Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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WOLA Podcast: COVID-19, Anti-Democratic Trends, and Human Rights Concerns

Podcasts are coming back after a two-week break. There’ll be a few over the coming week.

For this one, I wrangled together four of my WOLA colleagues to take the temperature of politics and human rights in the region a month and a half into the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s really grim, and challenging to end on an optimistic note. But listen to it and you will learn a lot. Here’s the description from WOLA’s website:

COVID-19 threatens to take many lives in Latin America. It also threatens to leave behind a less democratic, less rights-respecting, more unequal, and more violent region.

An April 13 WOLA commentary laid out many of these concerns. If anything, they’ve grown more urgent since then. Here, five WOLA program directors gather for a discussion of where things stand in several countries in the region.

  • Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson talks about El Salvador.
  • Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli discusses Colombia, Brazil, and Haiti.
  • Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey covers Venezuela.
  • Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer provides an update about Mexico and the border.
  • Director for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh explains drug trafficking trends and the situation in Bolivia.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

The new Brazil

From Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept:

Last week, one candidate from Bolsonaro’s party, Rodrigo Amorim, shocked and disgusted even some far-right supporters. Wearing a t-shirt with a pistol pointed forward, he took, destroyed, and then on social media proudly displayed an unofficial street sign made to commemorate the life of Marielle Franco, the black, LGBT human rights activist from the favelas who, as a leftist City Councilwoman, was assassinated in March, with her police-linked killers still apprehended. …The last line of his social media post – now deleted – read: “Get ready left-wingers: your days are numbered if we’re in charge.”

Last night, Amorim not only was elected to the State House in Rio, but was the most-voted candidate in the state. The other Bolsonaro-aligned candidate promoted there, Daniel Silveira, an officer with Brazil’s military police, was elected to the Federal Congress.

WOLA Podcast on the Venezuelan Forced Migration Crisis

I sat down this morning with Gimena Sánchez, who works on Colombia and the Andes here at WOLA, and Geoff Ramsey, who works on Venezuela. Geoff spent all of April in Venezuela, and in the Venezuelan border areas of Colombia and Brazil. Gimena was in Colombia at the same time, and both did fieldwork in the border city of Cúcuta, Colombia. (Where I was in February, horrified by what I saw during a brief visit to the border bridge.)

Download the mp3 file here.

Gimena and Geoff were looking at the exploding humanitarian crisis of Venezuelans leaving their country, mostly in order to get enough to eat. Here, they discuss what they saw, what the Brazilian, Colombian, and international response has been, and what needs to happen now.

Geoff says in Venezuela, “People are now resigned to the idea that this political and economic crisis can now last months, even years”—and sees a negotiation, similar to a negotiation to end an armed conflict, as the best way out now.

Gimena says the Colombian government / Red Cross shelter in Cúcuta is “only for people who actually have relatives in Colombia and are just going to stay there one or two days. So it was nearly empty, this beautiful shelter with all this capacity, and right outside the shelter you just saw people crowding the streets.”

Geoff: “The Brazilian authorities have responded in, relatively speaking, a more humanitarian way.”

Gimena: “In the U.S., the ideal thing to do would be to have Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans who have already come here.”

The so-recently unthinkable, now thinkable in Brazil

In The New Yorker, Alex Cuadros explains recent comments, in a Brasilia lecture, by one of Brazil’s top generals. Gen. Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourão told the audience that, as corruption scandals continue to mount, the top brass had discussed overthrowing the government for the first time since a brutal 1964-85 military dictatorship.

“Either the institutions solve the political problem through the courts, removing those elements involved in illegal acts from public life, or we will have to impose the solution,” he said. Wearing his official uniform, his chest laden with decorations, Mourão explained that his colleagues in the Army’s high command shared his view. “We have very well-made plans,” he went on, before ominously adding, “This solution won’t be easy. It will bring trouble, you can be sure of that.” When he finished, the audience broke into applause.

There was a moment, not so very long ago, when Brazil’s generals and right wing would have feared international consequences for pulling a coup. They would have felt certain that the United States would lead international efforts to isolate a military government, either reversing the coup or forcing new elections.

The tragedy of living in 2017 is that not only can’t we be sure that the U.S. would lead an international effort to make Brazil a pariah: we can’t even be sure that the Trump administration would oppose the coup in the first place.

The peril of “protest fatigue”

EFE photo at ABC Color (Paraguay). Caption: “Manifestantes se enfrentan con policías antimotines hoy, miércoles 24 de mayo de 2017, en la Explanada de los Ministerios, en Brasilia”

Because they’re governed poorly by corrupt elites, Brazil and Venezuela have seen long recent periods of massive street protests. But now, the energy is fizzling in both countries. That’s a common theme in the past few weeks’ reporting, anyway.

Brazil

“Everywhere you go in Brazil, it’s the same thing. Circles under the eyes, hushed voices. A shrug. ‘Fazer o que?’ … The anger is gone. These days, Brazilians are just tired.” — Brian Winter, Americas Quarterly

“[R]ecent marches have been significantly smaller, raising concerns about possible ‘corruption fatigue’ in Brazil and across the region as high-profile scandals continue to emerge.” — Whitney Eulich and Anna Jean Kaiser, The Christian Science Monitor

“Cintia Gante, a 51-year-old real estate agent in Sao Paulo, said the seemingly endless revelations of corruption no longer had ‘novelty.’ ‘People are getting tired,’ she said.” — Rosa Sulleiro with Sebastian Smith, Agence France Presse

Venezuela

“Many… opposition supporters, however, are exhausted after four months of street demonstrations and disruptions to daily life, which ultimately failed to make Maduro accept opposition demands. Turnout at marches called by the opposition has fizzled in the last few weeks, and some people just want to return to work quickly in the country plagued with empty food shelves, runaway inflation and a fourth straight year of recession.” — Alexandra Ulmer, Reuters

“In the days ahead, keeping its [the opposition’s] supporters on the streets may become increasingly difficult, because of both increased repression and likely popular disillusionment. It is already showing signs of severe internal strains over issues such as the formation of a parallel government and whether or not to participate in regional elections.” — Phil Gunson, International Crisis Group

“Protests are increasingly dominated by the most militant and violent protesters.” — Noris Soto and Andrew Rosati, Bloomberg

This is disheartening and worrying. The implication that should gnaw at all of us: political oppositions are easy to beat. Once a bad government gains control of the levers of power, it can wait out protesters and carry on. The opposition will go home, and the regime will hang on for decades, like Mugabe, Putin, Khamenei or al-Bashir.

If dissipating opposition energy is a thing, could we see that happen to the vigor the United States saw at January’s Women’s March and airport protests? Fatigued with corruption, coddling of white supremacy, and failed checks on power, will exhausted Americans stay home in 2018, relegating “Resist” to a played-out hashtag?

Julia Michaels at Brazil’s Rio Real blog says no. There’s no need to yell “get back out there.” People are just taking a moment to figure things out.

“It’s tough to read the lack of noise, after years of great activity. But the silence in Rio, both this blogger’s as well as that of many others, is no hollow space. We’re lost in thought. How did we get here? What are the important questions? What works? What gets you nowhere?”

I hope she’s right—and it makes sense: maybe 20th century-style street demonstrations aren’t the most effective tactic. I don’t know what else is, but some reflection may reveal a better path.

Note added 8/15: in the current New Yorker, Nathan Heller argues that public protests tend to fizzle unless there’s a careful strategy guiding them, and at least some elite outreach and allies.

I also hope Brian Winter is wrong. In Brazilians’ current moment of fatigue, he wonders whether they might turn to a “savior” on the extreme right in next year’s elections.

[T]here is only one politician who is being mobbed at airports, whose supporters speak with an almost religious fervor and conviction. He is Jair Bolsonaro (pictured above), 62, a congressman and former army captain currently running second or third in most polls for president.… Many insist Bolsonaro’s views are too extreme for Brazil. They cite his support for beating gay children, for torturing leftists, or his 2014 comment to a fellow legislator on the floor of Congress that “I won’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” … Bolsonaro is running first among Brazil’s wealthiest and most educated voters, and he has 4.4 million followers on Facebook – 1.5 million more than Lula, Marina Silva or Doria (and 10 times more than Temer).

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America

Marco Bello photo for Reuters. Caption: “Soldiers march during a military parade to celebrate the 206th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017.”

Argentina

  • Outgoing Defense Minister Julio Martínez alleged that the previous governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández so neglected the country’s air force that “over a hundred [aircraft] went out of service or were decommissioned.”

Brazil

  • Brazilian Army soldiers, long tasked with guarding the country’s 10,400-mile land border, are increasingly being used as police. “During the past year, soldiers have spent nearly 100 days patrolling city streets—double the number from the previous nine years combined,” according to an Economist report with an interesting map.

Colombia

  • The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has notified Colombia that she has her eye on 23 active and retired generals, and 6 colonels, who may bear responsibility for extrajudicial executions. The list, based on cases in five regions, includes the current chief of the armed forces, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodríguez.
  • The mayor of Antioquia, Colombia—the department (province) whose capital is Medellín—is moving forward with a proposal to install retired army colonels as “vice-mayors” of historically conflictive towns. Local human rights groups are opposing the idea.

Cuba

  • American University’s William Leogrande takes down the claim—repeated by proponents of the Trump administration’s tightening of commerce with Cuba—that the Cuban military controls 60 percent of the country’s economy. “Sectors in which the military has little or no participation easily comprise more than half of GDP, and in the other sectors, there are civilian as well as military-controlled firms.”

Ecuador

  • 3,000 members of Ecuador’s armed forces have been deployed to play an anti-crime role in the western provinces of Guayas, Manabí, and Los Ríos. They are mostly searching vehicles at road checkpoints, looking for weapons or other signs of organized crime activity.

Guatemala

  • At NACLA, David Unger summarizes a surprising book by an active-duty Guatemalan colonel. Col. Edgar Rubio Castañeda’s “Desde el Cuartel” (From the Barracks) is a blistering critique of the country’s inequality, the oligarchy that benefits from it, and the military’s role in propping it up.

Mexico

  • Top brass in Mexico’s armed forces have been issuing pointed messages about ethics in politics. Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos called for more effort against corruption and impunity, which he said have “damaged our society.” Navy Minister Adm. Vidal Soberón said that human rights violations are “contrary to every definition of our reason for being” and “will never be tolerated.” However, the investigative website Animal Político reported that prosecutors failed to act on at least five anonymous tips that a local Army captain was tied to the drug-trafficking group (Guerreros Unidos) that massacred 43 students in Iguala, Mexico in September 2014.

Venezuela

  • At least 123 members of all branches of Venezuela’s armed forces have been detained since daily anti-government protests began in April. According to Reuters, “nearly 30 members of the military have been detained for deserting or abandoning their post and almost 40 for rebellion, treason, or insubordination.” The majority are being held in the Ramo Verde military prison where opposition leader Leopoldo López was interned until this past weekend.
  • From his cell, López recorded a video urging military personnel to “rebel” against orders to repress protesters. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that “an air of change” can be felt within Venezuela’s armed forces, but not the National Guard. “A very important decision is coming from the components of our armed forces,” Capriles added.

Links from the last month about: civil-military relations in Latin America

Municipality of Jocotán photo at Southern Command’s Diálogo website. Caption: “Students from a rural school in the municipality of Jocotán, Chiquimula, thank the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers for the desks they donated to their school.”

Argentina

A pro-military group posted a list of journalists and others who have testified in human rights cases against leaders of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, calling them “subversive terrorists from the 1970s.”

Brazil

A brief and ill-advised use of soldiers against protestors “shocked a capital already shaken by the day’s violence” and brought back memories of the 1964-85 military government. See also: Eduardo Goncalves, Forcas Armadas Sao Usadas Contra Protestos Pela 2ª Vez (Veja (Brazil), May 25, 2017).

Colombia

Gen. Luis Felipe Montoya, an active-duty officer, has been training with foreign “friends of the process” to take a more active role in the Colombian government’s stalled peace talks with the ELN guerrilla group.

Guatemala

The Southern Command-run publication asks the chief of Guatemala’s joint staff, “When will the Armed Forces stop supporting the National Civil Police?” The answer: “In the coming year, if not sooner.”

Guatemala’s army is fulfilling a presidential order “to restore 8,000 kilometers of roads within the shortest possible time.”

An active-duty colonel wrote a book recognizing some of the Guatemalan military’s civil war-era crimes and alignment with the country’s small elite. The author speculates that this could be a step toward cracking open the armed forces’ “pact of silence.”

Mexico

Soldiers in the state of Tamaulipas, where Mexico’s Army and Navy are in frequent firefights with criminal groups, write a letter asking to be pulled off the streets because “we’ve had enough of killing hitmen.” It voices rage at human rights NGOs and the government because “nobody says anything” when their comrades are killed.

Mexico’s Defense Ministry (headed by an active-duty general) has begun freezing out La Jornada, a left-leaning Mexico City daily, leaving it off its mailing list for press releases and events.

Venezuela

A few glimpses into one of Venezuela’s main “black boxes”: attitudes in the military. “Soldiers’ families suffers along with protesters who skip meals while watching their money become worthless. Some are unsure whether to blame the government or the opposition for the crisis, and what soldiers decide in the coming months could decide the country’s fate.” See also: Venezuela’s Defense Chief Warns Guardsmen on Excessive Force (Associated Press, June 8, 2017) and Girish Gupta, Andrew Cawthorne, Venezuela Jailed 14 Army Officers for Dissent at Start of Protests: Documents (Reuters, June 6, 2017).

Human rights defenders are denouncing Venezuela’s new practice of trying civilians in military courts for their role in political protests.

Lo ocurrido en Palmarito no debe repetirse porque independientemente de la violación de derechos humanos y la urgente redefinición de la política de seguridad interna, polariza a nuestra sociedad

May 15, 2017

Mexico

El Ejército debe respetar el marco legal. Si no lo hace, si no respeta las leyes, si ignora la Constitución, se convierte en un Ejército asesino. Punto

Ugly calls for military rule in Brazil

Brazil saw a new round of protests yesterday in favor of aggressive anti-corruption measures. But as the New York Times’ Dom Phillips notes, they were not only smaller than in the past, they were harder to the right in their politics.

[M]any marchers in Rio de Janeiro said they would vote in the 2018 election for Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right lawmaker from the city who has praised dictatorship-era torturers and attacked gay rights.

In a December 2016 poll by the Datafolha polling institute, 9 percent said they would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro in some scenarios.

Most disturbing are these photos from the Brazilian magazine Veja of protestors holding placards calling for the country’s military, which ruled brutally between 1964 and 1985, to re-intervene in politics.

Protest sign reads "SOS Forcas Armadas!!! Salve o Brasil desses Bandidos!!!"

Protest sign reads "Eu Quero Intervencao Militar Ja"

 I don’t know what this guy’s message is. Great outfit, though.

Guy in a Brazilian Captain America outfit

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