Monday, April 28, 2014

VOXXI: SecDef Chuck Hagel visits Mexico & Guatemala

"SecDef Chuck Hagel visits Mexico & Guatemala"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
April 28, 2014
Originally published:

U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Chuck Hagel recently carried out a three-day visit to Mexico and Guatemala (April 23-26); this was his first visit to Latin America as SecDef since he assumed office. The objective of Hagel’s mini trip was to “affirm America’s commitment” to the region, as a Pentagon spokesman phrased it.
While no groundbreaking agreements were reached, Hagel’s visit comes at a time when U.S. allies in Latin America are feeling forgotten by Washington.

The trips

The first leg of Hagel’s tour was a trip to Mexico. The visit was fairly important as it highlights Washington’s approval of ongoing discussions regarding Mexico’s intention to buy U.S. weaponry. Specifically, the Mexican government is negotiating with Washington the purchase of 18 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal reportedly worth $680 million USD.
It is worth noting that Hagel’s visit to Mexico is the third trip by a senior U.S. official in recent months.President Barack Obama traveled to the Mexican city of Toluca in late February where he met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pursue greater integration between the three North American nations and to praise NAFTA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Moreover, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited Mexico City in late March, where he met with President Peña Nieto and other Mexican officials. The goal of the visit was to discuss cooperation so both governments can continue “to ensure a safe and secure border region.”
In other words, while the U.S. government may have been focused on the events unfolding in Ukraine in recent months, support for the Mexican government and military remains a part of U.S. foreign policy.
The second part of Hagel’s trip was a visit to Guatemala. At first, the trip to Guatemala may seem to be an odd choice. It would have made more sense, for example, for the SecDef to travel to Colombia, Washington’s other major military ally in the region. In fact, Hagel’s visit to Guatemala is the first one by a SecDef since 2005. Nevertheless, Guatemala’s government has been proactive in recent months as it upgrades its military (there are rumors that it will buy Israeli drones) in order to crack down on drug trafficking and other transnational crimes.
Moreover, Hagel’s visit to the Central American nation coincided with an ongoing humanitarian operation by the U.S. military, organized by Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
The initiative is called “Beyond the Horizon” and it constitutes various civic projects. For example, the U.S. military personnel will construct seven new classrooms at three schools in Guatemala’s Zacapa and Chiquimula departments as well as a three-room clinic in Zacapa. Tragically, a U.S. serviceman, Specialist Hernaldo Beltran Jr. of the 56th Signal Battalion, recently perished during this operation due to a freak accident.

Hagel’s trip in context

During his flight to Mexico City, Hagel declared to the journalists “I don’t think over the years we’ve probably ever done enough to reach out to our Latin American partners.”
That statement is true. Over the past decade, Latin America and the Caribbean have generally enjoyed little priority from Washington as compared to Europe and the Asia Pacific (in part due to the ongoing crises in Ukraine and the South China Sea).
SOUTCHOM, the branch of the U.S. military that oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean, acknowledged this reality in its 2014 Posture Statement. While discussing sequestration and a limited defense budget, General John Kelly, SOUTHCOM’s commander, states,
“Over the next ten years, the Services are reducing deployments of personnel, ships, and aircraft in the context of tightening fiscal constraints … As the lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, [SOUTHCOM] will likely receive little, if any, ‘trickle down’ of restored funding. “ (click here for the full Posture Statement)
Hagel’s aforementioned quote and General Kelly’s Posture Statement say a lot of Washington’s military priorities in 2014 and for the immediate future.
Certainly, it would be wrong to assume that the U.S. military has completely forgotten the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. continues to have numerous bases in Latin America, including major bases inHonduras and El Salvador. Moreover, the “Beyond the Horizon” humanitarian mission, demonstrates that the U.S. armed forces continue to be actively involved in the region as an outgrowth of military diplomacy.
SOUTHCOM’s Posture Statement as well as the topics that SecDef discussed in Mexico and Guatemala revolved around both military cooperation and how these countries, with U.S. aid, can successfully address challenges to the continent, particularly drug trafficking.
In addition, I would add that while SOUTHCOM may be receiving fewer resources, the quality of the military personnel assigned to it has remained high. As I noted in a 2013 profile for VOXXI, General Kelly is a highly efficient commander with a strong career record and a clear sense of his priorities and challenges.
Ultimately, Secretary Hagel’s trip to Mexico and Guatemala did not accomplish anything particularly noteworthy. Nevertheless, the trip in itself, along with the ongoing humanitarian exercises in Central America and the Caribbean, may bring a much-needed boost to cementing a new era of positive defense-oriented relations between Washington and its Latin American partners.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Interview: Cuba-US Relations Still Stuck In Cold War

"Cuba-US Relations Still Stuck In Cold War"
By: Rustem Safronov

Voice of Russia - US Edition
April 26, 2014

WASHINGTON (VR) – Despite a slight thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States during the Obama administration, relations between the two countries are still very far from ideal.

Quite radical reforms by the government of Raul Castro, the presence of foreign capital on the island, growing direct contacts between the Cuban diaspora in the United States and Cuba itself have not yet led to the lifting of the embargo.
However, the Cubans on the island do not hide their readiness for change, but only for changes that would allow keeping gains of the revolution including high-quality education and health care. Both the government and the citizens are happy with investments and capital flows, but are obviously not prepared for the restitution of property.
What is the American administration expecting? Obviously, Cuba is changing in response to the processes taking place in a rapidly changing world, and the U.S. government still maintains many of the stereotypical attitudes of the Cold War. And the symbol of this is the existing embargo.
These and more topics were analyzed by Radio VR's Rustem Safronov hosted along with an esteemed panel of experts which included: Ernesto Cabo, a director of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), Dr. Andy Gomez, a senior policy advisor with Poblete Tamargo, and Alex Sanchez, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

VOXXI: U.S. will Finance a Project to Combat Child Labor in Honduras

"U.S. will Finance a Project to Combat Child Labor in Honduras"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
April 24, 2014

The U.S. government has begun a competitive solicitation for a project on reducing child labor and improving labor rights and working conditions in Honduras , “particularly in the agricultural areas of southern Honduras and in the San Pedro Sula area.”
This is an extremely relevant project of $7 millions by the U.S. Department of Labor as child labor, and labor conditions in general, are particularly dire in Honduras.

Projects across Latin America

According to the Department of Labor (DoL), the project’s goal is to reduce child labor in part by “promoting education opportunities for children and improved livelihoods for their households.”
In addition, the project also aims to address exploitative working conditions and support freedom collective bargaining in the country. It is unclear whether applicants must plan to address both issues, or if they can solely focus on one.
The deadline to submit an application is this upcoming July 2nd, which should give interested parties, whether Honduran or international organizations, enough time to come up with viable projects that can improve labor conditions in this Central American country.
It should be noted that the DoL has a wide variety of aid projects to improve labor conditions in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, the DoL is not solely focused in the severely underdeveloped Honduras, but also in more prosperous regional states.
For example, the DoL is funding a project in Brazil and Peru which is being carried out by the International Labor Organization. The goal of this project, which runs from 2012 to 2016, is to strengthen efforts to combat forced labor in both countries.
As the DoL explains, in Brazil there are an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 individuals who are victims of forced labor; and quite a lot of them are children. Meanwhile, in neighboring Peru, indigenous communities, especially those that live in the country’s Amazon region, are similarly vulnerable to forced labor.
In other words, whether it is the Latin American powerhouse Brazil, which will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup this June, or Peru, a rising star and member of the Pacific Alliance, neither government has been successful in fully protecting its citizens, including children, from the perils of forced labor.

Child labor in Honduras

Throughout Latin America and the rest of the world, child labor continues to be an endemic problem of underdeveloped societies where government officials are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to combat this trend.
If Honduran governmental agencies are to be believed, the number of Honduran children that are forced to work is actually in decline. The Honduran media reported this past June 2013 that, according to data by the country’s National Institute of Statistics, child labor decreased from 377 thousand to 351 thousand. (It is unclear whether the 377 thousand estimates comes from 2012.)
Some children go to work in order to support their families and/or themselves, carrying out tasks such as domestic work or working menial jobs which include cleaning mausoleums. Some children are able to continue attending school during the day while working at night, though most are forced to leave their education permanently.
These children are not only crippling their own future, but Honduras in general as a new generation comes of age without proper education.
The positive side of the coin is that the suffering of Honduran children is not entirely ignored. In fact, there are several agencies that carry out effective work to aid and protect Honduran children.
For example, Casa Alianza is an organization that has offices in various Latin American countries and which works to protect children’s rights. The Honduras chapter of Casa Alianza provides shelter for homeless children and also helps those that are addicted to drugs.
Moreover, this entity has carried out important investigative reports, such as an insightful 2012 analysis of the status of Honduran children in the BajoAguan region.
As a corollary to this discussion, it should be noted that the Honduran government is planning to jumpstart its economy by creating Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDE). Also known as “model cities,” these ZEDEs will be small cities with high degrees of autonomy, including their own judicial and economic systems. The first proposed ZEDE will be Choluteca, in Southern Honduras.
It is debatable to what extent these ZEDE-autonomous cities will help the Honduran economy in the short and medium term. Nevertheless the Honduran government is very confident about their success.
Ideally, Honduran children will not be invisible workers in ZEDEs, like they currently are across the country. Moreover, we can only hope that the lucky recipient of the DoL’s seven million grant will be successful, as thousands of Honduran children deserve a better life.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Peru This Week: Peru’s security forces versus The Shining Path: Successes and challenges

"Peru's Security Forces vs The Shining Path: Successes and Challenges"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Peru This Week
April 21, 2014
Originally published:

After the recent capture of 24 leaders linked to Shining Path ‘political arm,’ MOVADEF, Peru this Week looks back at successes and challenges Peru’s security forces have had in their fight against the Shining Path.

The Peruvian government and armed forces have stepped up their operations against the Shining Path, a narco-insurgent movement that has terrorized the Andean nation since the early 1980s. In recent months, the Peruvian media has reported the capture of numerous Shining Path fighters as well as sympathizers.
Nevertheless, a word of caution is necessary: even though this terrorist movement has been severely weakened, it remains active in the Peruvian highlands and Amazon, profiting from drug trafficking, namely cocaine.
Peru made international headlines after an operation carried out by the police and military on Wednesday April 9, in which 24 individuals were arrested in Lima and Puno (a southern region that borders Bolivia). Said individuals are members of MOVADEF, an organization regarded as the “political wing” of the Shining Path. One of the arrested was Alfredo Crespo, the leader of MOVADEF and also the lawyer of Abimael Guzman, founder and leader of the Shining Path. (Guzman is currently serving a life sentence at a naval base in Callao). Peruvian President Ollanta Humala applauded the operation and called for the Ministry of Justice to move along with the process in order for the detained individuals to be given a timely trial.
This operation comes at the heels of a similarly important development: the Peruvian police detained a Shining Path leader and three fighters this past March. The Shining Path leader that was arrested is Jairo Diaz Vega (AKA “comrade Percy” or “comrade Freddy”) who took command of the group’s branch in the Huallaga valley after the 2012 capture of Florindo Flores (AKA “comrade Artemio”) and the 2013 elimination of Alejandro Borda (AKA “comrade Alipio”). In other writings, I have discussed how Artemio’s capture was an immensely important development as, since his capture, the narco-terrorist group has been severely fractionalized.
Nowadays, the Shining Path is estimated to have around 300 active fighters that operate in two areas, the Huallaga Valley and the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM), which are located in the Peruvian highlands, bordering the Amazon. The group is weak and cannot threaten the stability of the country as it did during the 1980s, when it operated throughout most of the countryside and major urban areas. During that decade, the Shining Path carried out atrocious human rights violations, including the massacre of peasants and a plethora of car bomb attacks in Lima and elsewhere in the country.
Nevertheless, even during its current weak state, the Shining Path remains active and bold enough to occasionally attack the Peruvian military. During the evening of Saturday, April 12, Shining Path insurgents attacked an army base in Corazonpata, in the Ayacucho region (Southern Peru). An unknown number of fighters exchanged fire with soldiers for around 20 minutes. While no Peruvian military personnel were killed, the fact that narco-insurgents attacked a military base demonstrates that they still have sufficient fighters and the willingness to carry out offensive tactics.
Sadly, while Lima has achieved victories against the Shining Path in recent months, drug trafficking continues. This is a big problem as drug trafficking, namely cocaine, is the major source of income of both this narco-insurgent movement as well as several other criminal entities in the country.
The Shining Path and other criminal networks traffic cocaine from Peru via an “air bridge” to Bolivia and Brazil, from which it is trafficked to Europe. The Peruvian armed forces regularly destroy illegal landing strips used by the Shining Path and others to fly drugs to the aforementioned nations, but new ones are quickly built to replace them. An insightful June 2013 article in the Peruvian daily La República explained that peasants in the Peruvian Andes and Amazon are paid in $60 USD per day by drug traffickers to build new landing strips.
In 2014, the Shining Path is not the monster that terrorized the Peruvian population during the 1980s and early 1990s. The Peruvian government has scored major victories in recent months, and the capture of its senior leaders and supporters will continue to weaken the Shining Path. Nevertheless, the group remains active, as evidenced by its ongoing operations, from drug trafficking to attacking Peruvian military facilities. Moreover, even if the Shining Path can one day (hopefully in the near future) be regarded as a defunct narco-terrorist movement, drug trafficking will continue to be a major security challenge for the Peruvian government and society.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

VOXXI: El Salvador: Will General Jose Guillermo Garcia be deported?

"El Salvador: Will General Jose Guillermo Garcia be deported?"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
April 15, 2014
Originally published:

The ruling of a Miami judge to deport Army General Jose Guillermo Garcia, a former defense minister of El Salvador, serves as a victory for human rights supporters, despite the difficulties to implement the rule anytime soon.
Judge Michael Horn ruled that Garcia had a direct role in the torture and extrajudicial killings of hundreds of individuals during that country’s civil war (1980-1992).

A brief background

A brief summary of El Salvador’s bloody conflict is required in order to properly understand the accusations against the retired army general.
Garcia served as defense minister of the Revolutionary Junta – a military government that ruled El Salvador from 1979 until 1982. It was during this period that a bloody civil war commenced between the government and the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN), a coalition of various insurgent movements. Some 75,000 thousand people are believed to have died in the conflict.
Three significant incidents that occurred at the onset of the civil war were: the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the 1980 assassination of four U.S. church women, and the 1981 El Mozote Massacre.
Garcia was defense minister of the country when these crimes took place, as he served in that post from 1979 until 1983.
The School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) reports that Garcia “refused to investigate reports that hundreds of unarmed civilians were brutally murdered by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion in 1981.” This incident is known as El Mozote Massacre: Salvadoran soldiers, as part of “Operacion Rescate,” killed over 800 civilians at El Mozote village, where FMLN fighters were believed to be hiding.
Likewise, the SOAW claims that “Garcia also failed to launch a serious investigation of the murder of four U.S. churchwomen by members of the Salvadoran National Guard.” A 1998 New York Times reportexplains that the women (Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel) were abducted, raped and shot to death on the night of December 2, 1980; their bodies were later found alongside an isolated road.
A 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report concluded that Garcia and Coronel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who at the time was the director of the National Guard, organized an official cover-up of the nuns’ assassinations.
In 1990, Garcia travelled to the U.S. in 1989 and was granted political asylum the following year. He has reportedly lived in Florida ever since.
In February 2013, during his deportation trial, Garcia admitted that he knew of abuses committed by Salvadoran forces, but he argued that he tried to stop them. “I have never ordered, nor have I ever agreed with torture because my principles prohibit it,” he stated.

The deportation verdict

Given the atrocious human rights violations that Garcia is accused of having either ordered or covered up while he was El Salvador’s defense minister, it is no surprise that human rights organizations have praised the recent ruling.
The Center for Accountability & Justice issued a press release in which it praises the judge’s decision and the New York Time’s work to make the ruling be public knowledge. It also states that the “CJA and our clients will continue to work to obtain justice for the brutality of the Salvadoran military and security forces under Garcia’s command.” (The CJA has uploaded a PDF of the 66-page judge’s decision).
The CJA has been trying to hold Garcia accountable for his actions since 1999.
In the conclusions of his lengthy decision, Judge Horn states that “the Court finds that the Department of Homeland Security has established by clear and convincing evidence that all the allegations in the charging documents are true and correct.” These are listed as Garcia’s extrajudicial killing of Archbishop Romero, the four American women, and the El Mozote Massacre, among several others. (P. 60-61)
It is well known that the U.S. government supported the Salvadoran military during the country’s civil war, and to this day the American military has a base in Comalapa, El Salvador. Garcia himself received some military training by the U.S. as he attended a course on counterinsurgency at the School of the Americas in 1962.
As for the general’s fate, his lawyer has declared that they will fight the decision to extradite his client back to Central America. In other words, we will have months, if not years, of legal proceedings before a final verdict is reached and carried out.
Thirty years ago, the atrocities committed in El Salvador’s civil war were horrific, and the perpetrators should be brought to justice. By perpetrators I do not mean solely the military personnel who killed the peasants of El Mozote or four American nuns, but also the higher-ranking officers who either ordered these crimes or covered them up. Hopefully Garcia will not face the U.S. justice system but will eventually return to El Salvador to be trialed there as well for his actions.