Venezuela’s Uncertain Future

The potential for near-term political transition has created uncertainty in Caracas and put Venezuela back on the forefront of the hemispheric conversation. What are the prospects and possible scenarios for change? What will be the implications for Venezuela’s economy, politics, and foreign policy? How should the United States and other hemispheric countries respond?

Join the Council of the Americas at a roundtable discussion on the choices facing Venezuela. Speakers:

·        Charles Shapiro, President, Institute of the Americas, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela

·        Russell Dallen, President and Editor-in-Chief, Latin American Herald Tribune, Caracas

·        Chris Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief, Americas Quarterly

·        Eric Farnsworth, Vice President, Council of the Americas/Americas Society.

Monday, January 14, 2013 Registration 10:45 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Program 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.

WHERE: Council of the Americas, 1615 L Street, NW, Suite 250, Washington, DC

Map of location


Note: Registration is not required to view the webcast. Please click on the link below at the time of the event.

To Register to attend in person: Please email Jorge Merino at RSVP no later than 3:00 p.m. the day before the event.

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Jordan – first Arab monarchy to fall?

Only a focus on corruption will save America’s most reliable Arab ally, David Schenker writes for The Atlantic.

Two years into the so-called “Arab Spring,” the tally is grim for Middle East republics. To date, three nominally republican governments have been toppled, and a fourth — Syria — promises to follow in 2013. Despite longstanding governance problems and human rights abuses, the Arab monarchies have largely been spared from the popular revolts that dislodged their autocratic neighbors. Until now this monarchy “red line” has served U.S. interests. After all, Washington would benefit little from a cascade of friendly kingdoms and emirates falling like dominos only to be replaced by inimical Islamist regimes.

But the monarchy red line will not last forever, and Washington will face a series of new strategic challenges when and if this threshold is crossed. The end of the monarchy in Jordan would constitute a particularly serious blow to U.S. interests.

Historically, the regime has been able to weather popular discontent by relying on the support of East Bankers — Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948, and who have stood by the Hashemite regime out of fear that a revolution could bring to power the Palestinian-origin majority. But for the past two years, the kingdom has been contending with persistent protests focused on the sluggish economy and corruption — an issue that may, for the first time, unite East Bankers with Palestinian-origin protesters.

The list of corruption allegations linked to senior decision-makers in Amman is long. But more offensive — and more problematic to the king — is a growing perception that the degeneracy reaches the palace. Consider that in 2011 — in the wake of her highly publicized and extravagant 40th birthday party — leaders of 36 tribes in Jordan wrote a public letter criticizing Queen Rania’s corruption. More recently, the Jordanian internet publication highlighted the delivery of King Abdullah’s new stretch Airbus 330, an executive jet with a purported cost of $440 million. And the list goes on.

Jordanians are a patient bunch, but the Arab awakening has been toxic to the kingdom’s long-anemic economy. Facing a nearly 30 percent budget deficit this year, in November 2012 the government announced that in line with its International Monetary Fund obligations, it would slash food and energy subsidies. The austerity decision, exacerbated by perceived palace excesses, prompted some to call for a “revolution.”

To be sure, while protests in the kingdom — demanding economic relief, more subsidies, political liberalization, and an end to corruption — have been routine and persistent since early 2011, the demonstrations have not come close to reaching critical mass. At least initially, King Abdullah was able to diffuse rallies via a combination of deficit spending and a process of limited but serious constitutional reform. It also seems that fear of chaos a la Syria demobilized many would-be Jordanian protestors. The king has likewise contained the opposition through other forms of non-lethal pressure, including a sustained campaign of arrests.

But the trend line is not assuring. Most troubling, over the past 18 months a persistent opposition coalition has emerged that includes not only the monarchy’s enduring Islamist detractors, but also a growing number of “East Bankers.” Although the sentiments of these groups, known as Al Hirak, or “The Movement,” may not yet be widespread among the kingdom’s tribes, its members are tenacious and have been downright irreverent in their critiques of King Abdullah, violating every convention and law on the books in Jordan prohibiting defamation of royals.

Most famously, Hirak demonstrators from Tafilah province and the Tafilah neighborhood of Amman — areas known for their loyalty to the monarchy — have taken to dancing the Dabka al Fasad, a traditional local two-step, accompanied by protests accusing the king and his family of corruption, going so far as to describe the sovereign as “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.”

Some royalists have even called for King Abdullah to be deposed and replaced by In early January, Jordan took the unprecedented step of issuing an arrest warrant for King Abdullah’s fugitive uncle, Prince Walid al Kurdi, who stands accused of embezzling hundreds of millions from Jordan’s phosphate industry. A public trial of the royal could go a long way toward reassuring the public — and particularly the monarchy’s East Banker constituency — of the king’s commitment to fighting corruption. Washington should encourage King Abdullah to see through this and other public corruption trials, with an eye toward improving the monarch’s tarnished image at home and his chances of surviving the current regional turmoil.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This is an edited extract from a longer piece for The Atlantic.


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Vietnam – a country to watch (and monitor for rights abuses)

The prosecution of a prominent Vietnamese blogger and lawyer is the “latest incident in a years-long campaign of political intimidation, harassment, and detention,” says the head of a leading democracy assistance group.

The December 27 arrest of blogger and lawyer Le Quoc Quan (second from right) on charges of tax evasion has raised “very serious concerns” in the US government, Congress, and the non-governmental sector, wrote Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a letter to Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

“In the absence of a prompt and fair trial on this charge, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that this is just the latest incident in a years-long campaign of political intimidation, harassment, and detention imposed upon Quan and his family,” wrote NED President Carl Gershman in the letter sent Jan. 4, 2013, to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.

“The facts speak for themselves: two months ago Quan’s brother, Le Dinh Quan, was arrested for tax evasion; his cousin, Nguyen Than Oanh, was arrested just last month.  In March 2007, Quan himself was held for nearly four months, and he was detained again in April 2011.”

Expressing concern about Quan’s detention and the authorities’ harassment of his family, Gershman questioned the integrity of Vietnam’s judicial process.

“We are concerned about the security and whether the trial is fair or not. The crime attributed to him appears to be the way of conviction when the Vietnamese authorities want to send someone to jail; we have not seen any guilty actions of Quan,” he told the RFA Vietnamese Service.

Quan’s detention is “just the latest in a rash of dissident arrests,” writes Joel Brinkley, a Stanford University professor of journalism, and Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times:

“Last fall the government sentenced three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for spreading what prosecutors called ‘anti-government propaganda,’” he notes. “That’s a relatively new phenomenon here.”

While South-East Asia has largely escaped the pro-democracy ferment that has emerged in the Arab world, Vietnam “may be setting a path for other Asian states,” Brinkley suggests:

In China, Cambodia and several other regional states, people stand up and stage loud, angry protests about land seizures, local-government corruption, illegal logging, pollution and other abuses that directly affect their lives. But nowhere in Asia recently have we seen large protests challenging the governments’ legitimacy……Regional experts offer a broad range of explanations for this anomaly — cultural, religious, economic … there doesn’t seem to be a single, consensus view.

The Obama administration was and would remain invested in the case, Gershman suggested.

“I know that the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has expressed his deep concern with the Vietnamese government and has called on the diplomatic missions of other countries to voice their concern,” he said, expressing the belief that Sen. John Kerry, widely expected to be appointed U.S. Secretary of State, will monitor the case.

“The Secretary is always concerned about Vietnam and would like to have good relations with Vietnam, as we often desire.,” Gershman told RFA. “However, this case will certainly cause a lot of difficulties.”

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the NED, a Washington-based democracy assistance group.

“During his fellowship at NED in 2006, Quân pursued independent research on civil society,” Gershman wrote to Vietnam’s Premier He impressed all who met him with his integrity, passion for assisting the poor, and commitment to assisting Vietnam’s growth and development. Throughout his fellowship, Quân was an outstanding representative of Vietnam and its people, winning many friends and bringing great credit to his country.”

The US is now “one of Vietnam’s new best friends — mostly as a counterweight to its historical and current-day enemy, China,” notes Brinkley.

Rights activists will hope and expect that means Washington can more effectively prevail upon Hanoi to stop the persecution of pro-democracy advocates and other dissenting voices.


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Venezuela: delayed transition ‘could be politically costly for Chávismo’

“Venezuela’s opposition has accused the government of violating the constitution by proposing to delay cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez’s inauguration Thursday for a new term amid growing uncertainty over the polarized OPEC nation’s political future,” Reuters reports.

Opposition figures demanded that the country’s senior court determine whether the inauguration could be postponed.

“There is a conflict here. What is the Supreme Court waiting on?” said Henrique Capriles, the de facto opposition leader who lost to Chávez in last October’s presidential elections. “We have a government that is totally paralyzed.”

Chávez’s would-be successors’ attempts to ignore Venezuela’s constitutional requirements for a transfer of power could backfire, observers suggest.

“Bypassing the constitution at this stage would make questionable the legitimacy of the government after January 10, raising considerable uncertainty and increasing the risk of a governability crisis,” analysts said today.

“Paradoxically, the delay of the transition could end up being politically costly for Chávismo, making them face a more difficult election in the future.”

The United States today wished Chávez a quick recovery from his struggle against cancer, but called for an inclusive and transparent approach to his possible succession.

“Obviously we are, as we would be for anybody suffering what he is suffering, concerned for his health, and wishing a speedy recovery,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Venezuela’s top opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Tuesday urged the Supreme Court to rule on whether Chávez’s re-inauguration planned for Thursday can be postponed, as his government has argued.

Chávez, a staunch leftist and foe of the United States, is scheduled to take the oath of office on Thursday following his October re-election. But he is recovering from cancer surgery in Havana, his fourth operation in 18 months, and it is not clear whether he will make it to the ceremony in Caracas.

“This is an issue for Venezuelans to decide and they need to do it in a manner that includes all the voices in the discussion,” Nuland told journalists. She suggested that any succession process should be “a broad-based discussion, and it needs to be decided in a manner that is free, fair, transparent, is seen as ensuring a level playing field in Venezuela.”

The democratic opposition insists that the constitution arguing that in the event of Chávez’s incapacity, the constitution requires the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, to be sworn in as interim president before fresh elections.

“If the president of the republic does not take office (on January 10), the country cannot be left in a power vacuum,” said Tomas Guanipa of the opposition Justice First party.

But the regime has rejected such demands.

“There is nothing here that would create a power vacuum and nothing that should give (the opposition) hope that Chávez will leave (office) on January 10,” said Cabello, a leader of the ruling Socialist Party and vice president Nicolás Maduro’s main rival for the leadership.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges argues that differences between the two men explain the expected postponement of Mr Chávez’s inauguration ceremony on Thursday, with Mr Maduro’s group attempting to prevent Mr Cabello from taking power.

“That big hug between Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello was set up to reflect unity that does not exist,” Borges told journalists. “While the president is sick in Havana, they have a power conflict. That’s why they are engendering this violation of the constitution.”

“They are the children of Chávez,” wrote Nicmer Evans, a leftist political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela.

“The two men with the revolutionary leader’s greatest trust have different origins but are part of the same team, and are obliged to become the people who enable the diverse factions of Chávismo to stay together,” he added.

The populist president’s heir apparent is known to be close to Communist Cuba, but few observers could have expected Nicolás Maduro to launch simultaneously a pro- Chávez cult of personality and a Soviet-style crackdown on hoarders.

“They run around the clock on state television, highly polished videos of President Hugo Chávez hugging children, kissing grandmothers, playing baseball and reciting poetry, William Neuman writes in The New York Times:

The government’s television barrage seems intent on reassuring loyalists — and anyone who might raise questions — that Mr. Chávez is still very much the head of the nation. By keeping his image front and center, analysts say, the government can bolster its position as the caretaker of his legacy, mobilize its supporters for the battle over interpreting the Constitution and build momentum for itself in elections should Mr. Chávez die or prove too sick to govern.

“They have combined the mechanisms of left-wing struggle with the best marketing team there is,” said political consultant J. J. Rendón.

He compared the saga over Mr. Chávez’s illness to a telenovela, one of the popular Latin American soap operas, with its unexpected plot twists that keep viewers on edge. “They are always prepared for different scenarios,” he said of the government.

“There is a process of converting Chávez into a myth with religious roots,” said Andrés Cañizalez, a communication professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

The TV spots are part of “a political strategy to keep alive this idea that Chávez is not just a political leader but he’s the father of the country, he’s a patriarch, he’s a figure who protects us, who takes care of everything for us, something more than a president.”

The regime’s drive against alleged hoarders is typically populist and authoritarian in thrust, say observers.

“There isn’t a single example in the world of a country where controlling prices and threatening businesses has worked in solving shortages,” said Luis Vicente León, a pollster and economist. “[He] has opted for the most aggressive, most radical path: let’s get the businessmen, let’s get the oligarchy!” said León.

Government officials accused opposition leaders and external powers of sowing rumors about Chávez’s condition in order to undermine the regime.

“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela warns the Venezuelan people against the psychological war that the web of transnational media has unleashed around the health of the head of state with the ultimate goal of destabilizing the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, denying the popular will expressed in the presidential election on Oct. 7 and ending the Bolivarian revolution led by Chávez,” Ernesto Villegas, the information minister, said in a special national broadcast.

But the Chávista propaganda campaign is really driven by domestic political considerations.

“It is very important to guarantee the emotion around Chávez, so that if he should go away it would be transferred to his substitute,” said León, a pollster associated with the opposition. “The more emotional and mythic he appears, the stronger will be his endorsement of Maduro.”

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Jabhat al-Nusra: Syria’s radical Islamists on the rise?

The civil war in Syria shows no signs of abating after 22 months and in fact seems likely to continue with equal intensity between the rebel groups after the anticipated fall of Bashar Al-Assad’s dictatorial regime.

With the prospects of a democratic transition for Syria at risk from escalating violence, a closer look is needed at Jabhat al-Nusra one of the most radical Islamist groups within rebel ranks, says a new report.

Some opposition figures rejected the US blacklisting of the group. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood said Washington had made a “very wrong” decision by declaring the jihadist rebel faction a terrorist organization.

“The designation is very wrong and too hasty. I think it is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the grey atmosphere in the country,” said Farouk Tayfour, the Brotherhood’s deputy leader.

But al-Nusra’s links to al-Qaeda highlight its serious, long-term threat to Syrian and regional stability, according to a new analysis from the London-based Quilliam Foundation, the anti-extremist think-tank.

‘Jabhat al-Nusra: A Strategic Briefing’ outlines and analyzes the group’s background, strategy and organization, while mapping out the future challenges it is likely to face.

“Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most publicised rebel groups in the current Syrian crisis, despite having a relatively small membership – a result of their hard-line ideology and guerrilla tactics, and because of the mystery surrounding their activities,” says Noman Benotman, Quilliam’s president. “This report goes some way towards uncovering this secrecy and exposing elements of their structure, recruitment process and operations.”


Post-Assad Syria

Once the Ba’athist regime falls, Jabhat al-Nusra’s opponents will become many and varied. Moderates who support the group’s strong stance against Assad may grow to be repulsed at the continuing violence and increasingly extreme rhetoric which could follow the fall of the regime.

External influences

Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideological reasoning precludes any engagement with foreign governments and with any peace conferences outside of Syria, as they believe that international involvement would only result in the revolution being hijacked.

The creation of the national coalition has changed the position of JN in both the national and international consciousness. Qatar’s change of direction particularly, starting to see itself as the protector of the internationally-supported coalition instead of the jihadists, has affected JN, as they have lost a tacit supporter. Many jihadists believe the new coalition is made up of puppets controlled by the West for their own ends, and international disapproval of JN is only likely to aid this belief.

America’s attempt to de-legitimise JN when no attacks have been made against American or Western targets looks like an attempt to dampen support from Turkey and the Gulf states, pressurising governments to support the coalition instead of the more unpredictable rebel groups. However, America’s designation of JN as a terrorist organisation has increased their popularity inside Syria as rebels see American interference as part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to keep Islamists out of power. This has reinforced the group’s position as the only alternative for pure struggle against Assad.

Inevitably, any support for the Syrian opposition will empower JN, as de-legitimising the regime creates a space for the group to contest control, and in a situation of such chaos, the tightly-knit and well-run JN could enjoy considerable success.

Future Challenges

The goals which JN share with all jihadist groups, those of creating an Islamist state, a ‘caliphate’ and waging jihad against Israel, are not practical for the group, as they do not have the capacity to implement these things in the wake of the Syrian conflict. Put simply, the goal to defeat Assad is practical but their further aims are not.

The hard-line Salafi-Jihadist ideology which JN shares with al-Qaeda makes them ultra-radical and inflexible. This belief in ‘Pure Islam’ will only serve to alienate the population, and cause long-term problems for the group in post-Assad Syria. JN’s decision not to use al-Qaeda in Iraq-style indiscriminate attacks thus far in the conflict is not due to ideological disagreement, but rather pragmatic considerations of maintaining support amongst the Sunni community.

There is a possibility, therefore, that JN may employ these AQI methods in the future. This would have huge implications for their popularity.

To download the full report, click here

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