Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Media: CSIS Colombia 2020

The Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) recently put together a fascinating conference -- 'Colombia - 2020'.

Check out the morning keynote from the Hon Gabriel Silva (Amb of Colombia to the US). 

CSIS have also uploaded a couple of audio files from the event which make for great listening; hear for yourselves --

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Announcement: What's Next Venezuela?

My last post -- Time to call Chávez's oil bluff? -- has since been cross-posted by -- a website I intend to work closely with moving forward.

Cyber space is often flooded with a lot of poor information, but for anybody interested in the effects of the Chávez regime in Venezuela, particularly pertaining to private property and the economy, WNVz is a great source that I'd highly recommend.

With a convinient news aggregator service (pulling together the highlights from the likes of the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Foreign Policy etc) and some original, high quality analysis of its own, I'd suggest making space for WNVz in your daily digest!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Opinion: Time to call Chávez's oil bluff?

Washington has for some time been constricted in taking a tough stance against Venezuela’s Chávez by the threat it perceives to its security of oil supply. But what if that threat was little more than a bluff?

For many interested parties, upon hearing of the fresh consignment of US sanctions imposed on seven foreign firms (including Petróleos de Venezuela – PdVSA) for their supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, immediate thoughts would have gravitated toward two questions that have been well trodden since: will this halt Iran’s nuclear programme? And, will the sanctions hit PdVSA hard?

The short answer to both questions is a round-about no.

The slightly longer version reads that since Tehran has proved itself adept at circumventing weakly imposed sanctions up until now, it seems unlikely that slapping the wrists of these seven firms will buck that trend. And as for PdVSA, oil exports to the US will continue unaffected as will the activities of its subsidiaries, i.e. Citgo, meaning that business will likely continue as usual, save the newly enforced bans on US government contracts, import-export financing and US export licences -- none of which have particularly interested the Venezuelan oil giant in the recent past anyway.

But this exhibition of relative (though still fairly puny) diplomatic muscle from Washington also kicks up a third and less widely touted question: is now the time to start calling Hugo Chávez’s oil bluff?

In recent years, the firebrand has threatened to diversify Venezuela’s oil away from the US market, principally toward China, in a bid to secure new security of supply; making Washington think twice before dishing out demands and creating a bit of wiggle room in the process. But upon closer inspection, Chávez’s aggressive oil diplomacy is perhaps not as well grounded as he might have us believe.

If truth be told, it is actually the US that is better placed to play hardball. Indeed, one of the most curious aspects of the Washington-Caracas standoff is that while both states undoubtedly depend on the other’s custom, it is in fact Caracas whose dependency is more acute. In 2010, 8.3% of US oil imports arrived from Venezuela -- no small fry -- but in marked contrast, this 8.3% translated to fully 43% of Venezuelan oil exports. It should be clear who stands to take the larger hit.

As for the Chinese alternative, for Beijing to take the Venezuelan market seriously, it would require an astronomical investment in order to bridge the logistical gap, not only in terms of transportation, but also in acquiring the capability to process Venezuela’s characteristically thick crude. And the latter point is a particularly important one since the fungible nature of oil as a commodity is called into question when consumers with the ability to process one’s commodity are in short supply. Couple that economic expense with the inevitable political one attached to any move into the US’ ‘backyard’, long since considered its strategic preserve, and a long term strategic partnership between Caracas and Beijing appears unlikely while the latter has better options in Central Asia.

Short of revenue-sapping, politically-charged, regional energy schemes such as Petrocaribe then, Venezuela really has little room for meaningful diversification away from the US.

Taking stock of this reality is important for US policy makers as it essentially means that a significant departure from the trade status quo between Caracas and Washington would be in the interests of neither party and is therefore unlikely as such. Quite frankly, it pours a bucket of cold water on Chávez’s fiery oil-threat since, with paltry means of pulling the plug on US supply the threat becomes little more than a bluff.

With that room for manoeuvre established, what of Washington’s scope for pressing Chávez harder on the ideological line?

Let’s be clear, slapping a reducer on Chávez will be best achieved democratically. The failed coup of 2002, hastily endorsed by the Bush administration, showed in no uncertain terms that attempts at regime change only serve to fan the flames that have kept Chávez’s popular appeal burning. Hence, the focus in Washington has correctly shifted to sanctions -- the uncertain, yet politically safer middle-ground between austere words and boots on the ground.

There is, of course, a legitimate debate to be had on the utility of sanctions as a foreign policy tool in the first place. Indeed, if the proof of the pudding really is in the eating, then the new round of sanctions go some way to exposing the failures of the original Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA). That said, the newly revised stipulations in relation to PdVSA may be more useful -- as long as they are backed by a suitably aggressive approach moving forward -- in a secondary capacity, by drawing the relationship between Venezuela and Iran back into the international spotlight and providing a new set of red lines against which Caracas can be judged.

Washington needs to maintain this momentum by pushing a harder line (something that has in the past been constrained by the weighty oil millstone) and calling Chávez’s bluff since taking a tougher stance could help to fragment Chávez’s power. To cut a long story short, by forcing the authoritarian to choose between the two driving thrusts of his foreign policy agenda -- the economic pragmatism of oil, and his proclivity for anti-neoliberalism -- Washington can place its foe in a position he’d really rather not be.

Should Caracas take the first option, the US will score an important victory in making a further pariah of Iran, not to mention denting Chávez’s international standing as an anti-Western revolutionary.

And if Chávez opts for the second and probably more likely course, the US would then be positioned to hamper his ability to plough-back into his political project through further and harsher sanctions. In such an environment, the inevitable failure of Chávez’s unsustainable socialist program would likely be accelerated, perhaps too late to affect his run for another term in 2012, but certainly enough dent his aspirations for perpetual power.

Formulating a strategy around this central goal -- isolating Chávez’s foreign policy thrusts from one another -- should thus be a priority for the current administration in an environment where it needn’t worry excessively about the backlash. Smashing Chávez’s finely tuned balance between the fight against the ostensible ills of neo-liberalism (his raison d’être in the eyes of a significant percentage of Venezuela’s electorate) and reaping the rewards of an oil trade that funds it, could be the diplomatic reducer that Washington seeks.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Opinion: Ecuador's slide to non-institutional government

Amidst the discomfiture of accusations levelled at him by the IISS regarding his links with Colombia’s FARC, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa today has something to smile about.  Going with the BBC’s coverage, details have emerged of Correa’s victory in the May 7th referendum on political reforms, most significantly, giving him greater control over the media and the judiciary.
Writing in the Latin American Herald Tribune some two weeks ago, Lindsay Green Barber took a positive spin on the impending referendum, stating that regardless of the outcome, “the quantity, quality, and creativity of the discourse of the intense campaigns for ¨si¨ and ¨no¨ are evidence of an actively involved and concerned citizenry” and as such, should be viewed favourably.  What is more, she pointed to the encouraging direction of opposition to Correa’s power-maximising bid, from both left and right of the political spectrum.
But despite her best efforts, Correa’s victory has to come as a kick to the teeth.  She may, of course, be right that Correa’s popularity is on the wane ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 2013.  Indigenous groups, for example, have begun to turn their back on the president following a series of clashes over issues such as mining, water and the administration of justice.
But who’s to say the slide to a non-institutional model of governance will stop here?  If we take a hop, skip, and a rather large jump across Colombia and into Venezuela, for example, we find ourselves with a neat working example of how the incremental suffocation of democratic practice through media restrictions, constitutional reform and harassment of the opposition (amongst other initiatives) is actually a rather effective -- though non-commendable -- way of consolidating ones power.
It seems a full collapse of the indigenism that provided the backbone for Correa’s ascent in the first place will be the best means of preventing a slide to neo-statism and non-institutional governance of the brand witnessed in Venezuela today.

Opinion: Fighting Narco-terrorism in Latin America: time to put the hot potato down

Originally published by The Commentator, May 20th, 2011

Achieving equilibrium between security, governance and development will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent, and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door...

Details of a gruesome massacre at a ranch in Guatemala’s Peten province emerged earlier this week that revealed a narrative of 27 victims, bound, hacked by machetes and the majority eventually decapitated.  Sadly, such a tale is all too familiar in Latin America.

This restless continent has, throughout its modern history, embodied the protagonist in Aristotle’s precept of tragedy like no other; steeped in traditions of romanticism and grandeur, yet tainted by stagnation through a penchant for populism, dictatorship and brutal violence, and now left reeling decades, if not centuries behind, in its course of development.

Perhaps unremarkably, the prime suspects in Saturday’s heinous crime are the notorious Zetas - one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.  Together with seven other major mafia organisations, los Zetas have managed to plunge a state once considered an outpost of civilisation at the head of more fiery climes to the south, into an abyss of violence.  Incredibly, over 35,000 people have been killed since Mexico’s War on Drugs began in 2006.

Yet, somewhere beneath the obvious element of humanitarian tragedy, there is a clear strategic lesson to be taken from this macabre tale.  Succinctly, it reveals how a purely militarised response to the phenomenon of narco-terrorism is a double edged sword in that it may help to clear up your own dwelling, but more often than not, it does so at the expense of the neighbourhood.

Should Calderon continue to apply military muscle with little else to compliment the heavy stuff, Latin America’s criminal entrepreneurs will continue to scramble operations out of Mexico’s borders and deeper into the likes of Guatemala.  Ironically, an almost identical sequence of events helped to spark Mexico’s own narcotics exportation culture.  As I have observed
elsewhere, Colombia’s heavy-handed clamp down on the Cali and Medellin cartels throughout the 1980s and 1990s didn’t so much eradicate the problem as much as it simply pushed it away; forcing production units to scatter south, principally to Peru, and into the Central American isthmus to the north.

Not to labour the point, but tackling narco-terrorism with firepower alone is therefore a rather more complex and expensive means of passing a hot potato across sovereign borders.  It’s the problem no one wants to handle.

But if Mexico, and indeed the US are serious about putting this problem down once and for all -- and the US should be seeing as it is responsible for the lion’s share of refined imports, shares a 1,969 mile border with its Southern neighbour, and could quite frankly do without a failed state next door -- then the answer lies not with military muscle (at least not entirely) but with a heightened dedication to a liberal agenda for Latin America.

Only through democracy, respect for individual rights, rule of law with independent judiciaries, effective law enforcement agencies, the promotion of a culture of lawfulness within civil society, and not least prosperity through positive liberal market reforms, will this culture of grotesquely violent entrepreneurialism truly begin to disappear in favour of more virtuous means of making ends meet.  After all, to boil it down to the crudest of concoctions, this is what the drug game is really all about: making ends meet.

To be sure, consider the following nugget of wisdom from security expert,
Phil Williams (himself borrowing wittingly from Carl von Clausewitz).  Transnational organised crime is simply a continuation of business by other means.  An irritatingly simple maxim it may be, yet true nevertheless.  And as any scholar of Clausewitz will tell you, in war (or be it a frightening merger of war and business in this instance), military means must be both subordinate to, and guided by the hand of the state so as to maximise ones chance of translating available means into desired goals.  That, as they say, is strategy.

This is not to discredit the military’s utility within this international predicament.  Indeed, Mexico’s military must play a major role in providing security amidst a pack of fierce gangs that, by and large, enjoy de facto control over masses of territory.  But it is imperative that this approach is part of a multi-pronged attack that keeps in touch with strategy by creating durable and effective linkages with development and governance.  Put simply, security through military predominance is not an end itself, but a means of creating the necessary breathing space required for governance and development to cultivate peace -- the ultimate end in any war.

In realising good governance and development, a range of other institutions, principally Mexico’s executive and legislative branches, must make the necessary socio-political and legal adjustments.  Suitable initiatives might include the regeneration of poorer areas, such as Mexico’s Pacific Coast states, and the decriminalisation of certain physician-prescribed drugs, through to fighting corruption at the highest levels, and acquiring diplomatic, law enforcement and military support from Mexico’s Latin neighbours.  Invariably, of course, this process will also require said support from Mexico’s giant northern neighbour throughout.

Beating Los Zetas and company in Mexico, and indeed, putting rest to the phenomenon in the entirety of Latin America, will be no small feat.  Crucially though, achieving the equilibrium between security, governance and development described here, will be the difference between decisively dealing with narco-terrorism across a restless continent, and continuing to pass the hot potato on next-door. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Opinion: Kicking Cocaine out of Colombia

Inform someone of your Colombian heritage and the customary response will consist either of acknowledgment of Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama – the eccentric and effortlessly talented Colombian football icon; worldwide music sensation, Shakira; or cocaine.  Whisper it, but the latter association may be on its way into the dustbin of history.
While acknowledging that Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has dropped Colombia from its list of countries requiring special observation since production has decreased by 58% between 2000 and 2009.  This is high praise indeed for a state that spent the lion’s share of the 80s and 90s as hostage to rival drug cartels that held levels of geostrategic power previously unseen in non-state actors.
Where did it all go so right?  Well, without getting too carried away (Colombia still has a number of socio-political problems that it needs to address as well as the ongoing drug problem itself), much of the acclaim belongs with the preceding Uribe administration.  Much maligned by left-of-centre commentators (even more so further-left-still, principally in Chávez’s Palacio de Miraflores), human rights activists, and indigenous demographics for his military-orientated approach to the war-on-drugs, the ex-president has often been dismissed as a “gringo puppet”.  But it seems his kinetic-military approach combined with mass eradication projects appear to be paying off - for the new Santos administration and Colombia at least.
The drug problem in Colombia is complex.  Its roots hover between left-wing guerrilla groups, principally the FARC, right-wing paramilitary organisations, notably the AUC, and abhorrently violent criminal entrepreneurs.  Solving the problem is therefore equally complex.  If the desired end is simple enough to settle on (eradication of drug exportation), the means are less so.  Uribe’s approach viewed the crisis through a military paradigm; all out war.  But at the other end of the scale there is the development approach which includes providing alternatives to coca cultivation for Colombia’s indigenous populations, tackling poverty and acute inequality, and addressing the grievances of the FARC.  In short, there is a lack of consensus on what needs to be done.
Amid this lack of consensus, a glaring problem arises despite Colombia’s improvements: the drugs may be disappearing from Colombia, but they’re not disappearing.  The Central American isthmus, especially Mexico, and sub-equatorial South America, significantly Peru, have experienced an explosion of drug production in the time that Colombia’s has decreased.  It seems, therefore, that Uribe’s approach has, to an extent, simply pushed the problem away from Colombia’s borders and into its local neighbourhood.   
Thus, while the military approach has served Colombia well, now is the time to foster development in an integrated multi-pronged assault.  While left-wing guerrilla’s and violent entrepreneurs are on the defensive, Bogotá is in a strong position to negotiate their demise.  In turn, decreasing the power of the FARC will delegitimise the raison d’être of the AUC.  Act now, achieve lasting success, and Colombia may well provide the template for future success stories to come.

Originally posted in March 2011, by the Henry Jackson Society

Monday, 16 May 2011

Opinion: All that oil and no power

A story that has done the rounds in the last couple of days (see the BBC's coverage here) is that Venezuelans are facing up to electricity rationing following country-wide blackouts earlier this week.  Power is set to be cut for 3 hours a day in 19 of the country's 23 states.  Lights out.

I certainly won't be the first to point out that this isn't the first time that Chávez has pulled the plug on Venezuela's grid.  2010 was also an infamously patchy year for household appliances as droughts were blamed for energy shortages before rationing was finally lifted in June. 

How ironic - all that oil and no power.  Perhaps not that surprising though; since when have socialism and wide scale government intervention really produced?  Combine that historical lesson with Chávez’s penchant for spending big bucks on regional politico-economic initiatives (at the expense of Venezuela’s own infrastructure) and failing services suddenly seem less remarkable.

Really, then, this energy affair is just a crude (mind the pun) microcosm of 21st century socialism; fight against market forces and expect to land in an unsightly heap of inefficiency and paucity.  Oh, and on a final note, it's worth pointing out that this heap will require more than an hourlong prayer meeting to solve.