December 8, 2007

In Bolivia the Military Chief Takes a Side

Yesterday the Bolivian Chief of the Armed Forces, General Wilfredo Vargas, the highest ranking military man in Bolivia, responded to calls for military intervention in the simmering social/political/regional crisis by calling opposition leaders "cowards."

The military should be congratulated for that stance, even though it may not be an altruistic position. In years past, the military would have likely been quick to storm the presidential palace and take over government, given the level of violence and insecurity in Bolivia. In the last 20 years or so, however, the concept of defending a democratic constitution vice an administration or political position has begun to taken hold within the military ethos, causing the armed forces to make careful calculations and second guess their instinct to act.

Of course, as opposition leaders suggest, the military leadership is being bribed into compliance, and undoubtedly this helps them toe the party line, but I can't help think that should the Evo administration make some egregious assault on democratic norms in Bolivia, the military would likely act no matter how much they are getting paid. After all, they have institutional interests at stake as well. Barring this, the military chiefs will stay quite with the $40K they are allegedly being paid and democracy will not so much be assaulted to death, but instead it will be a death by a thousand decrees.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there will not be a "Major's Revolt" in the future, since presumably the $40K is only going to the chiefs of the services and the booty is not being pushed down to other levels of command.

December 7, 2007

In Bolivia The Opposition Strikes Back

To the opposition in Bolivia, as well as to every objective thinking person around the world, it is hard to separate the events going on in Bolivia, and particularly the policies of Evo Morales, from the influence of Hugo Chavez. As I've said before, Chavez holds much sway with Evo. Immediately following Evo's inauguration, for example, Bolivia and Venezuela signed a series of bilateral agreements dealing with trade and energy cooperation. A bit later a military cooperation agreement was signed that provided legal cover for Venezuela to send, and Bolivia to receive, military forces engaged in training and infrastructure development.

Predictably, rumors of Venezuelan military support for purposes of maintaining the Morales government in power began to spread, aided by statements made by Chavez on more than one occasion. Opposition representatives have claimed that Venezuela is, in fact, illegally shipping arms to Bolivia. Today they should get a chance to prove it.

Yesterday, a mob in the city of Riberalta stormed the airport and threw stones at a Venezuelan Air Force C-130 transport plane that they believed to be carrying a shipment of arms. The mob assaulted one Venezuelan who deplaned and the pilots were eventually able to fly out of the airport.

Bolivian government authorities claimed the aircraft was only carrying spare parts and personnel on their way back to Caracas and the stop in Riberalta was not to unload supplies or weapons but simply to refuel.

After taking off from Riberalta the cargo plane tried landing in at least two other nearby airports but was deterred by the presence of more mobs. It finally flew to the Brazilian town of Rio Branco. Today a group of opposition leaders were to fly to the Brazilian town to investigate the cargo the plane was carrying. La Razon has the story here. Reuters has a report in English, here.

This event could be indicative of a shift in the opposition strategy. They are now trying to internationalize their fight.

Exhibit A: Previously they were content to make allegations against Venezuelan interference, maybe go as far as a protest in front of the Venezuelan Embassy, but never before, that I know, had they actually planed, organized, and executed an assault on what they suspected was a Venezuelan arms shipment. This is very symbolic. In effect, they assaulted the Venezuelan military.

Exhibit B: It is likely not a coincidence that this action was taken precisely when opposition leaders from the Media Luna departments where in Washington DC seeking support from the OAS and speaking in think tanks before American audiences.

Exhibit C: It comes at a time when Chavez's influence in the region is in a slight wane, following the King of Spain's public rebuke of him and on the heels of Chavez's first electoral defeat.

Regardless of what the plane holds in its cargo bay (and in this instance I believe the Bolivian Government), it is clear that the opposition means business. This event requires significant organizational capabilities to pull off.

December 3, 2007

Who Will Stand Up For Bolivian Democracy?

I know I promised a detailed critique of Max Boot's op-ed. I'm still working on it.... It's just got kind of long and unwieldy for a blog. Maybe if I break it down and post it as separate blog entries....

In the mean time, let's take a stroll through the two big news items in Latin America this past week.

The biggest item, by far, is that Chavez lost Sunday's constitutional referendum in Venezuela by the slimmest of margins, 51 to 49 percent. (If you don't know what I'm talking about...Chavez proposed major constitutional reforms that would have allowed him to serve unlimited terms as president and consolidate significant political, bureaucratic, and economic power. In short, this would have been the first step towards dictatorship in Venezuela). The defeat of his proposal is good news to defenders of democracy, bad news to lefties that would like to inflict on Venezuela a totalitarian "socialist" system. No doubt that as I type this, Chavez and his cronies are already plotting ways to overcome this set-back and forge ahead with plans to further consolidate power and continue in office past 2012, when Chavez's current term is supposed to expire. Four years can't come soon enough. The opposition in Venezuela should take advantage of this situation, come together, and build momentum to move forward.

One question regarding Chavez's defeat is how will this impact Evo's actions in Bolivia, the second news item of the week. MABB and Pronto have extensive coverage of the unfortunate developments in Bolivia since Thanksgiving, so I won't go into the details here. Bolivia now finds itself in a dangerous position, with the country and society polarized seemingly more than ever. So much so that the failure of the Bolivian state is now an issue should things continue with no amelioration. Evo is undoubtedly following the Chavez blueprint. Indeed, the Venezuelan President is probably the most influential advisor in the Casa Quemada and Evo's ill-conceived actions over the last week likely have Chavez's finger prints all over them. So what does Chavez's defeat on Sunday mean for Evo? Will he see Chavez's defeat and draw the conclusion that his constitutional reforms could meet a similar fate if he does not moderate his position and seek greater consensus? You would hope so.

November 17, 2007

Earlier this month it appeared the State Department was going to force a handful of Foreign Service Officers to serve their country in Iraq. There was much diplomatic hand-wringing in Foggy Bottom at the prospect. God forbid diplomats do their duty at a time and in a place their country needs them most. Though this "diplomatic crisis" has come to an end thanks to a few honorable volunteers, the ample news coverage the "revolt" received brought renewed attention to the difficulties the US Government is, nay has been, having coming to terms with the international threat environment ever since the end of the Cold War.

Two op-ed pieces on this very topic recently appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The first and by far the best one is written by Hans Binnendijk, a professor at the National Defense University (here). The inferior op-ed, written by Max Boot, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is here.

Why is Max Boot's op-ed inferior? Because it is glaringly inaccurate, shallow in analysis, and betrays a significant lack of knowledge of the subject matter. Unlike Binnendijk, who has extensive experience in national security policy and a Ph. D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Max Boot is, well, a journalist with zero policy experience but possessing a flair for writing and an interest in security issues. To use a football metaphor, Binnendijk is a player and Boot is a cheerleader. Who do you think is going to write a more informed football op-ed?

Lamentably, Boot's lack of experience has not prevented him from becoming an influential voice in some policy circles, thanks to his former perch at the Wall Street Journal and the rise of neoconservativism. This is a shame. People with such limited knowledge should not be so influential. In my next post I will comment on Boot's op-ed in detail.

October 30, 2007

An Opportunity Wasted in US-Cuba Relations

Following US-Cuban affairs after Fidel Castro's incapacitation is kind of like watching a tennis match. On the left side of the court, sporting olive drab green shorts and matching headband, Raul Castro. On the right side of the court, wearing denim shorts and a cowboy hat, George W. Bush.

First, the serve. When Raul took over as Interim President there was much speculation from policy wonks and the press regarding the fate of US-Cuba relations. The ball is now in play and Bush is the first to return it over the net. Sensibly, US government officials quickly tried to extinguish such speculation by stating, in effect, that US policy opposes dictatorship in Cuba regardless if it is wielded by Fidel or Raul.

Cuba answers. In a major speech on July 26, Raul concedes that some of the Cuban government's past policies have failed and it appears that he is offering a small olive branch to the US. The ball, now back in the US side of the net, is answered with a strong back hand by President Bush. On Wednesday, in a major Cuban policy speech given from the State Department, President Bush maintains the hard line by indicating the embargo will remain in place and calling Cuba a "tropical gulag." Nice.

But wait.... What's this? Raul runs to the net and volleys. Just hours after Bush's speech, Cuba broadcasts half of it on national TV! And Granma, the Cuban government's newspaper, publishes edited transcripts that included some of Bush's best zingers (here is a copy of the speech with the text not published by Granma crossed out). Unprecedented.

The US now stumbles. According to the Miami Herald, Department of State officials declined to comment on the Cuban broadcast and release of transcripts of Bush's speech. To be fair, what could they say? Surely they can't encourage such hopeful behavior by the Cuban regime. To do so would be a slippery slope for this administration. At worst it may lead to the beginning of a thaw in relations between the two governments, at best it gives the appearance that the Bush hard line is softening. Either result will only open Bush to attacks from his base and serve to alienate the Cuba policy hawks that he so openly aligned himself with during the speech.

Gut check time. Just as the ball appears to be heading towards it's second bounce on Bush's court, the Administration reaches back and slams it towards the opponent. On Monday, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a jailed Cuban dissident, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. Match point. Take your olive branch and shove it.

The next set in this match will start in 2009, when the US is under new management.

(Editorial Note: Here's hoping that Dr. Biscet's medal brings some luster back to the award. The medal was disgraced when, in 2004, it was presented to Paul Bremmer, Gen. Tommy Franks, and George Tenet--three of the four people most responsible for the debacle in Iraq).

October 29, 2007

More on Anthropologists and War

Sorry for the long absence. This weekend the NYT published an op-ed by an anthropologist who takes the view that his profession's backlash against helping the military in Iraq and Afghanistan is short-sided. His common-sense position is that anthropologists working for the military are not identifying who soldiers should kill or imprison but are instead providing high-speed cultural awareness training to the troops. Nothing earth shattering here as all of this is backed by the few accounts emerging from anthropologists in the theaters of war.

The op-ed further argues that working with the military is good for the profession because it opens doors that would allow it to become increasingly relevant in policy making. Yes.

October 23, 2007

Another Short Break

Well, last week was exceedingly hectic at work and it left me with little energy to blog. This week is a little better, but my time in front of the computer at nights will be limited. So, I will take another short break from blogging and hope to re-engage next week.