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The Deficit of Leadership at the North American Leaders Summit

Posted by americasprogram on August 14, 2009

Harper, Calderon and Obama at the North American Leaders Summit. Source: EFE

Harper, Calderon and Obama at the North American Leaders Summit. Source: EFE

Laura Carlsen

Times of crisis require bold leadership and innovative solutions. They are a sign of the need to break out of failed paradigms and unite people to create new ones.

Exactly the opposite happened when the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States met at the North American Leaders Summit in Guadalajara on August 9-10. Instead of leadership, Presidents Calderon and Obama and Prime Minister Harper showed a penchant for generalities, conflict avoidance and the formulaic proposals of a discredited past.

Faced with profound economic, environmental, health and security crises, our heads of state proved once again that North America doesn’t exist as a united bloc by punting on the shared issues. U.S. and Canadian leaders used the forum to reaffirm their priority on national policies, while beleaguered Mexico received little more than declarations of support for Calderon’s faltering drug war.  The lack of regional proposals and agreements raised doubts about the purpose of NAFTA’s Security and Prosperity Agreement (SPP)—the leaders didn’t even mention the executive pact that launched these summits.

Summit meetings like this are often a symbolic show of unity while the real work goes on at lower levels, below the public radar. They don’t tend to produce many “deliverables.” However, this is no excuse for the shallowness and contradictions of the Guadalajara Summit. Given the critical situation in the region, this one should have taken the bull by its horns. The populations of all three countries need deliverables from their governments—and fast.

Civil society organizations in all three nations have long protested that the NAFTA-SPP proceedings don’t represent their interests. These protests tend to flare and fade depending on the Summit calendar.

By looking at four major issues, how the leaders responded and how they could have responded, we can get a better idea of what went wrong and what a more sustained civil society agenda for regional integration could include. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Drug War, Merida Initiative, Mexico, NAFTA, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

On Eve of Summit, Mexico’s Human Rights Record Comes Under Fire in U.S. Congress

Posted by americasprogram on August 7, 2009

Mexico's militarized drug war

Mexico’s militarized drug war.  Source:

Last week Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) made it clear that he would block the human rights report on Mexico that is set as a condition for releasing remaining funds through the Merida Initiative.  The report is to be presented by Sec. of State Clinton to the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee that  Sen. Leahy chairs, but was held up late last week despite efforts on the part of officials from both the U.S. and Mexico to negotiate with the State Department and several U.S. legislators for a favorable report.

Leahy’s foreign policy aide, Tim Rieser, told officials that there is evidence that the Mexican government has not complied with the four conditions put down in the Merida Initiative legislation.  Leahy’s office has concurred with several Mexican and international human rights organizations that human rights violations continue in Mexico’s war on drugs and in fact have increased. In Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s short two and a half years in office, violations have risen 600%, with an average of 140 complaints filed against the army per month. These includes serious violations such as torture, homicide, forced disappearances and illegal raids.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Drug War, Merida Initiative, Mexico, U.S. Foreign Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Mr. President: Calderón Is Not Mexico

Posted by americasprogram on April 17, 2009


Obama and Calderon met in Mexico City on April 16

President Obama’s visit to Mexico has produced vague and contradictory statements, centered on worn-out strategies. Many people who had hoped for a new approach that would seek to redress the inequities of the binational relationship will find little in these declarations to pin their hopes on.  

Obama began by enthusiastically endorsing President Felipe President Calderón. He expressed his “admiration” for Calderon’s “courage” in the increasingly bloody drug war and went so far as to promote Calderon’s bid to host the next UN Climate Change meeting.

These overtures no doubt served to decrease tensions between the two governments that built up following U.S. statements of the Mexico as a near “failed state” that was losing a grip on its own territory to drug cartels, and a potential national security threat.  But by focusing the trip on the person of Calderón and seeking to bolster his leadership rating, Obama forgets that Calderón is a polemical president in a deeply divided nation as a result of both his rightwing policies and the doubts of legitimacy that hang over his presidency.

Obviously, Calderón is Obama’s formal counterpart but the unnecessary accolades rankle among the 50% of the population who felt defrauded by his court-determined ascendency to office.  Note that Calderón did not spend time praising the person of Obama who, in fact, was not his preferred candidate in the 2008 elections.

The proposals held forth by the two presidents for the most part were either too vague to evaluate or did not respond to the needs of their respective publics. Calderón offered proposals to deepen NAFTA by building infrastructure on the border to increase economic flows, reforms in customs rules and elimination of tariff and non-tariff barriers. In doing so, he fell back on the debunked argument that by competing as a bloc in an unregulated global economy, both countries will someday enjoy prosperity.  This at a time when that model has collapsed, leaving millions of people out of work on both sides of the border.

Meanwhile, Mexican peasant farmers who have been forced off their land by U.S imports were preparing a demonstration to call for renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of the agreement.

As predicted, both presidents confirmed their commitment to a militarized and unsuccessful “war on drugs” in Mexico. Obama did state that the binational relationship should not be defined only by security issues, but in terms of real programs–of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is–that remains the case. The Merida Initiative increased aid to Mexico tenfold in one area—security. This model, which employs the army to cut off the supply of illegal drugs, has no record of success in any part of the world. On the other hand, we know it causes extensive environmental damage, violence, displacement, violation of human rights and curtailment of civil liberties.

The energy and “green jobs” proposals were unclear. Mexicans are wary of proposals to commit energy resources in the way that the Canadians have had to under NAFTA and there is also considerable criticism of carbon markets as a market-based alternative to needed regulation on polluting emissions.

The bright spot on the horizon of this troubled US-Mexico relations is the issue of immigration. Obama reiterated his commitment to legalization of Mexican undocumented workers established north of the border, while paying some penalties. Recent news stories indicate that he is moving on this commitment. Calderón offered no concrete proposals to generate or preserve jobs in areas of high expulsion nor did Obama offer proposals in this crucial area.

Up to now, both have avoided controversial issues—the renegotiation of NAFTA, corruption, inequality or, directly, the economic crisis. They did not speak of specific measures to generate employment in Mexico or alleviate the crushing poverty that affects millions of Mexican families.

The involvement of the U.S. government in Mexico’s national security apparatus, advanced through the Merida Initiative–the military and police aid package designed by the Bush administration and passed by Congress, raises sensitive issues of sovereignty. Tagging on measures within the U.S. does not erase those fears or the ill-conceived emphasis on Mexico’s part of the transnational problem.

Likewise, good intentions and empty declarations do not resolve the problem of the profound asymmetries and inequalities locked in by NAFTA that feed migration from Mexico to the U.S.

These issues will be a part of the agenda at the Summit of the Americas. There, the alternatives to corporate-led globalization that are being developed throughout the hemisphere will have a central place, putting into relief the failure of the old models. 

Presidents Obama and Calderon have an obligation to revise their proposals and seek a “new era” that really responds to the multiple crises—economic, financial, environmental, social and security—that characterize this moment in the binational relationship.

Posted in Drug War, Mexico, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Medellín: Model City for IDB; Paramilitary Repression for the Poor

Posted by americasprogram on March 31, 2009


The “model city” of Medellín whitewashes the violence and poverty of everyday life in the outlying comunas. [Source:]

I arrived in Medellin to participate in a series of events called “IDB: 50 years of Financing Inequality” held parallel to the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It was late and the airport was filled with escorts who shepherded the suit-and-tied official delegates to waiting cabs. The usual response at these meetings when you say you’re with the alternative civil society groups is a shrug that means “you’re on your own,” so I was surprised when the IDB guys insisted I go in one of their free cabs.

I later realized the insistence was part of the campaign to make sure that Bank visitors experienced only the official version of Medellin. The city has been billed as the hemisphere’s success story in the drug war. In October of 2002 the government came in with Black Hawks and troops, rooting out leftist guerrillas and drug cartels and killing scores of residents. The second phase was demobilizing paramilitaries. Homicides dropped from a world record rate in the mid-nineties and a series of heavily financed infrastructure projects helped polish the city’s new image.

But I couldn’t help noticing the way camouflage-garbed soldiers with machine guns that suddenly appeared along the side of the road like a shoot-‘em-up video game. Or how when the hotel’s street was barricaded by armed police and shields, the cab driver wouldn’t let me walk the half block by myself.

The stories and rumors of a very different reality in Medellin began surfacing immediately. One friend was assigned a security escort to accompany him to the university, with the instructions, “If there’s a bomb or shooting, just do what he does.” Another was full body-searched as he stood talking to a group of young men. Bogota papers reported that an anonymous note was sent out throughout the city warning mothers that if they wanted to keep their sons alive they should keep them in the house after 10 o’clock at night. Four thousand police were sent into the slums to make sure the poor behaved for the bankers’ reunion.  Gay men, prostitutes and bums had been rounded up and removed from public view.

What I was seeing and hearing contradicted the official propaganda so I set out to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating and confirm the rumors. But things just got worse. A local organizer explained that the 10 p.m. curfew had been announced not only in Medellin but throughout the department of Antioquia. Nobody knew for sure who made the threat—the paramilitaries or the army itself. Newspapers and residents confirmed the other rumors.

As we set out to visit a poor comuna—slum area—the driver described the “vacunas” or vaccinations, a form of extortion where the paramilitaries charge small businesses for protection. Payments are in cash or a promise to buy from paramilitary-run businesses. The paramilitary forces are far from demobilized here. They are armed and active.

In fact, the homicide rate has been rising sharply in Medellin. In some areas, inter-mafia turf wars have erupted again. Violence touches so many lives here. In some neighborhoods in the Santo Domingo comuna where we met with a resident organization, 70% of residents are “desplazados” who moved there after being uprooted from their homes and losing loved ones. The residents explain that government repression against citizen movements is so heavy that major public protests are out of the question. When the neighborhood forum broke up and the participants marched a few blocks together, nearly fifty police emerged from where they had been monitoring the event and moved on to another area.

I know the differences between Mexico and Colombia. But I can’t help thinking we could end up like this if Mexico continues with present policies.  The militarization of society is already a reality and in some places citizens have lost freedom of movement. A corrupt government emboldened by the war on drugs extends its own power while criminalizing dissidence and youth.

Let’s hope Medellin is not a mirror of Mexico’s future.

For More Information:

IDB annual meeting to showcase Medellin renaissance (People’sDaily, 27/03/09)

Medellin cleans up its act (Los Angeles Times, 26/03/09)

Posted in Colombia, Drug War, IDB, IFIs, Mexico, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »