Former Obama adviser and CAP dude blames Central America for refugee spike

In an interview with Fox News Latino, Dan Restrepo, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser on the Americas region from 2008 to 2012, made some pretty ignorant comments.

Responding to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s accusation that the United States’ large-scale consumption of the drugs that flow through his country has fueled crime and violence in the region, and thus contributed to the increase in refugees heading northwards, Restrepo seemed to blamed the victim.

“It’s convenient when the president of Honduras blames the United States and our drug culture,” Restrepo said. “The Honduran economic and political elite have systematically and historically failed the people of Honduras.”

First, a little background on Hernandez. The current Honduran president was one of the generals who led the 2009 coup against the elected President José Manuel Zelaya, who was elected as a liberal but began to turn further left once in office.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “the United States became the single loudest voice legitimating a [post-coup] election that was held in a context so problematic and laden with violence that respected election observers from the United Nations, Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center refused to monitor or support the elections.”

That election brought right-wing nationalist Porfirio “Pepe Lobo” Sosa to power. Lobo’s administration presided over cuts to social spending, declining economic growth rates and increasing poverty and unemployment. The country also maintained one of the world’s highest murder rates during that time.

In November 2013, another election was held, this time between Lobo’s man Hernandez and Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the deposed president. The election was marred by allegations of vote-buying, intimidation and criminalization of Xiomara’s supporters.

The 2009 coup didn’t stop the flow of US security dollars, despite the US law that bars military and police assistance to governments established by coups, and the Obama administration was quick to congratulate Hernandez’s “victory” in 2013, despite the widespread concern over the legitimacy of the results.

Restrepo had left the Obama administration by the time Hernandez was elected, but he is currently a senior fellow at the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress, which basically defended the 2009 Honduran election and had nothing to say one way or the other about Hernandez’s questionable 2013 “victory” (neither did its blog, ThinkProgress).

In the interview with Fox, Restrepo continued: “The wealthy families, a small number of economic classes, have enjoyed success, and have significant political influence. But they haven’t gone about the hard work of working toward a state that functions.”

Restrepo pointed to “[t]he Colombian elite, the political and economic elite” as an example of good leaders who had “realized that for the long-term survival of their country, they needed to invest in the state, and create an environment where people wanted to invest.”

He did not mention the fact that after years of US assistance, Colombia still has the 10th-highest murder rate in the world, as well as persistently high poverty and inequality. Restrepo also failed to mention the numerous scandals that have swirled around the “Colombian elite,” from high-ranking officials ordering the extrajudicial killings of civilians by security forces to mining companies accused of funding paramilitary groups responsible for human rights violations.

There is an element of truth to Restrepo’s statement that the “Honduran economic and political elite have systematically and historically failed the people” of their country, but he ignores the United States’ role in supporting the very elites he criticizes. In fact, those elites have largely carried out US-dictated policies (or else they wouldn’t get billions of dollars per year in US funding).

This is not to say that Hernandez is entirely correct either, but at the end of the day, the blame game is unproductive and childish. It would be nice to see powerful folks like Hernandez and Restrepo eschew it for serious discussion.

I won’t hold my breath.

Uruguay’s presidential elections explained

On 26 October 2014, Uruguay will hold a presidential election to decide who will replace current President Jose Mujica (Broad Front), who is constitutionally prohibited from pursuing a second term. If no candidate receives an absolute majority, a runoff election between the top-finishing candidates will take place on 30 November 2014…

Read this piece in its entirety at Southern Pulse.

Colombia’s Presidential Election and the Prospects for Peace with the FARC

Colombia has been at war for over 50 years. The internal armed conflict between the government and the Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC after their Spanish acronym, originated in the aftermath of a bloody period of political violence during the 1950s known as “La Violencia,” or “The Violence…”

Read this piece in its entirety at Truthout.

What You Should Know about Costa Rica’s Elections

Costa Rica held elections yesterday and the preliminary results are in. Because no candidate received more than 40% of the votes, there will be a runoff election to determine the country’s next president on April 6. Here’s a quick explanation of the background of the elections and the issues the country’s next president will face.


Poverty in Costa Rica has been stuck around 20% for the last two decades (along with persistently high inequality) despite strong economic growth relative to the rest of the region. Poor infrastructure has long been a concern and the country has the fastest-growing public debt in the region, making spending on public works projects difficult. Moody’s recently issued a warning of a downgrade from the country’s current rating of Baa3, their lowest investment-grade rating.

According to a poll last year, 95% of Costa Ricans believe their government is corrupt. Current president Laura Chinchilla (who is ineligible for reelection due to constitutional term limits) is disastarously unpopular as a result of high unemployment and a string of corruption scandals. According to local English-language paper the Tico Times;

Chinchilla…leaves behind a fiscal deficit of 5.4 percent, public debt that tops 50 percent of gross domestic product, and a polarized society that has the unfortunate distinction of showing the greatest economic inequality in Latin America in 2013.

Like its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is also increasingly becoming a transshipment country for Andean cocaine destined for the US and other international markets. This has come with an increase in violent crime including a 71% jump in the homicide rate between 2005 and 2010. While the most important issues for voters in this election were economic (cost of living, inequality, and unemployment), crime and insecurity were close behind.


Johnny Araya – Araya was predicted by many polls to be the top finisher, despite his association with the deeply unpopular Chinchilla’s National Liberation Party (PLN). While the party brands itself as center-left and social democratic, it’s members tend to fall on the rightward end of the political spectrum in Costa Rica. For example, former PLN president Oscar Arias pushed various neoliberal reforms during his time in office and his successor Chinchilla has opposed gay marriage, abortion, contraception and the separation of church and state.

José María Villalta – Villalta, who also polled strongly before the election, is the only legislator currently representing the leftist Broad Front (FA) party. The lawyer and activist is the most left-leaning candidate, describing his campaign platform as “progressive, socialist, feminist, environmentalist, and pacifist.” He has proposed reforms to the public health and education systems as well as stronger workers’ rights protections, job creation initiatives, raising taxes on the wealthy, and expanding social programs.

Luis Guillermo Solís – Solís  is the presumptive winner of the first round of elections. Though most polls predicted a third- or fourth-place finish for him, the many undecided voters likely swung the race in his favor. A former member of Araya and Chinchilla’s PLN, Solis left the party for the left-of-center Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) in 2005, saying that the PLN had “lost its soul.” Solis has never held elected office, though he has been involved in government as an analyst and observer for many years as well as serving as Ambassador to Panama. However, his outsider status could have contributed to his strong showing in this election.


Solis holds a slight lead over Araya (30.8% and 29.6% respectively; Villalta came in third place with 17.2%) , but since no candidate received the 40% necessary to avoid a run-off, the final round of elections will be held in April between Solis and Araya. While many Villalta voters are likely to cast ballots for Solis in the run-off, Araya polled strongly in the run-up to the first election and the second round will likely be closely contested.

In an interview with the Tico Times, Solis described himself as “a very unusual candidate” and summed up his electoral strategy: “I have to convince that 63 percent of people who say they don’t have a [political] party that I’m the one…I have to get to that group. My political strategy is aimed towards those who think professional politicians are no good.”

In that same interview, Solis connected the issue of the country’s underdeveloped infrastructure to the political establishment’s “liaisons with private monies” as well as corruption and lack of transparency. He also hit on other populist policies like a proposed pay freeze for top administration officials (including the president) and his party’s conviction “that fiscal policy is required to redistribute wealth.” He also proposed establishing a “banco de desarrollo” (development bank) to provide microloans to small and medium-sized entrepreneurs.

Asked how he plans to deal with the gridlock that plagues Costa Rica’s parliament, Solis dismissed the idea of legislative reform and said “People have become uneasy about politicians making deals, but politics is dealing! Dealing with transparency and with good purpose, but you need to talk to each other.”

Costa Rica has a long history of leftist politics (even the centrist PLN is a member of the Socialist International), but the PLN and the Social Christian party (PUSC) are the only political parties to have held the presidency in the last 50 years. While left-right coalitions are far from unheard-of in Costa Rica, whoever ends up as the country’s next president will face pressing economic problems as well as political ones, especially the challenge of managing the divided parliament. As sociologist Manuel Rojas told AFP, the next president “will not be able to govern only with his party as has been done in the past.”

[Photo: PAC candidate Luis Guillermo Solís; credit Alberto Font/The Tico Times]

What’s Behind Bachelet’s Comeback and Can She Follow Through on Her Promises?

When she first came into office, Chile’s former (and likely future) president Michelle Bachelet got off to a rough start, but managed to leave office with sky-high approval ratings around 70%. By contrast, the country’s current president, the conservative Sebastian Pinera, has been deeply unpopular throughout his presidency – in fact he’s probably the least popular president since the country was restored to democracy in 1990. Even at the zenith of his popularity, voters still strongly preferred Bachelet as Pinera’s successor over any other candidate in the field.

As Chileans head to the polls today to vote in the runoff election between Bachelet and Pinera’s preferred successor, Evelyn Matthei, it’s basically taken for granted that Bachelet will easily defeat her former childhood playmate and current rival. As the Santiago Times put it, “Matthei is against free education, large alterations to the tax code and new a constitution — major campaign issues this election season all backed by Bachelet.” Also, Matthei has been dogged by charges of populism that have similarly been lobbed against Pinera.

However, Bachelet’s relatively easy path to (presumed) victory doesn’t stem from her former popularity alone, nor is it a simple “vote-the-bums-out” reaction to Pinera’s unpopularity. Chile has enjoyed strong economic growth under Pinera, fueled in large part by a boom in copper mining and exports, which has contributed to the country attaining the highest per capita income in the region at more than $20,000 and has helped reduce poverty and unemployment.

At the same time, Chile’s economic inequality remains the worst among OECD countries, and distrust of government and politicians runs deep among the country’s citizens. Low youth turnout is expected in today’s elections, which could hurt Bachelet’s chances for the kind of landslide victory that would give her the political capital necessary to carry out the reforms she has promised during the campaign. According to a study by ASIA Marketing cited in the Santiago Times, 33% of young voters “do not believe in politics, the politicians [and/or] the parties,” 21% said they lacked interest in politics and 28% said they do not feel represented by their elected officials.

This antiestablishment sentiment is evidenced by massive, ongoing protests that have shaken the country for years and that helped send a raft of radical young student activists to Congress in recent elections. Begun by students dissatisfied with the educational system, particularly the expansion of private education, the movement has grown to encompass citizens with other grievances, such as persistent inequality and an outdated constitution that is a relic of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, as well as environmental and labor issues.

The memory of Pinochet’s despotic rule remains strong. This year marked the fortieth anniversary of Chile’s own “9/11” – September 11, 1973, when a coup engineered and supported by the United States brought the brutal leader to power. Chileans have one of the highest preferences for democracy in the region and the lowest tolerance for authoritarianism, but Matthei’s father was a supporter of the coup government, which tortured Bachelet’s father to death and destroyed the former girlfriends’ once close relationship – a fact that certainly doesn’t help Matthei at the polls.

Bachelet’s image as a woman of the people differs strongly from Pinera’s executive persona. As one pollster said of Bachelet near the end of her first term, “She lowered the presidency closer to the people.” By contrast Pinera stocked his cabinet with businessmen and economists and governed as a technocrat, concentrating on growing the economy rather than reducing inequality and satisfying the demands of the disaffected citizens taking to the streets.

In a head to head debate with Matthei, Bachelet acknowledged that transportation reforms and her administration’s poor handling of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami disaster represented black marks on her first term in office. However, Patricio Navia, a political science professor at Universidad Diego Portales, told the Santiago Times that “voters have shown little interest in punishing Bachelet for…it.” Bachelet’s vague references to reforming the tax code in order to pay for educational reforms to make the system more accessible have been treated with some skepticism from demonstrators, but Matthei has not offered an alternative to Pinera’s policies, claiming that “growth is the best tax reform.”

Chilean writer Arturo Fontaine put it well in a recent New York Times op-ed:

If she wins on Sunday, Ms. Bachelet’s biggest problem will be high and divergent expectations. She ended her first term on a wave of popularity, having weathered the worst effects of the global financial crisis while providing additional support for Chile’s poor. But her coalition is deeply divided over education, tax policy and constitutional reform, and she risks alienating the middle class if she moves too far to the left.

Chilean voters are obviously ready to head in a different direction and it seems apparent that they want Bachelet to lead them, but it won’t be easy. Kenneth Bunker, political scientist at the Universidad Diego Portales told the Santiago Times that the current electoral system could be an obstacle: “It will be very hard. The binominal system subsidizes the minority party or coalition…It is likely that Bachelet will have a simple majority — enough to conduct tax reform — but it is unlikely she will have the two-thirds majority needed to conduct constitutional reform.”

Update (12/15/13):

According to the AP, Bachelet has won the election:

With 90 percent of the votes counted, Bachelet had an unbeatable 62 percent to 38 percent for the center-right’s Evelyn Matthei, who conceded defeat.

When is a Coup Not a “Coup”?

Today, Hondurans head to the polls for the first real elections since an illegal 2009 coup that ousted the democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya after he began strengthening ties with Hugo Chavez’s ALBA alliance. This is a momentous event for the country, which is racked by drug trade-related violence, underemployment and a generally weak culture of democracy.

According to the LA Times, the leading candidates include the wife of the deposed president, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya of the Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party, and the general who helped orchestrate the coup, Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party, who is now the “all-powerful head of Congress.”

Regardless of who wins, said analyst Leticia Salomon of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the [system of power-sharing between the Liberal and National Parties that has dominated Honduran politics for decades] will be shattered. And even if Castro doesn’t win the presidency, her party is expected to do well enough to put dozens of supporters in Congress.

Most Hondurans, however, have little faith that the election will be fair, Salomon said.

“The whole system is prepared for fraud,” she said, noting that Hernandez’s National Party dominates the electoral board and the court system that would be the venue for any appeal.

Truthout reported  allegations of vote-buying, voter intimidation, and assassinations of journalists. According to Helena Roux of Reporters Without Borders, Honduras is the most dangerous country for journalists in Latin America.

More than 30 journalists have been killed since the 2008 coup.  A Rights Action Report has documented the assassination of 18 members of the Libre Party in this election cycle, and aligned journalists have not escaped the violence.

The major media outlets have launched an all-out campaign against presidential candidate Xiomara, labeling her a communist and criminalizing members of indigenous and campesino organizations such as the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH.)

Despite this sad state of affairs, Honduras has been and remains a long-time US ally in the region, first as a partner in fighting communist and leftist governments and guerrilla forces during the 1980s, and today as a partner in the drug war.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “the United States became the single loudest voice legitimating a November 2009 election that was held in a context so problematic and laden with violence that respected election observers from the United Nations, Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center refused to monitor or support the elections.” US security assistance to Honduras has continued (estimated at $8.5 million in FY2011 and $8.2 million in FY2012) despite the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, a US law stipulating that such assistance cannot be provided to governments established by coups.

The US record of ignoring its own law when it comes to coups is basically as old as the law itself. The Economist published a “non-exhaustive rundown” of some of the many instances of US continuing assistance after obvious coups back in July. While the article generally tries to rationalize the decisions to continue providing aid in contravention of the FAA, it doesn’t tackle the larger issue that I have highlighted in reference to the latest example of this kind of hypocrisy in Egypt.

Whatever you think about Lobo, Hernandez or Sisi or the geopolitical strategic merits of (dis)continuing aid to Honduras and Egypt, the point is that the nakedly self-interested decisions the US continues to make on the foreign policy front only serve to undermine the US’s credibility as a “city on a hill.” In other words, we’re setting an example that we probably wouldn’t want others to follow.