Last week ushered in a new era at the World Trade Organization, as Brazilian Roberto Azevedo won the post as the WTO’s next director-general. With the election, Azevedo became the first Latin American to serve in that post [though no matter the outcome of the election, a Latin American would have held that distinction: Azevedo won out over Mexican Hermínio Blanco, who had the support of the US and the European Union]. As Boz points out, the selection of Azevedo is generally controversy-free among member nations.
That said, that does not mean the selection of Azevedo has not raised the ire of some free-trade disciples:
Are you kidding me? A Brazilian to lead the body ostensibly responsible for fostering freer trade? In the real world, this would be a cruel joke. But in the Wonderland of the WTO, this isn’t really all that surprising. Now, I like Brazil. I have traveled there many times and the people, food, and culture are wonderful. But in terms of being a beacon of free trade it is not.
Hudson proceeds to damn the move based on Brazil’s objections to unfettered free trade in the past, its regulatory government, and its willingness to stand up to the US on cotton subsidies that the WTO itself ultimately ruled were unfair. Even beyond the patronizing “I like Brazil’s food, and they’re nice people and all” tenor there, there are several problems with the criticisms Hudson raises. First, the presumption that free trade is the only path to economic development is enormously flawed. As Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, free trade and neoliberalism replicate the exploitative structures of international trade that date back to the colonial era, concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and overseas without creating actual development for the citizens more broadly. Indeed, Latin America has been a textbook laboratory case in demonstrating the negative impacts of increasingly-unfettered liberalization. Philosophically, the system Hudson is advocating here has a long track record of opening up Latin American countries to exploitation of resources and the extraction of wealth to other countries.
A second problem here is the presumption that free trade is the only commercial system worth pursuing. This mindset is not surprising; the neoliberalism of Friedman has come to dominate economics schools in the US to a dangerous degree. Though the crisis of 2008-2009 has led to a mild resurgence in considering alternatives to neoliberalism, it has not destroyed the hegemony of neoliberal discourse. Hudson seems upset that an individual from a country that has not uncritically embraced free trade at every opportunity spells doom. Yet he fails to explain why this is so horrible; he just takes it as a given. Nonetheless, it is not clear that Brazilian at WTO or a reduction in free trade is automatically mean a bad thing. If one takes the WTO as a useful institution or the spurring of international capital trade (and to be clear, that’s not really the purpose of this post), then perhaps innovating in global trade beyond highly exploitative free trade agreements and seeking alternatives that create greater opportunities for all is not a bad approach. Again, drawing on the lessons of 2008-2009, finding alternatives (like more bilateral and regional trade agreements) to the system and economic ideologies and models that created greater international stability than the deregulation that led to the events of 2008-2009 does not seem like such a terrible idea.
This is not to say the WTO’s agenda is appropriate or good, but it’s hard to argue against diversifying trade models and economic relations in ways that prevent the domination of a single neoliberal system that has repeatedly demonstrated how it relies on repression and creates greater inequalities both within individual countries and within the global economy more generally. Indeed, that Hudson thinks a Brazilian in charge of WTO equals no free trade agreements that open up other countries to US/European/multinational exploitation says far more about his own neoliberal agenda than it does about the actual quality of new head of WTO.
-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.
-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.
– José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.
-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.
-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.
-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).
-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”
-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”
-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.
-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.
-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.
The United Nations has formally rejected compensation claims by victims of a cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed almost 8,000 people.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Haitian President Michel Martelly to inform him of the decision.
The UN says it is immune from such claims under the UN’s Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN.
Evidence suggests cholera was introduced to Haiti through a UN base’s leaking sewage pipes.
The UN has never acknowledged responsibility for the outbreak – which has infected more than 600,000 people – saying it is impossible to pinpoint the exact source of the disease, despite the mounting evidence the epidemic was caused by poor sanitation at a camp housing infected Nepalese peacekeepers
I can certainly see the need for the UN to enjoy immunity in many circumstances, but in this particular case, it’s hard to exempt the UN for facing the consequences for its actions. Perhaps the attempt to get compensation will remind UN workers around the world in the future to make sure the organization provides good sanitation at its workers housing. Nonetheless, that won’t to change the fact that UN malfeasance, unintentional or not, has led to thousands more Haitians dying and hundreds of thousands dealing with disease, tearing apart families and further damaging the ability to survive for a country that’s already had to weather plenty of crises in recent years already.
Well, this is something:
Traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia will no longer be considered illegal under a United Nations antidrug convention, the organization said Friday. Coca is the plant used to make cocaine, but many people in Bolivia, which has a majority indigenous population, chew it as a mild stimulant, a use that has continued since pre-Colombian times. Bolivians also use the plant as a tea, in medicines and in religious or social rituals.
Of course, the move was not without opposition:
The country’s condition for rejoining the convention met resistance from 15 countries, including the United States and the rest of the G8 group of industrial nations, according to UN spokeswoman Arancha Hinojal. But the objections received by the United Nations ahead of Thursday’s midnight deadline fell far short. In order to block Bolivia’s return to the convention a full third of its signatories – or 63 – needed to object.
This isn’t surprising, but is yet one more reminder of the myriad ways that the US’s (and other so-called “developed” countries’) attitudes towards the drug trade are absurdly simplistic and flawed, putting all the blame on the growth of a plant without considering the industrial processes needed to create a drug, the issues of demand in the US, the ties of drug lords to governments and presidents that received the US’s support, or the importance of treating addiction within its own borders, to say nothing of allowing large western banks make so much money laundering illegal drug money and face only small penalties for clearly aiding the drug trade just because they are allegedly “too big to jail.”
Quite simply, blaming the coca leaf for all the ills of the drug trade is counterproductive, and the UN’s decision to revoke its illegal status within the borders of Bolivia is an important, if small, step in dealing with the issue of coca and drugs in a more nuanced fashion. In its natural state, the coca leaf is about as dangerous as the coffee bean, and has very real historical, cultural, and religious significance to many people in the Andean highlands in Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. It’s really hard to see how legalizing it in Bolivia is going to lead to some explosion in cocaine production – after all, Bolivia is far behind either Peru or Colombia in terms of cocaine production, and the coca leaf is illegal in those countries still. This is not to say legalizing the leaf (and the subsequent market in the leaf) in Bolivia will lead to a reduction in cocaine use in the world – there is the whole demand side of the equation in the US and Europe, after all – but given that declaring it is illegal in one country has done nothing to stop the cocaine trade or cocaine use even while it has impinged upon indigenous cultural and ceremonial practices in South America, it’s hard to see the UN’s move as some disaster.
-Former president and convicted human rights violator Alberto Fujimori is planning on asking for a pardon from his prison sentence due to health issues in a move that would undo years of efforts for justice for the victims of his regime. Meanwhile, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requested Peru annul a Supreme Court ruling from this past summer that could lead to Fujimori’s early release from the 2009 conviction that found him guilty of ordering death-squad killings.
-An alleged leader of the Paraguayan Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Army of the Paraguayan People; EPP) released a series of videos that called for the elimination of private property in the name of Paraguay’s poor, highlighting the ongoing social and economic inequalities and ongoing social dissatisfaction and unrest over land distribution in one of Latin America’s two landlocked countries.
-In a move to streamline urban planning and familiarity, San José, Costa Rica, home to 1.5 million of the country’s residents, is finally installing street signs in the city. Prior to this, all addresses were based on landmarks (I don’t remember the exact address of where I lived in Costa Rica 11 years ago, but part of that address was “100 meters north of the school, on the right”). While this seems like a good idea for those visiting such a large city, cab drivers familiar with the old system are among those critical of the decision.
-With student protests and educational reforms causing serious problems for his government, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced his 2013 budget, with increased spending on education making up 20% of the budget. Although the move is no doubt likely designed at least in part to address criticisms Piñera has faced over education, it is unlikely to satisfy a student movement that wants institutional reforms and free public education for all.
-In Honduras, rights activist Antonio Trejo, who represented peasants in their struggles against wealthy landowners and who was opposed to recent plans to privatize three cities, was assassinated while attending a wedding last week.
-In a decision that should have happened decades ago, Brazil has formally outlawed the formation of and participation in militias and paramilitary organizations. While the law is an important one to have on the books, it certainly seems like a case of “too little, too late” in a country where police militias have resorted to extrajudicial executions of children, the poor, and others in Brazil’s cities since the 1980s, and the 4- to 8-year sentencing seems light for what is a very real security problem in Brazil. Meanwhile, a former officer who served over 25 years in prison for his role in leading a death squad that killed more than 50 people was himself gunned down in the state of São Paulo last week.
-With one week to go before national elections in Venezuela, a suspect has been arrested in the murder of three opposition activists at a rally last week. Though the suspect’s identity has not been released, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles spoke out against the killings and the violent climate in Venezuela that they say allowed the killings to take place.
–Thousands of Haitians took to the street to protest against President Michel Martelly’s government, blaming it for rising food prices and the cost of living and accusing it of corruption.
-Bolivian miners who had been in conflict with each other over possession of a mine have agreed to end their conflict, with both sides having access to the Colquiri mine. Earlier struggles had led to months of protests and strikes and even turned violent, with one miner dying in clashes last month.
-In a macabre landmark, a new report says that landmines have killed or maimed 10,000 Colombians in the last 22 years. Leftist guerrillas are responsible for a majority of the mines, a defense mechanism they’ve employed during Colombia’s 48-year (and counting) civil war.
-Speaking of mines, Chile is set to de-mine a path leading to the Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean-Argentine border. Both countries heavily mined their respective territories in 1977-1978 when a maritime border dispute over some islands at the southern tip of the continent nearly led to war, with ultranationalists in Argentina particularly aggressive in their declarations. The conflict revealed that, while the dictatorships of South American countries collaborated on human rights abuses via Operation Condor, not all relations between the dictatorships were cordial.
-Margaret Myers has another edition of her “Chinese News Coverage of Latin America” posts up, with Chinese headlines reflecting a preoccupation with eco-tourism, diplomatic ties with the Pacific Alliance, and tariffs, among other items.
-At the UN meetings last week, Argentina and Iran met and agreed to begin talks over prosecutions for those connected to the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which left 85 dead and to which Iran had been connected.
-Uruguay claimed to have deactivated a bomb placed at the Venezuelan embassy in Montevideo. Though pamphlets claiming ties to a left-wing group were found near the bomb, it is unclear who actually planted the bomb or the pamphlets – though it may have been leftists, it could also have been from the right in an attempt to discredit the Chávez government, if not something altogether different.
-Finally, Curação’s ex-Prime Minister, Gerrit Schotte is saying he has been removed in a bloodless coup. Schotte accused governor Adeel van der Pluijm-Vrede of illegally swearing in a new government, though the Dutch government, whose kingdom Curação is still a part of, has said the interim government is legal.