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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Agriculture, Brazil, Environmental Conservation

Back to the Brazilian Bush


PHOTO BY BLAINE SHELDON

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.

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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.

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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, VBS.tv, 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.

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Colombia, History

How the ‘Bogotazo’ was felt — 60 years past


SEMANA.COM

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.  

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Admin

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!

—Blaine

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