Monday, December 22, 2014

Twenty-five years after the Panama invasion

From the AP
Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is nearly forgotten, languishing in a steamy jungle prison near the interoceanic canal while the country enjoys democracy and economic prosperity a quarter-century after the strongman was toppled by a U.S. military invasion.
The U.S. intervention known as Just Cause began 25 years ago on Saturday, on Dec. 20, 1989, and ended with Noriega's surrender to American drug agents on Jan. 3.
Much has changed in Panama since then, with six consecutive presidents democratically elected in the nation of 3.5 million people. Its economy has become one of the fastest growing in Latin America, rising at an average rate of about 8 percent annually amid a multi-million-dollar real estate and construction boom. The United States peacefully transferred full control of the canal to Panama in 1999.
On Saturday, President Juan Carlos Varela became the first Panamanian leader to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion. He announced the government would form a commission to consider demands put forth by their families, such as declaring the date a national day of mourning.
Panama has clearly come a long way since the US invasion 25 years ago that led to the removal of former strongman Manuel Noriega and the country's transition to democracy. But their remain wounds from the invasion that have not been addressed and wounds from the political and economic development of the last two plus decades that has not benefited all Panamanians equally enough.

You can read what I wrote for Al Jazeera about Panama in A forgotten invasion, a forgotten dictator (2011) and Chipping away at democracy in Nicaragua and Panama (2012) as well as what Orlando Perez wrote on Panama has come a long way Mr. Biden (2013).

Friday, December 19, 2014

The political demography of U.S.-Cuba relations

Greg and John Weeks have post on The political demography of U.S.-Cuba relations for the Washington Post's Monkey Cage. In it, they look at demographic changes in the US and Cuba to help explain the timing of this policy reform.
President Obama’s announcement Wednesday of executive action on U.S.-Cuba policy was huge. By reestablishing diplomatic relations, expanding travel and trade, and encouraging investment, it reverses decades of policy. The president’s proposed measures do not end the embargo, which is a congressional prerogative, but they are wide ranging. What explains the timing of such a momentous shift? Political demography can offer a very useful analytical lens.
Good work professors. My only criticism is that the post would be better with tables and figures (not exactly something at which I am proficient).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Surfing to the rescue in coastal El Salvador

Ten days ago, I made mention of toxic waste that was supposed to be sent from El Salvador to Poland. However, Poles protested and the waste was turned away.

Surfer Today has an article on the community from which the waste originated (San Luis Talpa: from pesticide-contaminated town to inclusive surf city). Its mayor has sought to diversify the local economy away from sugarcane and to provide young people with an after school activity that will provide an attractive alternative to gangs - surfing.
Mayor Salvador Menendez has recognized that you cannot just ban toxic pesticides. By doing so, you are going to kill jobs in the sugarcane industry. Starting in the first few months of 2014, he decided to promote surfing in San Luis Talpa, to diversify the local economy away from sugarcane.
Because El Salvador has traditionally promoted right-hand point breaks over beach breaks, very few surfers went to San Luis Talpa before 2014. San Luis Talpa municipality has about eight kilometers of coastline, with three main beach breaks: El Pimental, La Zunganera, and Amatecampo.
Fortunately, all these beach breaks have been spared from the pesticide contamination as they are located about ten kilometers from the sugarcane fields. And there are no big hotels in the area discharging sewage into the ocean like in other surf spots from La Libertad region.
The timing of Mayor Salvador Menendez could not have been better to promote surfing in his town. El Salvador right-hand point breaks have become victims of their own success; they are getting crowded over time. So for anyone, being national or foreigner that is looking to surf in uncrowded beaches with minimum hotel development, San Luis Talpa is an excellent choice. It is widely accepted that beach breaks can handle crowds better than point breaks.
For foreign surfers that are always pressed with time, San Luis Talpa beach breaks are ideal. They are located no more than 15 kilometers away from the International Airport. There is no other country in Central America with an airport that close to a high-quality surf spot. For national surfers that have traditionally looked down on beach breaks, it is awakening time.
Looks like a win-win all around.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Gangs are the 21st-century death squads" in El Salvador

David Boeri with WBUR has a series looking at how gang violence in forcing people to flee El Salvador for the safety of Massachusetts in Brutal Gang Violence Reigns In El Salvador. I don't remember hearing this one before and I don't know how accurate it is but
Many of the murders stem from the brutal violence of criminal gangs at war with each other and with El Salvador itself. I ask the chief medical examiner, Jose Miguel Fortin, if there is a distinguishing sign when murders are committed by gangs.
Yes, he says. When a head is found but no body, he says, that’s a gang murder. When there is a body, but it’s been dismembered, that’s a narco-trafficking murder. And when the body was dismembered while the person was alive, that’s a Mexican narco-trafficking murder.
Then there is this one that
When you count gang members, the inspector says, you should add mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and cousins. Rival gangs think the same way: When one joins, the whole family joins. And so they are marked, and marked forever, according to gang mentality.
The inspector tells me that the woman who died a week earlier first lost a son. He was shot to death by MS-13. Next gang members came for her son-in-law. They killed him too. Then they came back for the woman’s daughter. They shot her three times in the stomach.
“I pleaded with the mother,” the inspector says. “‘They’re going to kill you. They’re going to kill you.’ “We told her several times, ‘You have to go away.’ And now she’s dead.”
At the thought that she ignored his advice, the inspector adds: “It seems like people are resigned to their death; they know it’s coming for them.”
Okay, this one I knew. However, I was reading about Salvadoran death squads during the 1980s last night. Now that classes are over I get to do some light reading at night. Here is what one source told US officials in January 1981.
this group of six "enormously wealthy former landowners who lost great estates in Phase I of the agrarian reform" [these landowners were living in Miami at the time] had the following strategy:
"To rebuild the country on a new foundation it must first be destroyed totally, the economy must be wrecked, unemployment must be massive, the Junta must be ousted and a 'good' military officer brought to power who will carry out a total 'limpieza' [sic] (cleansing), killing three or four or five hundred thousand people, whatever it takes to get rid of all the communists and their allies."
Collective punishment in El Salvador is nothing new. What the gangs are engaged in today is little different from what the right-wing death squads were doing during the 1970s and 1980s, even into the 1990s. As a college student from Chalatenango is quoted as saying in the article, “First there were the death squads and now the gangs, which I think are much worse....Gangs are the 21st-century death squads.”

And obviously the civil war era deaths squads were simply following what they had considered successful historical precedent for dealing with subversives - the 1932 Matanza. It's not just machismo culture and drug trafficking that leads to high levels of violence in Central America. And it is not just the civil war and the failure of the peace accords that have contributed to the conditions today. El Salvador had one of the highest homicide rates in the world in the 1960s, prior to the escalation of revolutionary and right-wing violence.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Increasing food insecurity in Central America

On Friday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned the 2.5 million people in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador had been forced into conditions of food insecurity.
The drought in the three countries is “turning into a creeping humanitarian crisis”, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN’s humanitarian agency, told reporters in Geneva.
Subsistence farmers, farm labourers and low-income families were especially at risk, with young children and pregnant women considered the most vulnerable, he said.
A full 80% of farmers in the worst-hit areas of El Salvador had reported losing all of their crops, while 75% of maize and bean crops in Honduras and Guatemala had failed.
The lack of rain has also resulted in the death of thousands of cattle.
“In the coming months, food insecurity is expected to get worse as families deplete their food stocks,” Laerke warned.
In Guatemala, the government had already declared “a state of public calamity” in 16 departments back in August, and by October 30,000 families had depleted their food stocks.
“These families are today in deep distress,” he said.
In the so-called “dry corridor” in the east of the country, it was estimated that one in four households were suffering from moderate to severe malnutrition.
The Honduras government meanwhile had found already back in September that the drought had left nearly 20,000 children malnourished.
Every time I get slightly optimistic about the near future of Central America, some news story comes along and wallops me back to reality. Central America is one of the world's most vulnerable regions when its comes to the effects of climate change. Unstable weather patterns lead to drought and flooding, often at the same time. Roya is devastating the region's coffee crops. I'm not sure if the region has stopped shaking after last week's series of earthquakes and tremors.

Hopefully, the $460 million that the Honduran government will receive from the International Monetary Fund to be invested "largely" on "infrastructure” projects will help.
These will include upgrading Puerto Cortés, the construction of the Amapala port and completing the280 km ‘Dry Canal’ connecting Amapala island in the Pacific with Puerto Castilla, a container port on the Caribbean.
In addition, funds will also be allocated for social programmes and improving some state run companies.
“These new funds will support the economy; we have been offered a facility to undertake a series of important projects for the country to help us in our goals of becoming competitive, because now we are not competing with the region, but with the world,” said the Government in a statement.
In the past, I've said that one of the challenges that the US has in delivering large-scale assistance to Honduras (and Guatemala) is that they do not qualify for a Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact. The MCC is the vehicle through which the US will provide several hundred million dollars to El Salvador (FOMILENIO I and II). While this $460 million might be totally separate with no connection to the MCC at all, I can't help but think that this is a bit of a workaround.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Promoting dialogue between civil war adversaries in Guatemala

When I was in Northern Ireland two years ago, I learned about several programs that brought together people from several sides of the conflict, victims and and perpetrators, victims and victims, and so on. The programs emphasized sharing experiences. When people asked me whether there were programs in Central America and South America that emphasized dialogue, I really couldn't come up with any.

Truth and justice were more the keywords in Latin America rather than reconciliation and forgiveness. Transitional justice processes in Latin America involved truth commissions of various shapes and sizes, amnesties, financial reparations, monuments and peace walls, and trials.

A program in Guatemala, however, is looking to change that.
Finding Guatemalan former enemies who are now willing to speak with each other publically is therefore extremely challenging. But at the end of November, DW Akademie organized the podium discussion titled "?Tu verdad? No, la Verdad" ("Your truth? No, the truth itself"). It brought together Julio Balconi, a retired general and former minister of defense, and Gustavo Meoño, once the commander of the insurgent "Guerilla Army of the Poor" (EGP), and now the director of the National Police Historical Archive (AHPN). For two hours the one-time foes spoke about the atrocities committed during the conflict. It was a controversial discussion, but at the end, the two men offered a gesture of reconciliation: they hugged.
This historic event drew nationwide media attention: some 40 journalists attended the dialogue, including staff from the national television stations TV Antigua and Gautevisíon, and reporters from rural areas. Balconi and Meoño discussed the wounds of the past and coming to terms with the brutality. Moderated by Luis Felipe Valenzuela, a journalist with the radio channel, Emisoras Unidas, the discussion demonstrated that dialogue is crucial and a prerequisite for reconciliation. "We see things differently," Balconi stressed, "but now we're at least talking to each other."
This isn't the first time that General Balconi has engaged publicly with those aligned with the guerrillas. Dirk Kruijt published a book on El guerrillero y el general : Rodrigo Asturias y Julio Balconi sobre la guerra y la paz en Guatemala that has been sitting on my shelf for the last few years. Hopefully, the dialogue can lead to some progress.

In 2012, I participated in a conference in El Salvador on memory and history concerning their civil war. The organizers were able to convince an individual from the armed forces who was in charge of that institution's archives to participate in a panel where he shared with the audience what materials were available for civilians to access and utilize in their research. It was a positive step forward, although not without its controversy. Unfortunately, I don't know what, if any, progress has come out of that initial encounter.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fleeing the gangs of Honduras for Brooklyn

Alberto Arce has another disturbing story with In Honduran Schools, Gangs are in Control.
Gang prevention police distribute US-funded pamphlets on manners and anger management in about two thirds of the 130 public schools of Tegucigalpa. Gang members, meanwhile, circulate catalogues of their girls offering sexual services for sale.
It can't exactly be said that street gangs are recruiting in Honduran schools because gangs in Honduras don't need to recruit. In a country of limited opportunities, more schoolchildren want to join the violent Mara Salvatrucha, 18th Street and other newly formed gangs than the illegal bands can absorb.
Meanwhile, John Leland picks up on what happens when children escape the violence of Honduran schools for the safety of Brooklyn with Fleeing Violence in Honduras Teenage Boys Seeks Asylum in Brooklyn. Two boys left the violence and death of San Pedro Sula to reunite with their dad who was living in the US after they had heard that minors would be allowed to stay in the country.
In New York, there were adjustments to make. The streets and language were alien. Their father had started a new life, with a wife and a son; his apartment, a studio, was barely big enough for the three of them, let alone the addition of two adolescent boys. Mr. Rodriguez worked in an auto body shop, earning $800 a week — enough to support them, he said, since he had previously been sending money for the boys to Honduras. His wife, from El Salvador, stayed at home.
For many families, reunification comes with tension and recriminations. But if there are stresses in Alejandro’s home, neither he nor his father let on.
Their dad is eligible for relief following President Obama's executive order while the two boys that are adjusting to life in New York have filed petitions for asylum. Fortunately, it sounds like the boys have a good chance of acquiring some manner of staying with their dad in Brooklyn.