Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Q&A with Raul Burbano, Canadian Electoral Observer in Honduras

December 4, 2013

2203Upon his return to Toronto, I had the opportunity to catch up with Raul Burbano, Program Director of Common Frontiers. Common Frontiers is a multi-sectoral working group based in Toronto that organizes research, educational campaigns, and political action on issues related to hemispheric economic, social, and climate justice. Raul reported from Honduras during the election and was gracious enough to take the time to talk about his experiences and provide some analysis of the current electoral crisis.

Kevin Edmonds: When you were on the ground in the days before the election, what was the general attitude of the public? Were they hopeful or did they see this coming?

Raul Burbano: We were on the ground from the 17-27th in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, El Triunfo de la Cruz, Arizona, and Valle de Siria. The mood was contradictory because in general people had high expectations for change, but at the same time expressed a lack of confidence in the process and in fair and transparent elections. As the elections drew closer, this became more apparent with people like cab drivers, vendors, and LIBRE activists sharing their personal stories about the irregularities within the voter registry. Stories of voters showing to be dead on the registry list and dead people registered to vote, names associated with pictures of other people, all disqualifying them from voting…this was the first sign that many pointed to as fraud.   

The Canadian delegation was the first to report and denounce the elections. What were some of the irregularities that caused your group to make this decision?

RB: Our delegation was part of the larger group, the Honduran Solidarity Network (HSN), and together we were the largest delegation of observers (190) spread across the country in 10 districts.
The atmosphere of fear and violence leading up to the elections must also be taken into account when considering fair elections. There were numerous reports of pre-election intimidation, violence, and murder of opposition candidates with as many as 18 from the LIBRE party murdered just 6 months prior to the elections. Two days prior to the elections masked men with guns, presumed to be military police, surrounded the LIBRE party headquarters in Tegucigalpa. Members of our delegation were present and observed the fear and anger of LIBRE sympathizers. The day before the elections Maria Amparo Pineda, LIBRE party’s Cantarranas polling station president, and other member, Julio Ramón Araujo Maradiaga, were assassinated after leaving a polling station training.

Speaking to our own experience on the ground, the scare tactics started from when we arrived in Honduras. There was a strong atmosphere of intimidation on the part of the government toward independent observers. After our pre-election press conference, armed immigration officials raided the hotels where our northern delegation was staying, asking for their passports and documentation, threatening to expel observers. This was a clear attempt to intimidate our group.

At numerous voting centers there was no “custodio”—the person in charge of the voting center. This means that in some cases the military police had to take responsibility for all the material. In the municipality of Ojojona, rather than being able to speak to a “custodio,” we were greeted by a TSE official who identified himself as being in charge of the voting centre, despite the fact that was only a “vocale”—a support person at a voting table. He spoke to us in English, describing himself as a U.S. citizen and former navy seal with considerable land holdings in the area. He made no effort to hide his disdain for the LIBRE party, stating, “we don’t want those commies here.” He expressed his and everyone’s “strong support” for the ruling National party.

We visited areas where there was no electricity or an internet connection to transmit the results. In many cases the technical person in charge was not aware of the correct protocol to follow, and in some cases they asked us what they should do. In one voting center in the municipality of Santa Ana, military police demanded our personal information even though we were clearly identified as accredited observers. At one voting station in the barrio of La Joya in Tegucigalpa, I was pulled out in the middle of observing the vote count by TSE and military police and asked to leave. So I had to ask myself: if they can do this with international observers, what can they do with local observers and electoral participants?

Not to mention that we received numerous reports of vote buying and the refusal of access to opposition members at various voting centers across the country.

So when we compared our experience with the rest of our delegation who had also observed and documented serious and undeniable fraud in all 10 districts in which they observed, we came to the conclusion that our experience was not an exception, but rather the standard. We felt this opened up the elections to serious issues of fraud.

What also caught my attention was on Sunday night. We were sitting around the TV watching the vote count when David Matamoros, president of Honduras' electoral court and member of the governing National Party, announced the preliminary results. Despite only 54% of the votes counted, he announced the National party with 34.9% of the vote and LIBRE with 28.36%. Not to mention that he provided no details to back up the number that was given, like where that data was coming from, or that about 500 of the voting centers lack electricity or an internet connection, clearly meaning that those numbers would be outstanding until later that week. With such high stakes on the line, why would the TSE be so irresponsible as to give out results that were not substantiated or irreversible at that early point? What his announcement triggered was that all major news networks, locally and internationally, proclaimed Juan Orlando Hernández as the new president—in essence laying the ground work for the pre-determined outcome.

KE: There have been comments since the discovery of widespread fraud that the democratic path has failed, and that now it is time to step up the offensive against the oligarchy. What are your thoughts on this movement? Do you think it is a minority opinion or a real possibility?

RB: There’s serious debate and opposition in Honduras to the electoral strategy of the LIBRE party. It goes back to the National Assembly of the resistance that took place in June 2011 where the decision was taken to follow the electoral strategy.

There’s a significant movement that argues for the need to strengthen the resistance movement with a focus on social and political struggle through mass mobilization from below—local struggles in communities and barrios that build an inclusive and participatory process that focuses on transformative solutions as opposed to reforms. Many of these groups are already involved in struggles for territory, indigenous culture, anti-patriarchy, etc—groups like the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Garifina communities, and women’s organizations.

In retrospect one can say the biggest losers in these elections are the social movements. This is because much of the energy has gone into the electoral process and into building the LIBRE party at the expense of strengthening the social movements. The results can be seen in the weak response on the streets by the LIBRE party and the movements that support them. It took a week for people to take to the streets to protest the fraud, and it was not as significant a turn-out as we saw in the past against the coup.

KE: While your delegation released its denunciation of the election results, Canada has remained silent—with its silence working as acceptance. Can you discuss some of the reasons why Canada is so supportive of the national party?

RB: The Canadian government is recklessly focused on trade and investment at any costs, even at the expense of human and labor rights abroad. In Honduras it’s the mining, sweatshop, and tourism sectors that Canadian corporations covet. It was no coincidence that the Canada-Honduras free trade agreement was signed just weeks before the Presidential election in Honduras. This was, in my opinion, a quid pro quo where Canadian corporations will benefit from the investment protection measures contained in the Chapter 10 of the bilateral free trade agreement, and in return Canada bestows further legitimacy to an electoral process that is largely illegitimate.

KE: Can you comment on the breakaway member of the EU delegation that has denounced the Honduran election as a fraud? How do delegations work? Can you provide some insight as to how the decision making process unfolds?

RB: I can’t really comment as to the inner workings of the EU delegation or process. In terms of Leo Gabriel, the European delegate who has come out questioning his own EU report, I think it does make some things clearer in terms of the ulterior motives behind the EU and its need to whitewash Honduras’ image. Much like our government, they, too, are willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations, all to safeguard their corporate profit. Therefore, presenting a clean and transparent electoral process helps the European Union to clean up Honduras’s image around the world and set this commercial project into motion. [Raul directed my attention to an agreement signed by the European Union and the Central American region (EU-CA AA).]

KE: What can those of us outside of Honduras do?

RB: Solidarity is the key tool to help the Honduran people in their struggle. But just as important for those of us who live here in Canada is to join the local struggles against things like the pipelines, so-called trade agreements, anti-fracking, mining, indigenous sovereignty, and so on, that challenge the status quo. For its our Conservative government in collusion with transnational corporations that seeks to impose a model that priorities profit over human life, the environment, democracy, etc—in Honduras, but here in Canada as well.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Honduran Election Results Contested by International Observers

November 28, 2013

2182Honduras’ elections on November 24 had the potential of reversing some of the worst pro-market, anti-people policies put forward by the government of Porfirio Lobo, who was the direct beneficiary of the 2009 coup that ousted the left-of-center Manuel Zelaya. Instead, the elections have been fraught with irregularities and violent intimidation, threatening to throw the embattled nation into further political disarray.

These elections were regarded as pivotal for Honduras, as the administration of the ruling National Party has done little to combat the country’s poverty rate which stands at over 60 percent. Instead the National Party has been focused on opening up the country to multinational corporations. This is best demonstrated by the National Party’s passage of a new mining law that would remove the moratorium on the granting of new mining concessions put in place by former president Zelaya in 2008. The new mining law, which was passed earlier this year, was drafted with the help of the Canadian International Development Agency. The law effectively allows for a return to destructive open-pit mining practices that have been linked to numerous human rights abuses and widespread environmental destruction.

In addition to revising the mining laws, as detailed last year by NACLA’s Keane Bhatt, the Lobo administration was also busy luring developers and investors to build highly problematic “charter cities.” Bhatt described these charter cities as “privately owned municipalities that would be managed autonomously, complete with their own police forces, tax codes, and legal systems;postID=8815860418705130568. These cities would develop industries for export-oriented growth, like textile manufacturing; they would also sign onto international trade agreements independently, and manage their own immigration policies.”

Standing in opposition to these pro-multinational corporation policies, the LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation) Party is led by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya—who, under the constitution, was barred from running for a second term. The LIBRE party emerged from the post-coup resistance movement and seeks to build a Honduras in which self-determination and social justice—not the rule of the oligarchs—prevail. Due to the strength and wealth of those they oppose, the LIBRE party has been systematically attacked by the military police and paramilitary forces associated with the various landowners and business figures.

Rights Action has extensively documented the violent intimidation of LIBRE party members and progressive journalists in the run-up to the November 24 elections. Rights Action recently released a report that revealed since May 2012, at least 18 LIBRE party activists have been killed, with 15 others falling victim to armed attacks.

Despite the presence of hundreds of international observers, the state-sanctioned violence and intimidation did not cease. As reported by members of the Canadian NGO Common Frontiers who were part of the official delegation, the day before the election armed groups entered hotels in Tegucigalpa in order to intimidate election observers. With the passage of time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that examples of armed intimidation were crucial to the victory of the National Party’s candidate Juan Orlando Hernández.

Soon after the contested results were announced, Canadian electoral observers released a statement on November 25, stating that “After careful consideration of our own observations of the electoral process in Honduras we find the presidential elections to be inconsistent with democratic principles and rife with fraudulent practices.”

Their statement concluded with their recommendations: “We urge the Canadian government not to recognize the results of the Honduran elections. There must be an opportunity to do a full, transparent, accurate count, and fully investigate the many reports of irregularities, intimidation and threats by authorities.” (The entire statement from the Canadian delegation can be read here).

Following the statement by the Canadian delegation, on November 26, the National Lawyers Guild published a press release which declared that “The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) delegation of 17 credentialed international observers seriously question the validity of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) preliminary results of Sunday’s national elections in Honduras. The NLG takes issue with the United States government’s characterization of the electoral process as transparent, given the country's recent and pervasive human rights violations… The NLG noted a strong will and enthusiasm among Hondurans to participate in the electoral process despite a pervasive climate of fear and intimidation surrounding opposition party members and observers. Over the weekend, two LIBRE party activists were murdered, while two other deaths and three injuries were reported near a voting center in the Moskitia region. In addition, international observers reported multiple incidents of intimidation by state actors in the days leading up to the elections.”

It is predictable that the United States and Canada will support the contested results of the election, as irregularities are only important when their favoured candidate does not win. One only has to look at their support for the electoral process in Haiti in 2010—a situation in which 14 political parties were banned and observers witnessed widespread fraud and irregularities. Both countries have a great deal invested in Honduras, financially and geopolitically. Indeed the entire process was summed up brilliantly by Canales Vásquez, a LIBRE activist, who remarked to Upside Down World’s Sandra Cuffe: “They don’t want an example to be set in Honduras where the people kick the oligarchy out at the ballot box and where the system changes in favor of the people. That’s what we’re struggling for in Honduras, and that’s the reason for this repression against the people and against the LIBRE party.”

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cuba’s Reforms Favor Foreign Investment, Create Low-Wage Sponge

October 31, 2013

2080For over 50 years the island of Cuba has defiantly stood its ground in the Caribbean, rejecting a capitalist economic model in favor of a system that has served the needs of its people, first, and those of the international economy, a distant second. As a result of this determination, the Cuban model has been hailed for its successes in social and cultural development—particularly in the fields of healthcare and education. During the 1980s and 1990s when the Washington Consensus was at its peak in the hemisphere and was restructuring neighbouring economies such as Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic along free market lines, Cuba maintained its self-determination by staying outside of the reach of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A key aspect of the economic restructuring which spread across the majority of Latin America and the Caribbean was the implementation of export processing zones, or EPZs. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines EPZs as “industrial zones with special incentives set up to attract foreign investors, in which imported materials undergo some degree of processing before being (re-)exported again.” After studying the macroeconomic and social effects of EPZs for nearly 30 years, the ILO has criticized this model of development, arguing that it places downward pressure on wages and labor standards in what they refer to as “the race to the bottom.” Additionally, the geographically isolated nature of EPZs makes workers especially vulnerable, as the zones “present employers the opportunity to circumvent worker’s rights with impunity.”

It is primarily for these reasons that Cuba’s decision to establish a 465 square kilometer EPZ at the port of Mariel, 45 kilometers west of Havana, has been met with a great deal of concern. The shift of the primary port facilities from Havana to Mariel is part of a massive project that seeks to turn Mariel into Cuba’s most important hub for cargo and light manufacturing. The $900 million project has largely been funded by Brazilian capital and will be managed by the Singaporean firm PSA.

It appears that the decision to construct the Mariel EPZ is in reaction to the earlier economic reforms undertaken by Raul Castro that have created a large amount of unemployment. For example, in 2010 alone, Raul Castro announced that one million workers in state-owned firms would lose their jobs in order to streamline the Cuban economy; workers were encouraged to become entrepreneurs or find employment in the private sector. Thus it is likely that the adoption of the export processing zones will act as a low-wage sponge for the significant amount of surplus labor created by the increasing liberalization of the Cuban economy.

During the last major economic crisis faced by Cuba—which came about with the fall of the Soviet Union and ushered in the “Special Period” starting in 1991—the Cuban state reorganized itself along pragmatic lines, opening itself up to increased international tourism. By 1994, tourism revenues surpassed those of Cuba's traditional sugar exports, making international tourism Cuba’s most important source of income. While the decision to open up to international tourism was critiqued as a return to the bad old days of foreign exploitation under Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban government was heavily involved in the emerging tourism industry, arguing that the influx of foreign income was now the lifeblood of the Cuban economy. With EPZs, the same line of thought can no longer be argued.

Unlike the regulated and heavily state-owned tourism model, the adoption of EPZs provides a space similar to export processing zones elsewhere in the world where foreign corporations pay no tariffs on imported material and machinery, and where they enjoy a 10 year tax holiday where they may transfer all of their profits abroad without paying any property or sales taxes. The Cuban government has publically defended the EPZ project, stating that "the Zone will function on the basis of special policies with the goal of promoting sustainable economic development by stimulating international and domestic investment, as well as technological innovation and the concentration of industry."

It must be noted that this is not the first time that Cuba has tried to adopt this economic model. In 1997, Cuba briefly experimented with the establishment of four export processing zones, but they garnered little international interest due to the ongoing U.S. embargo. However, this most recent decision to construct EPZs is a significant jump that embraces some of the most controversial and arguably damaging aspects of the now discredited Washington Consensus. The ILO has demonstrated that unless EPZs have significant backward and forward linkages to the rest of the host economy, they are of little economic benefit. At worst they are simply a site where cheap and often female labor is exploited.

Whether the construction of the EPZ at Mariel will be an isolated occurrence, or the start of a shift towards a Chinese/Vietnamese EPZ-based economy, remains to be seen. Perhaps the decision to turn over a portion of Cuban territory to the demands of international capital is an overture of economic reform intended to bolster relations with the U.S. What is clear is that if Cuba does decide to embrace EPZs as a major part of its economy without establishing numerous economic linkages to the domestic economy, the pro capital policies that are demanded by this model will pose a significant threat to Cuba’s progress in the areas of genuine and sustained human development. If Cuba, like so many others who have embraced the EPZ model, is not careful on this new economic path, it may end up sacrificing its self-determination and human development only to receive increased levels of poverty in return.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

“Operation Lionfish” Highlights the Caribbean’s Comparative Advantage
July 11, 2013

1887In economic textbooks the theory of comparative advantage is regarded as a fundamental cornerstone of how economies are organized. Plainly stated, comparative advantage occurs when one country (or in this case a group of countries) specialize in the production of a particular product due to the fact it can produce this product more efficiently than its competitors. Thus, with each country specializing in a particular industry or product it is assumed that all countries will become better off.

This was the assumption guiding the decision by the World Trade Organization to put an end to the Caribbean’s protected trade with several European nations because it undermined the fundamental principles of free trade. With the distortions in the market eliminated by the adoption of free trade, it was assumed that the Caribbean would be able to specialize in other industries, particularly tourism and offshore banking.
Due to a few fundamental errors in the theory of comparative advantage—such as the assumption that the resources (eg. land, labor, and machinery) used in one industry can be absorbed by another and that there are no negative consequences of the shift (ie. externalities)—the experience of the Caribbean stands as an important case study as to why theory does not always bear out in reality.

Firstly, the new shifts in global trade prioritized highly educated workers in the new offshore financial sector—jobs which were out of reach for the newly displaced farmers. Secondly, tourism is highly dependent on imported goods, with an estimated 80% of the food served in Caribbean hotels being imported. Thus, the lack of opportunities for the many farmers throughout the Caribbean resulted in an increase of unemployment, urban migration, and reduced government revenues. To paraphrase what I have been told by several economists on the topic “So what, that is capitalism, economies change and people have to retrain and find new jobs.” This is the so what.

On July 3, it was announced that Interpol conducted an operation known as “Operation Lionfish,” which seized nearly 30 tons of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana with an estimated street value of nearly one billion dollars. The operation was conducted across the Caribbean and Central America, spanning 34 countries and territories and involving the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council (CCLEC) with assistance from the French Coastguard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Europol.

While the seizure is being portrayed as a great success for hemispheric law enforcement cooperation, it also highlights the failure of alternative and realistic sources of employment to emerge in the region since the shift away from protected trade. While blame certainly can be shared among Caribbean leaders, the United States, International Financial Institutions, and multinational corporations—the reality is that the forced reformation of Caribbean economies away from agriculture without adequate resources to prepare for the socio-economic fallout set up the region for a nearly impossible challenge.

Now during times of across-the-board austerity and reduced revenues, Caribbean governments are being expected to help the United States win its “War on Drugs” with increased law enforcement spending. At the same time, this funding is shifting away from much needed social programs, education, healthcare, and infrastructure projects. The sad truth is that remittances and the drug trade (the drug trade in Jamaica is estimated at having a value of nearly 80% of the legitimate economy) have played a significant role in preventing many Caribbean economies from imploding—but at the steep cost of a social breakdown.

It is this growing violence associated with the drug trade and rising inequality which are the “externalities” which are not calculated into the cost of reorganizing national economies. The tragic story is the same when it comes to Haiti’s experience with rice and Mexico’s experience with corn—it was assumed that sweatshops would absorb those displaced from farming.

Contrary to the ideas of the United States, the War on Drugs cannot be won by simply trying to shoot one’s way out of it. There are deep structural causes which provide a steady stream of foot soldiers into the drug trade; many young people are growing up without a source of hope or opportunity. Thus, it is in this situation where Caribbean leaders need to take a look at how their economies are developing and who is being left out—and the subsequent consequences of these changes.

Caribbean leaders have implemented the prescriptions of the economic experts, and they have failed to bring about increased prosperity in the region. Regional leaders need to stand united and state that they are seeking to put the priorities of their people first and are not willing to be bullied by capital anymore. Whether it will happen is another matter entirely. It will reveal to the people of the Caribbean whether or not Caribbean leaders and their supposed “partners” such as the United States or the International Financial Institutions want to address the root of the problem or if they are happy with the Caribbean’s current comparative advantage. It is a status quo which has failed the people of the Caribbean both in theory and in practice.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Revisiting the Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita
July 4, 2013

1882Given the ongoing debate surrounding Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning—and whether or not they committed a crime or acted in the public good—it is fitting to revisit a case that showed how the “illegitimate” gathering of evidence was considered a more serious crime than that of engaging in widespread murder, bribery, arms trafficking, and knowingly poisoning the environment of communities throughout Latin America. It is the story of the Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita Banana.

In 1998, Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter, two investigative reporters from the Cincinnati Enquirer, published an 18-page expose which revealed that Chiquita banana (headquartered in Cincinnati) was engaged in wide ranging human rights abuses and environmental crimes. The journalists had worked with Chiquita lawyer George Ventura, who provided access to Chiquita’s internal voicemail system. They were able to obtain confidential information about Chiquita’s role in widespread criminal activity by monitoring internal communications.

Shortly after the publication of the story, the Cincinnati Enquirer had to issue both a retraction and apologize not for the acts being untrue—but for the way in which Gallagher and McWhirter gained their information. In addition to the apology and retraction, the Cincinnati Enquirer was forced to pay Chiquita a settlement of over $10 million for damages. Both Gallagher and Ventura were convicted of stealing Chiquita’s internal voicemails—with Gallagher being immediately fired from the paper. The ruling was a clear statement that investigations of corporate wrongdoing was subject to severe punishment and should be discouraged by the example set by the Cincinnati Enquirer. While the articles were retracted, they are still available here on the WikiLeaks website.

Clearly with the case of Chiquita, it did not learn its lesson—as the damaging reports from 1998 did nothing to stop it from admitting to paying Colombian right wing death squads in 2003. Represented by current Attorney General Eric Holder, Chiquita claimed that they were being extorted by the groups and had to pay the money in order to protect their workers. Mario Iguaran, the Attorney General of Colombia claimed otherwise, bluntly stating that "this was not payment of extortion money. It was support for an illegal armed group whose methods included murder."

Simply, the attempt by the court system to erase any wrongdoing from Chiquita’s record allowed it to continue with the status quo and terrorize communities throughout Latin America. According to Iguaran, Chiquita's payments to the AUC paramilitaries (an organization listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department) led to the murder of 4,000 civilians in the banana growing regions of Colombia and funded the growth of paramilitary organizations throughout the country. Additionally, court documents have shown that a shipment of 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition from Nicaragua to Colombia in 2001 was invoiced to Chiquita.

This shows the double standard that exists between the people on one side and corporations and the government on the other. In the Snowden controversy, the Obama administration has defended the actions of the National Security Agency by stating that their monitoring of the civilian population allowed them to prevent terrorist attacks—thus Snowden is a criminal and the government was seeking to protect the public. In the case of Chiquita, Gallagher, McWhirter, and Ventura exposed the criminal activities of a multinational corporation with close ties to the United States and Colombian governments in addition to terrorist organizations—yet they were the ones who were punished. It was only five years later in 2003 that Chiquita was forced to pay a $25 million fine for their criminal activities throughout Latin America—with none of the money going to the affected communities.

Despite the U.S. Justice Department stating that Chiquita's payments to the paramilitaries ''were reviewed and approved by senior executives of the corporation, to include high-ranking officers, directors and employees,'' they did not list specific names to avoid wider measures of accountability. What the Cincinnati Enquirer revealed about Chiquita Banana was the stranglehold that corporations have over the legal system and the double standard regarding the application of justice. The courts deemed that the crime committed by Gallagher, McWhirter, and Ventura was more serious than the multitude of crimes committed by Chiquita.
In the end, the issue of whistleblowing and the government's response is dictated by unequal relationships of power. Actions which challenge the status quo and shed light of matters regarded as inconvenient by governments and multinational corporations will be portrayed as illegal or unethical, while those which seek to further cement the legitimacy of everyday criminal activity by the powerful is applauded. Eventually, in July of 2012, Gallagher had his record expunged by the courts, but not after having his career destroyed and his courageous work silenced.

One glimmer of hope regarding Chiquita being held accountable for its criminal activities is the ongoing lawsuit in a Florida court brought about by thousands of Colombians, who are the relatives of victims, in seeking to hold the company accountable for murder, torture, and environmental destruction. Villagers allege that the death squads used “random and targeted violence in exchange for financial assistance and access to Chiquita’s private port for arms and drug smuggling.” Furthermore, over 5,500 pages of documents contradicting Chiquita’s claim that it was extorted by Colombian paramilitaries have been released and are available online here. Chiquita’s continued involvement in criminal activity highlights how large and influential corporations feel as if they are above the law. Openly lying to the court and paying a relatively small fee in proportion to the damage they have caused across Latin America is not evidence of justice—it is blatant evidence of corruption which go up to the highest levels of government.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Guyana: Colonialism With Chinese Characteristics?
June 26, 2013

1870The relationship between China and Guyana goes back over 40 years. During the height of the Cold War, and in contrast to the policy of most of the hemisphere which was under the influence of the United States at the time, Guyana and China established relations on June 27, 1972. While the relationship was initially established in order to foster mutual cooperation and development, the past decade has witnessed a surge of Chinese interest in Guyana’s natural resources, leading many Guyanese citizens to question the value of this supposedly equal and beneficial partnership.

An important case in point comes from the controversial Bai Shan Lin investment plans for Guyana. The Bai Shan Lin company was granted a forestry concession which consists of nearly one million hectares of rainforest, from which it will harvest logs and ship them out of Guyana. In addition to the acquisition of significant land holdings, the company has announced the creation of a very large “Guyana-China Timber Industry Economic & Trading Cooperation Park” and a 400-acre “Bai Shan Lin Real Estate Development Project.”

While the investment is indeed large, it is more likely that the benefit to the people of Guyana will be quite small outside of political circles given the nature of Chinese companies to import their own labor to staff operations in Guyana. While many Guyanese people are underemployed or in need of work, Chinese laborers were brought into Guyana for the construction of the new Marriott Hotel in the capital of Georgetown earlier this year. With the growing amount of criticism over the surge of recent Chinese investment in Guyana's growing forestry and mining sectors, the political opposition has called for investment agreements between the Guyanese government and Bai Shan Lin to be made public—but so far little headway has been made. However, the details which have emerged paint a troubling picture for any attempt for Guyana to establish a model of sustainable and equitable development.

Some of these investment policy “advantages” of doing business in Guyana were highlighted in a PowerPoint presentation created by Bai Shan Lin. The presentation reveals that Guyanese trade agreements with China allows for “machinery, equipment, raw material, transportation means and office supplies for production use are exempted from import duty and excise tax.” Furthermore, under the agreement, new enterprises benefit from tax exemptions, custom duties on exports, and have no regulations on the foreign transfer of their profits.

A recent article in the Guyana Chronicle stated that “Guyana is open for business” when perhaps a more appropriate slogan would be that the Guyanese politicians are instead selling the country out to business. Guyana’s President Donald Ramotar sought to defend China’s growing presence in Guyana against the rising criticism, stating that “History will show you that China has not exploited and colonised any country. In fact, the record of China… it has been helping to build societies in Africa and other parts of the world, and we must stand up and make the voice of the majority heard because there seems to be people financed from somewhere, dedicating themselves to slander and attack.”

Assuming that models of economic development or trade are static is unrealistic and of little value when trying to understand what is really happening on the ground. The term “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” was adopted as an easy way to describe and distinguish the uniquely regulated nature of the Chinese economy. It seems that a similar term could be adopted for China’s resource based foreign investment policy.

While the Guyanese government is a willing partner in these new investment agreements, it is important to realize that it is an incredibly unbalanced relationship that maintains the essence of colonialism—the exportation of raw materials and the increasing dependence on Chinese manufactured goods, capital, technology, and knowledge. While it is true that China has not followed the European or North American model of instituting a formal model of colonialism via violent invasion and occupation, it does not mean that China is not engaging in a modern form of colonialism with Chinese characteristics.

While countries all over the world are scrambling for investment, it should be done in a manner that will protect the long-term interests of the recipient nation’s population and environment. To jumpstart an economy dependent on short-term resource extraction without ensuring that necessary regulations in place is a recipe for disaster. The strong interest of China in Guyana provides a real opportunity for the government to establish policies which will generate value and public benefits from their responsible and regulated extraction of their natural resources.

According to the most recent World Bank statistics, an estimated 43% of the Guyanese population falls below the poverty line, with 29% living in what is categorized as extreme poverty. In order to address the longstanding roots of poverty and inequality in Guyana, revenue from resource extraction to fund state investments in healthcare, education, and social services is needed. However, China and Guyana both share a similar feature—on paper they are both committed to socialism and serving the people. Yet, with a government selling off incredible quantities of land to Chinese companies, without any real change it is hard to imagine that the current acceptance of “colonialism with Chinese Characteristics” as the status quo will bring any tangible or visible return for the people of Guyana.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Norway’s Foreign Policy in the Americas: A Better Way Forward?
June 20, 2013

1828A cursory look at the history of most countries' foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean can often be categorized as being under the influence of colonialism, the Cold War, or neoliberal fundamentalism—depending on the era. Even today, the foreign policy of emerging powers such as China and middle level countries such as Canada are primarily driven in regard to control over the region’s natural resources. To date, there has been very little genuine engagement between the region and outside nations (as Cuba and Venezuela have wide ranging aid and cooperation policies) in order to help cultivate an environment of equitable, respectful, and progressive relations. One nation which appears to be countering this trend is Norway.

Before going any further, it is important to state that no nation’s foreign policy is perfect, but instead they should be realistically compared on a scale ranking them from the terrible to those which are better.

To provide some context, Norway has not always followed an independent path in the hemisphere. For example, through the mid-1960s, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Norway was loyal to U.S. policy in the region. However, this began to change in the late 1960s when Norway broke ranks with U.S. policy over the Cuban embargo and military intervention in the Dominican Republic. Due to large offshore oil deposits in the North Sea, Norway has extracted the resource to the benefit of its people. The Norwegian state-owned oil company, Statoil, has long been active in Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil. With this is mind, the Norwegian government has remarked that despite an interest to make money via the extraction of oil abroad, it is central to the government's foreign and development policy that Norway should not "...take from the developing countries the management rights and remedies that have been important to develop our own society."

One area in which Norway provides an important way forward is in Haiti. Since the earthquake of 2010, Norway has provided $2.5 million to support Cuba’s medical brigades in Haiti. The Norwegian government should be credited with identifying and supporting a health program which delivers incredible results to the people who need it most—while the majority of other nations continue to pour money down the drain to unaccountable and often ineffective non-governmental organizations. Cuba’s medical brigades have helped over 3 million Haitians, and the Cuban government is seeking to build a Haitian staffed national healthcare system at the primary level in the long term. This is not to say that Norway was the first or only nation to support Cuba’s medical programs in Haiti—as Brazil and Venezuela have also provided important funding for the initiative—but Norway is the first European nation to follow this model.

A second area in which Norway is taking an independent stance is when it comes to the Colombia Peace Talks. The talk to end a half century of civil war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Colombia has been taking place in Havana. On May 26, the Colombian government and FARC released a joint communique which stated that “We especially want to thank Cuba and Norway, the guarantor countries of this process, for their permanent support and for the atmosphere of trust that they foster. The presence of their representatives at the Table of conversations is a fundamental factor for their development.”

In contrast to the policy of Norway trying to find a solution to end the violence, countries such as the United States and Canada have long supported destructive and divisive policies which have failed. Plan Colombia, undertaken by the United States, has sought to combat drug trafficking and the FARC and has had an incredibly harsh impact upon innocent peasant communities. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada recently signed a free trade deal with Colombia, long known as a site of serious human rights violations. When asked about signing the controversial deal, Harper remarked that ““We can’t block the progress of a country like this for protectionist reasons, and you trying to use human rights as a front for doing that.”

Thus contrasted against the regressive foreign policy of the United States and Canada in the region, Norway appears to be doing a better job in aligning themselves with the priorities of the region’s people. However, like anything else, to give Norway a blank check for its progressive foreign policy in the Americas would be overlooking the less glamorous side of Norway’s foreign policy. Norway is home to a rapidly expanding arms industry—with Brazil and Chile listed as some of its top customers. What is important despite the negatives is the fact that Norway is choosing to ignore the harmful and out of touch positions of “global leaders” when it comes to development policy in Haiti or how to achieve peace in Colombia. It is this important independence in foreign policy decisions which should inspire the people of other countries to demand more from their governments in setting a more equitable and respectful global agenda.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Belize’s Conservation Balancing Act
June 13, 2013

1826In comparison to many of its neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean, Belize has pursued a very effective and comprehensive policy of conservation in order to capitalize on the growing segment of eco-tourism. However, given the stresses of economic development, Belize is facing a difficult balancing act when it comes to determining the limits of environmental and cultural conservation.

Like most Caribbean countries, Belize is burdened with extremely high-energy costs—yet it was expected that this would change when Belize discovered deposits of oil in 2005. This recent discovery of oil has sparked a debate about the future of Belize’s economic development. Earlier this year, the Belizean court stopped government plans to begin contract offshore oil deposits to inexperienced companies in the Meso American Reef—the world’s second largest barrier reef and a World Heritage Site. Due to the devastation brought by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the decision to drill within such an ecologically sensitive and important zone was regarded as highly controversial within Belize. The court case resulted from the work of conservation organizations sparking a “people’s referendum” in which 96% of those who participated voted against offshore drilling.

The desire of Belize’s people to protect their environment in spite of official government policy could be seen with the seaside village of Placencia voting against the construction of a cruise ship port which would see ships carrying 3,000 passengers arrive weekly. The Placencia Tour Operators Association voted in 2010 to block the development, stating that it would result in “adverse effects on the area's fragile marine and inland environments such as coral reefs and fish and bird habitats.” Furthermore, cruise ship passengers were regarded as undermining Placencia’s overnight tourism industry and its many small businesses. Despite the local opposition, Belize’s Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, recently remarked that local communities (it is estimated that 60% of the population are classified as living in poverty) should consider the economic benefits of constructing a port for mass cruise tourism.

Despite these important victories, not all efforts to protect important sites have been positive. The latest example of economic development undermining Belize’s cultural heritage could be seen with the bulldozing of the 100-foot tall Mayan pyramid located in the Nohmul complex which is over 2300 years old. The pyramid was bulldozed as filler for a new road in the northern part of Belize.

Under the law, all Mayan pyramids in Belize are protected, yet it appears that the incident at Nohmul was not the only instance. Norman Hammond, a professor of archaeology at Boston University remarked that “bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize (the whole of the San Estevan center has gone, both of the major pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller sites), but this sounds like the biggest yet.” It has been reported that a criminal investigation is underway and charges may be laid against the construction company. Meanwhile, the political opposition has argued that the construction of the road into northern Belize was poorly planned but carried out on government orders to gain support from the region.

While it appears that the people of Belize have often been the catalyst for conservation in spite of recent government policy, it remains to be seen how long this can continue. The people of Belize realize that the conservation of the environment will provide opportunities for the long term despite the pressures of foreign investors, and the government seems intent on undermining the ecological and cultural treasures of Belize for short-term economic profit. It can only be hoped that other nations in the region become inspired by the example set by the people of Belize in rejecting mass tourism in favor of smaller scale but more sustainable model.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Assata Shakur and Cuba – U.S. Relations
May 16, 2013

It has been 40 years since Assata Shakur was convicted of gunning down New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973. During the trial, Shakur was found guilty and sentenced to 26-33 years in prison. However, in November 1979, she escaped from the Clinton County Correctional Facility, spending several years underground—eventually receiving political asylum in Cuba in 1984. One would have thought, given the 21st century’s perpetual war on terror, that Shakur’s killing of a police officer had been largely forgotten, but on May 2 it was announced that forty years after her shootout on a New Jersey turnpike, Shakur had been added to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. It begs to be asked why her—and why now?

Granted, at the time Shakur sought asylum in Cuba, there was no such thing as the Most Wanted Terrorists list; it was created after the events of 9/11. However, the current head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains on the list but is curiously ranked 17. Luis Posada Carilles—convicted in absentia in Panama for terrorist attacks throughout the Americas, including bombing an airliner and killing 76 people, is walking around free in the United States. Regarded as a real “Cold Warrior” in many U.S. circles, he is universally considered to be a terrorist in the rest of the hemisphere. The only legal battles Posada has had to face were regarding perjury and remaining in the country without authorization.

Regarding the legitimacy of Shakur’s place on the list, the Christian Science Monitor reported that “Nor is there any evidence that Shakur actually fired the shots that took the life of New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster, said Rutgers University criminal justice professor Lennox Hinds.” It has been well documented via COINTELPRO that during the 1970s the U.S. government undertook violent action against black nationalist groups such as the Black Panther Party in order to "neutralize" them.

Professor Hinds went on to state to Democracy Now that “I think that with the massacre that occurred there, the FBI and the state police are attempting to inflame the public opinion to characterize her as a terrorist, because the acts that she was convicted of have nothing to do with terrorism.” If the meaning of terrorism can be stretched in such a way by the U.S. government to include Shakur but dismiss Posada Carilles—what is one to make of its legitimacy to categorize offenders? One would be hard pressed to find a better double standard defining who counts as a terrorist when it comes to Posada Carilles and Shakur.
It has been speculated that the move was an attempt to pressure Cuba to release Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for delivering communications equipment to opposition groups via USAID’s pro-democracy programs. Cuba has outlawed such “pro-democracy programs” stating that they are subversive and intend to topple the government.

Little else has been said about the meaning behind the FBI moving Shakur to number one on their list. It can be easily assumed that it was done to intimidate and bully Cuba and try to somehow get the world to believe that Cuba is a threat to the United States. It would appear that the world has a strong track record on this issue and will not fall for the bait, as 2012 was the 21st straight year in which an overwhelming majority at the United Nations has called for an end to the embargo. In the minds of the U.S. government, embargos and sanctions are a useful tool to topple dictators and enemies of Washington. The reality is that these policies only end up hurting the civilian populations; it is a flawed idea which seeks to bring about respect for human rights by denying them through the use of an embargo. Yet this message has not sunk in.

On May 1, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell remarked that Washington "has no current plans to remove Cuba" from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The fact that Cuba is even on the list to begin with is evidence of outdated and irrational Cold War minds. Cuba sits on the list with countries such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan. Is the U.S. posturing trying to suggest that they will resort to another Bay of Pigs invasion in order to get Shakur? Indeed the U.S. went to greater lengths to get long time number one terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Is this an act of militarism or confusion on behalf of the United States?

Whatever the case may be, such posturing reveals how problematic the ongoing U.S. embargo with Cuba is and the ignorance of the U.S. administration for refusing to jump into the 21st century. The United States has normalized relations with the countries of the former Soviet Union, China, Japan—and even treats North Korea and their ongoing nuclear antics in a more respectable manner than it does Cuba. Since the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba has never threatened the United States, but the reverse cannot be said. Those arguing that the U.S. government is pursuing the embargo on Cuba in the name of freedom need a reality check. It has never been about freedom, it has always been about exercising regional power and punishing the threat of revolution. There are plenty of Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Chile which saw their respective struggles for freedom cut down in a hail of U.S. sponsored bullets. Former U.S. ally and Guatemalan leader Rios Montt was just convicted of genocide—and he never appeared on the list of most wanted terrorists. If a nation is to stand against terrorism, it should strongly condemn terrorism all forms—not just the ones it finds convenient to oppose.

Friday, May 10, 2013

New Report Gives UN Failing Grade on Cholera
May 10, 2013

1765On May 3, the Boston based organization Physicians for Haiti released a report card titled Protecting Peacekeepers and their Public which evaluates the status of the United Nations' efforts to eradicate cholera in Haiti. It has been nearly three years since cholera first appeared in Haiti, taking the lives of 8,289 people and infecting over 670,000. However, through effective management, cholera does not pose a deadly threat if the proper precautions are made. This is where the recently released Physicians for Haiti report card gives the UN a failing grade in regard to their inability to implement practical, attainable, and cost effective reforms. What makes the matter worse is that the new report does not critique the UN for failing to implement idealistic projects, but rather for failing to implement their own recommendations.

Two years ago in May 2011, at the behest of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN put together an independent group of international experts who released a report on the cholera epidemic, the Final Report of the Independent Panel of Experts on the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti. The report highlights that “the evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the source of the Haiti cholera outbreak was due to contamination of the Meye Tributary of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain of current South Asian type Vibrio cholera as a result of human activity.”

While sounding promising that the UN would trace the source of cholera back to their Nepalese staffed UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) base located on the Artibonite, this was not the case. Instead the report sought to divert attention from any discussion of accountability, stating that “The Independent Panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual. The source of cholera in Haiti is no longer relevant to controlling the outbreak. What are needed at this time are measures to prevent the disease from becoming endemic.” It would later be confirmed by the International Vaccine Institute that the cholera strain found in Haiti was an “exact match” to the Nepalese epidemic earlier in the summer.

As the Physicians for Haiti report card reiterates, the 2011 UN report also included seven recommendations to ensure that an outbreak would not be repeated in Haiti or anywhere else in the world. Two years after the publication of the report, the majority of the recommendations have not been fully implemented.
It would be reasonable to expect that a lack of financial resources would be the primary obstacle to the implementation of the recommendations; however, this is not the case. As highlighted in the report, the UN has not changed the medical screening protocol for potential peacekeepers, mandated an immunization policy, or even attempted to eliminate cholera pathogens by placing waste water in barrels and treating them with bleach. These recommendations come at either no cost to the UN or can be implemented at an extremely low cost.

While there have been important actions taken to attempt to address the systemic issues of water security and sanitation infrastructure, they remain severely underfunded, scattered, and largely non-operational. For example, in December 2012, Ban Ki Moon announced a $2.27 billion cholera eradication plan, but it has failed to get off the ground due to lack of funding.

Troublingly, there have been no meaningful procedural reforms taken to ensure that an outbreak like this will never happen again. Furthermore, the UN has yet to release a statement of accountability, choosing to travel down the path of impunity.

While the Physicians for Haiti report card provides a detailed account of the action taken related to each recommendation, it does not directly provide a final grade for the UN when it comes to the handling of cholera in Haiti. Yet it only takes a quick read to infer that the UN has indeed failed Haiti when it comes to cholera. Whether this is due to a lack of political will or inept leadership—the outcome is that cholera still remains a threat to the Haitian people.

When reading the report card, it becomes apparent that the disconnect between policy creation and implementation is a major problem for the UN in Haiti. The fact that three of the most achievable and cost effective recommendations have not been undertaken remains extremely problematic. If MINUSTAH bases cannot store and treat waste water in a simple manner it speaks volumes about the political will of the mission to ensure the immediate and long term safety of the Haitian people. After all, on paper this is what they are supposed to be there for.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Looming Canada-CARICOM Free Trade Agreement
May 3, 2013

On April 23, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago visited Canada to deliver her pitch to make the Canada-CARICOM free trade agreement a reality. The current Canada-CARICOM trade deal, known as CARIBCAN, is set to expire this year because the World Trade Organization stands in firm opposition to its renewal. Persad-Bissessar—who is set to become the head of CARICOM in July—remarked that “Trinidad and Tobago is very open, and we would welcome a free trade agreement, but because of the structure of CARICOM, it isn’t a decision we can take,” she said. “It has to be done in collaboration with CARICOM.”

Given Canada’s role as the global leader in mining—home to 75% of the world’s mining companies—and the leading producer of tar sands oil, it should come as no surprise that Canada is seeking to make deeper inroads into the resource rich countries of the Caribbean. However, in contrast to the CARICOM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, so far there has been little analysis of the potential impact this trade deal will have on the economically vulnerable Caribbean.

The primary focus of this lopsided free trade deal is to make it easier for Canadian investment to go into resource-rich countries such as Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Haiti—and to protect the rights of Canadian investors. Secondly, the liberalization of trade and investment between Canada and the Caribbean will make it much easier for Canadian firms to takeover the already fragile Caribbean manufacturing and service industries. Currently CARICOM accounts for less than 1% of Canada’s foreign trade, yet Canada is the third most important market for CARICOM-based goods, after the United States and the European Union (primarily the United Kingdom).

According to Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade “A bilateral trade agreement with CARICOM could deliver commercial benefits across many sectors of the Canadian economy, including industrial goods (e.g. pharmaceuticals, products of base metals such as iron, steel, and copper, electrical equipment), agriculture (e.g. french fries, pork cuts, pulses), and fish and seafood. In some of these sectors, CARICOM tariffs range from 5%-60%. A trade agreement with CARICOM would also provide a more secure and predictable business environment for Canadian investment and enhance market access for Canadian service providers.”

In 2010, Canada’s largest imports from CARICOM included gold from Guyana, oil and petroleum products from Trinidad, and aluminum oxides from Jamaica and Suriname. With the recent discovery of rare earth metals in Jamaica, the Jamaica Gleaner reported that Canada will be seeking to join Japan in mining this resource which is used for key components in smartphones and other high technology items.

The fact that Trinidad is pushing for the talks is due to the fact that they hold a significant amount of tar sands—similar in composition to that found in Alberta. Trinidad is hoping that Canadian investment and technology would help to maintain the island’s oil revenues. In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago Newsday reported that “The extraction of oil from tar-sands involves a greater financial cost and does more harm to the environment than pumping out traditional crude oil, with some reports saying that separating the oil out of the sand generates three times as much of the greenhouse gas, carbon-dioxide, than pumping out conventional oil.” It is estimated that Trinidad holds between 900 million to 2 billion barrels of the tar sand crude oil.

Remaining on the issue of natural resources, investigative reports have revealed that currently one-third of Haiti’s Northern Region (approximately 2,500 square kilometers) has been granted as illegal concessions to mining firms based in Canada and the United States. In response to this, the Haitian Senate has called for a halt on all mining activities in the Northern Region. It is important to note that if or when a Canada-CARICOM free trade deal is signed into law, the ability of the Haitian government to halt controversial, exploitative, and destructive mining activities will be severely curtailed.

In regard to services, according to the Royal Bank of Canada, Barbados was the third largest destination for Canadian direct investment after the United States and United Kingdom. Over the past decade, Canadians have invested a staggering $390 billion in Barbados. However, this is not an investment in productive capital—but rather Barbados is a leading offshore tax haven for Canada’s largest banks and the extremely wealthy. In addition, Canadian banks (Royal Bank, Scotia Bank, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce) already dominate the Caribbean banking industry.

While the Canadian government has stated that “Canada is committed to negotiating a modern trade agreement with CARICOM that will take into account differing levels of development, vulnerabilities associated with island states, and trade-related capacity challenges”—given the very real power imbalances between the Caribbean and Canada, CARICOM would be wise to look toward Mexico to see how such free trade deals play out.

Mexico’s experience implementing free trade stands as a sharp reminder that trade agreements are structured in such a way to benefit the powerful, both between and within nations. Since the introduction of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico has experienced a sharp increase in illegal migration, food insecurity, and informal employment. While foreign capital flooded Mexico, the majority of it did not lead to job creation—but rather to foreign acquisitions of existing Mexican firms.

It is telling that the primary service exports of the Caribbean—such as tourism and financial services—do not need a free trade agreement. As such, the CARICOM-Canada free trade deal must receive greater scrutiny within the Caribbean in order to determine whether or not any real gains for the region will emerge from the deal. Given that the majority of Canadian investment is based in resource extraction and financial services, it will predominately serve the interests of Canadian business interests, doing little to alter the dependent nature of the region’s economies. The signing of productive and mutually beneficial trade agreements is one thing— but signing onto a lopsided agreement which will only benefit the owners of resource enclaves is another thing entirely and should be reconsidered.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maduro’s Venezuela Remains an Inconvenient Example of Democracy
April 18, 2013

1717Set against the backdrop of a deeply polarized election campaign over the future of the post-Hugo Chavez era, it became clear late Sunday night that Nicholas Maduro would become the next President of Venezuela—albeit with a very narrow margin. When the final vote count came in, it was announced that Maduro had won with 50.7% of the vote, with his opponent Henrique Capriles taking 49%. In the absence of any unforeseen situations, Maduro is scheduled to be officially sworn in on Friday.

Given the 1.7% margin of victory, Capriles is alleging widespread irregularities and is demanding a manual recount of all votes. Until this happens, Capriles has publicly stated that he will regard Maduro as “an illegitimate president.” Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to jump on the opposition bandwagon, telling a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that "We think there ought to be a recount. . . . Obviously if there are huge irregularities we're going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."

According to the National Electoral Council, due to the nature of Venezuela’s voting system, it is impossible to conduct a manual recount of all votes. In response to the opposition’s demands for a 100% recount, Venezuelan Chief Justice Luisa Estella Morales said that the nation’s 1999 constitution eliminated manual recounts, reaffirming that "In Venezuela the electoral system is completely automated. Therefore, a manual count does not exist. Anyone who thought that could really happen has been deceived. . . . The majority of those who are asking for a manual count know it and are clear about it. Elections are not audited ballot by ballot but through the system." Instead, the National Electoral Council said it had conducted an audit of 54% of the ballots and their respective voting slips.

During the elections on Sunday, international observers did not report any incidents or suspicious activities which were of concern. Such groups included a delegation from the U.S. Lawyers Guild, members of the Scottish Parliament, and former presidents Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic and Alvaro Colom of Guatemala. In September 2012, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter remarked that "As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world."

In a televised speech Maduro responded by stating that "The U.S. intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs in recent months, and particularly during the election campaign, has been brutal, vulgar. . . . Its direct coordination with the 'yellow bourgeois,' with the oligarchs, has been truly obscene.” Such responses have bolstered the opposition supporters, leading to a further polarization of the country. Since Sunday, the ongoing political clashes have resulted in eight reported deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests. It has also been reported that Cuban medical doctors have been the targets of opposition violence—with several Cuban staffed clinics set on fire by opposition supporters. Attacks have also been reported on the Telesur and VTV media buildings, in addition to the houses of various government officials.

While Maduro did not give specifics of U.S. intervention in his speech, based on the historical record such claims should not be dismissed as simply wild speculation. It has become commonly understood that USAID, the International Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy have all funded and strategized with the Venezuelan opposition.

Furthermore, the New York Times has acknowledged that in 2002 that the C.I.A. backed a coup d’etat against Chavez, which was foiled due to immediate popular pressure for his reinstatement. Despite their failure in 2002, the U.S. government remained undeterred in their quest to undermine Chavez. Such was revealed in a 2006 Wikileaks cable that outlined U.S. government’s five-point strategy to weaken the Chavez government. The five points are outlined as being: strengthening democratic institutions, penetrating Chavez's political base, dividing Chavismo, protecting vital U.S. business interests, and isolating Chavez internationally.

As of Wednesday, the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad, and Uruguay have all come forward and congratulated Maduro on his electoral victory. Regional organizations such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR have all offered their congratulations to Maduro for his electoral victory. Tellingly, the U.S. backed Organization of American States refrained from openly accepting the results.

In reference to the U.S. position articulated by John Kerry, Bolivian President Evo Morales remarked that “I would like to express that this is a flagrant U.S. interference in Venezuela’s democracy, as neither that spokesperson nor the U.S. government has moral authority to question electoral results in any Latin American country or around the world.” Similarly, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has also criticized the stance of the State Department regarding their failure to recognize the victory of Maduro, stating that “I dare ask, with much humility, [that] the government of the United States . . . recognize the Venezuelan government after transparent and fair elections.”

However, close or controversial election contests are nothing new to the hemisphere. In the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, an extremely tight race led to a recount of votes in Florida. It was later revealed that African American voting precincts had three times the number of discarded or spoiled ballots in a result where George Bush won by 537 votes. In 2012, the U.S. was quick to congratulate Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory over the left leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador—despite widespread allegations of voter fraud and bribery. The United States has also given the thumbs up to the 2010 elections in Haiti where Michel Martelly was elected in a race in which 14 political parties were banned, or in Honduras in 2009 when the United States recognized an election which institutionalized the coup d’etat of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. The list is much longer; however, political double standard should be obvious to anyone.

Despite this record of selective support for democracy, the U.S. mainstream media attacks upon Maduro have been relentless—portraying his victory as part of a sinister plot. An April 16 piece by the Washington Post editorial board highlighted their collective ignorance of the situation and the nostalgia for a return to the Monroe Doctrine by remarking that “The (Obama) administration should begin coordinating with Mexico, Chile, and other important Latin American democracies to prevent Mr. Maduro from killing his way into power.”

While it is understandable that the United States is not pleased with the outcome of the election in Venezuela given their economic interests, it does not give them the right to undermine the political process of a sovereign country. Such irresponsible editorials and political posturing by the U.S. media and government no doubt add fuel to the opposition’s fire and puts hopes for a peaceful settlement further out of reach.

While the situation in Venezuela still remains tense and unclear, one can only hope that a peaceful political settlement can be reached. It should be the duty of the international community to help Venezuela achieve this goal—not undermine it. If the goal is for the democracy to run its course in Venezuela, it is incredibly important that anti-democratic means do not become the tools of choice in order to bring about a change in government more favorable to U.S. interests. Anything else risks sending the country onto a path of prolonged political conflict and economic regression which will only harm the Venezuelan people and severely damage the already strained relations between the United States and Latin America.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time for Caribbean Leadership to Speak Up on Haiti

April 11, 2013

1652In the most trying of times, it is often said that it becomes much easier to tell real friends from the fake. Since the announcement by United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, claiming that the U.N. has legal immunity when it comes to their role in introducing cholera to the country, the Haitian people are currently learning that, outside of Cuba, even supportive words are hard to come by within the rest of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

By now it has become widely accepted that the U.N. was responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti during October 2010 via negligent screening protocols and waste management at their base in Mirebalais. Prior to the arrival of the U.N. troops in Mirebalais, Haiti had not suffered an outbreak of cholera in their recorded history. Numerous independent medical studies have established that Nepalese troops were the source of the outbreak—with this much being admitted by U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Bill Clinton of all people. Despite the evidence and high-level admissions of guilt, the U.N. is covering itself by invoking Section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the U.N.

While CARICOM is far from being the most influential player in global politics, in a situation such as this their words can still have a great deal of power and importance. A statement of solidarity in condemnation of the lack of accountability and respect shown by the U.N. in Haiti would at least make it clear that they do not accept one of their members being treated in such a manner. As it currently stands, it is impossible to tell one way or the other what the 15 member nations of CARICOM think. Without exaggerating, in this case, their silence is indeed deadly.

In an interview with the Guardian, Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti put things into a sobering perspective, reminding readers that almost three times as many people had died in the continuing cholera crisis as in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Yet there has been no announcement or official statement on behalf of CARICOM calling on the U.N. to take responsibility and rectify the situation, which has claimed the lives of more than 8,300 people so far.

The most vocal critic within the region has been former Jamaican Prime Minster P.J. Patterson, who remarked that “It is simply appalling, a most reprehensible behavior . . . for the UN to claim such immunity. . . . The more so when scientific evidence substantiates that the cholera epidemic was originally introduced in Haiti at the time by peace-keeping soldiers (from Nepal) under U.N. command.”

Whether it comes from the mouth of Haiti’s Michel Martelly, who is currently acting as the head of CARICOM, Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, or the leaders involved in the anti-imperialist ALBA bloc such as Roosevelt Skerrit, Ralph Gonsalves or Baldwin Spencer—the leadership of the Caribbean must speak up for Haiti.

This is not to say that CARICOM has not taken important stands to speak out against injustice in the past. Indeed, CARICOM has come out before and strongly condemned the 2009 coup in Honduras, denounced the 2004 overthrow of Aristide, and continually denounces the U.S. blockade against Cuba. The question is, why the silence on the U.N.’s role in bringing cholera to Haiti?

It is not as if the U.N. does not have money to fund the proposed initiative to combat cholera. Instead, they are choosing to spend it in incredibly problematic ways. The most prominent example being that the current military operation of the U.N. in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, has an annual budget of nearly $700,000,000. If this money from the U.N. were redirected towards a war on eradicating cholera, it would start to save lives instead of taking them. As such, CARICOM shouldn’t want to be remembered for staying silent during such an important moment.