public diplomacy

Nicaragua’s “Grand Canal” Project: Dialogue Must Replace Repression

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

According to a recent article by Tico Times journalist Larry Luxner, “Opponents of Nicaragua’s dubious plans to build a $50 billion interoceanic canal are trying to rally U.S. help in fighting the controversial project. But it’s not clear if official Washington is listening.” While the U.S. government has expressed some concern over a lack of publicly available information about the project in the past, the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua and the U.S. State Department have both been noticeably quiet on the issue.

“As controversial as the project is,” wrote Luxner, “U.S. officials won’t bring it up with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during next week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City.” Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Campbell, told Luxner that he declined to attend a recent presentation given by three anti-canal activists in Washington, DC because it was “not interesting” to him.

The issue of the canal, which would be the largest in the world, has been highly contentious in Nicaragua, spurring numerous protests in recent months. A recent poll showed that less than half of Nicaraguans living along the canal’s path support it, compared to 71 percent of Nicaraguans not living along the route.

Experts and activists say the massive undertaking, which broke ground in December, could displace tens of thousands of people from their homes, threaten the local water supplies and prove disastrous for the surrounding natural environment, including Central America’s largest lake. In January, the journal Science released a report critical of the project, which it said has been “shrouded in secrecy since its inception 2.5 years ago” and has lacked adequate consultation with local residents.

The company behind the “Grand Canal,” HKND, is led by a Chinese billionaire named Wang Jing. Many critics of the canal claim that the Chinese government, which has denied direct involvement in the project, has nefarious geopolitical intentions in Latin America. Last month, BBC reported that the slogan “Serve the Country” adorns the conference room at HKND’s offices and Wang “wore a lapel pin with the national flag” to his interview with the news organization. “Outside in the corridor were signs reading ‘protecting state secrets is top priority,'” wrote reporter Carrie Gracie, “and in the reception area, [there were] exhortations to ‘enjoy hard work and fight hard.'”

Writing for Al Jazeera America, journalist Reese Erlich reported that an anonymous Chinese diplomat told her “that the Chinese government favors the canal but is not involved in the day-to-day decision-making. The Chinese government hopes to benefit economically and politically from the project but has no agenda beyond getting faster and cheaper delivery of oil and other key natural resources.” Others have claimed China plans to establish a military base in Nicaragua, but as Erlich writes, this assertion is “absurd…China has no military bases outside its territory and, as a practical matter, wouldn’t risk U.S. anger by establishing one in Nicaragua.”

Russia has also played a role in the canal project by offering to provide security during the construction of the waterway. Increasing security cooperation between Moscow and Managua has been a source of domestic and regional concern, as evidenced by the recent statement of Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro regarding the Nicaraguan government’s plan to purchase fighter jets from Russia: “Nicaragua is sending the wrong message…and it’s not a friendly message.”

Russia has backed Nicaragua in a dispute with Colombia over maritime boundaries in the Caribbean, but along with the government of President Ortega, it has also cooperated with the United States on counter-drug efforts in the region. Despite “various complicated elements,” Nicaragua’s cooperation with the U.S. drug war is “quite positive” according to William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

The tensions surrounding the canal project reflect broader issues in Nicaraguan society. As Sara Van Note recently reported for The Christian Science Monitor, “Critics say Ortega has traded his political vision [of leftist policies such as land reform, nationalizing industries, and ensuring access to free education and health care] for the consolidation of power: In 2006, he formed a strategic alliance with the conservative Catholic Church. Since then, his government has consolidated independent media into state-controlled channels, enforced party loyalty by state employees, and restricted access to information, all seen as signs of growing authoritarianism.”

President Ortega has made moves to centralize control of the military in the executive branch, ostensibly in connection with the fight against drugs and crime, but as El Pais recently reported, the Nicaraguan army “has been heavily criticized by civil society after the harsh crackdown against thousands of farmers who have protested the Interoceanic Canal project…Nicaraguan Army soldiers have accompanied the Chinese census workers engaged in mapping the canal route and have been charged with protecting the interests of the Chinese company HKND as well as engaging in operations of repression against those who oppose the Canal, according to reports by human rights organizations.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ortega hasn’t held a public press conference for more than eight years. The closed-off nature of many of the major actors involved in the Grand Canal project – the Nicaraguan armed forces, HKND, as well as the Chinese, Russian and Nicaraguan governments – make it difficult for journalists and civil society organizations to operate effectively. In the case of the Grand Canal, this lack of open public debate and discussion has fueled fear and resentment on the part of those with legitimate concerns about the project. Rather than engaging in a dialogue with its citizens, the Nicaraguan government has responded with repression and propaganda.

As it stands, the Nicaraguan, Chinese, U.S. and Russian governments appears unlikely to engage in significant international efforts to ensure the canal project moves forward in a socially and environmentally responsibly way. Nevertheless, continued activism by groups and individuals on the ground in Nicaragua, combined with ongoing international media attention, has helped generate the beginnings of international relationships that can help grow and sustain awareness about this important issue.

As one anti-canal activist recently told Al-Jazeera, “[W]e have never seen anything like what is happening today…We’re not in agreement with this, and we’re going to fight until the end.”

Is Colombia the “Israel of Latin America”?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

In a 2013 interview with leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the comments of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who had called Colombia “the Israel of Latin America.”

“If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud. I admire the Israelis, and I would consider that as a compliment,” Santos said. The two counties do share some similarities. For one, they have both been engaged in decades-long conflicts with rebel groups – mainly the FARC and other paramilitary groups in Colombia, and Hamas and Hezbollah in Israel’s case.

Both Colombia and Israel also invest substantial resources in defense and security. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Colombia spent nearly 12 percent of its government budget on the military in 2013 – roughly $13 billion. Israel spent 13.6 percent of its budget on the military, translating to about $16 billion.

While Colombia is a much larger country than Israel, both in terms of population and geographic size, the size of each nation’s armed forces is also broadly comparable. According to the Latin American Security and Defense Network (RESDAL), Colombia has a total of 268,160 members of its armed forces (228,226 army, 32,056 navy and 7,878 air force.) A 2015 report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that Israel has a total of 176,500 active duty troops (133,000 army, 9,500 navy and 34,000 air force) plus an additional 8,000 “paramilitary” troops.

Additionally, both Colombia and Israel are large recipients of U.S. military assistance and arms sales. Data compiled by Security Assistance Monitor show that Colombia received nearly $2 billion in security aid from the U.S. from 2009 to 2014 and purchased more than $2.5 billion in weapons from the country. Israel received $17.3 billion in U.S. security assistance over the same period and purchased more than $11 billion in American weapons.

Security matters have served as the foundation of relations between Colombia and Israel for some time. A formerly secret 2008 cable signed by then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield explained that “Colombia’s defense cooperation with Israel cooled during the 1980s and 1990s, when some Israeli mercenaries reportedly helped train paramilitary forces in Colombia,” but “more recently, the [Colombian government] has engaged former Israeli military officials to help provide training and advice in the fight against the FARC and other terrorist groups.”

According to the cable, “Israeli contractors support the [Colombian government] through arms sales, military training, and the provision of strategic military planning and consulting services. The [Colombian government] has also engaged Israeli contractors to train Colombian special forces, particularly related to high value targets (HVTs).” Colombia also “subsequently contracted retired and active duty Israel Defense Force officers with special operations and military intelligence backgrounds to help in this regard. Israeli contractors have also made recommendations to the [Colombian government] on military purchases, joint military operations, and how to restructure Colombia’s intelligence services.”

Brownfield notes that “[t]here are no indications that Colombia’s foreign policy interests are shaped by the country’s Jewish community,” and that “Israel’s economic relations with Colombia remain relatively limited” outside of their defense ties. However, as Santos said upon signing a free-trade agreement with Israel in the summer of 2013, “We are clients of the Israeli industries in defense equipment. So this is an important element of our relations, but it’s not the only one.”

Haaretz explains that the Colombia-Israel relationship extends beyond each country’s domestic security concerns:

Besides being a loyal customer of Israeli defense exports, Colombia is also a partner of Israel in the geopolitical axis against Iran, particularly when it comes to the increasing closeness of its neighbor Venezuela with Tehran…[The late] Argentine…prosecutor Alberto Nisman published a report stating that Iran was building a terrorist network in Latin America, including in Colombia. But Santos contents himself with a declaration that Israel, the United States and Colombia are cooperating in the war on terror. When pressed on whether he knows about any terrorist groups in his country, he says, “I have no concrete data [about Islamic terrorism in Latin America] to say this is happening, but I have heard many stories around this issue and I of course don’t discard them.”

Israel is undoubtedly pleased to have sold some $18 million in military equipment to Colombia in the last two years, and surely welcomes Colombia’s backing in international fora, but the relationship has begun to take on a different character since the Santos government and the FARC rebels began peace negotiations in 2012.

During Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, the Colombian government, virtually alone in the region, originally condemned “acts of violence and terrorism against Israel,” but later expressed its disapproval of “the military offensive by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip” and its condolences for “victims of Israel’s retaliatory actions.” Colombia still does not officially recognize Palestinian statehood, but perhaps under pressure from its neighbors, it upgraded the status of its diplomatic presence in Palestine from “special mission” to “diplomatic mission” in December 2014.

There are also some important and growing distinctions between the security problems facing each government and the strategies they are using to address those issues. While Israel’s newly-elected leadership has not expressed a strong willingness to seek a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the conflict there, Colombia’s election last summer was largely seen as an affirmation of the public’s support for the Santos government’s continued commitment to the peace process with the FARC.

While Colombia’s military – like Israel’s – has traditionally been one of the sectors of society most resistant to “negotiating with terrorists,” top commanders of Colombia’s armed forces have recently reiterated their support for the peace process. Considering the existing relationship between Colombia and Israel on matters of security and defense, the Colombian military’s engagement in the peace talks could provide opportunities to build upon that by exchanging lessons derived from the negotiating process and eventual post-conflict settlement with their Israeli counterparts.

The issues faced by each country are highly diverse, but hopefully someday the lessons learned from Colombia’s experience in seeking a peaceful, negotiated solution to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts can serve as an example for Israel and other countries to follow.

Caravana 43 Has Potential to Sow Seeds of Future Binational Activism

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

On the night of September 26, 2014, in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked, allegedly by local and federal security forces. Three of the students were killed and 43 were disappeared. The Mexican government claims that the security forces handed the 43 to a drug gang, who murdered them and burned their bodies in a local trash dump.

One set of charred human remains was later identified as belonging to one of the missing students; Alejandro Mora Venancio. The other 42 students are still missing. The case has yet to be conclusively solved, but subsequent reporting indicated that the mayor of Iguala and his wife were tied to organized crime and had a history of violence. Both have been charged in connection with the case, along with dozens of other suspects, including some who said they were tortured. No one has yet been convicted.

By the Mexican government’s own admission not a single person has been convicted of committing a forced disappearance since 2006. (In the Ayotzinapa case, a judge said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support forced disappearance charges.) While the government estimates that some 26,000 people have gone missing in Mexico since the start of the “drug war” in 2006, the disappearance of the 43 last September has become an international symbol of the ongoing institutional crisis in Mexico. Activists, organizers and average citizens around the world have rallied around the tragedy in order to bring attention to the issues of widespread violence, corruption and impunity for criminals and government officials alike.

On Friday morning, a group of demonstrators in Washington, DC protested outside the building where the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights was scheduled to hold a hearing on the state of human rights in Guerrero. They read the names of the 43 students, sang songs and chants, and even shouted “asesinos” (“murdrers”) at the Mexican government delegation as they entered the building.

The protesters were part of a speaking tour known as Caravana 43, which includes family members, classmates and attorneys of the 43 missing students. Over the next two months, a coalition of local groups have scheduled a series of events leading up to the arrival of the “Central Caravan” of parents and family members of the Iguala 43 in mid-April.

On Monday, the lead attorney for the families, Vidulfo Rosales, and Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, a professor and parent of a current student at the Ayotzinapa school, will meet with members of the legal community in Washington, DC. On Wednesday, Rosales and Sandoval will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Maria Luisa Rosal, a field organizer for the anti-militarization group School of the Americas Watch. Local groups have also scheduled a vigil in from of the Mexican embassy on Thursday, March 26, to mark the six month anniversary of the attack.

When the “Atlantic Caravan” (one of three currently making their way through the U.S.) arrives in DC on Monday, April 6, its members, along with other activists, will begin to lobby congress to make a stronger response to the Iguala incident as well as to the larger issues of continued US funding in support for the “drug war” and the US government’s relative lack of concern for human rights problems and corruption in Mexico.

In a country where political leaders and police forces are often in the pockets of criminals, or else are cowed by them, speaking out can get you killed. As one member of the Caravana in Dallas put it, “We come to say things we can’t say in Mexico.” But perhaps more dangerous than the threats and violence against journalists and human rights advocates, is the Mexican government’s lack of responsiveness to the concerns of its citizens.

It took President Enrique Peña Nieto over a month to meet with the parents of the victims of the Iguala attack, and former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam ended a press conference on the incident by saying he was “tired” of discussing the issue. Thus, groups fighting for justice in the case are taking their message to Mexico’s powerful northern neighbor in the hopes that stronger international pressure will force the government to thoroughly investigate and conclusively solve the case.

From a public diplomacy standpoint, this strategy makes a lot of sense. In addition to being the country’s largest trading partner, the United States provides Mexico with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security assistance each year. There are also legal provisions in place to help ensure that U.S. aid does not support security forces accused of human rights abuses. If Mexican activists aren’t getting traction with their own government, it seems logical to target its biggest benefactor.

While it remains to be seen what effect the Caravana has, if any, on the resolution of the Ayotzinapa case and the thousands of other disappearances in Mexico, if nothing else, this grassroots, ground-level organizing will likely to help foster interpersonal and institutional ties that could sow the seeds for continued activism and lobbying for change in both countries. The English saying “many hands make light work,” translates easily into Spanish: “muchas manos hacen trabajo ligero.”

Can Mexico Criticize Killings of Migrants in the U.S.?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Two recent killings of Mexican immigrants by American police have sparked outrage in both the U.S. and Mexico. Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an undocumented agricultural worker, was allegedly throwing rocks at police before he was shot and killed last month in Pasco, Washington. Rubén García Villalpando, another unarmed, undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was shot and killed by police in Grapevine, Texas following a short car chase just weeks after Zambrano-Montes’ violent death.

In both cases, the Mexican government condemned the men’s killings, describing them as incidents of “disproportionate use of lethal force” by U.S. authorities. However, for many, the condemnations immediately raised the question of whether the Mexican government’s denunciations are hypocritical given the widespread criticism leveled against Mexico’s notoriously abusive security forces.

Last July, a group of Mexican soldiers were accused of assassinating innocent civilians in the town of Tlatlaya. Three of the soldiers have been charged with murder and several others were charged with abusing their authority as members of the armed forces. In September, local and federal security forces allegedly orchestrated an attack on a group of local students in the town of Iguala, which left several of the students dead and at least 43 missing, or “disappeared.” Although the government’s investigation of the incident has been roundly described as insufficient, some of the alleged participants have been arrested and charged.

Additionally, accusations of abuse of migrants in Mexico by criminals and security forces alike have been numerous and consistent for years. Last month, the Mexican news website Animal Politico investigated widespread abuses reported by civil society organizations, including physical harm and financial extortion, occurring at security checkpoints funded by U.S. taxpayer money provided to Mexico under the Merida Initiative.

This begs the question: How can a country like Mexico, whose security forces have such an atrocious human rights record, possibly criticize U.S. police with any semblance of credibility?

The answer is that Mexico does not fund, train and equip American police forces. Mexico does not pressure the U.S. to adopt policies that criminalize immigrants. In fact, Mexico has long been consistently critical of harsh U.S. immigration measures that have been used to disproportionately target Latino populations.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been providing Mexico with well over $100 million per year in military and police assistance, including world-class weapons, training and intelligence. The Obama administration has also ramped up pressure on the Mexican government to detain and deport record numbers of migrants and refugees before they even have the chance to reach the U.S. southern border.

This doesn’t mean that Mexico’s security forces are generally better-behaved than their U.S. counterparts, but despite superficial appearances to the contrary, it seems Mexico actually has more standing to criticize U.S. policing policies than vice versa.

If the U.S. wants to see changes in Mexico’s policing practices, it could withhold some of the massive amounts of funding it gives the country, or at the very least make further aid conditional upon improvements in Mexican security forces’ respect for citizen’s civil and human rights. If Mexico wants U.S. cops to stop shooting its citizens, its only real recourse is public diplomacy.

U.S. Names Special Envoy to Peace Process with Colombia’s FARC Rebels

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama named Bernie Aronson as a special envoy to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. The move is perhaps the United States’ strongest signal of its support for the process since it began in 2012.

In a statement announcing Aronson’s appointment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “After careful consideration, President Obama has come to the conclusion – which I share, needless to say – that first, while significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to; and second, as Colombia’s close friend and ally, the United States has a responsibility to do what it can in order to help Colombia to achieve that peace.”

For his part, Arnson said, “Peace can only be made by Colombians themselves. We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer. We will not take a place at the negotiating table, but we can push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can. The parties have made substantial progress, but the hard, knotty issues have been left to the end as they usually are. Now the parties must resolve them, because windows for peace, as all of us know, can close without warning, and sometimes they never reopen.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed Aronson’s appointment, saying “We are grateful to President Obama and his government for this new gesture.” The FARC also welcomed Aronson’s appointment and reiterated its commitment to ending the conflict, in addition to thanking the U.S. for its moves toward fulfilling Santos’ December 2014 request for the country to take a “more direct role in the peace process.”

Secretary Kerry praised Aronson for “his well-recognized hard work in helping to resolve the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua.” However, as Mother Jones reported in October 1987, Aronson was among the so-called “Gang of Four” Democratic operatives who “sought to rally the party behind the Nicaraguan rebels” known as the Contras, who were fighting the ruling Sandinista government at the time.

As author Michael Massing wrote, “The four testified in Congress, lobbied the administration, wrote articles, and drafted speeches. They also worked with the contras themselves, seeking almost single-handedly to mold the rebel army.”

Aronson, who went on to become Latin America advisor at Goldman Sachs before starting his own Latin America-focused private equity firm, also served as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1993. While Secretary Kerry praised Arnson for his work in El Salvador, the latter has his critics among foreign policy observers for the role he played in that conflict as well.

Aronson’s new appointment will test his public diplomacy skills. During the ceremony for his appointment Aronson also said, “Now it is time, long past time, for the FARC and hopefully the ELN to demonstrate their courage by renouncing violence forever so Colombians can heal the wounds of war and live in peace with justice under the law.” This was a curious and slightly concerning statement considering the Colombian government itself has confirmed that the indefinite and unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC has held despite continued offensives by the Colombian military.

The U.S. government has labeled the FARC a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997. For this reason, the Obama administration’s efforts to support the peace talks will likely face similar attacks as they have in Colombia.  Foreign Policy magazine once described the mantra “the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists” as a “constant refrain,” though it is one to which there is not much truth.

The U.S. (and Aronson) must walk the same “fine line” as the Colombian government. What I wrote previously about the Santos administration applies equally to Obama’s; “It must [engage in] the process with the FARC in good faith and frame both concessions and acquisitions in the negotiations in a positive light for the general public, while simultaneously countering alternative narratives about the talks from the FARC and the right-wing opposition.”

In another sign of support for the peace process, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, suggested in a recent media interview that the Obama administration could request an increase in aid funding for Colombia to support post-conflict initiatives in the event of a final peace accord.

Despite the efforts of some right-wing elements to derail or discredit the peace process, it seems to be on fairly firm footing – in both the U.S. and Colombia. While some observers have reservations about Aronson, his appointment nonetheless signals the Obama administration’s firm commitment to helping Santos achieve the “bilateral and indefinite” ceasefire with the rebels that he has called for repeatedly and urgently.