares Venezuela to Mexico's "humanitarian crisis of staggering proportion [yet] gets a 'free pass' by the United States." (Tinker Salas' Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know will be published in April.) Sujatha Fernandes (CUNY’s Queens College) and Naomi Schiller (Brooklyn College) suggest that the government maintains significant support in the barrios. "Economic mismanagement and economic sabotage are not two mutually exclusive hypotheses about the sources of long lines," explains Dan Hellinger (Webster University and editor of Caracas Connect).

Venezuela lives with a continuous coup, according to Alfredo Lopez' long, pro-government essay in Counterpunch (3/3) which argues that there are many who try to "represent the government as a crisis in crisis mode, and to depict the country as if it’s on the brink of a precipice.” The article also quotes Tinker Salas, among others, and a few anonymous sources and surprisingly posits that "poverty in Venezuela has been halved [and has the] highest average standard of living in Latin America." In a World Policy blog (3/3), Michael McCarthy suggests that international trends (oil prices, Vatican policy, U.S./Cuba relations) might limit Maduro's next steps more than anything else.

Democratic leaders in the region are going wobbly and have retreated on a democratic vision in their abandonment of Venezuela, according to Christopher Sabatini (Columbia University and founder of Americas Quarterly) in Zocalo Public Square (3/5) and re-published by the Washington Post. He suggests that the OAS played an important role in bringing down the Fujimori government in 2001 in Peru and is dismayed that the OAS' Democratic Charter hasn’t been collectively invoked since then.  Groups like ALBA have prioritized national sovereignty over a defense of popular sovereignty within each nation.  Like Lopez' article above, he acknowledges U.S. support for a coup in 2002 but argues that that was over-reach by Washington that has since been tempered. Like the Counterpunch article above, Sabatini includes some exaggeration ("the Maduro government seems emboldened to brazenly arrest anyone who dares speak out in opposition"). 

  • Colombian paramilitary groups are abducting,'disappearing,' and dismembering residents of the mostly Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, despite government measures announced a year ago to curb the violence," according to a new 16-page report by Human Rights Watch with an accompanying video (3/4). It includes gruesome elements of sexual violence, recruitment and use of children, forced displacement and restriction of movement and is gruesomely summarized by this headline in El Espectador (3/4): Descuartizamientos Persisten en Buenaventura. "Only one of 23 prosecutors is dedicated full-time to investigating disappearances [and] that person is handling more than 400 cases, some from more than a decade ago," according to the Wall Street Journal. Among HRW's recommendations: "Establish a shelter for displaced people."  A year ago, HRW published The Crisis in Buenaventura about 'chop-up houses' where victims were slaughtered; President Santos announced a 'special intervention' to normalize public security and dismantle paramilitary successor groups there. Separately, two more journalists were murdered in the past three weeks according to Reporters Without Borders (3/5).
  • Colombia's FARC rebels declared that they will not negotiate peace without immunity, according to Agence France Press and the Colombian press. "Not a single guerrilla will spend a single day in jail" for expressing his or her right to rebel said FARC leaders in Havana. President Santos seems to offer little indication of concessions but is probably "testing the waters to see how he can appease both domestic and international opponents to FARC concessions while not discouraging the guerrilla leadership from agreeing to a peace dealt", according to InSight Crime (3/3).
  • Mexican authorities arrested a leader of the Zetas, Omar Treviño Morales, in Monterrery, according to the New York TimesInSight Crime's Steven Dudley comments on the fragmentation of the cartels but says, "just because these groups are fragmented, does not mean they are any less violent.” The U.S. had posted a $5 million reward leading to his arrest, according to a BBC video (3/5) that paints the police efforts in a more positive light.
  • Mexico is a country "bogged down in violence, interest-group politics and crony capitalism," according to a biting Financial Times (3/4) which recommends that Peña Nieto's economic program should shift its focus to the rule of law. "Economic reforms are only half of what Mexico needs. If it is to prosper, more urgent still is rebuilding the rule of law. ... Mexico’s real problem [is] not so much organized crime ... but the disorganized crime that festers amid rotten state institutions." The editorial was not included in the 6-page insert in yesterday's FT that included articles on tourism and cuisine but also a book review of ‘A Mexican Utopia’ (Wilson Center; free download), by Luis Rubio that suggests "Mexico’s central problems are gross legal impunity and the absence of the rule of law." Separately, the story of Enrique Juárez Torres, editor of El Mañana, who recently went into hiding, is profiled in The Independent
  • Peruvian President Humala "brushed aside a sharp slowdown in growth last year and said policies to alleviate poverty and boost development over the long-term were more important than economic numbers," in a press conference earlier this week, according to Reuters (3/2) His priority continues to be reducing the inequality gap. "Peru's poverty rate fell to 23.9 percent in 2013 from 30.8 percent in 2010 before Humala assumed power, according to state statistics agency INEI."

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