Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Inter-American Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, Venezuela, War on Drugs

UNASUR: Amid bickering, García calls BS on Chávez Rant


Felipe Ariza, Presidencia – SP

Not surprisingly, the bilateral defense agreement to extend terms of US presence in Colombia has ruffled the feathers of a few Latin American leaders at the Unasur conference in the mountain oasis of Bariloche, Argentina this week.

In reality, most everyone who follows this agreement, and the two countries’ historic defense cooperation, realizes this is merely a formalization of affairs. It’s no secret the US had a definitive role assisting Colombian officials in the hostage dupe against the FARC (Operation Jaque) last year, nor that they continue to provide intelligence, logistics, and training to its officials in means to undermine insurgent opposition and disrupt narco factions.

However, by no means have we seen a surge of in US troop/contractor levels, ceding of Colombian sovereignty, nor direct engagement that even remotely presents a bellicose shift toward neighboring American states. Any quips of this nature are fabrications of pure ‘Pixar’ scale. Now, whether or not this extended agreement is truly an effective defense measure for either country, alongside Plan Colombia, is another debate entirely.

Nonetheless, verbal crossfire ensued between the ALBA-aligned nations and president Álvaro Uribe of Colombia surrounding the sealed agreement. While Uribe outlined the case of mutual responsibility in such partnership and preached its concrete results that extend beyond verbal apathy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa emphasized the ulterior motives of US force projection and the destabilizing nature of such a move.

This is rather ironic considering that it was Correa’s mandate to scrub the lower-profile U.S. base in Manta that spurred this broadened initiative. And, in literal terms of regional destabilization, Chávez has a wrap sheet of saber rattling, ‘covert’ support for illicit factions, and arms acquisition from Russia and elsewhere that clearly trump any augmentative facet of this development.

Perhaps the most amusing exchange in this reunion came from Peruvian president Alan García, in lieu of Chávez’s insinuation that the US was preparing to invade Venezuela for its vast energy resources:

“Man, why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?” Mr. García said. The remark drew laughter, though not from Mr. Chávez.”

For a solid video recap of the summit, check out BBC Mundo (in Spanish), or its article review (in English).

Also, for more on the Chávez front, check out the polarizing profile by former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Otto Reich, at ForeignPolicy.com.

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Colombia, Inter-American Relations, News, U.S. Foreign Policy, War on Drugs

US – Colombian alliance dying? Ah, not quite.


Presidencia – SP

Much has been made of a rift developing between Colombia’s Uribe administration and its US counterpart in the new Obama team. After all, the interstate free trade agreement (TLC) debuted on the Washington scene more or less dead-on-arrival, Plan Colombia funds face increased scrutiny and measures to reallocate distribution, and Colombia’s human rights reputation in the global sphere suffers in the shadows of organized extrajudicial killings. Don’t forget the background buzz of an audacious third presidential mandate for Uribe on the horizon. At face value, just a little bleak.

In truth, this distancing on some level was inevitable when one considers the synergy the Uribe and Bush administrations carried across his two terms. This in itself is not a gamebreaker, as the United States and Colombia entertain a longstanding partnership on multiple fronts. However, considering Bush’s wildly unpopular image across the Americas, preferential treatment at this point by the Obama team signals no shift in US diplomatic intentions, nor does its amplify the message of a new era previewed by Obama at this year’s Summit of the Americas. Diplomacy of now calls for a timeout on the dramatic award swapping and public displays of affection.

That being said, I see no tangible evidence of weakening in the US – Colombian strategic relationship. Its orientation will shift toward a more pan-regional approach, in security, energy and economic initiatives, but both countries have vested interests in maintaining strong ties and promoting this broader agenda.

Several realities back this notion. First, while Uribe and Obama were ‘walking the dog‘ in front of the press corp this week at the White House, jousting on the above mentioned tensions, Cambio magazine published an exclusive yesterday, citing a near finalized process to amplify US SOUTHCOM’s presence across five proposed bases in Colombia. Last April I outlined the initial whispers of DOD moving shop to its Andean neighbor after getting the boot from the Manta forward operating location in Ecuador. But, the scope of this proposed ten year lease would mark a shift in US defense and counternarcotics operations in scale, projection and orientation in the region.

While Colombian defense minister Freddy Padilla has made it clear that negotiations are indeed underway, he and others in the Uribe administration have made strident efforts to emphasize the more integrated nature of this agreement. In essence, the US presence would be on a shorter leash, operating in the context of collaborative guests, privy to limitations on immunity ordained to US personnel, military and civilian, that carry out mission objectives in Colombian territory.

Predictably, this remains a sensitive issue for US officials. It strongly objects to the trying of US citizens involved in state business under international jurisdiction. The advantages to this agreement however, would further force projection and narcotics interdiction efforts to include the Caribbean and Pacific sectors, and through the well equipped operations base, Palanquero, in central Colombia. Colombia would too benefit on some level from bolstered surveillance and counterinsurgency capabilities provided by US military aid.

Still to be determined is the legality of such an agreement under Colombian law. Critics question whether the nature of foreign force augmentation would require permission from its congress and/or supreme court. In any case, this move spells anything but toeing away from US security commitment to its Andean counterpart.

A second reality appears a bit more dubious for now, but nonetheless will come to pass. I’m fairly confident that the Obama administration would have no qualms in pushing the Colombian Free Trade Agreement out the door under a subdued political climate. Yet, much as during the election season, this move under our economic dry spell would equate to swift political suicide. Now it would not only do battle with labor unions, but the American taxpayer would also cry ‘job exodus’.

In reality, as many have pointed out, much of these free trade stipulations already exist and are actively utilized by multinationals– just in temporary form. The benefit of actually solidifying them would draw greater potential for foreign investment under the premise of economic security to Colombian industry. Between intermittent nationalization and waves in free trade initiatives, many international firms will simply not invest in Latin American infrastructure if there are marginal doubts of its sustainability in hard times. Bottom line, yes, labor conditions and security are issues, but not the principal factor halting the agreement.

Beyond these two dynamics stand many more complexities — but regardless of who draws numbers in the upcoming 2010 Colombian presidential election, they’ll likely recognize this alliance has, in reality, drifted little, even if now a bit more behind closed doors.

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Colombia, Locuras, Media

Last action hero— Uribe's prowess on the airwaves

Perusing the Colombian presidential site recently, I happened to stumble upon perhaps the most entertaining and self-aggrandizing highlight reel of Álvaro Uribe to date, donning a gushy tagline, ‘[A] fighter for democracy- 2008: A historic year’.

If the title doesn’t throw you a bone, the Tony Scott-esque, multi-hued quick cuts, and dramatic choir score all but drown you in Colombia’s political meld ’08. The short boasts a theatrical depiction of the year’s crises, to a theme vaguely reminiscent of Man on Fire— Uribe confronts Colombian injustice with a personal fervor, not afraid to rub elbows. Well, almost.

Running a hefty 20+ minutes, the recap of his administration’s advances in its ‘Democratic Security’ agenda marches to an obsessive crescendo rhythm: enter the ominous threat (be it FARC, ponzi schemes, etc.), pause for a reflecting lull, and alas, queue the over-the-top reverence of Uribe’s resolution (think teary Jerry Springer reunion of abandoned orphan siblings).

Apart from its telenovela sappiness, the video provokes its viewer and however awkwardly, highlights just a few reasons Uribe retains an impressive approval rating among Colombians. Not only has the president towed a line of security advances this past year, but he also showcases a cunning ability to leverage the media—both domestically and internationally.

It’s actually quite fascinating to observe the dichotomy of Uribe’s public demeanor in each sphere.

In declarations and interviews to the Colombian populace, he passes as intellectually calculating, authoritative, and rather inflexible to his agenda’s detractors (ie. branding his critics camouflaged communists or guerrilla sympathizers). Although undeniably a master orator, on many occasions he tends to polarize an audience with sharp rhetoric.

Whether it be at President Bush’s side in the Rose Garden, or at the table with Charlie Rose, Uribe has a lightened demeanor all together when addressing the international arena. Yes, iterating the complexities of one’s agenda in a foreign language dulls the scene, but more so, Uribe knows his audience, what he wants, and is quite witty in his varied approach to obtain it. He was an attorney after all.

While Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez often grabs headlines for the audacity of his media stunts and rants on his weekly television program, perhaps Bush, who awarded Uribe the Medal of Freedom this week, now wonders why he hadn’t sought a few media pointers from his more subtle, South American ally.

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Colombia

‘Firm hand, big heart’ really at play for Uribe?

César Carrión – SP

The FARC has been dealt a series of stiff blows in 2008— its founding father forfeits to the abyss, several of its principal commanders are killed, even betrayed, and actionable intelligence flows from a wave of demoralizing desertions. In its wake, president Uribe has refortified his campaign of ‘Democratic Security’, to unprecedented approval ratings among Colombians.

Yet, the rural insurgency slugs onward, low-level and diminished, but at a perpetual buzz. The state’s counterinsurgency campaign has for the time plateaued.

Uribe now faces a tactical crossroad. He’s rolled back force projection of the rebel faction and fractured its operational cohesion. Utilizing his venerable, Mano Firme (Firm Hand) tactics, he has calculatingly diminished the state adversary in both size and capacity, gleaning intelligence and pouncing when it yields actionable targets.

However, the promise always on the horizon, but almost impalpable to the pages of Colombian history— a demobilization of the guerrilla— might just hinge upon the latter part of the president’s catchphrase doctrine, Corazón Grande (Big Heart). Aptly, does the conflict now call for more carrot than stick?

To this end, Uribe reiterated this past week the government’s offer to grant ‘liberty’ to any guerrilla who chooses to abandon the cause and takes with them a hostage to be freed. This serves to undermine discipline through the FARC ranks, appear lenient to the public, and marks potential to draw hostages out by exploiting FARC’s weakest internal links.

In a stump speech from Popayán, Uribe articulated the policy in a rather round-about and ambiguous manner. One is left pondering what exactly the demobilization guarantees the FARC member and what it really means with regard to the judicial review of state crimes— listen below (in Spanish):

[audio:http://web.presidencia.gov.co/banco/2008/diciembre/voces/voz3469.mp3|titles=President Uribe on Demobilization of FARC w/ Hostages]

In summary, Uribe equates this offer to the preconditions of a humanitarian exchange, under which grave crimes against the state cannot be forgiven outright with impunity— they must enter the judicial process for investigation and rendered to due process of the courts. However, in highlighting the case of the recently defected guerrilla, alias ‘Isaza’, Uribe emphasizes an offer of fair treatment, leniency, and generous monetary compensation. Isaza fled a FARC camp with former congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano and has since been given medical attention and offered asylum in France under the wing of former captive, Ingrid Betancourt.

Uribe’s intended message? Pretty straight forward: flee your dire straits with a hostage and you will be compensated with a potentially respectable living– choose to continue waging the insurgency and you will end up in a body bag.

While I believe this psychological run is a very effective tactic in undermining the FARC, I remain skeptical due to the extremely ambiguous nature of the offer. These guerrillas face a certain death if caught attempting to desert. For a bite at the carrot, the state has to dangle something provocative. Beyond this, if judging by the ugly mess of contemporary paramilitary demobilization, there is much reason for both sides and their respective victims to remain skeptical of guarantees.

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Colombia, Economy, Inter-American Relations, Mexico, U.S. Foreign Policy, War on Drugs

10 lessons the ‘Drug War’ should have taught us


Photo via Andy Zeigert, Flickr.
Medellín boss Pablo Escobar moments after being gunned down in Dec. 1993, after a joint Colombian-U.S. manhunt operation.

A telling article featured this past Wednesday in the Washington Post underlines a flux of coca cultivation in the Andean region over the past five years– not that this should come as some inherent revelation to us all. With the United States Government spending nearly $4 billion on drug eradication and interdiction programs during this period and the crop yield flowing rather unabated, the aims of U.S. security initiatives in Latin America can be labeled a bit, shall we dare say, out of touch?

The irony of course is that these five years stretch back to another three decades of almost stagnant policy, littered with short-lived tactical successes and exhausted rhetoric. Indeed, the nature of narcotics trafficking and its actors have morphed over time, however the bottom line for U.S. drug policy has not. It continues to emphasize the destroying of the product rather than addressing the conditions under which its trade flourishes.

Recently, I debated the merits of the multifaceted Plan Colombia, detailing how American efforts in counternarcotics have challenged traditional political paradigms and have been blurred by the lofty aims of several administrations. As I note, there has been a fair measure of success in Colombia via a restoring of state legitimacy and relative sovereignty over major territory. This, however, remains a secondary objective to U.S. eradication efforts in the region.

With drug related violence spilling across greater Mexico and the United States moving to counteract its influence in much the same manner via its Plan Merida, history can offer us some choice wisdom. Here follow ten lessons Uncle Sam can hash from his fabled ‘War on Drugs’:

1.
Understand the changing nature of the beast: Narcotics trafficking in Latin America has continually evolved in both organizational structure and operational orientation in recent decades, moving away from hierarchical vulnerabilities toward flexible, “snap-in” nodes. These operate among a viral network of transnational organized crime and fringe political groups now utilizing established routes to North America via Mexico and through western Africa onward to the European theatre.

2. Counternarcotics and counterinsurgency are not mutually exclusive:
Illicit actors capitalize on bureaucratic rules of engagement. Seen early on in Plan Colombia, U.S. policy under the Clinton administration held the prerequisite that action taken with its material support, active or implicit, should strictly target narcotics strongholds. This essentially fractured a unified strategy toward combating armed actors that threatened state legitimacy before the Colombian populace. U.S. counternarcotics operations must be conducted within the lens of bolstering domestic state security and fortifying of judicial apparatuses against corruption.

3. The prevalence of narco affairs in Latin America, in part, results from U.S. neglect to engage the region on larger issues: Let’s face it, Latin America has until very recently been the forgotten theatre in U.S. foreign policy endeavors and its national security agenda. Sure, the usually banter of Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution stir the Washington pot every now and then, but the more illusive reality remains that the tide of illicit commerce and migration found in the region, be it human smuggling, gun-running, or narcotics trafficking, is testament to sparse economic opportunity and rabid corruption of state institutions by powerful mafia actors. Measures by the U.S. to promote transparent governance, state responsibility, and economic incentives for fulfilling such have been sorely lacking to bear much resemblance of Good Neighbor policy.

4. While narcotics trade may not always be politically oriented, fighting it is: Ardent diplomacy and political negotiation among American states remains crucial in combating the transnational threat posed by cartels and sub-state insurgents. Unless a level of cooperation and a unified initiative are adopted to promote inter-state security, subversive organizations will aim to exploit these state quarrels, whether they are politically oriented in orientation or not– it’s in their own self interest to pit the region’s regimes against themselves and the lever of U.S. strategy.

5. Targeting narcos draws strange bedfellows: Aka. “blowback”. As one can readily see in the unfolding parapolitcal scandal on the contemporary Colombian stage, and through much of U.S. cold war policy in the region, crushing insurgencies forges some ugly alliances with vigil ante groups. Remember Los Pepes stalking drug kingpin Pablo Escobar amid U.S. support?…those same leaders subsequently led paramilitary death squads in record disappearances of Colombian campesinos.

6. This is a domestic battle as much as a transnational plague: There is a fundamental reason the narcotics industry draws billions of dollars annually from its sales and arms itself with military grade weapons– yep you guessed it, U.S. supply and demand. Until this issue is addressed from both sides of the aisle, its going to take a lot of Hail Mary‘s and super-duper border walls to combat American demand for blow and ganja.

7. It is a campaign that can never be won, but can be properly managed: No way to kill all the cannabis and coca plants south of the border, even with the magic touch of Round-up. No way to blockade every one of those superfluous routes to the U.S. or Europe, or even to hunt down the industry’s school of big flounders. This is not a war that can be won by numbers or decisive blows, it is a campaign that should aim to manage state authority, exercise territorial control, and provide attractive alternatives to the struggling populace.

8. States should be rewarded for complicity, not shunned and isolated for alternative agendas: U.S. policy of disengagement has not proven to be very fruitful in terms of national security or furthering of inter-American cooperation. Shunning Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador as pariahs for their “alternative” approach to collective nationalism has only worked against efforts at diminishing supply and financing of fringe opposition. While these states work to build opposition to American influence, they dangle carrots to smaller nations prone to sway by incentive (petroleum, mining, natural gas, medical aid, etc.). U.S. apathy imparts a political vacuum in the region.

9. Foreign aid should be distributed based on fulfilled benchmarks: Instead of penalizing and sanctioning American states for not complying directly with U.S. strategy, reward their demonstrated efforts to achieve compromised objectives. Demonizing regimes such as that of Morales, Chávez, and Correa only plays into their domestic cards. Hasn’t the United States had a fair measure of success in other regions of the world following this very same premise?

10. The United States Government is more than capable of leading a regional security initiative and promoting a level of stability to the Americas: The United States with its regional partners has had more than its fair share of known tactical successes against cartels and insurgent groups in Latin America. Look to the training of Colombian special forces in recent years to curtail the FARC, the capture and extradition of major mafiosos, the fall of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s, the disruption of international cells operating in the southern cone, among thousands of major seizures and raids from actionable intelligence. The problem has never been one of capability or even sheer logistics when cooperation is forged…it has been a matter of political vision and overarching strategy. That shift needs to be made to the larger picture, foregoing the eternal quest to burn the mother of all drug caches, toward the understanding that security interests are served by promoting strong governance of the American states.

Among these few, I’m quite sure there are many more valuable lessons that can be gleaned from the counternarcotic campaigns of Latin America, amid other international bouts of transnational crime. Feel free to weigh in and let us know, what do you see as cornerstone to pan-American security?

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Colombia, History, Inter-American Relations, War on Drugs

Plan Colombia — shock and…flaw?


Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald; U.S. Dept. of Defense

Colombian special forces and intelligence officials pulled off a polished, technically sound, albeit risky rescue mission this past week. Needless to say, the payoff was nothing short of monumental. The operational ruse yielded a swath of the FARC’s most politically significant captives, including three American defense contractors and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Unless one was trekking the Amazon in search of the “lost tribe,” the aftermath played out center stage internationally— a sweeping political victory for President Álvaro Uribe.

For those who follow the Colombian counterinsurgency it should come as no great surprise that U.S. officials have played a deft but discreet role toward this poignant moment, perhaps the crushing blow to a once-formidable FARC. Officials of both countries have made it abundantly clear that Colombian forces planned, commanded, and executed this operation in full force. But, as Juan Forero of The Washington Post outlines in his piece this Wednesday, American assistance was pivotal in its combat support role. Actionable intelligence was exchanged, government consent provided, and U.S. Special Forces operators accompanied reconnaissance units they had been for years training in tracking the hostages’ positions along the Apaporis River of southern Colombia.

The professionalism and ingenuity of the Colombian armed forces and cadre of intelligence officers has truly been showcased this year. With remarkable breakthroughs in its long-winded counterinsurgency, it has now managed to ravage the ranks of the FARC secretariat, largely untouched for 40 plus years.

Riding the congratulatory wave, many officials here in Washington are eager to tout Plan Colombia as a beacon of American foreign aid, its largest package delivered outside of the Middle East. Highlighting the success of such initiatives, Senior Policy Analyst Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, asserts:

“The rescue is a powerful indicator that U.S. assistance and support for Colombia’s military through Plan Colombia continues to yield results in the campaign against the narco-terrorists of the FARC, stripping away their leaders and military cohesion, and now their ability to manipulate the headlines through exploitation of the plight of captives.” […]

“As [U.S.] Congress moves to debate continued funding for Plan Colombia, it should consider the rescue of Ms. Betancourt, Mr. Gonsalves, Mr. Howe, and Mr. Stansill as a demonstration of the effectiveness of Colombia’s military forces. Well-trained, professional and under civilian guidance, Colombia’s military is willing to partner with the U.S. to curb the depredations of kidnappers and narco-terrorists. “

While the bolstered state of the Colombian military indeed marks a solid affirmation and can be in part attributed to American assitance, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombian affairs from the Center for International Policy, points out the following (see link for statistics):

“According to this exercise, we estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. military aid in 2007 went to non-drug missions. The remaining aid – nearly two-thirds – has gone to the drug war, which – as is now general knowledge – has not affected the amount of coca grown, or cocaine produced, in Colombia and the Andes.” (emphasis original to author)

Here marks the fine line Plan Colombia has teetered upon since its induction by President Clinton and Pastrana in 2000. In large part, the comprehensive package had been cloaked as a counternarcotics initiative, partitioning the contribution of U.S. resources from that of domestic counterinsurgency operations. In this respect it has failed rather miserably. While many would argue over the years the two campaigns are indistinguishable, political considerations drove this agenda amid frustrations of field-grade American and Colombian officials. As such, until recently, American policy in Colombia defined Washington’s initiative toward the fabled War on Drugs.
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Colombia, Inter-American Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, Venezuela

The lights stay on at Miraflores


Beatrice Murch via Flickr

One can imagine the blustery state of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez upon discovering a U.S. naval plane had entered the country’s restricted airspace off the Carribean coast this past Saturday. At this point though, he probably plays to the tune of vindication among his naysayers— those who find his prophecy of imperial gringos sweeping the Bolivarian homeland a bit, hmm, off kilter.

U.S. officials acknowledged yesterday that the incursion did indeed occur, albeit by pilot error in a counternarcotics mission. The flight reportedly veered into Venezuelan airspace near a Presidential estate and military compound, restricted to both civilian and official aircraft.

Whether this was purely a case of a disoriented crew or true probing by the administration officials is at this point rather irrelevant, as Chávez doesn’t take much to spook these days. After the coup plot launched in 2002 on his own presidency, purportedly by CIA-sponsored dissidents, Chávez is all but convinced the United States continues to mark him. In the past few months his rhetoric has elevated with the Colombian intrusion upon Ecuadorian territory in its operation against the FARC camp, March 1 of this year.

In a much publicized response, Chávez then mobilized 10 battalions to the border to showcase his opposition to external meddling (ironic given the favoritism he’s played toward Colombian insurgent operations). This event comes amid his voiced conspiracies that either American and/or Colombian troops, under U.S. command, will commence subversive operations in Venezuelan territory.

In any case, Chávez fails or chooses to ignore, that while he remains a nuisance to the Bush administration, commercial ties are strong with the region’s economic partners and to the U.S. itself. Also, in addition to the Latin American agenda remaining on Washington’s backburner much of Bush’s tenure, any attention/resources diverted from the Middle East will likely land on the doorstep of the southern neighbor, Mexico, who is toe to toe with narco factions on its northern border front.

In any case, Chávez is likely to continue this posture with the upcoming U.S. adminstration and its allies, out of sheer political benefit and a degree of wariness. When the characteristic red flannel is traded for a plush robe, his security detail will still sweep the closet for unbeknown spooks or disgruntled venture capitalists. After contemplating the latest grudge to air in the next round of Aló Presidente, he might reach under his pillow to grasp a close guarded trinket— perhaps the Liberator’s long lost sword. We can bet though, the lights shall stay on through the night at Miraflores.

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