Monday, January 14, 2013

Is This Picture Adding Insult to Injury?

When I was on my way home Sunday, I discovered this ad on the 68th Street Subway Station in New York. As the ad reads, this is paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Jihad organization. Should MTA allow images of the extinct World Trade Center billowing fire from that fateful 9/11? You be the judge.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Global Voices Summit: A Glimpse at an African Journey

The incredible Global Voices team in Nairobi, Kenya

“What makes a great nation is its people”, John, our taxi driver, said of Kenya as he was driving us back to the national airport. And he made no mistake: after having spent a week during the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi, I can attest that Kenya’s most precious asset is the people, thanks to their kindness and friendly treatment. Setting foot for the first time in a Sub-Saharan African country has been a rewarding experience.

The New York-London-Nairobi journey offered more than just a marvelous physical trip from one continent to another; it was inadvertently an encounter with childhood memories. In addition to my 9-hour-long trip from London, I had to wait about two hours to get a USD$50-dollar visa—such a process reminded me of the tortuous bureaucracy in my native country, Colombia. Likewise, the chaotic traffic jams in Downtown Nairobi and the smell of fumes was redolent of the Bogotá streets, with passengers in the middle of the street getting off and on the matatus, a small bus that resembles Bogota’s colectivos. Every morning I indulged myself with 100-percent natural passion fruit and tree tomato juice, and surely these flavors took me back to my hometown. Finally, bargaining was crucial during my visit to the market, which led me to make good use of my paisa heritage (a “paisa” is an inhabitant of the Antioquia department, whose early Basque and Arab settlers were important merchants). 

Monday, March 05, 2012

Latin American Prison Deaths: No Mere Coincidence

By Robert Valencia
Latin America’s prison system is once again the harsh glare of the international spotlight. A horrific prison fire killed nearly 360 inmates in the Honduran city of Comayagua on February 14th. Only five days later, in Mexico, 30 alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel escaped from the Monterrey-based Apodaca prison and killed 44 prisoners who apparently belonged to the rival Gulf Cartel. Though these two incidents are separate, they are both a reflection of the socioeconomic realities in Mexico and Central America. The region lacks an adequate security infrastructure, is awash with corruption, plagued by ineffective fund distribution, and racked by drug violence. Governments like Mexico’s have responded by exerting real pressure on drug cartels by seizing tons of cocaine and funneling tens of thousands of servicemen. Nevertheless, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released in late February, these efforts are counterproductive since they are stretching the resources of many countries, leading to over-crowded and poorly run prisons that still allow organized crime to operate behind bars. Such strained conditions have angered prisoners, making them resent the state even more.

There are still unresolved puzzles in both the Apodaca and Comayagua cases. According to official sources, the Comayagua jail conflagration was accidental, purportedly caused by a prisoner who fell asleep while smoking—a theory supported by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. What still remains unclear, however, is the prison officers’ decision to block the entrance of firefighters into the prison for 30 minutes after their arrival. The guards claim that they feared a massive escape whereas others say that the officials who actually had the keys to the jail cells were not present. In the case of the Mexican riot, where 30 inmates succeeded in escaping the Apodaca penitentiary, four senior officials and 18 prison officers have been dismissed for possible complicity in the escape and are now being investigated.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How Low Can They Go: The U.S. Barely Debates its Latin-American Policy

After President Barack Obama delivered the last State of the Union address for his current term, the Republican aspirants for the presidency immediately responded that his rhetoric sounded more like a “state of the presidential campaign.” Though there is some waggish appeal to this unlikely claim, in light of the steadily degrading and pumped-up and theatrical nature to the Republican candidates’ manner in characterizing the party’s optimism in recent weeks, not to mention that challenger Mitt Romney’s issuing his own “pre-buttal” pessimistic assessment prior to the Obama address, which criticized the President on any number of issues. Even amid the many instances of the two parties’ ideologically soaked clashes, one common feature was starkly, but depressingly clear: they hardly have evinced even a trace of dust in sounding the need of a comprehensive approach when it comes to U.S.-Latin American relations.

Aside from some slightly amusing last-minute anti-Castro bashing in an attempt to nail down Florida’s electoral vote, the Republican presidential hopefuls have framed their stance on contemporary U.S.-Latin American relations within the context of unadulterated schlock. They consistently serve up obsolete and sterile Cold War-era doctrines and diplomatic clichés with expired shelf lives. These have not only included weak (albeit fanciful) positions aimed at unhinging Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, but also upholding claims with absolutely no evidence that somehow Hamas and Hezbollah pose a grave threat by way of the Mexico border as a threatening route for terrorism.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is the Left All Right in Venezuela?

By Robert Valencia

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez spent a long absence from his country in Cuba earlier last year, opponents and sympathizers alike wondered about his future as his nation’s undisputed commander in chief. But mounting speculations about the exact nature and implications of his ailment proliferated. Later, it was revealed by the Spanish media that Chávez was suffering from an advanced case of colon cancer. After his health circumstances became known, Chávez pledged to the nation that he would continue ruling Venezuela “until 2031.” In fact, he boasted that the years between 2020 and 2030 would be his “golden decade.”

The question now is whether Chávez was just being waggish or whether he realizes that his fate is not necessarily in his hands. Many experts are asking whether Chávez’s health will permit him to keep the Bolivarian Revolution nimble, with some arguing that Chávez won’t be able to accomplish all of his goals. This is because he may have “only…two years to live,” and he may be physically unable to run for the presidency, possibly even for the 2012 electoral cycle.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Colombia: It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

By Robert Valencia

A special military unit gunned down Guillermo León Saenz, better known as Alfonso Cano,the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] on November 5. The assassination took place near an insurgent camp in Colombia’s southwest in an operation called “Odiseo.” Cano, who had been on the run for three years, was the second commander of the infamous Marxist rebel group, and his death is another major setback for the almost 50-year-old guerrilla organization. Over the years, FARC has financed itself with drug trafficking and kidnappings, but recently, its ranks have thinned. The Colombian government—even with the help of the U.S.—won’t be able to end the violence alone. FARC rebels need to realize that now is time to lay down their arms—or face years of a bloody but ultimately futile fight. With Cano’s death, it should be clear: FARC is no longer the same threat it was decades ago.

FARC’s dwindling power is the result of a coherent, aggressive strategy employed by three consecutive Colombian administrations to eliminate the group. In 1998, former President Andrés Pastrana put into motion the “Plan Colombia,” paid for by a multi-million dollar aid package granted by the U.S. government. With that money, the country overhauled its armed forces and counter-insurgency strategies, infiltrated FARC ranks with informers, and developed a cutting-edge air force. Likewise, the ensuing administrations of Alvaro Uribe in 2002 and 2006 and the current Santos administration reinforced the so-called “Democratic Security,” a policy that consolidated law enforcement throughout the country to more efficiently curb the illicit drug trade and protect the population from terrorist attacks. The policy led to numerous blows against FARC, among them the deaths many of the group’s leaders, as well as the desertion of hundreds of rebels, and the success of the well-known “Operación Jaque” that freed 15 hostages including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mexican Drug Cartels Are Not Terrorists

By Robert Valencia

While a few U.S. politicians have long demanded that Mexico’s most bloodthirsty drug cartel, the Zetas, be named a terrorist organization, an alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil by Iranian government agents allied with the Zetas has only intensified the issue.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that Latin American drug cartels like The Zetas should be treated as terrorist organizations while Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) added that the Mexican cartels are seeking to use terrorist activities to “further their cause.” In February, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano already accused al-Qaida and Zetas of “joining forces” to attack the U.S.

But despite the alleged Iran-Zetas connection, having the U.S. State Department label the Zetas a terrorist organization solves nothing. The addition of the Zetas to that list won’t stop cartels from running the drug market nor from establishing international ties. Furthermore, unlike terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida, these cartels’ goals do not include attacking the U.S. The Zeta cartel’s motive is money, not ideology.