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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Elections, Inter-American Relations, Venezuela

How to rig Venezuelan elections for dummies

Venezuela is not a particularly popular topic in Washington these days. To most, the bombastic rhetoric that President Hugo Chávez throws to the airwaves on an almost weekly basis has instilled an innate ‘mute’ response from those in the American foreign policy sector. Indeed, at times the elaborate feuds of the Venezuelan regime play out more as a flailing telenovela than international diplomacy.

Behind the scenes however, political rip tides are stirring Caracas in the midst of upcoming federal and municipal elections at the year’s end. On such accord, a rising young politician, Mayor Leopoldo López of Chacao, made it a point to visit the United States this past week to convey a sense of both the elections’ significance and shine light on its already fraudulent bearing.

Featured in Monday’s Washington Post op-ed , López is among hundreds of opposition candidates that have been blacklisted by the government well before the ballots are to be cast by the greater public. Jack Diehl of the Times explains:

“Two weeks ago, Venezuela’s national electoral council, dominated by Chávez followers, moved to ban López and 371 other candidates from the Novemeber state and local elections, which are shaping up as the most important since Chávez was first elected nine years ago. This broad exclusion was based entirely on the finding of another Chávez appointee, who ruled that each of the candidates was guilty of an administrative or legal offense, though none has been judged in court.”

To this end, López spoke before a forum organized by the Inter-American Dialogue, in which he outlined the progress made in the Cachao municipality of Caracas, the growing necessities of the Venezuelan populace, and the fallacies contrived by the regime to undermine ‘alternative’ governance (Audio here).

According to López, the current regime holds a grip on a near 90 percent of the political system, making it difficult to maneuver on strategic and tactical levels before the monopoly. He himself has been a victim of three assassination attempts and a kidnapping in 2006, both events he attributes with certainty to the government for his discrepancies in policy.

In step with this rhetoric, López attributed the following paraphrase to Chávez himself earlier this year:

“We are confronting a possible war if we lose the regional elections in November […] If we lose regions like Caracas, like Miranda, like Táchira, we will be in a state of war.”

Framing this motive, López cites clear breach of the Venezuelan Constitution in Articles 65, 42, and 289, which declare a citizen eligible to run unless convicted by a judicial body of a criminal offense, and in the latter article describes the limited role of the board itself to exercise nullifying powers. In an ironic twist, Chávez had been brought before the Supreme Court on such criminal charges after his manufactured coup in 1992. Even so, the decision had not been one strong enough to dispel him from the ballot box in 1998.

Despite the hostilities and a regime hell-bent to derail any potentially successful candidate, the mayor maintains that these elections must be seen in context of the 2007 mandate that aimed to indefinitely renew his executive role. It marked Chávez’s first rebuff since his election in 1998. From there, he argues a fundamental campaign for change must be fortified by a few pillars:

  • A united, ‘alternative’ platform to bid for political office
  • Subsequent need for such platforms to reach and conduct “good governance” on a regional and local level

And if López and other ‘alternative’ candidates were able to show some success at the polls in November?

Amid his discussion before the forum, the mayor underlined a handful of issues not handled adequately in the mind of the Venezuelan public :

  • Public safety (He cites Caracas as the most dangerous city in the hemisphere with 70 murders per 10,000 inhabitants)
  • Food shortages
  • Housing
  • Corruption
  • On the international front, the state’s alleged relationship with the FARC and its diplomatic stance with regional players, including a “fundamental reshaping of relations between North and South America”

Although López carries many ambitions and insights, unless significant pressure is leveraged on Chávez in the coming months from fellow American states or domestic fervor, its seems unlikely he, nor the rest of the near 400 blacklisted candidates, will have the opportunity to lay their hand to the table. Nonetheless, the mayor’s visit has seemingly stirred the pot in Caracas, as the regime ponders the prospects of an microscope of the eroding democratic trends of the Venezuelan state.

Update: Upon his return to Caracas this past week, the mayor was subsequently detained at the airport for two hours and purportedly roughed up physically by unidentified officials. He described his treatment on Venezuelan television as unacceptable. His claims were later to be satirized across several programs.

Argentina, Economy, Social Programs

Will the sun shine on Argentina?

Pablo Flores via Flickr

In the latest round of national protests, farmers and special interest groups have for the fourth time in three months hit the streets to block the transport of agricultural goods in rural sectors. This comes amid a long holiday weekend normally reserved for widespread regional travel, fueling frustration of many Argentines over the export tax debacle ensuing between agribusiness and the administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Last Monday, June 6, President Fernández addressed the dispute publicly, outlining her justifications for increased taxes on food exports three months prior, particularly that of Soya (Soybeans):

“La medida tuvo por objeto dos finalidades esenciales: la primera y principal, la seguridad alimentaria, la soberanía alimentaria en la mesa de todos los argentinos. ¿Por qué? Se preguntaran ustedes, qué tiene que ver la soja. Los argentinos no comemos soja […] Es que los argentinos, compatriotas y amigos, toman leche, comen carne, comen pan y ahora pueden hacerlo más, inclusive, porque muchos han conseguido trabajo y todos han mejorado su salario, con lo cual el consumo ha crecido”

“La segunda parte es la redistribución del ingreso, de aquellos sectores que mayor rentabilidad tiene por distintas circunstancias”

“The measure was taken for two essential purposes, the first and principal, security of food resources, the sovereign supply on the table of all Argentines. Why? You might ask, what does this have to do with Soya? Argentines do not eat Soya […] It’s that Argentines, fellow citizens, and friends, drink milk, eat meat, eat bread, and now they can do more so, alas, because many have found work and all have increased their salaries, with which consumption has grown.”

“The second part is the redistribution of income, from those sectors that have greater profits through distinct circumstances. “

Beyond the subsequent weaving of morose history and the pious into her address, the argument boils down to this: The government sees fit to heavily tax agricultural industries that yield significant profit within the country but do little to directly benefit the Argentine populace. As such it is the place of her administration to redistribute a margin of these earnings to social ends, much to the tone of her husband’s prior agenda.

Of course, Argentine producers and landholders see this as an unwelcome and disproportional incursion by the state— a move to seize their earnings and steer business operations. This prospect has thus far been fought vehemently, with farmers disrupting food supply and disturbing public sentiment as the turmoil continues, even amid a relatively booming economy.

With tensions running their high point, former president, Néstor Kirchner, led an official march in favor of the President’s socioeconomic measure in downtown Buenos Aires, through the Plaza de Mayo on Saturday. In turn, as of midnight Sunday, new strikes have been rallied by Argentine farmers on the tail of this weekend’s road blocks and the brief detention of agrarian leader, Alfredo De Angeli.

While the Argentine Government made it clear the violence has been placated, one has to wonder how long this roller coaster can stay course before derailing. It is abundantly clear that this issue remains very divisive and unpopular within Argentina precisely because the administration’s hardline leads to both public speculation of darker days, and the inability to remedy it has spilled into daily life in terms of transportation, energy costs, and food availability.

Neither side seems apt to budge in the immediate future, but in the way of Argentine history, a myopic analysis often serves best. I, for one, see it very difficult for Kirchner to save face each time she rejects the validity of the opposition’s concerns and forges forward on a rigid policy line. In turn, if the agricultural sector cannot solidify their opposition to this policy and draft specific remedies with intentions to negotiate reasonably, a bitter showdown shall ensue.

Above all, a bit of perspective needs to be framed upon this dispute before its show tactics spiral into rancid infighting and deception; Argentina should be all but too anxious to revisit the decade’s roots over the taste of bitter Soya.

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.

Agriculture, Brazil, Environmental Conservation

Back to the Brazilian Bush


The Latin American political front has been blustering with activity these past few weeks. We’ve see a new Paraguayan president set to bust a 60-year political machine, yet another flair in the saga of parapolitica in the Colombian highlands, Mexico’s divisive prospects of foreign investment in Pemex amid an escalating drug war, and Bolivian civil strife, all while Argentina braces for ‘round 2’ of economic standoff with agribusiness in hopes to stave off further domestic inflation.

Though, this past weekend the plight of the Brazilian Amazon upstaged other regional debacles in the press. Both the Washington Post and the Financial Times ran feature length articles on sustainable development in the Mato Grosso region at the country’s Amazon basin fringe. The topic has seen the light of day much before, but now stands against the backdrop of swelling food prices and surging demand for raw commodities. So begs the question, is the rapid growth of Brazilian agribusiness a perverse or venerable force?

In terms of environmental capacity, the excessive clearing of land in outlying rural sectors of Brazil devastates in the long term when one considers that each vegetated hectare emits a potential of 200 tons of carbon dioxide; in the country considered the ‘world’s lungs’, that amounts to an estimated 298 million tons respectively. Beyond implications for global climate change, the Amazon’s biodiversity is unparalleled in both flora and fauna. It houses the A-Z of pharmaceutical elements, alongside species seen nowhere else on the planet. Bottom line— expansive clearing of rainforest would prove to only exacerbate the decline of natural resources and the onset of climate change in years to follow (and we think this food crisis bites hard now).

So then, could there be any redemptive value in the surge of Brazilian agricultural industry? The Financial Time‘s Jonathan Wheatley argues so with aims to meet global food demand:

“The country has enormous reserves of unused arable land, most of it currently serving as under-productive pasture, that could easily and cheaply be turned over to production of grains and other foods. The problem is that much of Brazil’s farm produce continues to face prohibitive tariffs and other barriers to developed markets in Europe and the US.”

While this is a definite reality, it move still fails to address the carbon footprint voided to once make way for these pastured swaths. In any case, would the lands’ transformation be enough to quell rapid clearing in the ill-governed districts of rural Brazil?

The plausible solution outlined in both print articles this week? The carbon credit, organic certification standards, and conservatory incentives- at least in the long term. Nonprofit organizations such as Aliança da Terra are aiming to bridge the gap between environmental vanguards and responsible farmers by kick-starting reforestation of cleared lands with perks to those following conservation laws. In short, use economic leverage to thwart deforestation, while facilitating the real need for farmers to make a viable living in lieu of global market demands.

As Jack Chang of McClatchy Newspapers informs us however, the international spotlight on land management has rattled the bees’ nest domestically in the southern powerhouse:

“Brazil has entered one of its occasional panics about the Amazon and what it sees as foreign designs on the immense biosystem… It all goes to show how any international effort to save the forest needs to take account these real sensitivities. Sure, the Amazon is a global treasure, but before anything, it’s Brazilian.”

In any case, it’s refreshing to see that the issue is drawing some forum of critical debate, even if it required a global food crisis to brush upon the complexities of this Amazonian dilemma.

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

Ecuador gives Uncle Sam the boot — onward to a familiar neighbor?

Bernardo Londoy

It looks like Uncle Sam’s tree fort may be out of commission soon enough in Ecuador. In a familiar twist, the U.S. strategic footprint continues to ebb from yet another round of regional diatribe. Ecuadorian officials have fervently voiced opposition to renewing a bilateral agreement which currently permits a U.S. outpost on a national military base in the coastal city of Manta. Amidst the public jousting, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, acknowledged this past Friday that U.S. officials have lobbied the transfer of the FOL (Forward Operating Location) to the Pacific theatre of its northern neighbor.

According to the U.S. State Department, the current FOL stationed in Manta, Ecuador fulfills the following:

“The mission of the FOL is to help Ecuador protect the sovereignty of its territory against the transnational crime of drug trafficking. We are supporting efforts in the Eastern Pacific to intercept the flow of drugs that threatens the health, safety and economic stability of our hemisphere. Our cooperation with Ecuador is producing positive results.”

Translation: the post functions as a minor node for the fabled U.S. ‘War on Drugs’. Much akin to its counterpart in Colombia, U.S. civilian and military presence remains rather limited in its numbers and scope. Framed as a 10 year deal, the American FOL in Ecuador commenced in 1999 and is slated to expire, without renewal, in November 2009. The station is permitted at any one time to host up to 500 U.S. personnel, yet according to the State Department its current capacity employs far fewer:

“There are approximately 15 full-time U.S. personnel who work at the FOL to support the anti-drug flights. Depending on the number of flights at any given time, on average 150 pilots, crew members and other U.S. support personnel might be situated at the FOL for brief periods of a few days or weeks.”

These flights operate within the framework of aerial reconnaissance, essentially relaying intelligence for mobilization of Ecuadorian forces against suspected narcotics operations in their territories. Much of this is carried out by private contractors in the ‘grand’ Andean plan to eradicate the crop at its source.

While President Rafael Correa would like to wholly brand the outpost a bellicose infringement of sovereignty under the guise to dethrone his populist regime (though CIA appears active in country), it really amounts to King-Kong rhetoric among the region’s caudillos. The political move to rebuke the Gringos represents both an opportune moment to demonize complicity with American foreign policy, and to also undercut the Colombian position on FARC hits in Ecuadorian territory early March.

In recent years the traditional string of military assistance and training to pan-American countries has waned from levels of the 20th century fusion. Brazil, Panama, Argentina and Puerto Rico among others are ceasing to send their top commanders to the School of the Americas for operational training by U.S. forces. Among these countries, too have been the closing of U.S. operations centers positioned to maintain logistic projection of force and counter the surge of transnational organized crime (TOC) in the SOUTHCOM theater. The anomaly to this crescendo has been Colombia.

However, with the current freezing of the free trade agreement (TLC) in US Congress, it shall be a bit of a dance for President Álvaro Uribe regarding American operational expansion in country. Is he perturbed by the calls to further curb human rights abuses from U.S. public figures amid their very request to bolster American counternarcotics operations? While he entertains absurdly high approval ratings at home, his clout among the region’s trading partners dissipates with each passing confrontation. Can he afford ruffling the feathers yet again?

It seems likely that the already scant American presence in Ecuador will indeed wither by 2009, but it is yet to be gauged whether any strategic gain would merit either party with an outlying FOL on the Colombian coast. Perhaps more fundamentally it flaunts the U.S. loss of touch with the reality in Latin America.

Employment, Environmental Conservation, Venezuela

In search of ‘El Dorado’ redux

It’s no secret that the prospect of flowing gold and oyster-sized pearls drew hordes of Europeans to the Americas. It was the stuff of legends — one a man could profit handsomely from a voyage into the New World, raiding and pillaging the fortunes laid before them. Profit was bestowed upon the daring opportunist. Entrepreneurs saw in the virgin markets an opportunity to project themselves up the socioeconomic ladder that disenfranchised many in the rigid hierarchy of Europe. Vendors operated outside the lines of state control, evading taxation and largely ignoring restrictions on trade in favor of their own operations.

Passing through the countless museums across Latin America, one would imagine that those legends and tendencies were long buried in the past. Yet, ironically not much has actually changed. Sure enough, the Americas are steeped in natural resources that profit many handsomely. But even as no mystic treasures along the epic scale of ‘El Dorado’ were to be discovered, its search continues among the large mining conglomerates and campesinos trying to make ends meet.

The following clip from the ‘El Dorado’ film series produced by the documentary site,, provides an interesting glimpse of this phenomena in Southeast Venezuela:

While the potent mercury released into the rivers of Venezuela may seem a fringe consequence, these tendencies continue to manifest across natural realms of the Americas. States are increasingly struck with pressures to consecutively protect environmental resources, balance the demand of commercial markets, and permit a measurable standard of living amongst its populace. Nope folks, ‘El Dorado’ lives on in the heart of many Latin Americans and those who seek its resources alike.

Colombia, History

How the ‘Bogotazo’ was felt — 60 years past


Colombia’s Semana magazine presents an interesting media compilation on the notorious ‘Bogotazo’ riots that exploded 60 years ago today. It explores the assassination of Liberal politician and presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, April 9, 1948; an event which many mark the tipping point into a ghastly era—La Violencia. The disorder quickly spilled from the mob-filled streets of Bogotá to swaths of rural departments surrounding its central throne, producing carnage in ungoverned sectors of the country.

The interactive presentation features: radio transmissions, photo montages, an interesting clip from the History Channel documentary covering the mayhem, and Gaitán’s political dialog, among many other insights.

Interestingly enough, a young Fidel Castro witnessed the chaos unfolding and had met with Gaitán only a few days prior to organize a student rally. Also, the American professor and author David Bushnell was present and chronicles the experience in his excellent work, The Making of Modern Colombia.

This anniversary comes as a timely reminder that these tensions still carry overtones that echo deeply in contemporary Colombian society. The dichotomies of class and political orientation remain today just as real sixty years in passing. Even so, the history plays out as much in its epic nature as its conspiracy. To this day it is not known whether the would-be assassin, Juan Roa Sierra, actually perpetrated the incident, or whether he was merely a scapegoat beaten to his death by those thirsty for vengeance.

Every crisis charges a pariah, but perhaps as evidence enough today in Colombia, this zeal often perpetuates tomorrow’s conflict.

Update: Another comprehensive presentation of the event is also available online at El Espectador, featuring great clips, narratives, and historical information. Definitely worth the look.  


A pulse on Latin America

Well, I have been meaning to start a Latin American blog for some time. Alas, I finally kicked myself into gear and it takes form in ‘Ojo Gringo’. My intentions with this space are twofold— to share interesting aspects and developments in the sociopolitical and security realms of the Americas, and also to compel thoughtful discussion of their respective implications.

I’m guessing I will be talking to myself for awhile, but hey, check back soon for posts on the latest unfolding— we all know there is much to be covered in these upcoming weeks.

Cheers and buen provecho!