Category Archives: South America

Bolivarian Devolution: The Venezuelan Crisis

This morning nearly 25,000 Venezuelans will cross the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia in search of work and a hot meal. Most will return in the evening with extra food for their families if they are lucky. They make the trip hoping to earn money peddling goods on the street, seeking routine medical care, or standing in line for hours to receive one of the thousands of free meals served daily by churches and non-profit organizations. The bridge, a piece of shared infrastructure by which 80% of trade goods pass between the two countries, has become a humanitarian lifeline for those trying to escape the Venezuelan crisis. Recent surveys suggest 93% of Venezuelans cannot afford to purchase food and hospitals there lack 95% of medical supplies needed to provide basic care. The cost of Venezuela’s failed Bolivarian Revolution, a phrase coined by the late President Hugo Chavez, is being paid by the citizens it promised to protect, and the growing spillover into Colombia threatens to turn a Venezuelan problem into a regional one.

The Bolivarian Revolution began rather inauspiciously in 1992 when then-Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez led an unsuccessful military coup to oust the democratically elected president. Released from prison two years later, Chavez went on to win the 1999 election as a populist fringe candidate under a socialist ideology he called “Chavismo”. In a case of extradinarily bad timing, his anointed successor, a former bus driver-turned-Finance Minister by the name Nicholas Maduro, assumed the presidency following Chavez’s death in 2013. Within a year, the global drop in oil prices triggered an economic crisis in Venezuela, catalyzing the failure of the socialist experiment and intensifying social unrest. President Maduro responded to the resultant popular criticism with a heavy hand, using the military to violently suppress protests and working internally to subvert Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

The situation in Venezuela represents a complete reversal of fortunes from two decades ago. Beginning in the 1970s, nearly four million Colombians fled to Venezuela to escape violence and terror wrought by the drug cartels and the FARC. In 1999, the flow of migrants began to steadily reverse, and 1.5 million people have since left Venezuela for Colombia. Two recent events illustrate the ironic role reversal. On the 15th of August, the FARC officially completed a peaceful disarmament process and was incorporated into the Colombian democratic system as a political party. Then, just three days later, the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly in Venezuela seized control of the opposition-led Congress, removing yet another democratic impediment to his rule. The move sparked regional outrage, but engendered little surprise as the Venezuelan political apparatus moved one step closer to authoritarianism.

Venezuela Devolution
Thousands of Venezuelans line up every morning to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge to obtain food and basic necessities on the Colombian side. Photo Credit: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Thousands-cross-Venezuela-border-to-Colombia-for-8383342.php

Socialist Expropriation and Crime

Venezuela controls some of the world’s largest crude oil reserves, a critical piece in a calculated strategy to safeguard the Chavez regime by distributing wealth. The scheme has been remarkably successful over the last 18 years and is probably the only reason his successor is still in power, but corruption, subjugation of private industry, and ill-fated socialist policies have depleted the nation’s wealth. Upon his election in 1999, Chavez nationalized much of Venezuela’s industry. By 2011 Venezuela was receiving only a $5M share of Latin America’s total $150M in annual foreign investment and the number of private businesses had decreased from 14,000 to roughly 9,000. Oil accounted for 95% of Venezuela’s exports at the time, but the billions of dollars earned in the post-9/11 oil boom have vanished. Most of the money was funneled to political supporters and a large share was invested in strengthening the military.

Four years after Chavez’s death, the question remains whether the military will stay loyal to Maduro, to the Revolution, or abandon them both in favor of the opposition. Maduro’s ability to continue lining the pockets of his generals and politicians dwindles by the day. His support is already weakening in the lower ranks of the military where the effects of the economic crisis are most palpable. Worsening conditions increase the potential for a military uprising against Maduro in favor of a leader more capable of advancing the Chavismo ideology. Considering also the historical influence of Cuba’s Castro regime and ongoing support from Russia and Iran, it stands to reason Chavismo will endure even if Maduro’s political capital dries up.

Command of the lucrative illicit drug trade is also a factor. Throughout the Chavismo era, corrupt politicians profited from the trade by exploiting military and police fealty. The details of their corruption were published almost a decade ago when a seizure of data exposed integrated cocaine distribution networks between Venezuela and the United States. Notably, in 2016 two of Maduro’s nephews were convicted in the US for conspiracy to transport cocaine, suggesting possible ties to the President himself. If indeed Maduro is on the take, the growing scarcity of pay-off funds from other sources raises concern he may lose control over the illicit drug trade, leaving a vacuum that could lead to increased violence, volatility, and regional instability.

All-American Solutions

Despite President Trump’s recent refusal to rule out a “military option” in Venezuela, the United States lacks the domestic and international political capital to impose its will there. Furthermore, his intransigence on immigration and the proposed border wall with Mexico have not earned him additional support in a region where one-third of the population sees American power and influence as a major threat. During a recent Latin American tour, Vice President Mike Pence spent much of his time softening Trump’s message on Venezuela and assuring leaders Washington is open to a wide range of options including economic sanctions. Despite the assurances, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos explicitly rejected the notion of a military response in a joint press conference with Pence, insisting Venezuela’s neighbors must use “other measures to bring about change in the country.” Clearly a more indirect and cooperative approach will be required if the United States wishes to influence the situation in Venezuela.

Venezuelan Crisis
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the Colombian press during a joint conference with US VP Mike Pence. Despite the positive state of US-Colombia relations, President Santos emphatically rejected the US military option that President Trump mentioned the week prior to the visit. Photo credit: http://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2017/08/14/juan-manuel-santos-le-pidio-a-estados-unidos-descartar-una-posible-intervencion-militar-en-venezuela/

Despite President Santos’ strong stance, there is no reason to believe Latin America is capable of responding effectively on its own. Any admonishments of Maduro’s despotism by Venezuela’s neighbors are tempered by their own dogmatic respect for state sovereignty; a common paradox in a region composed of weak states with strong leaders. Additionally, domestic political concerns consume nearly every country in the region. Brazil is embroiled in its own government scandal and focused on economic and political instability. Argentina is still nursing an economic recovery after years of fiscal mismanagement under the Kirchners. Colombia is coming to terms with a difficult peace agreement with FARC revolutionaries and wants to keep growing economically. Chile, despite being an economic growth leader for a decade, has yet to truly find its voice in regional politics and continues to struggle with domestic political impediments. As is characteristic of Latin America, there is a lot of talk, but no coherent regional stance.

Throughout Latin America, citizens are bracing for the political and economic effects of an influx of Venezuelans seeking work, housing, and social assistance. Violent civil war is a concern, as is the resurgence of illicit transnational networks—a trend that had been on the decline in recent years thanks to progress in neighboring Colombia. A US military intervention would most certainly exacerbate existing regional security challenges. The only sustainable solution to this Bolivarian Devolution rests on the ability of Latin American states to look beyond their respective domestic challenges and respond with an uncharacteristic level of regional cohesion. To enable such a response, the United States should pursue collaborative regional solutions focused on mitigating the economic and social impacts of the growing humanitarian crisis.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any  government or private institution.

Major Patrick “TISL” Parrish is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and A-10C Weapons Instructor Pilot with combat tours in Afghanistan and Libya. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Santiago, Chile.

Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a US Air Force Officer and F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom

Dictatorship and socio-economic bias have left Latin America home to some of the most corrupt nations in the world. Despite the continent’s recent relative success in economic development and securing regional trade agreements, 20th century political scourges still haunt many Latin American nations and Paraguay is no exception. For 35 years the nation endured a period in which popular peaceful dissent was met with the strong-arm of the military. Extralegal arrests and humans rights abuses were commonplace, and the housing of Nazi war criminals was an accepted practice. Paraguayan President Horatio Cartes’ renewed bid last week for re-election risks forfeiting the strides made towards real democracy over the past decade and may force the government back into political crisis.

While Paraguay’s political future remains in doubt, the facts surrounding the events of the 31 March are not in dispute. A majority group from the Senate and a hand-full of opposition senators met secretly to cast a majority vote to put into motion the first steps necessary to amend the Paraguayan constitution. The amendment would enable President Cartes to seek a second term in contravention of the single-term limit originally imposed to bolster Paraguay’s democratic processes. The proposition could further entrench Cartes’ Colorado Party that has enjoyed a majority in the legislature for 66 of the last 70 years.  After 35 years of despotic rule by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, the people of Paraguay were outraged by this legislative “coup d’etat” which sparked a protest at the Congressional building in Asunción.

In the melee that followed, a large portion of the building was gutted by fire and Rodrigo Quintana, the leader of the Liberal Party’s youth branch, had been shot dead. The details surrounding the incident are dubious, if not damning. Quintana was shot and killed in a violent police raid on the Liberal Party’s Youth Branch political headquarters. Security footage shows Quintana running away from the police.  After absorbing the deadly shot, an officer now identified as agent Gustavo Florentin approached and stepped on his body. Florentin has since been fired, along with the interior minister and Paraguay’s police commander, Crispulo Sotelo. While these dismissals direct blame towards the police for an inability to protect Congress and the public, the truth is this action by President Cartes was more preventative than altruistic. The calculated move precludes the possible violent reaction from an already agitated opposition but the risk of repeated violence endures until negotiations surrounding the amendment begin and until transparent government investigation of the police raid lifts the perception of impunity.

paraguay protest
Protestors peaceful after a previous night’s clashes left Congress in flames. Photo credit: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/paraguay-delays-election-vote-fresh-protests-170404053715500.html

A Vote Against Confidence

The Colorado party will likely argue that the vote was an inadvertent procedural violation of legislative etiquette. The opposition, along with the neighbors and trade partners, will view the covert legislative action as a power grab and a sure indicator that a corrupt polity is leading the small land-locked country backward in already uncertain economic times. A procedural violation can be dealt with within the democratic process, but a substantive and willful disregard for democratic governance spells a disastrous outcome.

To understand the level of risk being taken and the importance of the upcoming events, one needs only to look at who responds and what is said. Immediately after the violence, President Cartes downplayed the events in a letter to the people of Paraguay. In the third paragraph he writes: “Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic…we must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquility and general well-being of the Paraguayan people.” His cavalier statement was met with disdain by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which quickly issued a pointed cautionary statement calling on political leaders “to avoid inciting violence and seek dialogue.” Although innocuous at first glance, the OHCHR statement avoids addressing the protestors or their actions and instead directly engages political leaders for “inciting violence”.

Paraguay protest
President Horacio Cartes tweeted this photo of a letter drafted in response to the protests of 31 March.

The Paraguayan Congress remains shut down while fire inspectors assess the damage. With a populace fighting widespread corruption of government officials, broken promises for rebuilt infrastructure, and frustration over lack of progress, even Asuncion’s own mayoral race was lost to the opposition party. Pope Francis of neighboring Argentina has called for immediate dialogue between opposing parties and President Cartes has heeded the advice, recommending to the lower house (presumably pro-amendment) to delay until the factions could discuss a way forward for the initiative. Opposition leader Efrain Alegre objected, pending a comprehensive investigation into the events surrounding Quintana’s death. The bipartisan call to delay the vote, originally scheduled for April 4th, further obscures the path forward and and tensions continue to rise. Further delay could unravel an uneasy peace maintained since Cartes assumed the Presidency in 2013.

Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of withdrawing the proposal and annulling the clandestine senate vote, there is still a chance that diplomacy and influence from neighboring countries could prevail. Since President Cartes’ election, Paraguay has experienced a surge in economic growth, making it one of South America’s fastest growing economies. This glimmer of hope would lead one to believe that the Colorado party should abandon the measure and seek a strong replacement for Cartes in 2018, restoring peace and trust in a nation still racked with fear of a return to despotism. The unfortunate truth is that the prospect of political gain and notoriety is alluring, and the risk to the political certainty of the country is high. The most promising course of action towards maintaining peace would be for Cartes to go against the majority, adhere to the current constitution, and eliminate himself as a candidate in the next election. This also appears the most unlikely scenario, as it would put an end to the right-wing preeminence that the Coloradan majority has enjoyed for decades.

Point of Inflection

In the absence of immediate and powerful diplomatic intervention or reversal by Congress, Paraguay faces a crossroads in which violence and freedom could become interdependent. The lower house will, if allowed to vote, pass the measure and send the constitutional amendment to the President for approval. If the recent violence following the initial vote is any clue to how the opposition will react, the ensuing fear and anger will undoubtedly thrust this tiny nation into a state of complete chaos. The ingredients exist for a violent implosion: a new police commander, a new interior minister, complete right-wing control without term limits, and a populace that has tasted freedom and democracy even if only for a brief period of time.

The upcoming weeks are crucial for determining the future prospect of peace and economic growth, both for Paraguay and for greater Latin America. Absent any legislative reversal on the initiative, the nation is on a collision course. The tragic and too-familiar possibility of a counter-revolutionary dictator rising from the ashes is greater now than at any point since Stroessner’s final days in 1989.


Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a U.S. Air Force F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently a master’s student in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.

A New Weapon in the South Atlantic

In 1982, a continuing dispute over a few small, sparsely populated islands in the South Atlantic became the catalyst for a brief war between Argentina and the United Kingdom, resulting in a decisive British victory.  Paying tribute to the long and complicated history of these islands, Museo Las Malvinas (Malvinas Museum) is located on the grounds of the former Naval Officer Mechanic School and is now one of the newest and most prized museums in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Since its opening, the museum watchtower has maintained vigil over the main highway running through Buenos Aires, proudly displaying the word “Sovereignty”, and reminding commuters of Argentina’s enduring ambition to govern these otherwise undistinguished islands in the South Atlantic.

According to the March 2016 United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), the Falklands/Malvinas lie within Argentina’s maritime borders. Thirty-four years after fighting to keep the islands, the British see this as a new threat to their continuing sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters. Learning from past mistakes, Argentina has introduced a new weapon in the struggle over the South Atlantic –not a machine of war, but a potentially more terrifying and effective tool: lawyers.

Argentina's claimed territory around the islands. UNCLCS acknowledged that the islands are within Argentina's EEZ in March 2016. Photo Credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8520038.stm
Argentina’s claimed maritime territory in the South Atlantic.                                                                           Photo Credit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8520038.stm

Miscalculation

The struggle for sovereignty of the islands is nearly two centuries old. English Captain John Strong discovered the islands in 1690 and the first British settlement followed in 1766. For decades  British control of the islands waxed and waned during multiple international wars, no easy feat as the Falklands/Malvinas are located a daunting 7,939 miles from London and a mere 415 miles east of the Argentine city of Rio Gallegos. Finally in 1833, after several disputes with the fledgling Argentine Confederation, the British solidified control and have maintained their hold on the islands despite the expense of supporting the territory over such a vast distance. With only 2932 English residents, the Falklands/Malvinas are one of the most expensive foreign territories per capita in the world.

The pursuit of sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas was a costly decision for Argentina’s military dictatorship. In 1982, daily strikes by labor unions and anti-government supporters were a result of the loss of confidence in the leadership of Lt. General Leopoldo Galtieri who had assumed command of the junta after a 1976 coup that deposed President Isabel Perón. Unemployment rates were skyrocketing, and the inflation rate ballooned to more than 600 percent.  In an effort to distract the population from the collapsing economy and to restore national pride and support for the government, Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas on 2 April 1982.

The initial days of fighting saw great success for the Argentine military. The first 4,000 soldiers arriving on the islands met minimal resistance and quickly took control, raising their flag over the captial city, Port Stanley. Their victory ignited strong nationalism, pride, and support for the military by ordinary Argentines that flooded the streets of every city in the country. The military government fostered this sentiment by publishing propaganda and positive reports promoting the success of their military. Triumphant claims —“Estamos Ganando” (We Are Winning) graced the covers of newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Across the Atlantic, the British government rapidly prepared a response force to take back the islands. Less than three weeks after the initial invasion, the UK launched a counterattack with more than 120 ships, 160 aircraft, and multiple Special Air Service (SAS) and commando units. The British quickly gained the initiative, and by 14 June 1982 the 3-month war was over. In the end, a little more than two months of combat resulted in the deaths of 648 Argentine, 255 British service members, and three civilians. Most of the Argentine casualties –and the fighting spirit of the Argentine Navy– lay at the bottom of the Atlantic with the ARA Belgrano, sunk by a British torpedo.  The islands have remained securely in Britain’s hands ever since.

Black Gold

A few months after the war, the international community legitimized the British presence in the South Atlantic. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea established the limits of the continental shelf and solidified British rights to the water and resources surrounding the Falklands/Malvinas. In 1998, after tentative discoveries 20 years earlier, the British began drilling the first offshore oil wells, discovering large reserves in the area with two fields, Sea Lion and Isobel Elaine, thought to hold half a billion barrels of recoverable oil each. These, and many other repositories around the islands, have the potential to make the tiny population there one of the richest communities per capita in the world.

The discovery of oil intensified debate on both sides of the Atlantic but the situation on the ground remains quite complex. Though a majority of Argentines believe that the Falklands/Malvinas belong to Argentina, multiple referenda reveal the actual residents of the islands want to remain under the British crown. Citing concerns about stability and security, the British maintain a substantial military presence that includes strike aircraft, warships, and more than 1,300 service members. The Argentine government sees the presence of such a large and active military force as a threat and has argued this point continuously and unsuccessfully to the international community.

UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina's maritime borders. Photo Credit : http://en.mercopress.com/2016/06/03/delimitation-of-the-argentine-continental-shelf
UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina’s maritime borders. Photo Credit : http://en.mercopress.com/2016/06/03/delimitation-of-the-argentine-continental-shelf

Changing the Game

In 2015, Argentina began to use a different approach that avoids direct confrontation with Britain. Filing a petition with the United Nations, the Argentine leadership decided to pursue international arbitration to prove the islands reside within the maritime territory of Argentina. In March 2016, after more than nine months of debate, the CLCS extended the maritime territory of Argentina by 35%. By doing so, the UN acknowledged Argentina’s claims that the Falklands/Malvinas lie within its maritime territory.

Victorious on the battlefield and secure on the basic question of governance of the islands, Britain now faces an unusual challenge to its supremacy in the South Atlantic –an internationally-arbitrated legal battle over resources. Historically committed to international cooperation and the rule of law, the UK would face significant challenges should it choose to ignore the UN, especially as doing so would set a precedent for other states looking to circumvent international arbitration.

Argentina may not yet have achieved the lofty goal of “Sovereignty” as displayed atop the watchtower at the Las Malvinas Museum, but it has found traction in pursuing a legal resolution to the territorial dispute. Now more than ever, the Falklands/Malvinas are an economically and strategically significant territory for the UK, and it is unlikely Britain will let the islands go easily. However, after nearly two centuries of struggle, the balance of power relationship in the South Atlantic may finally shift to favor Argentina thanks to a new tactic that neutralizes the otherwise superior power of the British. Perhaps the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

Jon NielsenCPT Jonathan Nielsen is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer with combat experience in multiple countries in the Middle East and extensive multinational training experience. He is currently attending the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense,  or the Olmsted Foundation.