How Things Change

Originally published at PoliBlog on Sunday, March 21, 2010 (and retrieved from the Wayback Machine)

I was thinking back the other day to a graduate seminar I took on public policy back in the early-to-mid 1990s (the last time health care was a major issue).  I wrote a paper on health care reform and I ended up proposing that instead of more comprehensive programs (such as single-payer) that a more prudent route to take would be for the federal government to buy insurance for those without it as a means of covering uninsured Americans rather than a more dramatic restructuring of the system.

At the time this was considered a somewhat “conservative” approach1 to the question (and, indeed, I wrote it at the time as a consciously more conservative alternative to comprehensive policy prescriptions).  Indeed, I recall very distinctly my professor, who clearly preferred the more comprehensive approaches, did allow that while he was skeptical that he did think that it was something to think about.

In all honesty, the paper was very much on the simplistic side of things and I would hardly say that my general policy ideas at the time equates in any specific way to the current proposal.   However, in terms of the overall general policy options, focusing simply on increasing insurance coverage (and sans a public insurance options as well) is, in terms of comprehensive reform options, one of the least intrusive and inserts the government into the process less than almost any other option apart from doing nothing.  And certainly, I understand that the default conservative position is to do nothing.

Still, it is amusing to me  to consider that as a general policy recommendation what was at one time considered a critique of the Clinton approach and one of the least one of the more conservative-ish options is now “a government take-over” and “socialism.”

I think and write about all of this less in terms of the specifics of the bill that will be voted on today but really more because of the rhetoric.  And, because if the proposal does pass today, the bottom line is that the US system will still be one with the least government control over the process when compared to other industrialized countries.  In other words:  relative to other systems, the one on the table is really amongst the least “socialistic” that one could come up with and still aspire to comprehensiveness.

Take all of that for what one will—it is really a combination general musing/comparative note as anything else.  Further, it seems as if it is likely that the bill will pass and so the comparative note seems quite relevant.

  1. Recognizing, of course, that the most conservative option was (and is) to do nothing.  However, within the universe of comprehensive reform options, leaving the health care system in the hands of private (albeit heavily regulated) medical service and insurance providers as opposed to the government taking on those functions is, at a minimum, a centrist, if not center-right option.  It is certainly one that consists of a public-private nexus, rather than a government one, to provide the services in question. []
Posted in US Politics, Wayback Retrieval | Leave a comment

The USA v. the FARC

The Washington Post has a very interesting, and lengthy, piece on the role played by the US in helping the Colombians combat the FARC and ELN in the last decade:  Covert action in Colombia.

First, some basic background. 

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (in Spanish the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) are a guerrilla group that has been operating in Colombian since the early 1960s (and has its origins in the Colombian civil war of the 1940s and 50s known simply as La Violencia).*  The FARC’s stated goal for many decades has been social revolution, i.e., the utter change of social, economic, and political life in Colombia.  On the one hand, they have not been successful in that goal (nor will they ever be), but on the other, they have been able to persist over a lengthy amount of time as a serious thorn in the side of the Colombian state.  The FARC was once only one of numerous such groups operating in Colombia over the decades, although it has long been one of the more prominent.  Currently it is only one of two prominent groups in operation–the other being the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN).

The FARC has also long been funded by the cocaine trade.  A decision was made in the early 1980s that, basically, if the gringos wanted to fund the revolution by spending literally tons of money to snort the white powder, the FARC were more than happy to oblige.  The FARC also obtained a great deal of revenue from kidnapping.  The group has had a history of attempted settlements with the government over the years, including a current peace process that is being negotiated in Havana.  Past attempts were not especially successful.  For example, an attempt to create a non-violent political party of the left, the Patriotic Union, for example, led to its members being systematically assassinated by right-wing paramilitary groups, which in turn has made the FARC suspicious of any attempt at entering civilian politics.** The UP was not, per se, an arm of the FARC, but the UP was an experiment, after a fashion, linked to the peace process in the sense that it was supposed to demonstrate a viable non-violent path for the left (which was linked to peace talks at the time).  Additionally, an attempt in the late 1990s by President Andrés Pastrana  to cede a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone as a basis for negotiations eventually failed miserably.

The 1990s and the early 2000s were especially violent and difficulty times in Colombia.  Here are some charts from my book, Voting Amid Violence:  Electoral Democracy in Colombia that underscore the situation:

Fig 2.1 VaV

A couple of things to note in this graph.  First, the spike in the 1940s and 1950s was La Violencia noted above.  The upward trend from the mid-1970s that peaked in the early 1990s was driven heavily by the drug war (and especially the conflict between Pablo Escobar and the Colombian state).  Drug violence and growth in right-wing paramilitaries (which really start to be a major player in 1980s) help maintain the violence once Escobar was gone (he was killed in 1993), as well as fuel the spike in the early 2000s.  Colombia violence, it should be noted, is a complex mix of guerrillas, cartels, paramilitary groups, and the state.  It is also worth noting that those categories are not always mutually exclusive.

Here’s Colombia’s murder rate in comparative perspective:

Fig 2.2 VaV

Some additional indicators can be found below:

Table 2.7 VaV


The WaPo piece fills in some more recent figures, as well as providing some additional info:


Ok, enough background, on to what the WaPo piece reveals.

The article itself is quite through and it reveals two key pieces of information about US involvement that had not been previously public:  the extent of US intelligence help in finding FARC and ELN leadership and the use of smart bomb technology to target those individuals:

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

It should be noted that US foreign aid to Colombia is not, in and of itself, news.  Colombia has been for some time the third largest recipient of US foreign assistance behind Israel and Egypt.  It was, if memory serves, moved to fifth place with the insertion of Iraq and Afghanistan into the mix.  Regardless of specific rankings, the US has been spending a lot of money in Colombia for a rather long time (even if this is rarely commented upon in the US press—you would think we would, collectively, care more about the billions flowing southward than we do).

The usage of high-tech surveillance in Colombia by the US is not especially surprising, and ranks (to me) as not all that revelatory in the grand scheme of things.  The US used high tech surveillance to aid the Colombians to track Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s,*** so it stands to reason that similar tactics would be used against the guerrillas—especially after US policy towards the insurgents shifted post-9/11.  In the pre-War on Terror world, US policy was that aid was for fighting drugs, not guerrillas.  However, after 9/11, US policy shifted, as underscored by the following statement from US Ambassador to Colombiam Anne Patterson (2000-2003):  “the U.S. strategy is to give the Colombian government the tools to combat terrorism and narcotrafficking, two struggles that have become one. To fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism, it is necessary to attack all links of the chain simultaneously.”****

Of course, it is worth noting that the FARC and ELN were already on the US list of official terrorist organizations and, as already noted, the FARC was already involved in the drug trade.  On one level, therefore, the shift in US policy was rhetorical.

As the WaPo piece notes, a main catalyst for the shift was especially acute after the FARC kidnapped three US contractors (and killing another):

The new covert push against the FARC unofficially began on Feb. 13, 2003. That day a single-engine Cessna 208 crashed in rebel-held jungle. Nearby guerrillas executed the Colombian officer on board and one of four American contractors who were working on coca eradication. The three others were taken hostage.

The United States had already declared the FARC a terrorist organization for its indiscriminate killings and drug trafficking. Although the CIA had its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush “leaned on [CIA director George] Tenet” to help find the three hostages, according to one former senior intelligence official involved in the discussions.

The FARC’s terrorist designation made it easier to fund a black budget. “We got money from a lot of different pots,” said one senior diplomat.

US actions should also be understood in the context of the Uribe administration in Colombia.  Uribe came to office with a clear hardline against the guerrillas and as one of the most pro-US Colombian presidents ever (and keep in mind, US-Colombian have generally been amongst the best in the hemisphere over time). 

The intriguing part of the story is the use of GPS guided bombs:

Locating FARC leaders proved easier than capturing or killing them. Some 60 times, Colombian forces had obtained or been given reliable information but failed to capture or kill anyone senior, according to two U.S. officials and a retired Colombian senior officer. The story was always the same. U.S.-provided Black Hawk helicopters would ferry Colombian troops into the jungle about six kilometers away from a camp. The men would creep through the dense foliage, but the camps were always empty by the time they arrived. Later they learned that the FARC had an early-warning system: rings of security miles from the camps.

By 2006, the dismal record attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force’s newly arrived mission chief. The colonel was perplexed. Why had the third-largest recipient of U.S. military assistance [behind Egypt and Israel] made so little progress?

“I’m thinking, ‘What are we killing the FARC with?’ ” the colonel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview.


The colonel said he told then-defense minister Santos about his idea and wrote a one-page paper on it for him to deliver to Uribe. Santos took the idea to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In June 2006, Uribe visited Bush at the White House. He mentioned the recent killing of al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. An F-16 had sent two 500-pound smart bombs into his hideout and killed him. He pressed for the same capability.

The piece goes on to describe the process of adapting the technology to be used by the Colombia air force.

The number of successful airstrikes after that point in time is quite remarkable:



The article also discussed use of human intelligence, specifically the use of deserters:

The CIA also trained Colombian interrogators to more effectively question thousands of FARC deserters, without the use of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved for use on al-Qaeda and later repudiated by Congress as abusive. The agency also created databases to keep track of the debriefings so they could be searched and cross-referenced to build a more complete picture of the organization.

The Colombian government paid deserters and allowed them to reintegrate into civil society. Some, in turn, offered valuable information about the FARC’s chain of command, standard travel routes, camps, supply lines, drug and money sources. They helped make sense of the NSA’s voice intercepts, which often used code words. Deserters also sometimes were used to infiltrate FARC camps to plant listening devices or beacons that emitted a GPS coordinate for smart bombs.

“We learned from the CIA,” a top Colombian national security official said of the debriefing program. “Before, we didn’t pay much attention to details.”

There is more to the story, but this post is already extremely long.  It is worth noting that the FARC has faced a number of setbacks in recent years, and many of them are clearly linked to these successful attacks (dating especially to the strike in Ecuador against Raul Reyes’ camp, which is also discussed in the article).  There is also little doubt that these setbacks have been a major reason for the current talks.  It should be noted that the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was Defense Minister during much of this period.  Santos will be running for re-election in May.  In addition to the attacks and tactics discussed here, it is worth noting that Uribe (2002-2006, 2006-2001) took a very aggressive approach to the guerrillas when he came to office in 2002 and also was able to demobilize some of the paramilitary groups.  The shift in the managerial nexus of the cocaine trade to Mexican cartels has also contributed to changes in Colombia.

Regardless of anything else, the story also illustrates a variety of issues pertaining to US capabilities and the synergy between intelligence and military capabilities.  It also provides insight into activities in the ongoing war against terrorists groups in other parts of the globe.


Note: all of the following are written for broad audiences (indeed, all were written by journalists if memory serves).

*One of the best book in English that I have seen on the FARC is Garry Leech’s The FARC: The Longest Insurgency.

**For anyone interested, I would recommend both Steven Dudley’s Walking GhostsAlong these lines I would also recommend Robin Kirk’s More Terrible than Death.

***A great read on the war against Escobar is Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo.

****I discussed the merger of the WoD and the WoT in an article for Stategic Insights back in 2005:  “When Wars Collide: The War on Drugs and the Global War on Terror”.

Posted in Colombia, Latin America, OTB | 1 Comment

Iran, Hezbollah and Latin America?

When I saw the following CNN headline, “Iran, Hezbollah mine Latin America for revenue, recruits, analysts say” my first thought was:  will this be the same old recycled story about an alleged growing threat of Islamic extremists terror networks in Latin America?  Here’s the basic check-list for any such story:  1.  Mention the 1994 bombings of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, 2) Mention the “Tri-Border Area” (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay), 3) Note the Muslim populations in Latin American countries, especially Brazil, and 4) have some vague statements from experts about possible threats.

Every article I have read about possible growing Islamic extremist threats in Latin America (and I have read a LOT of them) tend to have all the above elements and, indeed, they all tend to read  like the same story rewritten over and over and over again.

Let’s see how these article does,

1.  Mention 1994.

This is noted in the second paragraph as well as later in the piece.  Now, this always makes for an interesting bit of history and certainly helps fill column inches.  However, looking at the calendar I would note that 1994 is almost two decades ago.  If the best one can do as an illustration of the potential threat, then perhaps the threat is not all that, well, threatening.

For those unfamiliar, here are the details:

Iran has denied any connection to the July 18, 1994, bombing at the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (known as AMIA after its Spanish acronym), which also injured more than 100 people. Likewise, Iran denies any involvement in a bomb blast at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires on March 17, 1992, that killed 29 people and wounded at least 250 more.

In 1994 I was recently married, childless, and in the middle of graduate school.  I am now a Full Professor and Department Chair and have three children, one of whom can drive.  1994 was a long time ago.

2.  Tri-Border Area

Here we go:

Analysts agree that Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. From this base deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, analysts say. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.

By all accounts, those illegal activities are quite lucrative. A 2004 study for the Naval War College determined that Hezbollah’s operations in the Tri-Border Area generated about $10 million annually. A 2009 Rand Corporation report said Hezbollah netted around $20 million a year in the area. As a result, says Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of the book “Funding Evil,” the Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.

First, if 1994 was a long time ago, the 1980s are ancient history.

Second, this all sounds ominous.  It has a cool name that can be turned into an acronym (TBA!), and whenever you can call an area “lawless” it just seems all the more threatening.  Border areas also are notorious in literature, song, and real life.

I have no doubt about the funding issue—more on that below.

In regards to 1994 and the Tri-Border Area:

It wasn’t long after Hezbollah established its firm foothold in the Tri-Border Area that it became linked to the two terrorist attacks in Argentina, which has the largest Jewish community in South America and one of the biggest outside of Israel.

By September 1995, Philip Wilcox Jr., the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, was testifying to a U.S. House committee that Hezbollah had become “the major international terrorist threat” in the region.

I would note that rather than 1992 and 1994 being the portend of things to come, they were the zenith of radical Islamic terrorism in the Americas until 9/11 (which had nothing to do with Iran, Hezbollah, nor the TBA).

3.  Muslim populations

Although exact figures are difficult to come by, estimates by the Pew Research Center and the Islamic Population websites say Brazil and Argentina have the largest Muslim populations in South America, with more than 1 million members each. Those populations include converts to Islam, Arab immigrants and their descendants. Venezuela has more than 100,000 Muslims concentrated among persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

Lot of scary Muslims, dontcha know. This just feeds the Islamophobic who see any increase in Muslim population as a threat.

4.  Vague Threats and Fears

Well, just the notion of Iranian or Hezbollah-linked “networks” is enough to excite great concern in some.  Further, we have a reference to two terrorist attacks and lawlessness in the TBA, so we are already well on our way to grave concern, if not freak-outs.

But, there is also:

Nisman’s report said Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are being conducted directly by Iranian officials or through a key surrogate, the Hezbollah Islamic militant group. “Criminal plans” by Iran could be under way in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the report said.

Please note:  criminal plans could be under way.  Also:

“They are more involved in the cocaine trade than ever before, and have greater access in the region due their allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere,” Farah said. “So they have more freedom of movement and fewer restrictions. This has greatly increased their capacity to carry out intelligence operations, train and position operatives and prepare attacks, particularly if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

In regards to the aforementioned hordes of Muslims:

Hezbollah also uses its new stronghold as a base for recruiting among Latin America’s diaspora of Lebanese expatriates, known throughout the region as ‘turcos,” and other Muslim populations.

Much of that recruitment takes place in mosques or “Islamic centers” that Hezbollah operatives infiltrate or establish to serve the region’s burgeoning Muslim communities.

Note the vagueness of that claim.  One expects that Hezbollah attempts to recruits where ever it can, but the questions becomes more what the success rate is and to what end, rather than whether they try and recruit.  Also, Hezbollah also seeks donations from ex-patriots for its more legitimate arms, so the act of Hezbollah recruitment and fundraising is not always as objectively problematic as some make it out to be.  Hezbollah is not just a militant organization, but also a political party and a social organization.


That’s not to say, though, that Hezbollah does not have the capacity to turn violent, particularly at the behest of Iran.

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said Hezbollah “represents a significant potential threat to the United States.”

“Over the past decade, Hezbollah’s regional activities have shown a clear pattern of targeting U.S. interests and assets throughout Latin America. Among other indicators, Hezbollah operatives are known to have cased the U.S. embassy in Paraguay’s capital of Ascunción, and local organizational cells have colluded with al Qaeda to plot attacks on U.S. and Jewish targets in the region,” he said.

“Hezbollah also has the ability to strike at the U.S. homeland itself,” Berman said. “Given the lucrative nature of the organization’s illicit activities throughout the hemisphere, the likelihood of such a development remains low. Still, Hezbollah’s strategic calculus could conceivably change if it or its chief sponsor, Iran, were imperiled in a substantial way (for example, through military action that targets Iran’s nuclear facilities). In this sense, Hezbollah can be described as a potential insurance policy of sorts for the Iranian regime.”

And Hezbollah only stands to become more dangerous, analysts say.

Note the lack of much in the way of details (and the notion that Iran could, at a moment’s notice, weaponize Hezbollah, or something).  And there is a lot of plotting (and casing!) going on.  How we know this exactly it unclear.

5.  The Real Issue:  Funding

If there is a real issue, it is not so much Iranian influence in Latin America as it is using the illicit drug trade for funding.

analysts and observers disagree over Iran and Hezbollah’s ambitions. Hezbollah’s actions are mainly seen as financial, as evidenced by greater ties to Latin American drug cartels in recent years. At the same time, Iran may be returning to more violent acts, such as a reported attempt to recruit someone to assassinate a diplomat.

There is a lot of money to be made in the drug trade, in case anyone has noticed.  As such, it is not surprising that various groups would tap into the resources in question.  The opium trade helps

6.  Parting Thoughts

Yes, I am being more than a bit flippant here in tone (although the basic points are serious).  It is not because I do not see the significance of various criminal enterprises in Latin America nor that I do not understand the significance of fundraising by groups that may engage in political violence.  My flippancy is based in a few things.  First, the discussion of this exact topic has been redundant and poorly analyzed for years (again:  the degree to which these stories are near-identical year after year is truly amazing).  Second, the discussion of this topic typically had a veneer, if not a thick coat, of terrorism fear mongering about it.

Note:  Also published at OTB.

Posted in Latin America, OTB, Terrorism, US Politics | 1 Comment

Fujimori’s Health is Failing

Via the BBC:  Peru ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s health ‘worsening’

Alejandro Aguinaga said the former president had a condition that was eating away his stomach.

Mr Fujimori is serving a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses, but his family says he is too frail to be in prison.

They have called for a presidential pardon on humanitarian grounds.

This is a recurrent theme for either jailed ex-dictators or for ex-dictators facing charges:  that they are too old to be charged and jailed (this often came up in regards to Augusto Pinochet, for example).  Recently, Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, died in prison.

Sounds like this might be a ploy as much as anything else:

Correspondents say that the doctor’s diagnosis is likely to add more pressure on President Ollanta Humala to issue a pardon.

Last October, his family asked Mr Humala to commute his sentence.

Under Peruvian law, he can be pardoned only on health grounds.

But opponents argue that Peruvian jails are crowded with prisoners in worse health and for lesser crimes than those for which Alberto Fujimori was convicted.

Ultimately, Fujimori’s story is one of great hubris:  he thought he could return from exile in Japan (he fled Peru in 2000) and reenter Peruvian politics to great acclamation.  Instead, he was arrest in Chile (which was supposed to be the first stepping stone on his path to restoration) and extradited to Peru to face various charges associated with his time as president.

Posted in Latin America, OTB | Leave a comment

Ecuadorian Satellite Crashes with Space Debris

Via the BBC:  Ecuador Pegasus satellite fears over space debris crash

The nano-satellite, called Pegasus, was launched from the Jiuquan spaceport in China less than a month ago.

It is Ecuador’s first and only satellite in orbit.

Experts said Pegasus had collided with debris from a Soviet rocket but was still in orbit. It is not yet clear if it has been damaged.

The US-based Joint Space Operations Center, which monitors all artificial Earth-orbiting objects, said there had been no direct crash but that their “data indicated a lateral collision with particles” of the Soviet rocket.

The satellite itself doesn’t exactly have a major mission, however:

Pegasus, a small cube weighing just 1.2kg (2.6lb), has been orbiting the Earth at a height of 650km (404 miles), transmitting pictures from space while playing recordings of the Ecuadorean national anthem.

Beyond the fact that it was about space (which is probably reason enough to mention it), the story struck me as interesting for at least two reasons.  First, it shows how countries still see placing an object in space as a  means of enhancing their prestige.  Second, it is another example of Chinese relations with Latin America.

The next launch will be, however, from Russia:

Ecuador is planning to launch a second satellite, named Kryasor, from Russia in August.

Posted in Latin America, OTB | Leave a comment

Venezuela’s National Nightmare is Over

Via the BBC:  Venezuela aims to end toilet paper shortage

Venezuela’s National Assembly has backed plans to import 39 million rolls of toilet paper, in an effort to relieve a chronic shortage.

Lawmakers voted to approve a $79m credit for the country’s ministry of commerce, which will also be used to buy toothpaste and soap.

The products are currently in short supply in Venezuelan shops.

The oil-rich nation relies on imports, but currency controls have restricted its ability to pay for foreign goods.

May I humbly suggest that sad policy isn’t working too well?

And, further, I don’t figure that the following hypothesis is correct:

President Nicolas Maduro, who won a narrow majority in April’s presidential elections, maintains that the country’s periodic shortages of basic goods are the result of a conspiracy by the opposition and rich sectors of society.

More likely, the problem is more along these lines:

analysts say that the government’s attempts to impose state control on the economy have created huge imbalances that have led to the shortages.

“Price controls, for example, act as a disincentive to local producers, forcing them to cut output,” says the survey organisation Consensus Economics.

“The resulting scarcity forces up inflation, defeating the entire purpose of price controls in the first place.”

Venezuela’s inflation is the highest in Latin America and is currently running at about 25%.

Posted in Latin America, OTB | Leave a comment

Former Argentine Dictator Dies

Via the BBC:  Argentina ex-military leader Jorge Rafael Videla dies

Former Argentine military leader Jorge Rafael Videla has died aged 87 while serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.

He is reported to have died from natural causes in prison.

The general was jailed in 2010 for the deaths of 31 dissidents during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, of which he was overall leader until 1981.

Up to 30,000 people were tortured and killed during this period, in a campaign known as the “Dirty War”.


In 1976, he and two other military leaders staged a coup against President Isabel Peron, the widow of former leader Juan Domingo Peron.

Quite frankly, he was where he deserved to be, even if it took a while to get him there:

Gen Videla had been sentenced to life in prison for torture, murder and other crimes in 1985, but was pardoned in 1990 under an amnesty given by the president at the time, Carlos Menem.

In April 2010, the Supreme Court upheld a 2007 federal court move to overturn his pardon.

Eight months later he was found “criminally responsible” for the torture and deaths of 31 prisoners and jailed for life.


Last year, he was also convicted of overseeing the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners.

At least 400 babies are thought to have been taken from their parents while they were held in detention centres.

More than 100 children given for adoption to military or police couples have since been reunited with their biological families.

Posted in Latin America, OTB | Leave a comment

Yet Again, Institutional Design Matters

Maureen Dowd wrote last week:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

There is a lot wrong with this assessment.  On a general level it incorrectly assumes that the president can make things happen if he just tries hard enough.  (Of course, the fantastical nature of Dowd’s position is underscored by the fact that she wonders why Obama’s White House isn’t more like the fictitious one depicted in The American President“).

Beyond that, let me address a couple of specifics, starting at the bottom with “No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.”   There is really only two ways a President can make members of congress scared—1) if that president can, by campaigning, influence the electoral fortunes of the legislators in question, or 2) if that president can somehow affect key legislation of importance to that legislator.

So, let’s consider:  there is only one more election where Obama will be relevant.   That election is over a year away, and will only effect one third of the chamber in question.  Further, if a given Senator is concerned more about how a given vote would play at home than how it plays nationally, what is Obama is going to do to scare said senator?

In regards to legislation:  given the current partisan configuration of the Congress, and especially given that body’s inability to pass significant legislation of late (and given the state of fiscal policy), exactly what legislative initiative is the president going to use to strike fear into the hearts of the Senate?

Of course, while it is true that there was 90% support in public opinion, the Senate is decidedly not designed to take national opinion into account.  Beyond that, the bill was able to garner majority support in the Senate, it just couldn’t garner a super-majority.

Beyond all of that, let’s consider the following:

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

If, in fact, House Republicans “had no intention of voting for the gun bill” then making a big deal about a failure in the Senate is a bit baffling, since the Republicans control the House of Representatives and, therefore, even if a bill passed the Senate, it would  have never have become law.

So, exactly what would be the point of expending energy to get votes that probably couldn’t be gotten for the purpose of seeing the bill fail anyway?

If we want to understand our own government, and the outcomes it produces, there are some key issues that have to be taken into account.

1. Having a majority of the seats in the Senate does not mean that a party controls that chamber.  This is not a new observation, but it seems to be one that has not truly sunk in.  I would note that this is not a new phenomenon, as even prior to the current era in which the chamber pretty much requires a super-majority to do much of anything, the minority always had a lot of influence over the operation of the chamber.

The bottom line is this:  true control of the Senate only can exist if the majority party has 60 seats and is relatively unified.  This is not a normal or likely outcome of any given electoral cycle.

2.  Symmetrical bicameralism means passing a bill in only one chamber only is the same thing as passing no bill at all.

3.  Separation of powers means that presidents are quite limited in their ability to force domestic policy through Congress.  It has ever been thus, and it is especially true in the context of a) a divided Congress in terms of different partisan majorities in both chambers, and b) a determined minority in the Senate that is willing to use its veto power over the process.

4.  Our system of election and representation does a terrible job of actually reflecting public opinion and translating it into public policy.  Legislators’ incentives are linked to pleasing relatively narrow sets of voters in primary elections.  This does not create a situation in which they are going to seek to conform to (or even have to pay much attention to) national public opinion (and may, in fact, not even require as much attention to state and district opinion as one might like to think).  Since a large majority of members of congress (in both chambers) come from safe districts (i.e., barring the unusual, we know which party will win the seat), then the only contest that matters for many members of congress is the primary election.  And groups like the NRA have a lot of influence over primaries.

Really, Dowd is buying into a number of myths that we American like to buy into.  The first is the assumption that because we are the World Greatest Democracy TM as invented by The Framers, that it it actually works in a way that creates results that reflect public sentiment. The second is that all it takes to accomplish legislative outcomes if Great Leadership. This myth assumes, therefore, that all that really matter is how well the president leads. However, this ignores that this is not how the machine of government is constructed.

Note:  cross-posted at OTB.

Posted in OTB, US Politics | Leave a comment

A DOMA Confrontation was Inevitable

A conversation with a friend made me give some thought to the degree to which there is a general understanding of the politics and history of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which in turn has led to the following post.

DOMA was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton and there are two central facts that have to be understood about the law:  a) it was initially symbolic (and remained such for almost a decade), and b) the very nature of bill guaranteed a court challenge, and an ultimate date with SCOTUS.

The Symbolism of it all

The immediate political context of the passage of the law was the possibility that Hawaii might legalize same sex marriage (which did not come to pass—indeed, the opposite happened).  However, the Congress preemptively acted to  prevent a) the recognition of same-sex marriages across state boundaries, and b) federal benefits to same-sex couples (more on this below).

However, no state recognized same-sex marriages until May of 2004, almost eight years after DOMA was signed into law. This happened in the state of Massachusetts.*

Now, this means that from 1996-2004, DOMA was dormant.  There was nothing to enforce, nothing to challenge, nothing whatsoever to do with the law.  As such, if one is inclined to think of it as established law dating back almost two decades, one has to understand that there was no basis whatsoever to challenge the law (or even see how it would function) until after a state legalized same-sex marriage and then only after same-sex couples were wed and then went on to make a legal claim that would run afoul of DOMA (i.e., either seek recognition of another state of the marriage in question or to claim some federal right or privilege based on the marriage).

Put it another way:  while DOMA has existed since 1996, it only became a relevant, active law some time after 2004.  As such, the fact that we about to have a SCOTUS case examining the constitutionality of DOMA is about on schedule (i.e., roughly a decade after the law went into force—something I have been predicting in front of American Government classes since the late 1990s—i.e., that it would take 10-12 years, so I was slightly conservative in my estimates, from the time the first state legally recognized same-sex marriage to the point that SCOTUS reviewed the law**).

A Date with Destiny

So, DOMA has always had a date with the Court.  Why?  Well, it is because of the nature of the provisions in the law itself.

DOMA has two main sections:

Section 2. Powers reserved to the states

No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship. Section 3. Definition of marriage In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

Note:  DOMA does not create a national definition of marriage in any meaningful way that would apply to the actual process of issuing marriage licenses, because that is a state-level function.  Rather, DOMA attempts to (in section 2) limit recognition of same-sex marriages across state boundaries, and to define (in section 3) for federal purposes marriage as being only between members of the opposite sex.  This means that any kind of federal program or benefit that used marriage as a category (e.g., filing income taxes, receiving Social Security survivor’s benefits, etc.) that the federal government would not have to recognize state-level same-sex marriage licenses.  DOMA is very much a law that deals with federalism and the fact that marriage is a state-level function, while being married is a category used by various public policies at the federal level.  It also, however, creates national issues in terms of equal treatment of citizens.

Now, the activation of DOMA in 2004 meant that both section 2 and section 3 provided the possibility of court challenges on constitutional grounds.

First, section 2 provides the basis for a challenge via the Constitution‘s Article IV and the Full Faith and Credit clause.  The clause reads:

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

It is this clause (which has its origins in the Article of Confederation***) that allows things like my California marriage license to be valid in Alabama (i.e., my wife and I did not have to get remarried when we moved from California to Texas and then from Texas to Alabama).  If my marriage license has to be recognized by other states, the question could legitimately be asked as to why the marriage license of a same-sex couple from Massachusetts would not similarly be recognized.  Now, it is possible that the second sentence of the clause gives Congress sufficient power to make that distinction, but then again it may not.  This becomes something for the courts to decide.

Second, the fact that different marriage licenses would be treated differently under the law, as well as unequal treatment of citizens based on sexual orientation under section 3 could raise equal protection issues under the Vth Amendment, and such was the ruling at the district court level in Windsor v. United States (which is one of the cases going to SCOTUS).   After all, citizens cannot be deprived of liberty without due process of law, and hence the question emerges as to whether treating different classes of persons differently is an unlawful taking of liberty.  And note:  one can disagree with whether same-sex couples and different-sex couples are the same class in a theoretical sense, but once a state grants marriage licenses to both types of couples, they are then legally in the same category at the state level and the federal government has to make an argument for why it can treat those citizens differently when a state is not.****

In short:  if state X issues marriage licenses to citizens, regardless of whether the couples are of differing sexes or not, what is the constitutional basis for the federal government giving benefits to one set of citizens whilst denying those benefits to another set, especially when the legal definition of the two sets of citizens is legally identical at the state level?

It should be noted that there have been numerous court challenges to DOMA since 2004, which have included lower courts declaring portions of the law unconstitutional.  It is this process that has led to SCOTUS review, which is usually how these things work.

The point of all of this is to demonstrate that this legal confrontation was inevitable (which the Framers of DOMA knew) and that this process it is not the unsettling of settled law, it is actually the process of the settling.  The Court could rule any number of ways, and the ruling issued will provide the legal basis for dealing with same-sex marriage for the foreseeable future.  However, it needs to be understood that DOMA was never going to be the last word on this subject (even if some of its supporters hoped that it would be).


Cross-posted at OTB and PoliBlog

*It is also true that civil unions were legalized in several states, including Hawaii and California in the 1990s.  The state of Vermont was the fist to recognize civil unions in a way that was legally equivalent in the state to marriage, but it did not have a specific same-sex marriage law until 2007, which did not go into force until 2009.

**I have been using DOMA as an illustration of federalism, as well as the way laws might be challenged in the Supreme Court since right after it was passed.  I have long maintained that as soon as a given state legalized gay marriage that it would lead to legal challenges in the courts and eventually to a SCOTUS review.  As noted, I long stated that the timeframe as 10-12 years. I have also long argued that DOMA would be overturned either on Article IV and/or equal protection grounds—and I have though that even before I changed my mind on this topic some years ago. While I was never a vehement opponent, I used to reject the notion of same-sex marriage on religious grounds.  However, about a decade ago I softened my position to support civil unions and then quickly decided that the only logical position, based on things like equal treatment under the law, was full support of same-sex marriage.

***See Article IV.

****Indeed, hardcore supporters of “state’s rights” ought to be cheering for DOMA’s demise, as it clearly attempts to ignore/redefine a given state’s power to define marriage as it sees fit.  Of course, the hardest of the hardcore on this situation will never be happy because the ultimate lesson here is going to be that the federal courts and the federal constitution will control the outcomes and that there is an inevitable role to be played by federal policy.

Posted in Courts, OTB, US Politics | Leave a comment

Understanding History: The Argentine Military Regime

The naming of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope has raised issues about his actions )or, in fact, inactions) during Argentina’s military regime from 1976-1983.  I have no special insight into Bergoglio’s actions (although some on that below), but I can comment on the military regime in question.  Indeed, I was going to write about this situation at some point, but I came across the following Tweet from Erick Erickson (via LGM) last night and it spurred me to comment:

This is a pretty heinous statement, in my opinion, given that the “right wing junta” in question would torture and summarily execute “lefties” handed over to them.  This represents partisan nonsense at its worst:  Erickson thinks of himself as part of the “right” so the “right junta” must be the good guys in this scenario.*  Or, at a minimum, he thinks that if “lefties” are making accusations, then the Argentine military regime should not be taken as a serious topic.

Erickson did not back off when he was criticized (shockingly enough) as he later wrote at Red State:

He’s already being attacked by lefties for allegedly handing over commies to the right wing junta back in the day. If you think this attack on him makes him more awesome, I’ve learned today that it means you are endorsing death squads as opposed to a new pope getting attacked by old enemies.

But here’s the thing:  glibness about the Argentine military regime that was in power from 1976 to 1983 is to be glib about death squads.  As such, if Erickson wants to dismiss these charges against the Pope  as simply political attacks, he is free to do so, but to glide over the significance of the Argentine military’s government at the time is highly problematic.  Regardless of one’s conclusions about Bergoglio’s actions, one has to take seriously the period of time in question, as well as the actions of persons in powerful positions at the time.

Prior to the establishment of democracy in 1983, Argentine politics had been a tumultuous affair pretty much from independence from Spain.  There were periods of stability (such as the first Peron era),  as well as dabblings in democracy.  However, the entire period was one punctuated, as was true of many of its neighbors, with military forays into governance, with the last military government being the most vicious.

The war against “subversion” was one waged against the Argentine people, and not just against guerrillas, but against anyone that the military thought might be sympathetic to the left, including students, professors, poets, philosophers, union leaders, and the like (yes, even priests).  The military used torture, rape, and disappearances** to terrorize its perceived enemies, leading to a substantial death toll.  As Stepehn G. Rabe notes:

During la guerra sucia (“the dirty war”) of the late 1970s, the Argentine military and associated death squads massacred 30,000 Argentines. Many of the dead assumed the title of “disappeared” or desaparecido. The victims, sometimes alive, were often dumped into the frigid South Atlantic from airplanes.

There is also the fact that the children of the disappeared were often given to military officers who were involved in the murder of the parents.  See, for example, this story from the NYTDaughter of ‘Dirty War,’ Raised by Man Who Killed Her Parents:

It took an incessant search by a human rights group, a DNA match and almost a decade of overcoming denial for Ms. Montenegro, 35, to realize that Colonel Tetzlaff was, in fact, not her father — nor the hero he portrayed himself to be.

Instead, he was the man responsible for murdering her real parents and illegally taking her as his own child, she said.


Jorge Rafael Videla, who led the military during Argentina’s dictatorship, stands accused of leading the effort to take babies from mothers in clandestine detention centers and give them to military or security officials, or even to third parties, on the condition that the new parents hide the true identities. Mr. Videla is one of 11 officials on trial for 35 acts of illegal appropriation of minors.

The trial is also revealing the complicity of civilians, including judges and officials of the Roman Catholic Church.

The abduction of an estimated 500 babies was one of the most traumatic chapters of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The frantic effort by mothers and grandmothers to locate their missing children has never let up. It was the one issue that civilian presidents elected after 1983 did not excuse the military for, even as amnesty was granted for other “dirty war” crimes.

Let me say this is as clear a terms as possible:  the actions of the Argentine military, as well as any number of military regimes in Latin American from the 1950s into the 1980s in the name of anti-communism were crime against human rights, liberty, and democracy.  They should not be the subject of glib political commentary (not if one wants to pretend that one has a clue as to what one is talking about). 

As to placing the new Pope into this context, as noted in the excerpt above, charges of complicity of Catholic officials in these events creates questions regarding the new Pope if anything because he was head of Argentine Jesuits at the time.   A run down of the issues can be found in this WaPo piece:  Pope Francis faces scrutiny over Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’.

As the young leader of the country’s Jesuit order, Bergoglio was aware of the atrocities that were being carried out and worked quietly to save victims, according to people who knew him then. But Bergoglio, like many other clerics at the time, remained publicly silent about the abuse and did not openly confront the military leaders.


Exactly what Bergoglio did — and didn’t do — during the years of the dictatorship is now the focus of intense scrutiny since his ascendancy to Pope Francis, with the Vatican pushing back forcefully against allegations that Bergoglio failed to protect two left-leaning priests in his Jesuit order, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were kidnapped by soldiers in 1976 and imprisoned for five months.


Bergoglio did not speak publicly about his role during the dictatorship until 2010, when he told an interviewer that he hid and protected several persecution victims at the Jesuit seminary, but could not say how many. He also recounted helping a young man who shared his likeness to escape across the Brazil border, giving the man his identification card and dressing him up in clerical vestments as a ruse. “It saved his life,” Bergoglio said.

Part of the controversy regarding Bergoglio can be found here (as well as the two sides of the story):

At one point, Bergoglio said he met privately with military commanders, including coup leader Emilio Massera to inquire about the missing Jesuits. “Look Massera: I want them to appear,” Bergoglio said he told him in a tense encounter before abruptly walking out of the room.

Yorio and Jalics were eventually freed, dumped off in a field after five months, half-naked and drugged.

Yorio later blamed Bergoglio for the imprisonment. In a 1999 interview with a respected Argentine journalist, he was quoted as saying, “I have no reason to believe [Bergoglio] did anything to free us, in fact just the opposite,” suggesting his superior had lifted his protection on the men as a punishment for their political views.

And also:

The criticism of Bergoglio for not doing enough has prompted several prominent Argentine rights activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, to come to his defense in recent days.

“There were some priests and bishops that helped the dictatorship, and others who spoke out and died because of it. But Bergoglio wasn’t a collaborator,” said Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a politician and prominent human rights investigator whose 16-year-old son vanished after being snatched from his bed by soldiers in the middle of the night.

There is also this general fact that provides some context:

Argentina’s church leaders did not confront the country’s military rulers with anything approaching the public fervor of fellow clerics facing other dictatorships, as in Chile or El Salvador, where Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated in 1980.

The bottom line is this:  Erickson is showing a severe lack of understanding of history to make the glib comments that he has.  More importantly, however, the tale of Argentina (and most of Latin America during the timeframe under discussion) is rife with horrific tales of military governments abusing its citizens all in the name of anti-communism (and theoretically, “liberty”).  There was far too much glib support for such policies in the US at the time, but the continued ignorance of the situation is really inexcusable.

One thing we ought to be able to do, especially now that the Cold War is well in our rearview mirrors, is acknowledge that everything done in the name of “anti-communism” should not be absolved.  Rather, the fact of the matter remains that many things done in the name of fighting “lefties” ended up being heinous abuses of human rights and were every bit as opposed to liberty, freedom, and democracy as any Cold Warrior’s worst case scenario of communism.

To summarize:  if one wants to understand the discussion about  Bergoglio and the military regime, one needs to know a bit of history.


Posted at both OTB and PoliBlog

*Erickson is a child of the talk radio generation who thinks that bombast equals cleverness and who has never seen a political discussion that can’t be delineated into a simplistic left-right dichotomy.  He is emblematic of what is wrong with conservative commentary in the current era.

**People would likely disappear without a trace—kidnapped by the government and tortured and killed without due process.

Posted in Latin America, OTB | 1 Comment