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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.

Chávez’s Ghost and Further Thoughts on Venezuela’s Future

March 6, 2013 Comments off

With Hugo Chávez’s passing, some further remarks on issues facing Venezuela in the immediate future.

First, there will almost inevitably be some political bloviating that his death marks the “end of the left” in Latin America (primarily because such articles have appeared periodically for nearly a year). Suffice to say, such narratives will be as lazy as they are wrong. Though many of Chávez’s opponents in the US media have liked to portray him as the head of some uniform bloc of Latin American leaders, nothing could be further from the truth. Even while he had close allies in people like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of those men were their own politicians with their own domestic backgrounds in their own countries, elected by their own electorates based on their own policies. The idea that they were pawns in some bizarre hemispheric chess match is absurd. While they may have sympathized with Chávez regularly, they have had their own agendas and their own methods of ruling, methods that have regularly demonstrated significant distinctions from Chávez. Though Chávez was a vocal individual, he was far from a ringleader or a commandant for others; as President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (another of these allegedly-”left” countries, and no slouch in regional politics by any stretch of the imagination) put it, Brazil “did not always agree with Chávez.” Narratives that treat him as the leader of a monolithic left in Latin America will show nothing but the authors’ own ignorance of the region.

Second, the process for selecting the next president will be worth watching. According to the Venezuelan constitution, a new election must be held in the next thirty days. Vice President Nicolás Maduro, acting on Chávez’s behalf for the past few months, has certainly had a chance to learn the ropes, but the constant focus on Chávez’s health even in his own governmental declarations has not really shed light on how he might govern should he win the office, nor how capable he is of governing; and even if he wins the election, it is not clear if he will be able to maintain the support from a variety of groups that Chávez sustained.

And then there’s the opposition, which inevitably will hope to take advantage of this new opening, but which has been unable to really create a concrete platform that might appeal to the majority of Venezuelan voters. Indeed, whether the opposition can remain unified witout Chávez, who was the key component in bringing a heterogeneous group of voters together, remains to be seen. Certainly, it seems Maduro has a leg up on the opposition in this context, what with his ties to Chávez, his (brief) tenure as de facto president, the emotional appeal many Chávez supporters will feel in continuity with Maduro, and the brief amount of time the opposition has to try to organize a successful campaign. Either way, though, whoever follows Chávez in the longer-term is in many ways going to have to contend with  Chávez’s ghost, a  task that could prove particularly burdensome if the economy and social programs that oil has supported for so many years begin to deteriorate.

What role the military will play going forward is another matter looming over Venezuela’s immediate future. While Chávez was able to sow strong ties with and support from the military (due to his own military background), Maduro does not have such ties, nor is it clear whether any opposition figures who may seek office can find support among the military. Given how instrumental the military was in Chávez’s rise, especially in the early years, there is a real question of how the military will respond to this new context: whether it will sit on the sidelines or actively work to support a particular candidate remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that it will be a silent actor in the process of succession or in the implementation of policies going forward.

Additionally, and perhaps somewhat tied to the outcome of the previous three points, we’ll finally get a sense of if Chávez’s reforms can and/or will be institutionalized, and how different groups (Maduro, the next president, the military, the public) might assert themselves in the process. In many ways, this is the crux of defining Chavismo; whether it was a movement that transformed society, or a movement that was defined in a man, will become apparent in Chávez’s absence.

As for portrayals of Chávez himself, they have tended to focus on the monolithic and the simplistic, thanks in no small part to his own efforts to appeal to a personalist populism-of-sorts, to say nothing of the way media focus on his health in the last year-plus added to the individualistic narrative that equated Chávez-as-Venezuela. That said, there’s no question he was a complicated figure, having effected some real improvements for many Venezuelans even while making some bad moves that could display a singular use of power against his opponents.

Simply put, Chávez was neither as terrible as his most strident detractors maintained, nor as perfect as his most ardent supporters insisted. Beyond that, only time will tell the long-term impacts Chávez’s fourteen years of governance, social reform, and international relations will have on Venezuela.

RIP – Hugo Chávez

March 5, 2013 Comments off

Hugo Chávez has died. Rumors had swirled around about his impending end for years, but it appears his cancer and its side-effects finally caught up with him. Suffice to say, uncertainties for Venezuela abound going forward. Nicolás Maduro will continue to serve as de facto president while the country prepares for elections. Whether Chávez’s reforms can be institutionalized in his absence, and who could potentially be responsible for institutionalizing them in a post-Chávez context, remains to be seen. Likewise, how the opposition responds to a new political context where they do not face the figure of Chávez had a military background that Maduro does not, and that could matter in the latter’s efforts to remain in the presidency. The opposition has operated primarily on an anti-Chávez platform for years; will they finally be able to provide an actual platform of policies in Chávez’s absence? And how might a Venezuelan population that by and large saw an improved standard of living under Chávez receive such platforms? How will the economy, which has seen both growth and inflation in recent weeks and months, respond? And then there is the role of the military going forward. Chávez had a military background that Maduro does not, and that could matter in the latter’s efforts to remain in the presidency. How will the military respond to his death? Is Maduro’s recent denial that there was a rift between him and the military just a minor issue, or the source of deeper political tensions?

These are just a handful of the immediate questions in a country facing real challenges and sudden, if somewhat expected, uncertainties at the highest level of governance. Indeed, in many ways, the fact that there are so many uncertainties facing Venezuela in the wake of Chávez’s death seems like an appropriate end of an era that was full of both uncertainties and accomplishments. I’ll have more thoughts on what all this might mean for Venezuela tomorrow, but for now – rest in peace.

Curiouser and Curiouser

March 5, 2013 Comments off

Venezuela expels the US Air Force attaché after suggesting that Chávez’s cancer was the result of “enemies” inflicting him (even while questions of governance and reforms beyond Chávez remain on the sidelines). Ch. This isn’t the first time that Chávez or his allies have made such a claim. Regardless of the veracity or falseness of the claim, it’s yet another weird thread in an already-strange story.

A Quick Thought on Hugo Chávez, Health Rumors/Reports, and Obstacles to Institutionalization

March 5, 2013 Comments off

Late last night,  the Venezuelan government announced that Hugo Chávez’s health had deteriorated to some uncertain degree, only further adding to the confusion of Venezuelans. Some were seen praying for Chávez even while a government official criticized anti-Chavez opponents for seeking “violence.” All of this only adds to an atmosphere that was already fertile for all kinds of allegations, (including the report that Chávez has secretly returned to Cuba for more treatments). As Greg Weeks commented, “expect plenty of Hugo Chávez rumors today.” And all of this after students and other anti-Chávez groups took to the streets to protest and demand information about his health.

Lost in all of this, of course, is the actual state of governance in Venezuela, now and going forward. One thing that strikes me is that all of this rumor-mongering and half-reports on Chávez’s health could only be a further obstacle to  institutionalizing his reforms. By focusing strictly on his deteriorating health and the possibility of when he might die, the narrative on Venezuelan politics in both Venezuela and in the media reinforces a focus on Chávez that denies the more complicated realities and possibilities of Veneuzelan politics in the present and the future. Whereas such discussions could focus on the post-Chávez transition and could examine possible ways in which his reforms could be further institutionalized, instead many end up just discussing whether Chávez is or isn’t dead (thanks in no part to official reports that are often lacking in details, creating rife circumstances for speculation); this only reifies the equation of “Chávez-as-Venezuela’s government” narrative. This isn’t to say the changes begun under Chávez over the last fourteen-plus years will automatically disappear with him. But if he, rather than his social policies, continues to be the sole focus among both his opponents and his supporters, they only reinforce the cult of personality of Chávez, and raise questions about the possibility of continuing, reforming, or undoing his social programs once he’s gone.

Suddenly, Chávez

February 18, 2013 1 comment

Out of nowhere this morning, Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela, six months after winning reelection and two months after going to Cuba to receive unspecified treatments. That he can travel certainly suggests he may be improving somewhat at least, though photos released last week (with him resting in each) likewise suggest he is far from completely healthy. While his return likely means he perhaps can finally be sworn in, the secrecy of the last two months, and the suddenness of his return, doesn’t really do anything to clarify what will happen going forward, especially as it relates to the institutionalization of his reforms. Will he directly govern and attempt to reassert control over the reform process? Will he serve as a symbol for the programs while Madero performs the dirty work of daily governance? Will the opposition solidify or crumble in the face of his return? As is often the case with Chávez, the questions come more easily than the answers do, though no doubt the coming months will provide some answers.

Around Latin America [Updated]

January 27, 2013 Comments off

-Early reports are saying 245 232 people died in a nightclub fire last night in Santa Maria, a city in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people were reportedly at the event, a party for university students. Apparently, the fire’s source was a live band’s pyrotechnics. [UPDATE: The Guardian has photos from the scene last night, some of which are fairly graphic.]

-In Venezuela, prison violence between prisoners and the Venezuelan National Guard at a prison in Barquisimeto left sixty-one dead and around 120 wounded.

-El Salvador will be holding presidential elections next year, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate for the incumbent-party FSLN, has said he will seek a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law that has protected war criminals and human rights violators, mostly in the military and governments between 1980 and 1992, from prosecution for their crimes.

-Cícero Guedes, an important figure in Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement; MST), was shot dead as he returned home from an area near a sugar plantation MST members had recently occupied.

-Guatemala’s recent efforts to militarize public institutions, including those not directly connected to security forces, have created concerns over the potential stability of democratic institutions.

-In Bolivia, activists and feminists are demanding prosecution of provincial representative Domingo Alcibia, who was caught on security video apparently raping a drunk woman while she was unconscious.

-Brazil is set to launch a massive four-year study of the Amazonian rainforest that will detail the tree-count, biodiversity, and animal life in the region. The study is the first of its kind conducted since the late-1970s, when the military dictatorship conducted a similar study.

-In both Peru and Argentina, recent struggles over mining continue to shape social and political struggles, as people in Peru continue to protest the environmental consequences of mining, while in Argentina, powerful mining companies are using their economic influence and political ties to try to silence local journalists who seek to report on the environmental consequences of the mining activity in the northwestern parts of the country.

-While forty companies, including the massive Grupo Clarín (which has recently butted heads with President Cristina Kirchner) tend to dominate the market, a recent study found that alternative press in Argentina is also thriving.

-In a boon to historians of the Southern Cone (or Great Britain), last week Uruguay declassified archives on the Malvinas War, providing access to new diplomatic and previously-unknown materials on the war and its regional impact.

-Are China’s ties to Mexico fading?

-Finally, in a unique mixture of 21st technology and urban history, Rio de Janeiro has begun incorporating QR codes into the city’s sidewalks to aid tourists, melding the codes into the city’s traditional mosaic sidewalks.

Drones in Latin America

January 15, 2013 Comments off

While drones a topic of discussion and debate among military analysts, civil libertarians, and scholars in the US, the unmanned aircraft are certainly not strictly the domain of the US alone. Many Latin American countries are developing their own “drone” technology for a variety of purposes, from monitoring favelas in Brazil to monitor drug cartels in the Dominican Republic, from protecting pipelines in Colombia to patrolling borders in Chile. Anna Kroos at Just the Facts has an excellent rundown on drones, their uses, and their development in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, a rundown that is required reading for anybody interested in Latin American military technology, politics, and society.

On Possible Paths to Institutionalizing Chávez’s Reforms

January 14, 2013 Comments off

Last week, Hugo Chávez’s inauguration came and went without Chávez being present for it. While opponents had argued that the constitution demanded he be present for his inauguration, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that Chavez did not have to be present for his inauguration under the principle of continuity. Effectively, the court said that, if an incoming president is unable to assume office, the previous president can continue until his successor is able, and as Chávez was technically the “incoming” president succeeding himself, he could remain in office without attending his inauguration. As Greg Weeks points out, this ruling does seem to open a new set of questions regarding presidencies and the Venezuelan constitution. Vice President Nicolás Maduro continues to serve as the de facto president and government officials continue to consult with Chávez while he convalesces in Cuba. Whether this is temporary or a matter of grooming him for an office he is inevitably going to assume, possibly soon, is unclear; first, reports emerged that Chávez may not be in a coma, followed by reports that he is recovering from a lung infection. Still, given that this is his fourth trip to Cuba for cancer-related treatments, and the general secrecy around his recent condition and the lack of any sort of appearance suggests to opponents and supporters alike that his health is far from optimal. Nonetheless, the opposition still seems to be unprepared to provide a strong candidate even while it prepares to continue its legal challenge, even while the government discourages opponents from getting too “vocal.”

In the meantime, many Venezuelans and international leaders gathered in Caracas last Thursday, where a rally for support for Chávez took place, with supporters pledging to defend Chavez, his presidency, and the reforms he has accomplished over the last fourteen years. And while many of the Latin American leaders who attended the replacement-inauguration/rally expressed similar sentiments, the humble Uruguayan President Eduardo Mujica  recommended to the crowds that Venezuelans must prepare to continue his reforms even after Chávez is one day gone.

I think Mujica’s comments on the need to prepare for a post-Chávez era, combined with the popular support he received last Thursday, provide a fascinating and tantalizing hint at where Venezuela may be heading. As I’ve mentioned before, the question of how (or even if) Chávez would try to institutionalize his Bolivarian Revolution beyond his own person was a real question the moment he was re-elected, a question that has only gained greater urgency in the recent recurrence of his cancer-related illness. Though it could be a flash in the pan, it seems that the people of Venezuela themselves are prepared to play a role in institutionalizing those reforms one way or another, perhaps even moreso than Chávez was. Certainly, they cannot do it themselves – should Chávez be unable to return to office again (and again, though it may seem unlikely right now, nothing is terribly clear or definite), the succession issue will matter. Maduro’s ascendance after the election, and his ongoing communications with Chávez, seems like a possible path to institutionalize those reforms, but they will matter little if the people are not willing to participate. Yet that many people continue to support not only Chávez but the reforms he implemented even while public talk of his eventual departure (symbolized by Mujica’s address) suggests that they may provide the popular force needed to ensure continuity. Likewise, even Chávez’s opponents may be playing a role in ensuring future continuity; if they continue to be unable to overcome their differences and create a compelling message to the people, rather than relying on somebody who is “prepared” but has no actual policy platform that will appeal to a majority of Venezuelans, then we may see some degree of continuity as people look between Chávez’s heirs and his opponents and end up choosing those who speak directly to their concerns. Once more, while nothing is certain, the events and comments surrounding the “inauguration” last week may actually indicate how institutionalization of Chávez’s reforms could happen, even while he is ironically as removed from physically governing as he has ever been since taking office in 1999. It will definitely be a situation in flux in the coming months, and one worth continuing to watch.

Chávez’s Legacy?

January 10, 2013 Comments off

I was going to write on Mark Weisbrot’s recent piece on what has been accomplished during Hugo Chávez’s governance, but Erik beat me to the punch:

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chavez not exactly an ideal guy for the left to be following. I’ve always thought his version of socialism was too much bombast and not enough good governance. Sticking your thumb in the United States’ eye may have value, but not as much as ensuring good trash pickup for poor people. Anyway, Mark Weisbrot has a pretty good overview, arguing that Chavez may have been able to be Chavez because of oil money (and outright US hostility that only strengthened his hand at home), but at least it went to improving the lives of the Venezuelan people and not into offshore bank accounts.

Like Chavez or not, but don’t deny that life for the average Venezuelan is almost certainly better than when he took power. And even if you think that’s entirely because of high oil prices, remember that corrupt leaders in the past siphoned the money into their own pockets and that Chavez’s enemies want an austerity program in the country that would fall entirely on the backs of the poor. Or for a current example of this, see Nigeria.

I agree with this. I have had my own questions about how much Chávez is “left,” but by any reasonable metric (i.e., neither those from sycophantic and uncritical Chávez supporters or rabid anti-Chávez opponents), it seems he has been able to truly change the face of society and work towards some degree of social equality in Venezuela. Whether or not those reforms can be institutionalized in a way that allows issues of equality and social justice to continue to improve in a post-Chávez scenario (which will happen sooner or later) remains to be seen.

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