Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Power of Soy: President Cristina Kirchner strengthens commercial relations between Argentina and China

by COHA Research Associate Azul Mertnoff

• Argentine president Cristina Fernández recently travelled to China to attempt to solve the soy oil controversy between the two countries. For weeks, China has been blocking the commodity from entering the country in retaliation against anti-dumping measures that Argentina has applied against Chinese imports.

After months of delay, President Cristina Fernández Kirchner of Argentina traveled to China on July 11th to discuss economic issues affecting the two countries. China is Argentina’s largest commercial partner after Brazil. The primary purpose of this meeting was to convince China to lift the now two-month blockade against Argentine soy oil. However, the most significant occurrence of the meeting was the signing of an investment agreement that will boost mining and railroad infrastructure in Argentina through the import of Chinese goods. Though this is seen as a successful agreement in terms of Argentine interests, both countries, but especially Argentina, are suffering from the ongoing soy oil dispute.

The Importance of Soy
During the 1990s neo-liberal era of former president Carlos Menem, Argentina started to make the switch from exporting wheat and meat to cultivating transgenic soybeans. Thirteen years ago, the US-based Monsanto Company—the leading multinational corporation in agricultural biotechnology—started operating in Argentina by producing genetically modified soybean, also known as Roundup Ready soya. By 2004, soy oil production had increased by 75%, bringing large profits for the farmers. Monsanto has used the case of Argentina as one of the examples of the “success stories” of genetically modified agriculture.

Today, soybean crops cover half of the pampas, the most fertile land in Argentina. Argentina has become the world’s top soybean oil supplier over the past few decades and the fourth largest producer of soybeans. Between 1996 and 2004, soy output in Argentina rose from 11 million to 36.5 million tons, 95% of which was for export. The profits on soybean oil can be as high as 50% on a good soy harvest.

While this has brought a huge influx of profits, the focus on soybean production has produced desertification, deforestation, environmental threats due to the danger of using transgenic products, and a crisis in the meat and milk industries caused by the soy mono-crop. Monsanto claims that the soil degradation and use of pesticides is not because of the use of genetically modified soy, but because the farmers do not rotate with other crops in order to allow the soil to recover.

Associated with the environmental problems that soy production can bring are the social costs it can impose. Soy production does not require much investment. A large soy crop only requires the labors of two to five men and proper technology. Regions where soy output has brought high profits have also witnessed increasing poverty as additional farms are purchased to grow soy crops. This increasing poverty has happened particularly in the Northwest of Argentina, where unemployment is above 20% and the number of rural workers has halved. Elite “soy barons,” who can afford expensive machinery, are purchasing land from the poor, who in turn become displaced and have to resort to working in the much less lucrative informal workforce.

In March 2008, Cristina Kirchner decided on changing the export tax rate on soy from a fixed rate to a sliding one pegged to commodity prices. The intention was to encourage farmers to move away from monoculture production of soy and to distribute the revenue from the increased tax into welfare programs to decrease instances of poverty among the Argentine population. After a stormy period of strikes by the powerful rural organizations opposing the reform, the bill was vetoed in Congress.

Today, an export tax of 20% on soybeans goes to the national government while provincial governments earn revenue from taxes on land ownership. The Argentine state is not intervening to diversify agricultural production at the moment. This could become a problem if the current high price of soy decreases on the international market, thus causing greater unemployment and a loss of export profit.

The Importance of China
The Argentine soy market was worth $3.245 billion in 2009, with $1.5 billion coming from exports to China. Argentina’s record crop yield has reached 55 million tons; by contrast, China only produces 15 million tons, forcing Beijing to import 70% of the soy oil that is used in China. However, since last April, China has stopped buying from Argentina as a way of retaliating against the anti-dumping restrictions carried out by the Argentine government. The Argentine newspaper Clarín claims that this unfortunate government policy marks the country’s commercial vulnerability to such pricing and marketing strategies. However, President Cristina Kirchner asserts that the restrictions were applied because the prices of the Chinese products that enter Argentina are lower than those in other countries. According to reports, 98% of what China sells to Argentina (such as machines, tools, electronics) has an added value, while 82% of what Argentina sells to China does not, making the trade less lucrative for Argentina.

Compared to May 2009, the amount of Argentine soy oil that entered China was 78% less than the previous year. Prior to this, Argentina sold an average of 150,000 tons per month to China. After a lack of trading for several months, China now needs to meet its internal soy oil demand. Because of the blockade, China has recently begun buying soy oil from the United States and Brazil, even though it is more expensive than Argentine soy oil. While Argentine soy oil costs $800 per ton, that of Brazil is $850.

President Cristina Kirchner has visited China in order to negotiate the lifting of the oil barrier and in return has offered to buy railway equipment worth $13 billion. The Argentine Foreign Ministry invited 70 Argentine businessmen to accompany its delegation heading for Beijing to further encourage business with China and prove that Buenos Aires was serious both in its business deals and in strengthening political ties.

The countries are clearly facing different situations at the negotiation table. For China, Argentina is the 44th country that receives their exports and the 26th from which they import, while China is Argentina’s 2nd largest business partner. Fortunately for Argentina, China was willing to compromise. For the moment, Argentine officials have announced that with these new agreements, the Argentine railway infrastructure deal will be financed by China at an incredibly low rate. The ending of the trade block has yet to be finalized.

Due to the lack of changes with regard to soy oil, the arrangement has yet to be finalized. Clarín portrays the China trip as a failure but Chancellor Timerman added: “I have no doubt that the Clarín and La Nación newspapers see this visit as a failure: when national interests are being defended, they consider it a failure.” Nevertheless, the President expressed her satisfaction with the results that were obtained during the visit, saying that everyone took note of the importance of Argentina as a market economy. She said that everything is going very well both for Argentina and China and that the two countries are able to complement each other very well. Kirchner feels that the positive change in the two countries’ bilateral ties will prove beneficial in the future.

Argentina on a good run
On balance, Kirchner’s China trip deserves to be seen as an important success for Argentina. China is the only major economy that has grown in 2009 (8.2%), and it is expected to grow 11% in 2010. For Argentina, dealing with China can mean many positive things for its economy. The Foreign Affairs Ministry explained that, although it may seem that the soy dispute was not entirely resolved, it expects shipments to China to start again in September.

Panama’s Unraveling Democracy: The Social Cost of Martinelli’s Chorizo Law

by COHA Research Associate Alexander Brockwehl

• The Panamanian President’s anti-labor law delivers killer blow on Panamanian workers and sparks protest and citizen unrest
• The administration attempts to quiet discontent through physical repression, detainment of journalists, and the declaration of a “National Dialogue” to discuss the law’s most controversial provisions
• Martinelli holds talks with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo about importing 5,000 Honduran guest workers to replace striking Panamanians
• Pending Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. could further infringe upon labor rights
On June 12th, the Panamanian National Assembly passed Law 30, nicknamed by critics the “chorizo law,” for what they perceive to be an excess of political pork stuffed into one omnibus piece of legislation. As Panamanians have learned more about the controversial legislation, and particularly those provisions that greatly curtail the influence of organized labor, angry street protests have erupted, and the government has reacted harshly and recklessly, straining democratic principles in the process. From violently suppressing labor protestors and detaining journalists, to endeavoring to replace striking laborers with Honduran guest workers (“strike breakers”), the past several weeks have revealed President Ricardo Martinelli’s penchant for arrogance and impetuousness at the expense of his fellow citizens.

While Panamanian authorities have been frantically trying to deal with the increasing disorder throughout the country, Washington has been buzzing over the prospect of finally moving on a long-awaited trade agreement with Panama. The present tumult taking place in the isthmian country could derail trade talks, as the White House Trade Office is becoming increasingly apprehensive. Though the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement was signed in 2007, it has yet to be approved by the U.S. Congress, in part because of neo-liberal concerns that Panamanian labor laws are too stringent. Through the implementation of Law 30’s anti-labor provisions, Martinelli has demonstrated that he is more than willing to be flexible when it comes to accommodating Washington and has confirmed that he is bent on ensuring ratification of the FTA with the U.S., regardless of the human rights costs.

The “9-in-1” Law
President Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal came to power in 2009 on a conservative reform-ticket that stressed change from the policies of the long-ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Martinelli promised the electorate to cut crime and corruption, but since taking office he has done little to substantiate his forceful rhetoric on these issues. The result of his abandonment of these two pervasive concerns can be seen in his poll numbers, which have been dramatically declining in the last few months. Instead of responding to the needs of the populace, Martinelli, a prominent businessman and owner of the largest grocery store chain in Panama, has directed the bulk of his efforts toward satisfying his corporate cronies by instituting various business-friendly reforms.

In the context of Martinelli’s agenda, Law 30’s prioritization of private interests over public ones should come as no surprise. The whirlwind manner in which he passed these reforms, however, could hardly have been anticipated. Despite widespread skepticism about the new president combining so many reforms into an integrated, if confusing law, and outright opposition to the law’s specific ambiguities and inconsistencies, Martinelli reneged on his pledge to let representatives from various organizations take part in the deliberative process. Instead, he forced the bill through the Legislative Assembly during a special weekend session. The final result of a short four-day deliberation was a jumble of seemingly unrelated measures ranging from commercial aviation regulations to tightened sanctions for human trafficking, all packed into a twelve-page document.

It took days for civil society to discover all that the legislative document entailed, but when they did many became furious, specifically in regard to the law’s anti-labor provisions. According to Chapter 2, Article 12 of Law 30, “an employer shall not be obliged to deduct from its workers for a union the ordinary and extraordinary dues that it establishes.” Chapter 2 elaborates that during a strike, the contracts of striking workers can be suspended, and companies can even hire temporary replacements.

When asked about these provisions for an article that later appeared in La Prensa, Martinelli claimed that the law was not meant to kill workers’ unions or curtail worker rights: “it does not affect labor rights and only gives the option to employees, among other things, to decide whether to pay union dues or not.” Despite Martinelli’s urgings, the trade unions are not buying his explanation, and for sound reason. By nullifying existing contractual agreements between unions and employers and essentially stripping workers of the ability to organize without fear of being dismissed, the Martinelli government has taken a giant step toward making organized labor redundant. Labor unions and the long-existent laws that grant them their effectiveness are almost exclusively responsible for protecting workers in Panama. Thus, Article 12 should not be dismissed as merely the latest phase of Martinelli’s privatization agenda, but should instead be recognized as a dangerous encroachment on labor rights.

Protest Erupts in Changuinola
Soon after the passage of the bill, Bocas Fruit Company, a Chiquita Brands subsidiary, announced that it would no longer collect union dues, breaking a contract it had made with the Banana Industry Workers’ Union (SITRAIBANA) and provoking outrage among the union’s members. What began on July 2nd, as a 48-hour workers’ strike quickly evolved into a divisive and ultimately violent 10-day showdown between Bocas and its predominantly indigenous employees. When Bocas condemned the strike as illegal, announced a postponement of pay, and threatened to discharge those workers who participated in the demonstration, protestors became incensed and took to the streets. Under government direction, police officials—many of whom were border guards and had minimal, if any training regarding how to deal with domestic conflicts nonviolently—moved in and attempted to quash the protest by using tear-gas and weapons. They also arrested hundreds of labor activists and environmentalist leaders. All in all, the government’s official tally counted three deaths and over one hundred and forty injuries, but sources outside of the government estimate that the casualties, in reality, were considerably higher.

In March of this year, the United Nations condemned the Panamanian government for its repeated use of police violence and its racial discrimination against indigenous communities. Unfortunately, the UN Report seemingly had no visible effect, as countless civilians, many of whom were indigenous, were blinded or left in critical condition because of the police’s propensity to violence. In recent weeks, the Panamanian government has received further condemnation from the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Everywhere, and Ricardo Julio Vargas, Panama’s ombudsman; however, there is little reason to believe that the government will soon reconsider its hair-trigger approach.

Following the banana demonstration and similar protests throughout Panama, labor, environmentalist, and indigenous groups organized a national strike on July 13th. On the same day, facing increasing criticism and citizen unrest, the Cabinet Council approved a “National Dialogue” under the guidance of a now apprehensive President Martinelli. The authorities’ fallback position included the announcement that the Dialogue would suspend implementation of the law’s three most controversial provisions for ninety days.

Lashing out at Journalists
While the government’s violent response to the protests was alarming, its subsequent attempt to portray reporters as the primary source of the discontent leading up to violence has been even more so. Soon after protests erupted, Martinelli told La Prensa that “misinformation and a series of lies” were at the heart of widespread anger in Changuinola. In an ostensible attempt to prevent this allegedly false information from reaching the citizenry, the Martinelli government has begun targeting—and in some cases even arresting—journalists on a medley of manufactured charges. Carlos Nuñez, Mauricio Valenzuela, and Ronaldo Ortiz are among an increasing number of reporters who have been targeted by the Martinelli government. While Ortiz has written recent pieces criticizing Martinelli, Nuñez was imprisoned for a story he wrote five years ago about environmental degradation due to a government-approved tourism project, and Valenzuela was arrested for taking photos of police detaining members of a construction workers’ union.

Probably the most publicized case of misbehavior on the part of the authorities was that of Paco Gomez Nadal, a writer for La Prensa, who was detained for hours in Tocumen Airport without being granted a substantive explanation. During this period, his passport was confiscated and the authorities threatened that, upon leaving Panama, he would not be permitted to return. In a recent interview with Reporters Without Borders, a human rights organization focused on advocating for press freedom, Gomez Nadal was critical of the Martinelli administration and expressed concern about the present perilous state of affairs in Panama: “There is no doubt that what is currently happening to me is linked to my journalistic activities,” he asserted. “I think that the government wants to intimidate journalists and I fear that it could be effective.”

Democracy in Crisis
The events of the last month have exposed the Martinelli government’s clear affinity for anti-democratic behavior. On a procedural level, the method in which Law 30 was passed was not only deplorable, but also likely unconstitutional. The call for a special legislative session to push through the controversial omnibus law did not mention all subjects of the proposed legislation, thus making it prone to legal challenge. Martinelli has recently announced a number of appointments of Supreme Court justices sympathetic to his party’s cause, so it is unlikely that the judicial branch will act as a check on the President’s increasingly unfettered power. Nonetheless, recent acknowledgements of misguided policy and rash implementation procedures by the Education Minister and by the Commerce and Industry Minister reveal the impetuous and careless nature of the law’s passage.

Since passing the law, Martinelli has demonstrated a willingness to jeopardize freedom of speech rights in favor of hiding Law 30’s true impact from the Panamanian people. When protest broke out in Changuinola and other parts of Panama, the Martinelli government blamed citizen unrest on misinformation, even as it was actively impeding journalists from carrying out their informative duties. While Reporters Without Borders ranked Panama an anemic 55th in its 2009 Press Freedom Index, the recent arrests of Panamanian journalists signal a giant step toward censorship of the country’s press and curtailment of freedom of speech.

Additionally, both the legislation itself and the administration’s subsequent harsh treatment of union members represent a trend toward the shrinking of labor rights. Despite Martinelli’s claims to the contrary, Law 30 is undoubtedly targeted against labor unions, with the intention of stacking the deck in favor of private businesses. As the incident in Changuinola demonstrates, Panamanian workers already have minimal protections without the ability to effectively organize. In a July 11th article, Martinelli gave some sense of both his priorities and his line of reasoning in pushing through such blatantly anti-labor legislation, telling La Prensa, “we will not allow the banana industry in Changuinola to disappear, thanks to union leaders…who have no idea of what democracy is in a country and who want to end the rule of law.” Ironically, the past month’s events have called into question how well acquainted President Martinelli is with core democratic rights and freedoms.

In recent weeks, numerous reports have stated that Martinelli is in the process of negotiating a deal with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo. The proposed deal would export 5,000 Honduran guest workers to Panama to replace the striking workers in Changuinola and elsewhere. Because Law 30 allows for striking workers to be replaced, such an agreement, though controversial, would likely be legal, assuming that the law is upheld. While no official agreement has been made, the Honduran government’s official website has posted information about the talks publicly. President Lobo has begun lauding the proposed arrangement as a meaningful step for Honduras toward social development and increased inclusion in the apparatus of globalized capitalism. As for Martinelli, even if the agreement is not ratified, his gesture has already had its intended effect: to intimidate Panamanian workers with the hopes of diverting them from protesting by forcing them into helpless submission to his anti-labor agenda.

Obama’s Contradictory Free Trade Policy
Panama’s increasing instability is particularly critical considering that President Obama has recently declared support for the 2007 U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Panama. Though President Obama has never opposed this particular trade agreement, he has voted against other agreements that are relatively similar. In 2005 he voted against the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) for its lack of labor protections, writing in an op-ed that appeared in the Chicago Tribune that “[CAFTA-DR] does less to protect labor than previous trade agreements.” A Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress on the FTA with Panama, issued during the same year, stated that “the labor chapter [of the proposed FTA with Panama] is reportedly identical to that of CAFTA-DR.” In other words, the labor-related problems that Obama saw in CAFTA-DR have not been remedied in the proposed FTA with Panama. Moreover, with regard to the agreement as a whole, the CRS asserts, “it will likely follow closely the text framework of the CAFTA-DR.” In effect, there is no discernable difference between the trade agreement that Obama rejected and the one he currently supports.

In fairness to Obama, each country’s political and legal climate poses unique obstacles to the implementation of free trade. In 2008, Obama opposed the FTA with Colombia because of government-sanctioned violence against unions, telling the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in a speech, “the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” In light of the past month’s events, however, it would now seem reasonable to say the same of Panama. The Martinelli government’s attempt to shrink the influence of labor unions through eleventh-hour laws and violent repression should be seen as an indicator of the impact that the ratification of the U.S.-Panama FTA would have on labor rights in the country.

The Damaging Prospect of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States
Particularly in the country’s current state, the effects of a FTA with the U.S. would be detrimental for organized labor and the protection of worker rights in Panama. Law 30 began the deregulatory process, empowering multinational corporations at the expense of the average worker. Though the law has created many short-term problems for Martinelli, it has the potential to immensely benefit his agenda, as well as that of the country’s wealthy tycoons, in the long-term. According to the CRS Report, “critics [of the FTA with Panama] have pointed out that…Panama’s relatively high labor costs (for the hemisphere) and inflexible labor laws can be a frustration if not an impediment to U.S. foreign direct investment.” In this context, Law 30 can be viewed as an essential step toward removing this “impediment” of existing labor protections, and is likely one of the numerous measures Martinelli will attempt to put into effect in the interest of making Panama a more appealing trade partner.

The passage of Law 30 is also especially important considering the specific stipulations it will lodge in the proposed FTA. Like CAFTA-DR, the FTA includes three standards that the involved parties are expected to adhere to with regard to labor rights: “effective enforcement of domestic labor laws…the reaffirmation of commitments to basic [International Labor Organization] principles, and…non-derogation from domestic standards.” The third provision is in place as a barrier to prohibit the government from cutting labor protections with the hope of luring increased trade and investment opportunities. It would, in theory, defend labor rights even after the agreement had been ratified. However, conveniently placed in the legislation is the stipulation that only the first of these three provisions—the failure to enforce domestic labor laws—can be challenged through the dispute resolution process. The other two provisions are merely supported on principle and intentionally lack an enforcement mechanism. Taking this fact into consideration, the timing of Law 30 could not have been better planned by Martinelli. His successful alteration of the laws governing organized labor will provide legal backing to those private businesses and multinational corporations that stand to be the main beneficiaries of the trade measures. With these laws in place and under the admittedly lax labor provisions of the FTA, it will be very difficult for those wronged by various labor abuses to find any semblance of justice.

What’s Next for Martinelli?
The coming weeks will reveal just how far Martinelli is willing to go in order to further open Panama up to trade and investment. His announcement of a “National Dialogue” has helped to quiet protestors for the time being. Unfortunately, once deliberations begin, private sector interests, along with Martinelli’s barely concealed anti-labor phobias, will outweigh those of labor unions, and the law will almost undoubtedly not be repealed. Law 30 will most likely prove to be just the first of numerous ruthless and careless initiatives taken by the Martinelli government in order to enhance international trade. He might be wise to review the sad fate of Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada who was forced to resign and flee the country after his neoliberal policies outraged the public.

Martinelli’s potential agreement with Honduran President Pepe Lobo to export 5,000 Honduran guest workers to Panama would constitute yet another step toward empowering private businesses to the intended detriment of the Panamanian working class. If the Martinelli government continues down this perilous path of Darwinian deregulation, the future looks bleak for organized labor and for human rights in Panama. President Obama might want to reconsider supporting a free trade agreement with a country where labor rights are being neither honored nor respected and where only the “winners of globalization” stand to gain from an increasingly unbalanced and unethical corporate beneficiary program.

Honduras Faces Criticism Over Journalist Killings After a Coup


MEXICO CITY — The Honduran government’s failure to investigate the killings of seven journalists this year has fostered “a climate of lawlessness that is allowing criminals to kill journalists with impunity,” the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded in a report released Tuesday.

The seven killings all occurred against a backdrop of political unrest set off by the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya 13 months ago.

The political conflict has continued since then, creating significant difficulties for the nation’s current president, Porfirio Lobo, who was elected in November. He has been lobbying to gain international recognition, but has run up against resistance by his counterparts in South America, preventing his country’s return to the Organization of American States, the main regional body.

Under pressure from the United States, Mr. Lobo has established a truth commission to investigate the events surrounding the coup and appointed a human rights adviser.

But human rights violations — directed mostly against the coup’s opponents, human rights defenders and activists — continue, according to a report last month by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In addition to killings, the commission cited kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, sexual violations and illegal searches of “members of the resistance to the coup d’état” and their families. But the lack of proper investigation by the judicial system made it more difficult to “clarify the question of whether these are related to the context of the coup d’état,” it said.

The cases of the journalists have become emblematic of the persistent dangers. “The government’s ongoing failure to successfully investigate crimes against journalists and other social critics — whether by intention, impotence or incompetence — has created a climate of pervasive impunity,” wrote Mike O’Connor, the investigator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The group describes seven killings of journalists from March to mid-June of this year, including the March 14 killing of Nahúm Palacios, the main anchor of Channel 5 television in the agricultural town of Tocoa and an outspoken opponent of the coup. Not only did his position on the coup anger the military, but Mr. Palacios had also managed to annoy powerful landowners before his death by taking the side of several thousand peasants who had occupied land.

David Meza, a well-known radio reporter in La Ceiba, was killed on March 11 after he had conducted an on-air campaign against local police corruption.

The report points out that both reporters had a history of using their power to extract money from officials and businesses. But in neither case has the investigation made any headway into the motives behind their deaths.

In one case, an assassination attempt appears to have taken aim at a radio journalist, Karol Cabrera, who is a defender of the coup. Ms. Cabrera survived, but the young journalist who was giving her a ride was shot to death. In December, Ms Cabrera’s 16-year-old pregnant daughter was ambushed and killed.

Report exposes journalist killings in Honduras

By Rafael Azul
29 July 2010
According to a report released on July 27 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the killing of journalists with impunity that began with the coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya last year continues to this day.
The June 28 coup, carried out with the full support and foreknowledge of the Obama administration, set off a wave of popular protests.
Subsequent to the military’s ouster of Zelaya, Washington brokered a deal that prevented his return and sought to legitimize the November elections that gave the coup a facade of democracy and installed Porfirio Lobo as president.
This has not stopped the regime’s violations of civil and human rights of opposition supporters. In an effort to whitewash the record of the coup regime, Lobo created a so-called truth and reconciliation commission that has been cited by the US State Department as evidence that the current government has turned a corner from the crimes of the coup leaders and toward full civil and human rights for all, a claim that is not credible to most political observers.
The violence is directed against not just journalists, but also human rights activists, trade union and peasant leaders and liberal elements in the bourgeoisie. The New York Times cited a report released in June by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that exposed kidnappings, unlawful detentions, illegal searches and even sexual assaults against opponents of the regime.
Tuesday’s report is the outcome of an investigation carried out by Mike O’Connor, a Mexico City-based journalist for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
O’Connor writes about the unresolved cases of seven journalists who were shot dead between March and June. He calls these crimes, “an astonishing number of murders in such a short time in a country of 7.5 million. Six of the murders occurred in the span of just seven weeks, and most were clearly assassinations carried out by hit men.” Three of the victims were murdered in the course of their work. These three are: TV anchor Nahúm Palacios Arteaga, shot dead on March 14, in the town of Tocoa; radio and TV journalist David Meza Montesinos, killed on March 11, in La Ceiba and Joseph Hernández Ochoa, also a TV journalist, killed on March 1, in Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital.
O’Connor cannot say for certain that four other journalists—Luis Arturo Mondragón, killed on June 14 in El Paraíso; Jorge Alberto Orellana, killed on April 20, in San Pedro Sula; and José Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juárez killed March 26 in Juticalpa—were shot because of their journalistic work.
Palacios had opposed the June 2009 coup and had allowed opponents of the coup to broadcast their message. Threats against this well-known journalist led the Organization of American States to ask President Lobo to provide protection for Palacios. Despite being required by international agreements to carry out this request, the Honduran government refused. By defying the OAS, the Lobo administration virtually provided his killers with a license to carry out Palacios’s execution. Palacios was ambushed and killed, together with a female companion, Dr. Yorleny Sánchez.
In the months leading up to his assassination, Palacios had sided with local peasants whose land had been taken from them by wealthy landlords, in violation of Honduran agrarian reform laws.
Three days earlier, Meza was killed in the city of La Ceiba. Meza had been involved in a campaign to expose police corruption, including links between the police and a drug running organization.
Hernandez, 25, was at the beginning of his career as a TV journalist. According to the O’Connor report, he may have been killed for giving a car ride to Karol Cabrera, one of Honduras’s most controversial journalists, who had been a vociferous backer of the coup regime. “Most of the bullets hit Hernández, who died instantly, but Cabrera was seriously injured as well. As soon as she could give interviews, she repeatedly denounced the attack as being directed against her, in connection with her work as a radio commentator.”
Mondragón had been receiving death threats over his anti-corruption reporting. His death came as no surprise to his family. One of his sons told O’Connor that his father had assembled the family to discuss the death threats: “But my father had the attitude that he was going to go ahead anyway. He said he had to continue. He said, ‘If they are going to kill me they won’t threaten first, they’ll just do it.’” The son said the list of people in El Paraíso who could have ordered the killing is short, and that everyone knows who they are.
Orellana was gunned down on April 20 as he left his TV station in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second largest city. Though known for his left-wing political views, the official story, according to the San Pedro Sula police chief, is that Orellana was killed by a mugger intent on robbing his cell phone.
While Mairena and Juárez were small town TV and radio reporters who supposedly stayed away from “dangerous” subject matter, they were ambushed in much the same way as all the others. Other reporters told O’Connor that they were caught in the middle of a war between two powerful oligarchic families, which has already created dozens of victims.
O’Connor’s cautiousness notwithstanding, none of these were random assassinations. All seven journalists were assassinated by gunmen who had lain in wait for them.
When it comes to investigating the crimes against the journalists, O’Connor describes scenes worthy of the Keystone cops. Forensic evidence is “lost.” Autopsies are performed badly, if at all. Arrest warrants are issued, but nobody is actually taken into custody.
According to O’Connor, the government’s lack of aggressiveness in investigating these crimes, and indifference to the killings, is strong evidence that “the murders have been conducted with the tacit approval, or even outright complicity, of police, armed forces, or other authorities.” This has resulted in an atmosphere of impunity.
The extraordinary number of killings has had the effect of intimidating the press: “You get the impression that the government wants you in terror so you don’t know what to report. Is this story about drugs too dangerous? What about this one about political corruption? At the end you don’t report anything that will make powerful people uncomfortable,” said Geovany Domínguez, a senior editor of Tiempo newspaper in Tegucigalpa. This is in fact a signal from the Lobo government that any serious journalism that questions any aspect of the regime will not be tolerated.
These murders give the lie to the US claim that the Honduran government has restored civil and human rights.
A month ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that the Organization of American States—which had expelled Honduras in the wake of the June coup—readmit that nation, claiming that the Lobo government was taking steps to reconcile the opposing sides and to respect democratic rights.
These political crimes by death squads in the service of the landowners, drug gangs, the military and the Lobo administration are indicative of a ruling class—desperate to defend its privileges—that is conducting a war against the nation’s workers and peasants, with the full support of the Obama administration.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bolivia and Ecuador: The State against the Indigenous People

by Raúl Zibechi

“These people are gringos who are coming here with NGOs. Take it somewhere else. These people’s stomachs are full enough”, said the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, in reference to the protesters who belong to the National Confederation of the Indigenous in Ecuador (CONAIE) [1]. Evo Morales said almost the same thing: “Since the Right can’t find arguments for opposing the process of change, it’s using rural, indigenous or original people leaders who have been paid off in special favors by NGOs”.[2].

It seems the presidents of both countries have neglected to realize that they are using the same arguments as their enemies when they accuse social movements of being part of the “international communist subversion” or of being financed by “Moscow gold”. They’re making two mistakes in one: believing that the indigenous can be manipulated, and believing that the manipulation comes from outside the country. It isn’t surprising that the indigenous have interpreted the statements of their presidents as insults meant to distract attention from real problems.

However, it is possible that USAID, a United States aid organization, has infiltrated some social movements and encouraged actors to protest against the government, as per statements by the Vice President of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera. He notes that, of the 100 million dollars that USAID invests in his country, 20 million is used for technical costs and the rest “for their friends and their political clients, for sponsoring courses, publications and groups that promote conflict”[3].

The social organizations involved in the protests refused funding from USAID, though what is most striking is that this critique hasn’t come to light before, but just when people have begun to demonstrate against the government. The head minister of Hydrocarbon in Morales’ administration went even further and reminded the president that he owed everyone an explanation as to why he allowed USAID, the World Bank and European ONGs to design the current Plurinational State. In fact, “In 2004, USAID financed the Coordinating Unit for the Constitutional Assembly”, among other official activities[4].

The Indigenous March in Bolivia

On June 17, hundreds of indigenous people came together in the lowlands of Trinidad, the capital of the Province of Beni, five hours from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Their intention was to ascend four thousand meters from the rain forest region, marching 1,500 kilometers on foot until arriving at La Paz. The Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (CIDOB), which unites 34 nations from the orient which are organized in eleven regions, brought together protesters supported by the National Council of Qullasuyu Ayllus and Markos (CONAMAQ).

These are two of the main indigenous organization that formed the Pact of Unity during the Constitutional Assembly in 2006, and which have strongly supported Morales’ administration until now. The other three, the powerful Unique Confederation of Rural Laborers of Bolivia, the Confederation of Original Communities of Bolivia (CSCB) and the Bartolina Sisa National Federation of Peasant Women, continue to support the government.

Since the beginning of the year, the CIDOB has negotiated the Framework Law of Autonomy with the Minister of Autonomy, Carlos Romero. They have reached a consensus on 50 articles, though they continue to debate another thirteen[5]. Their disagreements rest on two basic points. Firstly, indigenous people have demanded that agreements be approved for uses and customs, whereas the State has asked for a referendum. The second point has to do with indigenous territories that cross departmental lines; the people have requested that their autonomy also cross these lines.

At its core, this is a matter of sovereignty. The people of the lowlands demand that the communities have the ability to veto the business ventures, particularly mining and hydrocarbon concessions, which affect their territories. They also want the number of seats in the Plurinational Assembly go from seven to eighteen. After coming into power, the government decided to negotiate separately with some of the regional branches of the CIDOB in order to divide the movement. This is why the march that left Trinidad on June 22 was held up few days afterward in Asunción de Guarayos, 400 kilometers from Santa Cruz, where an official delegation reached an eight point agreement with the CIDOB[6].

The second government strategy was to pit Indians against Indians. President Morales turned to an assembly of six coca leaf farmer unions who repudiated the CIDOB march and expressed their willingness to impede it[7]. Former government spokesperson, Alex Contreras Baspineiro, noted that “before finding a pacific and mutually agreed upon decision, the government began an expensive media campaign in an attempt to discredit the indigenous mobilization”[8]. “In five years of government, we have never seen this kind of division, not to mention the threats of violent confrontations”, he added.

The third government strategy was defamation, as the protesters were accused of being financed by USAID. The president of CIDB, Adolfo Chávez, rejected the accusation, reminding the government that the protesters have problems accessing sufficient food and medicine. He went on to present a challenge: “We dare the government to remove the USAID from the country, and then we’ll see who is affected” [9].

Contreras is a recognized Bolivian social journalist who participated in the First March for Territory and Dignity in 1990. This march is credited with being the beginning of the reconstruction of social movements at the height of the neoliberal period. He was celebrated by the national media for his commitment and special coverage of indigenous marches. In the march that began in Trinidad he met Pedro Nuni, representative of the Mojeño people and currently a Movement for Socialism (MAS) deputy, who told him that “some of the ministers of the indigenous government are turning indigenous against indigenous” [10].

One of the results of the march is that the government lost its two thirds majority in parliament (111 votes over 166), as eight indigenous representatives decided to move away from the MAS. In short, Contreras believes that if the government continues to refuse to negotiate it could endanger the country’s governability. This is why he believes that “a confrontation between indigenous organizations or the demonization of leaders” is not the answer, rather, above all, negotiation and “rescuing a pillar of this process of change: the culture of life, of peace, of dialogue and social compromise” [11].

Nevertheless, the government rejected the primary demands of the CIDOB, arguing that if they put them into affect they would be violating the constitution. Minister Romero argued that some of these demands “fail to respect the rights of all Bolivians”, because they only benefit a particular sector, and cannot give the indigenous peoples greater representation than the percent of the country’s population they comprise[12].

CONAIE versus Correa

The presidential summit of The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was held on June 5. The eight presidents convened in Otavalo, about 60 kilometers north of Quito, a city with a Quichua majority. Despite the issue at hand, indigenous organizations were not invited to attend. This is why the CONAIE decided to install their Plurinational Parliament in the same city, with the intention of insisting that there can be no plurinationality without indigenous peoples.

Around three thousand people participated in a peaceful march through the city. They sang and danced in honor of the Inty Raymi, the Andean New Year, and they also remembered the twentieth anniversary of the first Indian uprising, which began the mobilization process which finally brought Rafael Correa to presidency. Mounted policemen stood guard over the building where the summit was held, and their horses were frightened by the arrival of the protesters when they reached the door to deliver a letter to their “brother” Evo Morales.

The indigenous are in opposition to the government over water laws and concessions to mining companies. This has caused numerous demonstrations, strikes, blockades and uprisings[13]. The conflict between the CONAIE and the government isn’t new, though it has now acquired a more serious tinge due to judicial accusations against the leaders. On the next day of the summit, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Province of Imbabura, where Otavalo is located, began an investigation against the indigenous organizations.

According to this investigation, “a group of citizens of indigenous race” broke the police barrier around the ALBA meeting “shouting slogans which disturbed public order”, and the main damage occurred when a policeman was “robbed of his handcuffs”. On these grounds, the leaders of the CONAIE and Ecuarunari (the Quechua organization of the highlands) are being accused of nothing less than “sabotage and terrorism” [14]. This is a very serious accusation which aims to intimidate the leaders.

According to lawyer and university professor Mario Melo, at the heart of the problem is that the CONAIE’s presence outside of the meeting grounds “made evident, before national and international public opinion, that the organizations which represent the many nationalities and peoples of Ecuador are being excluded from the process of defining the political policies that concern them” [15]. There has been a political response disguised as legal action in order to “intimidate and demobilize” the movements.

The indigenous leaders reacted to the challenge. Marlon Santi, president of the CONAIE, came before the public prosecutor to hear the charges and give his version of the events. On July 5, a joint communication from Ecuarunari and CONAIE indicated that the accusations of terrorism lack legal grounds and are “a political persecution of the indigenous movement and its leaders for the simple act of disagreeing with government policies” [16].

The message contains a reminder that article 98 of the new constitution recognizes the “right to resistance” when rights are endangered. And it ends with a sentence that anticipates more confrontations: “The legal charges against the leaders only serve to make evident the mean spiritedness of the rulers, as well as a serious threat to the peace and democracy of Ecuadorians”.

Pérez Guartambel, president of the Azuay Union of Community Water Systems in Cuenca, was also accused of sabotage and terrorism because of a massive protest in his town, Tarqui, on May 4. The Women’s Pachamama Defense Front has made similar complaints. Though the phenomenon that is not so wide spread in Bolivia, all signs point to the fact that the process taking place in Ecuador implies a deep rupture between social movements and the government.

There is a chasm between the two, and the dividing line is the national project and so called “development”. Correa is convinced that the greatest threat to his project, which he calls “twenty first century Socialism”, come from what he calls the “infantile” left and from environmental and indigenous groups which he claims reject modernity. He criticizes those who “say no to petroleum, to mines, to using our non renewable resources. It’s like a beggar sitting on a bag full of gold”[17].

Taking the Plurinational State to Task

The social and political processes in both countries are like two peas in a pod. Both approved a Plurinational State and new constitutions, but when it came time to apply their ideas they were faced with serious obstacles. The indigenous base groups and the urban popular sectors brought Morales and Correa to power, and those same groups are now protesting against “their” governments. In both cases, the governments opted for mineral and petroleum extractivism in order to ensure fiscal profits, instead of working toward the Buen Vivir, as per their promises.

The Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE), one of the most important social organizations in Bolivia, published a harsh document called the Political Manifesto of the Sixteenth Ordinary Congress[18]. It states that “in spite of having an indigenous president like Evo Morales, the State continues to be governed by a creole oligarchy” because “it continues to maintain a capitalist economic system and a neoliberal political system”. The document goes on to say that the poor people continue to be “politically dominated”, “economically exploited” and “racially and culturally marginalized”.

Even more troubling, “The MAS government, after stepping into power, has merely used the indigenous peoples and members of popular sectors for their political campaigns, but they continue to be excluded from political decisions and are only used by the government to legitimize itself and as stepladders to their seats of power”. Furthermore, it demands that the government not interfere in social organizations, that there be a change in the behavior of Vice President Álvaro García Linera and his colleagues, who are defined as “enemies of the peasant and indigenous class”, and it supports the march of the peoples of the Orient.

Both the tone and the content are intense. The FEJUVE isn’t just any organization; it was one of the protagonists of the Bolivian gas conflict, in October of 2003, which led to the fall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and caused the collapse of neoliberalism. Right now, the group is considering asking for the resignation of Morales. In Ecuador, the CONAIE is also very important; it has been the protagonist of a dozen uprisings since 1990, and has toppled three governments. Breaking off with any of these organizations is very serious for any government, and is especially serious for those that rely on them for support.

What can be seen here are the first cracks in the Plurinational State, a building which still hasn’t been fully constructed. These cracks are appearing because there is a potent dispute for power. The original peoples have no reason to accept the framework of the Nation State, which is what the Plurinational State is based on. Two perspectives can be noted which attempt to shed light on this process.

Albert Acosta, Ecuadorian economist and former president of the Constitutional Assembly, posits that it is crucial that laws be passed in language that is rooted in everyday life. If this doesn’t happen, no matter how advanced the Constitution is it will mean nothing. The problem is that President Correa believes that laws about water and communication aren’t important, which, for Acosta, is the same as saying that “the Constitution is neither fundamental nor a priority”. He wonders: “Could it be that President Correa sees the Constitution as a straight jacket?” [19]

He believes that opposition from the right, which opposed the Constitution, is setting up road blocks for the laws in order to impede change. Oh the other hand, “Correa’s method of governing, which is, essentially, a knock down and run over leadership, leaves no room for debate”. His conclusion is that the Constitution that was meant to rediscover the government “is tied up in a political bundle that doesn’t guarantee its validity”. At the government level “there is a sort of legal counterrevolution” which is not supported by society at large.

Bolivian writer and philosopher Rafael Bautista maintains that rediscovering the Bolivian State without strengthening the participation of original nations implies no change whatsoever or can be seen as “pure cosmetology”. But if there isn’t a rediscover which is to say, decolonization, “what happens is nothing more than the reconstruction of the feudal aspects of the State” [20]. To put it briefly, the rebuilding of a colonial State founded on the belief in its superiority over the Indians. This structure is perpetuated in the Plurinational State, because it is a model which has not changed at any basic level.

Bautista says that “change no longer consists of the transformation of the content of the new State”, but has become “a subordinated adaptation of the plurinational to the functional needs of the State’s institutionality”. This is precisely what the response to the march has revealed: a sentiment of superiority over the Indians (they are manipulated, they don’t act on their own accord, says the government) and the impossibility for the State to be anywhere other than “on top” and in the center.

The essence of plurinationality is rooted in the opening up of the decision making arena, which is an opening up of power. “Plurinationality doesn’t refer to a quantitative sum of actors, but to the qualitative way in which decisions are made and enacted: we are effective at being plural when we open up the decision making arena”. And this is what isn’t happening; this is why Bautista says that the current government “governs not by obeying, but by giving orders”.

The government hasn’t restructured power to include original peoples, but has shuffled it around between local governments and mayor’s offices. That is, it reproduces the logic of privilege, because these have been the spaces of the local elite since the colonial period. The march demonstrates a refusal to transform the State in a limited way solely in order to improve its “performance”. This is what Bautista means when he talks about “the feudal paradox put into practice”. The indigenous protest is a clear indication of the transparency of the so called decolonization of the State.

The original peoples, who have created new conditions for their liberty, will not continue to tolerate political marginalization. They know that the State needs to exploit natural resources to pay its bills, but they also know that this logic leads to destruction. This is why they have decided to protest; they were strong enough to bring neoliberalism to a standstill, and now they refuse to lose their opportunity.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (

Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe

Dubious Progress in Bolivia-U.S. Reconciliation

Lisa Skeen, NACLA, Jul 19 2010

At a June 5 meeting of coca farmers in Cochabamba, Bolivian president Evo Morales threatened to expel the U.S. government's primary foreign assistance organization, USAID, from Bolivia. Morales accused USAID of lending financial support to organizations that oppose his government and for inciting civil unrest. On July 8, in a show of independence from foreign influence, the mayors of the northern Pando department expelled the agency from their territory, but to date, Morales' threats have not been carried out on a national level.

The threat is perhaps less notable for its content than for its context. The announcement was made just days after Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, as part of ongoing talks aimed at reestablishing full diplomatic relations, after a damaging political dispute in 2008. Both men described the meeting as effective, and Choquehuanca proudly announced that "we have advanced more than 99% toward signing this new framework agreement of mutual respect." However, Choquehuanca's glowing announcement was not accompanied by any formal agreement or concrete plans to reinstate ambassadors.

In September of 2008, Morales accused the U.S. ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, of fomenting unrest after anti-government protests turned deadly. He expelled Goldberg along with officials of USAID and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which had been operating in the country for 35 years and was a key component of the U.S. War on Drugs. The Bush administration responded by expelling Bolivia's ambassador, Gustavo Guzmán, and suspended its cooperation with Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), ending the country's duty-free access to U.S. markets.

Though the U.S. State Department denied Morales' accusations about Goldberg, many prominent academics and foreign policy experts, including members of NACLA's editorial staff, signed an open letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice expressing their "deep concern" that the "United States government, by its own admission, is supporting opposition groups and individuals in Bolivia that have been involved in the recent whole-scale destruction, violence, and killings."

Many international news outlets, however, have suggested that Morales's recent threats to expel USAID are in part a political ploy to restore domestic support for his administration. Many of Bolivia's ascendant indigenous organizations have grown increasingly critical of Morales's emphasis on revenue-generating extractive industries - natural gas in particular - which undermine his commitment to respect indigenous land rights and conservation. The June threats, they suggest, may be little more than an attempted rallying cry against a common imperial enemy, not unlike characterizations of Hugo Chávez. Despite their domestic political usefulness, Morales's accusations about USAID are not hollow and have been consistent since as early as 2006.

USAID has never been politically neutral. Directed by the U.S. Secretary of State, the organization is designed to support U.S. foreign policy objectives. In his recent confirmation hearings, Mark Feierstein, who was nominated to head the organization in Latin America by the Obama administration on May 12, said "USAID's programs are not charity. They may reflect the generosity of the American people; but they are not only from the American people, as the agency's motto says, they are for the American people."

The organization is notoriously evasive in response to requests for disclosure of the recipients of its political funding. The main website of USAID in Bolivia omits any direct mention of political programs, instead it emphasizes its support for the Bolivian government and its plans to "improve citizen access to health services and education and increase employment opportunities." However, the budget request for 2009 tells a different story. Of the roughly $100 million requested, $46 million was slated to go to "Peace and Security" programs (which includes the ominous sub-program "Stabilization Operations and Security Sector Reform") and over $28 million would go to "Governing Justly and Democratically" programs.

Historically, there is plenty of evidence that the United States has "aggressively intervened" in Bolivia, at least in part through its USAID programs. According to author Reed Lindsay: "the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars to rebuild discredited political parties, to undercut independent grassroots movements, to bolster malleable indigenous leaders with little popular support and to dissuade Bolivians from talking about whether they should have greater ownership rights over their natural resources. The funds have been distributed under the banner of 'democracy promotion,' a central plank of U.S. foreign policy since the early 1980s that has become increasingly prominent in recent years."

In October 2008, Investigative journalist Jeremy Bigwood uncovered a memo from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, detailing a USAID-funded "political party reform project [aimed] at implementing an existing Bolivian law that would . . . over the long run, help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS [party of President Morales] or its successors." The project is suspected to have funded groups that challenged Morales in his 2006 election and during the 2008 political crisis.

The United States has shown no signs of reforming the organization, and has taken further steps that would seem to undermine reconciliation efforts with Bolivia. The nomination of Feierstein to head USAID's Latin American programs is itself something of a snub to the Bolivian President. Feierstein is the vice president of the powerful political consultancy firm Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner (GQR), which was hired by former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sànchez de Lozada to consult on polling and strategy for his victorious 2002 presidential campaign. Lozada later resigned and fled to the United States in 2003 to evade possible prosecution for the murders of at least 60 protesters by troops under his command. Calls for Lozada's extradition are widespread in Bolivia, and Morales has appealed to the U.S. government for support on multiple occasions, to no avail.

Mexican drug cartels' newest weapon: Cold War-era grenades made in U.S.

By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Saturday, July 17, 2010
MEXICO CITY -- Grenades made in the United States and sent to Central America during the Cold War have resurfaced as terrifying new weapons in almost weekly attacks by Mexican drug cartels.

Sent a generation ago to battle communist revolutionaries in the jungles of Central America, U.S. grenades are being diverted from dusty old armories and sold to criminal mafias, who are using them to destabilize the Mexican government and terrorize civilians, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials.

The redeployment of U.S.-made grenades by Mexican drug lords underscores the increasingly intertwined nature of the conflict, as President Felipe Calderón sends his soldiers out to confront gangs armed with a deadly combination of brand-new military-style assault rifles purchased in the United States and munitions left over from the Cold War.

Grenades have killed a relatively small number of the 25,000 people who have died since Calderón launched his U.S.-backed offensive against the cartels. But the grenades pack a far greater psychological punch than the ubiquitous AK-47s and AR-15 rifles -- they can overwhelm and intimidate outgunned soldiers and police while reminding ordinary Mexicans that the country is literally at war.

There have been more than 72 grenade attacks in Mexico in the last year, including spectacular assaults on police convoys and public officials. Mexican forces have seized more than 5,800 live grenades since 2007, a small fraction of a vast armory maintained by the drug cartels, officials said.

According to the Mexican attorney general's office, there have been 101 grenade attacks against government buildings in the past 3 1/2 years, information now made public for the first time.

To fight back, U.S. experts in grenades and other explosives are now working side by side with Mexican counterparts. On Thursday, assailants detonated a car bomb in downtown Ciudad Juarez, killing two federal police officers and an emergency medical technician and wounding seven.

The majority of grenades have been traced back to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to investigations by agents at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and their Mexican counterparts. ATF has also found that almost 90 percent of the grenades confiscated and traced in Mexico are more than 20 years old.

The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sent 300,000 hand grenades to friendly regimes in Central America to fight leftist insurgents in the civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to declassified military data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists.

Not all grenades found in Mexico are American-made. Many are of Asian or Soviet and Eastern European manufacture, ATF officials said, probably given to leftist insurgents by Cuba and Nicaragua's Sandinistas.

One of the most common hand grenades found in Mexico is the M67, the workhorse explosive manufactured in the United States for American soldiers and for sale or transfer to foreign militaries. Some 266,000 M67 grenades went to El Salvador alone between 1980 and 1993, during the civil war there.

Now selling for $100 to $500 apiece on the black market, grenades have exploded in practically every region of Mexico in recent years.

In the past year, assailants have rolled grenades into brothels in the border city of Reynosa. They have hurled one at the U.S. consulate in nearby Nuevo Laredo. They have launched them at a military barracks in Tampico and at a television station in Nayarit state.

In the state of Durango, 10 students, most teenagers but some as young as 8, were ripped apart on their way to receive government scholarships in March when attacked with grenades at a cartel checkpoint. The blasts tore a gaping hole in the side of their pickup, peeling back the door panels as if it were a soda can.

"They are a way to spread fear and terror," said Paulino Jiménez Hidalgo, a retired Mexican army general. "And they're a way to gain the upper hand over the authorities."

Grenade attacks began in 2007 in response to the expanded role of the military in anti-narcotics enforcement and the rise of the Zetas, the fearsome cartel founded by former special-forces soldiers, according to Martín Barrón Cruz, an expert in arms and security at Mexico's National Institute of Criminal Sciences, a government agency.

"It's an arms race," Barrón said.

Demand for military hardware is soaring, he said, citing recent seizures of .50-caliber rifles, mortars and anti-personnel mines.

The criminal organizations are demonstrating a growing tactical knowledge about how to use grenades in close-quarters combat.

"They're a good way to cover your retreat or to initiate an attack," said Anna Gilmour, a drug-war expert at IHS Jane's, a global security consulting firm. "You can use them as a means of spreading confusion."

As one senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico put it, grenades are "a lazy man's killing weapon" because they don't require good aim.

"You don't have to be able to hit a bull's-eye. You just roll it out," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security protocols.

Frequently, grenades are left unexploded at attack scenes. U.S. officials attribute this to operator error rather than the age of the munitions, since grenades can last for decades if stored properly. While some seized grenades are covered in rust or dirt, others are in mint condition, suggesting they may have been removed recently from military stores.

ATF and its Mexican counterparts consider information about the source country and specific make of grenades classified. Federal police in Mexico are now offering $200 -- about six weeks' pay at minimum wage in Mexico -- as a reward for every grenade turned over to authorities.

U.S. investigators and independent experts suspect that few military grenades have entered Mexico directly across the northern border from the United States.

"There might be a few thefts from U.S. military bases, but there has been little evidence that grenades in Mexico are being smuggled from the United States," said Colby Goodman, an arms trafficking expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Interviews with military, police and U.S. law enforcement agents in Central America suggest authorities are increasingly concerned about preventing thefts from grenade stockpiles but are virtually powerless to prevent the spread of weapons that are already loose.

"Almost all of the attacks we've seen have been with M67s," said Howard Cotto, a chief investigator with El Salvador's National Civil Police. "There are so many of them floating around here."

Salvadoran police have seized 390 M67s since 2005.

Black-market grenades are so easy to obtain in El Salvador that street gangs routinely use them as tools of extortion, to menace business owners and bus drivers. Concern that grenades could leak out of army garrisons prompted the Salvadoran military to consolidate its abundant supply in two high-security facilities last year, the Salvadoran defense minister, Gen. David Munguía Payés, said in an interview. The U.S. government is planning to send a threat-assessment team to the country to help secure its arsenals.

"Since 2009 we haven't registered any missing grenades," Munguía Payés said. "But we know that there are grenades out there on the black market."

In Guatemala, aging American-, Israeli- and Asian-made grenades have been seeping out of the country's Mariscal Zavala armory for years, according to military officials and security experts.

The military official who oversees the arsenals, Col. Luis Francisco Juárez, said safeguards are now in place to ensure that no weapons are illegally removed. But Guatemalan court records show that when his predecessor, Col. Carlos Toledo, reported to his superiors last year that 500 weapons were missing, he was stripped of his command and subjected to death threats.

Just two months after Toledo reported the missing weapons, arms diverted from the Guatemalan military turned up at a bloody scene where five police officers were killed while allegedly trying to steal 370 kilos of cocaine from a cartel safe house. A huge arms cache was uncovered at the site, including more than 550 40mm projectile grenades, many of which had lot numbers matching those in the Guatemalan armory and which appeared to be manufactured in the United States, according to military and legal sources.

In another large seizure, 500 grenades were recovered in March 2009 at a site in northern Guatemala that authorities described as a training camp run by the Mexican Zeta drug organization.

An investigation by Guatemala's El Periódico newspaper found that as many as 27,000 military weapons, including an unknown number of grenades, may have been illegally sold or stolen in recent years.

Miroff reported from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Free the Cuban Five!

Wayne S. Smith
July 13, 2010

Quite apart from Fidel Castro’s rare TV interview on Tuesday, there have recently been a number of encouraging developments in Cuba. A leading dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, the head of the Human Rights Commission, announced in June that the number of political prisoners had fallen to 167, the lowest number since the Cuban Revolution took power back in 1959. And then on July 7, after a meeting that included President Raúl Castro, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, the Cuban government announced that over the next few months it would be releasing some fifty-two more prisoners. This was enough to prompt Guillermo Farinas, a prisoner who has been carrying on a hunger strike to demand the release of others, to call off his strike.

So far, credit for these developments goes largely to the Spanish government and to the Catholic Church, especially to Cardinal Ortega. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the moves as "welcome." Yes, but the United States could encourage that trend by releasing the so-called Cuban Five—something it should do anyway to help restore the image of the United States, which has been damaged by international condemnation of its handling of the case.

Who were the Cuban Five? They were members of the Cuban Intelligence Service who were sent to the United States not to spy on the US government or any of its entities but to penetrate certain Cuban exile organizations and gather information on terrorist activities they were carrying out against Cuba—information the Cubans would then provide to the FBI so that it could move to halt those activities. In June 1998 three FBI representatives were invited to Cuba to meet with Cuban counterparts. They returned with some sixty-four folders of pertinent information. The Cubans then waited for the United States to take action against the terrorists. But they waited in vain. Rather, the FBI, apparently able to determine from the evidence the identities of the sources, arrested the Cuban Five a few months later. In 2001 they went to trial in Miami, where anti-Castro sentiment was so strong there was no chance even of empaneling an impartial jury. Defense lawyers asked for a change of venue, arguing that without it, there could not be a fair trial. Incredibly, their request was denied.

In addition to the biased atmosphere in which the trial was held, prosecutors could present no evidence that the five had engaged in espionage or indeed any other crime, other than being the unregistered agents of a foreign power. So the prosecutors resorted to the time-worn ploy of charging them with "conspiracy" to commit illegal acts, which is what the government does when it has no evidence tying the accused to the commission of such acts. Evidence or no, all were convicted in 2001 and given long prison sentences. Worst of all was the case of Gerardo Hernández, who was accused of conspiracy to commit murder and given two consecutive life sentences—this in connection with the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in February 1996, in which four were killed. Never mind that there was not a shred of evidence that Hernández was in any way involved.

Not surprisingly, given the questionable nature of the case against the five, in August 2005 three judges of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District in Atlanta overturned the Miami court’s convictions and ordered a new trial outside Miami. Their arguments were devastating but did not sway the Bush administration. And so, on October 31, 2005, the US government requested that the entire appeals court, all twelve judges, review the findings of the three who had overturned the Miami court decision. This was done, and as expected, the ruling that had called for a new trial was reversed. On June 4, 2008, the appeals court upheld the convictions of the Miami court and remanded the case back to it. The will of the White House had been done.

The next year, however, there was some hope that with a new resident in the White House, the way might be open for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court. But in May 2009, Barack Obama’s solicitor general, Elena Kagan, recommended that the request for a hearing be denied, and the following month it was. How unfortunate. The five were, to be sure, guilty of being the unregistered agents of a foreign power. But if that was their only crime (as it almost certainly was), they could have served out their sentences long ago and been back with their families. Instead, all have now been imprisoned for some twelve years under trying conditions. In all that time, for example, Gerardo Hernández and Rene Gonzalez have not been allowed a single visit from their wives. That is cruel and heartless punishment.

The case, meanwhile, has become something of an international cause célèbre, with widespread condemnation of the Miami court’s decision as arbitrary and unfair. That has been the expressed view of ten Nobel Prize winners, of hundreds of jurists, members of parliaments and various other organizations from all over the world, many of whom joined twelve amicus briefs asking the Supreme Court to review the case. And for the first time in history, the UN Human Rights Commission condemned the trial, noting that the Miami court could not possibly have enjoyed "the objectivity and impartiality that is required in order to conform to the standards of a fair trial."

The pain and anguish of the five and their families need not go on for yet more interminable years. Nor must the continuing damage to the US image. There is a near-term solution in which all sides could come out ahead: President Obama has the right, constitutionally, to commute the sentences. That may appear unlikely, given his solicitor general’s recommendation last year against a Supreme Court hearing. But given that there was never any evidence with which to convict the five, and given that bringing about the release of Cuban political prisoners has always been a US objective, the president should commute the sentences forthwith. The way would then be open to release them and allow them to return to Cuba. If that were to happen, the Cuban government should respond by releasing most of its remaining political prisoners—with the exact number and the disposition of those released to be agreed upon. Neither government would suffer any adverse consequences from such a reciprocal release. On the contrary, both would be applauded and their international images enhanced.

And for good measure, the case of Alan Gross, the American citizen arrested last December in Cuba and suspected of subversive activities, should be included. The Cubans should release him—and Washington could encourage that by formally suspending any further programs "to promote democracy in Cuba" that do not follow normal diplomatic protocol and have host country authorization.

Buying the Press

By Eva Golinger*

Documents reveal multimillion-dollar funding to journalists and media in Venezuela

US Thursday, Jul 15, 2010.State Department documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) evidence more than $4 million USD in funding to journalists and private media in Venezuela during the last three years. This funding is part of the more than $40 million USD international agencies are investing annually in anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela in an attempt to provoke regime change

The funding has been channeled directly by the State Department through three US agencies: Panamerican Development Foundation (PADF), Freedom House, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

In a blatant attempt to hide their activities, the State Department has censored the names of organizations and journalists receiving these multimillion-dollar funds. However, one document dated July 2008 mistakenly left unveiled the names of the principal Venezuelan groups receiving the funds: Espacio Publico (Public Space) and Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (Institute for Press and Society "IPYS").

Espacio Publico and IPYS are the entities charged with coordinating the distribution of the millions in State Department funds to private media outlets and Venezuelan journalists working to promote US agenda.

The documents evidence that PADF has implemented programs in Venezuela dedicated to "enhancing media freedom and democratic institutions" and training workshops for journalists in the development and use of "innovative media technologies", due to the alleged "threats to freedom of expression" and "the climate of intimidation and self-censorship among journalists and the media".

According to the documents, PADF's objective is to "strengthen independent journalists by providing them with training, technical assistance, materials and greater access to innovative internet-based technologies that expand and diversify media coverage and increase their capacity to inform the public on a timely basis about the most critical policy issues impacting Venezuela".

However, while on paper this may appear benign, in reality, Venezuela's corporate media outlets and journalists, together with US agencies, actively manipulate and distort information in order to portray the Venezuelan government as a "communist dictatorship" that "violates basic human rights and freedoms".

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only do media and journalists in Venezuela have a near-absolute freedom of expression, during the past decade, under the Chavez administration, hundreds of new media outlets, many community-based, have been created in order to foster and expand citizens' access to media. Community media was prohibited under prior governments, which only gave broadcasting access to corporations willing to pay big money to maintain information monopolies in the country.

Today, corporate media outlets and their journalists use communications power to publicly promote the overthrow of the Venezuelan government. The owners and executives of these media corporations form part of the Venezuelan elite that, under the reigns of Washington, ran the country for forty years before Chavez won the presidency in 1998.

What these documents demonstrate is that Washington not only is funding Venezuelan media, in clear violation of laws that prohibit this type of "propaganda" and "foreign interference", but also is influencing the way Venezuelan journalists perceive their profession and their political reality.

The State Department funding is not just used to create and aid media outlets that promote anti-Chavez propaganda, but also to capture Venezuelan journalists at the core - as students - in order to shape their vision of journalism and ensure their loyalty early on to US agenda.


One of the PADF programs, which received $699,996 USD from the State Department in 2007, "supported the development of independent media in Venezuela" and "journalism via innovative media technologies". The documents evidence that more than 150 Venezuelan journalists were trained by US agencies and at least 25 web pages were created with US funding.

During the past two years, there has been a proliferation of web pages, blogs, and Twitter, MySpace and Facebook users in Venezuela, the majority of whom use these media outlets to promote anti-Chavez messages and disseminate distorted and false information about the country's political and economic reality.

Other programs run by the State Department have selected Venezuelan students and youth to receive training in the use of these new media technologies in order to create what they call a "network of cyber-dissidents" against the Venezuelan government.

For example, in April 2010, the George W. Bush Institute, together with Freedom House and the State Department, organized an encounter of "activists for freedom and human rights" and "experts in Internet" to analyze the "global movement of cyber-dissidents". Rodrigo Diamanti, anti-Chavez youth activist, was present at the event, which took place in Dallas, Texas and was presided over by George W. Bush himself, along with "dissidents" invited from Iran, Syria, Cuba, Russia and China.

In October last year, Mexico City hosted the II Summit of the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM), an organization created by the State Department to bring together select youth activists from countries of strategic importance to the US, along with the founders of new media technologies and representatives from different US agencies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over the event, and anti-Chavez youth activists Yon Goicochea (Primero Justicia), Rafael Delgado, and Geraldine Alvarez, attended as special guests. All three are members of Futuro Presente, an organization created in Venezuela in 2008 with funding from the Cato Institute in Washington.


The declassified State Department documents also reveal more than $716,346 USD in funding via Freedom House in 2008, for an 18-month project seeking to "strengthen independent media in Venezuela". This project also funded the creation of a "resource center for journalists" in an unnamed Venezuelan university. "The center will develop a community radio, website and training workshops", all funded by the State Department.

Another $706,998 USD was channeled through PADF to "promote freedom of expression in Venezuela" through a two-year project focusing on "new media technologies and investigative journalism". "Specifically, PADF and its local partner will provide training and follow-up support in innovative media technologies and formats in several regions throughout Venezuela...This training will be compiled and developed into a university-level curriculum".

Another document evidences three Venezuelan universities, Universidad Central de Venezuela (Central University of Venezuela "UCV"), Universidad Metropolitana (Metropolitan University) and Universidad Santa Maria (St. Mary's University), which incorporated courses on media studies into their curriculums, designed and funded by the State Department. These three universities have been the principal launching pad for the anti-Chavez student movements during the past three years.

PADF also received $545,804 USD for a program titled "Venezuela: The Voices of the Future". This project, which allegedly lasted one year, was devoted to "developing a new generation of independent journalists through a focus on new media technologies". PADF also funded various blogs, newspapers, radio stations and television stations in regions throughout Venezuela, to ensure the "publication" of reports and articles by the "participants" in the program.


More funds have been distributed to anti-Chavez political groups in Venezuela through USAID's Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, which has an annual budget between $5-7 million USD. These millions form part of the more than $40 million USD given annually to opposition organizations in Venezuela by US, European and Canadian agencies, as evidenced in the May 2010 report, "Venezuela: Assessing Democracy Assistance" published by the National Edowment for Democracy's World Movement for Democracy (WMD) and Spain's FRIDE Institute.

PADF has been active in Venezuela since 2005 as one of USAID's principal contractors. PADF was created by the State Department in 1962 and is "affiliated" with the Organization of American States (OAS). In Venezuela, PADF has been working to "strengthen local civil society groups", and is "one of few major international groups that has been able to provide significant cash grants and technical assistance to Venezuelan NGOs". (Postcards from the Revolution)

*Eva Golinger, winner of the International Award for Journalism in Mexico (2009), named "La Novia de Venezuela" by President Hugo Chávez, is an Attorney and Writer from New York, living in Caracas, Venezuela since 2005 and author of the best-selling books, "The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela" (2006 Olive Branch Press), "Bush vs. Chávez: Washington's War on Venezuela" (2007, Monthly Review Press), "The Empire's Web: Encyclopedia of Interventionism and Subversion", "La Mirada del Imperio sobre el 4F: Los Documentos Desclasificados de Washington sobre la rebelión militar del 4 de febrero de 1992" and "La Agresión Permanente: USAID, NED y CIA".

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ecuador, Argentina join Mexico in legal fight against SB 1070

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Two more Latin American countries added their own objections Tuesday to Arizona's new immigration law.
In legal papers filed in federal court, Luis Gallegos, the ambassador to the United States from Ecuador, said his country wants to join Mexico in the fight to convince U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton to block the state from enforcing the law.
"Similar to Mexico, Ecuador has a substantial and compelling interest in ensuring that its bilateral diplomatic relations with the government of the United States of America are transparent, consistent and reliable, and not frustrated by the actions of individual U.S. states, in this case, Arizona," Gallegos wrote. He said SB 1070 "raises substantial challenges" to relations between the two countries.
Gallegos also echoed the fears expressed by Mexico that the Arizona law will affect its citizens.
"Ecuador has a substantial and compelling interest to ensure that its citizens are accorded human and civil rights when present in the United States in accordance with federal immigration law," he wrote. "Ecuador is gravely concerned that SB 1070 will lead to racial profiling and disparate treatment of its nationals."
A virtually identical brief was filed Tuesday by Jose Perez Gabilondo, charge d'affairs in Washington for Argentina.
Brewer said that both diplomats are wrong, both on the issue of racial profiling and the question of Arizona interfering with international relations. And she said both objections ignore the issues and problems of illegal immigration.
"The bottom line is America and Arizona live by laws," she said. Brewer said SB 1070 mirrors federal immigration laws, giving state and local police tools to enforce them.
"We will continue to live by those laws," she said.
The new legal filings were made in connection with the challenge to the law filed by attorneys for three civil rights organizations.
That case, filed before the U.S. Department of Justice decided to bring its own claim, has become the focal point for individuals and organizations across the state, country and internationally to weigh in on the question of whether the law is constitutional.
The heart of the statute requires police to seek documents showing legal status from those they have stopped if there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in this country illegally. Another section makes it a state crime for a foreign national not to carry certain documents, a provision which could result in arrest and prosecution of illegal immigrants for violating Arizona laws.
The lawsuit contends the law unconstitutionally infringes on the exclusive right of the federal government to regulate immigration. It also charges that the law is bound to result in racial profiling despite language in the statute specifically forbidding race, ethnicity or national origin from being used to decide who to question.
Ecuador and Argentina were not the only interests Tuesday seeking to influence the case.
Also objecting to the law was Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, an organization made up of lawyers who represent clients in criminal matters. In its legal brief, the attorneys said SB 1070 is unconstitutional because it effectively makes it a crime for people who are stopped to refuse to answer police questions and produce identification.
"The failure to answer questions about immigration status could be used as a basis for further detention," the filing reads. "Mere inability to prove one's lawful presence cannot rise to the level of reasonable suspicion to believe the person is in the country illegally."
But the American Unity Legal Defense Fund, a national group that intervenes in immigration cases, said in its own brief that states are entitled to target illegal immigration, "even through measures that go beyond federal law" as long as the state laws are "consistent with the objectives Congress established." And attorney Barnaby Zall said Congress has not preempted the kind of things in SB 1070.
"If plaintiffs wish to overturn the (Arizona) law, they must turn to Congress, not the courts," Zall wrote.
The filings come just ahead of the first of a series of hearings on requests that Bolton issue an injunction to block the law from taking effect as scheduled July 29.
On Thursday she will hear arguments by David Salgado, a Phoenix police officer.
He said his rights are violated by a requirement in the law that he ask those he has stopped about their immigration status when there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in this country illegally. Salgado also said another section of SB 1070 puts him at risk of being sued if he doesn't enforce the law "to the fullest extent permitted by federal immigration law."
Bolton is slated to hear two separate requests for injunction July 22, one from the civil rights groups and the other from the Department of Justice.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obama should take guidance from Latin leftists


Imagine that Barack Obama, upon taking office in January 2009, had decided to deliver on his campaign promise “to end business-as-usual in Washington so we can bring about real change.”

Imagine that he rejected the architects of the pro-Wall Street policies that had led to economic collapse, such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and the stable of former Goldman Sachs employees that runs the U.S Treasury Department, and instead appointed Nobel laureate economists Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz to key positions, including the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve.

Instead of Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic presidential primary because of her unrelenting support for the Iraq war, imagine that he chose Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.) for secretary of state, or someone else interested in delivering on the popular desire to get out of Afghanistan. Imagine a real health-care-reform bill, instead of health-insurance reform, that didn’t give the powerful pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies a veto.

It goes without saying that President Obama would be vilified in the major media outlets. The seething hostility from right-wing blowhards such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be matched by more mainstream media outlets, who would accuse the president of polarizing the nation and “dangerous demagoguery.” With almost all of the establishment media and institutions against him, Obama would likely face a constant battle for political survival — although he might well triumph with direct, populist appeals to the majority.

This is what has happened to a number of the left-of-center governments in Latin America.

• In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa was re-elected by a large margin in 2009, despite strong opposition from the country’s media.

• In Bolivia, Evo Morales has brought stability and record growth to a country that had a tradition of governments that didn’t last more than a year — despite the most hostile media in the hemisphere and unrelenting, sometimes violent opposition from Bolivia’s traditional elite.

• Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez survived a U.S.-backed military coup attempt and other efforts to topple his government, winning three presidential elections, each time by a larger margin.

All of these presidents took on entrenched oligarchies and fought hard to deliver on their promises. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a country with an indigenous majority, re-nationalized the hydrocarbons — mostly natural gas — industry and created jobs through public investment, as well as getting a new, more democratic constitution approved. Correa doubled spending on health care and cancelled $3.2 billion of foreign debt found to be illegitimate. Chávez cut poverty in half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent after getting control over the country’s oil industry.

These presidents faced another obstacle that Obama wouldn’t have — they had to fight with the most powerful country in the world in order to deliver on their promises. This was also true of President Nestor Kirchner in Argentina (2003-07), who had to battle the Washington-dominated International Monetary Fund in order to implement the economic policies that made Argentina the fastest growing economy in the hemisphere for six years.

Of course, Hugo Chávez has been the most demonized in the U.S. media — but that is not because of what he has said or done but because he is sitting on 500 billion barrels of oil. Washington has a particular problem with oil-producing states that don’t follow orders — whether they are a dictatorship like Iraq, a theocracy like Iran, or a democracy like Venezuela.

All of these leaders — including President Lula da Silva of Brazil — had hoped that President Obama would pursue a more enlightened policy toward Latin America, but it hasn’t happened. It seems that Washington, which was comfortable with dictators and oligarchs who ran the show for decades, still has problems with democracy in its former “backyard.”

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank.