Democracy Arsenal

September 06, 2006

Latin America

Carlos Castaño's skull
Posted by Adam Isacson

In the late 1990s, when I first started working on U.S. policy toward Colombia, Carlos Castaño was the most feared man in the country. He had just grouped the country's various far-right-wing "self-defense" or paramilitary groups into an umbrella organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. He was the lord of all warlords.

Castaño's men were on the rampage throughout Colombia, taking guerrilla-held territory with a brutal scorched-earth campaign that every year left thousands of civilians dead, hundreds tortured, and tens of thousands forced from their homes. By the late 1990s, according to human-rights groups, Castaño's men had come to be responsible for three-quarters of all civilian deaths in Colombia's armed conflict. Fed with drug money, their numbers were swelling, from about 4,000 in 1998 to perhaps 12,000 in 2002. The country's labor leaders, journalists, human-rights activists and opposition politicians lived in constant fear of Carlos Castaño and his organization; many were killed and many more were forced into exile.

Yet even as late as 2000, little was publicly known about Castaño himself. He was a young man, born in 1965, from a family that owned land in rural areas not far from Medellín. Leftist guerrillas killed his father, and he and his brothers formed a "self-defense" group in the 1980s to fight them - or at least to fight civilians living in guerrilla-controlled areas. This effort grew rapidly, helped along by the support - sometimes active, sometimes tacit - of wealthy Colombians and the state security forces. But even as late as 2000, most Colombians didn't even know what Carlos Castaño looked like; the press could only show a small, black-and-white image from his national ID card.

Continue reading "Carlos Castaño's skull" »

August 31, 2006

Latin America

Still swatting flies in Colombia
Posted by Adam Isacson

Iraq has made plain that the United States is really, really bad at dealing with insurgencies. Helping elected governments assert control over territories dominated by people who murder civilians sounds like a noble goal. But our fundamental misunderstanding of "counterinsurgency" - viewing it as a mainly military effort, neglecting poverty and civilian governance, treating the locals with suspicion or even abusing them - keeps making the situation worse.

In what is currently the nation's number-two best-selling non-fiction book, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks takes the U.S. defense establishment to task for "unprofessional ignorance of the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare." Warned expert Andrew Krepinevich in a year-old Foreign Affairs article, "Having left the business of waging counterinsurgency warfare over 30 years ago, the U.S. military is running the risk of failing to do what is needed most (win Iraqis' hearts and minds) in favor of what it has traditionally done best (seek out the enemy and destroy him)."

This is a big, fundamental problem, because the "war on terror," as currently fought, keeps leading us into difficult counterinsurgency missions. Right now, the Bush administration is facing insurgents directly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not going well. Israel, the United States' closest ally in the Middle East, just confronted a locally popular irregular army (Hezbollah doesn't really fit the definition of an insurgency) with a strategy based on aerial bombing, with hugely frustrating results. Meanwhile, Washington is supporting other governments' counterinsurgency campaigns in Colombia, the Philippines and Nepal.

I work a lot on Colombia, which is by far the biggest U.S. military aid recipient outside the Middle East - $3.8 billion in military and police aid since 2000, making up 80 percent of our entire aid package to Colombia during that period. This aid, under a framework called "Plan Colombia," started out as an effort to reduce the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia. In the wake of September 11, though, the Bush administration got permission from Congress to allow the aid to be used to fight Colombia's insurgency, principally two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s.

Continue reading "Still swatting flies in Colombia" »

Latin America

What is Lula Doing Right?
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

With elections just weeks away, Brazilian President "Lula" Ignacio da Silva is well-ahead in the polls.  He is bucking not just a string of corruption scandals but general dissatisfaction with incumbents across the Americas, and I might say, globally.  (I'm having trouble thinking of the last major leader who was easily re-elected, but I'm sure I must have forgotten someone.)

Much has been said and written in recent months about whether the tide is turning against democracy in Latin America, and whether the gains of the last 15 years are being lost, not just in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and so on.  I won't pretend to be a Latin America expert -- and fortunately the brilliant Adam Isaacson, who is the real thing, returns soon to guest-blog for us.  But here a few possible factors I'd like to see sombody explore:

-- economic policies.  Somehow in Brazil, both the bankers and the poor seem to perceive that they are better off.  How'd that happen?

-- savvy use of Uncle Sam-bashing.  My very cursory attention to the matter suggests that Lula is balancing very effectively between the Venezuela-Cuba-Bolivia axis (to dignify it a bit) and Washington.

--New powers.  Lots has been written about the emergence of pivotal regional states such as Brazil, Nigeria and Ukraine. Nigeria and Ukraine are perennially emerging but never quite get there; is Lula demonstrating what the phenomenon looks like?  (eg occasional murmurings about nuclear power and separate trade blocs; balancing politics; some UN leadership in areas like the Haiti mission)

--just a case of high-level political skills?

I look forward to enlightened commentary.  (And if you think this is my week to pose questions without answering them, you're right.)

August 01, 2006

Latin America

Bush post-Castro policy: your handy primer
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

While we wait to see whether Castro is still with us, spend the day with this handy-dandy 90-page Bush Administration compendium/blueprint on what is going on in Cuba and how we can "help the Cuban people hasten and ensure a geniune democratic transition."

I'll be the first to admit that I missed it when the Administration reconstituted the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba last fall, as well as its timely Report to the President this July.  Now's the time to catch up.

Cuba is not my area of expertise, to put it mildly; so I read the document through the lens of someone who watched the Central and Eastern European transitions from communism quite closely; who did human rights work in the 1990s; and who has seen the sausage factory where reports like this are written one too many times.

I come away with a few thoughts -- call them X Things To Watch in the US Response:

1.  Time Warp.  The US continues to have a problem of seeing Cuba and its geopolitics as they were 20-30 years ago -- intensified by the exile community's tendency to0 live in the past and the Administration's need to paint things in Cold War era terms.  I was surprised to read the following:

Cuba’s ever-deepening relationship with Venezuela parallels the earlier failed relationship with the Soviet Union, only this time not as the junior partner: Fidel Castro is calling the shots.

Well, maybe it does and maybe it doesn't.  The Soviet Union was far away, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis it ran out of appetite and then resources with which to cause trouble from Cuba.  Chavez isn't going to have either of those problems any time soon -- nor does he face the cultural barriers Moscow did, nor is he going to be draining Cuba of its doctors, etc. and sending them to Africa.  Seeing Chavez through a Communist haze actually understates and misidentifies the problem (and the extent to which our own policies have created and sustained it, and are likely to keep doing so in the kind of transition these folks envisage).

2.  Iraq redux.  A Chicago Tribune editorial on the plan pointed out that "More than one critic has observed that it reads like a blueprint to rebuild a country that has been invaded, not a plan to help a sovereign nation."  I winced in several places just going through the executive summary, at descriptions of how the US will help "Cubans create a stable, open environment where free and fair elections can take place" including, among other things, "helping prepare Cuba’s military forces to adjust to an appropriate role in a democracy."  Could we actually accomplish this, even supposing Cubans really wanted us to?

3.  Welcomed with flowers.  That, of course, is the really big, ugly question.  How able is this over-extended and exhausted Administration to go with the flow, reacting with subtlety, restraint and even grace as post-Castro Cubans look around, test the waters under a supposedly China-reform-model-minded Raoul Castro, and consider what comes next?  Are American authorities and the Cuban-American community able to extend a model that looksl ike something Cubans might like, rather than a well-meaning but heavy-handed version of the Yanqui tutelage Fidel was always warning them against?  Can we avoid giving Fidel a self-fulfilling prophecy as his final legacy? There is little subtle in the report's recommendations -- tighter controls on remittances to ordinary Cubans, more public braying about funding Cuban democracy groups -- and little consideration of how the US supports Cubans in the transition time before they decide that what they want is US-style elections.

Anyway, read the report.  We won't be able to say we weren't warned...

March 13, 2006

Latin America

Viva La Presidenta: Michelle Bachelet's Chile
Posted by Johanna Mendelson Forman

For Michelle Bachelet September 11th is a day to remember.  But it is not the 9/11 of 2001, but the 9/11 of 1973, the day General Augusto Pinochet turned Chile into a dictatorship that crushed the opposition, repressed free speech and disappeared hundreds of innocent victims.  Her life since 1973 is a the history of how a young medical student, daughter of an Air Force General who was murdered by Pinochet,forced into exile, could on March 11, 2006 assume the presidency of Chile.  This personal journey is a tribute to the return of democracy, the importance of women in participating in political change, and a tribute to the personal charisma of Michelle Bachelet.

As part of the largest delegation of women organized by The White House Project, a US organization that supports the election of a women to elected office, I attended the three days of ceremonies that marked this important moment in Chile's history.  The air electric with excitement as Bachelet entered the Congressional chambers on Saturday morning to take the presidential sash from retiring president, Ricardo Lagos.  In the presence of more than 50 heads of state, she became the first woman who achieved the presidency in her own right in South America. Winning 53% of the popular vote, with men and women supporting her Concertacion coalition, she has broken new ground in country where machismo and conservative leanings have long characterized the political class.  It was a day of joy for women, for victims of the dictatorship, and it opened a new era for women as Bachelet promised and implemented a parity cabinet, with a 50/50 gender mix.

Continue reading "Viva La Presidenta: Michelle Bachelet's Chile" »

February 04, 2006

Latin America

Still more on Latin America
Posted by Adam Isacson

I’m just back from a three-day visit to Miami, where I had a chance to take part in two very thorough discussions of security in the Americas. This trip unfortunately kept me from attending the Security and Peace Institute’s conference on Latin America today in New York, which Michael Signer did such a good job of live-blogging.

On Tuesday, I was part of a group of ten NGO representatives who paid a ten-hour-long visit to Southern Command headquarters, where we talked to people in charge of intelligence, operations, exercises, human rights, and Guantánamo, and had a 2 ½ hour discussion with the commander, Gen. Bantz Craddock. On Thursday I sat in on the first day of a two-day conference on “The Challenge of Governance and Security” in the Americas, hosted by Florida International University, the U.S. Army War College and the U.S Southern Command.

Continue reading "Still more on Latin America" »

February 03, 2006

Latin America

Latin America -- Final Live-Blog (VII!)
Posted by Michael Signer

The final address is by Jose Antonio Ocampo, the Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN.  He stresses that the UN has to be firmly committed to democracy in the region. 

He stresses that democracy has to be robust, responsive, and carefully tended.  Corruption, paramilitary tendencies, and other bad political practices (like blackmail) have to be immediately rooted out.

Continue reading "Latin America -- Final Live-Blog (VII!)" »

Latin America

Latin America - Live-Blog VII
Posted by Michael Signer

The following was written by Nicole Mlade of the Center for American Progress:

Arturo Valenzuela made the crucial point that the Bush Administration supports democracy in Latin America insofar as it yields a favorable outcome.  Intervening in the Nicaraguan elections to avert a Sandinista victory in 2001 and undermining the negotiations that may have enabled Aristide to remain as Haiti's leader in 2004 offer just two examples of how the Bush Administration selectively supports democracy in the region.

Continue reading "Latin America - Live-Blog VII" »

Latin America

Latin America -- Live-Blog VI
Posted by Michael Signer

This Session (whew, this is a lot of blogging -- is this what it feels like to be Matt Yglesias?) is titled "What Can Outsiders Do?" and is moderated by Antonio Aranibar, the General Director of the Andean Community of Nations.

Continue reading "Latin America -- Live-Blog VI" »

Latin America

Latin American -- Live-Blog V
Posted by Michael Signer

Now we're back in the conference room for a panel on the press, called "What Media Stake in Latin Democracy?"

Tina Rosenberg, a member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times, is moderating.  Her basic question -- why is the press so bad in Latin America?  A lot of the stories are single-sourced, the outlets have mysterious and manipulative owners, and the reporters are easily cowed.  Why?

Continue reading "Latin American -- Live-Blog V" »

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