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The election of Porfirio Lobo on November 29 represents a giant leap backwards for Honduras and Latin America as a whole. After months of protracted negotiations, the U.S. government suddenly threw its weight behind the illegitimate coup government of Roberto Micheletti and supported elections under its authority. The shameful episode damages Obama’s credibility in Latin America and sets a dangerous precedent in a region with a chequered past.

Last June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power at gunpoint by armed soldiers, and the speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti was installed as interim leader. Zelaya’s “crime” was to plan a public consultation on moves to change the constitution. The coup was roundly condemned by world leaders, with President Obama calling the coup “illegal”. Yet five months later, the U.S. government has changed tack, backing coup-sponsored elections and grossly damaging the democratic process in Latin America.

The role of the U.S. in the Honduras crisis has been pivotal since day one. Obama’s initial condemnation of the coup was welcomed by many pundits, especially since the U.S. has a history of backing right-wing coups in Latin America. The Obama administration’s early strategy focused on returning President Zelaya to power and restoring democracy, while the coup government’s strategy was to hold onto power until it held elections for a new president. The U.S. responded by cutting aid to Honduras and threatened the military-backed regime with continued international isolation until it negotiated a plan that would enable Zelaya to return to the presidency.

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As you enjoy your beer, barbecue, and fireworks this Independence Day, take a moment to toast to the UN International Day of Cooperatives.

The first Saturday of July has been reserved by the United Nations as a day to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of cooperatives to cultural, social, and economic development around the world. This year’s theme, “Driving Global Recovery through Cooperatives,” highlights the strength and sustainability of cooperatives in driving endogenous economic growth, even in times of crises.

Despite worldwide instability of financial markets, food crises, and unequal trade agreements, co-ops provide a stable and local 144204source of financial services, living wages, and fair market access for producers. As the US and international community question the value of foreign assistance (“Moyo Ignites Debate with ‘Dead Aid”), cooperatives empower workers to help themselves rather than rely on charity. Additionally, co-ops are required to maintain a dedication to social and environmental responsibility, equality, independence, democracy, community, and self-help, making them a guiding moral light in the current corporate accountability crisis.

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CB Trinidad Americas SummitWhile many the world over continue to celebrate the election of an African American to the highest post in U.S. government, participants in the IV People’s Summit  are waiting for more than rhetoric and token reformist changes.

While President Obama may be saying the right things, in the eyes of many, he has yet to confront the systemic oppression that U.S. foreign policy has afflicted on Latin America and the Caribbean for decades, if not centuries.

Easing the travel ban on Cuban Americans is not enough, they want an end to the blockade against Cuba and the state’s readmission to the OAS.  They want a foreign policy for the 21st century, not tired ideological battles of the Cold War.

Half a million in increased foreign aid and increased lines of credit will do little if economic and governmental structures are not changed to incorporate more active participation of the grassroots.  They demand a shift in objective from capital gains to human well-being and self-actualization.

New Energy and Climate Partnerships must be grounded in the lives and needs of everyday working people.  They demand sovereignty and systems that end poverty (not hand outs) over any form of corporate or state-led initiative at security.

Read for yourself. Is President Obama’s foreign policy grounded in structural changes that will prevent further crises, or is he working merely to advance an image of the United States and a failed form of capitalism for fear of exploration of true alternatives?  Or is he merely getting started, working within bureaucratic confines and the real change is yet to come?

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Trinidad is abuzz with talk of the upcoming 5th Summit of the Americas.  Port of Spain’s public transportation schedule has been changed to accommodate the influx of visitors, two giant cruise ships (the summit venues) sit docked in the harbor, and radio hosts take public calls to determine how Trinidad will benefit in the long run.

The 5th Summit represents Obama’s first opportunity to dialogue with Latin American and Caribbean presidents about issues facing the hemisphere.  With Trinidadians already wearing “I -heart- Obama” t-shirts, hopes are high that his visit will chart a new U.S. policy towards the region.

According to Jeffrey Davidow, Obama’s coordinator for the summit, the U.S. will “focus more on dialogue and collaboration, be pragmatic, and look for concrete results, social inclusion and look to reduce extreme poverty.”

But delegates of the Assembly of Caribbean Youth posed an important question this morning:  collaboration and pragmatism according to whom?  For centuries the Caribbean has been at the whim of foreigners, some of the islands changing hands a dozen times or more.  Anticipating the soon to be consequences of the current economic crises–one that did not originate from within the Caribbean–today’s delegates, representing youth organizations from Trinidad, Barbados, Bahamas, Grenada, St. Vincent, Jamaica and Suriname, emphasized the importance of focusing on self-development and sustainability, both as countries and as a region, before entering into agreements with external markets.

Akins Vidale, President of the Trinidad Youth Council, emphasized four main points for regaining and maintaining economic strength within the Caribbean:

  1. Agrarian Reform and Food Sovereignty – many of the islands don’t produce their own food.
  2. Basic Infrastructure for a Single Caribbean Market – while Suriname may have the capacity to produce food for its neighbors, it hasn’t the efficient means to ship it there.
  3. Independent Economic Strength – local cooperatives and credit unions provide an accountable alternative to predatory loans from international banks.
  4. Integrated Methods for Moving Forward – you cannot judge present by the present.  Solutions needs to demonstrate that they are sustainable and do not compromise the future.  We must be careful of what we rationalize in the name of economic progress.

These young people are all engaged with their national governments towards the development of these community-based solutions, but they need the support and respect of the hemisphere’s heavy weights–the number one actor being the U.S.

It is absolutely critical that in addition to mastering the economic theories and recommended “best practices” for development, we listen to our peers in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) and encourage our government to consider their perspectives when determining policy.  As a friend from Oxfam America said recently, we don’t do development, people develop themselves.  Sometimes they just need our help in clearing the way.

According to Tom Loudon, co-director of the Quixote Center in Washington, DC, the Obama administration, which recently affirmed its intent to move quickly on the Panama FTA, has yet to truly reconsider the model which has increased inequality in the region.  Loudon predicts that “President Obama will likely be surprised by what he encounters in Port of Spain.” Much has changed in the hemisphere in the past few years, and more and more people are beginning to catch on.  Formulas from the past will continue to fail.  We need a fresh perspective.

Open-minded, passionate youth, are starting that process here in the Caribbean.  Where are we?

The advancement of democracy throughout the world has always been uneven, and fraught with setbacks and false miracles. The last few years have demonstrated this powerfully.

Latin America is becoming, overall, more democratic. This is good news, but lamentable anti-democratic tendencies in Venezuela and elsewhere warrant close watching.

Democracy in Africa is a mixed bag, with failed states and entrenched poverty proving to be as much, if not more, of an obstacle to democratisation as authoritarian regimes. In countries such as the Democratic republic of Congo, free elections have not increased security. What Africa needs most at this time is not a rapid proliferation of free elections (which could actually do far more harm than good), but rapid stabilisation, regional cooperation, and pro-poor economic development.

In Asia, the minority of democracies seem stable for now, but so do the majority of non-democratic regimes. The Saffron Revolution in Burma failed to cause the collapse of that country’s brutal junta, despite the unfathomably brave actions of its long-suffering citizens. Pakistan has just been put under martial law, with opposition activists and lawyers being rounded up en masse and independent media severely curtailed. China, the region’s fastest rising power, continues to be a powerful refutation of the oft-espoused idea that market liberalisation naturally brings greater freedom for ordinary people.

The same can be said for Russia, where civil society has been marginalized in the public sphere and repeatedly bludgeoned by the ever more anti-democratic policies of the Government of President Vladimir Putin. 

Democracy is ailing in Russia’s "Near Abroad" as well, with Central Asia dominated by authoritarian regimes of varying degrees of brutality, and the Caucasus region remaining volatile, and largely un-democratic. Just the other day, it became clear that the OSCE will not be able to effectively monitor Russia’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and may have it’s election monitoring activities restricted or curtailed altogether in countries such as Armenia, increasingly swayed more by Russia’s anti-Western line than the European Union’s promises of closer ties.

If liberal democracy is entrenched anywhere, it is in Western Europe. But, even there, the forecast is not uniformly blue skies and sunshine. The rise of right wing parties is posing unprecedented social and political challenges in relatively tolerant countries (such as Switzerland and Belgium) and even the most tolerant, such as the Netherlands.

And now we come to the United States and Canada, to the majority Anglophone democracies North America. Canada, democracy-wise, falls more in line with Western European states than it’s nearest southern neighbor. With strong and independent institutions and a dynamic multi-party legislature, Canada isn’t perfect by any means, but its system is open, self correcting, and self-improving.

Tragically, this is no longer so in the United States. Eight years of unrelenting, unpunished corruption and law-breaking have badly damaged the United States’ democracy in reputation and in practice. Public faith in the legislative and executive branches are at historic laws. The Department of Justice, with its long string of corruption scandals and reputation for politically-tainted policy, can lamentably be now seen as neither as a pillar of the rule of law nor an independent branch of government. But the problem is even more severe than that: with more and more evidence surfacing of Justice Department officials –from the Attorney General on down– collaborating in criminal actions by the Bush Administration, the Justice Department itself is becoming the country’s most destructive underminer of the rule of law. To these alarming realities, American civil society has been slow to react, but rule of law organisations, most prominently the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU, are now, at this very late stage, working to together to strike back hard at the administration that has turned what was a flawed liberal democracy into something unrecognizable to its own citizens and the people of the world.

“La guerra puede ser buena?” or in English “Can war be a good thing?” This unlikely and menacing question is being asked frequently in Latin America. Like in the case of Venezuela and Bolivia where leaders Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales have emerged and more closely represent the overall population of their respective nations, we see that they are diverging from the Washington consensus and creating economic and political models that better serve their countries’ interests. Many activists and scholars alike attribute this blossoming autonomy to the US’s entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US, even though the Administration vehemently denies the accusation, aided a failed coup against the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.  Since then, the Cháves government has been disobeying Washington left and right, changing the oil laws so that they more fairly benefit the Venezuelan people and aligning themselves closely with Fidel Castro, to name two examples. But would this be possible if the US weren’t in Iraq?

Marino Cordoba, Lead Organizer of Casa de Maryland, made nuances to this very question at his talk at TransAfrica Forum on October 11. Mr. Cordoba is an AfroColombian and heads up a constituency of AfroColombians in the United States who have had to flee their native communities due to war, paramilitary activity and other unrest. In the US and more specifically in the Metro Washington DC area, these AfroColombian refugees find themselves having to ban together in a new environment. In the eyes of Cordoba, he and his comrades have been able to organize, mobilize and strategize about how to help the AfroColombian communities in Colombia. This type of cooperation hasn’t occurred before at this level.

Now that they have mobilized themselves, and through organizations like Red de Apoyo a la Comunidad AfroColombiana (Network to Support the AfroColombian Community) and Casa de Maryland (Maryland House) are vying to get HR 618 passed in the US Congress. Although this resolution doesn’t require any direct action from the US government, it is a “first step” as Cordoba puts it, to changing US-Colombia policies for the better. This bill would call on the US to recognize that AfroColombians make up part of the Colombia’s population and that they have been victims of discrimination, marginalization, and conflict in Colombia. They are displaced from their territories by big business and narco-traffickers and that Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement directly, and mostly negatively affect, AfroColombians. Also, the Free Trade Agreements is being negotiated without AfroColombians’ participation, but the bill calls to rectify that problem and include them in the talks.

In addition, Cordoba highlighted that AfroColombians are now talking about their “history, race and contributions to Colombian society”. This is something that before wasn’t necessarily part of everyday conversation or national dialogue. Now, through struggle, beneath harsh conditions, and out of sheer necessity AfroColombians have to cooperate and preserve their culture. Cordoba likened the violence against AfroColombians in places like Buena Ventura to genocide.

This cooperation has brought more AfroColombians into the Afrolatino and PanAfrican movement. Would this be possible without the war?

I found a very interesting article in today’s Christian Science Monitor.  It details illegal immigration.  But it’s not about Mexicans entering the United States, which you see all over CNN and Wolf Blitzer.  Rather, the story depicts the tale long before the U.S. border is in sight.  According to the National Migration Institute, “the number of Central Americans caught attempting to get into Mexico rose to 240,200 in 2005 from 138,000 in 2002…but [the number] is
expected to rise sharply to 205,000 this year”.
In an effort to prevent this trend, backed by the U.S., Mexico is set to increase its security measures along its southern border between Chiapas and Guatemala.  What is disappointing about this announcement is that the focus is clearly shifting from improving its legal and actual treatment of illegal migrants from Central America to creating a more U.S. style fortress.  This is not the way of progress; in fact, this is reversing the Mexican Government’s attempt to improve the quality of holding facilities and detention centers  and lessening the harshness of immigration laws that call for two years minimum of prison time to a lesser infraction.

Most of all, the Mexican Government should focus on not the symptoms of illegal immigration into the country, but rather the root causes of the phenomenon: illicit drug trade, gangs, official corruption, and general lawlessness that has plagued Chiapas state for sometime.  The energy placed into evaluating the security of the southern border could easily be applied to better addressing these insecurities.  Perhaps the United States should also be rethinking their immigration policy as well.  But, like in Mexico, people will find a way in – probably not in a safe way.  It is a government’s job to ensure that human rights and human lives are upheld.  I think that important point is very rarely articulated in mainstream media today.

Travel stories from AID member Stuart Krengel:

Arrival of the Fittest 2-4-07

Four suitcases, and two participants short we made it to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The day consisted of missed flights and lost luggage but the majority of us are here and the stragglers will be here tomorrow.

After gathering our bearings we made it to the Portal de Angel Hotel in Tegucigalpa. The hotel is majestic and offers us peace and tranquility especially after such a long red-eyed filled day. We started our trip by commencing to listen to a local historian give us an overview of the History of Honduras. Many questions were asked and many topics were discussed. The speaker really went in depth into some sobering topics that we will witness first hand throughout our adventure. In this hemisphere Honduras is the fifth poorest country with 70% of its people living in poverty. Access to water and access to health services are just a few things that are limited or non-existent for these people. Tomorrow we will venture out into some nearby communities to witness first hand what micro-credit is doing to help alleviate poverty in Honduras.

After all the hustle and bustle in this day of travel our guest helped us realize at least one important thing, we have finally arrived and it is time to understand this unique and beautiful country. I hope you stay tuned to learn more about our travels.

Hasta Pronto!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Day 2

Yesterday we traveled all over the surrounding areas of Tegucigalpa to meet with a microfinance institution (MFI) as well as entrepreneurs themselves. After a 7:30 breakfast the group hopped in the vans to visit one of Katalysis’ Partner MFI’s, FUNED. FUNED is based in the city limits and its mission is distinctly Christian based. All of the clients that we met throughout the day were clients of FUNED. So after an overview of FUNED business practices the group got back into the vans to visit or first client of the trip. We traveled up a substantial hill.
After a 30 minute jaunt we arrived at a pulperia (grocery store) we were greeted by two of FUNED’s loan officers. We were supposed to meet the women who was receiving the loans but due to a family emergency she had to be somewhere else. But her husband that was running the business with her was present to tell us a little bit about the how microcredit has allowed him to improve the lives of his children, expand their business and make some improvements to their home. Some interesting aspects of this particular borrower are that he has two children attending a private university and he and his wife work about 10-12 hours a day 7 days a week. There are two products that this particular pulperia sold that made it so successful: nacatamales and tortillas. People travel from all around Tegucigalpa and other nearby cities to enjoy the hand prepared food that this family provides. He even said in the past that demand for his product has come from people in the United States. He is pictured below in front of the store. Our next trip was to a community called 28 de Octubre (28th of

October). The name comes from the date that the community was founded. Within this community there was a group of women and women, that bared the same name as the community, that were part of a community bank. A community bank will receive a loan as a whole and then divide the money accordingly to the members and their businesses. So you have a strict sense of accountability as well as a close knit network of support within these groups. If one perosn defaults on their loan the rest of the group is given the task of finding a way to pay the loan back. We were invited into one of the members homes and with all of us comfortable they each explained what they did with their loans. Some sold clothes, others fruit and one of them was the neighborhood tortilla vendor. All community lending groups have a President, Treasurer, Controller and a Secretary. These positions are voted on democratically by the members of the group. This visit was definitely a highlight for the group. Below is a picture of the group.

We met many amazing people and heard even more amazing stories. This type of travel is very unique and makes one feel many emotions. The people of Honduras are strong and capable people and today we saw that with access to credit lives are changing for the better. So until tomorrow I say goodbye with a little help from my friend below.

February 23, 2007

Yesterday we traveled to La Esperanza. Not only did we visit our Partner ODEF’s office, we also visited the clients in the surrounding rural area. Here are their stories:Maria Isabel Pineda Sanchez:

Maria has obtained three loans, her first loan was in the amount of 3,000 lempiras (divide by 20 to find the dollar amount). All of her loans were taken out for cultivating fresh vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Maria is a single mother after being widowed 18 months ago. After realizing the fact that she would need to support her family she decided to take out a loan to continue the business that her husband had started. She counts on her 15 year old son and her only daughter to help her with the day to day operations. Her loan goes to the purchase of seed and fertilizer. The loan from ODEF allowed her to start a new chapter in her life. She is full of pride because she can feed her family. She expressed to us a gratitude like no other because we were the first group to come out and visit her beautiful farm.

Eustacio Gomez:
Eustacia has borrowed 4 times from ODEF totaling 35,000 Lempiras. He is a farmer and his main crop is potatoes.  When we went to visit, his family of 6 was present. The little ones were all smiles and the older ones were busy working while their father answered all of our questions. We had many questions for him but one stood out because of his inspiring response. “What is the hardest part about farming and running your business?” He calmly replied that he knew that in order to get ahead and raise his standard of living he would have to face hardships. He didn’t think about what was hard and what was not, he just kept moving forward in order to give his children the opportunities that he didn’t have.

Senora Enemecia Gonzalez:

Enemecia started with ODEF with a loan of 4,000 Lempira for her weaving business. To date she has borrowed 5 loans in the sum of 28,000 Lempira. Her business employs 5 members of her family. Her family in  total has 9 members including her daughter that is 1 year old. With her loans she has been able to purchase and build two new looms in order to keep up with increasing demand for her beautiful weaving. She really showed us the entrepreneurial spirit that microcredit has been able to help her develop.

There’s an interesting piece in this week’s Economist (see link) on a poverty-alleviation policy in Latin America called conditional cash transfers (known as “CCT’s”).

Last weekend many of us AID-ers gathered in New York City for the Young Global Leaders Summit on Realizing the Millennium Development Goals. We learned how increasing levels of foreign aid, ensuring smarter foreign aid and canceling debt are some of the key policies that we in developed nations can undertake to ensure development in the third world. Some attendees, including this one, also wondered what complementary policies within developing countries could best promote development.

Cash transfers certainly offer an interesting and new (or at least new to me) approach. Typically, they provide a financial incentive for poor mothers to promote certain activities on behalf of their children. For example, their conditionality would involve children’s attendance at school or vaccination against disease or mandatory visits to health clinics. Two of the most famous CCT programs are in Mexico, the home of first Progresa and now Oportunidades, and in Brazil, the home of Bolsa Família. These programs now exist in more than half a dozen Latin American countries under World Bank auspices (see link). And within those countries, CCT initiatives are popular and far-reaching. In Mexico, 5 million families receive cash transfers from the government, which is nearly a quarter of the total population.

So far, progress has been made, at least in Mexico. The Economist writes, “In Mexico, the poverty rate fell between 2000 and 2002 during a recession in which real income per head declined by some 3%. Studies suggest that children in the beneficiary families are less likely to be stunted by poor nourishment and less likely to drop out of school.” There’s much that seems optimistic about these programs, which get at some of the root causes of poverty by trying to raise human capital for the next generation.

Then again, the jury appears to still be out as to whether or not these programs will be successful in the fight against poverty. The Economist points out that successful CCT’s depend on a functioning government. Furthermore, cash transfers alone will not answer the call to make poverty history—both because not all families will take the incentive they provide and also because many of the pressing social and economic problems of poverty, inequality and hunger will not be alleviated even by higher attendance at schools and better health standards.

Still, this could be a good step forward. I’m looking forward to hearing more analyses of these policies in Mexico and Brazil and their potential transferability elsewhere.


August 2020

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