Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Americas’ Category

What Should the US Do About Venezuela?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

Image by María Alejandra Mora, via Wikimedia.

In Venezuela demonstrations against the government of Hugo Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro continue, and have left over a dozen dead. The demonstrators, who have mobilized under the Twitter hashtag #LaSalida, a reference to many’s demand for Maduro’s “exit,” have taken to the streets to voice their frustration with Venezuela’s economic malaise, shortages of basic goods, and stunning crime rate. Government supporters, who have mobilized in their own counter-demonstrations, accusers the student-led protesters of pursuing a coup against the — in his supporters’ view — democratically-elected Maduro. The government’s response has been harsh, with attempts to silence opposition social media and pro-government thugs on motorcycles firing into the crowds. Like many embattled regimes before it, the Maduro government appears determined to shred whatever legitimacy it once had outside of its die-hard supporters through pointless violence — but it is unclear if the unrest seriously threatens the government’s survival.

While President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denounced the government’s tactics, others want the United States to take a more forceful stance. In a Monday speech Republican Senator Marco Rubio highlighted the Maduro government’s brutal repression of the demonstrations, terming the Obama administration’s reaction “shameful” and calling for sanctions against those responsible for the brutality. “They look for America to be on their side,” Rubio said of Venezuelans and Cubans. “We should be clear about these things.”

Another columnist referenced the Obama administration’s response to the violence as another reason why the the President can’t “command the respect of other nations.”

It’s right to be angry about the Venezuelan government’s complete disregard for its citizens. But hastily conceived actions motivated only by outrage, however morally justified, are not good policy.

First, it is important to understand that recognizing this nuance is neither an endorsement of the Maduro government nor a repudiation of socialism, as so many partisan international observers seem to believe. As Michael Moynihan warns, leftists’ sympathy for self-identified socialist governments and distrust of US “imperialism” is no excuse for voicing support for a government busy shooting down unarmed students in the street. The Maduro government is a chaotic wreck that has continued Chávez’s project of dismanteling Venezuela’s independent public institutions and market economy in favor of patronage channels the leader can control and a mild personality cult. Maduro’s response to student demonstrations has been to mobilize militias to attack demonstrators, brandish swords, shut down internet communications and expel foreign journalists — whose reporting he labeled “war propaganda” — and denounce his political opponents as fascists.

But this brutality does not erase the passions mobilizing both Maduro’s supporters and opponents. In a pro-chavista piece published in the Nation, George Ciccariello-Maher makes the point that “these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.” This is somewhat true — the protests do reflect middle class concerns over those of the poor who were politically marginalized under the oligarchic two-party system that predated Chávez — but conveniently ignores protesters’ real concerns that populists like Maduro tear down the ladder of democratic institutions, not to mention economic stability, behind them. In a more measured piece for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, left-wing politician Jean Wyllys notes the contradictions of Venezuela’s political conflict, which is often lost on its observers. “Denying the social advances won by Venezuela’s poorest people during the government of Hugo Chávez is as wrong as denying the problems that the country currently faces,” Wyllys writes. “Saying that chavismo — which won repeated elections and referendums with absolute transparency and with international observers — is a ‘dictatorship’ is as wrong as not repudiating the regime’s authoritarianism.” [My translation.]

While Maduro’s victory in the 2013 election are difficult to call completely “fair” in the context of degraded democratic institutions, observers should not forget that though Maduro has apparently failed to forge the same charismatic appeal as his predecessor chavismo’s welfare programs and perceived representation of the poor has real democratic appeal.

All this isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have an interest in the conflict’s outcome. The economic reforms and rule of law the opposition claims to favor would be a real gain for both Venezuela and the entire region, which includes the United States. But that doesn’t change the fact that the US should not interfere in the conflict, either through harsher rhetoric or sanctions.

Like Chávez before him, Maduro appears committed to dismantling the remaining independent institutions essential to sustainable economic growth in favor of personalized patronage and political authoritarianism. But this authoritarian populism does not erase the problems associated with popular movements that throw out elected governments — if #LaSalida somehow does succeed in forcing Maduro out of power, it sets a dangerous precedent the opposition could very well come to regret. It is not clear that the US has much interest in this happening.

But more importantly, this type of domestic political conflict simply isn’t the US government’s business, and even if it was the US has very little practical leverage anyway. Like many, many of his counterparts around the world and Chávez before him, Maduro’s preferred method of delegitimizing his domestic opposition is labeling them tools of an interfering United States and not representatives of the Venezuelan people Maduro claims to speak for. Given that there is some truth to the government’s narrative that opposition represents the middle class over the poor, and Venezuela’s traditional elites over the beneficiaries of chavismo, overt US encouragement of the opposition is the best thing that could happen to Maduro.

Whatever the Obama administration does, or probably does not, choose to do, Venezuelan politics will remain contentious to years to come. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, the government will remain illegitimate in the eyes of a substantial fraction of the population. Venezuela will likely remain besieged by a brutally high crime rate, extreme political polarization, a failing economy entirely tied to the price of oil, and weakened public institutions in an era when those of many other South American countries have strengthened. The introduction of state violence into this mix does not bode well.

Without any real way to encourage nonviolence and accountability, harsher words and sanctions on Maduro government officials would simply express moral disapproval and further the government’s narrative of a malevolent United States that keeps Venezuelans poor.

Update: Daniel Larison makes a similar point.

Institutionalizing Mexico’s Self-Defense Groups

By Taylor Marvin

Earlier this week leaders of community self-defense militias fighting drug cartels in the western Mexican state of Michoacán accepted a new cooperation agreement with the Mexican government. The deal, which calls for temporarily integrating militia members into the existing part-time Rural Defense Corps and municipal police, represents a bid by the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to re-exert government control over the conflict between cartel members and vigilantes, which in recent weeks threatened to escalate into open warfare. Under the terms of the agreement members of the self-defense forces, or fuerzas autodefensas, must register their members and weapons with the government, turn in weapons deemed illegal, coordinate their actions with formal security forces, and if qualified may join local police. While the agreement is a major step towards the ‘institutionalization’ of the vigilante groups, it is unclear if the government will be able to exert meaningful control over the militias.

Over a year ago Michoacán communities organized to protect themselves from the rapes, kidnapping, extortions, and murders carried out by the Knights Templar cartel, which holds sway over much of the region. A quasi-religious group that unconvincingly claims to protect ordinary Mexican, the methamphetamine-trafficking Caballeros Templarios functioned as something like a parallel state in regions of Michoacán but is locked in a violent struggle with the Mexican government, rival cartels, and now the vigilantes.

The Peña Nieto administration had previously tacitly accepted the militias, apparently viewing them as a hands-off means of controlling cartel violence. But after violence between the Knights and vigilantes escalated this month — with the autodefensas seizing several towns and disarming local police they believed to be corruptly aiding the cartels — the Mexican government dispatched 9,000 soldiers and federal police to Michoacán, demanding that the militias disarm and place their faith in federal security forces. Militia leaders initially refused, despite their professed gratitude for the federal intervention, saying that they would only stand down after top-ranking Knights were eliminated. It is no coincidence that the deal came hours after the arrest of Dionisio Loya Plancarte, the Knights’ third-highest ranking leader and usual spokesman.

At least on paper, the agreement benefits both the vigilantes and the Mexican government. While the self-defense groups may lose some weapons deemed illegal by security forces, it is unclear if the Mexican government is actually committed to confiscating illegal arms and it has said it will provide the militias with communications and transportation equipment. The agreement will also allow the autodefensas to preserve their organizational ability to protect themselves, making it more difficult for the cartels to punish members for defying them — fear of future retribution was a major barrier to vigilantes agreeing to the government’s previous demand that they disband, disarm, and join local police forces. For its part the deal is an attractive middle path for the Peña Nieto administration. Turning a blind eye to the militias would mean an unacceptable admission that the Mexican government has no real ability to police its most dangerous regions and that, in the words of autodefensa leader Dr. José Manuel Mireles, “the failed state was no longer a myth.” But forcibly disarming self-defense groups could be a bloody fight, again put federal security forces in the uncomfortable position of killing ordinary Mexicans, and risk the perception that the government tolerates murderous cartels but not those defending their communities.

Institutionalizing the autodefensas, even if only nominally, allows the Peña Nieto administration to save face and try to refocus international attention on Mexico’s economic potential rather than violence. The move may also lead to greater security gains than relying on local police or federal security forces alone. Counterinsurgency strategy stresses the importance of local security forces operating within a population, who have access to information and first-hand understanding of community social structures that outside counterinsurgents do not. This same logic, when applied to Mexico’s muddled counter-cartel and arguably counterinsurgency campaign, suggests that the militias could continue to be a more effective bulwark against the cartels than federal security forces. Self-defense groups also have more staying power in the community, helping break the cycle of crackdowns followed by the flight and slow re-infiltration of organized crime.

As Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer, while “self-defense groups have often proved vulnerable to co-optation by criminal and insurgent groups” they are also a valuable means of bolstering formal security forces. Across the globe informal vigilante groups are more closely tied to the communities they intend to protect than police or soldiers, often enjoy greater legitimacy within their communities than local or central governments, and while outside of strict state control are not necessarily any more corruptible than state security forces. As Asfura-Heim and Espach write:

A growing body of research suggests that when states are unable or unwilling to provide security, local self-defense groups may be an imperfect but effective alternative. These forces are much cheaper and faster to assemble than formal police and army units, and they can quickly muster large numbers of men to secure isolated communities. Whereas outside forces need years to get to know the geography and residents of an area, local self-defense groups start with a leg up. Moreover, since these groups are motivated to protect their families and communities, they tend to be less predatory and to have higher morale than state security forces … Finally, when the state cooperates with self-defense groups, it can use those ties to reach out to isolated communities and provide them with public services.

It’s easy to say that Mexico should rely on formal security forces, and not community militias, for policing. But the autodefensas’ existence is due to the security vacuum that allowed cartels to essentially control many communities in the first place. If corrupt of ineffective local police and remote federal security forces could not effectively police Michoacán communities then, it is difficult to argue that they will be able to do so in the near future. Asfura-Heim and Espach end their piece with the recommendation that the Peña Nieto administration reach out to and institutionalize the self-defense groups, as it now has.

But even if successfully implemented, the agreement between the government and the self-defense groups doesn’t address the risks associated tolerating vigilantes. The Peña Nieto administration’s policy of tacitly accepting the militias was feared to indirectly condone uncontrollable retributory violence that may or may not be targeted at cartel members, weaken state authority, endanger local governments, and run the risk that individual self-defense groups could turn to trafficking and other illicit activities to sustain themselves. Indeed, the forerunner of the Knights Templars, La Familia Michoacana, grew out of religiously-inspired community defense groups, and right-wing paramilitaries with their roots in military-supported self-defense pacts were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s long armed conflict. If some self-defense groups are actually linked to rival cartels, as many fear, the government’s deal means indirectly allying with some criminal organizations to fight others.

“Outsourcing” security to semi-official militias remains an admission that the Mexican state cannot apply accountability or the rule of law throughout its territory. Given the Mexican state’s inability to impose order in some regions, this admission may be a necessary one. But unless the federal government can firmly exercise control over the self-defense groups’ actions, all the risks associated with communal violence will persist. While Peña Nieto may prefer to keep international eyes on his country’s growing economy, a Mexican state so frustrated with its inability to provide security that it accepts unaccountable vigilantism at the cost of its own legitimacy is not likely to resolve Mexico’s problems.

The Impossible Dilemma of Mexico’s Vigilantes

Map via Wikimedia.

Map via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

In a move that the LA Times described as an attempt to head off “a mini-civil war,” last week the Mexican federal government announced that it would assume responsibility for security in regions of Michoacán. The western Mexican state has been torn by violence between the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios, cartel and extralegal community self-defense groups, known as autodefensas. While the Mexican government had dispatched military forces to the state last year, the move to disarm both the militias and local police comes in contrast to president Enrique Peña Nieto’s previous tacit acceptance of the vigilante groups and campaign vow to withdrawal the military from the fight against the cartels. Clashes between the militias, local residents, and government forces — including one that left at least one civilian dead at the hands of soldiers — appeared to have subsided, but the government’s ability to disarm these groups remains in doubt. Autodefensa leaders have said that federal security forces are welcome, but they have not laid down their arms.

The methamphetamine-trafficking Knights Templar organization, which is seeped in salvationist evangelical Christian rhetoric, provides local social services, and enjoys a wide popular following in Michoacán, is essentially an extractive parallel local state in some regions, taxing commerce and reportedly planning to tax housing by the square foot. Also responsible for widespread rapes, extortions, and murders, the Knights Templar split off in 2010 from the now-largely defunt La Familia Michoacana cartel, a similarly evangelical organization which itself has its roots in local militia organizations.

In response to the government’s inability to provide security and the complicity and corruption of local police and officials, in recent years organized self-defense militias began to emerge in over a dozen Mexican states. Often enjoying considerable support from locals and armed with a motley of (illegal) automatic rifles, high-caliber sniper rifles, and shotguns, the vigilante groups have fought a series of gun battles with cartel members, seized several towns in Michoacán and Guerrero, and detained and disarmed local police believed to be working with the cartels. “We have detained the director of public security because he is involved with criminals and he knows who killed our commander,” claimed one militia spokesman last March.

For their part, in an obvious — but not necessarily untrue — effort to undermine the vigilantes’ popular support, the Knights Templar have accused the self-defense groups of working with a rival cartel, which their leaders deny. The Peña Nieto administration had previously tacitly accepted the vigilante groups, both as a means of improving local security and in recognition that federal authorities have little ability to actually control the popular groups, whose existence is due to local governments’ inability to provide security.

In contrast to his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, Peña Nieto has attempted to pursue a more hands-off anti-violence policy. Drug trafficking-related violence dramatically worsened after Calderón’s 2006 election, who launched a new policy of using the Mexican military — which was seen as more capable and less corrupt than police forces — to target cartel leaders. While these efforts led to the elimination of many cartel leaders, it also disrupted the delicate inter-cartel equilibrium and opened power vacuums that the cartels violently disputed. Since 2006, violence between cartels, local authorities, and the federal government is estimated to have killed over 70,000 people.

Peña Nieto campaigned on a promise to redirect anti-crime policy from targeting the cartel leadership towards efforts to halt the kidnappings and violence that affect ordinary Mexicans and to transfer responsibility for fighting the cartels from the military to a civilian gendarmerie, though these promises were often dismissed as evidence that Peña Nieto had no real strategy for or interest in tackling cartel violence. It was hoped that this new approach would led to a reduction in inter-cartel violence by once again tacitly accepting drug trafficking as long as the cartels kept their violence out of the public eye. However, the massive disruption of Calderón’s militarized drug war has led many cartels to branch out from their tradition drug trafficking to more violent criminal activities like kidnappings and extortion, as well as a general increase in criminality, and the murder rate does not appear to have fallen in Peña Nieto’s first year in office.

Whether the militias should be considered local insurgencies or not, the Peña Nieto administration appears to increasingly judge that it cannot tolerate the militias. In addition to complicating Peña Nieto’s international messaging efforts that stresses Mexico’s stability and business-friendliness, the militias’ checkpoints and unsanctioned retributory violence is a serious challenge to state authority — the government’s previous acceptance of the self-defense groups’ extralegal violence was essentially an admission that the Mexican state had no ability to or interest in actually governing its most violent regions. Worse, many have questioned whether illegal armed groups dedicated to vigilante justice are really any more stabilizing than the cartels, and highlighted the possibility that the autodefensas will become criminal organizations themselves. This is a very real fear. The militias’ rhetoric of community self-defense and regional pride is not that different from La Familia or the Knights Templar before then, and if federal authorities are not able quickly disband the self-defense groups their organization inertia may encourage their own self-sustaining extractive criminal activities. Similarly, it is also unclear who the vigilantes really are, and if the groups’ violence also includes covert score-settling by community members.

Accordingly, the federal government has demanded that the local militias disarm and trust in federal security forces’ ability to protect them. Early last week the Mexican interior minister vowed that the federal government would pacify the region and urged self-defense group members to protect their community by joining local police forces or calling anti-crime tip lines. Unsurprisingly, many vigilantes see the federal government’s change of policy as a ‘betrayal.’ Given local police forces’ complicity in cartel violence — last year 18 bodies were uncovered in Michoacán after the confession of police officers working with cartels members — this plea is unlikely to convince many autodefensa members to lay down their arms.

The federal government’s position puts the vigilantes in an impossible dilemma. While militia leaders maintain that they will voluntarily disarm if the government restores public safety by decimating the Knights, after nearly a decade of cartel-related violence the Mexican government cannot credibly promise to protect militia members from retribution by the cartels. “If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” one autodefensa leader in Michoacán told the BBC. In the absence of a believable federal commitment to protect them, self-defense group members are already committed — if federal security forces are unable to force the cartels out, the only way to survive their affiliation with the militias is to preserve their organizational ability to protect themselves.

But the government faces its own trap. “If soldiers continue to disarm the self-defense groups, the government will be accused of being complicit with the Knights Templar, but if it stops it will be accused of protecting paramilitary groups,” the New York Times recently wrote, citing analyst Alejandro Hope. After escalating violence forced its implicit acceptance of the militias out in to the open the Peña Nieto administration must do something to demonstrate that it can restore order, but it similarly cannot provide the local security the militias can. Indeed, it is unclear if the central government has any real ability to force a change in the local situation — as reports of federal troops standing by as autodefensa members occupied one town or openly cooperating with militia members indicate. The federal government’s need to both disarm the militias and provide permanent security — neither of which it appears to be capable of — puts the Peña Nieto administration in “an impossible bind,” in the words of James Bargent. Operations targeting the cartels will not restore public safety — as they have failed to do again and again — and eventually federal forces will leave and cartel members return. Turning a blind eye to the self-defense groups means further acceptance of communal violence, degrades state authority, and runs the risk that they will metastasize into overtly-criminal organizations. But if authorities are somehow able to peacefully disarm the autodefensas but cannot fill the security vacuum they leave, things will be worse, not better, for local residents subject to cartel retribution.

The organized self-defense groups are a reasonable response by Mexicans who understand that their government cannot protect them. But while tacit acceptance of the militias may be a tempting policy for the frustrated federal government, uncontrollable vigilantism is not a solution it can accept. So far, the lesson of the Michoacán crisis is that it takes a complete breakdown in state authority for the federal government to get serious about local security. This is not an encouraging message for ordinary Mexicans.

Chávez and Regional Leadership

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Agência Brasil.

Photo by Agência Brasil.

While 2014 may be Latin America’s “year of elections” — with El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and others all going to the presidential polls — 2013 was also a momentous year, marked by the death of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela’s president for over a decade, Chávez mobilized support from among the historically disenfranchised and defined himself as an opponent of both the United States and Venezuela’s traditional elites. Designating himself as the region’s voice of opposition to US “imperialism”, Chávez positioned himself as the vanguard of the wave of left-leaning governments elected across Latin America in the last decade, co-opting the wider turn towards the left as an extension of his own socialist “Bolivarian Revolution”. Combined with Venezuela’s oil wealth — and oil-funded international largesse — this ideological positioning allowed Chávez to claim a personal position as a leader of the Latin American left, a claim buttressed by his close personal relationship with the previous generation’s leading regional ideologue, Fidel Castro.

In an end of the year reflection the Christian Science Monitor writes that after his March 5th death “the region’s leftist movement lost its ideological and economic center of gravity” and asks which leader will replace Chávez as a Latin American figurehead:

“Who could fill Chávez’s shoes as a regional leader? Some point to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the person to watch. This year Ms. Rousseff showed she wasn’t afraid to stand up to the US over allegations of National Security Agency spying, and she speaks to diverse leaders across the region. Thus far, however, she hasn’t shown an interest in taking on the role.”

But it isn’t clear if the “regional leader” of Latin America is a role that necessarily exists at all. In Latin America Brazil hosts the largest economy and is the only country with a reasonable hope of taking a leadership role in the global system or ever securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but is divided by language from the rest of Latin America. Mexico, the region’s next largest economy, is beset by domestic criminal violence. Pundits talk of Germany’s Angela Merkel, and to a lesser extent France’s François Hollande, as the leaders of Europe, but only because this designation conflates Europe the region with the European Union, where Germany enjoys an institutional policy-setting role. In the absence of an interstate union like the EU, the entire notion of a “regional leader” makes less sense — no one speaks of a Middle Eastern or African regional political leader because of these region’s vast size, disparate societies, and fractious members. While Latin America is more culturally and politically homogenous than other global regions, with its population of over half a billion people and two major languages elevating one of Latin America’s national leaders to a leadership role across the entire region stems more from the desire for neat regional hierarchy than any real need for the role to exist.

Hugo Chávez’s self-appointed distinction as a regional leader drew from his own desire to take, or more accurately create, the role. As I wrote in March, Chávez’s leadership position in Latin American politics “was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone.” With Chávez absence, there is no requirement that another head of state will seek to take this regional leadership mantle in the same way that he attempted, regardless of whether they have the charisma, ideology, and political and economic capital to back it up.

Why Does Brazil Operate an Aircraft Carrier?

By Taylor Marvin

Former president Lula aboard the São Paulo. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República, via Wikimedia.

Then President Lula aboard the São Paulo. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República, via Wikimedia.

Brazil enjoys the unique position as the only Latin American state to operate an aircraft carrier. The South American giant currently operates a single aircraft carrier, the NAe São Paulo, which is not currently fully operational.* Its fleet of A-4 attack aircraft is antiquated and the ship suffered a major fire in 2012. The Marinha do Brasil hopes to replace the São Paulo, which will likely be retired sometime in the next decade, with two indigenously developed and more capable aircraft carriers, but this effort is only in the preliminary planning stages. Given the budgetary challenges Brazil faces, the general low priority the country assigns its military, and difficulty inherent to developing and building aircraft carriers, it will be at the very least a decade before a new carrier enters service, if the project is approved at all.

At first glance Brazil’s ambition to develop and operate an indigenous aircraft carrier is a puzzle. Fixed-wing aviation carriers are enormously expensive to build and operate. Brazil’s most pressing security concern is policing its vast interior, the country enjoys friendly relations with all of its neighbors, and South America is one of the world’s most stable and democratic regions. Brazil’s defense outlook has historically reflected this enviable situation — while the country has the highest defense spending in absolute terms in the region, at 1.5 percent Brazil’s spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than its BRIC peers. Military spending also comes at the expense of Brazil’s much more serious domestic challenges, like development and infrastructure modernization. So why does Brazil operate the São Paulo, and why does it seek to build at least one future carrier to one day fill its role?

First, Brazil does have some real need for an aircraft carrier. At over 7,000 kilometers Brazil has one of the most extensive coastlines in the world, and with its drive towards offshore energy substantial maritime interests. While the only partially-operation São Paulo’s and its ancient aircraft barely contribute to defending these interests, a future, more capable carrier could operate more capable fighter and anti-submarine aircraft. In addition to projecting power and sea control, carriers’ multipurpose nature and size make them valuable platforms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts as well.

Secondly, carrier operation is very path dependent; that is, the decision to operate a carrier in the future is highly influenced by whether a navy has and does field one. Brazil acquired its first aircraft carrier, the World War II-era British HMS Vengeance, renamed the NAeL Minas Gerais in Brazilian service, in 1960. The Minas Gerais was retired in 2001, after the larger and more capable São Paulo was commissioned in 2000. It is far easier to naval officers and other interests to successfully lobby for retaining, rather than acquiring, carrier operations. Similarly, retiring a lone carrier without replacement, as Argentina, Australia and others have, is perceived as a greater loss of status than never operating one at all — notably, when Brazil acquired the São Paulo President Fernando Henrique Cardoso stressed the importance of Brazil ‘continuing’ to field a capable blue-water navy. More practically, building the institutional and technical resources required to fly fixed-wing aircraft off a carrier is an enormous investment. Retiring carrier operations means losing this sunk investment as well, since these skills and institutional experience must be constantly maintained. Since Brazil would like to operate at least one carrier in the future, it must operate one today to retain these resources to some degree.

Service of Public Relations of the Navy, via Wikipedia.

Service of Public Relations of the Navy, via Wikipedia.

Most importantly, the “powerful imagery and symbolism of carriers” makes them potent status symbols. In an earlier era nuclear weapons were the ultimate symbol of a state’s global power, and this symbolic draw was expected to drive widespread nuclear proliferation. However, this has largely not occurred. The diplomatic and repetitional costs of acquiring often-unpopular nuclear weapons are so high that many countries capable of developing them have opted not to — including Brazil. Free from these enormous diplomatic costs, today aircraft carriers have in many ways replaced nuclear weapons as the marker of global power, just as dreadnought battleships once were. In addition to the purely symbolic value of the “carrier club,” aircraft carriers allow states to directly participate in multilateral military or humanitarian missions, a practical “buy-in” that gives them greater influence over international bodies and policy. Even for navies unable to routinely operate their carriers, the powerful symbolism of global reach remains.

Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all but the UK operate carriers embarking fixed-wing aircraft (the UK will shortly regain this capability). China has gone to considerable trouble to acquire its own former-Soviet carrier, and has begun construction of indigenous flattops. Russia, for its part, has kept its own Admiral Kuznetsov in service, primarily as a status symbol. Of the G4 countries, a mutually-supporting pact by Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan aimed at securing permanent seats on the UN Security Council, only pacifistic Germany does not operate any form of aircraft carrier. In addition to its outdated INS Viraat, India recently commissioned its INS Vikramaditya — based on an extensively refit former Soviet Kiev class aviation cruiser — and hopes to develop indigenous carriers in the future. While reactions to Japan’s helicopter-carriers-in-all-but-name are overblown, the type is a powerful statement of Japan’s commitment to maintaining its preeminent status in a region witnessing a naval arms race.

Finally, fixed-wing carriers are also a military status symbol that among South American countries only Brazil has a hope of operating. While Chile fields the most professional and capable military force in the region and Venezuela operates extremely formidable Russian-manufactured Sukhoi Su-30MK fighter aircraft, only Brazil possesses an aircraft carrier and has the potential to acquire another in the near future. Argentina’s ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, which together with the country’s earlier ARA Independencia were the only carriers operated by another South American country, was largely unseaworthy by the mid-1980s and decommissioned in 1997. Argentina’s economic woes and erratic governance means that it will be uninterested in acquiring another carrier in the foreseeable future, and all other South American states are either too small or too poor to acquire a carrier of their own. For a country interested in cementing its leading position in South America, this uniqueness certainly plays an important role in Brazil’s decision to field its own aircraft carrier.

* Along with the United States and France Brazil is unique in operating a Catapult Assisted Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) carrier, which uses a powerful steam catapult to launch heavy aircraft. All other navies that operate fixed-wing carriers can only fly Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) or Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) aircraft, which without being flung by a catapult can only takeoff lightly loaded, making STOVL or STOBAR carriers less expensive but also less capable.

Update [8/2/14]: Added the link to John Mueller’s book.  

Gripens to Brazil, Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Brazil made the surprise announcement that it would purchase the Saab Gripen NG as part of its FX-2 acquisition program. Defense Industry Daily has a good rundown of the program and the three finalist aircraft involved.

The decision to buy the Swedish aircraft came at the expense of the two other fighters under consideration, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and is a major blow to Boeing. Brazilian officials partially attributed the decision to reject the Super Hornet — which was thought the most likely to be adopted — to the revelations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden that the intelligence agency had been intercepting communications by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, high officials, and the Brazilian partially-state-owned energy giant Petrobras. Numerous news outlets repeated the claims, with Foreign Policy writing that “Edward Snowden just cost defense contractor Boeing” “about $4 billion.” The New York Times termed the decision a “snub.”

As I wrote at the time, I doubt that the Brazilian government’s real anger over US espionage played a major role in the decision. First, at $4.5 billion for 36 aircraft the Saab bid was far cheaper than Boeing or Dassault’s, which totaled $7.5 and $8 billion, respectively. Secondly, Brazilian officials also highlighted the importance of technology transfer for both the overall FX-2 program and the decision to purchase the Gripen. In addition to building Brazilian Gripens in Brazil and a possible future profit-sharing partnership with Brazilian aircraft conglomerate Embraer, the single-engine Gripen has far more in common than its rivals with both the Dassault Mirage 2000s Brazil is retiring this month and the class of fighter the country hopes to indigenously develop and market in the future, increasing the practical value of the knowledge and experience gained from operating the Swedish jet. “When the development phase is finished we will have intellectual property about this aircraft, that is, access to everything,” commented the head of the Brazilian Air Force about the Gripen [my translation]. This technology transfer is far more important in Brazil, home to a developed civil and military aircraft industry, than in other countries acquiring foreign aircraft.

Finally, while the Gripen is an advanced and capable aircraft — it was reportedly the favorite of Brazilian pilots — it is not in the same class as the twin-engined Rafale or Super Hornet. The Gripen is roughly half the empty weight of both and can carry less ordnance. This isn’t to say that Brazil’s choice was not justified — it is entirely possible that the country judged the less expensive and less capable Gripen as sufficient for its defense needs. This theory is particularly likely given that before last week’s surprise announcement the FX-2 program’s final selection was thought most likely to be delayed until at least 2015, partially due to the high cost of the Brazilian government’s 2016 Olympics infrastructure spending. If tensions between the US and Brazil had little impact on the decision to select the Gripen, then Brazilian officials are taking the opportunity to make their complaints about US spying carry greater weight by linking them to a costly loss by a US defense contractor.

Additionally, cost isn’t the only reason for Brazil’s selection. A piece by Deutsche Welle Portuguese also suggested that the Gripen’s small size is better suited to future efforts to replace the Brazilian Navy’s outdated A-4 Skyhawk aircraft. “If a different option was chosen, we would not be able to land neither with the F-18 nor the Rafale on our aircraft carrier without major changes… In the case of the Saab, it can be developed with a view on the needs of the existing platform,” said Antonio Jorge Ramalho da Rocha, a Brazilian professor of international relations [my translation]. Indeed, the ability of the Brazilian government to participate in the design of a future Sea Gripen naval variant reportedly influenced the purchase. However, this is still a risky choice. The Brazilian carrier São Paulo is old and not fully operational, and a new, future Brazilian carrier at least over a decade off. Similarly, while operating the same type would offer the Brazilian Força Aerea and Marinha obvious logistical benefits, unlike the Super Hornet and Rafale there is no guarantee that a Sea Gripen variant will ever fly, even — due to the need for multinational funding — if Brazil is enthusiastic about flying Gripens off carriers.

Again, the Saab Gripen NG is an excellent fighter. But Brazilian enthusiasm for the lightweight fighter shouldn’t obscure that the country has made a deliberate choice towards the lowest cost, lower capability option among the FX-2 program’s three finalists. Since Brazil’s most urgent defense needs are internal and sea policing, the country has no pressing foreign security threats, and the Brazilian government faces serious budgetary pressures this choice is a valid one — especially if it contributes to Brazil one day developing and marketing a fighter of its own.

Gripens to Brazil – What Role Did Snowden Play?

By Taylor Marvin

The Saab Gripen NG will be Brazil’s next fast jet. The decision to adopt the Swedish multirole fighter was first reported by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo this morning, and was later confirmed by an official afternoon press conference in the capital. Saab’s victory, which involves “an extensive technology transfer package, a financing package as well as long term bi-lateral collaboration between the Brazilian and Swedish Governments,” comes at the expense of the other two competitors in Brazil’s FX-2 acquisition program, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Citing the aircraft’s performance, the deal’s technology transfer, and costs, Brazil is now expected to purchase 36 Gripens by 2020, replacing the venerable Dassault Mirage 2000 in the Southern hemisphere’s largest air force.

The selection is big news for Brazilian military aviation, whose FX-2 program has been plagued by delays and missteps. During the 2003-2010 administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the Gripen’s “Euro-Canard” peer was the favored choice — rare positive news for the Dassualt Rafale, which has struggled to find export sales — before falling from favor due to high costs. After Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff took office in 2011 the Super Hornet became the apparent favorite, making today’s rejection somewhat of a surprise.

For its part the Brazilian choice of the Gripen instead of the Super Hornet is reportedly due in part to this year’s revelations by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency had spied on communications by President Rousseff and Brazilian high-level officials and corporations. Brazilian outrage over US espionage has led to tensions unprecedented in the two countries’ recent history and “the NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” according to an anonymous Reuters source. But how credible are the Brazilian claims that Snowden’s disclosures played a major role in the decision to reject the Super Hornet?

Besides Russia, Brazil has perhaps been the key foreign player in the ongoing Snowden story. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s leaks of classified information, is based in Rio de Janeiro and Snowden has requested asylum in Brazil, this week writing an “open letter” to the Brazilian people and offering to help Brazilian counter-espionage efforts. NSA eavesdropping on Rousseff attracted major attention in the Brazilian press and spurred outrage in Brazil, with Rousseff herself canceling a trip to Washington in September. In the highly political world of high-profile defense acquisitions, it is entirely possible that Brazil rejected the American aircraft both as a deliberate snub and to keep its distance from reliance on the American defense industry.

But it is important to take the Brazilian claim that its post-Snowden tensions with the United States are responsible for the rejection of the Boeing bid with a grain of salt. While former President Lula’s administration had favored the Rafale, the Rousseff government cited Dassault’s high price tag — $8 billion overall — as prohibitive. The Saab bid, by contrast, totals $4.5 billion. This reflects the lower capabilities of the single-engine Gripen, which has a 31,000 lb maximum takeoff weight compared to the twin-engine Rafale and Super Bug’s 54,000 lb and 66,000 lb, respectively. While an advanced aircraft, the Gripen is not in the same class as the Rafale or Super Hornet.

Given that the Boeing deal was priced at $7.5 billion for an aircraft far more similar to the Rafale than the Gripen, this suggests that the Super Hornet was rejected for cost or technology transfer issues rather than simply political reasons. Brazil faces no major external threats and enjoys good relations with its neighbors, which is reflected in its erratic and at 1.5 percent of GDP comparatively-low defense spending, lower than its BRIC peers (Brazilian defense spending as a percentage of GDP is neither high nor low by South American standards, though it is far higher in absolute terms). With limited resources and this mild defense outlook, it is entirely plausible that Brazil judged the smaller, lighter, and more affordable Saab Gripen as sufficient for its needs. If this is the case, then comments that Brazilian anger over the Snowden revelations influenced the decision are most likely an opportune jab at America.

Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay

By Taylor Marvin

Uruguay has become the world’s first nation to legalize the marijuana trade. While personal recreational use of marijuana is currently legal, starting sometime after April of next year adult residents of the small Southern Cone country will be able to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug a month in pharmacies or grow six cannabis plants in their own homes. Prices for the legally-sold drug are expected to be roughly in line with the current black market price. Foreigners will not be allowed to purchase marijuana in the country. According to Reuters, critics of the law fear that legalizing the sale of marijuana will lead pot users to experiment with harder, more dangerous drugs.

It’s my hope that marijuana legalization in Uruguay and elsewhere helps finally demolish this gateway drug myth. On the face of it pot and harder drugs like cocaine and heroin have very little in common; if absent other factors using one mind-altering substance was enough to lead someone to more dangerous ones, we’d expect the more addicting and harmful alcohol to be a greater gateway. What marijuana and heroin have in common is that they’re illegal drugs. A habitual pot smoker has decided that they don’t mind breaking a pointless law, and presumably have become accustomed to purchasing prohibited drugs from criminals. It’s trespassing over these small legal, mental, and social barriers associated with pot’s illegality, not anything inherent to marijuana, that could make it easier for marijuana users to overcome the higher barriers to hard drug use. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug. Instead, it is marijuana prohibition that’s a potential gateway to further drug use.

How Will Castro be Remembered?

By Taylor Marvin

On Twitter, Sarah Alaoui wonders how the world will view the death of another aged revolutionary:

To be sure, there are enormous differenced between Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. Aside from a few mixed views of his legacy in the American press and elsewhere, Mandela was a globally respected democratic icon; Castro is an autocrat under whose repressive rule Cuba stagnated. However, Mandela’s death does suggest the question of how Fidel Castro’s will be received, especially given Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at the funeral (which was promptly decried by American conservatives).

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Photo by Alberto Korda, via Wikimedia.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Photo by Alberto Korda, via Wikimedia.

Castro’s legacy is both boosted and diminished by his longevity. After the dissolution of the USSR it became apparent that both it and Castro’s brands of communism were dead ends, and enormously damaging ones. During the Cold War Castro’s dictatorship compared favorably to many of Latin America’s rightest regimes, like the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Stroessner regime in Paraguay, or Argentine National Reorganization Process. Similarly, Castro benefitted from the legitimizing enmity of the United States; while the region’s rightist regimes overstated the domestic left-wing opposition they defined themselves by combating, Castro faced a very powerful foe across the Florida Straits. Had Castro died in the 1980s, it is likely that these factors would have softened memories of his regime. This is no longer true.

However, Castro’s memory could also gain from his long life. More than twenty years after the end of the Cold War the popular association of Castro with the USSR and global communism has lessened, and his connection with a new wave of far more positively-received South American leftists like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa  has arguably improved his image. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro most closely associated themselves with the Castros’ Cuba, other countries with center-left governments pursued friendly relations with Cuba, with Dilma Rousseff’s Brazil recently accepting a mission of Cuban doctors. While Hugo Chávez’s talk of a resurgent and unified Latin American left was always overblown, Castro’s stature has benefitted from his position as the venerable and symbolic vanguard of the so-called movement — even if Castro’s figurehead position was as much due to his practical irrelevance than anything else.

Fidel Castro will be mourned in Latin America and elsewhere, both by those who admire his tenacious opposition to the United States and role as a symbol of left-wing resistance and by center-left governments seeking to co-opt the more popular aspects of his legacy. But Castro is unlikely to be widely rememberd as an icon. While the punishing US trade embargo allows for (somewhat justified) blame-shifting, under the Castro regime Cuba’s economy has stagnated while many of its neighbors’ have grown. Not only orphaned by the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba was also left behind by the wave of democratization that swept through the region in the 1980s. While Castro framed himself in opposition to the United States and its rightest clients throughout Latin America, former right-wing dictatorships like Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil  have democratized while Cuba has not. It is difficult to spin Castro as an icon of revolution and resistance when even the regional countries that associate themselves with his regime are now, unlike Cuba, democracies. Mandela’s life and death is associated with a beginning, while Castro’s will mark and end of an era.


Albert Eckhout, 'Mameluca woman', 1644. Via Wikimedia.

Albert Eckhout, ‘Mameluca woman’, 1644. Via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

When the Portuguese landed on the eastern coast of South America they, like the Spanish elsewhere in the Americas, intermarried with local women. In Spanish Latin America those descended from both Europeans and Amerindians were termed mestizos, while in Brazil the first mixed-ancestry people were called mamelucos. Interestingly, the term mameluco appears to have been derived from the Arabic mamluk, which refers royal slaves or, more famously. an enslaved warrior caste. This adoption of an Arabic loanword seems to align with other instances of Iberians framing their encounters with Amerindians in the terminology of their interactions with Muslims. As related in Jon Manchip White’s Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire, in Cortés’ dispatches he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques”, the only other non-Christian religious buildings with which he would have been familiar. 

The Iberian Christians of the 15th and 16th century inhabited a world divided into two separate spheres: Christendom, and the alien. For Iberians, this alien signified Muslims, which had recently been evicted from the peninsula in the centuries-long reconquista. It is unsurprising that the Iberians adopted the same terminology they used to categorize the other they had previously impinged on — the Muslims — with the new other of the Amerindians.