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South American Dictatorships in Images

May 17, 2013 1 comment

Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.

Around Latin America

-Still dealing with the loss to Chile of its only route to the Pacific 140 years ago, Bolivia is set to take its case to the International Court of Justice, a move that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has said would open a “Pandora’s Box” of territorial issues in the Americas (including the territory the US took from Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War).

-US President Barack Obama is set this week to make his first trip to Latin America since winning re-election last November, with stops in Mexico and Costa Rica planned. Prior to the trip, he met with Latino leaders in the US, with whom he discussed socioeconomic issues.

-Peruvian President Ollanata Humala may be preparing to pardon former president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving jail time after his conviction for human rights violations that Fujimori oversaw during his 1990-2000 presidency.

-Evo Morales is set to run for a third term as president after Bolivia’s constitutional court ruled in favor of presidents serving three consecutive terms.

-Chilean Laurence Golborne, seen as the frontrunner among conservative candidates to challenge former president Michelle Bachelet in next year’s election, has removed himself from the race amidst allegations of shady business practices.

-Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro will travel to the US to receive an award in Philadelphia next week. Castro had initially been denied a visa to the US, due primarily to the fact that she is the daughter of Raul Castro.

-Colombia is set to resume peace talks with the FARC after a month-long break in the peace process.

-The Catholic Church has excommunicated Brazilian priest Roberto Francisco Daniel (known colloquially as Padre Beto) for his defense of open marriages and his defense of same-sex love. More than a symbolic move, the excommunication marks a split between official church hierarchy and a growing strain of moderate and even progressive Catholicism among some parishioners in Brazil.

-A new scientific study suggests that Latin America is facing a “cancer epidemic” due to challenges in diagnosing and treating cancer, as well as to increasingly unhealthy diets, higher levels of tobacco-smoking and alcohol consumption, and an increasingly inactive lifestyle.

-In what is an important step in addressing impunity (albeit a significant issue in its own right), sixty officers in Rio de Janeiro have been arrested on charges of corruption, even while another five officers were arrested for the murders of a journalist and a photographer who were working on a story on militias in Brazil’s interior state of Minas Gerais.

-The next president of the World Trade Organization will be from Latin America, as the remaining to candidates for the position are Mexico’s Herminio Blanco and Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo.

-Finally, when I studied in Costa Rica about a decade ago, the “best” beer one could find was Heineken, so this is excellent news for Costa Rica.

Around Latin America

April 1, 2013 Comments off

-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.

-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.

-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.

-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.

-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).

-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).

-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.

-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.

-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.

-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.

-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.

On Populist Appeals & the Failures and Successes of Institutionalization in Venezuela

March 15, 2013 1 comment

Over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a piece up on the “Paradoxes of Chavismo.” In it, they do an excellent job concisely explaining why the rhetoric of Chávez (and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales) has resonated so strongly among their respective electorates.

Chávez, like Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, gained support because his proposed political platform stroke a chord with the average voter. These politicians’ diagnosis of the problems on Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia is that the economic ills their countries face stem from the fact that society has been captured by an elite.

How to change this situation? They argued that measures needed to be taken to break the grip on power of elites. The approach of Chávez, and of Correa and Morales, is to strengthen the president and the removal of checks and balances which in the past have been tools for the elites to block reformist agendas, for example that of Carlos Andrés Perez. It is almost as if one needs “fire to fight fire”: institutions have been captured by elites, so we need to break down these institutions in order to build a different society.

Drawing equivalencies between Latin American leaders just because they are from “the” (not always clearly-defined) left is often problematic, but I think this comparison is legitimate. While the national contexts for each vary, historically, elites have maintained control over institutional power through both the colonial and national eras. This control played no small part in perpetuating socioeconomic differences even while hiding behind of thin veneer of so-called “democracy,” a veneer through which the population saw and with which it grew increasingly disillusioned. While the policies, goals, and contexts of Morales, Correa, and Chávez (to say nothing of their individual responses) have important distinctions between nation-states, this shared history of abuses of power and elite domination is a useful comparison, and helps explain while all three men have (or had) resonated with a majority of their populations as they campaigned. Put simply, they spoke not so much to a populism defined by personalism (though there are certainly elements of that as well, particularly in the figure of Chávez); rather, they spoke to a populism that sought to finally incorporate those who had effectively been marginalized from political processes or from the benefits that the state can provide to its citizens. In that regard, Chávez, Correa, and Morales are not so original, as their rhetoric echoes that of populists who came to power by incorporating previously-marginalized groups, including urban and rural workers and women, between the 1930s-1950s, be it in the APRA in Peru, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, or Juan Perón in Argentina.

Speaking of Perón, Acemoglu and Robinson close with the following:

An interesting comparison here is to Argentina. The attack in the 1940s by Perón on the traditional elites created a political machine, and an associated band of political elites, which have dominated politics and run the country ever since, with far more disastrous economic consequences than the previous regime in Argentina. Chavismo, by its un-institutionalized nature, seems not to have created such a machine, which is possibly his greatest legacy and the only cause for hope for the future of Venezuelan democracy.

This is a fascinating point. I’ve commented before that Chávez’s slowness to institutionalize his reforms in state institutions rather than in himself could be an obstacle in ensuring that the reforms are stronger and more enduring than an individual leader (in this case, Chávez himself). By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the lack of institutionalization of chavismo as a political movement may help maintain peace and democracy in Venezuela by precluding machine politics bound in the cult of personality of the party’s leader, a la Peronism in Argentina. Certainly, there are some important differences between the two cases; in particular, regarding party politics, Perón was alive until 1974, more than 25 years after arriving in the presidency in 1946. From 1955 to 1973, he was in exile, meaning his metaphysical presence/physical absence created a far more ambivalent and uncertain path for Peronism, with more radical and more conservative forces fighting over the party’s legacy even while it’s founder was still alive. This obviously would not be  the case for Chávez, even had he created a party bound in his own leadership before his death.  Nonetheless, the suggestion that Chávez’s failure to institutionalize his ideology in a party is a fascinating one that sees the failure to institutionalize Chavismo in one regard as a success.

To be clear, I don’t think those two views on institutionalization as a shortcoming or as a success are in direct conflict; Acemoglu and Robinson are discussing party politics, whereas I was focused more on institutional reform. Thus, it’s not so much a matter of conflicting views as it is a question of differing institutions. I think the reforms need to be embodied in Venezuela’s juridical and legal institutions, while Acemoglu and Robinson are arguing the lack of political institutions [i.e., parties] with Chávez may be central in sowing an even stronger democratic system in Venezuela going forward. In that regard, they may be right.

Gearing up for Latin American Presidential Elections

March 13, 2013 Comments off

The US certainly excels at trying to guess presidential elections way too early (guessing-games that prompt entirely-reasonable responses). While 2016 is still too far off, 2014 is not, where several Latin American presidential elections will occur. In Central America,  Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama are all holding elections in February, March, and May, respectively. Mike Allison has an excellent summary of the three races right now. Read his whole post for the breakdown, but the shorter version is that runoffs seem likely in El Salvador, where the right-wing ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, has a slight lead over the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and in Costa Rica, where Partido Liberación Nacional [National Liberation Party] candidate Johnny Anaya polls ahead of candidates like Epsy Campbell and Otto Guevara (who has previously run in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 elections). Meanwhile, Panama’s situation is more tenuous, as the public speculates (and fears) constitutional reforms that would allow re-election.

In South America, Uruguayans will go to the polls in October to pick José Mujica’s successor. Bolivia is set to also hold presidential elections in December 2014. And of course, Brazil will have its presidential elections next October as well, for a total of at least 6 presidential elections next year, with campaigning having unofficially but visibly begun. Incumbent president Dilma Rousseff of the PT remains very popular as she faces reelection. After years of flirting with candidacy, Aécio Neves, the former governor and current senator from Minas Gerais, is finally running for the presidency for the center-right Partido Social Democracia Brasileira [Brazilian Social Democracy Party; PSDB]. While the PT and the PSDB are currently the two strongest parties for presidential politics, their hegemony is far from absolute; they continue to rely on the coalition-building that defines Brazil’s parliamentary-presidential system, and that means that there could be legitimate threats from other parties. Former environment minister Marina Silva, who had a strong third-place showing for the Partido Verde [Green Party] in 2010, has formed the new Rede Sustentabilidade [Sustainability Network]; while it is not yet clear whether her new party will focus on presidential politics, legislative elections, grassroots mobilization, or some combination of the three, certainly the path for her to be presidential candidate in her own party is open. In recent years, the PT and the PSDB have become the two strongest parties in Brazil’s parliamentary system, and Rousseff and Neves are understandably the front-runners. Indeed, while campaigning has not officially begun, Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the founders of the PT and the PSDB, respectively, and former-allies-turned-political-foes, have already begun trading barbs back and forth, trying to discredit the other party [and, consequently, the candidates]. Though Brazil’s presidential campaign cycle only officially lasts 3 months, it’s clear that it’s moving to informally expand campaign season through surrogates. It’s too early to say whether a runoff will take place, but expect more candidates to enter into the race; even if Rousseff and Neves remain front-runners in the latter half of 2013 and into 2014, dark horse candidates like Marina Silva, who could build on her 2010 success, or others may challenge the PT and PSDB.

And all of that comes after Venezuela and Paraguay both hold elections to fill controversial mandates [Venezuela with the death of Hugo Chávez, Paraguay 10 months after the forced removal of democratically-elected president Fernando Lugo], while Chile goes to the polls in November to elect a successor to embattled president Sebastián Piñera [when a 38% approval rating marks an "improvement," it seems safe to say things have not gone well for a president]. And of course, in November, Honduras will have elections for the first full term since the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya. All of that sets up for no fewer than ten presidential elections in the coming 21 months, marking a period of political transition that will have a deep impact on politics, economics, and social relations not only for the citizens of the respective countries, but for the region as a whole.

Around Latin America

March 8, 2013 Comments off

While Hugo Chávez’s death has perhaps understandably been the main focus of news from the region this week, it’s far from the only event of note. Here are some of the other stories coming out of Latin America this week.

-With Chávez’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro is set to be sworn in at 7PM local time tonight. And Margaret Myers’ always-excellent blog on China-Latin American relations has a post up on Chinese bloggers’ responses to Chávez’s death.

-Of course, Chávez’s death has overshadowed another important and more violent death in Venezuela. Somebody shot and killed indigenous leader and rights activist Sabino Romero, who had recently asked for government protection. The government announced an investigation into the murder before Chavez’s death; hopefully the investigation will continue and Romero’s killers can be brought to justice.

-In Argentine justice, a court convicted ex-president (and current Senator) Carlos Menem for illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia while Menem served as president between 1989 and 1999.

-In Haiti, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is under investigation for human rights violations during his regime 1971 and 1986. Several victims of his regime testified to torture and other abuses this week. Meanwhile, Duvalier entered into a hospital after providing his own testimony. Given how many former dictators, from Pinochet to Argentine generals, have tried to hide behind [often-fabricated] “medical issues” to avoid facing justice, at least for now it is difficult to take Duvalier’s own admission to the hospital as much other than a ploy to try to avoid justice and/or drum up sympathy.

-New documents reveal that Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) provided $115 million in aid to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime during the latter half of the dictatorship [English version of story available here]. The document reinforces and adds to our understanding of the ways in which South American dictatorships collaborated and serves as yet another reminder that the portrayal of one group of Brazilian military presidents as “moderate” is a misnomer for regimes that still supported the violation of human rights, be it in their own countries or in other countries.

-Speaking of regional collaboration in violating human rights, in Argentina, military officers from the dictatorship era there (1976-1983) are on trial for their involvement in Operation Condor, the international collaborative efforts between Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru to arrest, torture, and “disappear” so-called “subversives” in each other’s countries.

-In Brazil, an indigenous community disillusioned with the lack of governmental action is taking over efforts to combat deforestation, recently seizing trucks used in illegal logging.

-Lawyers for those imprisoned in Guantanamo filed a claim that the conditions and rights of prisoners were deteriorating, and this was before troops fired “non-lethal bullets” at inmates who agitated at the prison, the first time in 11 years bullets had been fired at prisoners.

-In an overlooked part of Central American history, Panama’s indigenous Guna peoples celebrated the 1925 Guna Revolution last week.

-Finally, in a step towards greater equal rights, Haiti is set to improve women’s rights by aiding rape victims who seek justice against their attackers, allow abortion in the case of rape, and make marital rape illegal.

On This Date in Latin America – February 14, 1879: The War of the Pacific

February 14, 2013 Comments off

One hundred and thirty-four years ago today, the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) began, pitting Chile against Peru and Bolivia in a war that would see Peru lose its southern-most provinces, Bolivia lose its access to the Pacific Ocean (thus becoming the second land-locked country in South America), and Chile gain control over the nitrate-rich region of the Atacama desert.

Chilean troops occupying the port city of Antofagosta in 1879. The port had been Bolivia's largest port on the Pacific; after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), it was part of Chilean territory, and Bolivia was landlocked.

Chilean troops occupying the port city of Antofagosta in 1879. The port had been Bolivia’s largest port on the Pacific; after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), it was part of Chilean territory, and Bolivia was landlocked.

The war had its roots in the growing value of nitrates on the global market and nationalist tensions between the three countries. The Atacama was a region rich in nitrates that could be converted into fertilizer. As Europe enjoyed a “green revolution” that saw intensified agricultural output thanks to technological innovations, the nitrates became an increasingly valuable commodity, useful in producing fertilizer. As Peru’s guano deposits dried up, the nitrates of the Atacama became increasingly appealing. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867 only added to the profitability of nitrates. Although the deposits rested largely on Peruvian and Bolivian soil, it had been Chilean private enterprise that had invested heavily in the region. Needing to find an alternate source of income to replace guano (which had provided the Peruvian government with 80% of its revenues at its peak), Peru nationalized the nitrate mines, while Bolivia decided to levy a 10-cent tax on the railways that transported nitrates to the  Pacific ports. Feeling its economic interests threatened, and still bearing some suspicions of Peru and Bolivia dating back to the Peruvian-Bolivian Federation of 1836-1839, Chile decided to occupy Antofagosta, Bolivia’s largest port, on February 14, 1879. Peru tried to mediate, but Chile refused such offers, declaring itself to be at war with Bolivia; the latter country asked Peru to respect treaties and join Bolivia. Though Peru was hesitant to go to war, it was also hesitant to declare neutrality, leading Chile to declare war on Peru as well.

The borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile on the eve of the War of the Pacific.

The borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile on the eve of the War of the Pacific, with the post-war border marked in black.

The war began with naval battles between the Chilean and Peruvian navies. While Peru’s navy had initial successes against the Chilean navy, by October of 1879, Chile controlled the ocean along the borders of all three countries, allowing it to begin land operations to occupy Bolivia and Peru. Although Peru ultimately built the first functioning submarine in South American military history, the Toro, it never saw battle, and was scuttled by the end of the war.

A protrayal of the Chilean (left) and Peruvian (right) navies facing off in the Battle of Iquique in May of 1879.

A portrayal of the Chilean (left) and Peruvian (right) navies facing off in the Battle of Iquique in May of 1879.

Controlling the seas, Chile began to occupy the three southern-most provinces of Peru – Tarapacá, Tacna, and Arica – where the nitrate holdings were. Although Peru again initially defeated Chilean forces, the Peruvian army nonetheless was unable to maintain its territorial control and retreated from the field, leaving Tarapacá, with its 200,000 citizens (roughly 10% of Peru’s total population) and 28 million English pounds worth of nitrates, to the Chileans. Chile continued to advance, even while riots broke out in the capital of Lima and the Peruvian government tried to negotiate deals for more weapons and warships. By January of 1881, the Chilean army had entered Lima. However, Peruvian forces managed to escape, laying the groundwork for widespread resistance and guerrilla warfare that would continue for another two years.

Chilean Troops outside of Lima in 1881.

Chilean Troops outside of Lima in 1881.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, troops fell quickly. Although they outnumbered the Chileans, those forces stationed in Iquique had retreated by the end of 1879. While the outcome was far from inevitable, the fact remained that Chile had better, German-made weapons and better training at its disposal. Additionally, Bolivia had contended with nearly 40 years of political instability and economic weakness after Chile defeated the Bolivian-Peruvian confederation, even while the Chilean state and its institutions had enjoyed relative stability. By 1880, Chilean troops maneuvered with general ease in Bolivian territories.

In spite of Chile’s quick successes, the war dragged on through guerrilla struggles and grassroots opposition in both Peru and Bolivia for several years. There were several efforts to resolve the issue in the international community. In October 1880, the US gathered Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean officials on the USS Lackawanna off the coast of Peru to hold negotiations after Chile had refused Ecuadoran attempts to negotiate the situation earlier in the year. However, Peru and Bolivia understandably demanded the withdrawal of Chilean troops from what they rightly viewed as their lands, and the negotiations broke down.

Peace finally arrived in 1883. Although Peru and Chile agreed to peace in October of that year, the terms of the treaty remained contentious for decades, and only in 1929, with Herbert Hoover’s administration mediating, did the two countries agree upon not only the cession of not only Tarapacá (originally agreed upon in 1883) but also Arica. Meanwhile, Bolivia signed a truce, but not a treaty, in 1884, ceding its entire Pacific coast to Chile (who needed the territory if it were to maintain continuity between its historical border and the newly-acquired territories in Peru). The terms of the 1884 truce became official in a 1904 treaty signing.

The War of the Pacific marked the last of the nineteenth-century international wars in South America (though Colombia and Chile both would still endure civil wars before the century was out). In total, over 13,000 people died in the war, with an overwhelming majority of them coming from Bolivia and Peru. The loss of life alone would have been damaging enough, but the territorial transformations only deepened the sense of loss. Peru, still seeking a source of revenue for its export-dependent state, lost out on the territories with some of the richer nitrate deposits, denying it revenue either from exports or from taxes that could have helped, even while Chile was able to generate money on taxes related to nitrate production. Most damaging, though, was Bolivia’s loss of a path to the sea. Indeed, the territorial loss is still a point of contention today. Bolivia and Chile still only retain consular ties, rather than full diplomatic ties, and social groups still periodically (and not unfairly) blame the lack of access to a port for economic crises in Bolivia (such as the 2003 “gas wars” in Bolivia). Indeed, the memorialization of the loss of land and life is visible in public spaces in both Bolivia and Peru even today, and while relations between them and Chile have thawed somewhat over years, the nationalistic tensions still run high, as a recent video of Chilean sailors’ chants reminded us. The War of the Pacific may have ended 130 years ago, but the social and political wounds from the war still run deep.

A piece of public artwork makes clear the ways in which the legacies of the War of the Pacific are still visible and earnestly felt. The image shows a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier, while the statue points the path to the Pacific Ocean. The painting in part reads,  commemorating Bolivia's losses in the War of the Pacific. The image features a statue pointing towards the Pacific Ocean and a mural of a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier in the throat. The painting reads (in part), "What once was ours, will be ours again."

A piece of public artwork makes clear the ways in which the legacies of the War of the Pacific are still visible and earnestly felt. The image shows a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier, while the statue points the path to the Pacific Ocean. The painting in part reads, commemorating Bolivia’s losses in the War of the Pacific. The image features a statue pointing towards the Pacific Ocean and a mural of a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier in the throat. The painting reads (in part), “What once was ours, will be ours again.”

This is part of a periodic series on major dates in Latin American history. Other entries are available here, and include the launch of NAFTA and the Zapatista movement, and the beginning of the “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras. Other entries are available here.

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