Month: June 2016

Venezuela on the brink

OAS Secretary General Luis Amalgro's undisguised hostility toward Venezuela's president undermines his organization's ability to act as a mediator (source: dpa)
OAS Secretary General Luis Amalgro’s undisguised hostility toward Venezuela’s president undermines his organization’s ability to act as a mediator (source: dpa)

How long can you hang on the edge of an abyss without falling in? That’s the question being asked about Venezuela. People are dying in the hospitals because of shortages of medicines and bandages. The annual inflation rate has reached 700 percent. The country is in debt to the tune of $170 billion, $7 billion of which is due by the end of the year. With oil at $50 per barrel, there is little cash in the treasury to cover that payment and none to pay for imports needed to relieve the excruciating goods shortages. Chiefly suffering are the poor, whose welfare the Socialist government claims to make its principal objective.

Venezuela’s opposition now has a majority in the legislature and is pushing for a recall referendum to oust President Nicolas Maduro. In response, Mr. Maduro has declared a state of emergency, distributed arms to civilian vigilante groups and brought troops out onto the streets to block opposition protests. The ruling Chavistas are meanwhile using every trick in the book to stall the recall referendum, closing the only constitutional route to a change in government.

The details of this crisis have been described in a GIS special report by Dr. John Polga-Hecimovich, who outlines several possible scenarios, none of them optimistic. At every turn the government is growing more authoritarian, the shortages are getting more acute and daily life for Venezuelans is becoming more and more unbearable. The probability of violent protests and bloodshed increases each day.

What is to be done? With domestic forces at an impasse, an outside moderator seeking some form of compromise is the best solution. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, has invoked the Inter-American Democratic Charter and summoned member countries to discuss “alteration of the constitutional regime” in Venezuela.

‘The OAS labors under a legacy of U.S. domination. That makes it easy for Venezuela to dismiss any pressure as intervention in disguise


But the OAS is the wrong intermediary to end the Venezuelan standoff. Firstly, Mr. Almagro has not concealed his hostility toward Mr. Maduro, which undermines his credibility as an honest broker. More important, the OAS labors under a heavy legacy of domination by the United States. That makes it easy for Venezuela’s government to dismiss any pressure from the OAS as U.S. intervention in disguise – an opinion that could be shared by many member countries.

A better go-between – indeed, the only viable one – would be the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The crisis in Venezuela is a perfect opportunity for South America’s leaders to protect democratic governance and define their regional identity. With new governments in Brazil and Argentina demonstrating a willingness to act, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz, an experienced diplomat and outspoken defender of democracy, could join his colleagues in UNASUR in bringing the two sides in Venezuela to the negotiating table. Without an international effort to broker a compromise in that country, the outlook is for more suffering and a growing likelihood of bloodshed.

War on Drugs crippling Northern Triangle countries

The United States has been trying for decades to solve its drug problem by conducting a War on Drugs. That policy has failed and will continue to fail, so long as the declared enemies are the producing countries and the criminal organizations that ship the goods to the U.S.

The three countries in Central America that comprise the “Northern Triangle” – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – are the transshipment route for 80 percent of the illegal cocaine entering the U.S. It is no accident that the three countries are also the starting point each year for tens of thousands of migrants to the country.

March 1, 1988: a Honduran Second Lieutenant talks with American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division during joint exercises in Judicalpa, Honduras (source: dpa)
March 1, 1988: a Honduran Second Lieutenant talks with American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division during joint exercises in Judicalpa, Honduras (source: dpa)

The U.S. considers both the drugs and the immigration threats to national security. Washington sees the area as a geopolitical unit and has militarized its response to the drug trade in the form of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

The trouble with this policy is that these countries’ populations consider the military part of the problem. Along with poverty, violence and a lack of accountability among the military and police are the principal drivers of mass migration to the U.S. The Obama administration has attempted to deal with the economic and social drivers of migration through an initiative called the Alliance for Prosperity, but Congress has been slow to fund the project.

‘Washington sees the area as a geopolitical unit and has militarized its response

All of Central America was a war zone during the Cold War. Most significant for the geopolitics of the region, the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala could be resolved only with outside mediation by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and Mexico. In neither of these cases could the U.S. determine the outcome. Local governing elites were unable to suppress armed opposition.

In Honduras, a staging ground during the Cold War for armed intervention in the rest of the region, the political establishment has managed to maintain its grip on the country. It even got away with an old-fashioned coup against a populist president in 2009. In El Salvador, the Marxist guerrillas evolved into a political party and compete with the old ruling class for control. In Guatemala, the elite cling to authority as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish) has succeeded in bolstering the judiciary to the point where it was able to prosecute the former vice president and president for corruption, pushing both of them from office.

The principal problem in El Salvador is the violence of the maras (gangs). This requires improving the police and strengthening the judiciary. In Guatemala, the guarantors of the peace must continue to force the government to play by its own rules. In Honduras, the U.S. must push the government to expand the political space for the opposition and the press. A one-size-fits-all economic development program will not work, nor will providing more equipment for armed forces that are out of control and corrupt.

The Cuban Optimist

     A new definition of an optimist: a Cuban who believes that democracy will arrive on the island sooner rather than later and that friends outside the country should not slow the process by insisting that the Cuban government respect the human rights of its citizens.  To an outsider, it appears as if the current hierarchy of Cuban leaders is unwilling to leave power gracefully, or in any other way. 

    When I first visited Cuba not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the same optimists were confident that Fidel was organizing a transition to a new generation of leaders who would be able to maintain the gains of the revolution in a post-Cold War world. Today, despite all the changes and the promises of more change to come, the state bureaucracy is larger than ever and the island cannot produce enough food to feed the population.

     Can the infusion of tourist dollars make a difference the Cubans in the short run? My hope is that the transition in Cuba comes soon and in a peaceful manner.