Where now for ‘Chavismo’?

Hugo Chavez

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Analyst for Latin America

In life, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez had an appetite for fiery rhetoric, conspiracy theories and unpredictable policy decisions. Upon his death on Tuesday night after a two-year battle with cancer, it appeared that at least some of his theatrical style had survived in the government in Caracas. Chavez’s chosen successor, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, promptly expelled US military attaches, accusing them of plotting a coup and hinting darkly that Washington may have had a hand in Chavez’s illness.

Maduro has been effectively in charge of Venezuela since Chavez went to Cuba on 10 December for a fourth round of cancer surgery, and is now expected to run for president in elections that must be called within 30 days, in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution. If he goes to the polls reasonably swiftly and adheres to the law, Maduro stands a good chance of picking up a huge sympathy vote and winning the election.

However, it is not immediately clear when a poll will be held, and controversy has arisen over the interpretation of the constitution after the government postponed the 10 January swearing-in ceremony at the start of Chavez’s fourth presidential term, on the grounds of his ill-health. Although the Supreme Court ruled that the delay was legal, many opposition supporters and lawyers now contend that National Assembly speaker Diosdaldo Cabello – rather than Chavez’s personal pick, Maduro – should by law be Venezuela’s interim leader.

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Another small step forward in El Salvador

phoca_thumb_l_foro6 President Funes

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Earlier this month, leaders of the violent street gangs of El Salvador, or maras, agreed to create safe havens (or ‘sanctuary cities’) in which they would cease to operate. This plan to stay out of ten designated municipalities, under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross, involves five street gangs, among them the two largest – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. Those two groups’ ceasefire in March this year significantly reduced the number of homicides in El Salvador – from 14 to five a day, the authorities say.

Justice and Security Minister Gen David Munguia Payes has welcomed the ‘sanctuary cities’ plan. When the retired army general was appointed to the role a little more than a year ago, there were widespread fears that he would step up the ‘iron fist’ (or mano dura) approach towards criminal gangs. Instead, Munguia Payes appears to have turned into a great supporter of a negotiated truce.

Although there is a large gap between agreeing to cease criminal activity and actually doing so, this month’s announcement is an important landmark for security policies in Central America. El Salvador’s security forces were previously unable to turn the tide of rising gang violence, which in 2010 reached 71 murders per 100,000, putting the country among the world’s most dangerous. But developments this year demonstrate how political negotiation with criminal and other groups can make a difference.

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FARC peace talks: why now?


FARC leaders

Graffiti depicting high-level FARC members Raul Reyes, Manuel Marulanda and Ivan Rios. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/bixentro

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Bogota has never been closer to a successful peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The signs are positive: the group, weakened by devastating military operations and the resulting loss of many veteran leaders, has agreed to engage in talks even without a ceasefire, and the participation of foreign governments with whom FARC shares ideological affinities – Cuba and Venezuela – is likely to defuse some of the tension. The talks begin on 15 October, and a joint press conference will be held on 17 October.

But there is more to FARC’s motives than meets the eye. In addition to its strategic defeats, FARC’s political struggle seems to be on the wane. There has been an erosion of FARC’s ideological integrity and an increasing disconnect between its central leadership and mid-level commanders. These developments may have helped bring FARC to the negotiating table, but could also make the peace process more complicated.

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Oil is key to Falklands’ future

UK military assets in the Falklands region

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

It has been a busy year for oil and gas exploration around the Falklands Islands, and also a crucial moment for the islanders’ economy. Speaking at the IISS in London, Jan Cheek, member of the Legislative Assembly and Executive Council of the Falkland Islands, explained how the islands’ government is counting on oil revenues to develop and diversify the economy of this remote archipelago. Though the exploratory drilling that had taken place in 2012 had disappointed investors, she described herself as ‘cautiously optimistic about the future’, amid a diplomatic offensive by Argentina to exert its claim over the islands. Read the rest of this entry »

Mexico: Calderon looks back, and ahead

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Mexico is trying to overcome its structural problems, expanding its trade focus to Asia and courting more foreign investment – and its strategic shift may be paying off. At the IISS’s Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, Mexican President Felipe Calderón spoke about Mexico’s plans, challenges and successes, and his own legacy.

The GDP race

The two largest economies in Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, are often compared in an attempt to predict which of the two will shine in the future. Both countries, however, face deep structural challenges. Brazil’s business environment is marred by high taxes and poorly qualified workers, and Mexico has inefficient labour regulation and oligopolies that curb economic growth. Although Brazil has outperformed Mexico in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) growth since 2005, the tide is gradually turning. The GDP race is very likely to be won by Mexico this year, with the central bank expecting something around 4%, whereas Brazilian economists are already counting on less than 2% growth.

But most important for the long term is that Mexico is looking abroad, more precisely to the east, in search of a more diversified foreign trade portfolio. It is integrating itself with dynamic and promising new trade blocs, whereas Brazil struggles to deal with protectionist pressures inside the Mercosur trade bloc (which also included Argentina, Uruguay and now Venezuela, as well as temporarily suspended Paraguay).

Looking east

In his lecture ‘A Mexican Perspective on the Global Economy,’ Calderón described his country’s strategic shift from an overreliance on the American market. While admitting that the reliance on the US market is still high, with 67% of Mexican exports going to its northern neighbour, Calderón asserted that Mexico’s focus is now on the Pacific region:

‘Economic growth will be here in the Pacific zone at least in this decade and probably in the next,’ he said. He highlighted the fact that the Pacific Alliance, created this year by Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, accounts for more exports and overall trade than Mercosur. The new bloc represents 40% of Latin America’s GDP, yet accounts for 55% of its exports. Even more importantly, it has lofty ambitions for a high-speed advance in trade, without the protectionist barriers that cripple Mercosur. He also highlighted Mexico’s integration into the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a far more ambitious trade venture integrating major economies of the Pacific, including the United States.

Calderón has also courted foreign companies – even those who have settled for the lower labour costs of China – with a series of structural reforms. He said his government has built 20,000 kilometres of highways to relieve the infrastructure bottlenecks that add to business costs in Mexico. The president added that investments in human capital have made Mexico more attractive in recent years. As an example, he cited the 130,000 new engineers and technicians released into the job market every year from the country’s universities.

Labour reform

Attempts to increase foreign trade and investment, key points of Calderón’s strategy, risk falling prey to an old enemy of the Mexican economy: restrictive labour laws. He reserved labour-market reform, one of his most ambitious economic proposals, for the last few months of his mandate. The proposal sent to Congress aims to liberalise laws in order to reduce costs and hurdles faced by companies when they want to hire workers. These obstacles are a key reason that 13.7 million Mexicans make a living in the informal sector, reducing the government’s potential tax revenue. They are also responsible for the staggering rate of youth unemployment, 9.6%, almost double the country’s overall rate, according to a report released last May by the Mexican Youth Institute (Imjuve). ‘Mexico, in order to complete its transformation into a more competitive economy, needs to provide flexibility to labour markets,’ said Calderón. ‘We have probably more than one million people arriving each year to labour age.’ Many Mexican observers attribute the governing National Action Party (PAN)’s third place in July’s presidential election to the overall dissatisfaction with employment opportunities for young people.


When asked what he thought his administration’s legacy would be, Calderón cited first and foremost the transformation of law-enforcement institutions. He admitted that recent crime dynamics have made it difficult to accomplish his security objectives: drug groups, he said, ‘have started a new way of criminal activity’. Instead of merely looking for transit points to ship the drugs into the United States, criminals ‘started to control territories and cities’, he added. He pointed to recent reforms in the police force and the attorney general’s office that were made to try and recover lost territory.

‘The intervention of the government is [in order] to recover the authority of the state over those territories. In that sense, violence is not generated by the actions of the government. Violence generated the intervention of the government.’

Venezuela’s contentious entry into Mercosur

 XLIII Mercosur Head of States Summit in Mendoza Argentina on 29 June 2012 (Photo: Fernanda LeMarie - Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio e Integracian, Argentina)

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

When Paraguay’s President, Fernando Lugo, was thrown out of government last month  in an impeachment process that took less than two days, the leaders of neighbouring countries denounced an attack on democracy. In an almost equally speedy process leaders of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay summoned an emergency meeting of Mercosur, – a free trade bloc consisting of  the three countries and Paraguay – in Mendoza, Argentina, where they suspended Paraguay until new elections take place. However, the absence of Paraguay opened the door for infighting and the invitation for a divisive regional player to be brought in, increasing Mercosur’s isolation from the other power centres of Latin America.

The chaotic political scene and economic imbalances in Mercosur are gradually creating an east-west rift in South America, with Brazil and its Mercosur allies on one side and the countries of the Pacific Alliance – formed by Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico –  on the other. The latter bloc is increasingly looking toward Asia-Pacific. Although all South American countries remain united in the Unasur political bloc, the east-west rift can have important impacts on economic integration and on Brazil’s regional influence. Read the rest of this entry »

Mexican cartels: crime or terrorism?

Enrique Pena Nieto at the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2010. Photo WEF

By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database

Enrique Pena Nieto (above), the winner of Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico, has been remarkably short on details over his promise to reduce drug-related violence. For any strategy to be successful, there must be a clear understanding of the tactics adopted by the drug cartels in Mexico and the purpose of their gruesome acts of violence, such as beheading, mutilating and dumping bodies on the streets.

In an article published on the Kings of War blog (from the War Studies Department at King’s College London) I argue that violence has become a key political communication tactic, used by drug groups to negotiate their positions in the drug market. The recent proliferation of small criminal groups in Mexico has turned brutality into the most effective demonstration of power. Mass killings, the hanging of corpses from bridges and the frequent mounting of threatening banners at crime scenes all highlight a criminal group’s ability to wield hard power and hold territories.

Crucially, these methods also serve to intimidate the public in a specific area or compel authorities to change policies, in a style similar to traditional conceptions of political terrorism.

Such methods have now become the prevalent fighting technique and communication channel for drug groups in Mexico. Countering them will be one of the top challenges for Pena Nieto in the months and years to come.

Read the full blog post.


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