Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 226: August 25, 2015
Argentina: On the election
Venezuela: Spiraling Conditions Threaten Elections and More

 

Argentina

Argentina’s mandatory open primaries (PASO) on August 9th brought little clarity as to who will succeed President Cristina Kirchner when elections are held on October 25. … Kirchner has held office since 2007 and, before that, served as the country’s First Lady to her late husband Nestor Kirchner from 2003-2007. … Three candidates are vying to replace her. … Kirchner’s hand-picked candidate and current governor of Buenos Aires province, Daniel Scioli, of the Front for Victory (FPV) – a Peronist faction – led the primary field with 38.4% of the vote. … Following him, eight points behind, was Mauricio Macri, the right-of-center mayor of Buenos Aires city and candidate for the We Can Change alliance. … In third place, with 20.6%, was former Kirchner ally-turned-critic Sergio Massa of the United for a New Alternative (UNA) ticket, which represents more moderate factions of Peronism. … All candidates competed on the same ballot, with the top finishers from each party qualifying for the general election. … In the absence of reputable polls in Argentina, the PASO serves as the most credible gauge of voters’ intentions. … Scioli’s margin would fall short of victory in the first round, which requires either 45% of the vote or 40% and a 10-point margin over the runner-up. … Failing those marks, the two top vote-getters would move to a second-round run-off November 22.

 

  • The August open primary results demonstrated that Argentinean voters remain deeply divided over the candidate who could best tackle the country’s significant economic challenges. Surprisingly, after 12 years of kirchnerismo- the longest government in the history of the country – large numbers of voters appear to favor continuity, even though the country has been on an economic rollercoaster much of the last decade. This year, the economy will see no growth, inflation stands at 30%, while foreign direct investment declined 41% in 2014. It appears the country’s presidential election will turn on how Massa supporters cast their ballots. There is reason to believe that in light of Massa’s 18-point gap behind Scioli, many will likely maintain their allegiance to Peronism over Macri, possibly pushing Scioli over the 45% threshold in the first round. Nevertheless, whoever succeeds President Kirchner will have to deal with serious economic and political challenges. While Scioli has run a campaign in favor of the status quo and trumpeting Kirchner’s economic legacy, sober observers believe he will be forced to implement drastic economic measures to reverse the country’s economic tailspin. While appearances are that Scioli may be the fourth term of kirchnerismo – after all, the President installed a trusted aide as Scioli’s running mate – others expect Scioli to assert his independence. Moreover, some in the private sector who have been among Kirchner’s fiercest critics already are acclimating themselves to a possible Scioli victory, rationalizing that he would have more success wrestling with a Peronist Congress than the more conservative Macri.

 

Venezuela

Just over three months ahead of December 6th legislative elections, Venezuela continues to be wracked by unprecedented levels of corruption, economic dysfunction, shortages of food and medicines, and street crime, leading to some speculation the elections may not occur at all, given the Maduro government’s precarious position. … As rationing and public queues for basic goods continue to worsen, a report by the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict (OVCS) shows that fear and desperation are becoming more prevalent in the country, with at least 132 incidents of looting and over 2,800 protests occurring in just the first half of 2015. … While the government declines to publish official inflation rates, outside estimates place it at over 800%, making it the highest in the world. … A number of regional ex-presidents, joined by former Spanish President Felipe González, have begun to express deep concerns over Maduro’s failure to arrest the country’s free-fall and unwillingness to change course, instead doubling down on obscuring economic statistics, persecuting critics, and manufacturing destabilizing conflicts with neighbors to distract attention away from the growing crisis. … Earlier this year, Maduro revived a decades-old territorial dispute with Guyana by abruptly ending a long-standing oil for rice trade deal, recalling Venezuela’s ambassador, and warning the newly elected president in Georgetown not to “bring war to our border.” … More recently, Maduro escalated tensions at the Colombian border after a Venezuelan military patrol was allegedly fired upon, blaming Colombian smugglers and “refugees” for the attack, as well as for the shortages of basic goods plaguing the country. … Maduro also responded by indefinitely closing a key border crossing in Venezuela’s Tachira state, sending 2,000 soldiers to the border, and taking the extreme step of declaring a state of emergency and suspending several constitutional rights in the region. … On the same day Maduro closed the border, Venezuelan authorities detained a Venezuelan officer, José Martín Raga, a self-described chavista, after he spoke frankly about systematic corruption in Venezuela in a published interview. … “Policemen are often greater criminals than the ones they’re set against,” he said, adding, “If we don’t accept our reality, our internal corruption, our weaknesses, if we don’t tighten the discipline and sanction those responsible, this will turn into a disaster.” … His comments followed the release of a secretly recorded video apparently showing the extra-judicial killing by security forces of gang members in the state of Aragua.

 

  • Spiraling conditions in Venezuela, augmented now by the government’s increasingly belligerent tone with its neighbors, not only raise serious questions about the conduct of free and fair elections in a matter of months, but also present dangerous developments for regional peace and security. While the group of regional ex-presidents continues trying to rally sitting governments to proactively intervene to forestall a violent social breakdown, no government has stepped forward, preferring to rely on a feckless and moribund diplomatic effort under the banner of UNASUR, an organization created by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The Obama administration has apparently lost all confidence in the prospects for a regional intervention and, in keeping with its desired regional legacy of normalizing relations with adversaries, has opted to directly engage the Maduro government in an effort to avoid upheaval. However, it is difficult to see how such an approach could lead to any enduring solution to what ails the country. The Maduro government, bolstered by its close Cuban advisors, refuses to grant the opposition any legitimacy, repeatedly states that chavismo will never be voted out of power, represses the private sector, and, now, is seeking conflict with its neighbors. In short, the likelihood of any compromise or room for negotiation on any of the key issues which could avoid a catastrophe in Venezuela would appear to be between slim and none. Instead, it appears the administration’s time would be more productive preparing for a regional humanitarian relief effort that will be needed for the coming government collapse.

 

Copyright © 2009-2019 Visión Américas

 

Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 225: August 10, 2015

El Salvador: A Country in Crisis
End of the Good Times

 

El Salvador

El Salvador is in the grips of a security and governability crisis. … In recent days, Salvadoran gangs — known as maras — engineered a crippling bus strike that has severely damaged the country’s economy and raised serious questions about the government’s capacity to control the maras’ increasing aggression. … Gangs ordered the country’s bus drivers to stop service, affecting some 1.3 million passengers, about 20 percent of the country’s population. … Nine drivers who defied the order were reportedly murdered. … Business groups estimated losses from the bus shutdown at $20 million per day. … The country’s security crisis has caused the homicide rate rise to levels not seen since the 1980s armed insurgency. … In seven months, homicides have increased 50 percent compared to last year; it is estimated that 23 murders take place on a daily basis, making this Central American country one of the most violent in the world. … Compounding this insecurity is a crisis of governability. … For several months, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, 71, has been battling unidentified health problems and traveling frequently to Cuba for treatment. … During his absences, the ailing president turns over decision-making to a junta comprised of the Secretary General of the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Medardo Gonzalez Trejo; the president of the National Assembly, Lorena Peña; and José Luis Merino, a hard-line ideologue with operational ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the chavistas in Venezuela. … El Salvador’s economy is suffering from the instability and violence. … The country has the lowest growth rate in Central America, at just 2 percent, and receives the lowest level of foreign direct investment in the region.

     

  • The gangs made no overt demands during the bus strike, leading many to view it as a power play to establish its position of strength and force the Salvadoran government into another truce. In 2012, the FMLN entered into negotiations with gang leaders ostensibly to reduce the number of murders caused by gang turf wars. That effort failed, as media reports suggested there was no decrease in the violence; Salvadorans also reacted negatively to the revelation that the government enlisted the gangs’ support for the FMLN’s electoral campaign. Since then, the government has steadfastly refused to negotiate, even as the balance of power continues to shift in the maras’ favor. The gangs’ ability to sow chaos nationwide compounds its pervasive influence at the neighborhood level, exerting pressure among small businesses, in the informal economy, and in schools. This problem is partly of El Salvador’s own making: the ill-advised truce empowered the gangs beyond the government’s capacity to respond. The U.S. Congress is in the process of authorizing assistance through the Alliance for Prosperity to help El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to fight the root causes of violence and poverty. However, corruption-ridden governments have yet to inspire confidence within their nations, particularly with the economic elites and political class, in order to implement an effective response. None of these countries should face their respective crises alone, but without clear local commitments to transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, any outside assistance will do little to improve the situation.

 

Ecuador

Two months after massive street protests rocked major Ecuadorean cities, the government of populist Rafael Correa is facing another domestic scandal over allegations that Ecuadorean security services were ordered to spy on the government’s political opponents, journalists, and advocacy groups. … In one case, leaked documents suggest that the security agency SENAIN was gathering personal information on environmental activists opposed to oil exploration in Ecuador’s Yasuni national park. … Other documents suggest that SENAIN sent agents to infiltrate political events held by opposition groups. … These revelations appear to verify longstanding complaints from Correa’s political opponents claiming to be hacked and monitored by the government. … A number of human rights advocacy groups have criticized Correa in the past for failing to respect civil liberties in Ecuador. … In July, Human Rights Watch reported that “prosecutors and judges in Ecuador have used charges of ‘terrorism’ and ‘sabotage’ in the criminal code against anti-government protesters.” … The July protests were sparked by a proposal by Correa to raise inheritance and capital gains taxes, but they soon expanded to complaints about a slowing economy and Correa’s interest in a constitutional reform to allow indefinite reelection. … Although Correa still maintains substantial popular support, indicators are pointing to rough seas ahead. … Dropping oil prices and an appreciating U.S. dollar (the economy is dollar-based) have led many economists to predict either no growth or a contraction this year and next. … Ecuador is OPEC’s smallest member and depends heavily on oil and mining. … The price of Ecuadorean crude oil has fallen from $91 per barrel in January 2014 to about $45 last month. The oil sector accounts for about one-quarter of total government revenue and about one half of the country’s exports. … Last week, the country also suffered another setback in its long-running dispute with Chevron, when a U.S. federal appeals court upheld a $96 million judgment against Ecuador.

     

  • To date, the Correa government has avoided the levels of economic chaos being experienced by another populist government in Venezuela, also heavily dependent on the oil sector. However, Ecuador’s recent growth has been driven by high oil prices (in addition to Chinese loans) and significant public spending, which amounted to some 44 percent of GDP in 2013. Those numbers will necessarily contract in the foreseeable future, and managing the fiscal squeeze amid growing political unrest will sorely test Correa’s political skills. For now, the Ecuadorean opposition remains divided, but incidents such as the recent spying revelations could galvanize the opposition into a more organized and cohesive movement. High oil prices and big spending allowed Correa to skirt the consequences of his efforts to consolidate power at the expense of Congress and the courts and to bully the media into self-censorship for fear of reprisal. It is uncertain that budget cuts and diversification of the economy to reduce its dependence on oil will provide him room to maneuver politically. Correa has survived eight years in power in a country that saw his previous three predecessors fail to serve out their terms. The next two years will demonstrate whether his luck has run out.

 

Copyright © 2009-2019 Visión Américas

 

Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 224: July 28, 2015

Cuba: Embassies Move Relations Forward, but How Far?
Brazil: Political Crisis Deepens 

 

Cuba

Normalized diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba took another step forward last week with the formal re-designation of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., as its new embassy. … Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to attend a flag-raising ceremony at the re-designated U.S. embassy in Havana on August 14th. … Kerry hosted Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez at the State Department following the Cuban ceremony, saying, “The interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement.”… Rodríguez once again repeated his government’s demand that the U.S. unconditionally lift all U.S. sanctions against Cuba. … While President Obama does have authority to liberalize specific categories of trade and travel, the full embargo of Cuba can only be lifted by an act of Congress. … Details of the embassy agreement have been scarce, but media reports say, in terms of diplomatic freedom of maneuver, that the top four diplomats in each capital will have unrestricted travel rights.  (Others will be required to give notification – though not obtain permission – before any travel.) … Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) voiced his disapproval of the embassy’s opening, “Diplomatic relations with the U.S. are a privilege and must be earned, yet the Cuban government refuses to make any substantial changes to uphold democratic principles and human rights since the December 17th announcement.” … In Congress, both supporters and critics of President Obama’s Cuba outreach policy have sponsored legislation either attempting to expand it or hinder it. … Last Thursday, the Senate Appropriations committee voted to remove restrictions on Americans seeking to travel to Cuba. … Conversely, House Republicans amended a bill to block additional funding for an expanded U.S. embassy in Cuba. … The Miami Herald reports that administration officials are evaluating a possible visit to Cuba by President Obama sometime next year, depending on whether progress is made on “the arrests of dissidents, access to the internet and the development of the island’s private sector”. … A recent analysis by the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for human rights in Cuba, found that political repression and arbitrary detentions on the island have increased since Obama’s rapprochement with the Castro regime began. … Observers have also noted an increase in the use of violence by the Cuban government. Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State and chief U.S. negotiator in the Cuba talks, condemned a recent violent attack by Cuban state security that hospitalized high-profile Cuban dissident Antonio Rodiles.

 

  • The official opening of reciprocal embassies continues a policy that to date has been long on images and symbolism, but has yet to bring any practical change to substantive issues that divide the two governments.  Rather than responding to the Obama administration’s unilateral concessions with any good-will gestures of their own, the Castro government continues to issue demands for more concessions, such as the lifting of all economic sanctions and the return of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.  The one-sidedness of the outreach to date has only hardened critics’ opposition on Capitol Hill, eliminating the possibility of Congress further lifting sanctions, to say nothing of confirming a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba.  (Career State Department official Jeffrey DeLaurentis, already posted to Havana, will serve as chargé d’affaires for the foreseeable future.) The White House and its supporters on Cuba also face a dilemma in sustaining the political momentum that they deem critical to securing the President’s legacy.  By fast-tracking normalization with unilateral concessions, they have signaled to the Cuban government that the U.S. is willing to de-prioritize human rights for the sake of normalized relations.  But, in turn, the continued repression of Cuban dissidents and human rights activists necessarily restricts the President’s political space to act, as it gives opponents tangible, real examples of the human costs of the President’s balancing act. In the coming months, the President is unlikely to get any cooperation from the Cuban government on the human rights front, as maintaining control far outweighs any benefits to come from Obama’s limited economic opening.

 

Brazil

Escalating corruption scandals and controversies are taking their toll on President Dilma Rousseff, driving her approval rating to an all-time low of 7 percent and raising the drastic specter of impeachment. … Her possible involvement in the state oil company’s kickback scandal (where money from inflated contracts was used to finance political campaigns of her ruling Workers’ Party [PT]) and the alleged misappropriation of funds from state financial institutions to make the government’s end-year budget targets are some of the issues challenging her presidency. … Recent polls note that those favoring Rousseff’s impeachment have risen from to 62 percent from 59 percent four months ago, while 84 percent believe her administration is unable to resolve the ongoing economic crisis. … Rousseff’s sagging popularity has also accelerated the fracturing of her government’s coalition. …  Several leading political figures have now broken ranks with her, including Vice President Michel Temer, House Speaker Eduardo Cunha and Senate president Renan Calheiros, all members of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMBD). … Cunha and Calheiros, also facing charges of corruption, have accused the government of persecution. … In a recent news conference, Cunha said “They [the government] want to drag me through the mud, and that’s something that I won’t allow”. … Calheiros praised Cunha and has described Rousseff’s administration as a “horror film.” … Vice President Temer, who would become president if Rousseff were impeached, said, “What can happen any day now is that the PMDB splits from the government, especially in 2018, when we intend to put our own presidential candidate.” … By breaking ranks with the PT, the PMDB, which holds most seats in Congress, will paralyze the executive’s agenda. … Members of the opposition, including former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while not mentioning impeachment directly, recently stated, “We are not owners of what will happen in coming weeks, in coming months…but we are ready to take over…the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) knows how to rule.” … The state oil company scandal, dubbed Operation “Car Wash,” which sparked investigations beginning in March 2014, has targeted more than 50 politicians and more than a dozen businessmen for taking more than $2 billion in kickbacks. … As part of the investigation, former presidents Fernando Collor de Mello and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva have also been accused of corruption. … Collor de Mello, who was impeached in 1992, had over $1 million in cash and vehicles seized last week. … Lula da Silva faces an investigation for influence-peddling on behalf of Brazil’s construction company Odebrecht.  … Marcelo Odebrecht, CEO of Brazil’s largest construction company, has been arrested for corruption, money laundering, and criminal conspiracy. … Compounding the political crisis is Brazil’s economy, which is expected to shrink 1.5 percent, and is facing a foreign investment decline from $39 billion in 2014’s to $25 billion in 2015 and a 20 percent devaluation of the country’s currency in 5 months.

     

  • With more than two years to go in her second term, President Rousseff is entering by far the most difficult period of her presidency.  A possible move from Congress to push for her impeachment is uncertain at this juncture given the political repercussions and the alleged involvement of congressional leadership, including Cunha and Calheiros, in the corruption. However, an indictment of Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s patron and protector, would be the severest blow to date to Rousseff’s fortunes. With investigations ongoing, it remains to be seen how many more politicians and businessmen will be caught in the growing web. What is clear is that ordinary Brazilians are fed up with official corruption and the chronic inattention to public needs.  Their verdicts on those indicted can be expected to be harsh and without quarter.  Rousseff’s political difficulties will also likely hamper any effort to move forward on a more cooperative relationship with the United States, following from her successful trip last June, in which U.S. officials have said even including mention of a possible and long-elusive trade agreement. However, with her political capital fast diminishing at home, it is unlikely she would be able to muster the political strength to shepherd any major new initiatives.

 

Copyright © 2009-2019 Visión Américas

 

Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 223: July 13, 2015

Mexico: Fallout from El Chapo Escape
Colombia: Peace Negotiations Back on Track–But for How Long? 

 

Mexico

For the second time in 14 years, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, has escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico. … In 2014, Mexican authorities apprehended El Chapo in his home state of Sinaloa after a thirteen-year manhunt. …  Asked at the time whether he could guarantee that the kingpin would this time remain behind bars, President Enrique Peña Nieto said it would be “unforgivable” if another escape took place and that it was the “government’s obligation to stop this from happening again”. …  Barely a year and a half later, El Chapo escaped from El Altiplano, one of Mexico’s most secure prisons, through an elaborate tunnel thirty feet beneath the ground and almost a mile long. … Guzmán was believed to head a business empire that accounted for an estimated one quarter of the illegal narcotics shipped to the U.S. … President Peña Nieto is currently on a state visit in France, where he has decided to remain despite the dramaticannouncement of the escape. … Mexican Interior Secretary, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who was also traveling with the President, returned to Mexico to oversee the situation. … As Interior Secretary, Osorio Chong will have to answer for how one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug kingpins was able to escape without any detection in an operation that likely stretched over months. … The escape catalyzed debate in Mexico and the United States over Mexico’s commitment to the drug war and the debilitating impact of entrenched corruption throughout the security, judicial, and penal sectors. … Likewise, it has revived debate over extraditions to the United States of high-profile drug capos that proved so successful under Plan Colombia. … Under Peña Nieto, Mexico has significantly decreased the number of extraditions that was a staple of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderón. … According to reports, extraditions from Mexico to the U.S. dropped from 115 in 2012, Calderón’s final year, to 66 in 2014. …As one expert told Forbes, however, El Chapo‘s escape “sends the message that the prison system is broken when the highest-security facility can’t hold the highest-profile convict.”

 

  • El Chapo‘s  escape is a huge embarrassment to Peña Nieto, who entered office promising a more sophisticatedsecurity strategy to confront the drug cartels responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 Mexican since 2006.  With his popularity already suffering due to a sagging economy, the last fight the President needed at this point was about the war against transnational criminal organizations and U.S.-Mexico cooperation in that effort.  Moreover, it overwhelms his desire to change the face of Mexico from one of drugs and criminality to one of business and investment opportunity.  More specifically, it brings the president unwanted conversation about the pervasivenessof corruption in Mexico.  For the second time, El Chapo has shown that Mexican institutions are no match for the powerof the drug capos.  The elaborate escape not only required help from prison officials, but also necessitated detailed plans of the prison and classified information about the security systems in and outside the prison, information which could have only been obtained from sources within Mexico’s security apparatus.  An investigation will no doubt be conducted, but is unlikely to expose the extent of the conspiracy.  The bottom line is that El Chapo‘s escape demonstrates that Mexico’s security strategy, not to mention the President’s ambitious domestic reform agenda, are unlikely to achieve their full measure of success without a systematic effort to depress current levels of corruption.  Political will from President Peña Nieto’s administration will be as paramount as ever to restore confidence in his ability to govern.  In remaining in France and not returning to Mexico, President Peña Nieto appears to be trying to downplay the significance of the news of the escape.  It is a gamble he may soon regret taking.

 

Colombia

Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) appear to be back on track for the time being after both sides agreed to “de-escalate” a renewed round of military attacks. … However, the damage to the already tenuous public support for the process may be irreparable, after the FARC violated the last de facto truce in mid-April by ambushing a Colombian military patrol that left a dozen soldiers dead. … That prompted a renewed government military offensive, which in turn led to a number of FARC attacks against critical infrastructure and the oil industry, the latter which caused the spilling of some 400,000 gallons of crude oil into local rivers and forests. … The increased violence led the international aid organization, Doctors Without Borders, to declare a humanitarian crisis in southwestern Colombia. … As a result, the Colombian public, already suspicious of the FARC and its intentions, turned even more harshly against President Juan Manuel Santos’ efforts to reach a peace agreement. … A recent poll by Datexco found that 78% of Colombians disagree with the way Santos is conducting the peace process and 75% don’t believe that a peace agreement with the FARC will be reached. … In reaction to the overwhelmingly negative public opinion, the FARC reversed course on July 8 and announced a renewed unilateral ceasefire, which it had violated in April. … President Santos then reciprocated by announcing a “de-escalation of military actions,” if the FARC held to its own declared cease-fire. … This past Sunday, President Santos addressed the country’s lack of confidence in the peace negotiations, saying that in four monthshe would decide whether or not to continue the negotiations. … Although some are praising the new ceasefire and de-escalation announcements, others like Colombian Senator Alfredo Rangel remain highly skeptical, given the long history of broken ceasefires by the FARC. … “The unilateral truce is a farce (…),” he said. “The guerrillas will take advantage of the situation to continue committing crimes, continue trafficking drugs, increase its rearmament , recruitment and strengthening throughout the country.”

     

  • The most salient point resulting from the latest de facto truce in Colombia is not that the FARC has announced another unilateral cease-fire, but that the Colombian government readily acceded to their own – once again placing it in the position of appearing to grant the concession by giving the FARC yet another chance to prove its interest in a negotiated solution.  For President Santos, it only enhances public perceptions that he is being taken advantage of by the FARC and by Cuba and Venezuela, which are “observers” of the process and no friends of Colombia.  Many believe that in so openly identifying the peace negotiations with his legacy, the President has weakenedhis hand, while strengthening that of the FARC at the negotiating table.  Perhaps Santos, reputedly a savvy poker player, knows he has the strong hand, and continues trying to lure the FARC commanders into a bet they cannot win.  But, in this, his enemy is not the devious FARC, but time.  After more than two years of talks, he has yet to convince the Colombian people that the current negotiations are in the national interest. Although a respite from the violence is certainly welcome for Colombian citizens often caught in the crossfire between government troops and the FARC, it hardly is a bet on which to place their future.  What it means for the present is that the parties return to the negotiating table without any agreement yet on the only issues that matter: the disarming and demobilization of FARC guerrillas.  The Colombian people are demanding no less than surrender and full accountability for FARC leaders for their decades of criminality.  Achieving those objectives remains the make-or-break challenge of the negotiations.

 

Copyright © 2009-2019 Visión Américas

Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 222: June 23, 2015

Venezuela: U.S. Policy Zigs and Zags
Brazil: A Weakened Rousseff Visits U.S. 

Venezuela 

 

The Venezuelan government has set December 6 as the date for long-anticipated national assembly elections, with the country as polarized as any time under the late president Hugo Chávez. … In recent weeks, however, political leaders from Latin America and other regions have stepped up public campaigns calling on the Maduro government to respect human rights and democratic norms. … Last Thursday, a delegation of Brazilian senators, headed by former presidential candidate Aécio Neves, travelled to Venezuela to visit Leopoldo López and other jailed opposition leaders. … Their bus from the airport, however, was intercepted and attacked by a mob of government supporters. … Unable to visit the prisoners, and with little or no protection from the Maduro government, the delegation was forced to return to the airport and leave the country. … In another recent visit, the former president of Spain, Felipe González, also was blocked from meeting with the jailed opposition and was publicly denounced by the government, who declared him persona non grata. … Former presidents of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Bolivia also have tried to visit the prisoners with no success. … To date, 23 ex-presidents have signed a letter demanding their immediate release. … In stark contrast, the Obama administration appears to be pursuing a policy of accommodation with the Venezuelan government. … On June 13, U.S. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon met with Diosdado Cabello, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly who, according to published reports, is the principal target of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into narcotics trafficking. … As recently as last March, the administration appeared to be moving in a different direction, with sanctions being levied against a handful of mid-level security officials for human rights violations. …  However, after the Maduro government threatened to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the matter, and steal the spotlight from President Obama’s Cuba rapprochement, Secretary of State John Kerry dispatched Shannon to Caracas for private consultations. … Although no U.S. official acknowledged making any concessions to Maduro, no further human rights sanctions have been imposed since Shannon’s intervention.

    • The accommodationist policy of the Obama administration toward the Maduro government, even as more regional actors have become more vocal and active, has sown a great deal of confusion and concern among many in the Venezuelan opposition movement.  Many legitimately wonder whether the administration has abandoned them to their fate under chavismo in the interest of managing a “soft-landing” for the for the Maduro government as a result of the economic and social debacle that is Venezuela today. At the very least, the intimate involvement of a senior U.S. diplomat in the Venezuela controversy ought to mean, once and for all, that Washington would take an effective stand for the rule of law.  If not, U.S. policymakers will share some responsibility for that country’s slide into the abyss.  Mass demonstrations, fraudulent elections, systematic repression, the jailing of prominent members of the opposition, economic chaos, and a symbiosis of the regime with criminal and terrorist organizations are the troubling facts of life in Venezuela today.  These conditions, which have been deteriorating for more than a decade, have been left to fester.  The United States’ hard line against state-sponsored drug trafficking goes back decades, and it is profoundly risky to shelve such a policy for attempted short-term political gains.  Moreover, normalizing diplomatic relations with Caracas at this juncture risks benefiting Maduro’s ability to hold onto power, to the detriment of U.S. regional interests. However, negotiating the surrender of Cabello and his co-conspirators would be a very worthy undertaking.  Now that the Maduro government has set a date of December 6 for parliamentary elections, the emphasis should be placed on securing an impartial electoral monitoring mission. The Venezuelan regime has traditionally rejected independent observers, contributing to the perception among opposition voters that campaigns are not free and the counting of votes is not fair.  The situation in Venezuela continues to be tense and dangerous for the region. U.S. policymakers and democratic governments in the region cannot overlook the fact that allowing Venezuela to careen forward into an uncertain future only portends difficulties for all concerned.

Brazil 

 

On June 30, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will make her first visit to the U.S. since relations between the two countries were strained by the allegation that the Brazilian leader had been the target of U.S. electronic surveillance. … Her visit comes amidst a huge controversy in Brazil over a massive $17 billion graft scheme that has implicated members of the ruling Workers’ Party along and some of Brazil’s most prominent corporations. … Brazilian police on Friday arrested the CEOs of Brazil’s largest construction firms Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez for their alleged involvement in the scheme. … Previous arrests related to the corruption scandal include numerous executives from Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party treasurer, João Vaccari Neto. … On Monday, Brazilian prosecutors announced that they are seeking U.S. assistance in building a case against those involved in the country’s corruption scheme after being “inspired by the FIFA case.” … The revelations of the graft scandal have severely damaged the Brazilian economy, which analysts note already was suffering due to Rousseff’s attempts to micromanage the economy during her first term. … The country’s economic woes as well as the corruption scandal have caused Rousseff’s political support to plummetsince winning reelection in October by the tightest margin in Brazilian history. … A Datafolha poll released Sunday showed that the Rousseff administration has reached a record-low approval rating of 10 percent. … Rousseff’s unpopularity has relegated her to playing a far less active role in her own government and has required her to play defense against a hostile congress. … Despite these factors, some are optimistic about the fruits of Rousseff’s visit. … Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “We look to June 30th as a way to relaunch [U.S.-Brazil relations].” … Jacobson also stated that she expects progress in the areas of health, education exchanges, defense cooperation, and climate change.

  • Rousseff’s low approval rating indicates that those dissatisfied with her presidency now includes poor and working-class Brazilians angered by the corruption scandal that saw the theft of $17 billion dollars. This indignationapparently trumps the fact that Rousseff’s party has led the charge for generous government spending on public welfare programs. Rousseff’s political troubles at home have likely made her more amendable to cooperation with the United States; however, they also severely hinder her ability to follow through on any meaningful bilateral commitments. The downside of this visit is that both Presidents Obama and Rousseff might be satisfied with merely symbolic gestures that score political points at home rather than meaningful commitments that address pressing regional issues and truly mark a new era in U.S.-Brazil relations. Repairing U.S.-Brazil relations is long overdue, and, if done properly, could mark the return of U.S. engagement in the region and politically benefit both leaders.  Despite Brazil’s economic woes, it remains a regional power that could play a more constructive role in countries where democratic institutions are under severe pressure, such as Venezuela. Commitments on defense cooperation, Internet governance, and economic opening will be more difficult to achieve but also should be addressed in order to pave the way to increased trade and investment between the two countries and a more stable region. This visit obviously will not address all of the issues that require U.S. and Brazilian cooperation, but it could usher in more substantive cooperation between the two countries through the balance of President Obama’s term.

Copyright © 2009-2019 Visión Américas

Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 221: June 8, 2015

Mexico: Elections Offer Mixed Bag
Central America: Scandals Could Hurt U.S. Aid Prospects 

Mexico 

 
Forty million Mexicans voted in mid-term elections Sunday, giving the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) a narrow working majority in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress of the Union). … According to partial results, the PRI won about 29 percent of the votes cast; combined with the 7 percent supporting the Green Party (PVEM), the PRI-led coalition is expected to barely hold on to a majority of Chamber seats. …  The center-right National Action Party (PAN) won 21 percent; the traditional leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) received 10.7 percent, and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), founded by the leftist maverick Andrés Manuel López Obrador, garnered 8.5 percent. … In addition to the congressional results, voters elected 9 of 31 governors, 16 Delegates of the Federal District, and 640 state legislators. … For the first time in history, an independent candidate was elected governor; Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, known as “The Bronco,” will govern the northern state of Nuevo Leon, an industrial hub whose $81 billion economy makes it the second richest in the country. … The PRI won 4 governor races including Campeche, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, and Guerrero; the PAN won Baja California Sur and Queretaro; and the PRD won Michoacán; the election in the state of Colima remains too close to call between the PRI and the PAN. … Although election day was not marred by widespread violence as many feared, during the campaign period, eight candidates were murdered and there were 70 episodes of kidnapping, assaults, and attacks on government facilities. … In response to boycott threats by the national teachers union, the federal government deployed Federal Police, the Army and the Navy to the affected states.
 
  • The election results represent a mixed bag for the ruling PRI; although the PRI-led coalition will be able to manage votes on the budget and key national policies, the outcome does not give President Enrique Peña Nieto the political momentum he needs to salvage his ambitious agenda of economic and social reforms.  The grave risk to Mexico is that only a strong federal government and president has the resources to jumpstart the country’s flagging economy or to meet the threat of narcotrafficking-related violence, which has flared up dramatically in recent months.  However, the PRI may blame its losses on the plummeting approval ratings of the scandal-challenged Peña Nieto, whose power may be depleted further as PRI bosses and state governors distance themselves from the once omnipotent presidency and prepare to choose his successor in 2018.  The news for other political parties is not positive either, as the PAN continues its disorganized slide in national politics after having held the presidency from 2000-12.  The PAN’s poor performance may invite a challenge for leadership of the party, which will either produce an organization that is more competent and coherent or one that is even more divided.  In the meantime, López Obrador, the PRI’s bitterest critic, has splintered the vote on the left, which ironically secures the ruling party’s left flank for the foreseeable future.  But, MORENA’s takeover of the government of Mexico City may presage unrest in the capital city, underscoring the image of instability in the nation as a whole.  Although Rodriguez Calderón may find it difficult to govern without partisan support in the legislature of Nuevo León, his independent victory may encourage powerful industrialists to challenge the political order in the future.  The insecurity in the country, anxiety in the economy, and disarray in all of the national parties may force Mexicans to look for unconventional solutions that challenge the political order.

 

Central America

 
As the U.S. Congress considers President Obama’s proposed $1 billion assistance package to Central America, regional governments are experiencing significant corruption and security crises that threaten their ability to govern effectively. … In El Salvador, the collapse of the government’s ill-fated gang truce has led to a dramatic spike in violence. … Officials there recorded a total of 635 homicides in May, making it the deadliest month since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. … Initially, the truce appeared to have a direct impact on violent crime in the Central American nation, significantly reducing the murder rate between 2012 and 2014. … However, the sharp increase in disappearances and the discovery of hidden mass graves with hundreds of victims of gang violence caused many in El Salvador to question the government’s wisdom for having pursued the gang truce in the first place and call for a new strategy. … Gangs have reacted to increased crackdowns by the police with violent reprisals and by releasing videos laden with threats of “war” against the government and calls for an end to anti-gang enforcement. … In Guatemala, several government corruption scandals have been revealed in recent weeks, involving the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenues by high-ranking officials. … Among those implicated are the vice president, who was forced to resign last month; president of the Guatemalan Central Bank; current and former heads of the national tax office; and other high-ranking politicians and cabinet ministers. … Guatemalans have reacted to the scandal with massive street protests calling for the resignations of President Otto Perez Molina and others. … In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández admitted that his 2013 campaign received money from businessmen connected with a recently discovered corruption scandal involving the country’s social security system. … A congressional report released on Friday claims that these individuals gave as much as $280,000 in political donations to the president’s party. … Hernández claims he was not aware of the money’s origins; however, that has likewise not stopped massive protests in the streets of Honduras calling for his resignation. 
 
  • There is widespread recognition in Washington of the need for increased U.S. assistance and engagement with the so-called Northern Tier countries of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – to help stabilize the drug-fueled security situations that are negatively impacting crime rates and migration flows to the United States.  However, at the same time, there is consensus that there should be no blank check to regional governments, due to concern over endemic corruption.   Indeed, without aggressively confronting pervasive corruption – beyond central government graft to criminal infiltration of local government and law enforcement units – any assistance package will have little lasting impact.  The myriad scandals confronting Northern Tier governments are an unfortunate reminder of the depths of the challenges faced. Given the current popular anger toward governments, it is also important that U.S. aid is not seen as an endorsement of the region’s leaders.  The Obama administration and its Central American partners would do well to examine establishing independent investigative organizations in each of the three countries, similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to ensure accountability, uphold the rule of law, and end impunity. The administration can also be supportive by being more active in using existing authorities to combat corruption and criminality, such as the use of Treasury Department designations and the withdrawing of U.S. visas.  Congress clearly recognizes the importance of an aid package, but the Obama administration will need to address legitimate concerns and show that it is fully committed to ensuring those concerns are addressed as a precondition for any significant aid package.  

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