Saturday, August 31, 2013

Interview: La Republica: Siria y los EEUU

Interviewed about the civil war in Syria and U.S. geopolitical interests in the region
El Comercio (Peru)
Pag. A18
August 30, 2013

VOXXI: The Snowden affair: Can the U.S. influence Cuban foreign policy?

The Snowden Affair: Can the U.S. influence Cuban foreign policy?
W. Alejandro Sanchez
August 31, 2013
Originally published:

It appears that the Latin American chapter of the Edward Snowden saga will not end anytime soon. New claims have surfaced about Snowden’s attempts to flee to Latin America in order to avoid extradition to the U.S.
According to a recent article by the Russian daily Kommersant, the U.S. may have been surprisingly successful in pressuring Cuba to deny entry to the NSA whistleblower. If this turns out to be true, it begs the question over whether, in 2013, the U.S. can exercise influence over Cuban foreign policy.

A brief summary of the Snowden saga

As Snowden hopped around the globe evading U.S. authorities, there was rampant speculation regarding which country would ultimately grant him asylum.
The international affair began when he fled from Hong Kong to Russia in late June. From there, it was expected that he would board an Aeroflot flight that would take him from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to Havana, Cuba, where he could not be detained by U.S. government officials.
But Snowden did not leave the airport, and Aeroflot flight SU150 departed Moscow with seat 17A, his scheduled seat on the aircraft, empty.
What followed was a game of guesswork regarding where Snowden would flee, as Latin American countries began offering themselves as safe destinations.
For some time, it was believed that he would travel to Ecuador. In addition, the governments of countries including Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela declared that they would accept Snowden, although, ultimately, he did not travel to any Latin American nation.
Ultimately, Snowden remained in a Moscow airport terminal from late June until August 1, when the Russian government finally granted the U.S. citizen temporary asylum, allowing him to leave the Sheremetyevo airport and reside in Moscow.
Changes in Cuba – U.S. Relations
Cuba is currently going through a transitional period as Raul Castro has stated that he will retire from the presidency in 2018. Unless another Castro steps into power, this will effectively end the Castro dynasty that has been at the helm of the island since the country’s 1958 revolution.
Changing of the guard in Havana is occurring alongside other progressive initiatives, like the slow liberalization of the Cuban economy.
At the same time, it is worth noting that the Obama Administration has taken steps to ease some of the embargo’s restrictions. Certainly, Obama has not closed the detention center in Guantanamo Bay as promised, but other positive developments have occurred. For example, in 2011, Obama relaxed some travel restrictions regarding traveling to the Caribbean island.
In addition, there has been some diplomatic rapprochement between the two governments. Namely, Washington and Havana held immigration talks this past July. The meeting was the first since January 2011, aiming to “discuss implementing 1994 and 1995 agreements that regulate travel between the United States and Cuba, known as the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords.”
Can the U.S. Influence Cuba in 2013?
After these events, and in the context of evolving Washington-Havana relations, a Russian newspaper, Kommersant, recently published an article declaring that the U.S. had successfully pressured the Cuban government to deny Snowden’s entrance into the country.
The article is problematically filled with unnamed sources making verification of such an assertion next to impossible.
Verification aside, the Cuban government wasted little time in condemning the article. Specifically, longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro published a commentary in the Reflexiones webpage of on August 27.
In his article, Castro writes that he admires how valiant and just Snowden’s declarations were. He then wrote that the allegations by Kommersant are a lie and that the daily is a “mercenary” publication.
Given Washington’s desire to apprehend Snowden, it is logical to assume that it have warned nations not to give him asylum. For example, in mid-July, it was reported that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua and warned him not to accept Snowden.
But Cuba under the Castros has always had a certain “mystique” of not bowing to U.S. wishes and openly challenging its influence in the Western Hemisphere during the Cold War (and in the post-Cold War world). This is best evidenced by the incidents like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Missile Crisis.
In the conclusion of his article, Castro declares, “It’s absolutely clear that the U.S. will always try to pressure Cuba […] but not for nothing we withstand 54 years defending – and whatever additional time is necessary – against the criminal economic blockade of the powerful empire.”
Following Cuba’s rich history of antagonism toward U.S. influence, the Castros would certainly be embarrassed to be caught agreeing to Washington’s whims.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blouin Beat: Paraguay’s “little” insurgent problem

Paraguay's "Little" Insurgent Problem
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: Politics
August 28, 2013
Originally published:

The Paraguayan Army has deployed some 400 troops from its 4th Infantry Division to three northern regions — Concepción, San Pedro and Amambay — to hunt down the members of a shadowy insurgent movement, the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo; EPP for short). The group stands accused of killing four guards at a cattle ranch and a police officer in San Pedro; the attack came days after Horacio Cartes was inaugurated as Paraguay’s new head of state on August 15. The EPP, it seems, wanted to waste no time in giving him a bloody welcome.
The EPP is one of the more obscure active Latin American insurgent movements. The generally accepted origins of the group is that it emerged in 1992 as the armed wing of a clandestine political movement known as Patria Libre  and in 2008 the group adopted its current name. Moreover the group claims to have a Marxist ideology, while some of its heroes and influences are Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Regis Debray, as well as Paraguayan heroes like the Mariscal Francisco Solano López. (In fact, an image of Solano Lopez is imprinted on the EPP’s flag). In 2008, Carmen Villalba, a self-declared spokeswoman of the EPP who is currently imprisoned, stated that the group’s support comes from “the Paraguayan people, the people who eternally feel that they have been ridiculed, discriminated against and stepped on.”  If the EPP is to be believed about its political ideology, it would — arguably; the Zapatistas in Mexico have something of a claim to the title as well, though their goal was never to overthrow the government — be the first insurgent movementthat has a political raison d’etre to appear in Latin America since the Cold War.
Leaving aside its motivations, the EPP is growing as a security concern in the landlocked South American nation. It is true that the group does not yet have the predilection for indiscriminate violence displayed by, say, Peru’s Shining Path; happily, it does not hold anywhere near the casualty count of the group. Peru’s Truth Commission estimates that the Shining Path was responsible for roughly 46% of the estimated 70,000 Peruvians that either died or disappeared in the country’s internal war since 1980. Media reports explain that roughly 30 people have died by EPP attacks since 2005.
But these insurgents have not aimed low, despite their small successes: the group has carried out attacks against government facilities as well as high-profile kidnappings. In September 2004, the group kidnapped Susana Cubas, the daughter of former Paraguayan President Raúl Cubas. Her body was found in February 2005 in the outskirts of Asunción. In September 2011, EPP fighters attacked a small police outpost in the Concepción region, and two policemen were killed in the shootout.  This is a standard modus operandi for the EPP, which is focusing in attacking small, isolated outposts instead of taking major armed units head on (most likely due to a lack of sufficient fighters). It is worth noting that while the EPP has occasionally destroyed farming machinery, it has not resorted to utilizing more destructive terrorist methods, such as the car bombs that were Shining Path’s trademark in Peru in the 1980s.
So while the group is not a problem of FARC/Shining Path proportions, it is still a problem, and a serious one. Continuous attacks will throw this politically fragile state (which is finally recovering from the 2012 overthrow of President Fernando Lugo) into further turmoil. One can see the first inklings of this in Cartes’ strong move out of the gate: it would be a bad start to his presidency for him to fumble on national security. He has the rhetoric down, declaring that “the military is going to the north of the country to give their lives.” But internal deployment of troops is a fraught issue in a country known for its distrust of the military due to a history of repressive rule. This being, of course, most firmly incarnated in Alfredo Stroessner’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1954 to 1989.
Which means Cartes will be walking a fine line in his first months in power, trying to win the calculus on these security challenges. But the real incognitum here is the growth of EPP. The group may not be as large as Colombia’s FARC, and it may lack the financial resources of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, but it should not be overlooked.
After all, the Shining Path started small, in the isolated Peruvian highlands of the Ayacucho region, but exponentially grew to the point that it had a presence in most parts of the country by the late 1980s. During its heyday in the early 2000s, the FARC reportedly had close to 16,000 combatants – a huge increase from the roughly 1,000 peasants that inhabited the village of Marquetalia, Tolima,the “free zone” that Communist guerrillas controlled and which the Colombian military tried to retake by force in 1964, effectively starting the country’s internal war. (A FARC war myth is that only 48 individuals out of the 1000 villagers in Marquetalia were actually armed). The guerrillas that survived the military operation renamed themselves as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1966.
The EPP does not appear to have massive numbers — recent reports by the Paraguayan mediaestimate that it boasts around 150 combatants — but the group’s strength is waxing. Government officials say the insurgents are recruiting poor peasants in San Pedro and Concepción. AsChristian Roig, the public prosecutor for San Pedro, put it “There is no doubt that the EPP is growing […] they are recruiting more people, who are humble peasants, that during the day they work in their fields and at night they are fighters.”  From little acorns . . .

Friday, August 23, 2013

VOXXI: Female officers achieve high ranking positions in Latin American security force

Female officers achieve high ranking positions in Latin American security forces
W. Alejandro Sanchez
August 23, 2013
Originally published:

In a sign of a shift towards greater gender-equality in Latin America, it is common nowadays to find female presidents in the region, which helps fight the culture of machismo that Latin America has historically been known for.
Additionally, it is worth noting that in recent months, female officers have achieved high-ranking posts within their country’s security forces (both in the armed forces and police).

A positive step in women’s rights development

Within the past year, the governments Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela have promoted female officers to important security posts. For example, in July 2012, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez promoted Carmen Melendez de Maniglia to the rank of Admiral; making her the first female Venezuelan citizen to be appointed to this position.
Moreover, this past July, Admiral Melendez was named by President Nicolas Maduro as the new Minister of Defense (she is also the first woman to hold this position).  Furthermore, this past May in Bolivia, President Evo Morales promoted Gina Reque Teran as the landlocked nation’s first female General of the Bolivian Army.
It is not just ALBA nations that are making important progressive achievements regarding gender equality in security agencies. In mid-August, General Luz Marina Bustos was named as the deputy director of the Colombian police. As with the aforementioned Bolivian and Venezuelan examples, this is the first time that a female Colombian police officer has received this distinguished appointment.

Female officers in the front lines

At the beginning of 2013, the Pentagon lifted its ban on allowing women to participate in U.S. combat operations. In contrast, Latin American countries with female military personnel have yet to begin a major debate over this issue, and women are generally only allowed to carry out support operations or perform office work, away from the “front line,” where combat operations take place.
However, the nature of security threats in Latin America blurs what constitutes a “front line.” Unlike the U.S., Latin American security forces do not have to be deployed to Central Asia to combat terrorist movements. Internal security threats that Latin American governments endure implies that the definition of a “front line” quickly becomes unclear.
Certainly, Peru’s major narco-terrorist movement, Shining Path, has been severely weakened and it operates in two specific areas in the Peruvian highlands (in the Huallaga and VRAEM Valleys), but during its apex, it carried out a plethora of attacks throughout most of Peru.
Similarly, Mexico’s infamous drug cartels are in a constant turf war between each other and against the government, indicating there is no actual “front line,” except hotspots that are more dangerous than others (i.e. Nuevo Laredo by the U.S.-Mexico border).
This means that female Latin American security personnel have had to combat criminal groups, drug cartels and/or insurgent movements without ever having been deployed to particular hotspots. This is certainly true for thousands of female police officers and intelligence operatives that have battled criminal groups for the past decades, from Mexico to Argentina.
Nancy Flores Paucar, a captain and helicopter pilot for the Peruvian police, provides a strong example of female personnel putting their life on the line in the call of duty. She was killed when her helicopter was shot down in April 2012 by Shining Path insurgents during a routine non-combat mission in the VRAEM valley.
Finally, it is important to stress that female military personnel have also been deployed to hotspots outside of their countries’ borders, under the flag of the UN, like MINUSTAH in Haiti. For example, a January 2011 issue of the magazine Dialogue, published by the U.S. Southern Command, featured an article about two female air force pilots from Colombia and Peru currently deployed to the Caribbean island as MINUSTAH peacekeepers.

The future of women in Latin America’s security agencies

The appointment of female officers to senior positions in Latin American security agencies, like Bolivia’s Army, Venezuela’s Navy and Colombia’s police, is a positive development as it promotes greater gender equality in regional security forces. Similarly positive is the deployment of female troops to UN missions such as MINUSTAH.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Latin American countries will soon take part in a debate over the deployment of female personnel to the “front lines.”  For example, a 2008 scholarly article regarding women in the Dominican Republic’s armed forces explains that machismo attitudes still exist and  will need to be overcome in that country regarding the role and career opportunities of women in its security forces.
Nevertheless, the aforementioned examples of female officers that have been recently promoted to senior positions, as well as women putting their lives on the line for their nations even if they were not deployed as combat troops (like Peru’s Captain Flores Paucar), only supports the idea that this debate should happen soon.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

VOXXI: Ecuador approves oil drilling in the Yasuni Park

Ecuador Approves Oil Drilling in the Yasuni Park
W. Alejandro Sanchez
August 20, 2013
Originally published:

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared last Thursday, August 15, that the ban on oil drilling in his country’s Yasuni Park will be lifted. Ideally, successful oil extraction will aid the South American nation’s economy, but it will almost certainly come at the cost of the destruction of the local Amazonian environment. At this time, there is hardly any reason to believe that Correa may have a sudden change of heart and reverse his decision.
The impending loss of the Yasuni Park’s ecosystem is one more example of Mother Nature being on the losing side, not just in Ecuador, but also in other South American nations.

The Yasuni: A failed experiment?

Due to space limitations, this article cannot go into an in-depth discussion of the Yasuni conservation project, including the political negotiations between Correa and the international community. In essence, Correa proposed a plan in which the international community would pay the Ecuadorian government to not drill for oil in the park, ensuring the protection of the local fauna and flora. However, these pledges apparently have failed to materialize, as the Ecuadorian head of state has declared that his government has only received $13 million from international donors, a fraction of the $3.6 billion that was originally pledged.
Correa quickly blamed the international community for his decision, stating in his televised speech that “the world has failed us.” He also declared that “dear [Ecuadorian] youth, be sure that no one defends the Yasuni and no one is hurt the most by this decision than [me] the president.”
The decision to drill has come as a big blow to environmentalists, as it was hoped that, if the plan was successful, it could be used as a blueprint for similar initiatives in other endangered areas of the world. Ironically, the government’s decision also comes at a time when a new type of furry carnivore has been discovered in the cloud forest that borders Ecuador and Colombia. According to an article by National Geographic, the orange-brown animal, called an olinguito, is now the smallest member of the raccoon family.

Other examples

Ecuador is not alone in South America in its exploitation of its natural resources, even at serious cost to the environment. However, the decision over the Yasuni Park has been the most publicized because of the innovative initiative that was carried out in an attempt to protect it.
For example, the Peruvian government has also recently authorized oil-related projects that will be harmful to the country’s wildlife. Peru’s Ministry of Energy recently authorized the energy company Repsol to carry out oil exploration operations in the northern part of the Peruvian rainforest. Media reports state that the exploration is taking place in the natural habitat of isolated indigenous tribes.

A few success stories

In drafting this commentary, I was a bit hard pressed to find positive stories of environmental protection projects in South America, but this does not mean that they do not exist. Some communities have been successful at protecting their natural environments from destructive development projects by governments and/or private industrial companies.
For example, in 2011 the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales suspended plans to build a road across the Isiboro Secure National Park. Indigenous residents protested the government’s plan, arguing that the road would bring environmental destruction and  serve as an incentive for industrial corporations to attempt to carry out other projects in that area.
In addition, protesters in Peru have managed to stop Colorado’s Newmont Mining Corp. from implementing a major gold mining project, called the Conga. The numerous protests against the mine have often turned violent as opponents of the project argue that it will destroy the local ecosystem, draining local lakes into reservoirs for mining. Furthermore, the actual mining itself will arguably pollute other local waterways.
Finally, there is even good news regarding an engendered deer population that may be making a comeback in Chile. According to new studies, the population of the Huemul deer is increasing in numbers thanks to governmental and conservationist projects, like in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park in the Patagonian region.

Is the environment losing?

The perception of this author is that yes, the environment in South America is taking a backseat to development and economic concerns. There have certainly been some successes, like the cancellation of the Bolivian highway and the Conga project in Peru.  These decisions, however, occurred not thanks to successful lobbying or dialogue with government representatives, but rather via violent protests that forced Presidents Morales and Humala to reconsider their decisions.
In addition, the discovery of the olinguito in Ecuador and the increase in the population of the Huemul deer in Chile, highlight the question of what other priceless and wonderful fauna and flora will be lost if the Yasuni Park is destroyed, fully or only partially, due to oil drilling operations.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

BLOUIN BEAT: World: Peru’s beating the Shining Path, but needs a new strategy

Peru's beating the Shining Path, but needs a new strategy
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: World
August 16, 2013
Originally published:

A joint intelligence operation carried out by the Peruvian military and police has yielded major results in the country’s war against the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, or SL), a narco-terrorist movement. On August 11, a firefight broke out between Peruvian security personnel and a group of Shining Path fighters, resulting in the death of two leaders of the terrorist movement: “Alipio” (Alejandro Borda Casafranca), “Gabriel,” (<Marco Antonio Quispe Palomino) and “Alfonso,” Alipio’s second in command.
The Shining Path is a terrorist organization that launched a so-called “people’s war” in the early 1980s. Its aim? To install a Maoist government in Peru, with its leader, Abimael Guzman, as the head of state (he was known among his cadres as Presidente Gonzalo or Comrade Gonzalo, after his self-applied nom de guerre). After a period of terror throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, during which the Shining Path utilized car bombs as its trademark modus operandi, the group lost what little support it had among the Peruvian population, even as a series of successful security operations culminated in the capture or elimination of major leaders. Guzman was captured in 1992 — and will spend the rest of his days in a Peruvian prison. Another high profile prisoner is“Feliciano” (Oscar Ramirez Durand), who assumed control of Shining Path after Guzman was captured in 1999. The group’s last major leader, “Artemio” (Florindo Flores Hala), was captured in 2012. The elimination of Gabriel and a number of other important Shining Path members constitutes yet another major setback for Shining Path, one President Ollanta Humala and his defense cabinet are trying with some justification to portray as a great success resulting from their effective leadership. After the operation, Ollanta declared to the Peruvian media, “This is a big hit. We have cut the head of the military command of Shining Path’s remnants in the VRAEM.”
This operation could not have come at a better time, as Humala has been critiqued in recent months by opposition parties and has faced protests against some of his government’s decisions. Major popular unrest  occurred just prior to the celebrations for Peru’s July 28 independence anniversary, which was an embarrassment for Humala. The government had also stressed the importance of Gabriel’s elimination, portraying him — the second-in-command of his faction of the group — as military commander, one who orchestrated serious missions. This portrayal is in some ways justified, as Gabriel was a high-profile individual who led major actions, such as the April 2012 kidnapping of over 30 workers in the Camisea region, an incident which brought about a major military deployment in Peru’s Cuzco region. Humala probably hopes that the elimination of Alipio and Gabriel will serve to (temporarily) silence some of his ardent critics.
Shining Path’s future does indeed look grim. The group has been reduced to a few hundred fighters — in a May 2009 interview with the Peruvian media, a Shining Path leader, “José” said that he had around 300 combatants, and this is the rough number still utilized by Peruvian security analysts (the group had roughly 3,000 fighters at the peak of its power by the end of the 1980s).
The group is currently divided into two factions that operate in the Peruvian highlands, one in the Huallaga Valley and another in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers (commonly known by its acronym in Spanish, VRAEM). Gabriel was the second-in-command of the VRAEM faction, whose leader, Víctor Quispe Palomino, is known as “José” – and is Gabriel’s older brother. For all that, the SL is still operational and capable of sustaining itself financially through drug trade and other criminal activity.
But it is quickly running out of leaders. According to Peruvian officials, the individuals likely to fill in Gabriel’s and Alipio’s shoes are fighters known as “Olga” (Loyla Vilchez), “Lucio” (Franklin Grover Tello Ichaccaya) or “Dino” (Teodoro Benites Bustamante). And while analysts and scholars in general agree that Shining Path does not any longer pose the direct threat to the Peruvian government that it did in the 1980s, that does not mean the Ollanta government will be backing off. There is still plenty of poverty in Peru’s Andes and Amazon regions, which may serve as an incentive for Peruvians to join the Shining Path. Which means that a true defeat of the group will require a two-pronged strategy. A continued military push is necessary, yes – including search-and-eliminate operations against the Shining Path’s remaining leadership. Additionally, increased security patrols in the VRAEM are expected, as the Peruvian armed forces and police are wary that the Shining Path will carry out violent reprisals against local communities to avenge their fallen leaders. But military operations need to be accompanied by initiatives aiming to improve the social and economic lot of isolated and poor communities, a past breeding ground for Shining Path recruitment.
Back in February, President Humala declared that “to solve the problem of poverty [in Peru], one has to solve the problem of inequality, Peru is a very unequal country.” The head of state asked regional authorities in Peru to focus on improving the quality of life of Peruvians (i.e. building water and sewer pipes), instead of building more monuments. On his side Humala has significant financial resources, as Peru has enjoyed years of economic growth. In addition, agencies like the Andean Community of Nations and the European Union are carrying out initiatives to fight poverty in the South American country as well. But the numbers suggest poverty will not be significantly reduced anytime soon in Peru (recent data puts poverty in the nation at 25.8% in 2012) – and certainly not within Humala’s remaining three years in office. Which is going to be major stumbling block in tackling the last remnants of this once-major, but still fierce, terror corps.