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Las Americas

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt Freed

I don't know how much coverage it's gotten in the States, but because she's a dual citizen of France, Ingrid Betancourt has been a cause célèbre here for the past six years. And today she's free. I've found myself particularly moved by the personal tragedy of her story over the years, but also of the national tragedy it incarnates, and never more so than watching her ten-minute address on the tarmac following her liberation. The courage of her political struggle grew out of her love for her country, and she and her family suffered terribly for it. Yet the sentiments she expressed upon being freed were still of her love for Colombia, and her desire to see it healed from its self-inflicted wounds.

She also expressed her gratitude to the media for keeping her story in people's hearts and minds, as well as to the Colombian Army, calling the operation that freed her, three American military contractors, and eleven other hostages "perfect." The operation, which was based on high-level infiltration of the FARC command and in which apparently not a single shot was fired, convinced the FARC commander who was holding Betancourt hostage that he was simply transferring her to another FARC location. Betancourt herself didn't realize she was free until the helicopter had taken off, and the men wearing Che Guevara t-shirts revealed that they were actually Colombian soldiers. She proudly mentioned that previously only Israel was known for this kind of operation, and sure enough, according to Le Monde, it was carried out with the help of retired Israeli national security operatives as consultants.

Ingrid Betancourt is an extraordinary woman and a fierce advocate for peace and justice. It's good news for her family, for Colombia and for the world that she's back among us.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel Castro Retires

Frankly, it's not the kind of headline I ever expected to see. Granted, his brother Raul (no spring chicken at 76) is likely to succeed him, and Fidel might still play a significant background role as power broker, health permitting. But nothing about the man seemed to lend itself to a slow decline and gradual fade out. I always expected his successor would have to pry power from Fidel's dead hands. Instead, the hand has grown too frail to maintain its grip.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Sign Of Life

It's hard to know how to feel about the video recovered by Colombian police showing that Ingrid Betancourt is still alive. On the one hand, relief that there's still hope in this very personal tragedy for her family. On the other, an enormous sadness to see the images of such a proud, courageous and combative woman in captivity.

My first impressions of the still photos were that she'd been broken by her ordeal. After viewing the video, though, her regard seems less blank (as it's described in the French language article) so much as interiorized. Her body language, too, seems to demonstrate that she's wary, resigned to the intrusive camera, weakened even. But also overwhelmingly interiorized, un-defeated, coiled as if ready to spring into action when the opportunity presents itself.

She's now been held prisoner for five years, an amount of time that ceases to be a parenthesis in the course of a life and becomes an integral part of its text. My heart goes out to her and her family.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe start calling each other names, and the loser is... Nicolas Sarkozy. Huh? you might be wondering. Simple.

When Sarkozy took office in May, one of his first acts as President was to call Uribe and personally intervene to get the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt back onto the front burner. Why? Because like the Bulgarian nurses, the liberation of Betancourt -- a French-Colombian dual citizen whose husband and daughters live in Paris -- would be a high-profile success story that would demonstrate Sarkozy's ability to get results.

And it's that desire above all others -- to be perceived as the man who gets the job done when all others have failed -- that led Sarkozy to accept an offer from Hugo Chavez to negotiate directly with FARC, Betancourt's captors, when common sense and good judgment would have argued for some measure of reserve.

Chavez immediately went ahead and pulled a Sarkozy (ie. hogging the spotlight) and flew into Paris last week promising good news. Most of the French government and media assumed that meant proof of a sign of life for Betancourt. For Chavez, though, the good news was more or less that he got a great photo op at the Elysees Palace. Basta.

In the meantime, Uribe has barred Chavez from any further involvement in mediating Betancourt's release. The first reports I read referred to his "unauthorized" conversations with Sarkozy as a pretense, but the article I linked to above mentions Chavez's direct conversations with unnamed Colombian generals.

So Sarkozy ends up with quite a bit of egg on his face in the aftermath of his Chavez lovefest. Not only has whatever momentum on the Betancourt negotiations been lost, but he also lent Chavez an enormous amount of legitimacy, with absolutely nothing to show for it in return. Sacre bleu.

Posted by Judah in:  La France Politique   Las Americas   

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Dreams And Nightmares

I admit that for a while now, I've taken Hugo Chavez seriously. Ever since the price of oil started skyrocketing, to be exact, and neo-Bolivarian candidates won elections in Ecuador and Bolivia, to be even more exact. I also admit that for a while now, I've felt like something of an idiot for taking Hugo Chavez seriously. Because, for me, Hugo Chavez represents everything that, in an ideal world, ought not be taken seriously.

So I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed, or both, to learn that Max Manwaring, in a National War College monograph, takes Hugo Chavez very seriously:

President Chavez is pursuing a Super Insurgency with a confrontational, defensive, populist, and nationalistic agenda that is intended eventually to liberate Latin America from U.S. economic dependency and political domination. That is a Herculean task, but he appears to be prepared to take his time, let his enemies become accustomed to a given purposeful action, and then slowly move toward new stages of the revolution in a deliberate, slow, and phased manner. Thus, by staying under his opponents’ “threshold of concern,” Chavez says that he expects to “put his enemies to sleep—to later wake up dead.”

This is not the rhetoric of a “nut case.” It is, importantly, the rhetoric of an individual who is performing the traditional and universal Leninist Maoist function of providing a strategic vision and the operational plan for gaining revolutionary power. (pp. 32-33)

Not good. Fortunately, Manwaring (as I) believes that Chavez is unlikely to succeed in his effort to unify all of Latin America into a grand counterweight to the United States. But that's not the point. The point is that Chavez is willing to de-stabilize targeted governments in order to do so. In fact, it's part of his grand strategy. And failed states, as breeding grounds of violence, crime and non-state bad actors, might be even worse than a grand Latin American counterweight to the United States:

However, if misguided political dreams were to come true, Osama bin Laden would see the artificial boundaries of the Muslim Middle East and North Africa turn into caliphates reminiscent of the glory days of the 12th and 13th centuries. And Hugo Chavez would witness the metamorphosis of 15 or 20 Latin American republics into one great American nation. Experience demonstrates, however, that most of these political dreams never come true. Ultimately, the international community must pay the indirect social, economic, and political costs of state failure. Accordingly, the current threat environment in the Western Hemisphere is not a traditional security problem, but it is no less dangerous. (p. 8)

The comparison between Chavez and Bin Laden is no coincidence, because Manwaring sees them as two sides of the same asymmetrical warfare coin: Osama goes in for the high-profile attack; Hugo's more of a stealth provocateur. But they've both got pan-nationalistic goals, they've both identified the limitations of conventional conceptions of power, and they've both developed their strategic visions accordingly.

That's more than Manwaring can say for America, which is still locked into obsolete concepts and stultified organizational structures that hinder our ability to respond to tactical challenges to the full extent of our abilities.

Take deterrence, for instance. With the advent of 4th generation warfare (4GW), the battlefield is no longer (exclusively) a physical space where armies meet. War now takes place anywhere and everywhere that the conflict's center of gravity -- public opinion and leadership -- can be influenced: In the media, in the marketplace, and in the halls of the UN, to name but a few. Freed from the restrictive role of threatening a largely obsolete use of force, deterrence could be re-invented more broadly as prevention:

Deterrence is not necessarily military—although that is important. It is not necessarily negative or directly coercive, although that, too, is important. Deterrence is much broader than any of these elements. Deterrence can be direct and/or indirect, political-diplomatic, socioeconomic, psychological-moral, and/or militarily coercive. In its various forms and combinations of forms, it is an attempt to influence how and what an enemy or potential enemy thinks and does. That is, deterrence is the creation of a state of mind that either discourages one thing or encourages something else. Motive and culture, thus, become crucial. In this context, political-military communication and preventive diplomacy become a vital part of the deterrence equation. (pp.42-43)

But as our missile-rattling handling of the Iranian crisis shows, this multi-hued approach to deterrence has yet to emerge from its cocoon.

Manwaring's analysis does more than just rehabilitate Chavez from a certified loony to a legitimate psychopath, though. It calls into question the very nature of the security challenges America faces in the 21st century. In mobilizing America for an unnecessary war against Iraq, President Bush reduced the threat we face to a "War Against Terrorism", later re-labelled as a "War Against Islamo-Fascism".

But the real threat to American global interests is much broader than that. It lies in the limitations of conventional power in the face of asymmetric conflict, and the resulting vulnerability of already-fragile nation-states to non-conventional methods of de-stabilization. Neither of which are to be found exclusively in the Islamo-Fascist hinterlands of the Middle East.

It should come as no surprise that a world confronted with a solitary super-power should attempt to re-configure itself in ways that might counterbalance such immense unilateral power. Osama Bin Laden's dream of a Caliphate and Chavez's dream of a unified Latin American state are not very different from China's dream of a peaceful rise, or Russia's dream of a return to form, even if the methods differ.

By squandering our military strength and international influence where the enemy wasn't, instead of articulating a broad strategy that can help us outsmart them where they increasingly are, President Bush has brought all of those dreams one step closer to coming true.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Las Americas   The Middle East   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Agua Negra

We've all heard about how the US military subcontracts security assignments in Iraq out to American mercenary outfits like Blackwater. Now maybe this has been covered before and I just missed it, but it turns out that companies like Blackwater subcontract their security assignments in Iraq out to South American mercenary outfits that recruit ex-soldiers from places like Peru, Ecuador, Honduras and Chile.

One Chilean legislator estimated that as many as 1,000 Chilean mercenaries are currently in Iraq, and a United Nations panel headed by José Luis Gomez del Prado is currently in Chile investigating claims of poor training and misleading recruiting practices:

"Presently, we know that there are ex-military and ex-police recruited by a Chilean company with headquarters in Uruguay, a company that has the support of a U.S. company," said Gomez del Prado. "These [private security] companies come to Latin American countries and recruit people for $31 a day, which is what we just saw in Peru. And once they are on a plane or bus, recruits are made to sign an English contract with a sister company from the United States, a contract that leaves them completely unprotected."

Elsewhere the article refers to wages ranging from $3,000 for guarding an embassy to $12,000 for participating in riskier assignments. That explains why so many recruits from these poor countries are willing to go to Iraq. Poor training and lousy equipment explain why so many of them break their contracts and come back early.

Just one more way in which the perverse effects of the Iraq War and its peripheral operations ripple outward in concentric circles.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Las Americas   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

It's The Thought That Counts

Ecuador's new President, Rafael Correa, is an American-educated, self-proclaimed socialist reformer who has used provocative language with regard to America in the vein of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- with whom he has aligned himself -- and Bolivia's Evo Morales. He also just won a referendum calling for a constitutional convention to expand his power and push through social reforms, also along the lines of Hugo Chavez.

So it strikes me as very good news that the United States has decided to send a special envoy in order to reach out to his new government in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation:

"It is a clear sign that we want to engage with its government," said a State Department official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "We want to have a productive relationship."

Of course, they might have found an envoy other than John Negroponte, who doesn't win any popularity awards in Latin America. But hey, why quibble?

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rising Tide

One item of note from last week: Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's decisive victory in a national referendum calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. Ecuador is far from the most influential country in South America. But the vote's outcome solidifies a trend that represents quite a historical revision: Fifteen years after being effectively eliminated through political and military repression, the Latin American left has returned to power through the ballot box.

I'm not a big fan of Chavez, who trail-blazed this tactic of writing the legislative branch out of the political equation, and I'm suspicious of populist demagoguery of any political stripe. So I don't dismiss out of hand the idea that the centralizing of power in the hands of strong executives, whether left or right, threatens democratic principles.

On the other hand, having lived shortly in Ecuador in 1996, and having travelled widely in the country, I think it's safe to say that when the elected government serves largely to legitimize a thuggish mafia of vested interests, all of whom subcontract the country's wealth out to the highest bidder, you'll end up with the kind of popular frustration that leads to either armed insurrection or cults of personality. We've seen the outcome of the former. The outcome of the latter remains to be seen.

Correa is not in the same virulently anti-American mold as Chavez. Which means that if we adopt a supportive stance that addresses the broad discontent that led to his rise, we might be able to channel this wave into a win-win outcome. If not, it's a natural leap from demonizing the "powers that be" to demonizing the "power that made them."

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Another Dirty Little War

With all the attention-grabbing headlines out of Iraq, it's easy to forget the other civil war that the United States is involved in, this one much closer to home: Colombia. Under the auspices of the cocaine eradication program, Plan Colombia, the Bush administration has funneled $3 billion to the government of President Alvaro Uribe since 2000. At least part of that money has gone to fighting the FARC and other leftist guerillas that are linked to drug-trafficking as a means of financing their insurgencies. In the meantime, critics have claimed, Uribe has shown much more leniency to rightwing militias, many of whom are also involved in the drug trade.

Of course, that could be because his government has very close ties to those militias. The kind of ties that have gotten nine members of his governing coalition arrested. The latest is Jorge Noguera, former head of the secret police, who's been charged with supplying a right-wing militia with the names of union activists and human rights workers, a number of whom later turned up dead.

I suppose it could be worse. At least they're getting arrested this time around.

Posted by Judah in:  Las Americas   

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