President Barack Obamavision on foreign policy –unsurprisingly– does not looks like it will be focusing much of its attention on Latin America.
The May 28 foreign policyspeechat West Point Academy by the head of state highlighted the perception of Latin Americanists, including myself, that the Obama administration will maintain cordial but unexceptional relations towards the rest of the Americas in the immediate future.
In the address, Obama explained his vision for U.S. foreign and defense policy for the last two years of his presidency.
Unfortunately, references to Latin America were few and far between.
POTUS (Briefly) mentions Latin America
One important section of President Obama’s address discussed how the United States has reduced military operations in Afghanistan, since “Al-Qaida’s leadership [in] Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated.” Moreover, Obama took a jab at Russia and China; arguing that their recent actions, in Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively, worry their neighbors.
In contrast, the only Latin American nation President Obama addressed by name was Brazil, when he mentioned the rising middle classes in Brazil and India and how their governments seek a greater presence in global forums. He also addressed Brazil and other U.S. allies in a discussion on cybersecurity. President Obama declared, “we are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners […] if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens”
While this statement does not mention Brazil directly, it does reference Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the 2013 revelations that the NSA spied on Washington’s allies. The Brazilian leader went so far as tocancel a trip to the U.S.in October to protest Washington’s conduct.
President Obama’s praise of Brazil’s middle class and his promise to place greater restrictions on intelligence operations can be interpreted as a message that Washington still wishes to strengthen bilateral relations with Brazil.
Finally, the U.S. leader renewed his pledge to close the controversial detention center in Guantanamo Bay, “because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” Whether the U.S. leader can accomplish this within the next two years is debatable. For years he haspromisedto shut down the detention center but, so far, little progress has been made.
Hypothetically speaking, if the Democrats were to gain a significant majority in November’s mid-term elections President Obama could have enough support to (finally) stay true to his promise. Nevertheless, a realist would argue that the U.S. President’s intention to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison is an objective, alas not a priority
From 2014 to 2016
On a personal note, I must confess that I did not expect the U.S. leader to only vaguely refer to Latin America. Over the past months, I have discussed the various visits of senior officials to Latin American nations: President Obama’s trip to Mexico,Vice President Biden’svisit to Chile, andSecretary of Defense Hagel’svisit to Mexico and Guatemala, to name a few. However, as previously noted, Brazil was the only regional country referred to by name in the president’s speech.
The U.S. head of state did stress the importance of partnerships and coalitions. The U.S. continues to profit from having allies in Latin America but, rather than creating military coalitions to invade Iraq, these nations have focused on operations like combating drug trafficking. Washington provides financial and military assistance to regional allies – case in point Guatemala – and we should expect this trend to continue.
Interestingly, President Obama failed to mention drug trafficking and other security challenges facing the Western Hemisphere. The absence of such a discussion suggests that U.S. military aid to the region under the umbrella ofSouthern Command(the component of the U.S. military that oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean) will remain scarce for the foreseeable future.
As a final point, on the issue of the possibility of military interventions, the President stated that “international opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people.”
While it would be natural for any country’s commander-in-chief to issue such a statement, the remark raises the question of future U.S. military initiatives in Latin America. The U.S. armed forces have recently carried outhumanitarian missionsin Central America; nevertheless, farther south the situation is grimmer.
Namely, when Secretary of State Kerry recently commented on the situation in Venezuela, VenezuelanForeign Affairs Minister Elias Jauastated that Kerry should “mind his own business.” Over the past months (and years) the Venezuelan government has regularlyaccused Washingtonof trying to destabilize the country.
It will be interesting to see how President Obama’s speech is interpreted across Latin America, particularly by governments at odds with Washington.
Predictably, President Obama hardly mentioned Latin America in his speech on the future of U.S. foreign and defense policy. One could argue that this demonstrates that Washington does not see the region as a priority. If no other new initiativesa laJFK’s Alliance for Progress occur in the next two years, hopefully President Obama can at least be successful in shutting down the Guantanamo Bay prison. But even this seems unlikely.
Last week’s extradition to the United States of Juan Alberto “Chamale” Ortiz marked the end of a three-year legal battle during which U.S. authorities requested that Guatemala relinquish custody of the aforementioned Guatemalan citizen, who is accused of shipping more than 40 tons of cocaine to the United States between 1998 and 2010.
Chamale’s extradition shows that, in spite of an evolving inter-American system, Washington still has allies among Central American government officials who are willing to extradite their citizen-criminals. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the arrests (and extradition) of high-profile leaders will actually impact drug trafficking in Central America.
“Juan Chamale” Extradited
The Guatemalan daily “Diario Digital” has published a series of photos documentingChamale’s exit from Guatemala. This past Thursday, he was transported via helicopter from the Matamoros military prison to the La Aurora airport. From there, he was handed over to DEA agents and promptly flown to Florida.
In March 2011, Chamale and two of his lieutenants were arrested in a rustic house in Quetzaltenango. A press release by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency explains that he was captured thanks to information obtained from the Operation Panama Express Task Force, a multi-agency effort to combat large scale drug trafficking organizations that smuggle narcotics into the United States.
On February 2012, the Guatemalan judiciary approved a U.S. request to have Chamale extradited. Nevertheless, Chamale’s lawyers managed to delay the move for over two years, though they eventually ran out of excuses to put off the extradition.
Chamale was reportedly known in the narco underworld as the “Master of the Pacific” due to the vast cocaine-smuggling operations that he carried out for years. The Guatemalan drug lord received shipments of cocaine from South America and stored them in his ranches in the San Marcos province (which borders Mexico). From there, his partners in the Sinaloa Cartel moved the drugs to Mexico and eventually into the U.S.
U.S. initiatives against drug lords
Chamale’s extradition can be added to a growing list of Central American criminals who have been sent to the U.S. for trial.
During its coverage of Chamale’s extradition, the Guatemalan daily “Prensa Libre” pointed out that several Guatemalans have ended up in the hands of U.S. law enforcement agencies. These extradited criminals include Waldemar Lorenzana and a father-son duo, both named Erick Leonel Estrada.
Moreover, Guatemalans are not the only Central Americans being flown to the U.S. for trial. In early May, the Honduran drug lord Carlos Arnoldo “El Negro” Lobo was also extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. This marked an important milestone as he was the first Honduran to be extradited to the U.S. Before his arrest this past March, Lobo oversaw marine drug trafficking for a variety of narco-organizations. According to the Treasury Department, he has ties with “the reputed leader of theSinaloa CartelJoaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman […] and the Honduran drug trafficking organization Los Cachiros.”
The extradition of high-profile criminals from Central America to the U.S. can be analyzed from various points of view.
First of all, these arrests are a domestic victory for the Guatemalan and Honduran governments and their security forces. This is particularly important for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who came to power this past January after an electoral campaign during which he promised to crack down on crime and improve citizen security.
Additionally, these extraditions demonstrate the generally good relations between the governments in Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa with Washington. Cooperation betweenU.S. law enforcement agenciesand their Central American counterparts seems to be increasing; case in point; Washington donated six helicopters to Guatemala in 2013 to combat drug trafficking. Diplomatic relations also seem to be improving, as exemplified by an April visit of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Mexico and Guatemala.
One must also question whether this wave of extraditions will continue. “Prensa Libre” explains that there are other Guatemalan criminals whom the U.S. wants to have extradited. However, it will be interesting to see whether there could be a high-profile individual that a Latin American government chooses not to extradite, in spite of pressure from Washington.
The future of drug trafficking in Central America remains questionable without the aforementioned high-profile criminals. Interestingly, Guatemala’s Chamale and Honduras’ El Negro were affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which lost its own leader, El Chapo, in February.
In other words, Sinaloa’s leadership has taken a hit over the past years, since even its allies in other regions have been arrested. This is an important development that reinforces the view that Sinaloa will experience irreversible change in the near future.
As for Chamale himself it is likely that his lawyers will be unsuccessful in keeping him from serving a life sentence in a Floridian prison, since they were unable to prevent his extradition to the U.S.
The Peruvian police have recently carried out several initiatives in order to better protect the Peruvian citizenry.Citizen insecurityis a major problem across the Andean country, and these upgrades will hopefully help curb a rising flow of violence before it spirals out of control, particularly in light of a major robbery committed on Friday May 16 in the city of Trujillo.
During a ceremony this past March, the Peruvian Ministry of Interior hailed the recent purchase of four brand newEC-145helicopters from global aircraft manufacturer Airbus. The aircraft now operate under the control of the Dirección de Aviación Policial (DIRAVPOL), the air branch of the Peruvian police.
Additionally, a March report by the renowned Spanish security-news agency Infodefensa.com documents the July 2013 opening of a helicopter repair hangar byDIRAVPOLfor the purpose of properly maintaining its fleet. As Lima is a major metropolitan area with over eight million and a half residents, it is critically important for local law enforcement forces to have adequate aircrafts to provide air support. (The U.S. government, via its embassy in Lima, contributed financial support for this hangar and also donated a helicopter for training purposes). This news is a welcome development, as citizen insecurity is arguably Peru’s top security challenge given the drastic increase over the past years of robberies, extortion, kidnappings, and other types of violence.
In November 2013, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published a report entitled “Regional Human Development Report 2013-2014 – Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals for Latin America,” which paints a grim picture regarding citizen security in the region. Robbery is portrayed as a particularly difficult problem in Peru, with theUNDPreport’s victim survey showing a 23.43% victimization rate in Peru. To put it another way, 6,888,000 Peruvians out of a total population of nearly 30 million report having been the victim of arobbery. On the other hand, the official incidence of robbery is 217 per 100,000 inhabitants, the equivalent of 64,701 incidents. TheUNDPconcluded that “under-reporting is a colossal problem in that more than 6 million incidents went unreported” (Regional Human Development Report 2013-2014, P. 3).
Under-reporting is certainly a troubling issue as some victims may choose not to report they suffered a crime for a variety of reasons, such as http://www.peruthisweek.com/news-report-residents-of-lima-feel-unsafe-10107 in law enforcement agencies or lack of means of contacting security agencies (additionally, crimes committed by Peruvian police officers themselves, such as corruption, is an ongoing problem).
A number of recent incidents highlight the importance of having a well-equipped police force. For example, this past Friday, May 16, five thieves robbed the supermarket Plaza Vea in Trujillo, a coastal city north of Lima. After subduing the store’s security guard, the thieves proceeded to rob the cashiers of around S/. 15 thousand (around US$5,300). At the time of writing, although the Peruvian police have announced that four of the five thieves have been identified, there have been no reported arrests.
Nevertheless, we would be remiss not to argue that the Peruvian police have been successful at improving security while also utilizing their new equipment. For example, in January a fisherman was rescued when he almost drowned at Totoritas beach (in the southern Cañete region). During the rescue, Peruvian police used one of the new EC-145 helicopters.
Moreover, in early May, a policeman was involved in a shootout against seven criminals who attempted to rob the passengers of a bus traveling from Lima to the northern city of Chimbote. The brave officer managed to stop the criminals in spite of been outmanned and suffering a gunshot wound in his leg.
Peru’seconomic boomshould co-exist with safe living conditions for its population. Hopefully, the helicopters and other new equipment acquired by the police force over the past year will contribute towards improving the safety of the citizens of the Andean country.
Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger best-known for her critiques of the Castro government, has created14ymedio, a digital newspaper (published in Spanish) which will cover issues regarding the Caribbean island and which may well attract the attention of Cuban authorities (though Sánchez has declared that it is not meant to be anopposition newspaper). The site went live May 21.
Sánchez and her followers will rely heavily on social media to maintain momentum for their new journalistic outlet as it will be solely digital. So far, the initial support has been positive: 14ymedio already hasmore than4,000 followerson Twitter and more than1,600 on Facebook.
The blogger gained international notoriety forGeneración Y,a site where she published a plethora of analyses on Cuban issues and, more often than not, critiqued the Cuban government. She was denied permission to travel abroad, though this changed in late 2012 whenHavana relaxed its requirementsto allow its citizens leave the island. Sánchez then embarked on a world tour during which shereceived numerous awardsfor her journalistic work and advocacy for freedom of speech. While in the U.S., she gave presentations at theCATO Institutein downtown Washington DC as well as theColumbia Journalism Schoolin New York.
It is safe to assume that 14ymedio will be a big international hit, since it provides individuals, including analysts such as myself, another news outlet, aside from state-run media, where it will be possible to learn about Cuban affairs. 14ymedio has already published several provocative stories: in its initial issue it posted two articles that deal with social issues: one about the increasingstreet violencein Havana, and another about the unfair state practice of favoring baseball over football.
Nevertheless, it is still debatable whether 14ymedio will become a popular news outlet within the Caribbean state. A major challenge for the success of this media entity will be Cuba’s problematic internet access, even in 2014. Over the years, the Cuban government has relaxed its control over the internet. Moreover, thestate telecom monopoly Etecsaattempted to provide Cubans with internet access via their mobile devices, but this experiment failed. It seems that, after attempting to email their friends and relatives, Cuban citizens swamped the country’s communications capabilities.
So, even though three million of the country’s 11 million citizens are between the ages of 15 and 34 (according to the Cuban Office of Statistics and a 2011 census), what would normally be considered an internet-savvy demographic, there’s a real deficiency in digital audience.
There is still debate regarding who is to blame for Cuba’s limited presence in the virtual world.A May 18 articleby the Associated Press summarizes the situation well, “Cuba’s government blames the technological problems on a U.S. embargo that prevents most American businesses from selling products to the Caribbean country. Critics of the government say it deliberately strangles the Internet to halt the spread of dissent.” For the time being, it seems that Cubans will have to continue visiting cybercafés, hotels, or academic centers if they want to go online.
An interesting development occurred last year when Venezuela constructed an underwater internet cable to connect the South American nation with Cuba. The goal was to improve internet access in the Caribbean state. The cable wentlive in January 2013but so far it is unclear whether the country’s general population has benefited from the new internet capabilities.
This situation will affect the extent to which Sanchez’s 14ymedio newspaper will actually reach Cuban citizens and not just the rest of the world.
Finally, there is also the concern that the Cuban government may attempt to block the operation of 14ymedio.Sánchez herself has statedthat members of her team received “warning calls from state security”. Though I cannot independently verify such threats, it is conceivable that Havana would not be fond of the idea of having an independent press for the first time infifty years. Alarmingly, just hours after 14ymedio.com went live, thesite was hackedand readers were directed to a different page that had anti-Sánchez commentaries. At the time of this writing, 14ymedio’s website is back to normal.
Thus 14ymedio is an experiment on many levels. The news outlet will certainly test how far the Cuban government is willing to tolerate a dissenting press. Also, Sánchez and her team will have the challenge of making their news site popular not only abroad but also at home.