Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Thinking clearly about Amazon protection

The world has suddenly rediscovered the Amazon. After a summer of record heat waves in Europe and North America, thousands of fires and a climate-sceptic, obnoxious, sexist, racist and proudly authoritarian Brazilian president have put the Amazon and its protection on the global to-do list and, more pointedly, on this past week’s G7 Summit agenda.

This is great. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and its largest reserve of biodiversity. It plays an important role in the planet’s carbon cycle and its destruction would have a massively negative impact on climate change. And yet, a fast-growing part of it is being destroyed on President Jair Bolsonaro’s watch.

Over the last two weeks, as demonstrations were taking place the world over, a huge wave of aid offers, threats and advice have flooded the media, and the usual clique of universal experts and global spotlight grabbers — from Stephen Walt and Leonardo DiCaprio to our very own Lloyd Axworthy — have jumped in the fray. Most of the suggestions, however, seem to assume that the development of the region can still be largely stopped while others have been frankly counter-productive — for instance, sending "multilateral green helmets [...] across the Brazilian border."

For the current energy not to evaporate as the rainy season starts in the Amazon and as temperatures drop in the Global North, it may be useful to drop those views and consider a few basic things that any serious endeavour to save as much of the forest as possible should take into account.

First, and most importantly, the Amazon is huge: larger than Western Europe and, at 5.5 million square kilometres, as large as Canada’s 10 provinces together. Depending on how one defines it, between 20 and 30 million people live in the 60 percent of the Amazon that lies in Brazil, and millions more in the Colombian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon. Most of those people are poor and, with very few exceptions, their current livelihood and long-term life prospects are not consistent with the transformation of the Amazon into a huge forest reserve.

The protection of forest thus calls for the creation of options for those people. This will be costly, and it will take time. Consider for instance that the US$20 million G7 aid offer represents less than a dollar per capita for Amazonians — or less than the carbon tax on 20 litres of gasoline that many Canadians are loath to pay. It also probably means that, even in the best of cases, a substantial portion of the forest will be destroyed in the meantime.

Being serious about the Amazon means being ready to invest massive amounts of money into the long-term and necessarily slow and muddled re-engineering of its economic development. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who managed Brazil’s Amazon policy from 2007 to 2009, speaks for instance of a knowledge-based economy for the region, an appealing prospect, but one that is also not realistic in the short or medium term.

Third, the G7 countries’ track record on climate change commitment is patchy at best: Germany’s main source of electricity is still coal; Canada is building pipelines to export thick and dirty oil; the gilets jaunes movement in France was driven in part by opposition to a carbon tax; the Trump administration is doing its very best to keep the country’s energy matrix as dirty as possible; and so on.

In other words, a serious attempt at tackling the problem calls for a long-term outlook, a willingness to invest large sums of money, a sizable degree of humility and the recognition that the main players will be Amazonian countries themselves. Now, with a man like Bolsonaro in charge of the largest chunk of the forest, some prodding will obviously be needed too, but the latter must be cleverly applied.

This means leveraging the will and interests of local players. Brazilians are proud and protective of the Amazon and, as Robbert Muggah recently noted, most are shocked and ashamed at the current government’s policies and actions. The governors of Amazonian states and significant sectors of the Brazilian Congress are pushing the central government to fight the fire and enforce existing regulations, and they want to prevent Bolsonaro from weakening the latter. Powerful counter-forces must obviously be tackled — the large and powerful congressional “cattle caucus” for instance — and for this, sensitive pressure points must be exploited.

The most obvious of them is Brazil’s sizable dependence on foreign agricultural markets. Brazil is the world’s top exporter of sugar, coffee, soy, orange juice and chicken, and it ranks third for beef and eighth for cotton. Credible threats of boycotts could thus in theory work wonders. The agro-business lobby in Brazil understands this and is already pushing the government to enhance the monitoring of illegal logging and enforce existing regulations.

To have any hope of success, however, such pressure needs to be completely de-linked from any challenge to Brazil’s sovereignty, and tied to a credible and substantive offer of cooperation.

A very promising avenue is being opened by Colombia and Peru’s call for a summit of Amazon countries on September 6. The G7 summit may be now over, but if leaders of those countries are serious about action on the Amazon, they should engage with this effort, commit to supporting effective action with significant resources, and make it clear that, while the effort must be led by Amazon countries themselves, inaction or worse could have real economic consequences.

[This post was first published on the Open Canada website]

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Lava Jato: beware throwing the baby with the bathwater

The trove of documents that The Intercept is posting online shows increasingly clearly that Lava Jato Judge Moro and key prosecutors were targeting Lula to make sure that he would not run in 2016, thus opening the way for a victory of the Right.
Those who denounced the impeachment of Dilma and the arrest of Lula as a coup--among whom I was not--look increasingly right. The whole affair, well beyond clownish, violent and vulgar Bolsonaro, points to deep flaws in the country's institutional make-up and to strict limits to its supposedly democratic status.
It would be tempting, therefore, to dismiss Lava Jato as a scheme, as the pure artefact of an attempt by the Right to get back to power, which would be a mistake.
Let's indeed not through the baby with the bathwater: though the proof against him personally look increasingly fraught, corruption was rife under the governments of Lula and his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff (against whom nothing has been found) government.
As the latest issue of David Fleischer's Brazil Focus (August 17-23) reminds us, the scale of those scandals is just mind boggling. In one of the latest instalments of the investigation, two of the PT's finance ministers are targeted: Antonio Palocci, who is already in prison and collaborating with the police, and Guido Mantega, "the longest-serving finance Minister in the history of Brazil," still free.
The latter is accused by Palocci of having received $R50 million Reais (about US$15 million) from Odebrecht, the big engineering firm that was at the core of the scandal. As Palocci is clearly trying to save his skin, this may or not be true, but in the meantime, judges and the Swiss authorities, on the request of Brazil, have frozen the bank accounts of Mantega: $R 50 million in Brazil, and $US 50 million in Switzerland, for a total of about US $65 million dollars.
Mantega should obviously be considered innocent until proven guilty, but this guy is the foreign-born son of Italian immigrants, he has a BA in Economics and a PhD in Sociology from the University of São Paulo. He has been close to Lula since the 1990s, he has taught in universities, worked for think tanks, and he was, for a while, an advisor in the PT administration of the City of São Paulo. His only real claim to fame is this long stint as Finance Minister for Lula and Dilma. And now, no doubt among many other assets, he has US$50 million in a Swiss bank account?
As the evidence piles up, of Moro's scheming and of engineering firms, banks and PT operators' getting immensely rich, Lula--and possibly Dilma too--looks increasingly like a pathetic tool cleverly used by a cynical mafia of conservative political entrepreneurs and long-time "friends" and "collaborators."
It is to cry.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A military intervention in Venezuela?

February 23 marked the failure of two gambles against the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

First, the opposition bet that Venezuela’s military would abandon Maduro and let a peaceful caravan of food and medicine cross the country’s borders from neighbouring countries; instead, it ended in tear gas, fire and death. Second, the Lima Group and most European countries bet that the recognition of Juan Guaido as interim president would lead to a peaceful collapse of the regime; instead, it ended in the embarrassed denunciation of violence that was always highly probable.

Dreams of a tropical Berlin Wall bash were replaced by opposition demands for military action.

The Lima Group is desperately looking for another path and is having a hard time finding one. At its meeting in Bogota on Monday, the alliance took a firm stand against military action, denounced Maduro’s use of violence to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid and reaffirmed its support for Guaido. It repeated its call for the military, and now the judiciary, to recognizeGuaido as interim president. The group also announced a series of diplomatic initiatives already under way at the International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council and Human Rights Commission, and the OAS Permanent Council – in particular the recognition of Guaido’s envoys as legitimate representatives of Venezuela.

Broad smiles and hugging aside, this is unlikely to satisfy Guaido. On Sunday, he echoed an earlier statement of U.S. President Donald Trump. He called on the international community to "consider every option to free this homeland.” Guaido is almost certainly worried that the current mobilization, already more than a month long, could lose its momentum – as has happened repeatedly in the past. Worse still, cracks have appeared in his ranks, and the familiar spectre of disarray again threatens the opposition.

In this new phase, the United States takes centre stage, because from the beginning, Mr. Trump was adamant not to exclude the use of military force. The legality of foreign military interference in Venezuela would be on shaky grounds, but an “invitation” by Guaido – recognized broadly as the legitimate interim president of the country – could probably give the intervention some legal cover.

Ultimately, the success or failure of such a move will rest on the nature and scale of the endeavour. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Francisco Toro examines the challenges of such an intervention, noting the collateral dangers of a large operation and the difficulty of dealing with the criminal organizations – including Colombian National Liberation Army guerrillas – that control much of the country’s territory. He argues that Venezuela’s generals would quickly fold in the face of a credible threat and that its army should be spared to give the new regime a tool to reassert control over the country. Doing otherwise would turn it into a “Libya of the Caribbean.” His analysis looks sound, though the “credible threat” he favours looks a bit like another gamble. At a minimum, limited commando operations or targeted missile attacks may be needed to do the trick, while avoiding large-scale loss of life and the complete dismantling of the army. History reminds us, however, that such “surgical” operations can quickly get out of hand.

Unsurprisingly, Europe, Canada and the Lima Group will have none of this. Even Brazil, whose President is openly nostalgic of the old days of his country’s military regime, has made it clear that it would not join a military operation against Venezuela or even let U.S. troops on its territory. Given the opposition’s growing desperation, however, this unfolding scenario risks leaving Canada and its allies on the sideline.

Their bet on hardball diplomacy is coming back to haunt them: recognizing governments that enjoy no territorial or administrative control, and letting their leaders blatantly politicize humanitarian aid leads one down a slippery slope. Here, it could end up opening the way to an aggressive U.S. foreign policy that cares little for democracy but, if successful, will nonetheless reap much of the credit for toppling a heartless dictatorship. Were a Libya scenario to develop, Canada and its allies would find themselves forced to choose between owning something they didn’t break, or washing their hands and watching the disaster unfold from the outside. Whatever the outcome, I am not sure it shores up Canada’s claim to represent a bulwark of the global liberal order or a shield for the international rule of law.

[Originally published on February 26 in The Globe and Mail, under the title "Why U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would be a risky gamble"]

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Who has skin in the Venezuela game?

[Originally published by Open Canada on February 11]

The crisis in Venezuela obviously matters most for Venezuelans. On top of years of economic crisis, political repression, decaying infrastructure, withering education and social services, hollowed-out administrative capabilities, revolting corruption and stratospheric levels of criminality, they now confront the possibility of chaos and violence in an uncertain and likely drawn-out process of regime transition. At the same time, this very uncertainty holds the promise of a new economic beginning, with the prospect, dim but genuine, of a broadly legitimate political regime and of a rational economic policy.

Venezuela’s current troubles also have significant ripple effects. Canada’s media and commentators have mostly focused on the wisdom and implications of Ottawa’s recognition of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as interim president of the country, and of its call, along with Lima Group allies, for the Venezuelan military to switch allegiance and abandon the current head of state, Nicolás Maduro.

The reality, however, is that Canada has very little at stake in this crisis. It could enjoy a moment of glory at the vanguard of global democracy promotion, if Maduro resigns. But whether he does or not, Canada’s long-standing reputation as a diplomatic honest broker will suffer from its quick siding with Guaidó. The Trudeau government will also have to face an inevitable reckoning when it becomes clear that consistently applying this new “Freeland Doctrine” of forceful democracy promotion, in a world where dubious electoral processes and broad-based challenges of the governments they produce are common, is simply not possible (think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just last December). For Canada’s diplomacy and the credibility of its foreign policy, this is far from irrelevant, but a number of other countries have much more at stake than mere reputation or self-image.

Colombia
Colombia has suffered the brunt of the crisis, absorbing most of the three million or so refugees that have fled Venezuela’s economic and political collapse. The massive inflow of refugees has hit Colombia as it confronts a tricky stage of its peace process, with millions of internally displaced people to resettle, tens of thousands of coca farmers to bring back into the legal economy and thousands of former guerrillas to reintegrate into civilian life. While public opinion and the government have proven to be admirably open and generous towards Venezuelans, uncertainty and discontent are growing as the country continues to face severe public security challenges and still partial and unequal social service provisions.

The flip side is that regime change in Caracas could both stem the flow of refugees and restart an economy that has long been a natural partner of Colombia’s. In the short-term, the fall of Maduro would put an end to the use of Venezuela’s territory by the National Liberation Army, significantly weakening the last guerrilla group that still refuses to demobilize and that has claimed the recent bombing that killed 20 people in Bogotá. For Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque, Maduro’s fall would be a great help.

Cuba
Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president, saw himself as an heir to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and relations between the two countries have remained extremely close since Chávez’s death in 2013. Cuban advisors surround Maduro, as they did Chávez, Cuban doctors staff many of the regime’s “missions” among Venezuela’s poor, and Cuban military personnel support Venezuela’s security and intelligence apparatus.

In exchange, Venezuela took over from Russia the transfer to Cuba of large amounts of heavily subsidized oil, which helped Havana keep its economy afloat.

Crucially, in the face of the Trump administration’s aggressive stance towards the remaining “Leftist” governments of the Americas (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela), and of the right turn of several previously sympathetic countries (Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador), Venezuela gave “strategic depth” to Cuba’s diplomatic and military defence arrangement. Losing both the oil — which admittedly had been diminishing quickly — and a key buffer would represent a major strategic setback for Havana. For Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and the still-influential Raul Castro, Maduro’s fall would be a costly loss.

China
Until now, China has refused to recognize Guaidó and made it clear that it would block any US attempt to use the United Nations Security Council to pressure Venezuela, for instance by suspending its membership in the multilateral body. Beyond that, however, the Chinese government has remained largely quiet, its media defending a peaceful political settlement and giving pride of place to negotiation efforts by the UN Secretary-General. That moderation could well be related to the Venezuelan government’s debt to China, estimated at $13 billion. The idea has been floated that China — and Russia — could decide to jump in to defend Maduro and take control of what many refer to as the largest oil reserves in the world. Notwithstanding the fact that much of that oil is probably not recoverable, the global oil glut, the sorry state of Venezuela’s production infrastructure and the poor quality of its heavy, sour crude oil, such a bet would make little economic and even strategic sense. China has a lot of money currently sunk in what looks like a bottomless pit and internationally-supported guarantees of repayment by Guaidó could perhaps make Beijing reconsider its current position. Keeping a hard line, by contrast, could put its sizable investment in jeopardy.

Russia
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has also lent money to Venezuela, and Russia’s Rosneft oil company has a collateral claim to half of Venezuela’s US-based refinery, Citgo (the US government is now preventing Citgo from remitting its revenues to Maduro’s government). The amounts involved — $2 billion to $3 billion — are relatively small, but Russia does not have the financial leeway of China. Venezuela has also bought sizable amounts of weapons from Russia, though the extent to which they have already been paid for is unclear. Altogether, Moscow’s economic stakes nonetheless appear to be relatively limited. Venezuela probably matters more to Putin as a piece of the chicken game he is playing with at least part of the Trump administration. Maduro’s fall would be a loss, but Venezuela is not equal to Syria or Ukraine on Moscow’s strategic board, and the shock would have little strategic impact on Russia’s position.

The United States
The Trump administration was the first to recognize Guaidó. It has also undercut attempts by the Lima Group — and now Europe — to frame the international pressure as a peaceful initiative by insisting that military intervention remain an option. The fall of Maduro’s fragile regime would be a boon to an administration that boasts of machismo but has in fact been retreating globally in the face of Russia’s and China’s increasingly assertive policies beyond the Americas. Another easy win could be in the offing in Nicaragua — another member, along with Cuba, of what John Bolton has called Latin America’s “Troika of Tyranny” — where President Daniel Ortega also confronts massive popular opposition. The first domino, however, absolutely has to fall, and Washington really can’t afford to lose such an easy play.

Many other countries have dipped into the Venezuela stew: Brazil, most members of the EU, Mexico, Norway and Bolivia, among others. Like Canada, however, they have little at stake: they are to a large extent “disinterested.” This gives them freedom but also makes them less likely to remain engaged or to throw in significant political or economic capital. Hopefully, it should also make them wary of pushing for “solutions” whose consequences are immaterial for them but all too concrete for Venezuelans.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Venezuela: The opposition's dangerous "humanitarian" gamble

An aid caravan organized by the opposition and supported mainly by the United States and Colombia will try to cross the border against the will of the Maduro government. Military and largely criminalized militia units have been massed at the border to prevent them from doing so.

In the words of Francisco Toro, one of the keenest observer of Venezuela and a critic of Maduro: "It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government."

In an interview with PBS,  Guaidó himself sees the humanitarian caravan as a political endeavour and the possibility of violence as a risk worth taking:

"Nadja Drost: If the military doesn't allow the aid to cross over the border, there is a possibility of a violent confrontation. Is that cost worth it in order to be able to bring some temporary relief to a small number of Venezuelans in proportion to how many Venezuelans need long-term humanitarian aid? Are you willing to take that risk in order to bring humanitarian aid across the border?

Juan Guaido: It is worth it. It's good for millions of children who are in need. Besides, we need to muster the strength for this situation to stop. This has been years in the making, years of mobilizations of political persecution of more than 1,000 political prisoners. Persecutions and asylees and the exiled, ask them if their sacrifice has been worth it. It has been worth it."

Clearly, he sees the caravans less as a way to address short-term humanitarian needs and as a tactic meant to further corner the regime.

So, what is likely to happen tomorrow?

Assuming there is no support for the caravan from Brazilian, Colombian or American military personnel (I will go back to this later) I see three main possible scenarios:

1) The caravan's participants chicken out in the face of the government's military units and retreat in clouds of tear gas but without victims. We are back to square one from their standpoint and both the opposition and its international ally have to look for a new plan while the economic and humanitarian situation of the country continues to deteriorate.

2) The military chickens out and let the caravan in. Fraternization scenes take place, relayed all over the world, other demonstrations follow in Caracas and Maracaibo, and Maduro and his clique rush to the airport with as much gold and cash as they can carry. This is what the opposition hopes and what the regime fears the most. Indeed, this is probably why Maduro did NOT send military units to prevent the public demonstration of January 23rd, where Juan Guaido took oath as interim president: he feared fraternization. This is also probably why he is likely to do his best to prevent it from happening, in particular, bringing in his most radical militia followers, as well as the foreign fighters (Colombian ELN guerrillas who have everything at stake here, along with Cuban and possibly Nicaraguan "volunteers"). 

3) The military (or whoever "mans" the border for Maduro) fires on the caravan and people are killed possibly a large number. This meets with international condemnation and opens the door to the explicit threat of a Colombia-US intervention. The corrupt and disorganized Venezuelan military partly liquefies in the face of such a challenge, with top officers running away. Militias and foreign fighters resist but the some hold firm, and while they leave major cities, they take refuge in South and West of the country and live out of drug trafficking and smuggling for a long while. This is the bloodiest scenario.

The possibility of military support to the caravan by Brazil and Colombia was mentioned by Jorge Castaneda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.  While the Brazilian government said clearly that it would make the aid available at the frontier, its military leaders oppose the use of force to deliver it,  leaving Colombia and the US as the only two possible countries to support that option. Such support will embolden the opposition and make scenario 1 unlikely.

At this point, I think that scenarios 2 and 3 are most probable, with scenario 2 obviously the most preferable.

For the international community, though, even such a "success" would come at a heavy cost, as the episode would represent a most blatant case of aid politicization. Francisco Toro puts it best: "[T]he humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future." This is highly problematic for a country like Canada, particularly given the Trudeau-Freeland loud proclamations in favour of the international rule of law.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Check what Guatemala is doing at home while denouncing Venezuela in Ottawa...

Well, apparently, not all eyes are on Guatemala these days...

From The Americas Quarterly and worth reading in full.

All Eyes on Guatemala as Crisis Brews Ahead of Elections

BY MICHAEL J. CAMILLERI AND TAMAR ZIFF | FEBRUARY 4, 2019
President Jimmy Morales' maneuvering against Guatemala's institutions could give the U.S. a chance to recalibrate its policy.

It’s not every day that a purportedly friendly foreign nation tries to intimidate the United States by dispatching a fleet of military vehicles to the U.S. Embassy. It is rarer still for the vehicles in question to have been donated by the United States itself and diverted from their intended mission of combatting crime and narcotics trafficking. And it is perhaps unprecedented that such a turn of events would elicit only a tepid response from the U.S. government, followed a short while later by the transfer of additional military jeeps to the foreign government in question.

Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Ziff is a program assistant with the Peter D. Bell Program.

Venezuela: Norway looks a lot like the honest broker that Canada could have been

While Canada is calling for the Venezuelan military to change side and support Juan Guaido, Norway takes an "intriguing" position: at some point, it may be useful to have someone between the two sides and their respective allies.

Below, the Google translation of an article published yesterday in Verdens Gang (VG):


Norway does not recognize Juan Guaidó as temporary president of Venezuela

Unlike the United States and several European countries, the Norwegian government does not recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as temporary president of Venezuela.

- Norway has the tradition of recognizing states, not governments. We have always expressed our support for Juan Guaidó as the elected and legitimate president of the National Assembly, says Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H).

Guaidó, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, proclaimed himself president two weeks ago, but still has little real power and seemingly little support from the country's armed forces.

Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (H) says that Norway maintains the requirement for respect for democratic rights and new elections. She also reiterates previous statements that Norway encourages the parties to dialogue that may lead to new elections. - We maintain the demand for respect for democratic rights and new elections. The situation in Venezuela is acute and we urge the parties to establish an inclusive political process that can lead to new elections. Norway has a dialogue with both parties and has offered them assistance to such a process if and when they wish, ”she says.

Professor Benedicte Bull, a researcher at Latin America at the University of Oslo, follows developments in Venezuela. Photo: The University of OsloLes all of Norway can try to become facilitator - I look at this as stepping slightly gently. One does not necessarily disagree, but that it is okay to have players with a slightly different position for the government to withdraw. If they are pushed up in a corner, it can be difficult to accomplish something, says political scientist Benedicte Bull, who researches Latin America at the University of Oslo, to VG. She thinks there are two things one is now trying to achieve in Venezuela. One is a government change in new elections. The second is a good process that allows a government change to create a long-term peaceful solution. In this process, Norway may try to be a facilitator.

- There is no doubt that the government is giving clear support to Guaidó, but there is some cautious play, which may not be so stupid in this situation.

- Is there a solution in Venezuela? - I think things happen every day now. I think we're going to see a change in the situation. However, she says that a solution is far ahead.

- A solution had to be a transitional government, peace and a solution to the economic problems.

After President Nicolás Maduro on Monday refused to follow up the demand from seven EU countries to light new elections by Sunday, France, Spain, the UK and Sweden went Monday to announce the public announcement that they recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's acting president. Shortly after, Denmark, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany and Austria joined.

The countries urge Guaidó to light new elections as quickly as possible.

"We are working to bring democracy back to Venezuela, with human rights, elections and no more political prisoners," said Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in a television talk, according to the AP. Maduro, who has a background as union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, blames the United States for conducting economic warfare against Venezuela and raising coups hoping to gain control over the country's oil resources, Reuters writes.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Canada's gamble on Venezuela

Looking bold towards Venezuela is not without risk. Listening to the brief reference to Venezuela by the "At Issue Panel" yesterday on CBC was interesting. Svend Robinson and Niki Ashton's denunciations of Canada's recognition of Juan Guaido's as the legitimate President by interim of Venezuela are obviously of a piece with their support for Latin dictators... of the Left. But that was predictable. What was more surprising, given the usual clear-sightedness of Coyne and Hebert, was their straightforward acceptance of the rationales for Guaido's claim and for Canada's decision to support it. This came, it must be pointed out, after a long discussion of the idiotic public declarations of John McCallum regarding Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, and about their implications for Canada's claim to be acting strictly within the boundaries of "the rule of law."

There is no doubt that Maduro is an authoritarian ruler who has manipulated his country's electoral process to get a second mandate. There is no doubt either that his regime is inept and corrupt and that Venezuelan's are paying the price for it. As such, however, he is part of a pretty large club, most of whose members have a cosy relationship with Canada. Among them, it must be pointed out, one finds those economically incompetent dictators that would have prevented any "National Assembly" to keep functioning or a potential challenger to the President to roam around freely and hold a meeting which tens of thousands could join without the military or the police preventing them (hello Niki Ashton's Cuba).

It is obviously easy to take strong stands on issues that have no bearing on us. But in this case, it may not even be true. ICG's Robert Malley's comment should apply to Canada --notwithstanding the apparent consensus of the mainstream commentariat about Canada's courageous stand.

“The administration’s posture toward Venezuela is a foreign policy gamble that in hindsight could look prescient” if Mr. Maduro is forced out “or reckless if that doesn’t happen,” said Rob Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group and a former aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “At that point, the ball will be squarely in the U.S. court, with the risk that it does little and displays impotence or, worse, intervenes militarily and demonstrates rashness.”

What exactly are we doing, or more precisely what exactly can we do, with allies or without, to make the Venezuelan military change their mind: Offer them guarantees that they won't be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court?  Promise that they can keep the millions of dollars they squirreled into offshore safe havens? Why not offer them refugee status if they are under threat by the new regime or its supports, which is very likely to happen, given their track record and the bitterness that pervades Venezuela's political arena. After all, isn't this what France did for Haiti's Duvalier when he was thrown out--if this can help the transition? And what do we do if, say, only half the military change their mind and an all-out armed confrontation explodes in the streets of Caracas?

I think Mexico and Uruguay found the right tone, along with the UN, when they proposed, in the face of Guaido's declaration, a new process of negotiation, "inclusive and credible." Mexico in particular--through President Lopez Obrado's spokesperson--, cleverly gave itself some space for manoeuver by stating that their position had not changed "for now" ("hasta el momento"). No such room for those who jumped the gun and basically ruled themselves out as "honest brokers." Germany and Spain also tried to use their power a bit more wisely, announcing that they would recognize Guaido unless new elections are announced, and it is trying to get the EU to adopt the same position.

But Canada decided to jump. Now, will we recognize Martin Fayulu if he declares himself President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, given the consensus of the international community about the illegitimacy of the December 30th election results? And which side will we pick when either of the likely winners of the Ukraine elections, Poroshenko or Timoshenko, is accused by her/his adversary, with plenty of evidence, of electoral fraud and corruption?

O'Malley is right: this is a gamble. I hope Freeland's will work, but I am not sure that I like the idea of gambling gaining ground as a diplomatic tactic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

With a longtime leftist out of the picture, Brazil lurches to the right

Brash, hard-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is cleaning up in Brazil. How bad could that be for Brazilians and for the world?

The second round of Brazil’s presidential elections will take place on October 28 but the die has been cast: barring a miracle — or a cataclysmic disaster, depending on what side of the political spectrum one falls — Jair Messias Bolsonaro will almost certainly become president of the world’s eighth largest economy and fifth largest country by population.

The man, a former army captain with an unremarkable 27-year political career, sounds like an awkward Donald Trump with an even more explicitly sexist and racist bent. He promises an all-out war against crime in a country where the police already kill thousands every year, denounces human rights as a scheme to protect criminals, and openly longs for the quiet and stability that torture and repression ensured under Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. His economic program is ill-defined, but he has spoken about privatization, deregulation and tax reform, and his main economic adviser is reminiscient of the chicago-trained economists known for bringing neoliberal policies to the region in the 80s. 

Bolsonaro campaigned in the first round with little funding and a minuscule allotment of government-funded TV time because his party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), had negligible representation in Congress and he could find precious few allies among other parties. He was forcefully denounced by all his opponents, the mainstream media and the country’s academics and intellectuals, and was unable to campaign after being stabbed during a rally.

Still, in the first round of voting on October 7, he finished first, and in a crowded field received 46 percent of all valid votes — 17 percent more than Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, against whom he will run in this weekend’s second round. The latest polls give Bolsonaro close to 60 percent of the votes in the latter. Most centrist and right-wing parties are now supporting him or refusing to take a strong stand in favour of his adversary, and he enjoys majority support in most regions of the country and in all major demographics, except in the poor Northeast, where the left still appears to maintain significant support.

Well-meaning people the world over have noticed and many are panicking. The New York Times deplored “Brazil’s Sad Choice.” Le Monde published a manifesto of intellectuals asking Brazilians to oppose Bolsonaro’s election. In the run-up to the first round, the Economist devoted its cover, main editorial and lead story to the “menace” he represents for Brazil and Latin America, and Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro and an OpenCanada contributor, wondered in The New York Times if Brazil’s democracy could be saved.

Should the world, Latin America and especially Brazil really be scared by this latest incarnation of right-wing populism? To answer this question, one needs to understand why Brazilians are voting for Bolsonaro, and how much power he will have.

It is obviously very early for a post-mortem, but one should probably read much of the support for Bolsonaro as a protest vote. Many Brazilians have plenty of excellent reasons to be mad, and precious few to support a candidate — Haddad — clearly identified with the party that has governed the country for most of the last 16 years. Very little is left of a euphoric decade of growth underlied by China’s massive demand for the resources that Brazil exports. This extraordinary moment coincided with a unique demographic sweet spot in Brazil’s history, during which the ratio of working age population to dependents (children and retirees) was at its apex. It was an exceptional juncture, a golden opportunity. And the opportunity was missed. One could point to sectoral reforms, in health and education for instance, that could have long-lasting impacts, but much of the massive rent available for long-term structural investments was wasted in poorly-designed subsidies to the private sector, a massive expansion of public sector employment and pharaonic projects — most spectacularly, both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, held just two years apart.

Today, barely recuperating from three years of recession and stagnation, the country finds itself with poor growth prospects, high unemployment, a massive fiscal deficit, and a social security system that threatens to go bankrupt before much of the population can benefit from it. Add to the mix recurrent public health crises (remember Zika?), a chronic public security disaster (more than 60,000 homicides last year) that did not even let off at the height of the economic boom, and a constant flow of corruption scandals engulfing almost all political parties and reaching all the way up to two of the country’s last presidents, Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva and Michel Temer.

Amid crises, enter Bolsonaro

Weird, vulgar and boasting extreme views, Bolsonaro was a marginal figure in the Brazilian Congress. Like many of his fellow politicians, he has been under criminal investigation, but for racism and incitation for rape, not for corruption. In a most perverse way, he was thus not even in on the corruption schemes that involved many of his colleagues, and he has cleverly used that fact to present himself, with some justice, as an outsider. Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo, could have made the same claim, but from the start, and very publicly during the first round, he fully identified with former president Lula, who is in prison for corruption. Through that lens, the choice was stark, between the outsider, Bolsonaro, and Haddad, hand-picked by the person who for many embodies the scandal.

The strong rejection of incumbents to the Senate and Chamber of Deputies in the first round also points to a protest vote and to a deep discontent with the political establishment: 85 percent of the senators elected and 52 percent of deputies will be new. Above all, however, the election was a settling of accounts between Brazilian elites and Lula, a man they long despised and were happy to see confined to prison and denied a chance to defend himself. Without Lula as its candidate, the PT proved to be doomed. Had Lula run, many, especially among the poor, would have forgiven the corruption that is largely taken for granted in Brazilian politics. Lula would certainly have made it to the second round and his chances would be much better than those of Haddad, who can’t capitalize on Lula’s personalist appeal, but has to shoulder the revulsion he inspires on the right and in much of the centre.

So President Bolsonaro it will likely be, but, if so, what will that mean, exactly?

Political scientists are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but a number of factors suggest that Brazil is unlikely to take a radical turn, even with Bolsonaro at its helm. More likely, the country will keep muddling through, down a mediocre path of slow and skewed modernization, with modest and inequitable growth, continuing social violence and environmental destruction, limited economic liberalization, deepening fiscal paralysis and continuous political bickering.

Brazil’s 1988 Constitution already made the country’s presidents largely hostage to a highly framented Congress, a weakness amplified by subsequent constitutional amendments. The power presidents have must be wrestled through the constant construction and reconstruction of coalitions with the plethora of parties that populate the two chambers of its Congress.

Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL, has four of the 81 seats in the Senate. It may end up with the largest deputation in the Chamber, but once deputies from parties with too few votes move to larger ones, it will still have at most 75 seats out of 513, and need to weave together coalitions of seven or more parties to pass any measure. Bolsonaro will find broad support for blunt anti-crime measures, regressive environmental policies, conservative social policies and perhaps some privatization. But he hasn’t demonstrated much ability or fondness for coalition-building and will quickly find out that, far from controlling them, he will be the instrument of these lobbies at least as much as they will be his.

The Brazilian judiciary has lost prestige in the eyes many Brazilians, but none of its independence and institutional power. The Lava Jato scandal may have hurt the PT the most, but as the party in power while hundreds of millions were being diverted, this should be expected. Politicians from all parties, and some of the country’s most prominent business people, however, are also in prison. And while they are currently despised by much of the left, a majority of current members of the Supreme Court were named by PT presidents and are unlikely to look kindly at attempts to limit their power or to challenge what remains a democratic and progressive constitution.

Weathering a military leader

Much has been made of Bolsonaro’s military past, of his glorification of the military regime and of its methods, of his commitment to bring generals into the cabinet and of his promise to use violence to put an end to the violence that plagues the country. Some retired military officers have expressed support and one of them stands as his running mate, but Bolsonaro is more at ease with the violent SWAT-type police units of Rio and São Paulo than with most of the well-educated and polished members of Brazil’s higher military ranks. The Brazilian military as an institution is certainly not welcoming the attention. It has been steadily constitutionalist since going back to the barracks, largely on its own it must be added, devoid of a political project — unlike during the dictatorship decades ago. It is also underfunded and worried about getting trapped in urban policing quagmires. Public security, moreover, is a jealously guarded state prerogative, which the federal government rarely challenges, except by invitation, and the federal coffers are in the red, mostly tied up with pensions, including military ones.

Bolsonaro will govern from the hard right, in sum, but he won’t have a free hand. He will have to bargain with a fractious Congress and deal with a strong judiciary, 27 state governments and quite a feisty media. Things could certainly go awry: major national crises, like the truckers’ strike that paralyzed the country last spring, or a new global financial crisis that some see looming, could open the door to bluntly repressive interventions, but it is difficult to fathom a Venezuela-like collapse. Brazil’s institutions, however unable to realize the country’s potential, look robust enough after three decades of consolidation to weather these shocks.

As to ripple effects in the region, or beyond, they are unlikely. Brazil remains the most insulated economy of the continent, its convulsions have little bearing on its neighbours and it is largely oblivious of them. Supportive winks could well come from Washington and Moscow, but the elites with whom Bolsonaro will be forced to come to terms with would not countenance a radical shift in the country’s reserved international posture.

Brazilians themselves, in other words, will alone pay the price of their choice. Sadly, the poor among them will pay more, beginning, most likely, with the young black men who die by the tens of thousands in the countries’ metropolis and who will now be hunted down by the police — as they already are — with the blessing of the president. Women seeking abortions, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, human rights and environmental activists can also expect a rough patch. But the dictatorship feared by the global commentariat looks unlikely to materialize.

[This post was first published on Open Canada, right before Bolsonaro's election.] 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Overdoses are a problem for dealers too

[The little crocodile is not abandoning Latin America, but while home in Canada, it keeps an eye on local drug markets. Comments are most welcome.]

The overdose epidemic risks killing--literally--the customer base of drug dealers, and they have to know it.

Drug sellers have a vested interest in keeping their customers heavily dependent but also alive. Irresponsible legal prescriptions of opioids have enormously broadened their client base: when doctors end up refusing prescriptions as it becomes clear that their client's requests are driven by addiction, dependent users move to the black market. Hence the quick increase of recent years, which may get even quicker as legal prescriptions are likely to get reigned in given media attention and the public outcry that develops as a result of it.

Cheap, powerful and hard to detect synthetic opioids imported illegally from China make it easy for dealers to satisfy demand. With a high much stronger than heroin or good old oxycontin,  synthetic fentanyl and carfentanyl quickly hooks people, for whom heroin becomes , All this is obviously good for business. Concentration, however, is also a problem as it becomes extremely difficult to get a grip on the strength of particular doses, especially once opioids are mixed with other substances. There lies the root of the current crisis, which will have killed about 800 people in British Columbia alone in 2016.

At that speed, unless doctors keep feeding the addiction pipeline--which at last, they may stop doing, in the face of the disaster that they have wrought--many dealers will run out of clients in a few short years.

So, from their standpoint, what is to be done?

One solution would be to find a way to get a grip on the doses that they hand out. "Safe" products would quickly give their dealers a competitive edge. The technical requirements of doing so in an illegal environment, and the power of the products currently entering the market, however, make this unfeasible.

Another solution is to bet that the public health effort will be ramped up substantially, keeping users alive. Better still would be to piggy back on it, basically exploiting the availability of emergency services to ensure that the essentially unavoidable overdoses become less lethal, ideally not lethal at all. The world-famous Insite supervised injection site delivers just that, with no overdose death since it opened its doors in 2003. It can't keep up anymore with increased use, however, and emergency injection sites have been set up in tents right by the alleys where people procure and inject the drug. With more resources--and they should be coming soon--public policy would basically solve the dealers' problem...

In the meantime they appear to bet on the compromise solution that results from underfunded and desperate efforts of volunteers and overworked emergency workers, setting up shop right by both their customers and the people who can keep them alive: "Outside the tent, street-level dealers sell various drugs to dozens of people injecting in the alley. More than 200 people will access the tent before the last group is hustled out at 10 p.m."

Moral hazard, in sum, meets health hazard...

Now, normalizing overdoses cannot be an acceptable solution from a public health perspective. At the same time, framing Insite and the current desperate effort to keep thousands of dependent users alive as simply abetting--if not encouraging--heavy use and trafficking takes one down a narrow, cruel and ultimately ineffective policy path.

In other words the main implication of the argument just developed is that dealers have a vested interest in getting a grip on the epidemic and, consequently that they can be part of the solution.