Thursday, March 28, 2013

From Bad to Worse: Canada’s Development Agenda in the Americas

In the most recent Canadian budget, it was announced that the Canadian International Development Agency was being “modernized.” Going forward, CIDA will no longer function as a separate governmental agency, but instead it will be folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Shutting down an ineffective and often interventionist agency like CIDA would often be greeted with goodwill in progressive circles—especially due to its checkered history and limited success. However, one has to hand it to the Canadian government, who managed to shut down a poorly functioning agency only to replace it with something worse. This shift to “modernize” Canada’s development agency will now most certainly make it less transparent, democratic, and accountable. It also sets a regressive example for other governments to follow.
The “modernization” of Canada’s development agenda seeks to limit the amount of money spent on development or aid projects—and instead seeks to “promote private sector partnerships in development, in turn spurring business growth, creating jobs, and generating tax revenues that fund basic social services.” In many ways, as outlined in CIDA’s Sustainable Economic Growth Strategy, Canada is seeking to implement the underlying assumptions of trickle-down economics as their main tool in their international development toolbox. Given that Canada’s primary economic interests beyond its borders are related to the extraction of minerals, CIDA’s operations in both Honduras and Haiti highlight the darker side of the agency—and provide a troubling example of what might be expected under a developmental agenda driven by private investment.

The 2009 coup in Honduras was supported by Canada, as two of the key policies implemented by President Manuel Zelaya and the popular movement were to place a moratorium on the granting of new mining concessions and raising the minimum wage by 60%. This past January, the moratorium on mining was lifted with the support of CIDA. The new mining law will allow open pit mining, placing water sources at risk of severe pollution and opening the door to allow foreign mining companies to access international tribunals in order to protect their investments. The implementation of this mining law was crucial to the upcoming Canada-Honduras Free Trade Act.

Similar to Honduras, CIDA backed the overthrow of democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide in February 2004. In 2007, Richard Sanders outlined in great detail how CIDA bankrolled the 2004 coup and ushered in an era of weakened government and foreign occupation in the form of MINUSTAH. CIDA also was engaged in a campaign of misinformation regarding human rights abuses being ordered by Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. While Canada had already frozen the Haitian government out of the distribution of funds in practice, in January it was put into policy as CIDA announced that it would be freezing all new aid to Haiti. Given the shift towards the private sector, it makes much more sense. Given the distribution of gold and copper mining concessions to Canadian firms, there is little need to invest in building the capacity of health and education outside of the mining camps.

It would be one thing if the shift towards aligning development initiatives with larger private sector projects could claim a better record of human rights and environmental protection. Sadly, it cannot. Currently, Canadian mining companies are facing an increasing amount of criticism over their human rights abuses. Currently, HudBay Minerals is being sued in a Toronto court for the role of its security personnel in murdering Adolfo Ich and the gang rape of 11 women at their former mining project in Guatemala. The abuses are not regarded as isolated incidents either, as a 2009 industry report from the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada revealed that Canadian mining companies are implicated in four times the number of human rights and environmental violations than firms based in other countries.

In many ways, the combination of development projects and private investment is a strategy which can whitewash potentially harmful and destructive projects. Mining is notorious for having a low multiplier effect on the local economy, as the workers are paid very little for the minerals they unearth—which later go on to receive high prices internationally. Secondly, there are massive environmental impacts related to resource extraction, which come in the form of stripped and degraded land and the pollution of water through the release of heavy metals. With this shift, mining companies can promise local communities that the Canadian government will provide schools, medical care, or upgraded housing in order to enter areas which would have otherwise been against resource extraction. It is another tool that mining corporations can call upon to pressure communities.

Given the shift in CIDA, it can be assumed that Canada’s relationship with Haiti and Honduras will erode from bad to worse. The Canadian model of development—while highly controversial before—seeks to use development projects as a Trojan horse for mineral extraction throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It will create a program which is even less transparent, democratic, and accountable. Given the overall priorities of the Canadian government at home, they can at least be credited with being consistent in their policy of undermining people and the environment for corporate profit. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Confronting Crisis: The Need for Political Innovation in the Caribbean

1627There is an alarming need for political and institutional innovation in the Caribbean. Across the region there is a familiar narrative whereby economies are in a tailspin, austerity reigns, traditional sources of trade and aid are no longer in effect, opportunities are harder to come by, and the aspiration of many youth is to simply get their hands on a visa to go abroad.

The obstacles to the achievement of genuine, self-directed development are so numerous and varied that Norman Girvan of the University of the West Indies has put forward that the Caribbean is currently facing what he calls “existential threats.” He defines existential threats as “a constellation of economic, social and environmental pressures that threaten the viability of our societies as functional entities in any meaningful sense. And these challenges are too wide in scope and too vast in scale for any one Caribbean country to cope with by itself.”

In a speech to the Barbados Chamber of Commerce, last year St. Lucian Prime Minister Kenny Anthony remarked, “Make no mistake about it. Our region is in the throes of the greatest crisis since independence. The spectre of evolving into failed societies is no longer a subject of imagination. How our societies crawl out of this vicious vortex of persistent low growth, crippling debt, huge fiscal deficits and high unemployment is the single most important question facing us at this time.”

While Prime Minister Anthony is indeed right, the current Westminster system of government in the English speaking Caribbean has done little to bring about any hope of substantive change on the horizon. Whether the party in power hails from the left or right side of the political spectrum in rhetoric, in reality they are just two different flavours of neoliberalism. The Westminster system and neoliberalism are two systems which are extremely effective at limiting any discussion of change or innovation.
In regards to neoliberalism, it is presented by thinkers such as Thomas Friedman as a system which makes politics largely irrelevant. To Friedman, once a country commits to cutting taxes and social spending and a broader agenda of privatization and deregulation, the range of political choice becomes decidedly narrow. He remarks that

Two things tend to happen: your economy grows and your politics shrinks… The Golden Straightjacket narrows the political and economic choices of those in power to relatively tight parameters. That is why it is increasingly difficult to find any real difference between ruling and opposition parties in those countries that have put on the Golden Straightjacket. Once your country puts on the Golden Straightjacket, its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke—to slight nuances of policy… but never any deviation from the core golden rules.

That is indeed what many of the political parties in the two party system of the modern Caribbean represent—Pepsi or Coke. The very nature of the Westminster system limits innovation due to the 18th Century ideals of “party loyalty”—when the old cliché that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” often rings true. Just because the colonial institutions are in place, there is no need for them to remain there. While it will be a bumpy process to bring about change, outside of the politicians who benefit, one would be hard pressed to argue that such a system benefits the Caribbean as a whole. New Zealand shifted from the Westminster system to a more representative mixed member proportional system in 1994 to better suit their needs. In Canada, and even in the United Kingdom, there are growing calls for a shift towards proportional representation, as the traditional political parties have become so alike there is no space for alternative points of view.

While the Westminster system in the Caribbean was praised in academic circles for bringing stability—during the past 20 years numerous crises have grown increasingly more severe, as crime, hurricanes, debt, and declining opportunities for trade are making life more difficult for all in the region—is stability and the maintenance of the status quo really a good thing? What will it take for the change to occur?

The imposition of the Westminster System of Government upon the English speaking Caribbean did not come about because it was the right or most rational thing to do—it was done because it was the easiest thing to do. While there are indeed deep structural issues related to the Caribbean’s position within the international economy, it does not mean that nothing can be done. During the time of Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” there emerged a massive uprising to neoliberal policies throughout Latin America which can be witnessed in the institutions emerging there today. There will be calls that the current situation makes it too difficult for anything to be done. It would be important to remember that those very same words were often uttered the same day that people stood up for their rights, demanded change, or simply skipped asking and did it themselves.

While Caribbean-created solutions for uniquely Caribbean problems is undoubtedly the best way to move forward, it does not mean that inspiration cannot be gained from looking towards the current processes of institutional innovation occurring in Latin America. While much of the Caribbean was relatively stable and showing progress in the 1980s, with the period of “Green Gold,” most of Latin America was facing what is known as the Lost Decade—as progress on economic growth, education, health and equality all declined. One could argue that the 2000s are the Caribbean’s Lost Decade—only set on repeat.

One key aspect that should be dealt with on a more concrete level is the idea of regionalism. The political fragmentation of the Caribbean only magnifies issues of trade, governance and development—regionalism is an intriguing proposition. As Tennyson Joseph of the University of the West Indies highlights in his brilliant critique of the current political system in the Caribbean, the lack of a regional party in the Caribbean is a major problem.

In Latin America, we have seen a dramatic increase in the development of political institutions to bring about increased popular participation and deeper regional integration. While certainly not everything has worked as planned, they must be applauded with trying to create and maintain an alternative to the status quo which was deeply dysfunctional and in many cases damaging. Given the calls from voices in academia and government of an imminent crisis on numerous fronts—in addition to the millions of people dealing with it firsthand, what will it take for the Caribbean to try and transcend the legacy of the Westminster System, which stifles innovations to confront neoliberalism? The best way to deal with a problem is to try and prevent it in the first place—political innovation will not solve everything, but given the alternative of continuing to do nothing, is a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Remembering Hugo Chavez: An Eternal Friend of the Caribbean

March 7, 2012
1606President Hugo Chavez—perhaps more than any other Latin American politician—sought to build bridges with the Caribbean, to unite two regions which have so much in common, but for far too long remained divided by the entrenched legacies of colonialism. While many other articles have turned to focus on the economic consequences his death might potentially bring to the Caribbean, a remembrance of all that he had done both for and with the region seems more fitting.

Since his election in 1999, Chavez always thought in terms of the Latin and Caribbean region as a whole—instead of divided nation states. While the links between Cuba and Venezuela are more readily apparent and obvious, it was not long before Chavez began to forge deep and meaningful relationships with the English and Kreyol speaking Caribbean. By 2009, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which originally consisted of Venezuela and Cuba, had expanded to include the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Dominica, and St. Vincent.

This regional alliance is committed to an agenda of poverty eradication, sustainable development, and social justice founded upon the values of co-operation, equality, and solidarity. Furthermore, the regional integration promoted by ALBA importantly stresses policy flexibility, fair trade, and recognition of the unique circumstances faced by the many small Caribbean economies.

Petro-Caribe—an alliance which allows Caribbean nations to purchase oil from Venezuela in a preferential agreement, has proved to be a lifeline for many cash-strapped governments. It even allowed for the Caribbean nations to pay for their oil purchases with agricultural produce if they chose. The oil can be paid for over a 25-year period, at a 1% interest rate, and at the time of writing 18 Caribbean and Central American nations had signed on to the initiative. David Jessop, the Director of the Caribbean Council stated that “If it were not for the energy lifeline that it [Venezuela] has provided to every Caribbean nation other than Trinidad and Barbados, much of the region would by now be in economic free fall.”

The creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011 signified the reorientation of the region away from North American influence. In what was considered by many to be as radical alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Canada, and the United States were not granted membership. This show of solidarity between the 33 independent countries of Latin America and the Caribbean signaled that Chavez's decade long push for deeper regional integration was not in vain. Upon the institution of CELAC Chavez remarked that "Celac is born with a new spirit; it is a platform for people's economic, political and social development, which is very different from OAS."

Like a true friend, when tragedy arrived, Venezuela was always one of the first nations to offer assistance to the Caribbean—such as when they faced the devastating hurricanes like Ivan in 2004, Tomas in 2010, and Sandy in 2012. In addition to the emergency aid, Venezuela has conducted more sustainable projects in partnership with local governments. For example, Venezuela has helped to construct a hospital in Grenada, an airport expansion in St. Vincent, an oil refinery, and public housing works in Dominica, among other projects (A wikileaked U.S. cable titled E. Caribbean and Venezuelan Foreign Aid: Rhetoric or Reality? highlights many of the projects).

In regards to Haiti, Chavez was always conscious of the historical links which bound the two nations together in their struggle against imperialism. When the great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar was seeking refuge, Haitian President Alexander Petion provided him with a safe haven, in addition to men, money, and arms. It was not lost on Chavez that the tricolor flag of Venezuela was both created and flown for the first time in the Haitian town of Jacmel, resulting in him changing the Venezuela’s Flag Day to March 12 in order to reflect this little known fact.

In support for Haiti’s continuing struggle against foreign imperialism, Chavez consistently opposed the many forms of foreign intervention which relentlessly sought to undermine the nation. In 2004, Chavez stood out as the only South American leader brave enough to openly oppose the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. In fact, Reuters remarked that “In the latest insult to U.S. policy, Chavez Tuesday said he would not recognize the new government in Haiti, set up with U.S. involvement, and invited ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Venezuela.”

While many Latin American nations took part in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), Chavez argued that a militarized solution was not in the best interest of Haiti, and that any mission seeking to address insecurity should deal with the structural issues which created poverty and insecurity. This was largely based off of his own experience conducting Plan Bolivar, where the Venezuelan army was reoriented and reconfigured to attack a new enemy—that of poverty and hunger. Shortly after Chavez’s election in 1999, an IPS News story on Plan Bolivar reported that “Armed with shovels and other tools, tens of thousands of army troops, civil servants, and volunteers in Venezuela began to repair schools, clear up a backlog of patients awaiting operations, and attend homeless persons and street children as part of a six-month social emergency plan.”

In his visit to Haiti in 2007, Chavez announced plans for a US$80 million oil refinery, a US$56 million electricity plant, a US$4 million liquid gas plant, expansion of the Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haıtien airports for US$57 million, US$3 million for waste collection, and resources for a Cuban health care program in Haiti staffed by 2,000 doctors. After the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, Venezuela quickly cancelled Haiti’s Petro-Caribe debt, with Chavez stating that “Haiti has no debt with Venezuela, just the opposite: Venezuela has a historical debt with that nation, with that people for whom we feel not pity but rather admiration, and we share their faith, their hope.” Venezuela would also go on to pledge $2.4 billion to Haiti’s reconstruction—with $369 million dispersed to projects in 2012.

Perhaps the issue of race also played a significant role in helping to bridge the divide, as Chavez did not see himself as a person apart from the people of African descent in the Caribbean, indeed he openly identified as one of them. In 2005 Chavez spoke on the issue of race in Latin America, stating that "Racism is very characteristic of imperialism and capitalism. Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth and curly hair. And I'm so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it is African."

It is appropriate that the contributions of Hugo Chavez cannot be summed up in any brief manner, as they extend far beyond what is covered here. The Caribbean, which remains on the periphery of the global economy—abandoned by Europe and the United States when trade preferences and security priorities changed—found a friend in Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. He was not just admired in the region for what he gave, but also for what he represented. This can been seen in all of the condolences offered by the Caribbean leaders on behalf of their people. He refused to be bullied by empires who sought to bring him down by violence and economic destabilization. He sought to build a society upon solidarity, social justice, and reciprocity.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit remarked on the loss of his close friend and ally, echoing the thoughts of many by stating that “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal… Comrade Chávez did all for the people not only of Venezuela, but for Latin America and indeed the world. He will be remembered also for bringing the Caribbean and Latin America together. I have lost a personal friend, a comrade a colleague. I am deeply saddened. The struggle continues.”