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The Right’s Splintering of Latin American Unity

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Jair Bolsonaro, the gun-toting, pro-dictatorship ultra-nationalist referred to as “the Trump of the Tropics” in Brazilian media, swept to victory on a platform of cracking down on crime and corruption—and by invoking the familiar bogeyman of the Latin American right, neighbouring Venezuela. Before the second-round vote in which he faced leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro hammered home a message which apparently resonated with his fellow citizens: “We don’t want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today”.

Bolsonaro’s often-violent rhetoric has raised suspicions that he intends to escalate his hatred of Caracas to a new level—last week the Colombian Foreign Minister was forced to deny rumours that his government was plotting with Bolsonaro to invade Venezuela. His strategy of painting the election as a stark choice between the far right on one hand and “total decay, like Venezuela” on the other, however, fits neatly into a pattern which has spread across the Americas. Right-wing leaders from Trump to Colombia’s Ivan Duque have invoked the spectre of Venezuela in their campaigns to pick up votes out of fear—and, once in office, to draw attention away from their own domestic problems.

Venezuela: from symbol of the left to the scapegoat of the right

Other than hardline Maduro loyalists, commentators from throughout the political spectrum agree that Venezuela is in dire straits. The country has gone from the richest nation in South America, with robust social programmes, to struggling with currency not worth the paper it’s printed on and shortages of basic food and medicine. Where international observers disagree is where to pin the lion’s share of the blame for Caracas’s downfall: on Hugo Chavez’s socialist legacy or on the heavy sanctions the U.S. and Europe have slapped on Venezuela.

Regardless of the cause, Venezuela’s economic crisis—along with its pre-crisis history as a darling of the left—has made it the perfect whipping boy for right-wing politicians. By making Venezuela the frame of reference, they have been pushing the Overton window—the range of political ideas deemed acceptable—sharply to the right. In equating all liberal policies with Venezuela, the South American right is trying to demonise even moderately progressive challengers.

Before the Colombian presidential elections in May, Ivan Duque’s campaign distributed flyers warning: “Vote so that Colombia does not become another Venezuela”. A week before Argentinian midterm polls in 2017, president Mauricio Macri emphasised that his countrymen did not want a country “like Venezuela”. The sweeping victory Macri’s party enjoyed underlines how potent a tactic invoking Venezuela has proven to be.

Perhaps no one has cried Venezuelan wolf more than U.S. Republicans in the lead-up to this week’s midterm elections: according to Trump, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum would like to make Florida “into another Venezuela”, while Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke apparently harbours similar ambitions for Texas. Right-wing commentators have warned that “if you like Bernie”, an economic collapse similar to that Venezuela has suffered “could be your future”, while a Republican mailer referred to New York Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “mini-Maduro”.

Beyond rhetoric: a historic court referral

While such remarks have largely been dismissed as political fear mongering, a a group of five Latin American countries—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru, all of which have conservative governments—are bringing a case against Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC), with the support of France and Canada. In many ways, the move to refer Maduro’s government to the ICC is an extraordinary one. The ICC has never yet opened a case referred by its member states, and Latin American nations have long shared a certain esprit de corps which precluded them turning on each other.

How far the probe goes remains uncertain. Since its formation in 2002, the ICC has struggled both with bungled high-profile cases and sharp criticism given the troubling fact that though the Court has received over 9,000 complaints regarding 139 different nations, 10 of the 11 cases the ICC has overseen have focused on Africa, while all 37 defendants it has gone after have been African.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the ICC investigation, however, the referral underscores the profound change that has taken place in Latin American politics, marked by the formation of a new bloc which defines itself by its opposition to the liberal policies which formerly characterised the region.

A convenient distraction from domestic challenges

Endless harping about Venezuela has also served as a convenient foil to deflect attention away from the Lima Group’s own problems. While Caracas’ economic issues—and the human suffering they have engendered— are extremely grave, its neighbours are facing serious challenges as well.

The Argentinian economy is in the dumps, after Macri recently had to swallow the bitter pill of asking the IMF for help. Despite the fund granting Buenos Aires a $50 billion credit line—the largest in its history—the Argentinian Central Bank recently had to raise interest rates to a stunning 60% to stem capital flight. Similarly, Colombia is wrestling with a high fiscal deficit and a rapidly-rising debt-to-GDP ratio. Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a basket case, plagued by a legion of problems, from double-digit unemployment, corruption at the highest echelons of government, and rampant crime.

Unlike Venezuela, however, these countries have not had to deal with the bruising sanctions which have compounded Caracas’s misery. Each fresh round of sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU and Canada—the latest targeted Venezuela’s lucrative gold sector, which had heretofore been relatively unscathed by the economic crisis—has narrowed Caracas’s options for getting its economy back on track.

So far, conservative governments in Latin America have found it in their interest to support these sanctions. As U.S. policymakers increasingly openly advocate a return to the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. claimed the entirety of the Americas for its sphere of influence, Latin American governments will have to reassess whether the political advantages of maintaining the spectre of Venezuela outweigh those of regional unity.

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The power of symbolism: Mexico’s Foreign Policy

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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A few weeks ago, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took the decision to grant asylum to Evo Morales after he fled the country amidst allegations of vote tampering and electoral fraud. The decision of Morales to flee Bolivia clashed with several internal crisis in other Latin American countries. This has made the region highly unstable and harder to predict:  Argentina is struggling with a power transition; massive demonstrations that have led to widespread violence in Chile, Colombia and Ecuador; the unlikely possibility to restore democracy in Venezuela; and an early rift between the Argentinean and Brazilian presidents that may deteriorate soon. Polarisation seems to be taking its toll on the region.

AMLO’s decision should not come as a surprise. Mexico has a long tradition of providing asylum to leftist leaders that can be traced back to the 1930s: Leon Trotsky, José Martí,  Fidel Castro, Spanish refugees fleeing the 1936-1939 civil war; Mohammed Reza, Rigoberta Menchu, among others. So, what made the situation of Evo Morales different?

Mexico’s asylum tradition goes hand in hand with a doctrine of non-intervention: The Estrada Doctrine that means that Mexico should take no position on another’s government legitimacy. AMLO violated this precept by being vocal about his support to Evo Morales and his regime in Bolivia. Secondly, while in Mexico, Morales, far from keeping quiet on politics, he simply felt at home and openly urged his supporters to boycott the new administration of Jeanine Añez.

What happened in Bolivia and the subsequent diplomatic conflict between Mexico and the new interim administration only served to further divide an already highly fragmented Latin America: There are two sides on the same matter: Uruguay, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela have backed up the idea of a coup d’état; while Perú, Brazil, Colombia and the United States have endorsed the idea that it was an electoral fraud. The decision of the current administration to go to such lengths for Evo Morales contrasts sharply with the questionable treatment migrants have received in the southern and northern border of the country. Morales was soon to abandon Mexico: After just a few days in Mexico, he left for Argentina, a move that should not be taken as a surprise: Argentina is swerving away from the foreign policy the former president Mauricio Macri endorsed. This change is thought to be product of the influence of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, vice-president of Alberto Fernández, the current president. Fernández de Kirchner was known for having a close relationship with Evo Morales. His sudden departure could also be the result of a subtle order from the United States.

The way Mexico dealt with the Morales issue highlights an important change in Mexican foreign policy if compared to the one followed by previous administrations. While AMLO has taken a decidedly non-interventionist stance towards Nicaragua, Venezuela and more recently he declined to comment on the American attack on Iran, he was very eager to make his stance clear in the Bolivian crisis.

AMLO is a president that has relied on symbolic acts to keep his electoral base satisfied. Starting from his presidential campaign, he repeatedly stated that the best foreign policy is domestic policy, and he has, since the start of his administration, stuck to this principle. AMLO has focused on numerous domestic trips that aimed at strengthening his fourth transformation project. Domestically, he has sold his presidency as transformative, however, when it comes to his stance on foreign policy, he is stuck on al old fashioned 1930s principle: The Estrada Doctrine.

If we went by what he promised during his electoral campaign, one would expect a much more aggressive foreign policy towards the United States, and specifically towards Trump. He is, however, focused on symbolic issues which will not translate unto economic or safety improvements to keep his high approval ratings. Apart from the very specific case of Bolivia, AMLO’s foreign policy has remained muted and isolated. We should not confuse his sudden support for Morales as AMLO embracing a leftist foreign policy. He has never had such an inclination. By offering asylum to Morales, he tried to give the impression that Mexico was an inclusive and supportive state that has open doors. Nonetheless, with the US next door, Mexico cannot really remain completely sovereign. This asylum process was more a symbolic action than a real shift in foreign policy.

Just last week, AMLO also declared that he has reoriented his foreign policy towards gender equality. Again, another power of symbolism if one looks at Mexico’s feminicide  and gender-violence statistics, they are shaming. Such a foreign policy would prioritise gender equality, protect human rights of women and marginalised groups along with equal pay, and gender parity. Domestic policies again fail to provide such a framework for Mexican women. It’s hardly likely this will go beyond what it is: another symbolic promise that aims to appease those critical of his administration.

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George Washington’s Advice to Us Now

Eric Zuesse

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U.S. President George Washington’s final words to his fellow Americans, upon leaving office, are now even more timely than when he spoke them, but have been ignored in practise for many decades; and the most recently published popular book about that speech ignores the most enduringly important part, so this part of Washington’s Farewell Address will be quoted from here, and will be placed into its historical context, so as to make clear what the central meaning in that speech is for our times, and for all times.

John Avlon (former speechwriter for Rudolf Giuliani, and before that, schooled at Milton Academy and then Yale) was recently the Editor-in-Chief of the rabidly anti-Russian — or “neoconservative” — ‘news’ (or propaganda) site “The Daily Beast.” He issued on 10 January 2017, right before the neoconservative Donald Trump became President, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, which book is an extended essay on President George Washington’s famous Farewell Address. That work wins 4.5 out of 5 stars at Amazon, but I am not linking to it, because that book ignores what will be discussed in this brief article, which is the core of the speech that Avlon devotes 368 pages to butchering.

Here, then, is the key passage from Washington’s Farewell Address, in which our first (and — along with Lincoln and FDR, one of our three greatest) President actually had warned us against the neoconservative path, which our nation has been on ever since 24 February 1990 and the end of the USSR and its communism and its Warsaw Pact military alliance. That’s the path of wars (such as in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine) (which some wags call “perpetual war for perpetual peace”) to conquer, first, all of Russia’s allies, and then finally (once Russia is thus thoroughly isolated), to conquer Russia itself — in other words, George Washington, when retiring from public life, warned us against Mr. Avlon’s own neoconservative foreign-affairs obsession: eternal enmity against Russia (President Washington warned us, instead, to avoid eternal enmity against any nation, including Russia, as is indicated in this passage, which Avlon’s trashy book ignores): 

Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Such “temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies” includes The Allies (England, Soviet Union and U.S.) during World War II, but certainly nothing after the Soviet Union and its communism and Warsaw Pact ended in 1991. The entire ‘Western Alliance’ — basically NATO plus Japan — is anti-American policies by the American aristocracy (controlling the U.S. Government) after 1991, and should therefore promptly terminate, and U.S. armed forces be withdrawn from all foreign countries, in accord with the will and intention of America’s democratic Founders including President Washington. Using the U.S. Defense Department, and the U.S. Treasury Department, as (which neoconservatives do) a vast welfare program for the super-wealthy owners of U.S. weapons-manufacturers and for U.S. and other mercenaries, is unauthorized by America’s Founders, and was explicitly condemned by George Washington.

If any U.S.-based international corporations need those foreign U.S. military bases, then they should pick up all of the government’s tab to pay for them, because that kind of ‘capitalism’ is mere imperialism, which is nothing that any of our Founding Fathers advocated — it’s un-American, in terms of the U.S. Constitution, and the men who wrote it.

AsAlexander Hamilton wrote on 9 January 1796, in defending the new Constitution, and especially its Treaty Clause: “I aver, that it was understood by all to be the intent of the provision [the Treaty Clause] to give to that power the most ample latitude to render it competent to all the stipulations, which the exigencies of National Affairs might require—competent to the making of Treaties of Alliance, Treaties of Commerce, Treaties of Peace and every other species of Convention usual among nations and competent in the course of its exercise to controul & bind the legislative power of Congress. And it was emphatically for this reason that it was so carefully guarded; the cooperation of two thirds of the Senate with the President being required to make a Treaty. I appeal for this with confidence.”

He went further: “It will not be disputed that the words ‘Treaties and alliances’ are of equivalent import and of no greater force than the single word Treaties. An alliance is only a species of Treaty, a particular of a general. And the power of ‘entering into Treaties,’ which terms confer the authority under which the former Government acted, will not be pretended to be stronger than the power ‘to make Treaties,’ which are the terms constituting the authority under which the present Government acts.” So: there can be no doubt that the term “treaty” refers to any and all types of international agreements. This was the Founders’ clear and unequivocal intent. No court under this Constitution possesses any power to change that, because they can’t change history.

Furthermore, the third President Thomas Jefferson said in his likewise-famous Inaugural Address, that there should be “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” Jefferson’s comment there was also a succinct tip-of-the-hat to yet another major concern that the Founders had regarding treaties — that by discriminating in favor of the treaty-partners, they also discriminate against  non-partner nations, and so endanger “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations,” which was the Founders’ chief goal in their foreign policies. But, the Founders’ chief concern was the mere recognition that treaties tend to be far more “permanent” and “entangling” than any purely national laws. This was the main reason why treaties need to be made much more difficult to become laws, and so the two-thirds-of-Senate requirement for passing-into-law any treaty was instituted as the Treaty-Clause, Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2

Though this thinking — avoidance of favoritism in America’s foreign policies — was pervasive amongst the creators of America’s democracy (or people’s republic), America’s newly developed aristocracy subsequently in the 20th Century targeted elimination of the two-thirds-of-Senate requirement, because it’s an impediment toward their re-establishing the aristocracy that the American Revolution itself had overthrown and replaced by this people’s republic. And, the big chance for the aristocracy to restore its position via an imperial President, and so to extend their empire beyond our own shores, came almost two hundred years after America’s founding; it came in 1974, which was when a law finally became passed by Congress allowing some treaties to emerge as U.S. law with only the normal 50%+1 majority in the Senate (unConstitutional though that is). Without that Nixonian law, George Herbert Walker Bush’s NAFTA wouldn’t have been able to become law under Bill Clinton in 1993, and Barack Obama’s TPP with Asia and TTIP with Europe wouldn’t have stood even a chance of becoming law in 2016. Both of Obama’s proposed mega-treaties were designed to isolate and weaken both Russia and China in international trade, but all that Obama ended up with, before his leaving office, was economic sanctions against Russia for its having accepted the desire of the vast majority of Crimeans to rejoin with Russia after Obama’s Ukrainian coup overthrew the democratically elected President of next-door Ukraine, who had received 75% of the vote within Crimea.

Avlon’s website, as a mainstream neoconservative ‘news’ site, opposed Donald Trump as being insufficiently against Russia. They actually urged punishing Russia for Trump’s election! What would George Washington think about having a person (Avlon) so partisan against George Washington’s vision for our country as that, becoming the popular modern ‘interpreter’ of his famous Farewell Address? Would he like that? What would George Washington, and America’s other early Presidents, think of a country which advances such a person as that, to be a commentator and host at CNN, Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Beast, and a favorably received ‘historian’ of the United States? 

This is certainly not the nation that they founded. This ship — now become the wrecker of nations and aspiring global dictator — abandoned its home port in 1945, and hasn’t returned ever since.

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Trump defender Dershowitz: the ‘torture warrant’ guy

Iveta Cherneva

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Alan Dershowitz is joining Trump’s legal impeachment team, with the impeachment trial starting in Senate on Tuesday. Leave aside the string of his questionable former clients — Dershowitz is the “torture warrant” guy.

Not long ago, he used to argue that US judges should be able to authorize torture by the US government. The prohibition of torture was and remains a universal jus cogens norm of the highest order among international human rights norms from which no derogation can be made. This is a legal constant universally known by lawyers and something you can’t mess with, irrespective of the circumstances.

It is not a surprise then that someone with that kind of tortured reading of the law will be defending Trump. Only a tortured reading of the US Constitution can exonerate Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump showing up in Davos is a well-coordinated PR trick. By coincidence, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel starts the impeachment trial exactly on Tuesday when Davos begins and Mr. Trump will be addressing the World Economic Forum. Whether Davos will outshine the US President’s impeachment trial start is questionable.

This all shows how eager Mr. Trump is to show that his international reputation has not suffered, for suffered it has.

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