Thursday, July 31, 2008

Regarding As Raúl Transforms Cuba, Washington Refuses to Budge

COHA Research Associate Michelle Quiles wrote the following Op-Ed regarding the recent reforms enacted by Raúl Castro in Cuba. She argues that the significance of these reforms warrants an international response such as the EU’s decision to lift its diplomatic sanctions against the island.

On July 4, Cuba witnessed the imprisonment of pro-democracy dissidents wishing to commemorate U.S. Independence Day. Even though Cubans are accustomed to these exhibitions of intolerance, Raúl Castro’s recent reforms seemed to portend a new era of liberalization. Hope was again renewed when, three days later, the Cuban government kept its promise of using detainment merely as a warning and released the dissidents. This setback, though, is not surprising considering the U.S.’s unremitting hostility towards the island. The Cuban government argued that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was aiding opposition groups and that Washington would be “responsible” for the “consequences” of these actions, hence the detainments.

Therefore, Washington’s continued hard-line approach towards Cuba has been largely responsible for repeatedly providing the revolutionary government with a justification for concentrating power and enforcing loyalty to the government, so as to protect itself from the “American empire’s attacks.” The Cuban Revolution was successful precisely because of its anti-imperialist rhetoric, which fed Cubans’ desire to free themselves from American intervention in their domestic affairs. It is Washington’s obstinacy, not Raúl’s determined effort, which reduces the U.S.’s ability to negotiate and encourage a continuation of Raúl’s liberalizing reforms.

In February 2008, Fidel Castro transferred power to his younger brother Raúl, sparking a worldwide dialogue regarding the implications of the first major transition of power seen in Cuba in almost five decades. Although the majority of observers believe that Havana has, in fact, carried out many significant reforms, the Bush administration views these recent developments as merely cosmetic because of continued instances of repressive state control. Although Cuba is still far from being a liberal democracy, it is narrow-minded to label Raúl’s reforms as inconsequential. His administration has become much more tolerant of opposition groups, given many islanders titles to their homes, eliminated the salary cap, and decentralized agriculture. In addition, it has released political prisoners, commuted thirty death sentences, and unofficially abolished capital punishment.

Raúl Castro has implemented policies that his brother Fidel blocked for decades. Even if Raúl is not interested in carrying out further reforms, he has dared to raise expectations on the island and abroad, contributing to the mobilization of a citizenry intent on effecting real change. Reversing this liberalization process now could potentially result in stiff opposition from Cubans who have tasted change and do not wish to give it up.

Analysts should not limit the definition of Cuban progress to an automatic compliance with western democratic standards. The government has controlled most aspects of its citizens’ lives since the Revolution. Fidel micromanaged the island’s politics and economics, making the government synonymous with his persona. This cannot be reversed overnight. Now that he has formally stepped down, the government will need to differentiate the executive office from Fidel in order to promote a new style of autonomous governance. Raúl has not been overly aggressive in transforming his brother’s state, but he has certainly started to create a sharply different Cuba.

The EU’s recent decision to lift its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba is precisely how the international community should greet Raúl’s positive changes. Sanctions were imposed to pressure Havana to democratize, but proved ineffective. Not even the U.S. economic embargo, which profoundly hurt the Cuban economy, was effective in coercing Fidel to conform to Washington’s desiderata. The embargo’s only discernible accomplishments have been to promote economic instability, resulting in the further deterioration of the lives of average Cubans. In fact, the rationing system was implemented due to the lack of food and supplies caused largely by the embargo. This attempt to topple the revolutionary government has failed repeatedly. It is time for a different tactic.

By lifting the sanctions, the EU is not merely opening the path to dialogue and positively reinforcing Raúl’s progressive actions now and into the future; it is also performing an enormous act of good faith that could fully restore Havana’s connection to the international community. The question now remains: will the US follow suit or will it maintain a policy that has only produced negative results? Lifting the embargo would not only open communications but also eliminate the justification of American intervention used repeatedly by the Cuban government to detain dissidents and quarantine hostile ideas.

Michelle Quiles
Research Associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Regarding Bolivian Provinces Empty Secession Threats

On June 2, 2008 El Nuevo Día published an article entitled "En ruta a la autonomía" which discussed the outcomes of the autonomy referendum carried out in the Bolivian provinces of Beni and Pando. COHA Research Associate Michelle Quiles wrote the following letter to the editor in response. Even though people in these regions voted overwhelmingly in support of autonomy from Bolivia, the article fails to take into consideration the fact that more than 30% of the population abstained from voting. Therefore, it is narrow-minded to assert that the majority of the population supports autonomy when a significant portion did not even vote. Furthermore, only if President Morales recognized these results will the referendum hold any significance and he has stated that he does not recognize these referendums as valid.

A pesar de la victoria decisiva hacia la autonomía en Beni y Pando, un porcentaje significativo de la población no participó en el proceso electoral (“En ruta la autonomía,” 2 de junio de 2008). Aproximadamente un 46.5% se abstuvo en Pando y un 34% en Beni, según el Latinnews Daily. Por lo tanto, muchas de éstas abstenciones se pudiesen traducir en votos en contra de la autonomía regional y, combinado con el 20% de los votos en contra, es posible que los votos a favor de la autonomía no reciban una mayoría tan drástica. Sería incorrecto, entonces, asumir una victoria definitiva para los movimientos autonomistas en estas regiones cuando no se ha logrado recopilar las opiniones de la mayoría de sus habitantes.

Tampoco se puede declarar concluyentemente el éxito de dichos movimientos. El Presidente Morales ha declarado en varias ocasiones que no reconocerá la validez de estas elecciones, convirtiendo la declaración de autonomía de Beni, Pando y Santa Cruz simplemente en un deseo, no en una realidad a nivel nacional e internacional. Dado a que estas tres regiones contienen solo un 30% de la población boliviana, su poder e influencia en la política pública nacional para poder independizarse es debatible.

Michelle Quiles
Research Associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Regarding EU Should Recognize Significance of Reforms under Raúl Castro and Inefficiency of Sanctions

On June 16, 2008 The Guardian published an article entitled "EU postpones decision on Cuba sanctions" which discussed the European Union’s debate regarding its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba. COHA Research Associate Michelle Quiles wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

It seems that the some countries do not fully appreciate the significance of Cuba’s most recent reforms (“EU postpones decision on Cuba sanctions,” June 16, 2008). Although Cuba is still far from being a liberal democracy, it is narrow-minded for countries like Sweden, the Czech Republic and the US to label the reforms being implemented by Raúl Castro as inconsequential. Exercising greater tolerance for opposition groups and homosexuals, signing two human rights treaties, and establishing greater property rights are unprecedented changes for the island. In addition, four political prisoners have been released, 30 death sentences have been commuted, and capital punishment has been unofficially abolished. Alone, these events might seem minor but taken together, they provide genuine hope for the creation of a new Cuba.

Now is the perfect time for the EU to exercise its creative leverage over Raúl Castro and help him consolidate the island’s transition to an open and democratic society. The existing EU sanctions against Havana are not being enforced, so maintaining them signifies nothing. Officially eliminating them, however, would signify an enormous act of good faith that has the potential to restore the Cuban government’s connection to the international community.

Michelle Quiles
Research Associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Regarding Guns, Drugs, and Growing Violence

On June 10, 2008 The Dallas Morning News published an article entitled "U.S., Mexico launch unprecedented effort to disrupt cross-border weapons smuggling" which discussed a joint venture by Mexican and the US security forces to address issues of border security. COHA Research Associate Chris Sweeney wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

My hat goes off to U.S. and Mexican customs officials for the initial success of their joint operations (“U.S., Mexico launch unprecedented effort to disrupt cross-border weapons smuggling” June 10). Such progressive law enforcement is a promising development in the otherwise disheartening war on drugs. However it is a misguided solution. The US must instead focus its attention on the domestic issues of drug abuse and gun control – not border security – to achieve any sort of resounding victory in the drug war. After all, it is the American lifestyle, not the Mexican drug cartels, that is to blame. The widespread demand for drugs by U.S. consumers gives the cartels incentive to do business, and the accessible supply of weaponry from U.S. arms dealers makes their business possible. This lethal mix of supply and demand has resulted in far too much violence, some of which is now spilling into the U.S. How ironic that the global spread of American consumerism and violence has taken its ugliest form along our very own border. Meanwhile, law officials on both sides, regardless of their joint operations, continue to suffer the consequences of inappropriate national drug policies.

Chris Sweeney; Research Associate
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

To read the full article, please go to:

Regarding the Surge of Violence in Mexico

On May 18, 2008 The Houston Chronicle published an article entitled "In reeling Mexico, a change in strategy" which discussed the measures being taken by Mexico and the US to combat drug-related violence. COHA Research Associate Chris Sweeney wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

Your article clearly details the recent surge in drug-related violence throughout Mexico. However it fails to adequately link this violence with the larger issue at hand – the failure of America’s brazen but largely ineffective war on drugs.

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has mobilized his country’s law enforcement forces to directly combat drug cartels. The results are at best mixed. Local police have often become involved in the very drug trade they are supposed to prevent. Meanwhile the recent involvement of the Mexican military in the fight against drugs already is being linked to increased human rights violations. These failures make clear that direct intervention in the drug war does not guarantee success.

What is needed is an upgraded approach: US funding of the drug war should be redirected from prevention abroad to domestic programs designed to target users. Reducing the demand will in turn affect supply, and a decrease in violence could very well result.

Chris Sweeney; Research Associate
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

To read the full article, please go to:

Regarding "The Failings of Chile’s Education System: Institutionalized Inequality and a Preference for the Affluent"

The following response was sent to COHA by Mr. Bernard McElhone in response to Andrea Arango's article regarding the Chilean education system.

You must be especially proud of Andrea Arango's report on Chilean education. The clear writing and attentive research are far above average for COHA. There is hardly a tendentious formulation or bloody shirt to be found. I hope this praise has not cost the woman her non-paying position at COHA.

Inevitably, though, there are a few points with which one might disagree. I mention these simply to open for you and the COHA staff another perspective on the matters considered in the release.

1. In 2800 words no mention appears of the trajectory in test scores nationwide under the current educational system. Are more Chileans literate and numerate when compared with their predecessors of five or ten years ago? How do their achievements compare with those of neighboring countries, where the effort at educational leveling is further progressed? Surely, those are basic, more critical evaluative questions than asking which students gain access to a particular rank of university.

2. The question of poor people's access to better primary and secondary schools is complex. It is insufficient to attribute the disparity of access at the primary and secondary levels to inconvenient transport and a lack of knowledge of an occult admission process. It has been demonstrated across the world that the middle class will suffer great inconvenience to ensure their children's educational success. They instill a greater respect for education, they tutor them, they program their days, they game the application systems for better public and private schools. It cannot be a surprise, then, that middle class children achieve higher rates of admission to choice schools than the poor. After all, they have been formed as education-seeking missles since they left the womb.

The two small points raised in this regard (access to transport and knowledge of the system's variables) could be readily addressed via the provision of transport vouchers and a program of public
notification regarding school rankings. Many cities allow students to travel free on the mass transit system, and so could Chilean cities. School rankings could readily be broadcast via the news media, as they are in many places. The sad/happy truth, though, is that the middle class is largely self-selecting. The people who join are those who decipher and negotiate the system, not those who manage to discern and protest yet another pea under another heap of matresses.

3. The fact that more than a fifth of Chilean students fled the public schools when given the opportunity is a telling fact about life in that system. If the calculus were based on families rather than students, the rates would be still higher. Parents do not thoughtlessly inconvenience themselves and upset their children's social networks by bouncing them from school to school. They transfered because, like so many government systems, the public schools had come to serve constituencies other than the children they purport to serve. My point is best illustrated by a case mentioned in Ms Arango's essay, that of the encouragement of test-day absences. I doubt that there is a private or semi-private school in Chile where the administrators would direct children to be truants in the service of test scores. Yet, that maneuver is a device employed by education bureaucrats in many countries. The thread that ties those bureaucrats together, across borders, mountains and oceans, is the fact that they are almost inevitably government employees.

4. . The essay cites more than once the lower quality of public school teachers when compared with their confreres in the more private systems. In a free market, that sort of failing is addressed by the gradation of salaries according to job performance. Even in the public sector, that rational approach is sometimes employed. The US military, for example, pays increments for everything from qualification as a parachutist to the ability to speak a second language. The pay enhances capacity and performance. Yet -- I just know -- if the spectre of performance pay for teachers were raised, it would be opposed as a further imposition of divisive capitalist norms on a well-intentioned, failing system of education. The inept teacher would be more deserving of protection than the under-served student.

5. At the level of higher education, many solutions to the cited problems are available. You will recall that Jews in the US, denied access to the Ivy League, made the New York public colleges models of underfunded, intellectually glorious institutions. Similarly, poor Asians across the US bring their academic excellence with them to less prestigious public schools. Their very presence enhances the institutions. Protesting one's inability to gain admission to PUC is less effectual that taking the Chilean version of a Kaplan course. In the American model, the Ivy League, confronted with the promise, achievements and growing influence of those whom it had rejected, adjusted its admissions policies in order to avoid becoming a dumping ground for the stupid privileged. As recent world history has made clear, that process is sadly incomplete, but its force and direction are undeniable.

All of which is to say, Ms Arango (did I mention what a good expository writer she is?) and her sources might have identified aspects of the Chilean education system in need of improvement, but they have not made the case for tearing up the blueprint and beginning anew.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Regarding "China’s Claim in Latin America: So Far, a Partner not a Threat"

The Jaime Heine (related to the poet?) article regarding Chinese trade in Latin America, seems to me to tacitly pose the central question in US-Chinese third world trade competition: which trading partner is better for the people in the third world. As you know, the Chinese have demonstrated a willingness to trade with and support any tyrant, no matter how bloody toward his own subjects or threatening toward his neighbors. Chinese policy in Zimbabwe and Iran are models of that policy, though it is replicated in many other places. Simply, the Chinese assert that they are in those places to make a buck, not to advance any particular norm of governmental behavior. That a moral policy makes China a welcome trading partner to dreadful types across the globe, and in most cases, makes China an enabler of pariah governments.

By contrast, the US has struggled constantly and openly with the question of trade and the moral burdens that attend it. Thus, we sometimes trade with dictators and sometimes do not. When we do trade, we press, with varying degrees of effectualness and sincerity, for higher standards of humane governance. I prefer the Chinese model, in which business is simply business; it seems to me a less impeded route out of poverty. Naturally,I acknowledge the moral ledge on which such a policy is balanced. I would defend my position by pointing to the hundreds of millions killed in the name of utopian planning: they far outnumber the people murdered by free trade. Opposite to my line of thinking, COHA has consistently held that trade imposes grave obligations on the US to press democratic development on our more benighted trading partners, even if that development leaves them as wards of the international community.

Curiously, though, the Heine article appears to welcome the increased momentum of the Chinese model.

So, what do you want? Trade free of moral cant and posturing, as the Chinese offer? Or the conflicted American model in which we dither constantly between doing business and moral agonizing?
- usually not doing either particulary well.

Congressional Action on Cross Border

On 9/11/07 Sen Cornyn of Texas introduced an amendment to the Omnibus Spending Bill, HR-3074 (Amendment 2842) that "would ensure that every motor carrier entering the United States through the cross-border motor carrier demonstration program is inspected and meets all applicable safety standards established for United States commercial motor vehicles"

It was defeated by a vote of 29/69. Voting for the amendment was Thomas Carper (D-Del) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) One the Republican side, 27 voted for the amendment, which was a logical compromise. They were, Lamar Alexander, Wayne Allard, Robert Bennett, Kit Bond,
Jim Bunning, Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Thad Cochran, Norm Coleman, Susan Collins, John Cornyn, Michael Crapo, Jim DeMint, Pete Domenici, Charles Grassley, Judd Gregg, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Johnny Isakson, Jon Kyl, Trent Lott, Richard Lugar, Mel Martinez, Mitch McConnell, Lisa Murkowski, Ted Stevens, John Sununu, David Vitter

Earlier the Dorgan Amendment was introduced, (2797) It passed, as we know by 75/23. The vote on the Democratic side of the aisle was unanimous at 49. 25 Republicans voted for the original Dorgan Amendment.

Those opposing the original Dorgan Amendment were Wayne Allard, Robert Bennett, Kit Bond, Jim Bunning, Richard Burr, Thad Cochran, John Cornyn, Jim DeMint, Pete Domenici, Charles Grassley, Judd Gregg, Chuck Hagel, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Jon Kyl, Trent Lott, Richard Lugar, Mel Martinez, Mitch McConnell, Lisa Murkowski, Ted Stevens, John Sununu, David Vitter. John McCain and Larry Craig abstained.

This was the Bill were the now infamous word "establish" was used as a supposed "catch all".

I haven't found the specific vote count on the new amendment yet but the committee members are as follows. Shouldn't be too hard to figure out who did what unless they flipped.

Democratic Subcommittee Members:

- Senator Patty Murray (Chairman) (WA)
- Senator Robert C. Byrd (WV)
- Senator Barbara Mikulski (MD)
- Senator Herb Kohl (WI)
- Senator Richard Durbin (IL)
- Senator Byron Dorgan (ND)
- Senator Patrick Leahy (VT)
- Senator Tom Harkin (IA)
- Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA)
- Senator Tim Johnson (SD)
- Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ)

Republican Subcommittee Members:

- Senator Christopher Bond (Ranking Member) (MO)
- Senator Richard Shelby (AL)
- Senator Arlen Specter (PA)
- Senator Robert Bennett (UT)
- Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX)
- Senator Sam Brownback (KS)
- Senator Ted Stevens (AK)
- Senator Pete Domenici (NM)
- Senator Lamar Alexander (TN)
- Senator Wayne Allard (CO)

Sent to COHA on July 30, 2008 by Porter M. Corn

Friday, July 18, 2008

Regarding A New Approach to Economic Development

On June 17, 2008 The Guardian published an article entitled "Latin America's poor provide rich pickings" which detailed a new approach for economic development in Latin America's most impoverished regions. COHA Research Associate Chris Sweeney wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

The Base of the Pyramid (BoP) approach certainly has the potential to bring economic development to the poorest areas in Latin America. This business model provides an effective way to bring essential goods and services to those most in need; it bypasses the inefficiencies of government aid by cutting out state involvement altogether. Still, BoP runs the risk that any market-led approach to development faces – the systemic continuation of an uneven class divide. The poor may benefit from newfound employment opportunities, but as long as the profits they generate are repatriated to wealthy multinational corporations, current inequalities will persist and even worsen. In the short run, BoP may be a positive step because it improves the living conditions of the poor by providing them with the chance to compete in the outer limits of the business world. However this is only a small step and not a sufficient solution. The challenge for the future will be to find a way to distribute not just wages, but profits more equitably.

Chris Sweeney; Research Associate
Council on Hemispheric Affairs

To read the full Guardian article, please go to:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Regarding Canadian Tar Sands

On May 22nd, 2008 Time Magazine published an article titled “Well-Oiled Machine” which detailed the renewed interest Canada’s tar sands are receiving as the price of oil skyrockets. COHA Research Associate Stephen Okin wrote the following letter to the editor in response.

Dear Editor,

Looking at the size of the mine shovel behind Pat Crisby makes me wonder how far mankind is willing to go in its quest for oil (“Well-Oiled Machine,” May 22). The pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China are monumental engineering achievements that added to the natural landscape; however, the consumption of tar sands in Althabasca threatens to destroy a territory the size of England and turn Alberta into a desert due to the large amounts of water required for the process. This is an amazing feat of engineering in scale but not in purpose. A more impressive achievement would be a world where fossil fuels are no longer the dominant energy source. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, sustainable energy results in stable jobs and economic growth. This is in contrast to the oil industry, which experiences constant fluctuations as sources come online, peak, and then slowly decline. Althabasca’s tar sands will provide only temporary gains in oil production and economic growth at a permanent cost to the environment. Alberta authorities would be wise to invest a major part of revenue from oil taxes into a serious sustainable development program.

Stephen Okin,
Council on Hemispheric Affairs Research Associate

To read the full Time Magazine article, go to:,9171,1808610,00.html

COHA responds to the San Francisco Chronicle's, “Venezuela weapons worry US, Colombia” (May 16th, 2008)

In an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 16th, 2008, AP reporter Christopher Toothaker contended that the Venezuelan military build-up was cause for alarm. COHA Research Associate Jessica Bryant's response follows:

Newspaper accounts of Venezuela’s military buildup often paint a picture that is more alarming than accurate. Christopher Toothaker’s article “Venezuela weapons worry US, Colombia” (May 16th) may provide an example of this. His reference to a military analyst’s opinion that the arms that Venezuela is now acquiring are, “just the sorts of weapons that the FARC would find interesting since these are the standard tools of guerrilla warfare” could easily be said of the more than $5 billion of weapons and aid that Washington currently supplies to Bogotá and adds nothing to an understanding of the situation.

Additionally, your author fails to contextualize his story within the history of defense spending in the region. He could have revealed how links between Colombian officials and rightist paramilitary groups render Caracas’ apprehensions over US military aid to their neighbor entirely credible. Toothaker fails to turn a critical eye in all directions, overlooking US support of an ill-conceived plot to overthrow President Chavez in 2002.

While Chávez’s modus operandi has favored haranguing leaders with whom he disagrees, he has yet to manifest this in a threatening manner. Recent Interpol findings that Venezuelan officials funded and supplied weapons to the FARC certainly warrant further investigation but are not conclusive. It would be wise to maintain rhetoric that generates more light than heat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Regarding "A Hidden Agenda: John McCain and the IRI"

I read the COHA article on IRI activities in Latin America. Whatever one might think of what this institution does or is capable of doing, the idea that Latin America's "lost decade" would not have occurred without the IRI is not credible.

The "lost decade" of Latin America was attended by an equally lost decade in the state of Texas and in other economies where raw materials played very important roles After rapid increases in the price of oil and other commodities during the 1970s, prices fell hard in the early 1980s - plunging in the late 80s. Countries that depended on these sales for tax revenues began to default on their government's debt. Of course these same problems caused difficulties in the private sector. As the poor got poorer, and even the rich did, political strife became common across Latin America. Everybody wanted to grab what was left. It isn't for me to be telling anybody about the effects of IRI activies, but I am certain that much of the conflict was a reaction to these price shocks and resulting income shocks. While it is interesting to read about the IRI as a conduit for politically charged money, turbulent world commodity markets and subsequent sovereign debt defaults would have been plenty by themselves to cause a lost decade. This is not rocket science. Just access databases of the prices for oil, copper, gas, iron, or soybeans.

However, the easiest way of figuring this all out is through each country's terms of trade statistics. Most people don't quite understand what "terms of trade" means. Terms of trade is simply the ratio of the prices of things that a country exports to the prices of things that a country imports. Just go to the World Bank's World Development Indicators, pick out an assortment of Latin American countries, and then command the database to produce terms of trade statistics from the late 1960s to the present. I just did this. I punched in the names of each of Latin America's seven largest countries - (in order of population size) Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile. Terms of trade fall throughout the 1980s and are at their worse in the second half of the decade. Try this and I think that you will not have the slightest difficulty deciding what the lost decade was really about.

William Gruber

In response to "A Hidden Agenda: John McCain and the IRI," by COHA Research Associate Sarah Hamburger.

Sarah Hamburger's response:

Mr. Gruben,

You have obviously considered my article thoughtfully and your explanation of the “lost decade” in Latin America was clarifying. I regret it if I was not clear enough in my article. My intention was never to imply that the lost decade was a result of the IRI, in fact the events I spoke of regarding Haiti and Venezuela took place in the 2000s, not the 80s and 90s. My point is that the IRI illegally intervenes in the affairs of sovereign nations, which is a violation of international law. The “lost decade” portion of the piece was just a brief statement about the auspices under which the IRI was founded (essentially, it is an organization based on a speech by President Reagan, a man with a demonstrably disastrous Latin American policy with Iran-Contra and the Salvadoran Civil War). I appreciate your response.

-Sarah Hamburger