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Obama Hits Iran-Venezuela Ties. Now What?

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Posted By José R. Cárdenas

One certainly hopes that President Obama’s recent criticism of Iran-Venezuela relations indicates a new willingness on the part of his administration to confront the growing menace of the radical Islamist regime in the Western Hemisphere.

In comments submitted to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, the president said that Hugo Chávez‘s ties to Iran “have not served the interests of Venezuela or the Venezuelan people” and expressed concern about his anti-democratic behavior and his failure “to contribute to the security in the region.”

“Here in the Americas,” he said, “we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely.”

The president’s comments came on the heels of further explosive revelations on the extent of Iranian subversion of U.S. interests in the region.  Earlier this month, the Spanish-language network Univision aired an investigative documentary,“The Iranian Threat” — the product of months of research — that included incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats in Mexico discussing waging cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems, including those of nuclear power plants.

Shortly thereafter, U.S. law enforcement officials revealed details of an investigation into a Lebanese bank in Canada that laid out Hezbollah’s sophisticated global money-laundering operations that includes direct involvement by senior officials in the lucrative South American  drug trade.  The revelations put the lie to the State Department’s long-repeated talking point that Hezbollah merely “raises funds” in Latin America for its operations in the Middle East.

Both reports drew sharp reactions from Capitol Hill, where a number of members have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the administration’s regional policy.  Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he would hold hearings on Iran’s destructive role in the region when the Senate reconvenes in 2012.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she would request the State Department to conduct its own investigation “into Iran’s deeply troubling partnerships with regional dictators such as Chavez, Morales, Correa, Ortega and the Castro brothers.”

(It bears noting as well that in the Nov. 22 Republican presidential candidates’ National Security Debate, the threat posed by radical Islam operating in the Western Hemisphere was featured prominently as a national security issue that official Washington was neglecting.)

Thankfully, it appears the steady drumbeat of concern about Iran and their Hezbollah proxies’ strategic push into the Americas has finally caught the White House’s attention.   To date, U.S. law enforcement agencies have had to confront this threat virtually alone.  It is time the entire Executive Branch foreign policy apparatus joins in, including the slumbering State Department.

Most importantly, it is time for ramping up actions to back up the president’s words.   This includes not only identifying more individuals, companies, and/or governments found to be aiding and abetting Iran and Hezbollah in their nefarious activities and bringing the full weight of sanctions against them, but also conducting a full-bore public diplomacy campaign for regional audiences on Iran’s intentions and activities in the region and the dangers for their societies therein.

To date, consorting with Iran has been a freebie for anti-American demagogues like Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.  The administration needs to move now to raise the costs.

Source

Mexican Government Under Assault From Drug Cartels, Washington Yawns

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Suspected Mexican drug traffickers from the Zetas drug cartel on 20 September drove two trucks to a main avenue in the Mexican Gulf coast city of Boca del Rio in Veracruz state and dumped 35 corpses during rush hour while gunmen stood guard, menacing frightened motorists with automatic weapons.

So, why is this being written about here?

Well, if for no other reason, Mexico’s drug cartels have declared a de facto war with the government for control of the country’s northern provinces for exports routes into the United States.

Meanwhile, Washington, fixated on the decade-old war on terror, the Middle East and stopping Palestine’s incipient bid for statehood at the UN, doesn’t even mention a yawn, despite the fact that in the last five years drug violence has claimed more than 35,000 Mexican lives, according to government figures. And that’s the low end of the curve, as a number of human rights groups estimate that the true death toll is 40,000.

Forty thousand.

More than 12 times the number of Americans killed in the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks, in a neighboring country.

Who cares? After all, we all know that Central America is prone to violence, and well… that’s just the way it is. Why should Washington care?

Quite aside from the human issues involved, Washington should care because, according to the U.S. Energy Administration, of United States total crude oil imports now averaging 9.033 million barrels per day, Mexico with its 1.319 million barrels per day of exports is exceeded only by Canada as the U.S. top importer of crude, and exceeds Saudi Arabian imports by over 200,000 bpd.

But in dealing with Mexico Washington is in a classic state of addict denial – and, after all, it is addicted to not one, but three Mexican narcotics – oil imports, drugs and cheap labor.

As for oil, it is worth remembering that all of Mexico’s energy imports fall under the purview of Petroleos Mexicanos state oil monopoly, more familiarly known as Pemex. Accordingly, threats against the government’s authority, as the Boca del Rio massacres most assuredly are, ultimately threaten the central administration’s ability to rule, which in turn calls into question larger governmental policies.

And the assault on oil exports is led by the cartels’ determination to both preserve and expand its footprint in the lucrative gringo market north of the border.

If we are to believe official Washington, these thugs have somehow managed to thwart border controls to flood the U.S. with cheap narcotics. The real truth, which one can only uncover by a close reading of the regional U.S. press in border communities, is that drug money has largely co-opted the local, state and federal authorities responsible for policing the frontier. Of course, in the post-9/11 security debate this is not discussed to unsettle the electorate.

And the third element complicating the issue is the estimated 35 million Hispanic immigrants, mostly illegal, now present in the U.S., a source of their wealthy employer’s interest in cheap, undocumented labor, a handy device for driving down wages.

So, as long as America continues to inject cheap oil, drugs and below minimum-wage labor into its collective arm to satisfy its cravings, little will change.

But it’s worth remembering that the U.S.-Mexican border, all 1,969 miles of it, is the only place in the world where the Third World washes up against the First. One can make a case for the divided Korean peninsula being a similar case, but the populations on both sides of the DMZ share a common culture, unlike the U.S-Mexican frontier, where a desperately poor Latino culture exists next door to the rich, English-speaking U.S. society.

Washington has got at some point to address all three interrelated issues – oil dependency, the drug culture destabilizing the frontier and the massive swell of undocumented aliens across the frontier. Washington’s fixation since 9-11 on the Middle E|ast and South Asia has allowed the issue to slip from what should be front and center of U.S. diplomatic policy, for all its ominous long term consequences.

Mexico’s narco-terrorists have effectively declared war on the government’s authority in Mexico City – rather than expending U.S. diplomatic capital in blocking the Palestinian’s bid for independence at the UN, or nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington might refocus its efforts to our southern neighbor.

After all, imagine Mexico’s carnage figures transplanted to Europe, or even the Middle East – Congress would be foaming at the mouth for intervention. To use the most recent statistics – last month, before the final push on the Libyan capital Tripoli began, a representative of the Transitional National Council estimated that 35,000 Libyans had been killed.

Grievous as the 35,000 Libyan deaths are, a similar number of casualties have occurred in Mexico – America’s neighbor.

In the Western Hemisphere.

Next door.

Time for a rethink in Washington – Mexico City is clearly under siege, and Mexico’s destabilization bids ill for those oil exports.

Bring the troops home…

And deploy them along the Rio Grande.

Or, perhaps not, given Washington’s self-absorption about the electoral races next year.

In the face of such torpor, horrific images such as those from Boca del Rio are likely to be only the beginning.

By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com

Original Article

Valenzuela: Priorities for the U.S. in Latin America

“We export more than three times as much to Latin America as we do to China; more to Latin America than to Europe; and more to Chile or Colombia than to Russia,” says US Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela, explaining to Congress why Latin America matters. “The U.S. foreign assistance request for FY 2012 for the Western Hemisphere totals $1.98 billion. “

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By Arturo Valenzuela
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — I am delighted to have this opportunity to testify before you today on the Department of State’s budget priorities in the Western Hemisphere. I look forward to continuing to work with this committee to advance U.S. interests in the hemisphere

President Obama’s recent visit to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador highlighted U.S. vital national interests in the Americas. The President used his trip to build on the pledge that he made at the Summit of the Americas to create a relationship of “equal partners” based on mutual interests and shared values. He had particularly productive and substantive meetings with the leadership of these three countries and also engaged with representatives of the private sector and civil society. The president’s message, and the dozens of agreements completed during the trip, underscored how tremendously significant the region is for the United States on issues including our economic competiveness, our global strategic interests, our core values of democracy and human rights, and the richness and diversity of our society and culture.

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama shared his vision for how America will win the future. And as Secretary Clinton recently stated, “enhancing our competitiveness, accelerating innovation, achieving energy security, and expanding our exports – all of these require robust engagement with Latin America.”

The countries of the Americas are helping the global economic recovery, and the combined economies of Latin America grew six percent last year, which some observers believe will herald the start of a “Latin American decade.” The size of Latin America’s economies and its young demographic are especially important to the United States – and our economy is tied closely to that of our neighbors. We export more than three times as much to Latin America as we do to China; more to Latin America than to Europe; and more to Chile or Colombia than to Russia.

Even in this inter-connected world, geography still matters. This administration believes that it is a comparative advantage we should embrace, and we neglect it at our own peril. Our opportunity with Latin America derives from the “power of proximity” – proximity that is geographic, economic, and reflects the common history of the Americas. President Obama’s visit underscored our growing recognition that the hemisphere stands to gain from greater cooperation premised on shared values, which can lead to the rise of even more capable partners who can help us accomplish our strategic objectives, from promoting clean energy to improving security in the region.

The President’s trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s announcement of the “Alliance for Progress,” which represented a commitment by the United States to help address the region’s staggering development challenges. The landscape today is vastly different. While old challenges persist in some countries, and we are all grappling with new ones like climate change, most nations in the region are clearly on the path toward stable, democratic societies with modern economies and a growing middle class. Today, the countries of the Americas are becoming less polarized, which allows us to better address our shared objectives. This progress makes them invaluable partners in addressing the remaining problems in our own hemisphere, advancing key global priorities, and fostering strong economic growth at home. Our partners in the hemisphere are global actors and increasingly becoming aid donors in their own right. For example, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, nations throughout the hemisphere contributed resources to the relief efforts and subsequent reconstruction.

U.S. assistance represents only one component of the total economic engagement between the United States and the other nations of the Western Hemisphere. Last week, President Obama announced that we are moving forward with the U.S.-Colombia and U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreements, which we expect will create thousands of American jobs and increase U.S. exports by more than a billion dollars. These trade agreements are an integral part of the Administration’s overall strategy to deepen our ties within the Western Hemisphere and promote our collective prosperity. The Administration recently resolved a longstanding dispute over Mexican trucking that will further strengthen our economic relationship with this key partner. Total two-way U.S. trade with Latin America and the Caribbean in 2010 amounted to $636 billion, a 27% increase over the prior year. U.S. trade capacity-building assistance supports the effective implementation of our free trade agreements and helps provide a level playing field that ensures our trading partners respect fundamental labor rights. In addition, remittances from the United States to the region totaled $69 billion in 2010, which was an increase of two percent from the previous year.

U.S. foreign assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean supports our overall policy goals of advancing U.S. economic and security interests through the promotion of effective democratic governance, citizen safety for all, expanded economic and social opportunity, and a clean energy future for the hemisphere. Our budget priorities for FY 2012 are to strengthen the institutions of democratic governance, combat threats to citizen security, leverage emerging economic opportunities, and support the emerging potential for global and regional leadership by the countries of the Americas.

The U.S. foreign assistance request for FY 2012 for the Western Hemisphere totals $1.98 billion. We believe this request will help us meet the challenges and opportunities we face. At the same time, it is lean and responds to the fiscal constraints that we all recognize.

Sufficient personnel, and support for the Embassies and Consulates that are the operational platforms for our diplomatic work and engagement, remain essential. Our dedicated people strive every day to defend human rights, enhance democracy, protect our citizens, and increase trade and exports that create jobs. Our FY 2012 State Operations request provides resources sufficient to meet the needs we face while reflecting current fiscal constraints, but full funding is vital to ensure we can achieve our goals for the American people.
The success of the Western Hemisphere will continue to support the growth of vibrant democratic institutions that respond to their citizens, expand the boundaries of freedom, and create greater economic and social prosperity. It is important to note that the Obama administration’s strategy of engagement has contributed to a shift in Latin American public opinion. According to the 2010 poll by Latinobarometro, two-thirds of the population in most countries had favorable attitudes towards the United States – an increase of 10 to 20 points from 2008 levels. The role of the United States in Latin America is also overwhelmingly viewed as positive. This suggests that the Obama administration’s strategy has reversed the dangerous depletion of good will toward the United States that had occurred during the prior decade.

Yet in order to sustain this important progress, we must prioritize citizen security. Last year’s poll by Latinobarometro confirmed one of the core precepts of the Obama Administration’s policy towards the Americas: that the greatest concern of citizens throughout the hemisphere is achieving safety and security and combating the rise of international crime. We share this priority with our regional partners, and our FY 2012 funding request targets the issue of citizen safety, accounting for just less than half of the total request for the Western Hemisphere.

In order to oversee effectively the citizen security programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, I have asked Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson to assume responsibility for ensuring necessary and appropriate programmatic coordination on the planning and implementation of citizen security programs throughout the region. This critical role will ensure that we learn which programs are most effective and that we reduce duplication of efforts.

Particularly in Mexico and Central America, narcotics trafficking and transnational crime pose threats to citizen safety. Our efforts, including U.S. assistance, seek to build host government capacity to protect their citizens and administer the rule of law effectively.

The United States and Mexico have built an especially close partnership through the Merida Initiative to fight organized criminal groups and associated violence while respecting human rights and the rule of law. Our FY 2012 request of $282 million for the Merida Initiative will continue the progress we have made, which is fundamentally based on the realization that our countries share responsibility for combating transnational criminal networks and protecting our citizens from the crime, corruption, human exploitation, and de-humanizing addictions these networks generate. It is also based on mutual respect and an understanding of the tremendous benefits the United States and Mexico can offer our citizens through this collaboration. We have four goals: disrupting organized criminal groups; institutionalizing reforms to sustain rule of law and respect for human rights; creating a 21st century border; and building strong and resilient communities. To achieve these goals, we are accelerating our efforts to support stronger democratic institutions, especially police, justice systems, and civil society organizations; expanding our border focus beyond interdiction of contraband to include facilitation of legitimate trade and travel; and cooperating in building strong communities resistant to the corrupting influence of organized crime.

The United States is working with other partners (including the European Union, Spain, Colombia, Canada, and Mexico, among others) to address threats to security in Central America. During his recent trip, President Obama announced the Central American Citizen Security Partnership, which will build upon and complement existing efforts aimed at enhancing citizen security in the Americas.

Our FY 2012 request for the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the U.S. component of that international partnership effort, is $100 million. CARSI assistance is designed to yield high and sustainable impacts on crime, gangs, and trafficking. Simultaneously, we are working to rebuild the law enforcement, judicial, and prison systems, while addressing the underlying economic and social causes of violence and insecurity. We are also working with partners to ensure that Central America is both a development and foreign policy priority, so that donor resources can collectively have a greater positive impact on the security trajectory in this crucial sub-region. CARSI also serves to promote greater respect for human rights and the rule of law.

To ensure that traffickers and transnational crime elements do not simply shift routes, we are also addressing citizen security in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) reflects the Administration’s effort to establish a sustainable security partnership with Caribbean countries – a region that comprises half of the southern border of the United States. The FY 2012 funding request of $73 million will promote regional security cooperation throughout the Caribbean. Rising crime and violence, largely related to the drug trade, threatens regional security and stability. Individual Caribbean nations are ill-equipped to handle these issues on their own, and we have agreed on a partnership to develop national and regional capacities to address the myriad of transnational criminal issues throughout the region. This funding is essential to build on the work that we have begun with our regional partners.

The funding for CARSI and CBSI is requested under the Western Hemisphere Regional account – a single budget line item that contains critical citizen security funding for these regions. Full funding of the FY 2012 request for these initiatives is vital to ensure continued progress against rule of law challenges to these regions that threaten U.S. national interests.

Sustaining recent security and governance gains remains the top U.S. assistance priority in Colombia. The FY 2012 request for Colombia reflects a decrease that has been made possible due to the growing capacity of Colombia’s national authorities to respond directly to the challenge facing their country. In addition, we continue to adjust the balance of security and counter-narcotics activities toward justice sector efforts, alternative development, and humanitarian assistance, and this trend is reflected in our request. We are working closely with the Colombian government to support the ongoing nationalization process, while also working to promote human and labor rights, protect human rights advocates, ensure access to justice, and end impunity. Our investments in Colombia’s capacity are succeeding, and this expertise can now benefit others in the region encountering similar challenges to citizen safety.

Assessing the region as a whole, we recognize that governing institutions are still weak in some places where the danger of populism still exists, whether from the left or the right. The key distinction is between countries with solid institutions and those where leaders dominate through the personalization of politics. In addition to strengthening democratic institutions, the administration recognizes the importance of supporting democratic processes that meet international and hemispheric standards of transparency, sustaining political parties from across the political spectrum, and strengthening the foundation of civil society. Credible electoral observation is critical to safeguarding democratic process, as we recently witnessed in Haiti.

In some instances, we see challenges posed by leaders who seek to consolidate power through extra-constitutional means, often suppressing minority rights, coupled with weak institutions of government. We are also concerned about the targeting of independent media through a variety of means, ranging from intricate legalistic maneuvers to brute force and intimidation. We must guard against these trends, because history teaches us that challenges to freedom of expression can quickly lead to pressure on other core freedoms as well. That is why the administration continues to support civil society and freedom of expression advocates in countries like Venezuela and Cuba. U.S. assistance for Cuba and Venezuela seeks to support the desire of citizens to express themselves freely.

We are also continuing to help the Haitian people rebuild after the terrible earthquake that struck the country more than a year ago. As President Obama emphasized shortly after the earthquake, U.S. commitment to Haiti will be sustained, as is evidenced in our request for FY 2012. Since the earthquake, the U.S. government has provided over $1 billion in humanitarian relief assistance and an additional $406 million in recovery assistance toward job creation, rubble removal, shelter solutions, health, and other priorities. To date, we have disbursed more than $332 million to provide debt relief and contribute to the Haiti Reconstruction Fund. This has allowed the Haitian government to use its resources to support the construction and repair of houses, remove rubble in critical areas of Port-au-Prince, establish funds to finance private sector activity, and provide education assistance. The United States has also provided more than $45 million in assistance since the onset of the cholera crisis in October 2010 for medical supplies and services, and cholera treatment facilities and information campaigns to increase public awareness of prevention and treatment of the disease.

Beyond citizen safety and assistance for Haiti, U.S. assistance addresses key development challenges in the region, including good governance, education, health, the environment, and trade competitiveness, consistent with U.S. policy toward the hemisphere. These sectors include funding for the Administration’s core development initiatives – Feed the Future, Global Health, and Global Climate Change – that address key global threats and leverage U.S. development expertise and strengths in these targeted areas.

Our FY 2012 request also includes small amounts of economic growth and climate change assistance designed to leverage host country and regional partnership contributions. We use targeted funding to build partnerships with our closest neighbors to promote renewable energy and manage the effects of climate change, through the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. Similarly, we are working with 14 other countries in the Hemisphere through the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas initiative to identify the best ways to share the benefits of trade and economic growth more broadly. These innovative, flexible partnerships among equals reflect President Obama’s new vision for our changing hemisphere. Economic opportunity is an essential component of the democratic social contract, and it is clear that we all have a stake in each others’ success.

In FY 2010, we invested more than 1.2 million dollars to promote racial equality, social inclusion, and youth/civil society empowerment for indigenous peoples and people of African descent. Under bilateral agreements like the Action Plans with Brazil and Colombia, we provide technical assistance and expand on public diplomacy programs, like academic exchanges, to promote equality and access to opportunity. We are building on this work in 2012, leveraging host country support and inter-agency coordination to promote the strengthening of democratic institutions, economic opportunities, cultural preservation, and access to education for historically excluded groups. When discussing security challenges in the Western Hemisphere we cannot forget marginalized populations who are most vulnerable to violence affecting the region. As just one example, the number one issue affecting women in the Hemisphere is gender based violence, with domestic violence and trafficking persons rankings second and third respectively. Therefore, we have made certain that critical issues like preventing youth violence and combating violence against women and other marginalized groups — including the indigenous, Afro-descendants, LGBT persons, and people with disabilities — have become increasingly incorporated into our assistance programs.

In conclusion, we believe our budget priorities for the Western Hemisphere focus on achieving high impact in areas vital to U.S. interests and laying the groundwork for deeper and more productive partnerships with the region as a whole. Our engagement with our neighbors has powerful implications for trade and jobs, energy, and security, and will influence our ability to meet acute challenges and essential goals both at home and around the world. I thank you for your attention.

Dr. Arturo Valenzuela was previously Professor of Government and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Original Article

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