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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Venezuela

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).

Venezuela’s 2 “black boxes”: the military and the poor

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time lately reading about Venezuela. But I’m absolutely not a Venezuela expert.

Over the years, I often disagreed with the U.S. government’s approach to him, but I was never a fan of Hugo Chávez. I’ve always supported demilitarizing politics in the Americas. So naturally I spoke out against his militaristic populism, criticized his arms buildups, and called out his affinity for dictators. But I was not following the country on a day-to-day basis.

Now I am—from my vantage point outside Venezuela, a country I’ve only visited once. We all are. But as I try to understand what’s going on and what might happen next, it’s almost impossible to get good information about two sectors that are central to the story.

Venezuela’s military and its poorest citizens are “black boxes.” Anytime I find anything written about them, I read it with great interest.

The military. The armed forces are the most crucial support for the regime. Generals and colonels head several ministries and serve as several state governors. Chávez purged opposition-minded officers after the disastrous 2002 coup attempt. They appear to play a central role in narco-corruption.

But how factionalized or unified are they? How solid is Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino’s grip on them? Is Padrino a closet pragmatist or a true believer? Do they favor a certain faction of President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique, like that of former officer Diosdado Cabello? How willing are the armed forces (not including the National Guard) to repress protest? Is there discontent in the underpaid ranks?

Among the few recent information sources I’ve seen:

Poorer Venezuelans. The street protests happening every day in Caracas are a disproportionately middle-class affair. Less clear is what is happening among Venezuela’s poor majority. Poorer Venezuelans were a bulwark of support for Chávez and his party. For about 15 years, they guaranteed them affordable food and other services. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, tend to come from the elite. “The opposition has done nothing to speak to their issues or mobilize the popular class,” says David Smilde, WOLA’s senior fellow for Venezuela.

Now that the situation has deteriorated so badly, what is happening in poorer neighborhoods and rural areas? Why aren’t they marching in larger numbers? Did they participate in the symbolic July 16 vote against Maduro’s proposed constituent assembly? Are poorer neighborhoods actually aflame with looting and disorder, or are they quiescent? If the latter, is it fear of repression from colectivos and other quarters, fear of losing whatever government handouts remain, or something else?

Here are a few recent efforts to cover low-income sectors:

A possible third “black box” is what would happen if the United States stopped buying Venezuelan oil, a step the Trump administration is considering. Former AP journalist Hannah Dreier, who just left Venezuela after 3 years, wrote yesterday that a U.S. embargo would cause the Maduro regime to “implode” but could also trigger “famine” and mass migration out of a country that gets over 96 percent of its foreign exchange from oil sales. Would that happen, or is the world oil market more elastic? And since Venezuela is devoting so much of its oil earnings to foreign debt payments anyway, how much worse would Venezuelans suffer?

Even a 50 percent probability of a humanitarian catastrophe makes an oil-import cutoff a horrible choice. Recent coverage I’ve seen indicates little consensus on what the actual probability might be. But there’s a general consensus that it would be really rough on the Venezuelan people:

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

New WOLA Podcast: An Update on Venezuela with David Smilde

This one is really good. I can see why David Smilde’s analysis appears so often in media coverage of Venezuela.

David is a senior fellow who writes WOLA’s Venezuela blog, teaches at Tulane University and spends much of his time—including the tumultuous last few months—in Caracas.

He doesn’t pass through Washington very often, so it was great to have a chance to grab him with my microphone at our staff retreat. (You can occasionally hear some of our WOLA colleagues in the background.)

This fast-moving interview covers:

  • the risk to democracy posed by President Nicolás Maduro’s proposed constitutional assembly;
  • the opposition’s strategic opportunities, challenges, and mistakes;
  • the security forces’ role;
  • the highly politicized issue of humanitarian aid;
  • diplomatic efforts at the Organization of American States;
  • the possibility of sanctions, and why WOLA is skeptical of  this tactic under most circumstances; and
  • real hope for multilateral action to find a way forward.

This is no time for jokes? This is no time for solemnity.

From the 9th anniversary post of the great Venezuelan satire website El Chigüire Bipolar (The Bipolar Capybara):

No way is this a normal democracy. It stopped being one a long time ago. But whether we were in that ideal scenario, or in this reality that the Galactic Commander and his obese heir have tried to impose on us, we would always play an opposition role.

Because from our point of view, the role of humor is, through words, sentences, and ideas, to denounce what is happening and to make us all reflect on our circumstances. To be a funny radar of the sad reality in which we have to live.

There are more than enough talented people creating very serious narratives about our daily life. But we try to tell the story from our side of the street. Because we believe that this task should be performed in all possible scenarios. With all the tools at hand. We could put on a wig, make silly gestures, or make fart jokes, but we chose the harder path. That of political humor. That’s the way we are, pardon us.

Now more than opposition, we must play a role of resistance. We’ll have to be smarter, to spin a finer web, to use a sharper pencil. We’ll keep doing our job, seeking to stick more messages between the lines. On the way, we’ll keep hearing that this is no moment for jokes. Yes, we know. That’s why we want to make even more of them now.

See also: “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes,” by Srdja Popovic and Mladen Joksic of Serbia’s Otpor movement.

“What Now in Venezuela?”

Screenshot: “Presidente Nicolás Maduro: He ordenado el inmediato retiro de la OEA”

Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Organization of American States deepens the country’s political crisis still further. Meanwhile, at least three people died today in mounting protests against the country’s definitive turn toward authoritarianism.

It’s really hard to predict where this is headed. I found useful, though, a column published Monday by Luis Vicente León, a widely cited analyst who runs Venezuela’s Datanálisis polling firm.

León sees two scenarios. Here’s an English translation of the key excerpt. Highlights are mine.

The government’s “exit costs” are almost infinite, which makes it a sort of “kamikaze.” Added to this is the very low possibility of a successful negotiation to lower these exit costs, because the opposition still needs to perform two tasks in order to get there. First, it needs negotiating power, something to offer in exchange that is compelling enough for the government to either to accede or to find itself obligated to exit from power. Second, it needs a valid interlocutor, someone with enough internal control and power to commit the opposition to uncomfortable accords with a government that has explicitly violated its rights.

The first need can be filled with pressure from the street, which—rather than a single “epic” march—would have to become an unstoppable demonstration in all the country and of all the country, making the nation ungovernable. But this would still leave the second variable without a response: who can negotiate to lower the exit costs?

With this in mind, these are the two most probable scenarios.

1. One in which opposition pressure continues to grow, but the government remains willing to repress it brutally and tirelessly, even amid international repudiation and sanctions, because it sees only one outcome: that its leaders’ heads get cut off if they give in. With a military sector also committed to the government side, this scenario could be prolonged. This would lead to the formation of paramilitary and guerrilla groups around the country, which would become part of the nation’s everyday life—but with the government remaining in power.

2. Another in which pressure from the opposition reaches its maximum level and fractures Chavismo and the military internally, due to fear of what could happen to them in the future, with the likelihood of being held accountable for brutal and evident human rights violations. In this case, it will probably be the military that decides to seek and coordinate negotiations to reduce and control exit costs. That negotiation would take place with an opposition leader who has managed to capitalize on the struggle and become the unquestioned spokesperson for those pressing for change.

Here’s Luis Vicente León discussing this “exit costs” theme on a November 2016 WOLA panel.

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

Colombia

  • A decree has placed a representative of Colombia’s Defense Ministry on the governing board of the Center for Historical Memory, a body of academics that has produced 92 reports since 2008 about what happened in the country’s conflict. Though a governmental body, the Center has had autonomy in how it chooses and carries out its investigations. This has brought strong support from conflict victims, but also strong criticism from the military. Critics, including victims’ groups, are concerned that the addition of a Defense official—who represents the military, one of the main parties to the conflict and the generator of many victims—may undermine this crucial autonomy. The Center’s longtime director, Gonzalo Sánchez, quietly protested the Defense Ministry’s addition, but later told the press that all government ministries have the right to participate in its governing board, the military has a lot of knowledge about the conflict that it should be encouraged to share, and that the Center’s autonomy won’t be affected.
  • The McClatchy news service, using information publicized by Human Rights Watch, reported that Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, a former head of Colombia’s army, has been in Washington as Colombia’s defense attache for nearly two years despite strong human rights concerns about his military record. A decade ago, when Gen. Lasprilla headed the Army’s 9th Brigade in the southern department of Huila, the unit committed a very large number of so-called “false positive” killings: murders of civilians that were falsified as combat kills to boost body counts.

Honduras

  • The U.S. Southern Command’s Diálogo publication discusses, and praises, the Honduran military’s “Guardians of the Homeland” program, which sends soldiers to schools throughout the country “reinforcing a sense of right and wrong and instilling morals and leadership principles among minors.”
  • Soldiers are now protecting seven bus companies’ stations and lines in Tegucigalpa. Bus companies are frequent targets of gangs’ extortion and attacks.

Mexico

  • Late last year, legislators from Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), working with heavy input from the armed forces, drafted an Internal Security Law that would make permanent the Mexican military’s “emergency” role in policing. Now, even the bill’s chief sponsor recognizes that the controversial legislation now appears unlikely to pass in the current legislative session, which ends April 30. The bill had encountered criticism from opposition parties in Congress, and especially from civil-society groups. A coalition of mostly Mexican groups (which included WOLA) put out a highly critical report (PDF) in late March citing the human rights cost that Mexico has paid since the military’s involvement in internal security intensified a decade ago. (There have been at least 3,921 confrontations between military personnel and civilians in Mexico since January 2007, when President Felipe Calderón increased the armed forces’ involvement in security.) More than 120 groups collaborated on an internet effort with a multimedia website, #SeguridadSinGuerra, to pressure the Congress to reject the law and place more emphasis on training better civilian police. Mexico’s usually docile human rights ombudsman’s office (National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH) also came out against the law.
  • The chief of Mexico’s Navy, Adm. Vidal Soberón, said that the military were only playing internal security roles, “it must be said, because in many cases police forces have been surpassed” by criminals.
  • The military responded angrily after a leading opposition politician, leftist former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel López Obrador, opposed the armed forces’ involvement in policing and tied them to the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre. The Army’s human rights director, Gen. José Carlos Beltrán, called a press conference to criticize “social actors” who present “slander and offenses,” and actually denied that the military commits human rights abuses. “Those who denigrate the labor of our armed forces denigrate Mexico,” said President Enrique Peña Nieto. López Obrador responded that he views the military as “the people in uniform,” and his critics should “calm down.”
  • During the past month, Mexican military personnel were deployed to help keep order in the states of Quintana Roo, Sonora, and Veracruz.
  • Marines allegedly killed a minor, a passenger in a civilian car that went through a roadblock, in Nuevo León not far from the U.S. border.
  • In the border city of Reynosa, a woman who had denounced that her husband died last year in Marine custody said she received death threats from a group of assailants “of military aspect” who rammed her car.

Nicaragua

  • The opposition-leaning daily La Prensa reported on the sudden and unusual retirement of two senior generals in Nicaragua’s army, who normally serve five-year terms in top command positions. A retired general told the paper that the firings owe to the armed forces’ politicization, “ever since the moment when there stoped being a high command able to say to [President Daniel] Ortega, ‘this is illegal, this can’t be done, this goes against the Constitution.’” Security expert Elvira Cuadra said, “Due to the way and the moment [the sudden retirements] occurred, what it shows is that things aren’t going well within the military institution.”

Paraguay

  • During the unsuccessful late-March attempt to change Paraguay’s constitution to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election, local media questioned some irregular military deployments around the capital. These included the appearance of armored personnel carriers at Asunción installations, and the posting of guards and snipers around the Congress, where the amendment was being debated. Paraguay has been very vigilant about signs of military involvement in politics since the end of the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).

Venezuela

  • Faced with mounting protests, the government of President Nicolás Maduro launched “Plan Zamora Green Phase,” a “special civil-military strategic plan” to involve the military in preventing a “coup d’etat.” Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino promised the armed forces’ “unconditional loyalty” to the regime against “violent marches.” The government’s disproportionately forceful response to protests, however, has mostly been carried out by police, not soldiers.
  • Maduro also announced that the number of “Bolivarian Militias”—civilians armed with rifles to defend the regime—would expand to 500,000 (out of Venezuela’s total population of about 30 million).
  • Two investigative reports in the past month from InsightCrime (March 22 and April 28) look at drug-trafficking and other corruption in the armed forces.
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