Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump's military bluster hinders regional Venezuela diplomacy (Aug. 14, 2017)

U.S. President Donald Trump set off a diplomatic storm on Friday evening, when he explicitly included a "military option" among potential U.S. responses to the Venezuelan crisis, reports the Guardian. "We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option," he said. "We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary."

The White House also released a statement saying it had rejected a request from Maduro to speak by phone with Trump. The statement said: "Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country."

Predictably, Venezuelan officials considered the statements a threat to national sovereignty.

Critics of the Venezuelan government immediately noted that such an approach is a boon for the Maduro government. Venezuela's government has long accused the U.S. of imperialist conspiracies aimed at toppling it -- and Trump's threat could breath new life into those wild claims, reports the New York Times. "Maduro’s theory of war will be much more concrete and believable," WOLA analyst David Smilde told the NYT. "This will undoubtedly galvanize his coalition."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted: "Perhaps since [Hugo] Chávez named him his successor, no one had helped Maduro as much as Trump and this nonsense he said today."

WOLA  Associate for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey noted that the statements threaten to "undermine diplomatic efforts to address Venezuela’s crisis, led by governments in Latin America. While a growing group of countries in the Americas have taken serious steps to pressure the Venezuelan government to abandon its authoritarian slide, President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might exercise a military option appears to dismiss these efforts."

Countries in the region, many of which united in rejected a pro-government Constituent Assembly, rejected Trump's statements. Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and the Mercosur trade bloc, all critical of the regime, rejected the use of force. Peru, which on Friday expelled Venezuela's ambassador from Lima, noted Trump's threats ran counter to United Nations principles, reports Reuters.

"Every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention," warned Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a joint press-conference with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yesterday in Cartagena. Pence played down the threat, saying Trump's statement merely reflected the importance he has granted the crisis, reports the Wall Street Journal. "We have many options for Venezuela, but the president also remains confident that working with all of our allies across Latin America we can achieve a peaceable solution." Pence also emphasized that the "full range of additional economic sanctions" was still under consideration.

Most analysts believe there is little likelihood that the U.S. will use military force against Venezuela. Still, yesterday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo says Venezuela could "very much" become a risk to the United States, reports Voice of America. "The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously."

Even by Venezuela's crisis-beset standards, the economy has gotten worst in recent weeks, reports the Washington Post. Local currency depreciated 45 percent against the dollar after the July 30 Constitutional Assembly vote. Street prices for staples such as bread and tomatoes have doubled in less than two weeks. And a sovereign debt crisis could further intensify the pain later this year.

Information about British weapons sales to Venezuela over the past decade -- despite official concerns over human rights -- has prompted calls for Theresa May to suspend controlled export licenses, reports the Guardian. Overall, £2.5m of military goods have been sold to the country since 2008, including components for military radar, weapon sights and military aircraft engines. In the last year of figures, to March 2016, licenses for goods worth more than £80,000 were approved, including equipment for crowd control to be used by law enforcement agencies.


El Salvador's political parties accused of buying votes from gangs

El Salvador's two main political parties -- the FMLN and ARENA -- bought electoral backing from gang leaders in the 2014 presidential elections, according to testimony from a former gang leader. Carlos Eduardo Burgos Nuila, a former Barrio 18 Revolucionarios leader said FMLN paid the country's three leading gangs $250,000 to ensure the votes of members and families. And that ARENA paid $100,000 with the same intent, reports El Faro.

ARENA has denied the payments, but admits to meeting with gang leaders, while the governing FMLN has not responded to the allegations, reports Factum.

Nuila, known as Nalo de Las Palmas, testified in the fourth day of a trial against 18 former government officials involved in negotiating a gang truce between 2012 and 2014. (See last Friday's briefs.) The accusations of vote buying and voter intimidation are not actually related to the current trial, which is focused on benefits granted to jailed gang leaders such as transfer to minimum security facilities and allowing prohibited objects such as cell phones into the prisons. 

 Prosecutors would not say whether there is an active investigation regarding the vote buying allegations, which throw the 2014 election of current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén into doubt.

In testimony last year, accessed by El Faro, Nuila detailed how government officials bartered improved jail conditions in exchange for homicide reductions, and cash in exchange for votes and intimidation of citizens planning to vote against the parties in question.

Nalo specifically mentioned former Justice Minister Benito Lara and current Government Minister Arístides Valencia as participants in the 2013 vote buying meetings, according to Factum. The $150,000 handed over by the FMLN was divided among the gangs, and part of the portion taken by Barrio 18 Revolucionarios was used for a weapons buying fund, said Nuila.

By the second round of voting, FMLN leadership again paid the gangs for support. But opposition ARENA leaders, including current legislator and San Salvador mayoral candidate Ernesto Muyshond, also vied for gang support offering money and the promise of another truce if they won.

Nuila testified that mediator Raul Mijango provided assistance both negotiations.

Nalo's testimony also sheds light on how gang leaders used homicide counts to pressure government officials during the truce.

News Briefs
  • Trump's Venezuela comments have complicated Pence's Latin America tour, originally intended reinforce relations with four U.S. allies -- Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama. Now "he has to spend all of his time not contradicting Trump, but reassuring Latin American countries that the United States will not intervene militarily," Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center told the Wall Street Journal. All part of the delicate balancing act that has defined Pence's term so far, according to the Associated Press.
  • The issue of Colombia's booming coca cultivation also came up, notes the WSJ piece. Colombia's government is determined to maintain a ban on aerial fumigation of the illicit crop, in favor of voluntary eradication efforts. The U.S. is pressuring the country to resume polemic aerial spraying, which, with U.S. sponsorship, reduced production for over a decade, though at questionable health and political costs. Coca reduction efforts represent a potential diplomatic problem between the two countries. (See last Tuesday's post.)
  • The dividends of peace in Colombia have actually been a rise in homicides in some cases, write Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre in Americas Quarterly. "While lethal violence is falling in most urban centers and even some individual areas traditionally affected by conflict, homicides in former conflict zones overall have increased by 15 percent. As the FARC withdraws from these areas, new criminal factions are filling the void," they explain. And social leaders have been particularly targeted, over 50 have been assassinated this year.
  • A closely watched primary race in Argentina's Buenos Aires province yesterday ended in a technical tie between former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the governing Cambiemos coalition's candidate. The two will run against each other for Senate seats in October, but the race was widely seen as a gauge of popular support for President Mauricio Macri's economic reform agenda and Fernandez's chances of staging a presidential comeback in 2019, reports Reuters. The vote will likely be interpreted positively by investors who were scared of a change in course, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, investors will likely hold out until October's elections, hindering Macri's campaign, which depends on investment to reactivate the economy, reports the Financial Times.
  • Though details of a supposed sonic attack against U.S. diplomats in Havana are still unclear, the incidents "could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization," writes William M. LeoGrande at Aula Blog. Nonetheless, "speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm," he writes. Yet "the impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand."
  • Gang controlled areas can be deadly for the occasional tourists who accidentally wander there in Rio de Janeiro state. A recent shooting involving a British family near Angra dos Reis could affect tourism which is vital for the local economy, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil’s democracy is at risk if the armed forces are not properly funded to fight organized crime, Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told Bloomberg. The army is participating in operations against organized crime in Rio de Janeiro -- earlier this month a joint task force of around 5,000 military personnel and police officers targeted factions involved in drug-trafficking and cargo theft.
  • Ciudad Juárez's violent history has left it with a legacy of empty houses. Some community efforts to combat youth gang membership have centered around turning the abandoned spaces into gathering spots in a city with few options for the young, reports the Guardian.
  • Part of the reason for the avocado shortage in Mexico is local mafia control of commercialization, reports a Guardian reader in response to a piece last week on how Mexico might have to start importing the key guacamole ingredient. (See last Monday's briefs.)
  • Chewing gum, in its modern form, originated in Mexico -- and in Mexico City, the task of removing discarded bits from public spaces is a monotonous battle, reports the Guardian.
  • A Chilean judge is charging six people in connection with the 1982 death of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chile's clean energy grid "is one of the most ambitious in a region that is decisively moving beyond fossil fuels," reports the New York Times. Big hydropower projects have already made Latin America a leader in renewable energy, but investment in the sector in Latin America has increased 11-fold since 2004, nearly double the global rate. Chile, Mexico and Brazil are now among the top 10 renewable energy markets in the world.

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