I once said that I tried to avoid writing about the Cuba policy on my blog when there was nothing new to write. I guess I have something to write today. A few disjointed thoughts below.
Plenty of people knew there was some sort of deal in the works to get Alan Gross out of prison and make some small policy moves. However, I certainly underestimated how large of a step it would be and I think most other analysts did as well. I didn’t expect the announcement that relations would be restored and that we’d be opening embassies. When President Obama made his immigration announcement, I thought the president should have been bolder. On Cuba, the president’s actions are about as bold as legally possible, which is fantastic.
Alan Gross’s detention has held up any significant shifts in US-Cuba policy for five years. The US had said it would not trade Alan Gross for the three Cuban spies. Technically, the US did not. We traded a US spy who has been in prison for 20 years for the three Cuban spies and Cuba released Gross on humanitarian grounds. Raul Castro even specifically acknowledged that detail in his short speech yesterday. It’s a minor technicality, but it made all the difference in getting this deal done from the point of view of both sides.
One of the more interesting policy shifts from Obama’s excellent speech yesterday was, "Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. Even if that worked -– and it hasn’t for 50 years –- we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.” Speaking of minor technicalities, Helms-Burton requires US policy to push for an end to the Castro’s grip on power and promote a transition government in Cuba. Obama isn’t precisely rejecting that here, but he is saying that his administration is aiming for a managed transition rather than a sudden collapse from power, which is an important shift in US policy.
If the US and Cuba now go through with reestablishing diplomatic relations, Pope Francis has pretty much wrapped up the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015. The government of Canada’s help was also acknowledged by both the US and Cuba. Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos and Uruguay President Pepe Mujica have also played important roles in pushing this process forward.
Politico quotes Raul Castro as having told Rep McGovern, “We have to talk about the present and the future… Because if we talk about the past we will never resolve it.” The parallels between that statement and President Obama’s remarks at the 2009 Summit of the Americas are striking. "I didn't come here to debate the past -- I came here to deal with the future. I believe, as some of our previous speakers have stated, that we must learn from history, but we can't be trapped by it."
I wrote last week that the Venezuela sanctions gave President Obama political capital to act on Cuba. Obviously, we now know these back room Cuba negotiations have been going on longer than the Venezuela sanctions debate, but I think it’s important to recognize that the Venezuela sanctions do play an important role in getting this deal through the US political and public opinion system. Obama needs to show he’ll act against human rights abuses by governments, even as he offers a policy of engagement to the people of Cuba. I also think the Venezuela sanctions represent a better model, going after specific officials rather than targeting an entire country’s economy. The irony is that President Obama appears to be pushing US-Cuba policy towards the model that Sen Rubio wrote into his Venezuela sanctions bill, maintaining restrictions on contacts and business with abusive top government officials while allowing trade and travel at the citizen to citizen level.
Speaking of Venezuela, it appears the Venezuelan government was largely caught off guard by the announcement. Raul Castro didn’t tell President Maduro that this was coming. As I wrote on Twitter yesterday, when Maduro’s response to US sanctions was "They can shove their US visas where they should be shoved,” he didn’t think that the answer was the new US embassy in Havana. There are whispers within Chavismo that Cuba’s move was a betrayal of Maduro. This may have internal repercussions within the Venezuelan government’s inner battles.
While Cuba is not a democracy, Raul Castro does have to deal with internal factions within his own government. It’s clear that some of those factions have long opposed any movement to improve relations with the United States. While the US president gets to deal with public criticisms from Rep Ros-Lehtinen, someone equally ideologically extreme is sitting to the left of Castro arguing against this move towards the US from Cuba’s revolutionary point of view. And Castro, while he seems quite entrenched in power from the outside, is playing a multi-decade game of power politics in which losing means a military coup. Don’t doubt that it took some serious political capital on Castro's part to get this agreement through Cuba's dictatorship bureaucracy.
Yesterday’s announcement was huge, but we shouldn’t overemphasize Cuba issues. US relations with Mexico are at least 100 times more important than our relationship with Cuba. Our relationship with Brazil, Colombia and even the countries of Central America should all outrank the importance of our relationship with Cuba over the long term. We’ve got big regional agenda items like improving security, combatting climate change and promoting educational exchanges that go well beyond relations with any one country. With the upcoming Summit of the Americas, we need to make sure those bigger and more important agenda items don’t get lost in the self-congratulations party the region will be throwing over Cuba.
Yet, improving relations with Cuba will make dealing with many of these other countries and the region as a whole easier for the United States. US policy towards Cuba is one of the big symbolic issues for how leaders, analysts and citizens across Latin America view US relations with the region. There is a reason that this US-Cuba agreement is on the front page of nearly every newspaper in Latin America and the United States this morning, in a way no other US-Latin America story would ever be. It’s a serious shift in policy that matches the Obama administration’s rhetoric for the past six years and affirms the message that the Obama administration is treating the countries of the region as equals.
Secretary Kerry was in Peru and Colombia last week. Vice President Biden will be in Brazil over the new year for President Rousseff’s inauguration. President Peña Nieto will visit Washington on 6 January. And now this Cuba announcement. In spite of everything else going on domestically and in the world, Latin America is on the agenda of the Obama administration.
Immigration, Cuba, drug policy. On these three policy priorities the Obama administration inherited a US policy that simply didn’t match the reality of the modern world and its challenges. In the past month, President Obama has made a significant movement on two of them. One to go.
Oil is down below $60 per barrel.
- Mexico’s energy reform has taken a hit as investor enthusiasm has declined. The shale plays in north-central Mexico are being placed on hold and the country is unlikely to receive as many competitive bids in the near off-shore fields. The lower revenue for PEMEX will also impact the government's 2015 budget during an election year.
- The Venezuelan government faces the increasing prospect of default. PDVSA, which accounts for the vast majority of the government’s income, has failed to increase production over the past decade. Maduro’s influence in OPEC is minimal. Combined with the other economic distortions (currency limits, gasoline subsidies), the Venezuelan economy is worsening on a weekly basis.
- One secondary effect from Venezuela will be on the Petrocaribe nations in the Caribbean and Central America. On one hand, they should all be planning for the day that Venezuelan assistance ends. On the other, lower oil prices make the demand for oil diplomacy and aid a bit less urgent than it is at $100 per barrel for these countries.
- Argentina’s oil and shale plays are looking less viable in the near-term, though that is balanced by the fact investors are hoping a new government next year improves conditions.
- Colombia’s oil income is declining, hitting the government’s tax revenue and the peso.
- The decline in oil is adding insult to injury at Brazil’s Petrobras. Not only is Brazil’s national oil company facing its worst scandal ever, but it’s ability to explore and produce is being severely hampered by the declining prices. It’s a one-two punch that is going to mute the opening of President Rousseff’s second term.
All five countries I mentioned above (Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil) are having to lower their overall 2015 GDP estimates based on declining oil prices. These are the five largest economies in Latin America and they are all vulnerable to the sharp drop in commodities, regardless of whether they are members of the Pacific Alliance, Mercosur or Alba. Other than Mexico (which is far more tied to the US), they are also quite vulnerable to each other. A crash in Venezuela will hit Colombian and Brazilian businesses. A problem in Brazil’s economy will be another hurdle for Argentina and vice-versa.
Over the past two weeks I’ve read a lot of individual stories about how oil prices will impact x country in Latin America. Yes, each country is different and unique, but this is also a big regional story. The challenges these countries are facing aren’t occurring in a vacuum. They’re building on top of each other.
The US Senate passed a bill imposing sanctions on some government officials and non-government supporters of the government of Venezuela President Maduro. The House passed the Senate bill on Wednesday and President Obama is likely to sign it. What does the bill do?
Sanctions must be imposed on any foreign person acting on behalf of the government of Venezuela who:
1) committed a significant act of violence in the protests this year (2014) or organized/directed the violence
2) has ordered or directed the prosecution of someone who was exercising their right to protest
3) has provided financial, material or technological support to someone engaged in the either of the first two acts.
For the people who are sanctioned under the points above:
1) Their assets will be blocked and US citizens and businesses will not be allowed to do business with those people.
2) Their visas to travel to the US will be blocked or revoked. (Does not apply to UN travel)
A few additional notes:
a) The president may waive sanctions if he determines it is in the national interest and informs Congress.
b) The sanctions portion of the bill ends on 31 December 2016.
c) The BBG must submit a report on censorship in Venezuela and recommendations to expand coverage of US-backed programs like VOA into the country.
Reading articles about “sanctions against Venezuela,” some might think these are a large and new change to US-Venezuela policy. That would be incorrect. This bill is limited in scope and doesn’t increase the president’s current power to sanction. The president already has the power to do everything mentioned in this bill and has already revoked visas of a number of people who will fall under this bill’s provisions. What this bill does is push and pressure the president to use his authority more, particularly with asset seizures, against human rights violators.
The bill is limited to a select group of individuals rather than targeted the whole country and its economic system. The bill has a two year time limit. Those features are significantly different and more limited than the Cuba embargo or sanctions against Iran.
A previous version of a Venezuelan sanctions bill in the House was less flexible and included limits on technology transfers to Venezuela. Those provisions were harmful to US interests and I’m glad they are not included in the final bill.
One of the common criticisms is that these sanctions help Maduro, giving him a chance to blame the US and try to rally people against a foreign threat right when his popularity is plummeting. Maybe, but we shouldn’t care.
Despite what some people across the political spectrum may think, the goal of the sanctions and US policy in general isn’t to hurt Maduro’s popularity or force a change in government. These sanctions are intended to reduce the politically-motivated violence and unfair treatment of Venezuela’s citizens by the government and their allies. It’s possible the sanctions give Maduro the chance to blame the US and help stabilize Maduro’s government, boosting his approval ratings by 10-20 points. Or they may hurt his government by splitting the Chavista coalition against those who are more corrupt. While I’ll certainly monitor the effects the sanctions have on Maduro's government, I’m not going to assess the success or failure of that issue. If the sanctions reduce political violence or help the politically persecuted, we should view the sanctions as a success, no matter how Maduro reacts and whether the Maduro government is strengthened, weakened or unaffected in the process.
Another positive second order consequence may relate to US-Cuba policy. Imposing heavier sanctions on human rights offenders in Venezuela may give President Obama a bit of political breathing space to pass executive orders lessening the more damaging aspects of US-Cuba policy before next year’s Summit of the Americas.
The Obama administration and Congress should talk about how they will measure the effectiveness of these Venezuela sanctions. The effect that we should want to see is
1) a reduction in politically-motivated violence and
2) a reduction in political persecution against peaceful protesters and political opponents.
We should look at these metrics at the end of 2015 and judge the sanctions' potential renewal or revision in 2016 based on whether these sanctions have had a positive or negative effect on those two specific issues and the human rights situation in Venezuela in general. We should also look to see if the secondary effects of these sanctions help or harm other policy goals and consider that in the equation. What we shouldn't do is allow policy inertia to prevent us from changing these sanctions if they need to be changed in one or two years, as happens too often in US policy (see embargo, Cuba).
As Setty likes to remind people, the US already has sanctions in place against Venezuela. Several top military officials have been listed as drug traffickers. PDVSA has faced limited sanctions for oil shipments to Iran and Syria. Cavim was sanctioned for weapons sales to Iran, Syria or North Korea. In some cases, sanctions appear to have slightly improved behavior (Venezuela-Iran relations are nowhere near as cosy and close today, though there are many other factors at play beyond just sanctions) and in some cases have done nothing (the criminal military officials are still influential in Maduro’s inner circles).
Beyond the question of whether sanctions change behavior, we should also recognize as a matter of general policy that we should place some limited restrictions on travel to the US or ownership of US bank account on officials in other governments that are corrupt or violate human rights. That’s true whether we’re talking about Venezuela or Colombia or Argentina or Mexico (or North Korea or Equatorial Guinea or Saudi Arabia or China). Someone who orders pro-government paramilitary thugs to go out and attack civilians shouldn’t get a free pass in the United States. The fact US policy is often inconsistent in that set of values doesn’t mean that these sanctions against Venezuelan officials who abused human rights are wrong.
Freedom of the Net report, describing threats to internet access and abusive government practices around the globe. Once again, Cuba is the only truly unfree country in the hemisphere, though Venezuela has declined significantly in recent years.
There are also two positive points here. First, Freedom House recognizes Brazil as a country that made significant improvements in the past year, specifically with its Marco Civil law that included net neutrality. The region's largest country and the one with the most internet users is improving access and its citizens' rights to publish.
Second, other than Cuba and Venezuela, the rest of the region is fairly free with its internet access. The third worst country in the hemisphere, Mexico, ranks better than nearly every country measured in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Countries like Argentina and Colombia, in spite of some controversies, are comparatively in the free category and much better off than much of the rest of the world.
Of course, freedom to use the internet requires internet access. While access is one of the issues measured by this report, it doesn't attempt to measure net freedom in some of the region's smaller and poorer countries. Countries like Honduras, Haiti and Paraguay have their own range of internet freedom and censorship issues, but the biggest issue is that the infrastructure doesn't allow for the majority of people to connect simply due to poverty. Reducing poverty and connecting more people online will do more for internet freedom in this hemisphere than any specific government law or regulation relating to access, censorship or surveillance.
The allegations of bribery and corruption weren't just a campaign ploy by President Dilma Rousseff's opponents in the last election. Over the past weeks since the election, the scandal has grown and prosecutors have begun making arrests of Petrobras employees and contractors who engaged in bribery and cartel-like behavior in setting their prices (BBC, Reuters). US prosecutors are also looking at the company and its partners for potential FCPA violations.
There is an immediate political concern, in that this scandal appears to have frozen the Rousseff administration and drained it of much of its political capital before the second inauguration even occurs. The president will likely bounce back from the political problems, but a stalled agenda even for a few months at the start of her second term is a lost opportunity when she should be at her most productive.
The bigger issue is economic. Petrobras is a single company market mover. Brazil's currency, inflation and growth can all move a few tenths of a percentage point based solely on how this one company is doing. That means this scandal and the repercussions in terms of investment and infrastructure have the potential to determine whether or not Brazil falls back into recession (commodity prices aren't helping). For Rousseff, that economic damage from this scandal should be a much bigger concern than the potential for a few former political allies to go to prison for corruption.
President Obama announced a series of executive actions last night that will provide millions of immigrants who have entered the United States illegally a guarantee that they will not be deported in the coming two years. About four million people will be eligible to take advantage of an expanded deferred action program that grants a legal guarantee that they won't be deported plus a work permit. The US government will also prioritize deportations to only target felons and recent migrants (those who have entered since January 2014), meaning millions more migrants can feel safer from deportation, though they won't have a legal guarantee.
These actions are necessary and long overdue. The president could and should have done more, within his legal ability, to grant status to migrants, defer deportations and keep families together. He also should have done it sooner, months or even years ago, rather than waiting for after the midterm elections. His record of deporting two million people isn't something to be proud of and goes against one of the best lines in his speech last night, "tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans."
Obviously, while I wish the president had done more sooner, I'm glad he did something. The US Congress has failed for over a decade to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill to start dealing with these challenges. Congress should pass a bill. If they don't, Democrats should be proud to make immigration reform an election issue in 2016, not run from it as they did this year.
"Millions." I used that word in the first paragraph, suggesting that president's executive actions will only benefit 4-6 million of the 11 million undocumented migrants in the US. I also noted the president has presided over the deportation of over two million people. This impacts a lot of people and it's unfortunately easy to miss just how many people are impacted while watching the media and politicians debate the issue. Over three percent of the US population do not have a legal status. Over five percent of students in the US (1 out of every 20, or on average, more than one child per classroom) have a parent who immigrated illegally. We're talking about the lives of millions of people and their families in the United States and around the hemisphere.
The immigration issue is at the heart of the United States and its character. We are a nation of immigrants and each generation of migration has made us stronger and better as a country. How we treat the millions of immigrants who arrive looking for a better life will define how well the US does over the coming century.
It’s nearly all good news this year on the statistics about student exchanges, with 100,000 Strong in the Americas remaining one of the top policy items for President Obama in Latin America. Last year’s numbers were ok. This year’s numbers are great and place the program on track to meet one of its goals.
8.2% increase. Latin America and the Caribbean added 5,454 students to hit a total of 72,318 students studying in the US. That’s an impressive increase across the region, much better than the 3.8% increase registered last year. If the region can maintain an increase of at least 5% each year for the next five years, we’ll hit the 100,000 mark around 2020 or 2021, which is the goal.
Brazil! It’s the second year in a row Brazil has increased over 20%, adding another 2,418 students (more from RioGringa here). The increase of foreign exchange students by Brazil is a sign of Dilma’s policies on this issue achieving serious results. Her administration deserves credit and if the region hits President Obama’s 100,000 goal in 2020, it will largely be due to Brazil’s cooperation and its initiative in pushing forward even faster than the US targets. Additionally, if this year’s trends continue, Brazil will pass Mexico next year in terms of the number of students studying in the US.
Gran Colombia. The countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela all posted numbers above the regional average and were responsible for a combined 1,800 student increase.
The Northern Triangle. You want some good news from the northern countries in Central America, here it is. The three countries added 443 students studying in the US for a combined 12.5% increase.
Mexico. Adding 580 students for a 4.1% increase is certainly moving in the right direction. That’s undoubtedly good news. However, it could and should be better given the two country’s geographic proximity. The Peña Nieto administration has its own ambitious goal of 100,000 students in the US by 2018, though not all those are university students. I know both countries have focused hard on the issue of educational exchanges, but these numbers still need to increase more quickly to reach the ambitious goals the US and Mexico have set for themselves.
The rest of South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru all showed pretty good gains, adding 3-4% over last year. Those numbers are good, but like Mexico, could be significantly better. Paraguay added 97 students, an impressive 25% increase but still low numerically.
The Caribbean: The Caribbean continues to lag or decline in the number of students sent to the US, seeing a 2% drop this year. The Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago were the main causes of the decline, dropping a combined 150 students.
US students studying abroad: The number of US students studying in Latin America and the Caribbean only increased 1.8% in the 2012/13 academic year. Unlike the other numbers above, the numbers of US students studying in the hemisphere is still well short of President Obama’s goal and not on track to meet it. Those data are one year behind the other data above. I’m told that the numbers should show some significant improvement next year when the 2014 data comes in.
I've largely agreed with the recent series of New York Times editorials calling for shifts in US-Cuba policy. Their editorial today, however, on the US granting asylum for Cuban doctors is incorrect.
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights says "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country" and "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
If some Cuban doctors feel they are being illegally trafficked or forced into labor conditions, they should have every right to "defect" and seek asylum. That right to asylum is a basic human right that the US and every country around the world should guarantee. The US is a better country whenever we open our doors to the persecuted of the world.
The problem with US migration policy is not that we're encouraging Cuban doctors to seek asylum or that we grant Cuban refugees special status when they reach the US. It's that we don't offer that same liberal asylum and refugee policy to other persecuted populations in the hemisphere.
Liberals tend to reflexively argue against any policies supported by the hardline anti-Castro activists, but in the case of migration policy, perhaps they've designed a model that we should expand to other countries rather than repeal for Cuba.
There is talk that the Obama administration may expand the asylum process for Central Americans in his upcoming executive actions on immigration, but those actions will not go far enough. Refugees from the violence and persecution in Central America deserve the same protections that doctors and other asylum seekers from Cuba receive. Instead of shutting down our migration policies towards Cuba as the NYT argues today, we should consider embracing and expanding them to other countries. It only seems fair that the migrants and refugees of the hemisphere should receive equal treatment.
The FARC kidnapped a Colombian military general in Choco, the first time in 50 years a general has been taken hostage by the group. While there are some strange facts surrounding the case, including the general traveling in civilian dress without bodyguards, the Colombian government appears fairly convinced the FARC's 34th front is responsible for the hostage taking.
The most recent kidnapping prompted President Santos to announce last night that peace negotiations with the FARC are suspended. Negotiators will not travel to Cuba for the next round.
Other than releasing the recently taken hostages, Santos has not outlined steps to return to the negotiation table. Santos has been under intense pressure from political opponents and his own military to take a harder line with the FARC. Including this kidnapping, the FARC have done what they can in recent weeks to strengthen the hand of the hardliners to scuttle negotiations. Getting back to negotiations will likely take a concession from the FARC, and the FARC do not appear willing at the moment.
The opposite option that Santos has is to increase the military offensive. The Colombian military would certainly support it as would a decent portion of the Colombian population, but it would be a major step back for the peace negotiations that looked so promising. While a military offensive would force the FARC to pay a price for their deliberate stalling and antagonism, it isn't a quick path back to the peace process from there.
These peace deals have been harmed by both sides' unwillingness to acknowledge a key fact on the ground: the FARC are not a single organization. There are significant leadership disputes, far worse than any reported divide between the civilian and military sides of the Colombian government. Some of the fronts can be negotiated with, some cannot. Some of the FARC leaders are interested in a political accord, some in continuing with the profits of crime, drugs, kidnapping and extortion. The FARC reject this analysis because they want to portray themselves as a large and unified organization. The truth is that the FARC leadership at the table in Havana do not control the operations or finances of some of the most powerful FARC fronts on the ground in Colombia.
A peace deal in Colombia might be able to disarm and demobilize several thousand FARC fighters, which will be positive for the country, but as with the Bacrim offshoots of the AUC, there will be some FARC fronts that remain or reorganize after a deal is struck. The FARC leaders who are negotiating want to claim to represent the whole of the group, but getting back to the peace deal may require both sides finally admitting that the FARC are divided and that peace with part of the FARC does not mean all the fronts will be represented.
The Guyana opposition says they will not dialogue with the president outside of parliament, attempting to place pressure on his suspension of the institution.Several members of civil society including the heads of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and a local Catholic Bishop met with the president yesterday, but the meeting does not appear to have been overly productive.Opposition leader David Granger issued a statement calling on the police and the military to avoid taking unlawful action against protesters. The statement was made after criticisms that the police appear to have increased training in anti-protest and crowd control tactics in recent days. Granger, though now a civilian political leader, consistently refers to himself as a retired military officer, which is important for understanding the tone and audience of his statement.
The Economist provides some background on the issue:
The conflict goes deeper than ordinary political rivalry. It is a big part of the reason that Guyana has remained relatively poor. Politics have been polarised by race for 60 years. Most Indo-Guyanese—descendants of indentured labourers who were brought over when the country was a British colony—support Mr Ramotar’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Most Afro-Guyanese have backed the People’s National Congress (PNC), now part of the main opposition group, A Partnership For National Unity.
After unrest in the early 1960s, the PNC held power through rigged elections for 28 years. During the 1980s Guyana was briefly nearly as poor as Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas. From the 1990s coalitions led by the PPP formed governments made increasingly complacent by unstinting support from Indo-Guyanese, the largest group of voters.In a letter to the editor, Cheddi Jagan Jr., son of a former PPP president, denounces the move and disassociates himself from President Ramotar.
I noted earlier this week that no statements have been issued by Brazil or the US. The APNU released a statement yesterday saying they met with representatives of the US, UK, Canada and EU, who told the opposition leaders,"that the government and opposition needed to find internal mechanisms for a resolution of the stand-off."
One reason for the lack of a public statement from the US is that we don't have an ambassador in Guyana. President Obama nominated career diplomat Perry Holloway in July and his is one of many appointments that is languishing in the Senate awaiting confirmation. It's a small example of how Congressional disfunction in the US and the inability to confirm nominees harms our foreign relations and influence in the Western Hemisphere.