Ten years ago, family-run paladar restaurants were the (shrinking) bastion of cuentapropismo in Cuba: tiny, over-regulated oases of creativity and the-customer-knows-best level service. More than one government official, Havanatur van, or state-owned taxi in those days discouraged patronage, and a few even declined to take me and groups with which I traveled to paladars. Those days are clearly gone – and good riddance.
On my way to one paladar last week, our taxi driver fielded a few questions about the changing Cuban economy and his role in it. He pays 31 CUC a day to rent his taxi from the state, and after paying for gas and maintenance, he still clears about 15-20 CUC a day. That means he makes in one day what the average Cuban without access to hard currency (or to CUCs) makes in a whole month. We asked what he thinks about the changes afoot in Cuba, and whether he feels hopeful, or perhaps that change has come too little, too late to the island. He expressed optimism, offering this candid response: “Yo creo en Raul. Nunca creia en Fidel.” (I believe in Raul. I never believed in Fidel.)
That comment was followed by one even more ubiquitous: “If I work hard, I'll make more money.”
When discussing the economic changes under way, government officials and academic scholars make this same point. Some may call it an updated version of socialism, but there is broad support for an increasingly free market on the island. So it was more than a little ironic – and awkward – for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come to Havana and declare that capitalism is in "decay" precisely when it's just getting started in Cuba. It's not happening without reservation or restriction, but systemic change has arrived.
As for Yoani Sanchez's more bleak outlook on the changes in Cuba, she's not alone in her criticisms, obviously. Many Cubans have grown tired of waiting for change, and now that it is arriving, one change (or two or three) at a time, it can certainly be hard to believe Cubans will ever arrive where they're going. For many, the answer is still to simply emigrate, because both the United States and Spain make it very easy for Cubans to do so. One economist I talked to told me that things probably won't truly get better until maybe five years down the road, and so naturally many Cubans will continue to leave in the meantime.
But for those who have the wherewithal and the patience to remain, the future is slowly becoming whatever they will make of it.
Globo newspaper reported recently that new policies might soon open the door to fast-track visas for skilled workers. With recessions dimming prospects for professionals in both the US and Europe, it is not impossible that Brazil may be about to experience a second golden age of immigration.
Current visa and immigration restrictions reflect the sort of "Brazil for Brazilians" policies emblematic of the last dictatorship (1964-85), during which time authorities drafted the current Statute on Foreigners.
A team within the president’s office, the Secretary of Strategic Affairs, has been assigned to consider alternative visa and immigration policies. The coordinator of that team, Ricardo Paes de Barros, ventures: “now that Brazil is an island of prosperity in the world, there are a lot of good quality people who want to come here.” Paes admits that Canada and Australia are the models that Brazil seeks to emulate.
From January to September of 2011 – President Rousseff’s first year in office – the number of visas issued increased by a full third. There were 51,353 visas issued last year.
Spaniards are currently the largest demographic of skilled workers with visas. They experience greater ease in learning the language, adapting to the culture, and suffer from a woeful dearth of opportunities at home. Unemployment in Spain hovers at an untenable 25 percent. When asked about his experience settling down to work in Brazil, one Brazil-based Spaniard said to Globo, “the bureaucracy is more complicated than I imagined.”
For someone from a Latin country to admit that the Brazilian bureaucracy is complicated signals the inexplicable and unnecessary complexity of dealing with the Brazilian state. It certainly validates my own excruciating experience. Visa requirements – filling-out an application and certifying qualifications in the Brazilian consulate (at a cost) – are only the beginning of what it can mean to work in Brazil.
My own experience
In my own case, a long, grinding bureaucratic process to validate my Ph.D. – in order to teach – caused me such heart-wrenching desperation that I had to give my feelings regular pep-talks.
The first step I had to take was to FedEx my UT diploma, signed by the university, to the “closest Brazilian consulate” – Houston. The cost of the FedEx aside, authentication ran me about US$25 for an official-looking seal on the back of my diploma. The remaining "validation" of my Ph.D. took over 10 months. I required costly “official” (juramentado) translations, a heap of paperwork, certified records of everything I have ever done academic-related, a dissertation assessment committee required to vet my work, and multiple visits to notaries, federal university offices, and even an appeal to the dean of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The entire process cost me about US $2,000 and much premature aging. I do not wish this experience on anyone.
The implication of my own Kafkaesque journey through the Brazilian bureaucracy suggests that liberalizing the issuance of visas is not enough. The ‘validation’ of qualifications will also have to be streamlined if Brazil wishes to attract and keep talent. The Globo article that inspired this post provides the example of Technip, a Brazilian engineering company. In order to avoid the vagaries of the Brazilian visa process, Technip opened up an office in Portugal.
Just one day in office, Guatemalan President Perez Molina met with his military commanders and issued a new top priority for the military: "Achieve an interdiction of external threats and neutralize illegal armed groups, through the use of military power, by regaining and maintaining control of the air, maritime, and land domains."
None of this is a surprise. Perez had promised to use the military to improve internal security throughout the current and previous campaign. Perez also promised to provide the military with the technology and equipment to meet that objective including surveillance systems, radars, speedboats, and combat aircraft.
The use of the military isn't unprecedented. Former President Colom used the military in combating the Zetas and other Latin American militaries are deployed internally to fight crime. However, it appears that Perez went a step further, symbolically and perhaps legally, in making the mission to fight illegal armed groups the primary focus of the Guatemalan military.
Several key questions come from this statement. First, will this have a real impact on how the Guatemalan military trains, equips, and deploys or was it just symbolic? Second, where is the money? Is Perez going to pass any new taxes, reform the budget, or appeal for new international aid? Third, what is the long term strategy and goal? Is there a defined end state, perhaps including a return to a reformed, more capable, and less corrupt civilian police force? How will Perez know when Guatemala has won? Like too many other Latin American presidents, it appears Perez is sending in the military to fight the bad guys before he has a strategy to win or a vision for what he wants to achieve.
I'm disappointed to see that "protect the population" wasn't in the main mission statement, at least as far as I can tell from the reporting. Protect the population and measure the results is a good general recommendation for Latin American countries trying to fight crime. Going on the offensive and fighting the illegal armed groups can lead to the wrong measures of success. Declaring protection of the population as the mission means the government must judge success based on less violence. Declaring the offensive fight as the mission generally leads to more violence, though I'd be glad to be proven wrong.
By starting with the military offensive, not focusing on protection of the population and not placing the military actions in the framework of a full government strategy, Perez threatens to make the same mistakes as his neighbor to the north. Perez should have a more comprehensive strategy in place before he deploys the military.
--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.
Reports that San Pedro Sula, Honduras, has taken the place of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as the most violent city in the hemisphere are a result of shifts in trafficking patterns that are putting Central America at the heart of the drug trade.
According to a new report by Mexico’s Civic Council on Public Security and Criminal Justice, San Pedro Sula saw 159 homicides per 100,000 residents last year, topping the nonprofit organization’s list of the most violent cities in the hemisphere. Ciudad Juarez has topped the list for the past three years.
This shift in ranking reflects major changes that have occurred within the regional drug trade over the past decade, in which Mexican drug traffickers have deepened their influence in Central America. There they have established connections to local crime bosses, known as “transportistas,” who facilitate drug shipments between South America and Mexico. The rise of these transportistas has been accompanied by a surge of violence in the region, which is exacerbated by a growing local market for drugs, weak state institutions, and government corruption.
By contrast, Mexico has seen some success in its own struggle with organized crime, apprehending or killing several top drug traffickers in recent years. And while recently released government statistics show that homicides linked to organized crime increased 11 percent in 2011, the 2010 figure was 70 percent higher than in 2009, suggesting that the wave of violence in the country may be abating. It should also be noted that although Mexico's violence dominates headlines in the US, it pales by comparison to the situation in Central America. According to the United Nations’ 2011 Global Study on Homicide, the average homicide rate in the six biggest countries of Central America is 43 per 100,000, which is more than twice that of Mexico.
Honduras leads the UN list with 82.1 homicides per 100,000, making it the most dangerous country in the world in terms of murders. This prompted the US to pull its Peace Corps volunteers from the country due to safety concerns. As InSight Crime has reported, Honduras has been particularly affected by the growth of transnational drug trafficking in Central America. In September 2011, Honduran Defense Minister Marlon Pascua claimed that 87 percent of cocaine which is sent from South America to the United States passes through Honduras. If this is accurate, then, taken with the United Nations’ latest estimates of the size of the US cocaine market, it suggests that an incredible 143.55 tons of the drug pass through Honduras annually.
But despite Honduras’ status as a major drug transit nation, relatively little is known about the major criminal players in the country. According to security analyst James Bosworth, the process is mostly overseen by three of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico: the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel. In a December 2010 working paper on crime in Honduras for the Wilson Center, he claimed that US drug-enforcement officials believe “a large portion of the management” of these drug trafficking networks are Mexican, and are mostly affiliated with one of these three major groups.
These groups also appear to have different preferred methods of transporting their goods northward. Bosworth writes that “in general, according to experts who track the shipments, the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels move more cocaine by land across the Honduras-Guatemala border while the Zetas move more by sea.” Their exact areas of influence are unknown, but the government has acknowledged their presence in at least four provinces along the western border with Guatemala and the northern coast.
These organizations do not work alone. As mentioned above, Mexican drug-trafficking groups frequently depend on local transportistas to supply them with their product from South America. In Honduras, the most high profile transportistas are Nelson and Javier Rivera, brothers who turned a mid-level car and cattle theft operation into an extensive drug-running venture with ties to government officials, known as the Cachiros gang. The Cachiros’ influence stretches all along the northern coast, as well as the eastern provinces of Gracias a Dios and Olancho. Other smaller transportista networks, such as the El Salvador-based Perrones, also operate in the country.
On the street level, Honduras is also home to the gangs that have sprung up throughout the region; Barrio 18 and their rivals, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Street gangs like these two groups are likely responsible for a majority of the violence in San Pedro Sula. As a series on the city by La Prensa reveals, at least 10 entire neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city are completely in the hands of these gangs, and police are unable to even enter them. Extortion, sometimes referred to as a “war tax,” is common in San Pedro Sula, especially targeting transport workers such as bus and taxi cab drivers. To make matters worse, small-scale drug trafficking is on the rise in the city, which could lead to more violent turf wars.
There appears to be no evidence that the violence in San Pedro Sula is caused by any kind of overarching conflict between Mexican cartels, as is taking place in the border cities in the north of Mexico like Juarez or Tijuana. However, it is likely that the Mexican groups active in the country are at least present in the Honduran city, if not major contributors to the violence.
San Pedro Sula is an economic powerhouse, producing two-thirds of Honduras’ GDP. Because the flow of capital there is far greater than in any other city in the country, it is an ideal place to launder money. It is also located relatively close to both the border with Guatemala and Puerto Cortes, Honduras’ main port, making it strategically situated to direct smuggling networks.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Former Guatemalan Gen. Otto Perez Molina will be inaugurated today as the first military official to lead the country since its return to democracy 26 years ago.
Topping Mr. Perez’s list of priorities as he takes office is overturning a longstanding ban on US military aid to Guatemala, which he aims to use to contain and deter drug-related violence in the country. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Western hemisphere and is increasingly plagued by high crime and violence linked to drug trafficking in Mexico, reports the Guardian. Many citizens voted for Mr. Perez based on his “iron fist” campaign that promised to crack down on crime.
Yet his hopes of overturning the ban worry observers who are critical of his involvement in Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war. Perez garnered international attention during his run for office due to accusations of his involvement in massacres, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses during the civil war, which has strong ties to US military training and funding.
During Guatemala's long civil war, violence primarily targeted rural areas where family members were killed, children kidnapped, and crops destroyed. Further military training my not be the appropriate answer for a country still struggling with impunity and justice reforms, writes Tim Padgett in an op-ed for Time magazine.
“[T]he fear is that Pérez, despite all his talk of a mano dura, or “iron fist,” isn’t the man to bring rule of law to Guatemala, which is one of the world’s most lawless countries today. Guatemala, along with El Salvador and Honduras, is part of Central America’s northern triangle – which U.S. military leaders call “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Guatemala’s murder rate is more than eight times the U.S.’s, largely because violent drug and extortion gangs have overrun the country.
“But equally troubling is the notion among Guatemala’s political and business elite that the military is the answer. Armies don’t fight crime, professional police do – and like Mexico, which has also had to employ its military against drug cartels because it can’t rely on its cops, Guatemala is paying for centuries of unpardonable neglect of public security.”
The US Congress ended military aid to Guatemala in 1990 after the death of a US citizen at the hands of the Guatemalan Army and years of ongoing concern over military-led human rights abuses. The US played an active role in the conflict, first backing a military coup in 1954 to overthrow the democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who was viewed as a communist threat. Fear of the Central American country falling to communism continued as left-wing guerrilla groups began fighting for land reform, battling military forces. Guatemala’s indigenous populations bore the brunt of the nearly four decades of violence, largely because they lived in rural communities where leftist groups were believed to seek refuge.
A 1995 US press report revealed that although overt US military aid to Guatemala was halted in the early 1990s, millions of dollars in CIA funding continued to enter the country and support Guatemalan armed forces during the next five years, according to the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The US has approved limited aid over the years for training Guatemala’s military response team for natural disasters.
Today, Mexican drug traffickers have taken over regions of Guatemala bordering Mexico, and Perez is says he is seeking military equipment such as helicopters and training to battle the drug trade which is increasingly carving routes through Central America.
But whether the US will entertain the request is unclear. Some believe the US is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, given Perez's military past. President Obama took two weeks to congratulate Perez on his election victory last fall, a decision some read as a “chilly sign," reports the Associated Press.
Guatemala must meet a number of US stipulations in order for US defense funding to resume, such as guaranteeing that the military is “respecting internationally recognized human rights.” Several former Guatemalan presidents have attempted to get the US to resume defense aid, including outgoing leader Alvaro Colom, who met with the US to outline six conditions that must be met before the partial resumption of US military aid would be considered, reports Prensa Libre (Spanish).
Greater military transparency is among the conditions, reports Insight Crime, an organization that conducts research and analysis on organized crime in Latin America.
“The condition which might prove the most difficult for Perez's government requires the release of all military documents related to Guatemala's civil war,” reports Insight. “There is little chance that Perez will prove willing to do so, considering his level of support from the military. He has also faced accusations of committing human rights violations during the conflict.”
Other steps include renewed support for a United Nations anticorruption team, CICIG, which has not always received full cooperation from the Guatemalan government in the past, as well as reforming the weak justice system. A UN-sponsored truth commission following the civil war found that state forces and paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority of the conflict’s killings. Few of those responsible, however, have been tried and brought to justice, reports the AP.
In December, Perez told the leading Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, that the issues surrounding US military funding have become exaggerated. “This has become more of a myth than anything else. We have not relied on the US for weapons these last 30 years, and it seems that in this country many have realized that the Guatemalan Army has changed a lot in every way,” he said.
If the US government does not provide the assistance needed by Guatemala to improve its law enforcement efforts, the Guatemalan government will seek military aid from other countries, a Perez adviser told the AP. “This may be a subtle reference to the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is set to attend Perez's swearing in ceremony,” reports Insight.
On Dec. 13, a United States federal court in Alexandria indicted Ayman Joumaa for allegedly running a drug-trafficking and money-laundering ring linked to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. Among other things, Joumaa was charged with selling almost 100 tons of Colombian cocaine to the Zetas, the notoriously violent Mexican drug gang, from 2005 to 2007.
Joumaa is at least the second Lebanese national in three years to be accused of using drug money in South America to fund the Shiite militia. In 2008, Colombian officials arrested Chekri Harb, alias “Taliban,” who was accused of laundering millions of dollars annually, much of which allegedly went to Hezbollah.
These incidents have added fuel to the debate in the US over the Lebanese group’s level of support in the region, which some believe poses a major security threat. Concern over this issue has been growing in recent months, likely in response to a House subcommittee hearing held in July, which saw testimony from several witnesses who claimed the group represents an immediate risk to hemispheric security.
Since then, politicians in Washington have continued to hold up Hezbollah influence as one of the biggest dangers in Latin America. In September, Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows when she spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba due to Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. The subject even briefly became part of the presidential campaign, when three leading Republican candidates voiced concern over Hezbollah support networks in the region in the Nov. 22 CNN GOP foreign policy debate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry even called for a “21st-century Monroe Doctrine” to be applied to the region, as a means of preventing the group from spreading their influence.
This is not just a concern among politicians. In October, the influential American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released a report which argues that the Lebanese group is “using the Western Hemisphere as a staging ground, fundraising center, and operational base to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States.”
The report, entitled “The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America,” is coauthored by former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and Foreign Policy’s Jose R. Cardena. In addition to deepening their ties to organized crime, the two claim that Hezbollah has developed friendly relationships with President Hugo Chavez and “other anti-American governments in the region.”
It may be true that Hezbollah has a significant degree of support in the region, primarily among Lebanese immigrants who fled the country in response to the bloody Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. Latin America was a popular destination for these refugees, and sizable Lebanese immigrant communities exist in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. But Hezbollah’s most notorious support base lies in the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, where it is believed that the group has connections with local gangs who engage in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, counterfeiting, and money laundering.
However, this support is largely financial, and Hezbollah is not believed to actively direct criminal enterprises in the region. Instead, the group likely obtains donations from individuals who are sympathetic to the cause of spreading Islamic revolution. Despite the amount of attention they received in the press, the charges against Joumaa and Harb reflect this. Neither is accused of being a member of Hezbollah, only of cooperating with it on some level. Aside from seeking financing, there appears to be very little reason for Hezbollah to involve itself heavily in organized crime in Latin America, much less to direct criminal activities.
However, there is scarce evidence for allegations that the group is developing its political connections in the region. The AEI paper cites the improved relationship between Chavez’s Venezuela and Iran, which provides covert support for Hezbollah. Because Chavez is deepening ties to Iran, Noriega and Cardena argue, he is opening up his country to the Islamic militia by proxy.
However, the Venezuela-Iran connection is likely not so nefarious. Both nations are founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) with similar economic interests, a point which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stressed in his recent visit to the country.
It should be noted that Hezbollah’s presence in the region is a definite concern, as the organization has been linked to several terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Argentina in the early 1990s. But the security threat that Hezbollah poses is often grossly exaggerated. Security analyst James Bosworth has stated this quite well, arguing:
If we're going to hold hearings on individual non-state groups that are threats in the hemisphere, let's start with Sinaloa, the FARC and the Zetas; work our way through the second tier of Los Rastrojos, PCC, Betran Leyva, etc.; and then maybe after a few days or weeks of hearings we could get to the third tier that includes Hezbollah, the Russian mafia, and the Triads.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.Find all of his research here.
Drug-related murder in Mexico shot up by 11 percent between 2010 and last year, with 12,903 killed in the first nine months of 2011, according to official figures released Wednesday.
But the government calls this good news. “It's the first year that the homicide rate increase has been significantly lower compared to previous years,” Mexico's attorney general’s office said in a statement.
They do have a point. From 2009 to 2010 killings in the same time period increased by 70 percent. The year before the increase was 63 percent. And from 2007 to 2008 it was a dizzying 110 percent.
With the new death count, the official number of those killed in five years under Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s military strategy against organized crime is more than 47,000.
Not great statistics as the Calderon administration heads into an election in July. So the government sought to underline another point Wednesday: that the majority of killings between rival traffickers took place in a quarter of Mexico’s states, meaning that a large swath of Mexico is safe.
One of the oases of safety from the drug war has been the otherwise dangerous capital, Mexico City. But security analysts are questioning if the capital will become another battled turf.
Right before the numbers were released, two decapitated bodies were found in a burning SUV outside a high-end shopping mall in an exclusive enclave of Mexico City, popular with foreigners and wealthy Mexicans.
The next time the government publishes drug-related homicide figures, this kind of violence might produce numbers that shows greater geographical spread.
That is, if the government publishes new figures at all. The latest numbers were apparently only made public under pressure from groups utilizing Mexico’s freedom of information law – not as part of a routine data release. Before Wednesday’s release, the Mexican news site Animal Politico had said the government has been refusing to give over the homicide data. Guest blogger Patrick Corcoran at Insight Crime has more details about it here.
In its statement on the figures, the attorney general's office did not mention that battle but noted it was releasing the updated data in the name of “transparency.”
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It's been a good year for Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, exceeding the expectations of voters and even wowing some skeptics. With a record approval rating of over 70 percent, she exceeded Lula's approval rating after the first year of his presidency by more than 20 points. While there are a number of factors for her popularity, including a strong economy with low unemployment, and proving herself as an independent leader out of Lula's shadow, another important factor has been her crackdown on corruption.
During her first year in office, Dilma sacked six ministers after they came under fire for corruption charges. In the federal government as a whole, 564 public officials were fired for wrongdoing in 2011, though this number is not exactly new: in the past 8 years, over half of the 3,533 public officials who were fired from the federal government lost their jobs because of corruption. Comedy blog Kibe Loco produced a series of videos parodying Dilma's crackdown on corrupt ministers, where an actor dressed in drag would imitate phone calls to her ministers, in which she would yell, using all sorts of profane language, making the ministers cry, and then soothing them like a mother. Dilma's intolerance for corruption was welcomed by many Brazilians, particularly during a year where thousands took to the streets to protest corruption. Popular support to fight corruption also came after the Clean Record Law (Ficha Limpa law) was passed in 2010 after 2 million Brazilians signed petitions in favor of the law, which aimed to bar candidates accused of misdoing from taking office.
But the question is - what now?
The Supreme Court ruled that the Ficha Limpa law would not count towards the 2010 election, and after ruling on several individual cases, the court allowed at least 6 "ficha suja" congressmen and senators to take office, including notorious Senator Jader Barbalho, who took office in late December. (His son came with him, and proceeded to stick out his tongue and make faces for the press, which antagonized the already dismayed Brazilians opposed to his inauguration). It's unclear if the law will be applied to the 2012 municipal elections.
Dilma has made it clear that she won't tolerate corruption in her cabinet, and a minister shakeup in the next few weeks should likely bring in new ministers picked by Dilma, rather than carryovers from Lula's administration. But of the six who left office in disgrace, how many are under investigation and will actually be punished? Cases of ministers returning embezzled funds are few and far between; one of the few is that of former Tourism Minister Pedro Novais, who returned the government funds (worth R$2,156) that he used to pay for a sex motel.
Former Sports Minister Orlando Silva is allegedly planning on running for city councilman in São Paulo in 2012. He wouldn't be the first disgraced politician to come back to life; former President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached in 1992, was elected to the Senate in 2006 and 2010. Notorious politician José Sarney, who also served as president, was first elected to the Senate in 1995, and has served three terms as president of the Senate, a position he currently holds. Another notorious politician, Paulo Maluf, who was on Interpol's "red" list, is currently serving his third term as a federal congressman.
After Dilma's sweep, some are hopeful that it could mean change in Brasília. But without holding wrongdoers responsible and punishing them for their crimes, will corrupt public officials simply try harder to hide what they're doing? And if the Ficha Limpa Law isn't implemented, or if the Supreme Court eventually rules it unconstitutional, will corrupt politicians continue to return to office? Worse yet - will everything acabar em pizza?
Because of its status as a major theater for proxy conflicts during the cold war, Latin America has a long history of leftist insurgencies. Over the past two decades, however, these left wing groups largely abandoned armed struggle as a means of gaining power, turning instead to peaceful electoral politics. In some countries they have been immensely successful. Indeed, the current ruling parties of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, and Uruguay can all trace their roots -- at least in part -- back to guerrilla insurgencies of the 1970s and 80s.
Nevertheless, a handful of guerrilla movements persist in the region. The most well-known examples are in Colombia, which is home to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Army of Liberation (ELN). In Peru, two factions of the Shining Path still carry out deadly attacks on security forces, though the group is not the threat that it was at its peak in the early 1990s.
These three are generally cited as the most relevant insurgent groups in Latin America, and they have worked hard to maintain this status. All three have adopted illicit means of obtaining funding, including drug trafficking, bank robbery, kidnapping, and extortion.
In this context, the high profile of Mexico’s largely indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is incongruous. Although much of the organization’s social and political work is supported by international and domestic NGOs, the full nature of its funding is unclear. What is clear is that despite rising up in arms in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994 and having since declared sizable parts of southern Mexico autonomous from the government, the EZLN has largely managed to refrain from criminal activity to support itself.
When criminal allegations have been leveled against them, such as when the group was suspected of carrying out the kidnapping of Mexican politician Diego Fernandez de Cevallos last year, the Zapatistas have vehemently denied them, and a congressional commission even acknowledged that the kidnapping didn’t fit the Zapatistas’ profile.
Their eschewal of crime is due largely to the fact that the EZLN is not a traditional guerrilla army. After their initial uprising in 1994, and the resulting San Andres peace accords in 1996, the group has largely refrained from illegal activity. Instead, they have become more of a grassroots social movement, establishing EZLN-affiliated autonomous communities in Chiapas and attempting to link far-left community organizations throughout the country under the banner of a nationwide movement called the "Other Campaign."
Indeed, the Zapatista’s most public spokesperson, alias “Subcomandante Marcos,” has actively denounced armed groups which have attempted to ally themselves with the EZLN. Through well-publicized letters and communiques, he has castigated groups like the FARC and Spain’s ETA for killing civilians. Marcos has voiced aversion to armed struggle inside Mexico’s borders as well, distancing the EZLN from the small, Guerrero-based People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR), which is known for carrying out attacks on security forces and bombings of infrastructure targets in southern Mexico.
The fact that the EZLN refrains from armed and criminal activity likely has as much to do with self-preservation as it does with the group’s ideology. Since the 1994 uprising, the Mexican government has drastically increased its military presence in Chiapas. According to a 2004 study by the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), there are at least 91 military bases in the state, many of which are located near Zapatista communities.
In more recent years, the military presence has increased even more in response to President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on drug trafficking organizations. The Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas are deepening their activities in neighboring Guatemala, a trend which Mexico is fighting by increasing the number of military checkpoints along the southern border (with mixed success).
Considering the high level of militarization of armed forces in the Zapatistas’ main area of influence, their cessation of military activity is not surprising. If they were to attempt another uprising, it would doubtlessly end in a devastating defeat.
The disincentive for the EZLN to mix itself up in criminal activity is just as strong. The Calderon administration’s security strategy has given the government a powerful policy narrative to justify dismantling drug traffickers’ community control. If provoked, the state could easily turn it against the Zapatistas.
By turning away from armed struggle, the group has also been afforded a certain amount of political legitimacy. Unlike their guerrilla cousins in Colombia and Peru, the Zapatistas have widespread support both from the Mexican left and on the global stage, where they are known as a spearhead of the anti-globalization movement. It should also be noted that the Zapatistas eschew conventional politics with the same ferocity. Ever since their inception they have rejected the notion of joining the Mexican political system, which they view as hopelessly corrupt.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.
The expulsion corresponds with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Venezuela yesterday, the first stop on his four-country Latin America tour. Some fear Iran is using the region as a staging ground to attack US interests, an issue that’s especially salient given recent Western anxiety about Iran’s nuclear goals.
In December, a Univision documentary called “The Iranian Threat” linked Livia Acosta Noguera, the Venezuelan Consul General to Miami since March 2011, to a potential cyberattack coordinated by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela against the US.
There is no indication that American officials have been able to verify Univision's allegations, reports The New York Times. Some analysts say the expulsion had less to do with the merits of the accusation than a desire by the Obama Administration to defuse Republican pressure over Iran during an election year.
“This [expulsion] has to be viewed in the wider context,” says Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue. “The tensions are escalating with Iran and the US, so Venezuela becomes a greater concern.... [And] the Obama Administration doesn’t want to be vulnerable as soft on Iran and Latin America.”
Last month four US representatives wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drawing attention to the documentary's accusations.
“According to the documentary, when she served as the vice secretary at the Venezuelan embassy in Mexico in 2008, she interacted with members from the Iranian and Cuban embassies and students posing as extremists from the Universidad Autónoma of Mexico to coordinate a cyber attack against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure systems at the White House, FBI and CIA,” reads the letter, which was posted on Florida Rep. David Rivera’s (R) website and signed by New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires (D) and Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R).
Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called for hearings on the alleged plot.
The Venezuelan government dismissed the Univision report as false and uncorroborated. “They are using a lie as an excuse to attack us,” President Hugo Chavez said in December, calling on allies to be on guard.
Lessons learned from George W. Bush’s first term in office show a confrontational approach to Chavez is not effective, says Mr. Shifter, because criticism "gave Chavez greater ammunition for his own political agenda.”
“Any kind of real confrontational posture towards Venezuela will only help Chavez, as it has in the past,” Shifter says. But Obama, he adds, is under pressure from Congress and the Republican presidential candidates to take action on the perceived strengthening ties between Iran and some Latin American countries. Mr. Ahmadinejad plans to attend President Daniel Ortega's inauguration in Nicaragua tomorrow, another event that prompted outcry from some US politicians.
Chavez, who is also running for reelection this year, frequently paints the United States as an imperialist adversary set out to destroy his socialist government.
“He sees himself as a victim of the [US] empire,” says Shifter. “The US doesn’t want to feed him any new material.”
The request for Ms. Noguera to leave the US within 72 hours could serve as fodder for Chavez’s verbal attacks on US policy, and a reciprocal expulsion of diplomatic staff on behalf of Venezuela can’t be ruled out, Shifter says.
Neither the US nor Venezuela have hosted each other’s ambassadors since 2008, when Mr. Chavez charged American Ambassador Patrick D. Duddy with backing a plot to overthrow him in a military coup. The US removed its ambassador in response, heightening tension between the two nations.
Venezuela has had a strong geopolitical alliance with Iran since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. “Both countries want to curtail US power,” says Mr. Shifter, “and they both get benefits out of provoking the United States.”