Elections, Venezuela

Electoral waves sway Caracas


Photo by Andres via Flickr

No tanks grind along the washed-out streets of Caracas, nor have battalions stormed breakaway sectors of Venezuela this Monday. No revolutions were to be televised. Rest assured Ms. O’Grady, the Andean state lives to see another day.

Record numbers of Venezuelans hit the streets yesterday, enduring long lines to partake in the country’s regional and municipal elections.

After months of lofty expectations for a political showdown between Chavistas and opposition to the current regime, results dictated in the early hours this morning permit neither side to boast of fervent victory.

Charged for many months by an aura of executive scale, the vote would gauge popular sentiment for President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian mandate and the fate of candidates who positioned themselves to such. Given his widespread grip upon the allied majority of Venezuela’s 22 states, it would test support for his ‘por ahora‘ stance, an onward pursuit toward expanding his grandiose socialist agenda.

Upon the announced results from the national election board (CNE), Chávez publicly declared:

We have a map almost completely dressed in of red, just a bit of red […] It’s a great victory for our people, for the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela). The road toward the construction of socialism has ratified itself– the new historic project of Venezuela; and now, we will move to deepen and extend it.

Although pro-Chávez candidates claimed victory in major swaths of the country, the most populous sectors with significant political sway, including the greater mayor of the nation’s capital Caracas, ceded to opposition. These decisive blows included wins in oil-heavy Zulia, north central Miranda, Tachira, and the industrial powerhouse, Carabobo. It appears grassroot frustrations with public security, inflation, high cost of food commodities, and lack of alternative chopped a leg from under the president on his country’s throne.

Chávez, however, contines to hold solid river cards at the governing table, brandishing broad insitutional control and consolidating party loyalists at nearly every level. Yet, his absolute goal of rehashing the failed 2007 constitutional referendum (allowing among other items, unlimited reelection) continues to sink, further washed over by the political riptide of yesterday’s ballot draw.

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Elections, Venezuela

The Hugo Chavez Show

Looks as though PBS Frontline will offer us a delectable Thanksgiving-week special this upcoming November 25. Before Americans’ traditional overeating, and the turkey’s dose of L-tryptophan set in, the documentary series aims to “[chronicle] Hugo Chavez’s ascent to power and his efforts to use the powers of the presidency to stay there.”

Considering this documentary will have a timely release amid upcoming Venezuelan regional elections (Nov. 23), it shall be intriguing to see what analytical conclusions the film draws in the wake of this critical political juncture for Venezuela. Although Chavez has been able to eliminate a swath of his key rivals, this race threatens his projection in pivotal sectors of the country— a prospect that would not settle well with the ire of ‘Chavistas’.

The program written, produced, and directed by filmmaker, Ofra Bikel, will pre-release on Frontline’s web site beginning Nov. 19.

Check out a preview below, and give us your take on the film upon its release— Chavez undoubtedly will.

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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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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.

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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.

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