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  • These Are a Few of My Favorite [AP] Words

    September 7, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    If there are two things that inspire me it’s a ramped up, over-the-top, scurrilous AP story about democracy promotion and a Broadway musical--especially a Rodgers and Hammerstein production.  So, here is my adaptation of the classic Sound of Music,  “My Favorite Things,” based on the recent series of articles published by AP on USAID’s democracy program in Cuba.  The non-bracketed, italicized parts are sung to the music of “My Favorite Things.” 

    Calling USAID agents,
    when they’re just bureacrats.

    [As in the Zun Zuneo story, where it refers to “agents of the US government, working in deep secrecy..”   USAID officers are not agents.  They may be poorly dressed, overly earnest bureaucrats. But agents?  No one describes them that way--except AP.]

    Saying a source,
    “slipped” someone numbers.

    [As in the Zun Zuneo story which says that a key contact “slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer” in London.  Slipped?   It’s a nice verb, but is there really evidence that the numbers were slipped, spy-like, to contact, say, on a park bench?  The story doesn’t say that, but damn it sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Shame it didn’t involve polonium and tea.  Though who knows?  Maybe it did.  Let’s just say so, anyway.]

    Referring to Gross,
    on a top “secret mission.”
    These are a few of my favorite words!
    Read More

    Tags: Cuba, Associated Press

  • Dear AP, Sometimes a Democracy Program Is Just a Democracy Program—Even in Cuba

    August 7, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    For the past several years, with almost predictable regularity, The Associated Press (AP) has been producing a series of articles supposedly revealing the secret, unaccountable cloak-and-dagger misdeeds of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Cuba program. For all the implied sinister intentions, bureaucratic overreach and shades of John le Carré-like intrigue, though, all the AP has exposed are really just democracy programs—not that different from those that have been conducted in many other countries, often with the support of human rights organizations, local citizens and the international community. The problem is, this is Cuba, where nothing’s ever straightforward. 

    To be sure, there’s plenty to complain about and cloud U.S. policy toward Cuba even—or especially—when it comes to the work of the U.S.’ official development agency, USAID. First, there’s the odious, ridiculous policy of a 50-plus-year embargo on the island.  Sadly, USAID’s democracy work was added to that failed policy in 1997, when Congress forced USAID to develop a democracy assistance program as a component of the Helms-Burton Law.

    The law politicized USAID’s democracy work from its inception. Helms-Burton (or, as it is officially and unironically named, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act) codified the U.S. embargo into law, and established an unprecedented set of human rights and democracy standards that would have to be met before the president could even ask Congress to lift the embargo, thereby unconstitutionally tying the president’s hands in conducting foreign affairs.  It also explicitly tied USAID’s development policy to Congress’ political agenda and was (let’s just say) a unique law in U.S. foreign policy. 

    Read More

    Tags: Cuba, USAID

  • Defending the Right of Everyone to Travel

    May 27, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I, like many others, was one of those who sent an e-mail to the U.S. State Department inquiring about the visa status of a number of Cuban economists coming to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) last week in Chicago. Most, though not all of them, received visas after becoming lodged in the State Department’s labyrinthine processes. 

    Sadly, I couldn’t have done the same for Manuel Cuesta Mora, a Cuban human rights activist who requested a visa from his government to travel to the same LASA conference. The Cuban government denied his visa, and I don’t have much pull with those guys, unfortunately.

    Denied. [But the Joke’s on the Cuban Government]

    The news of Cuesta Morua’s visa denial arrived just before the LASA conference started. According to the Cuban government the reason for Cuesta Morua’s inability to leave his country was that he had previously been arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in late January 2014, expressing citizen opposition to yet another regional platitudinous summit that failed to recognize the democratic values it purports to uphold. 

    In this case it was the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit held in Havana. Dozens of activists were rounded up by the Cuban government to preempt any embarrassing expressions of “democratic-ness.”  And most Latin American presidents didn’t say a word, though many have benefitted from the sort of democratic openness or its defense under other less-leftist regimes.

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    Tags: Cuba, Manuel Cuesta Mora, Latin American Studies Association

  • While Brazil Sambas with Cuba, the U.S. Dances Alone

    May 1, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini and Alana Tummino

    Brazil is betting on an eventual opening in Cuba. The bet is more than economic; it’s linked directly to a larger geopolitical project intended to draw Cuba toward its own model of economic and political organization as Cuba wakes up from its 55-year slumber under the Castro regime.

    The process has already started with a series of market-oriented reforms initiated by Raúl Castro—brother to Fidel—and will only accelerate with the passing of the octogenarian Castro brothers and their guerrilla field comrades. Unfortunately, as Brazil engages in a wise game of hemispheric chess, the U.S. is playing solitaire: the result of the self-imposed embargo that has prevented economic, diplomatic and even routine contact with an island 90 miles away from the United States.

    In the last five years, Brazil financed the majority of the $957 million deep water Mariel port project in the northwest of the island built by infrastructure giant Odebrecht. The port, and the 180-square-mile free-trade and development zone that surrounds it, is intended to service wide draft ships that will be able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal—a requirement that many U.S. ports won’t be able to meet when the updated canal completes its expansion by 2015. And it’s only the beginning. Recently, when he was in the country to tour the facility, former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the acquisition of the iconic beer company Bucanero by the Brazilian beer giant, InBev, and there is talk that Brazil’s recent investments in Cuba’s Mariel port facility and free trade zone are only the  tip of the iceberg.

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    Tags: Brazil, U.S.-Cuba relations

  • Diplomacy Isn’t a Tug of War

    March 5, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Diplomacy during the Cold War, wrote Sam Tanenhaus in last Sunday’s New York Times, may have been more of a high wire act than a chess match—but diplomacy, neither then nor now, is a tug of war. 

    Unfortunately, that’s the way it’s being conducted in the U.S.’ delinked Cuba-Venezuela policies—hostages to age-old vendettas, anachronistic policies and the persistent failure to develop policy in the hemisphere through a broader geostrategic lens. 

    In this case, our ability to play a larger, more constructive role in the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela is being held back by our utter lack of leverage over Cuba. 

    Since Hugo Chávez took the oath of office in 1999, the former lieutenant colonel’s Bolivarian Revolution has been a beneficiary of Cuban intelligence and planning services that have helped the movement reorganize the intelligence services, gut the electoral council and create community militias (the now-infamous colectivos).

    According to some sources, there are over 40,000 Cubans currently in Venezuela, including doctors, sports trainers (sports trainers?) and advisors.

    Read More

    Tags: U.S. Policy, Cuba-U.S. relations, Venezuela-U.S. relations

  • Cuba: Wait, Wait, Let Me Guess What Comes Next

    February 13, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I’m not a betting man, but if I were, this is what I’d bet.  With a series of statements by leading Cuban-Americans, stories of change inside the island, and growing public pressure and attention to liberalize the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, I’d wager that soon the Cuban government will do something to halt the process.

    Further, I’d wager that when it does, hardliners in Congress and the dwindling number of groups that advocate for the embargo will react predictably: denouncing those who argued for more freedom in the restrictions as naïve, and insisting that now is not the time to open up—that in fact, now is the time to close down even those small, but effective, openings that have already been made.

    Why do I think this?  Because this has been the pattern for decades, whether it was the regime’s crackdown on the broad-based alliance of democratic activists, Concilio Cubano, in February 1996, in the tragic shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that same year, or the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in 2009. 

    In each of these cases, talk of easing the embargo had grown just before the act of aggression by the Cuban government. And in each case, hardliners responded to ensure that the Cuban government got what it needs—isolation. 

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    Tags: Cuba, Cuba-U.S. relations, Cuban Embargo, Castro brothers

  • The Passing of Bob Pastor

    January 10, 2014

    by Christopher Sabatini

    We at Americas Quarterly were extremely sad to hear that after four years of battling colon cancer, Bob Pastor passed away on January 8, 2013.  For many of the AQ editorial staff, he was a friendly contributor to and supporter of AQ—one of our most prominent.  For me, though, he was the quintessential scholar/policymaker/intellectual entrepreneur.  Bob represented a particular type in the U.S. Latin Americanist community which—at the risk of glorifying the past—there seem to be fewer and fewer of nowadays.  

    Bob joined President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council (NSC) as the senior advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the ripe old age of 29, as a freshly minted Harvard PhD.  While there, he was the author of one of the most important Latin American policy initiatives of the day:  returning the Panama Canal to Panama.  While for many, the Carter years are marked more by the collapse of the brutal Somoza dynasty, the coming to power of the Sandinistas (about which Bob wrote the brilliant and unequalled policy insider’s story Condemned to Repetition) and the escalation of the guerrilla movements in Central America, the tone set by the return of the Panama Canal and Carter’s human rights policy became a symbol of hope and solidarity for the citizens and activists in the region struggling against autocratic military regimes. 

    Later, at Emory University’s Carter Center, Bob helped develop and refine the standards for electoral monitoring and observation, not just in the region but around the world.  As a professor at Emory and later American University, he became a much-beloved mentor to students, all the while keeping up a torrid pace of publishing.  

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    Tags: Bob Pastor, Robert Pastor, Christopher Sabatini

  • ALBA and Snowden: It’s Not All about You

    July 10, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini

    The spectacle of certain Latin American countries lining up to offer asylum to National Security Administration (NSA) contractor and leaker Edward Snowden has become a sad reminder of the lack of diplomatic maturity of those countries and a red herring to the whole issue that they want to highlight.  

    Whatever you may think of the man’s motives (and believe his future should be), Snowden’s revelations that the U.S. NSA was surreptitiously collecting data on U.S. and foreign phone calls and Internet communications should give us all pause and are a legitimate point for domestic and diplomatic debate. 

    But that’s not what we’re getting when the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua line up to offer the 29-year-old asylum and the president of Argentina calls a poorly-attended summit to denounce the unfortunate detention of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Austria after he glibly offered Snowden asylum when he was in Russia.  Those reactions have been a sharp reminder of the divisions in the hemisphere, between the rhetorically/ideologically oriented countries of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America—ALBA) and the rest.  

    Leaving aside the issue of how Snowden—without a passport—could leave the Moscow transit lounge, set foot on an airplane whose company will surely be banned from landing in U.S. airports in the future, and cross the airspace of countries opposed to seeing him leave, there is the question of “Why make the offer?” What is the practical benefit of giving the guy safe haven? 

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    Tags: Edward Snowden, ALBA

  • Ecuador and Snowden: Really?

    July 1, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini

    As we wait to hear Ecuador’s decision on whether to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contractor who leaked the details of the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance program, two questions loom large: Why would Ecuador do it? And will it?   

    First the why. Snowden’s request was based on Ecuador’s offering of asylum to the founder and director of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who had been accused of rape in Sweden and is now holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Leaving aside the question of why Ecuador would offer asylum to an accused rapist just because he had posted secret U.S. documents and cables leaked to the web based NGO dedicated to transparency, the thinking among the Snowden supporters was that Ecuador loved to stick it to the United States, and would welcome the opportunity to do it again for Snowden. 

    Clearly, Ecuador’s voluble, erratic, populist president, Rafael Correa, delights in standing up to the 'gringos.' Shortly after he was elected in 2006, he terminated a U.S. airbase in Ecuador that monitored and interdicted drug traffickers, kicked out the then-U.S. ambassador for information revealed in the Wikileaks, and claimed that the U.S.’s development program is seeking to undermine him politically. 

    In reality there’s little domestic political benefit to these anti-U.S. actions. According to public opinion surveys, close to 80 percent of Ecuadoreans have positive views of the United States. Where it does play well is internationally. Like his now-deceased mentor, former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez, President Correa has ambitions that extend far beyond his country’s borders to become a world leader of the progressive, anti-imperialist left. When it offered Assange asylum, Correa presented the offer as motivated by his defense of freedom of expression.

    The irony couldn’t be richer. In Ecuador, Assange and Snowden would have been quickly arrested and packed off to jail for their activities. Just two weeks before Snowden asked for asylum the Ecuadoran National Assembly approved a law—proposed by the president—that will chill freedom of expression and limit what journalists can say and write. According to Correa, the law will “guarantee for the people that information which is published by the media is true.” 

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    Tags: Edward Snowden, Ecuador

  • Brazil’s Regional Realpolitik

    May 7, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini

    It’s not hard to imagine what was behind Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota’s announcement yesterday that Brazil will hire 6,000 Cuban doctors to work in rural parts of Brazil.

    As the situation in Venezuela continues to teeter in uncertainty, the Brazilian government has thrown the Cuban government another lifeline. Doing so provides a cushion for a sinking Castro regime that has been kept afloat by the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil per day that Venezuela has sent to Cuba since 2005.

    In return, the Cuban government has provided over 30,000 doctors, sports trainers, and advisors at terms very favorable to Cuba.  (You think U.S. healthcare costs are high? Imagine the cost of Cuban doctors. Assuming 30,000 of them at $100 per barrel of oil, those guys are worth the equivalent of $333 per day!)  The artificially-inflated cost of doctors aside, it’s the sports trainers and advisors that are the concern.  I must confess, I have no idea what a Cuban sports trainer is (though I assume he would look something like this.)  In reality, they likely provide a service very similar to the advisors: the political counseling, intelligence and military training, propaganda dissemination, and intelligence gathering that has been key to the chavista government’s ability to consolidate its power. 

    For those advisors, President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro’s unexpected poor showing in the election presents a zero-sum game.  If they cannot shore up the anointed heir of former President Chávez, they may very well lose their lifeline.  For that reason, many have speculated that the Cubans are working overtime to help President Maduro.  (Though, quite frankly, Maduro’s recent vitriolic attacks on the opposition and the United States seem more like those of a wounded animal than an expression of the subtle, strategic advice one would expect from seasoned intelligence agents.)

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    Tags: Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil

  • Regional Governments Unwilling to Take a Stand on Venezuela

    April 19, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini

    It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the Venezuelan government announced in March that it would hold elections on April 14 to replace the deceased former President Hugo Chávez everything seemed to favor Chávez’s handpicked replacement, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Only six months earlier, Chávez – battling cancer at the time, though it was unknown to the voters – handily beat the same opposition candidate Hernique Capriles by 11 percent.

    But despite the massive outpouring of public grief for Chávez, and the government’s near monopoly control over the media and public resources, Maduro managed to lose more than 1,000,000 votes between October’s contest and last Sunday’s. As a result, it was an unexpected squeaker of an election – 50.8 percent for Maduro and 49 percent for Capriles, with a mere 250,000 votes separating the two. 

    What had happened was that 14 years of economic and administrative mismanagement had finally caught up to Chávez’s political heir. Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Maduro struggled during the campaign to evoke the image of the popular leader, even claiming that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a little bird. But it wasn’t enough. With inflation close to 30 percent, food and electricity shortages throughout the country, and two recent devaluations that have lowered the value of the Venezuelan currency the bolivar by more than 30 percent, voters demonstrated that in the post-Chávez era they are going to be more issue-oriented.

    In reality, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; when he was alive, President Chávez’s approval ratings always stood above popular assessments of his government’s performance in public opinion polls. But clearly, it caught the Chavista government by surprise, which thought that the warm and fuzzy memories of their founder would last longer than six weeks.

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    Tags: Venezuela, 2013 Venezuela Elections

  • Maduro, the New Venezuelan Pragmatism, and the Unlikelihood He Will Follow It

    April 18, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini and Andreina Seijas

    From the moment he announced that former President Hugo Chávez had passed away, the April 14 presidential elections were Nicolas Maduro's to lose.  And whatever the result of any proposed recount, Maduro's 50.7 percent vote against that of the opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonsky is a sign of weakness.

    He had everything in his favor: unlimited access to public resources (money, vehicles, the armed forces), the state-owned oil company PDVSA, near total control over private media, and a huge outpouring of sympathy for the once-popular Chávez who on December 8th had personally named Maduro his successor.

    And yet, despite all those advantages, Maduro—compared to the vote of the October 2012 elections that pitted Chávez against Capriles—managed to lose over a million votes to the young, governor of Miranda state, making the ballot on Sunday Venezuela's closest election since 1968.

    Clearly, Maduro's failure to live up to his political “father's” image was not for lack of trying. He famously claimed that Chávez had spoken to him as a little bird, tried his best to summon the same emotion and combative rhetoric of the former lieutenant colonel and at last count had referred to him over 7,000 times during the campaign.

    But far from this rhetoric, last Sunday 15 million Venezuelan voters proved a new pragmatism. Fourteen years of chavismo have left Venezuela with the highest inflation rates in the region, one of the highest murder rates in the world, electricity and food shortages, and unsustainable levels of public debt....all this despite the record high levels of oil prices globally. Public opinion surveys have constantly showed Venezuelans to be more pro-US and pro-market than many of their fellow citizens around the region—a fact that mystifies commentators who prefer to read Chávez as an organic outgrowth of Venezuelan political culture.

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  • The King Is Dead; Long Live the King

    March 6, 2013

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I must admit, I was shocked when the e-mail a colleague had written me flashed on my desktop yesterday. “Chávez is dead.”  It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting it.  But like the Chavista advisors that staged the bizarre, incoherent press conference shortly before they announced the Venezuelan President’s death, I was oddly taken aback. 

    In my defense, unlike them I didn’t have the responsibility—or advantage—of preparing the last near-three months. Amazingly, despite the lead time, in what was later revealed to really be their first post-Chávez press conference, Vice President Nicolás Maduro and the cabinet seemed completely out of sync—first an interminable series of introductions and then incredible allegations of U.S. intervention.  And then—almost as an afterthought hours later—the announcement that Chávez was dead.

    For the last decade or so, being witness to the Chávez government made me feel like  I had a front-row seat to the sort of Latin American history that I had studied as an undergrad and grad student. This time, though, there were real human beings and their lives at risk.  But it still—I’m embarrassed to say—felt thrilling.

    I sort of came of political-analyst age in the Chávez era.  Oddly, I’ll always appreciate the beret-wearing putschist for that. 

    I remember when I arrived in Washington DC in 1995.  Many people said that the region had gotten boring; we all seemed to be marching toward free trade and democratic bliss. 

    And then came Hugo Chávez.  I was visiting Venezuela for a trip for the National Endowment for Democracy in 1998 when he was running for president.  At the time, his opponents were a motley crew: a former Ms. Universe; a Yale-educated politician who arrived at political rallies on a white horse; and a 70-year-old traditional politician of the center left. At the time I was sure I would have voted for this charismatic figure, Chávez.   My cost-free support for the former coup-plotter was bolstered when a prominent businessman confided to me in hushed tones that he had met with candidate Chávez in a closed-door meeting with business leaders and that he had listened, seemed to understand and quietly supported their cause.  “The thing is,” he said, “you put that Rolex on his wrist [and all the perks of power] and he’ll moderate.” 

    Seemed like a good strategy to me. Vote for the outsider candidate who would clean up the annoying elements of the past, but still get a moderate outsider. 

    Only it didn’t work out that way.

    Read More

    Tags: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

  • Reform or Ruse? Cuba’s Travel Changes

    October 18, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini

    On Tuesday the Cuban government announced that on January 14, 2013 it will remove one of the most visible and anachronistic symbols of the Castro regime: prohibitions on its citizens traveling outside the island. The question—as with all the recent reforms announced in Cuba—will be how much and how quickly. Little discussed though is also what it will mean for the United States’ own perverse and anti-democratic policies governing U.S. travel to the island.

    The change, promised by Raul Castro earlier this year, lifts the 50-year requirement that Cuban citizens have a government-issued exit visa to travel abroad. It’s worth stopping here briefly to reflect on how bizarre the policy is in today’s hemisphere. Imagine any other democratic government autocratically selecting which of its citizens can leave its borders. And the Cuban regime exercised this rule with repressive precision, regularly denying exit visas to political opponents including denying independent blogger Yoani Sanchez an exit visa 20 times in the last five years.

    Despite the expectations it raised in Cuba, it’s unlikely that the change will actually allow full freedom of travel. The announcement promised that all that will be necessary to travel overseas is a Cuban passport and—in cases where required—a visa from the country to be visited. But a closer look between the lines reveals that the Cuban government will still retain the right to deny individuals from leaving the country for several reasons including for “national security”—a loophole large enough to permit the Cuban government to prevent democratic opponents (which it often labels as threats to national security) from leaving its borders. In short, no different from what exists now.

    Yet as with all things on U.S.-Cuban relations, the bizarreness doesn’t just exist on one side of the Florida Straits. U.S. policy toward Cuba remains frozen in time as well, and with special exceptions and status not enjoyed by other countries. For one, the U.S. maintains a travel restriction that prevents U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba without a U.S. government license. (Sound familiar?) Cuba is the only country under which there is a specific law that denies U.S. citizens the right to travel to a specific country.

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    Tags: Cuba, US-Cuba relations.Cuba travel restrictions

  • The Irony of ALBA's Rejection of USAID Funds

    September 21, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini

    The Russian government’s announcement last week that it would refuse over $50 million of U.S. development assistance for democracy and public health programs echoed a similar trend in the Western Hemisphere. In June, the Venezuela-led Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) asked its members to “immediately expel” the U.S. bilateral development agency USAID (the same that is the target of the Russian government’s ire) from its countries, accusing it of trying to de-stabilize governments. And Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has announced that he’s drawn up plans to restrict the U.S. development programs in his country.

    Predictable anti-yanqui vitriol? Definitely. Warranted? It is their decision to make, and it’s a decision made easier by the skimpy amount the U.S. government allocates to the region today. The existing U.S. budget calls for a meager $1.8 billion for the entire Latin America and the Caribbean region for the next two years. This at a time when China has opened its pocket book to the region—often through loans and grants negotiated behind closed doors.

    But mostly, the nationalistic indignation over USAID is just hypocritical. The Latin American leaders that are now railing against and threatening to expel USAID for political interference—directly and indirectly—owe their political ascendance to USAID’s support for democracy and democratic institutions.

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    Tags: Ecuador news, Hugo Chavez, Latin America news

  • Where Have All the Standards Gone?

    September 4, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Three days before the national vote, electoral observers cite grave concerns: unequal access to media outlets for the opposition candidate; media bias favoring the incumbent; smear campaigns against the opposition; and use of state resources for electoral advantage. Could these courageous observers be finally calling out the abuses of President Hugo Chávez and his government against challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski in the run-up to Venezuela’s 2012 election?

    Sadly, no. Those allegations were in 2000 against then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori as he tried to run for re-election. Despite a parade of abuses similar to those of 2000, the international community has remained mute on Venezuela.

    The contrast between 2000 Peru and Venezuela today is a depressing statement about how far the standards for free and fair elections have declined, as well as the international community’s new tolerance for autocrats who cynically assert national sovereignty to avoid scrutiny over fundamental human and democratic rights.

    With a unified, rejuvenated and optimistic opposition and his Bolivarian revolution showing real cracks, President Chávez is facing his first serious electoral challenge since 1998. Chávez’ charisma may still ring strong with the poorer segments of the electorate that constitute his chavista base, but a growing segment of voters remain unconvinced that his revolution is delivering positive outcomes.

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    Tags: Alberto Fujimori, Electoral observation, Henrique Capriles Radonski

  • Hugo Chávez’ Withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

    May 7, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini
    Shortly before he left for Cuba for another round of cancer treatment, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced his plan to pull his country out of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The last president to make a similar threat was Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in 2000 when the IACHR had handed down a series of recommendations about death squad killings, the seizure of a private television station and the sacking of a constitutional court judge. 

    The spectacle of two supposed ends of the ideological spectrum—the self-proclaimed socialist Chávez and the neoliberal Fujimori—railing against the IACHR is really not as surprising as it sounds. It’s the common bond of autocratic regimes that want to be free of international scrutiny and the obligations to protect and defend their own citizens that transcends ideology.  And for those, the IACHR—which has stood in defense of human rights for over 50 years irrespective of the ideology of the government—makes a logical enemy. 

    Affiliated with the Organization of American States (OAS), the independent IACHR has defined human rights law and precedence on everything from holding governments accountable for disappearances by military governments during the bloody dictatorships of the 1980s (issuing a groundbreaking report in 1980 in Argentina), to arguing for aligning domestic laws concerning violence against women with international norms (1998), to defending Indigenous rights in land disputes with governments and investors in Nicaragua (1996) and Brazil (2011). Through it all, the IACHR has maintained a steady independence from the political vicissitudes in the region. 

    In fact, it is the only thing that has really shown any mettle or effectiveness within the inter-American system in recent years. 

    Because the IACHR lacks the power to enforce its recommendations on the member governments, its authority is moral, based on the regional public shame that comes with failing to uphold the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (to which, sadly and inexplicably, the U.S. is not a signatory) and the precedence and legitimacy of its history.

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    Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

  • Summit of the Americas in Cartagena: A Welcome but Misguided Disagreement

    April 15, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I don’t think Cuba should be a member of the Summit of the Americas process. Nor do I think it is worthwhile that divisions over Cuba should dominate a regional summit. But I’ll take a genuine disagreement like we had in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend over the anodyne, empty and ultimately ineffective statements that have come out of past summits.

    That the 30-plus elected heads of state walked away from the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena this weekend with no agreement is a reflection of the diversity and changes within the hemisphere. Standard photo-ops and platitudes have now become an opportunity whenwhether on U.S. drug policy or the status of Cuba in the hemisphereheads of state can express their displeasure and difference with U.S. policy and try to expand the debate. That’s a far cry from the empty, forced consensus over issues like education (Santiago 1997), sustainable development and connecting the Americas (this year’s theme) that have come out of past Summits. None of these were really issues that would normally have been Summit-worthy in any other region. But that’s what’s marked past summits. And, as expected, there was never much followup afterwards, despite all the high-minded commitments.

    This time, countries wanted to send a signal. And they did.

    Let me be clear, though: under its current leadership Cuba doesn’t belong in the Summit. When it was started in 1994, the Summit of the Americas was intended to be a club of democratically elected leaders. And if it is to mean anything it has to stay that way. Granting access to the Castro brothers who have ruled Cuba since 1959 would contradict the very purpose of the Summit process and demonstrate cowardice in the defense of democratic standards and human rights in the hemisphere.

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    Tags: Summit of the Americas, Cuba, U.S. Drug Policy, Cartagena

  • Rethinking Latin America

    March 15, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini

    U.S. regionalists need a reminder that development doesn't end politics and that contemporary Latin America has its own power dynamics. As the region enters a new era marked by increasing geopolitical autonomy and intraregional rivalries, it should be addressed with the mindset of international relations, not just comparative politics.

    The full article was published in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs. To read more, please visit:


  • China’s Geostrategic Designs on Latin America

    January 31, 2012

    by Christopher Sabatini


    In the last 5 years China’s military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean have grown at an unprecedented rate.   Beijing now regularly hosts officers from Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay  in its military academies, has expanded arms sales and technology transfers to countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, and in October last year even sent  a navy ship to the Caribbean.

    Is China—now Brazil and Chile’s number-one trade partner—buttressing its economic interests in the Western Hemisphere with military ties and alliances?  Is this the Middle Kingdom’s equivalent of President Barack Obama’s Pacific pivot to balance China’s saber rattling in Asia?

    There’s no doubt that China’s torrid economic growth rate and its arrival as an emerging—if not already emerged—global economic superpower has shifted the international system and brought a more muscular Chinese foreign policy.  That policy—part of what the Chinese labeled its “Going Out” strategy—has come with a growing Chinese diplomatic, economic and even military presence in many of its closest trade partners.  Given China’s need for raw materials to feed its manufacturing growth and urbanization—gobbling up everything from iron, to oil, to soybeans and frozen chicken—the country’s rise has been felt most obviously (at times with alarm) in the developing world, including Latin America.

    First the economics.  From 2000 to 2010 Latin America’s exports to China shot up 1,500% from 2000 to 2010. With increased commerce has come investment.  In 2010 Chinese companies—most of them state-owned enterprises—invested $10.5 billion.  While not a large amount relative to China’s other investments globally, it was a 180% jump from just two years earlier.  In both cases, though, the focus has been on raw materials.  Over 60% of Chinese imports from Latin America are primary products; for Argentina and Venezuela that percentage increases to 88% and 97% respectively.  And China’s largest investment deals in the region have been from China’s state-owned enterprises snapping up energy and mining ventures, in Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador.

    With China’s economic attention have come loans and grants.  Recently the Financial Times estimated that in 2009-2010 the Chinese provided more loans globally (over $110 billion) than the World Bank (around $103 billion) in 2009–10. This included generous long-term concessionary loans to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador guaranteed by both with cheap oil exports to China.  

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    Tags: Military, China and Latin America, Commerce

  • Are U.S. Senators Really Pro-Homophobia Overseas?

    December 14, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Citing an op-ed she wrote condemning violence against gays and lesbians, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) for weeks led the charge in the U.S. Senate to block the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador.  On Monday, the Senate voted 49 to 37 to block Aponte’s nomination, 11 votes short of the 60 needed to break a Republican-sponsored filibuster. Lost in the lead-up to the vote and the outcome was a key question: why is a position against violence targeting homosexuals and in defense of gay rights a valid reason to reject a nominee to an ambassadorship? 

    At issue for Senator DeMint and the 48 Republicans (and one Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson [NE]) was Aponte's op-ed titled “For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist” in the El Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica on July 28th this year.  The offending op-ed declared that everyone has a responsibility to “inform our neighbors and friends about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender” and praised El Salvador for signing—along with the U.S. and 80 other nations—a UN declaration for the elimination of violence against gays and lesbians.

    Echoing the sentiments of a coalition of conservative El Salvadorans and Latin Americans who had objected to the essay, DeMint said this week that, “We should not risk…an ambassador who shows such a blatant disregard for [El Salvador’s] culture…”  Never mind the fact that Ambassador Aponte—posted in El Salvador for the last 15 months on a recess appointment—was only implementing the administration's initiative in support of Gay Pride Month, which really means this is a policy issue better taken up with the President.  The larger issue should be whether making locals uncomfortable on issues of human rights should be the way we gauge our policy and diplomats.  Would we pursue the same course in other civil and political rights?  Human rights in Syria?  Voting rights in Russia?  When did homophobia or violence against the LGBT community become a matter of local culture that deserves respect? 

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    Tags: El Salvador, Barack Obama, Jim DeMint, Mari Carmen Aponte

  • Indigenous Groups and Presidents Clash in Ecuador and Bolivia

    August 31, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    In both Ecuador and Bolivia, the rhetoric of political inclusion is crashing into the politics of identity and collective rights. Both Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales and their broad, heterogeneous movements rode to power by tapping popular frustration over social and political exclusion and discrimination. Their electoral arrival came in the wake of the collapse of traditional party systems that for decades had survived with a near monopoly of power, sustained through closed deal-making and the effective disenfranchisement of vast segments of the population.

    Now, though, both presidents are confronting a grassroots backlash by the very particularistic groups that they claim to represent. It is as much a story of the genie they uncorked, as an example of challenges of governing nationally in an era of competing rights and identities and escalating demands. The outcome will test not only the fate and intentions of both governments-but also the future of the Andean region and the viability of those nation-states.

    Since being re-elected in 2009 under a new constitution, President Correa has clashed repeatedly with indigenous organizations in Ecuador. Ironically many of those same groups celebrated the 2008 plurinational constitution inspired by the President as the most significant achievement for inclusion in Ecuador's history.

    According to the 2001 census, close to seven percent of the Ecuadorian population identified itself as indigenous. And many are increasingly self-defining as individual nationalities, with identities often tied to specific territories inside Ecuador. Since the early 1990s, the indigenous civil society organization Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the indigenous party Pachacutik have claimed to speak almost exclusively on behalf of all those indigenous nationalities and ethnicities. Their participation, much like their history, has tended to be outside the system. While Pachacutik, for example, has had representatives in the national congress, it has tended to act as a spoiler rather than a loyal opposition. Pachakutik has contributed to the downfall of three governments-President Bucaram in 1997, President Mahuad in 2000, and President Gutiérrez in 2005-when their presidents have failed to meet the indigenous group's demands.


  • Ping Pong Diplomacy: Will Cuba Catch Up?

    July 21, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald today in reference to an article by Andres Schipani ("Ping-Pong Diplomacy") in the Summer 2011 Americas Quarterly to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble stores beginning August 15.

    In the summer of 1989, U.S. yachtsmen sailed the Black Sea Regatta after the Soviet Odessa Sports Club had participated in the Liberty Cup Yacht Race around the Statue of Liberty. The exchange was one of hundreds of sports-related exchanges between the Cold War enemies that included hockey, tennis, baseball and diving before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    In contrast, no such policy — until now — has taken off with Cuba.

    Sports have always been an effective tool for fostering cross-cultural awareness and breaking down ideological stereotypes. Consider this: Between 1955 and 1985 the U.S. State Department issued on average 1,700 visas a year to Soviet athletes, artists, scientists and students in a policy of “soft power” diplomacy.

    In the same vein, the now-famous ping-pong diplomacy launched by President Richard Nixon with China started with a table tennis match. Those early efforts undermined the communist governments’ efforts to isolate their citizens and were instrumental in building trust between citizens — and effectively weakened control of governments over their citizens.

    The full text of this morning's editorial can be accessed here.

    Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

    Tags: Cuba, Barack Obama, Fidel Castro, Sports

  • Brazil: Boom or Bubble?

    July 14, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    With inflation this month reaching a projected 6.3 percent per year and a currency that has increased 47 percent against the dollar since the end of 2008, could the Brazilian economic miracle be just a bubble? Though there are warning signs, there are also positive signals that indicate Brazil be able to power through--though at significant cost.

    First the negative signals.   Chief among these is the signs of an overheating economy. In June the Central Bank’s adjusted, upward, the rate of inflation to 6.3 percent--slightly over its target.  Add to this near full employment, the limited efforts to reduce the Brazilian government’s stimulus (through BNDES and federal spending--especially in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics), and the promise to increase the minimum wage by 14.5 percent next year and it looks like a pressure cooker.  Granted it doesn’t approach Argentina or Venezuela, but 6 percent-plus inflation touches the upper limits of the government’s comfort level and is Brazil’s highest rate since 2005.

    Second is the overvalued Brazilian real.  High interest rates (an effort by the Central Bank to contain inflation), record high commodity exports, and a flood of foreign investment have swollen the value of the real.  The appreciated value of Brazilian currency against the U.S. dollar and the renminbi has hurt exports and undercut domestic manufacturing.  And in an economy in which corporations have come to rely on foreign credit, the appreciated exchange rate has led many to take out dollar-denominated loans.  A drop in the value of the real relative to the dollar would place a serious crimp on those corporations.  Any sort of devaluation in Brazil’s floating exchange rate will be tough on the economy.

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    Tags: Brazil, economic growth, President Dilma Rousseff, inflation

  • Will Bolivarianism Outlive Hugo Chávez? Unlikely

    July 1, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Now we know: President Hugo Chavez admitted last night that he has cancer.

    A lot hinges on his recovery.

    The debate - and fear - swirling around Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's absence demonstrates the institution-less condition that twelve years of his government have left Venezuela in. Where before his absence after June 10 left the country wondering about his condition, the news now of his battle with cancer has opposition and allies alike all-too aware of his fallibility--and worrying about the polarized country's future. His absence has left a vacuum in Venezuela underscoring a system that is not only incapable of selecting a replacement but also institutionally incapable of balancing competing (some of them criminal and potentially violent) elements within the government. The risk--not just now--is that even should he return to full health, Venezuela is fast becoming a failed state, held together by one sultanistic leader and the opposition's hatred of him.

    After his speech last night, the Vice President, Elias Jaua and others called for "maximum unity" in the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV). That unity is likely to fray with President Chavez's uncertain recovery and his probable intermittent absence as he seeks treatment. Criminal elements within the regime are likely to pursue any means possible to avoid being revealed and relinquishing their nefarious and lucrative businesses. Already there are rumors of individuals within the government reaching out to segments of the opposition.

    The situation should be a reminder, not just to the U.S. whose policy on Venezuela has been adrift the last three years but also to Venezuela's neighbors that this regime--and the eventual transition to another leader (whenever and whoever that may be)--is not likely to follow the relatively smooth patterns of the democratic transitions of the 1980s. The U.S. and neighboring governments should see this as an opportunity to begin to lay plans for how to best deal the likely implosion of the Bolivarian government, in a way that should involve efforts to form a government of national unity and rebuild consensus and the rule of law in the polarized and politicized country.

    In the meantime, one of the worst things the opposition could do now is to try to force a confrontation with the government. In the past, the opposition engaged in a deluded and ultimately dangerous strategy of street politics--organizing mass protests as a sign of strength in the hopes of bringing down the government or provoking a violent reaction by elements within it. Unfortunately, on April 11, 2002 they got what they wanted--though at the cost of human life, Chavez came out the victor. Doing the same now could provoke a political crisis with dangerous consequences. Let's hope now that they have rediscovered the merits of competing in elections and have a number of new, fresh leaders that they use this opportunity to double down and focus on the presidential elections in 2012.

    Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Cancer, 2012 elections

  • Republicans Play Politics with their Own Trade Agenda

    June 30, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    On Monday this week, the White House finally sent to Congress for approval the free-trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.  The Senate Finance Committee is already tackling the legislation by holding today a “mock” markup of all three implementation bills. Only this time, after President Barack Obama re-negotiated key provisions of the agreements to please segments of the Democratic base, it isn’t President Obama or his labor cohorts that are putting trade expansion at risk—but the Republicans in Congress.

    Included in the FTAs sent to the Hill this week is a provision for continued funding of trade adjustment assistance (TAA). Designed to provide support for U.S. workers hurt by foreign trade, TAA has been a part of every trade bill since the 1960s, making it easier for Democratic representatives to vote in favor of trade by avoiding the charge that they were coldly placing global economic concerns over the interests of domestic labor.

    Now, though, Congressional Republicans have decided to use TAA as a symbol of their zeal to cut public spending. Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Boehner have stated their intent to separate it from the vote on the FTAs—a move that will complicate Democratic support. The targeting of TAA as an example of economically damaging profligacy, though, is spurious; the budget for TAA is only estimated to account for $1 billion. This amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to the $13 billion of new exports that the FTAs are expected to generate for the U.S. economy.

    Moreover, the tactic represents political cynicism at its worse.  Since the agreements were originally negotiated under the George W. Bush administration, Republicans have derided Democrats as hurting American jobs and betraying U.S. allies when they have balked at supporting them.  They were right then.  But at the time they were negotiated, it was reasonable to expect—on the part of Republicans and Democrats alike—that TAA would be part of the package, as it has been for decades. Now, Republicans are changing the game. If they insist on sticking to their new rules, they will be the ones who will hurt the U.S. economy, U.S. workers and abandon U.S. allies who committed to an FTA under a Republican president.

    *Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

    Tags: Colombia, Panama, Free Trade

  • Humala: We Wait

    June 15, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    The election guessing game in Peru has ended and now the Humala guessing game has begun: Will Ollanta Humala be the Peruvian equivalent of Venezuela’s Chávez or Brazil’s Lula? The answer, on which may hang Peru’s torrid rates of economic growth—among the highest in the region—and web of free-trade agreements with everyone from China to the  United States, has become a parlor game for investors and observers, as we all watch whom Humala nominates to his cabinet. More than the people he chooses to populate his first round of appointments, the answer may actually lie in his formation as a military officer.

    When he first ran for president in 2006, Humala professed his admiration for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; he even campaigned in the trademark-Bolivarian red tee shirt. Only five years later, the one-time lieutenant colonel who led an uprising against former elected autocrat President Alberto Fujimori, claimed he was a moderate leftist in the mold of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who embraced markets and foreign investors and reduced poverty.   

    It’s not hard to understand why he shifted role models. In the intervening five years, President Chávez has gone from the leader of an anti-American bloc of countries during the years of President George W. Bush to the head of the most dysfunctional economy in the region, with rates of inflation this year likely topping 25 percent and an economy that, even with the spike in oil prices, will be one of the last to rise out of the region’s post-recession torpor. In contrast, President Lula, by hewing to a course of fiscal stability, appointing confidence-instilling technocrats and supporting both foreign investors and Brazilian companies, has both kept Brazil on a path of stable economic growth and—combined with innovative social policies—reduced the number of the Brazilian poor by up to 38 million. No mean feat.

    The first round of elections in Peru shocked the country and the world. After what appeared to be enviable rates of economic growth and stability, a slim majority of voters rejected the center, aided in part by a three-way split between former Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio, former President Alejandro Toledo and former Prime Minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.  In a vitiated party system, the center lost to two candidates on either side of the spectrum—Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori who governed from 1990 to 2000 and is now jailed for corruption and human rights violations, and Humala.

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    Tags: Peru, Hugo Chavez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Ollanta Humala

  • 5 Reasons Why Latin America Should Care about Upheaval in the Middle East

    May 6, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Latin America’s new global profile and trade and diplomatic connections mean that it will increasingly be affected by and can positively affect world events—in this case the popular rumblings in the Middle East and North Africa.

    If Latin America has truly arrived—as the World Bank and many have proclaimed—we need to understand more the region’s relationship with the world and its events.  Leave aside for a moment legitimate concerns that Latin America’s arrival are overplayed and the fact that these grandiose sweeping statements do not apply the entire region.  (Venezuela, as much as it wants to be a global player, is stuck in some combination of Bolivarian fantasy and 1970s retrograde project—making it just basically a sad, deluded nuisance.)  

    What it does mean is that increasingly, whether its economic policymaking in China, drought in Africa or the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America has a stake—often underestimated but real.  It’s time to stop imagining Latin America as an isolated region, like a bug trapped in amber.  

    Let’s take one example: the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa (and the repressive reaction in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen).  Here are five ways they affect Latin America and in which Latin America can play a positive diplomatic and economic role in shaping their outcomes.

    1. The Shifting Sands of Relations: During the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Brazil and Mercosur built closer trade and diplomatic relations with the Middle East. Economically, the last two years have seen a flurry of trade negotiations between Mercosur and the Middle East and North Africa that have produced framework agreements and pending FTAs: a framework agreement with Morocco in 2010 an FTA with Israel in 2010, a still pending FTA with Egypt signed in 2010, and a framework agreement with Jordan in 2008 to name just a few.  In addition, the Lula Administration created the Summit of South American-Arab Countries to better coordinate policy between the regions and serve to deepen trade ties.  

    Diplomatically, in 2010 President Lula tried briefly to breathe life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions—though the effort failed.  And of course later the same year, Brazil and Turkey negotiated with Iran in an attempt to head off a tightening of international sanctions against the Iranian regime for continuing its nuclear program.  We can debate the merits and results of Brazil’s forays into the region, but they clearly indicate a desire to assert itself into diplomatic deadlocks.  With popular protests now changing the composition of governments in the Middle East and North Africa, will those same desires extend to negotiations between citizens and autocratic governments?   Exchanges with newly elected governments?  From the wave of democratic transitions in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s Latin America has experience in giving autocrats the boot and electing and sustaining democratic regimes.  Can they help?  Or will they continue to play broker to autocratic regimes?  One area that represents an opportunity now is in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza.  With the recently announced accord between Hamas and Fatah, Brazil could leverage its relations there to try to broker negotiations at a time when the U.S. and Israel appear increasingly marginal.  Doing so, however, will require Brazil to accept and push for the acceptance on the part of the Palestinians of the basic conditions for discussions: the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel by the Palestinian authorities on the other side of the table.

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    Tags: Brazil, Venezuela, Mercosur, Free Trade, United Nations, ALBA, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Middle East, Democratic Governance

  • President Obama’s Trip to Latin America: Now What?

    April 1, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    President Obama’s trip one week later:  Did it matter?  It barely made a splash in the U.S. media, but at a regional and personal level it did.  Talk to Brazilians, Chileans or Salvadorans and they appreciate the fact that he went there.  Sure, he couldn’t do it with the festive, family-oriented aura that he had hoped, given world events, but it was precisely the frenzied swirl of those events that gave his trip to the region that much more credibility in the region. 

    For many of us (here I speak not of Latin Americans but Latin Americanists) rooting from the sidelines, his trip meant, “Yes, yes he does care!!!”  (Maybe we’re just really needy.)

    But the proof now is in what happens next.  The personal relationships President Obama developed with Presidents Rousseff, Piñera and Funes are immeasurably important.  There may be no tangible, obvious benefits of personal chemistry (speaking at least from a diplomatic standpoint), but these things are important.  They allow a president to make a phone call, personally press a position and establish the foundation for the sort of partnership that he talked about. 

    What comes, though, of the speeches, declarations and commitments signed

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    Tags: trade, Colombia FTA, Panama FTA, President Obama’s trip to Latin America

  • It’s Not Like President Obama Went to Cancun on Spring Break

    March 24, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Conservative critics have had a field day criticizing President Barack Obama’s trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this week. Former speaker of the house and now presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich implied the President was abdicating his leadership by taking the long-anticipated trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity referred to it as a “vacation in Rio.” Besides revealing a troubling—even offensive—stereotype and disregard of the region, they are also wrong.

    To be sure, the president’s long-overdue tour of South America couldn’t have come at a worse time in terms of world events.  The NATO aerial campaign to establish a no-fly zone to contain Muammar Gadaffi from slaughtering his own citizens, the threat of nuclear meltdown in post-tsunami Japan, the Saudi-led crackdown against popular protests in Bahrain, and the budget battles in Washington provided plenty of reasons for staying.  But it would have been a diplomatic disaster if he had remained behind.

    In his January State of the Union address President Obama declared—somewhat unexpectedly—his desire to travel to Brazil. The president’s promise captured the imagination of Brazilians and offered a high-level opportunity to repair frayed political and economic relations with the world’s soon-to-be fifth largest economy.  In the last 12 years, Brazil has risen from poverty and the periphery to become an emerging regional and world power, an ascendance that under former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva often caused diplomatic friction with the United States and provoked a dramatic shift in the region’s economic order in which China overtook the U.S. to become Brazil’s (and Chile’s) number one trade partner.

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    Tags: Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Barack Obama

  • President Obama’s Trip: Hope in Latin America’s Race and Inclusion

    March 10, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Inclusion. The concept will likely figure large during President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador from March 19 to 23. This is so, not only for symbolic reasons (the U.S. President is a powerful symbol of inclusion and U.S. meritocracy), but also the significant advances and challenges of the countries he’ll be visiting on his first trip south of Trinidad and Tobago. Will he address it realistically or gloss over the ongoing challenges?

    While it is a complicated issue, fraught with the complexities of economic growth, race, and social policy, one policy prescription for improving economic and social inclusion stands out above all others: Equal access to education. Education has been demonstrated to be the single most important variable affecting social mobility. And who better than Obama—the biracial son of an absentee father who went on to study at Columbia University and Harvard Law School—to discuss the benefits of quality education?

    In recent years, the growth of the Latin American middle class, especially in Brazil, has been significant. But those gains are delicate and limited by race. More than a decade of stable economic policy coupled with social policy innovations has lifted over 40 million people in the region out of poverty in what was, and remains, the most unequal region in the world. These numbers are nothing to sniff at, but they belie the fragility of this new middle class. Most academic or technocratic measures of “middle class-ness” rely on measuring income, while most journalistic reporting on the middle class tends to cite these arrivistes’ access to credit.

    Neither really captures the security of the middle class. That it has grown is undeniable. But its definition and stability—not to mention its deeper meaning, given Latin America’s racial history—are open to debate. For one, tying the definition strictly to income or credit access obscures other more sustainable elements of modern-day (U.S. and European) notions of middle class: Namely, equal access to public and social programs such as quality education, health care, or pensions.

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    Tags: Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Barack Obama

  • Why Cuba Won't Follow the Revolutions Rocking the Middle East and North Africa

    February 28, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    The people-power revolutions that ousted the decades-old autocratic governments of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and are rocking the rest of the  Middle East have prompted Cuba watchers --yet again-- to wonder when the last redoubt of Cold War dictatorship in the hemisphere is next.  It isn't, and we have U.S. policy partly to blame.

    For the last two decades, from Eastern Europe to Egypt, none of the countries that has experienced a people's revolution has been under a U.S. embargo.  Though it is about to be the target of focused sanctions as a result of its bloody response to the protestors (and deservedly so) before the current uprising even Libya saw its sanctions ended in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration.  In the case of Libya --and in the past-- targeted sanctions tied to a specific act by the government can provoke a course correction or even collapse.  Over the long-term, though, sanctions actually seal a country off from the rest of the world and allow a government to dig in.

The inverse relationship between isolation and people's revolution is no coincidence. Contact with the outside world builds capacity and ideas insidious to even the most tyrannical regime.  

    Whether it was the 1989 Velvet Revolution in then-Czechoslovakia, the end of communist rule in Poland (two years after U.S. sanctions were ended after the crackdown on Solidarity) or the broad coalition that ended the 30 year-reign of Mubarak last week, the symbols, motivations and means of these peaceful transitions owe much to the sort of contacts that the 52-year U.S. embargo on Cuba has cut off. 

Defended as a way to deny the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro the resources to oppress its own people, the U.S.’' half century-old sanctions against Cuba have, —in pursuing this noble effort, —become a blunt instrument. In the name of this cause, the embargo has sealed off the Cuban people from personal interaction with average Americas and denied it the inspiration and tools for its own liberation. Communication, contact and even limited trade is not a zero sum game; sometimes, yes, the regime may benefit, but sometimes the people benefit more, especially when it helps break down the control over information that such regimes need to survive. 

    Make no mistake. The level and type of repression in Cuba exceeds that in Egypt under Mubarak or even Eastern Europe under communism. Fifty years of cruel, systematic repression by the Castro regime, the penetration of government spies throughout society and the suffocating control of the state over the economy have atomized civil society, closed off freedom of expression and left Cuban citizens dependent for their livelihoods on the state.  As a result, many Cubans --especially the younger generation-beaten down by decades of repression, deprived of inspiring contact with the outside world and denied broad access to the tools of communication-- are left waiting for the end of a gerontocracy.

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    Tags: Cuba

  • The Economics of the Colombia and Panama FTAs Are Reason Enough to Approve Them

    February 21, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    In contrast to the looming political fights over spending, healthcare repeal, and immigration, free trade could be a rare case where President Barack Obama will benefit from Republican control of the House of Representatives. After all, the pending Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements (FTAs) were originally negotiated by George W. Bush’s administration and then held back from being presented to Congress when the Democrats won a congressional majority.

    This opportunity for bipartisan collaboration is particularly true of the Colombia deal which has been on the table since 2006, but only if the president is able to overcome the opposition of one of the most vocal and intense coalitions of anti-free trade groups ever, comprising U.S. labor unions and human rights groups.  Their collaboration on raising legitimate human and labor rights concerns in Colombia have created a ardent alliance that combines a historically grave (though much improving) human rights and labor rights situation with groups that traditionally have resisted free trade.  Both groups include themselves in the Democratic Party, with one of the most outspoken and strident of the groups, the AFL-CIO, constituting an important electoral base for the President in his 2012 reelection bid.  Unfortunately, advocates—including moderate Democrats and seasoned policymakers -- of the deal have been making the wrong argument to this powerful constituency, focusing on Colombia’s improvements in human rights and strategic importance rather than the very real benefits this deal will have for American workers and manufacturers.

    This is not to say that maintaining the U.S.-Colombia relationship isn’t important. Colombia has been a steadfast ally in its region, surrounded by the anti-institutional, anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the voluble (though still willing to cooperate with the U.S. on some fronts) Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.

    Colombia has also clawed its way back from the brink of becoming a failed state under siege from two narcoguerrilla groups and an array of criminal paramilitaries.  At the height of the violence in the late 1990s, according to a government-created independent commission, there were 32,000 forced disappearances -- the bulk of them during the decade between the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s -- and 113,000 acts of political violence. Workers’ unions bore a large part of the brunt of the violence, with 275 union members killed in 1996.  Since that time, the Colombian government has made tremendous strides, reducing the murder rate from 67 per 100,000 in 2002 to 33 per 100,000 in 2008, rearranging and improving the judicial system, and launching a series of investigations into the murder of union activists and the disappearances.  Correspondingly, union deaths plunged to 39 in 2010.  While higher than other professions, the general decline is not surprising; according to the Colombian Attorney General in 40 percent of the cases the motives behind past crimes against union members were not linked to labor activism but to generalized violence.

    Human rights groups and U.S. labor activists that have drawn a line in the sand to oppose this agreement have focused on these issues, arguing that not enough progress has been made to warrant the U.S. government approving the FTA. (Never mind the fact that the Colombian Congress has approved the agreement, as do a majority of Colombians, including some labor unions.  In fact, current Vice President Angelino Garzón, a former leading union activist, has been pushing hard for the agreement.) Groups such as Latin American Working Group and U.S. labor unions, such as AFL-CIO, while conceding that progress has been made, continue to add demands—many of them vague and immeasurable—that range from a complete investigation of all cases of political violence dating back to 1993 to a further reduction in the murder of unionists—though what point would be acceptable is unclear.  In countering this argument, pro-FTA commentators have fallen into the trap of defending Colombian government’s progress in human rights and labor rights and its importance as an ally.  Pro-FTA advocates such as former Assistant Secretary of State Bernie Aronson pleas that after the success of the U.S.-Colombian program to reduce crime and all the steps taken by Colombia to investigate abuses, not approving the FTA is “slap in the face” of our ally.

    But this isn’t the point.  Pro-FTA advocates could make a much stronger argument by pointing out the benefits to the U.S. economy and workers.

    The first key point to understand is that the most commonly used argument against free trade -- increased competition from cheap, foreign imports -- doesn’t apply to Colombia. Thanks to a U.S. policy originally adopted in 1991 designed to provide legal economic alternatives to narcotics production, 90 percent of Colombian exports already enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market.The Colombia FTA would actually level the playing field by opening up the Colombian market to U.S. exporters.

    Second, in the four years since the U.S. signed but did not ratify its agreement with Colombia, U.S. businesses have lost market share in Colombia.  In just one year (2008), U.S. exports to Colombia declined by 50 percent. U.S. agriculture has largely borne the brunt of this loss: According to U.S. government estimates, since 2008 American farmers have lost over $800 million dollars in exports to Colombia. Why? Largely because of competition from wheat and beef producers in Brazil and Argentina. In these cases, the lower costs of their goods due to proximity would be wiped out if tariffs on U.S. goods were removed.

    Competition is only about to get stiffer; Canada recently signed a free-trade agreement with Colombia.  Now Canadian wheat and beef producers and even automobile manufacturers -- where U.S. parts  can be shipped across the border to Canada for assembly and from there sold to Colombia -- are licking their lips at the prospect of a market in which U.S. imports face tariffs ranging on average 15.8 percent for automobiles, up to 108 percent for beef, and up to 248 percent for wheat.

    Finally, American states are already taking advantage of the Colombian market even without an FTA. California, for example, shipped over $300 million of its locally produced goods to Colombia; Ohio $105 million; South Carolina $93 million; and Wisconsin just under $100 million. When tariffs are lowered on U.S. goods being sold in Colombia these numbers will only increase.

    Though far less contentious, the Panama agreement has equal opportunities to expand state trade.  Not surprisingly, U.S. port states do a considerable business with the canal-bisected isthmus country.  Alabama traded $28 million worth of goods to Panama in 2009; California $230 million, Mississippi $419 million and even far-north New Jersey $103.  But while Panama lacks the human rights cloud that hangs over Colombia, unfortunately (and unjustly), the fate of the Panama FTA is tied to its Colombian counterpart.

    What all the above-mentioned states have in common is that their congressional delegations voted against the majority of past free-trade agreements presented to the U.S. Congress. And despite their political votes in one or both houses of Congress, the vast majority of these states have seen their exports grow in those markets.  For instance, after 40 percent of its representatives and all of its senators opposed NAFTA in 1994, California’s exports to Canada and Mexico shot up by 151 percent from 1992 to 2009.  Since the Golden State’s Senate delegation opposed the FTA with Chile in 2003, its exports to that country have increased by 300 percent from 2002 to 2009.  Ohio benefited equally from NAFTA, even after the majority of its congress people and both of its senators voted against it, with its exports growing 114 percent to the expanded North American market.  In some cases the corresponding imports have affected producers, though -- contrary to what you hear -- manufactured goods still make up the bulk of the U.S. exports to Latin America. 

    Why then all the opposition to Colombia? The simple fact is that for trade opponents Colombia represents the perfect target.  Traditional U.S. human rights groups -- many of whom have always opposed U.S. free-trade agreements with the region from NAFTA to Peru -- have staked out their position on the country’s bloody human rights past.  U.S. labor unions, which have yet to fully support any free trade agreements, in the case of Colombia has taken up the cause of the murder of its brethren.  Both are powerful and loud constituencies for the Democratic Party and both have recognized that this could be the case on which they beat back the momentum on free trade.   Evidence of their disingenuousness is their inability to articulate and specific, concrete human or labor rights targets that the Colombian government has to meet to win their support.  Instead, in the face of substantial and undeniable progress the groups demand vague goals (in the words of Samuel Gompers “More”), but what is never clear and keeps changing.

    For the Colombia FTA to be approved, it must first be presented to Congress, and that depends on Obama.  So far, his rhetoric has not been encouraging.  In his most recent State of the Union address, the president said he would push for the FTAs if he could ensure that they will be good for American workers.  But U.S. workers are not competing with Colombian workers -- the latter’s producers are already entering the U.S. duty free.  The issue is now to have the Colombian market open to U.S. products that U.S. workers produce.

    Unfortunately, many of the advocates for the Colombian agreement are not helping the president make the case. Telling American workers during a time of economic distress that Colombians deserve a trade agreement for being a good ally or improving their human rights record simply isn’t going to work. In part we do they do this because they are distracted by the vocal coalition decrying conditions inside Colombia, when Colombia itself has already approved the agreement.  But telling American workers why the FTA would good for their livelihood -- which it is -- will. That should be part of a broader debate the president should lead on trade.

    Tags: Colombia, Free Trade, U.S. Foreign Policy

  • As Latin America Changes, Will the U.S. Policy Debate?

    January 10, 2011

    by Christopher Sabatini

    Latin America is changing. Do we have the tools and intellectual framework to deal with it?

    From Brazil to Mexico, Latin America has found new diplomatic muscle, asserting itself into international issues and all the while deepening ties with new trade partners from China to Russia. At the same time, despite increased rhetoric of regional solidarity and independence from the U.S., the region is at its most divided, ideologically and in its economic trajectories.

    All this presents a challenge, not just to U.S. policymakers, but to policy analysts and scholars alike. For the first time, Latin America is becoming a complex international relations topic.

    In the past, Latin Americanists (a term I apply loosely to people who work in or on the region) have tended to focus on domestic and development issues. Discussions of U.S. policy, by policymakers and analysts alike, have followed a different path for Latin America than for other regions.

    In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Latin America was largely seen as the backyard of the United States. During the Cold War, the region was the staging ground for proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in which broader ideological battles were projected onto (and inflamed) internal social, political struggles. With the third wave of democratization and the fall of the Berlin Wall came the heady days of collective action for democracy and the promise of economic integration.

    That ended. And with the rise of the anti-globalization governments aspiring to build a multipolar world by cozying up to rogue regimes (read: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez), the rise of China and India with their voracious appetites for natural resources, and Brazil’s aspirations to find a political role commensurate with its size, economic potential and independent world view, we’re no longer dealing with your grandfather or even father’s region.

    Latin America has entered the realm of foreign policy in which the U.S. is not the primary axis around which countries define their economic and political interests or defend themselves. That’s not to say that, as one unfortunately titled article in Foreign Affairs said, the U.S. is “losing Latin America.” Yes, U.S. influence has waned in the region, giving political and economic space for these diverse relations in the region. But despite all the talk of other countries eclipsing it in the region, it remains a powerful force in defining the agenda, both positive and negative, for the region.

    What is significantly different is that the U.S. now has to grapple with multiple, competing issues, a far more diverse region (in terms of orientation and interests), greater potential for intra-regional friction, and more contrarian countries—even when they may agree on broad points of principle.

    Read More

    Tags: Latin America, Moises Naim, Arturo Valenzuela, foreign policy, Connie Mack

  • Immigration Evolution

    October 15, 2010

    by Christopher Sabatini

    I’ve never been one of those people who, in lamenting policy and politics in the U.S., builds up another country to disparage my own. Yet I must admit, this week I felt pangs of envy in hearing Québec officials talk with cool rationale about the economic calculations behind their immigration policies.  

    I was in Montreal on a trip organized by the Québec delegation in NYC.  While I was there I had the opportunity to meet with high-level officials and community groups working on immigration and the integration of future and recent arrivals into Québec’s economy and society.  The ways they described their policies and their future efforts couldn’t contrast more with what is occurring in the United States.  For those in Québec, immigration is a demographic imperative: they need an influx of young workers to replace the province’s aging workforce.  Getting them is critical to sustaining the province’s economic growth, competitiveness and paying for the pensions of those soon-over-the-hill French Canadians approaching retirement.  As the Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said, “We’re now in competition with Ireland and Australia for skilled labor.”  (Her mention of Australia revealed the tough competitors Canada faces today in trying to attract immigrants, “Sure they have the weather and beaches, but they also have sharks,” she said trying to put the best face on Québec’s notoriously brutal winters. On this, I would also encourage the Ministry to highlight Australia’s baby-eating dingoes for the non-swimming immigrants thinking of setting up a new life in Australia.) 

    You would never hear the same immigration maturity just south of the Canadian border.  While the problem of labor force replacement is more acute in Québec than in the U.S., we do need to worry about replacement rates for our declining fertility rates—and it is only going to become more serious.  Between 2002 and 2012, 28 million jobs will be created in the U.S. requiring less than a high school education—given rising education rates in the U.S., the native-born population will not be able to fill that demand. 

    Like Québec, we also need a regular flow of immigrant labor too to shore up our social security system.  Despite what the anti-immigrant nativists would have you believe, immigrants—even undocumented immigrants—pay more in taxes than they take out, providing a critical source of new revenue for those soon-to-be retiring baby boomers that threaten to bankrupt our social security system.  According to a 2007 Social Security Administration Report just the addition of 100,000 new, net immigrants per year increases the long-range actuarial balance of our taxable payroll by .07 percent. If you multiply that with the approximately million immigrants that arrive on our shores each year, that’s a real revenue source. 

    Read More

    Tags: Canada, Immigration Policy, Quebec


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