Monthly Archives: June 2012

Lugo’s Ouster in Paraguay — a view from Brazil

Matias Spektor, one of the leading international relations scholars in Brazil, has published a penetrating column in the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo on his country’s reaction to the rapid-fire constitutional ousting of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay.

Spektor makes the forceful point that Brazil needs to do more to help Paraguay become a stable democratic country. As he notes, the Brazilian national interest extends far beyond ensuring continued operation of the giant Itaipu hydroelectric complex, source of 25% of electricity for Brazil. Close to half a million Brazilians work along the frontier in the agro-industrial sector. Paraguay is the source for an immense network of contraband goods, narcotics and illegal arms, all of which have a direct and negative impact on the lives of Brazilians by feeding organized crime in major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The only sure way to curtail these networks is to transform the economic and political fundament of Paraguay.

In the past Brazil has played a crucial role in stabilizing Paraguay. The subtext to a paper I published in 2000 with Dominique Fournier was that Brazil was playing a tutelary role in Paraguay, ensuring that the corrupt ruling networks in the Colorado Party at least stuck with the form of democracy in the hopes that this would provide the cracks in which a genuine democracy could take root. Little has changed in the intervening ten years, with Asunción now being one of the most important posts for Brazilian diplomats. Lugo’s election — he came from completely outside the established political system — seemed to suggest that this strategy of quiet pressure for more democracy might be working. The point that Spektor makes is that last week’s ouster of Lugo shatters this illusion and points to the need for a much more forceful role from Brazil in Paraguay’s internal stabilization if Brasília is to retain any credibility as a regional leader able to deliver positive outcomes.

This latest political calamity in Paraguay matters far more than it might seem. While in itself small and relatively insignificant, regional responses to the crisis in Paraguay as well as the apparent strategic thinking guiding the movers and shakers in Asunción serve as a bellwether for Latin American approaches to democracy, development and regional self-management. More to come on this.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Democracy, News brief, Paraguay

International Crisis Group on Venezuela’s Election

The International Crisis Group has released a short briefing and appraisal of the situation in Venezuela as the country approaches a presidential ballot between cancer-striken incumbent Hugo Chávez and the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. The whole report can be seen here, including a long set of policy recommendations, but two penetration paragraphs are as follows:

Many in Venezuela, including in the Capriles camp, stress a major breakdown of order is unlikely. Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. The electoral authorities are, perhaps, more resistant to his meddling than other institutions. The opposition swears there will be no witch hunts if it wins; if it loses, it appears to have little stomach for a fight, particularly if the vote is clean. Many citizens are tired of confrontation. While senior generals are loyal to the president, with the defence minister suspected of ties to drug-trafficking, the armed forces’ middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution. Nor would regional powers condone a power grab or welcome Venezuela’s slide from flawed democracy into turmoil or dictatorship.

But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. At stake is not only his rule but also a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to serve their interests. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results or itself stir up violence as a pretext to retain power by extraordinary means. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote – perhaps through a decision by the partisan judiciary – in order to buy time to select and drum up support for a replacement. Either scenario could stimulate opposi-tion protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.

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Filed under Democracy, News brief, Uncategorized, Venezuela

A China-Mercosur trade deal?

O Estado de São Paulo is reporting that Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao wants to explore the possibility of a free trade deal between China and Mercosur (trade bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela awaiting approved membership). A quick look at the trade numbers suggests that there is some sense to this idea. The Estadão article points to 2011 trade of US$48.4 billion in Chinese exports to Mercosur and imports of US$51 billion from the South American bloc.

The timing of the announcement is curious because it comes just days after Paraguay was suspended from participation in Mercosur governance activities due to the rather rapid constitutional ousting of Fernando Lugo from the presidency. This might matter because Paraguay has always been a convenient block to considering a deal with China. Paraguay recognizes Taiwan and has received considerable economic assistance from that country. The past Chinese practice has been to marginalize countries that recognize Taiwan, although the aggressiveness of this approach appears to have eased a bit in recent years. Either China has decided that Paraguayan diplomatic relations are merely an irritant that can be ignored, which in itself could be a precedent for other parts of the world, or an opportunity has been seized to try and push shifts in regional relations to the detriment of Taiwan’s links to Asuncion.

Another interesting thing to watch will be the reaction from industrial manufacturing sectors in Brazil and Argentina, both of which have been hammered by lower cost imports from China. Meanwhile, agroindustry and mineral sectors will likely push hard for a deal. It also fits into a foreign policy context where Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff is talking about the need to work with China to manage global challenges. The topic of a China Mercosur trade deal could well be discussed at the upcoming Mendoza Mercosur summit.

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ANCLAS OpEd on Assange and Ecuador in the Canberra Times

ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges has had an OpEd published in the Canberra Times (link here) asking if Julian Assange looked carefully into the press freedom situation in Ecuador before seeking asylum in that country. He concludes by asking if this will have an impact on Assange’s credibility and the credibility of Wikileaks.

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ANCLAS Senior Associate on Assange and Ecuador

ANCLAS Senior Associate Sean Burges was interviewed on June 21, 2012 by the ABC Radio National program RN Drive about Wikileaks Czar Julian Assange’s bid for asylum in Ecuador.

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Lula and his legacy?

On the whole, Lula did a good job as president. He pulled 30 million out of poverty, rapidly expanded the middle class, and entrenched Brazil as an economically and politically credible country. His charismatic touch continues to stroke Brazil. If he ran in an election today he likely could win without campaigning. The very genuine love many Brazilians hold for Lula might explain why so few trenchant questions are being asked about how he governed, questions that probably should be resurfacing very forcefully with the publication of this photo:

Public reaction has not been what we could call good. O Estado de São Paulo is running reports of general disgust at the cheerful body language between Lula (left), Fernando Haddad (centre, and current Workers Party candidate for mayor of São Paulo) and Paulo Maluf (right, former governor and mayor of São Paulo and current federal deputy).

Why is this an issue? Maluf’s current job as federal deputy is providing him with a handy escape route from prosecution for corruption. In 2005 he actually spent 40 days in jail on accusations of racketeering, tax evasion and money laundering, being sent home from a private prison cell with personal telephone line and cable tv for house arrest because he was over 70 years of age. In 2007 Maluf was indicted in New York on charges of conspiring to steal $11.6 million, with prosecutors having additional questions about some $140 million that passed through an account he controlled with Safra Bank in New York.

For Haddad the question is whether or not the apparent chumminess with Maluf in the photo will have a negative impact on mayoral run.

The questions for Lula should be a lot deeper.

While there is hopefully little substance to charges that Lula himself is actively corrupt in the sense attributed to Maluf, a certain stench is starting to surround his legacy. Just a couple of key examples stand out.

First, Lula’s first term was marked by a vote buying scandal that saw presidential confidant and adviser Jose Dirceu engineer a program of paying federal congressmen to support the government’s legislative agenda. Dirceu was run out of congress, which entailed a suspension of some key political rights such as a temporary ban on running for office. But Dirceu was not run out of the Lula machine, continuing on as an informal adviser and shuttle diplomat managing various left-wing irritants in South America.

The second and more damning suggestions come from the legacy Lula left Dilma, whom he effectively appointed to the presidency when term limits prevented him from running again. Stuck with a number of Lula’s ministers as the price for the former president’s benediction, Dilma appears to have taken a rather pragmatic attitude of letting the corrupt hang themselves. One of the first to go was her chief political minister Antonio Palocci amidst charges that he exploited his public position to amass some serious consulting contracts. At least a further six ministers have subsequently been ditched for corruption. Keeping track of the accusations and resignations is getting to be a bit like following the convoluted plot of a telenovela.

The leading foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs has recently published a vigorous exchange of articles and replies about whether or not Brazil can sustain its development path. Corruption very much remains a part of the picture, and in particular an attitude to the corrupt activities of high officials that still holds too much in common with the sort of local boss characters found in a Jorge Amado novel. As the Estadao articles from June 19 and 20 appear to suggest, public patience is wearing very thin.

What will be interesting to see is if this will lead to questions and a vibrant and inclusive public discussion about Lula, his legacy, and future directions for Brazil. Estadão has already started with awkward musings about how far Lula will compromise for his electoral ambitions. Others might start to ask how much Lula knew about the nefarious activities of his ministers and closest advisors, and if he didn’t know, why not? Dilma is likely quietly counting on this to kill her padron’s ambitions for a return to office in 2014.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Brazil, Corruption, Democracy, Uncategorized

Argentina, the UK, and Australian media coverage

For those who missed the June 20th SBS television news coverage of the Cameron-Kirchner encounter at the G-20 meeting in Mexico, take a peek and hang on for the end when the SBS reporter Nick Robinson tries to do his concluding voice over on the fly as Argentine foreign minister Timerman walks out of the building. Clearly Robinson was not delivering the lines Argentina wanted — that Argentina had gone to Mexico looking to stir up the Falklands/Malvinas issue. Timerman actually stopped, pulled on Robinson’s sleeve, and gave him a good finger wagging. Full credit to SBS for keeping what is perhaps a revealing little incident rather than reshooting and editing out the intervention.

— Sean Burges

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More nails for the inter-American system’s coffin

The recently concluded General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Cochabamba, Bolivia provided a couple more coffin nails for a diverse group of countries patiently working to bury the existing inter-American system. The usual suspects were in the vanguard of the latest assault, with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua pushing very hard to radically curtail, if not close down completely the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR). At present the idea under discussion is to allow countries to delay the release of country reports for up to a year, radically curtail the independence of the IACHR by putting it more closely under supervision of the General Assembly, and to greatly restrict its ability to comment on the state of press freedom throughout the region.

It is hardly surprising that the chief protagonists of this move are also the ones most staunchly criticized by the IACHR. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has repeatedly been criticized for his approach to the political opposition in his country as well as restrictions on press freedom that accompanied acts such as his refusal to renew the broadcast license for RCTV. In Ecuador President Rafael Correa pursued criminal defamation charges against one of the leading daily newspapers, El Universo, and won a massive court settlement before easing back from full imposition of the awarded penalties. The argument from the IACHR’s press freedom reports was not that the presidential grievances were baseless. Privately owned media in Venezuela has relentlessly attacked Chávez and the editorial decisions attacked by Correa were, at best, questionable. Instead, the IACHR and other regional press and human rights observers were raising uncomfortable questions about whether or not some countries in the region were experiencing a dangerous subsidence of the underlying conditions for lasting democratic rule. The charge from the ALBA bloc is that the interventions by the IACHR in the sovereign internal affairs of members states was nothing more than a camouflaged instance of US imperialism backed by Washington’s Canadian cronies.

It is the Brazilian position that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ALBA assault on the OAS in Cochabamba. As a tacitly acknowledged counterweight to the US, Brazil has the quiet power to advance or quash initiatives floated in the OAS. Throughout the Cochabamba meetings Brazil remained remarkably quiet, offering little visible defense of the IACHR despite clear statements from president Dilma Rousseff – who was herself tortured during the military dictatorship – that Brazil would advance human rights in its foreign policy. Brazilian silence points to two underlying realities in Brazilian foreign policy.

First, advancement of human rights assumes a minor role in Brazil’s foreign policy agenda. The silence is predicated on a foreign ministry obsession with preventing the creation of precedents that would allow outside intervention in Brazil. The result is an approach that sees foreign policy authorities pointing to the gains that can be made with quiet, behind-closed-doors discussions rather than the sort of public pronouncements and acts that would have a negative impact on relations with countries such as Iran, Sudan and Guinea Bissau. More telling evidence of the place of human rights in Brazil’s foreign policy can be found in the very small size of the foreign ministry unit tasked with managing this international issue.

In practical terms the Brazilian approach to human rights is not terribly different than that found in countries such as the US, France and China. It is an issue that is advanced or ignored to serve other foreign policy priorities. This brings us to the second underlying priority in Brazilian foreign policy, which is to comprehensively emasculate the existing inter-American system and retool it so server Brazilian needs. Brazil has long viewed the OAS as a proxy for US intervention in the region and has consistently worked to mitigate its influence and power. In the 1980s and 1990s this required an oblique approach, which resulted in the successful drive to have one of the country’s top diplomats – João Clemente Baena Soares – named Secretary General of the OAS with an unspoken ambition to quietly hamstring the organization. (Critics might argue that Chile has achieved a similar win with the naming of José Miguel Insulza as OAS head.) Recent Brazilian resistance in the OAS has taken a more direct form, with Canadians being told bluntly in 2001 to butt out of Peru’s electoral process, and the US being told in 2005 that their idea of a democratic enforcement mechanism was a fantastical dream. Interestingly, Chávez social charter was also left cooling its heels in the green room for years.

Brazilian pressure on the inter-American system has only grown as the country’s economy has strengthened. Canada and the US were flatly told they were not welcome, even as observers, at a December 2008 summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Salvador, Brazil. This grouping morphed into a Rio Group / Caribbean cooperation forum before becoming CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations. With this counterweight in place – a sort of OAS + 1 – 2 because of its inclusion of Cuba and exclusion of Canada and the US – Brazil set out to push harder at denuding the two main pillars of inter-American relations. The most recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia may prove to be the last after it was aggressively argued that there was no point holding future meetings without the presence of Cuba. This same issue nearly derailed the OAS at its 2009 General Assembly in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a meeting that was rescued by agreement on a formula allowing Cuba back into the body.

The attack on the IACHR must have seemed like a welcome and unexpected gift for Brazilian diplomats. Not only did it advance one Brazilian foreign policy priority by further weakening an already feeble institution by denuding one of its effective parts, but it also aligned neatly with Brazil’s own recent outbursts against the IACHR after criticisms were leveled against Brasília’s management of the Belo Monte dam planning process. Brazil’s response was to categorically reject the Belo Monte critique and cut the size of its delegation to the OAS. What was not mentioned was that diplomats posted to the OAS were doing little and that a pretext for their removal was being sought.

Although all neatly wrapped in a Bolivarian flag of regional unity and advancement, the Cochabamba OAS General Assembly appears to have driven a few more nails into the current inter-American system. The question is what will replace it. Even if he does survive his battle with cancer, it is unlikely that Chávez will be able to offer the sort of leadership and coordination necessary to keep hemispheric affairs running smoothly. Decades ago Canada played a role in these issues by quieting ruffled feathers and proposing alternatives, but massive budget cuts to the foreign ministry and a conscious prime ministerial decision to parrot US foreign policy have pushed the Northern country away from the table. Other regional middle-weights such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico appear to be looking West with the formation of the Pacific Alliance. For its part Brazil is a far from certain leader. Although Brazil seems to like the idea of coordinating and leading the region, the current push to emasculate the OAS seems predicated more on a desire to protect autonomy than advance and manage an attractive alternative project.

It is probably still too early to buy flowers for the OAS’s funeral, but the organization is definitely in ill health. Watch this space for further developments.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Global Governance, OAS

Carlos Pio in América Economía and NYT on Brazil, BRICs and World Order

ANCLAS Senior Associate Carlos Pio has a piece in América Economía about how diplomatic skills and not economic size or military strength have secured Brazil a place at global decision-making tables. It is a longer version of a piece he published in the New York Times.

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Chávez, Venezuela’s election and regional reactions

Despite a reportedly still-advancing cancer in his pelvic region, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continues to vigorously campaign for reelection later this year. The Spanish newspaper ABC is reported to have seen an intelligence dossier claiming that Chávez has been put on the powerful painkiller Fentanyl to help him continue campaigning through his cancer-caused pain. Reports from Venezuela are that things are going well for the incumbent, which is helping to draw in further support, including the unconditional support of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s Worker’s Party.

The results of Venezuela’s presidential election have become an issue of abnormally major concern for the country’s hemispheric neighbours. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe continues to maintain that Venezuela is a narcotrafficking haven, with a growing list of seizures in Latin America and Africa suggesting that there is some merit to this accusation. The suggestion is not necessarily that Chávez is directly responsible for the use of his country as a drug transhipment point (probably only his most virulent critics would maintain he is consciously supporting such activities), but that the centralization of power that he has encouraged has created a situation where effective control and oversight has been lost in many important areas of Venezuela.

Over at the blog Jacare Mirim Carleton University’s Prof. Jean Daudelin offers a penetrating analysis of the dangers this creates for the region — too many illicit interests are reliant upon maintenance of the existing state framework in Venezuela, which in turn is entirely predicated on Chávez’s own personal charisma. The worry for regional policy makers and security gurus is what will happen if Chávez either dies or loses the election. Will it push Venezuela towards being a narcostate, or will something more positive rise from the uncertainty. The problem right now is that nobody can tell, with seasoned Venezuelan analysts speaking off-the-record of a willingness only to discuss potential scenarios, not certain outcomes.

–Sean Burges


Filed under Analysis, News brief, Uncategorized, Venezuela