Category Archives: Latin America

Alan Gross’s Mission in Cuba: How Much Did the White House Know?: Newsweek

Alan Gross
Jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, right, poses for a picture during a visit with Cuban Jewish Community leader Adela Dworin, center, and David Prinstein, vice president, at Havana’s Carlos J Finlay Military Hospital September 28, 2012. REUTERS

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The Pope and The U.S. Cuban Breakthrough: Gracias pero….

It’s fine to thank Pope Francis, but let’s not overplay the idea that the Vatican took a significant role in the historic change of U.S.-Cuban relations after more than half a century.

Officials in Washington and Havana have been in contact all along, albeit at lower levels through their periodic and sometimes secret meetings in Havana and Washington.  They didn’t need an intermediary–they needed a political moment, and the timing is perfect.

It is great that the pope could provide a meeting room, write some letters to presidents Obama and Castro and express his concern on humanitarian grounds for Alan Gross and the other prisoners on both sides. But the Vatican involvement is probably little more than diplomatic cover. Cuba is a Catholic country, the pope is seen as a progressive peacemaker; perhaps the idea of his participation soothes the animus of a few Cuban exiles in Miami with the inference that President Obama listened to a higher power.pope and obama

Neither did the countries need to meet in Canada, other than for the sake of following through on diplomatic protocol.

Rarely have two countries known one another as well as do the United States and Cuba. The change in relations has its own moment. First, President Obama can do it now without expending much political capital. He need not face elections again and taking this step right after the midterm elections can cushion the eventual Democratic presidential candidate from what he has done. Meanwhile, the profile of Senator Robert Menendez, one of the key opponents to a modern rethinking of Cuban policy, is on the wane. He will move aside as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Republicans take over in January.

In addition, a persistent domestic political problem for Democrats is wasting away with time.  Florida International University’s most recent survey about Cuban-American views of the embargo is emblematic of change. This year for the first time the tri-yearly survey shows that a majority of Miami Cubans support an end to the Cuban embargo. Florida was once a more troublesome problem. Democrats thought they could not win Florida’s 29 electoral votes without taking a strident anti-Castro position. President Obama, however, took Florida both in 2008 and 2012 with the support of Cuban-Americans.

Times are changing. The pope is Latin American and his support cannot hurt. But the eventual resumption of Cuban-American relations has everything to do with two presidents of two countries, one term-limited out and the other dealing with actuarial tables.

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Pepe Eliaschev — Conspiradores en Momentos Dificiles

El fallecimiento de mi amigo y colega, el periodista argentino José “Pepe” Eliashev, me recuerda una historia que merece ser contada. Pepe falleció de cáncer de páncreas en Buenos Aires, el 18 de noviembre de 2014. Tenía 69 años. Durante décadas fue un comentarista y locutor de radio muy popular en la Argentina.

Como jóvenes periodistas de la Associated Press en Nueva York en los años 70, Pepe y yo nos convertimos en conspiradores para frustrar el intento de los editores que supervisaban América Latina de censurar o de limitar las noticias sobre la dictadura militar derechista.

Yo trabajaba en el World Desk en la oficina de AP en Nueva York. Mi trabajo consistía en editar, transmitir y a veces cubrir las noticias del exterior, en inglés, para nuestro servicio mundial en Europa, Asia y África.

Pepe se sentaba a unos metros de mí en La Prensa Asociada –la sección de América Latina que traducía y transmitía noticias en español a México, América Central y Sudamérica. Algunos redactores de esa sección eran, como Pepe, exiliados de países cuyos regímenes represivos dificultaban el periodismo y lo volvían peligroso.

Quedó pronto claro que algunos redactores eran también escandalosamente de derecha e incluso hacían comentarios despectivos sobre los periodistas que trabajan a su lado. En particular, algunos de los editores latinos apoyaban la dictadura argentina, la que en aquel momento estaba sumida profundamente en la Guerra Sucia, que acabaría matando o “desapareciendo” a más de 20.000 personas. Esos editores no sabían que yo hablaba español y que podía oír lo que estaban diciendo.

Pepe me dijo que algunos de los jefes estaban interceptando –“desapareciendo”– historias que podían “avergonzar a la Argentina”. Los editores latinos podían desechar las historias que llegaban habitualmente y además impedir que Pepe, y otros de la sección, cubrieran historias que eran relevantes para la Argentina y una vergüenza para la dictadura.

Sabíamos, sin embargo, que no podían bloquear esos artículos –las inquietudes del gobierno de Carter con respecto a los derechos humanos o el papel de la Iglesia Católica, por ejemplo– si éstos se originaban o seleccionaban en la sección en inglés. Así es como Pepe me informaba cuando alguien trataba de eliminar una historia que pintara negativamente a la dictadura argentina. Todo lo que yo tenía que hacer era guardarla y publicarla en la línea internacional en inglés. Los forzábamos, de esa manera, a traducirla y trasmitirla vía las líneas noticiosas sudamericanas.

La maniobra tenía su importancia, porque muchos diarios de América Latina censuraban sus propios reportajes internos por razones de seguridad, pero las historias que venían de la AP en Estados Unidos podían publicarse con mayor facilidad.

En 1978, en plena Guerra Sucia, hubo una historia que recuerdo en particular. Pepe me dijo que una de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo estaba en Nueva York lista para ser entrevistada.   Hice la entrevista y redacté una historia nacional e internacional sobre los esfuerzos del grupo para encontrar a los niños robados de sus padres prisioneros y asesinados.

Pepe y yo tratamos de no llamar  la atención –esa historia y otras aparecieron en el cable latino como era nuestro propósito. Nuestro único objetivo era asegurar que se pudiera acceder a todas las noticias. Fue una gran satisfacción.

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Pepe Eliaschev–A Proud Memory

The death of my friend and colleague, the Argentine journalist Jose “Pepe” Eliaschev, brings to mind a story that deserves to be told. Pepe died of pancreatic cancer in Buenos Aires on November 18, 2014. He was 69. He had for decades been a popular commentator and host on Argentine radio.

As young newsmen at The Associated Press in New York in the 1970s, Pepe and I were proud conspirators when some supervisors on the Latin America desk tried to censor or limit news about the right-wing Argentine military dictatorship.

I was on the World Desk at AP headquarters in New York. My job was to edit, transmit and sometimes report world news in English for our worldwide service in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Pepe sat several yards away at La Prensa Asociada — the Latin America desk, translating and transmitting news into Spanish for Mexico, Central and South America. As in the case of Pepe, some were from countries whose repressive regimes made journalism difficult and dangerous.

Others were right-wingers and even made sneering remarks in Spanish, assuming no one could understand. They didn’t know I spoke Spanish. In particular, some of the Latin editors supported the Argentine dictatorship, which at the time was deep into on a Dirty War and would end up killing or “disappearing” more than 20,000 people.

Pepe told me that some of the bosses were intercepting—“disappearing”—news stories that might be “embarrassing to Argentina.”

We knew, though, they couldn’t block stories if the English-speaking side of the desk originated or selected stories to publish – for example, the Carter administration’s human rights concerns, or questions about the role of the Catholic Church.

So Pepe would let me know when someone tried to weed out a story that might reflect badly on the Argentine dictatorship. All I had to do was resurrect the story on the international line in English.  They were then forced to translate and transmit the report to the South American news lines.

This was significant, because many newspapers in Latin America self-censored their own reporting at home for reasons of safety; stories originating from AP in the United States could more easily be published.

One story in particular came in 1978 – the height of the Dirty War.  Pepe told me that one of the members of the organization Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was in New York and ready to be interviewed. I was able to write a national and international story about the group’s efforts to find children stolen from their imprisoned and murdered parents.

Pepe and I kept our heads down – that story and others appeared on the Latin wire as was only fair and fitting to our role as journalists. The goal was to make sure that all the news was available regardless of politics. It’s a proud memory of my old friend.

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Questions About Argentina and the Catholic Church

LATIMES OP-ED

The Catholic Church and Argentina

In Buenos Aires, joy over Pope Francis’ election is tempered by questions about the ‘dirty war.’

Pope Francis
Peter Eisner  March 17, 2013

Very few Argentines were on hand for the proceedings, for the white smoke followed by the traditional proclamation, Habemus papam — “We have a pope.” But on the other side of the world, the people of Buenos Aires erupted with jubilation when they learned that the new pontiff, Pope Francis, was Argentine.

The celebration was more about national pride than religious pride, however. At the moment that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become the face of Catholicism in the Southern Hemisphere and the world, his own country is becoming far less religious. Only about 25% of Argentines regularly attend church — far below the 44% attendance rate in the United States — and evangelical Protestantism is growing in popularity. Even churchgoing Catholics in Argentina, like their counterparts in North America, flout the church’s dictates about marriage, birth control and education.  (FULL STORY)

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Brasilia and Niemeyer — The Future Locked in the Past

Architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s.


Taking note of the death of Oscar Niemeyer at 104, those of us who have lived in Brasilia–his crowning creation–take pause for a moment. I lived there for two and a half years in the 1980s. Life for the middle class meant a strange existence in so-called “superquadras” — superblocks, all designed along the lateral sides of the airplane-shaped central city.

Life was odd, one needed a car to go most anywhere, the sidewalks often dead-ended at highways. Yet there was a magic it.

Every time I went to the foreign ministry and drove down the Eixao– the central highway– toward the Esplanade of of the Ministries — it felt like participating in a fabulous social experiment. And spending time (and being paid for it) at the Foreign Ministry — the Palacio do Itamaraty — was a gift. For me, Itamaraty is Niemeyer’s greatest monument.Palacio do Itamaraty

The views and the graceful curves gave unending pleasure. Yet, the architecture of Brasilia in sum always felt less than masterful — as if part of a Godard or maybe a Jacques Tati film.

Brasilia was locked into the 1960s or a vision of the 1960s conceived in the 1950s, dated even before it was completed. Yet, friends from Brasilia have remained friends forever. People needed one another there.

As for daily life, the nice thing was that as the buildings were slowly deteriorating, grass was literally growing between the cracks — nature triumphing over design.

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Latino Power: Even George W. Bush Heard About It

Perhaps because his little brother Jeb warned him, former President George W. Bush and aides knew well that the changing ethnic mix in the United States would cause problems for the Republican Party.

In the waning days of his presidency in 2009, Bush said that the Republican Party:

“should be open-minded about big issues like immigration reform, because if we’re viewed as anti-somebody—in other words, if the party is viewed as anti-immigrant—then another fellow may say, well, if they’re against the immigrant, they may be against me.” [Fox News Sunday, Interview with Brit Hume, January 11, 2009]

It was a warning not heeded. Republicans opposed the Dream Act and efforts toward immigration reform. They took insignificant steps–like parading out conservative Latinos at the Republican National Convention, such as Florida U.S. Senator Marco Antonio Rubio, “the crown prince of the Tea Party Movement,” and the now elected U.S. Senator from Texas, Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz.

One other attempt to identify with Latinos was characteristic of the deceitful Republican presidential campaign. On the stump and with the right audience, of course, Mitt Romney played up his tenuous Mexican ties, not mentioning the connection was based on the fact that his great-grandfather fled to Mexico to continue practicing polygamy.

Now the Republicans appear to be getting the message: Latinos voted 75 percent to 23 percent for President Obama. TalkingPointsMemo.com reported:

“For the first time in US history, the Latino vote can plausibly claim to be nationally decisive,” Stanford University university professor Gary Segura, who conducted the study, told reporters.
According to Segura, the Latino vote provided Obama with 5.4 percent of his margin over Romney, well more than his overall lead in the popular vote. Had Romney managed even 35 percent of the Latino vote, he said, the results may have flipped nationally.

Latino Power is real. Beyond their strong influence on the presidential race, Congress and governorships, hundreds of Latinos serve in state legislatures; thousands serve in local government.

I’ll bet that Republicans in the new Congress will be more willing to work with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform. They make other concessions as well. But they will also figure, wrongly, that Latinos will accept their intrusive social agenda — anti-abortion, privatization of Medicare and Social Security and the crazy pledge to never raise taxes.

My guess is that the Republicans are going to get it wrong. Interest groups are not monoliths and people aren’t stupid. A profile of Latinos, as with the changing demographics of the United States, will show that they are increasingly young, progressive and interested in Democratic values. Latinos are no more fooled by Rubio and company than African Americans are fooled by U.S. Rep. Allen Bernard West in Florida or the handful of other blacks tied to the Republican Party.

Latinos will not be snowed by extremism and lies.

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Noriega in Chains: The George H.W. Bush Connection

 
  Who is this shuffling old man returning to Panama today some 22 years after being hauled off to a U.S. prison as a generalissimo in shackles?

       Manuel Antonio Noriega, the 77-year-old former Panama strongman, was deposed by invading U.S. forces dispatched by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Subsequently Noriega was also convicted in a U.S. court of cocaine dealing and conspiracy; and back home, a Panamanian court charged him in absentia with killing a political opponent.

       The rest of his story is shrouded in political double-dealings,
boilerplate and lies. Long-time bed-fellows figure into the story—among them Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

      Don’t expect Noriega to make any new revelations or shift the ground in Panama – much less the hemisphere. After interviewing the general extensively and investigating the U.S. invasion and the problematic politics surrounding the U.S. drug war, I’ve concluded that General Noriega all along was but a minor chess piece in a global game and was thrown off the board when he stopped cooperating with his former U.S. masters—he was a CIA asset for years.

       I covered Panama before and after the U.S. invasion and worked at counting the bodies of Panamanians – mostly civilians – who died that
Christmas season. I also sat through Noreiga’s nine-month, 1991-1992 drug conspiracy trial and watched some two-dozen felons–who never actually met the man—earn their get-out- of- jail cards by implicating the strongman in a conspiracy.

And I was eager to interview the imprisoned Noriega with the notion that he would tell secrets out of school about his former employers at the CIA – including George Herbert Walker Bush.

       Noriega was a flop in global gamesmanship – He didn’t know much about the United States. They were willing to come after him.

       The old general’s return to Panama provides finally a proper coda. Whatever crimes Noriega did or did not commit in Panama should be judged by Panamanians. They will now have that chance. My interest was
rooted in the U.S. dimension. I haven’t met anyone who can explain exactly how Panama represented a national security threat to the United States in 1989 sufficient to order an invasion. Twenty five Americans and hundreds, perhaps more than one thousand, Panamanians were killed.

       My analysis of the Noriega case is partly contained in my
interviews of Noriega in the 1994 book, America’s Prisoner. I was
hired by Random House to interview Noriega after he was convicted. Noriega was given the chance to speak in the book – and I was afforded the opportunity to analyze what he had to say. I wrote a separate introduction and afterward to the book that Noriega was not allowed to review or change.

      In all my dealings with Noriega, he lobbed only one bombshell at George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. As CIA director, Bush had secretly encouraged a covert operation to simulate a nascent guerrilla movement in Panama. The U.S. intelligence agency trained Panamanian military operatives in explosives and demolition tactics, and then dispatched them back to Panama, where they set off some bombs in the Canal Zone. At the time, Gerald Ford was U.S. president. A young fellow named Dick Cheney was his chief of staff, having replaced his mentor Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in November 1975.

        The idea was to convince conservatives in Congress that it was
better to sign the Panama Canal Treaties than to face possible
guerrilla warfare and a Panamanian liberation movement. The little
fake bombing mission may have contributed to passage of the Panama
Canal treaties, signed by Noriega’s mentor, General Omar Torrijos, and President Jimmy Carter in September 1977. Noriega at the time was a colonel in the Panamanian Defense Forces in charge of G2 – intelligence.

        Noriega told me that he met with Bush at the Panamanian embassy
in Washington D.C. one month after Carter had defeated Ford in the 1976
presidential election. Ford’s defeat meant that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were on their way out of office.

        Noriega said: “I was struck immediately by the fact that Bush came alone to
the embassy; no driver, if he had one, aides and interpreter were not
there. He carried no papers, not so much as a pen and a pad of paper.
Ahd I thought. No witnesses…  “So,” he said, “have you done a report on the bombings?” What he meant, I am sure, was I hope you haven’t written a real report about what we did.

“Yes, I wrote a report and sent it to General McAuliffe [the head of
the US. Southern Command, based in Panama],” I told him. I understood
this to mean: Don’t worry, we’re not talking.”

         After Noriega told me this in 1993, I wrote a letter to Bush.
I asked the former president if this was true –five questions
detailing the charge of planning the bombings, CIA training for
Noriega’s men, and the subsequent meeting with Noriega. I expected
Bush to deny everything and to disparage the word of Noriega as a liar
and convicted felon. Instead I received a phone call from Bush’s
spokesman who said: “According to his recollection, the answer is ‘no’
to all five questions. But to make sure, he sent your letter to John
Deutsch [then the Director of Central Intelligence].” The spokesman
would go no further than that.

A few days later, Bush’s spokesman called back, reading a statement:
“The CIA has nothing to add to what President Bush already said.”
I asked the spokesman what that meant, since Bush hadn’t said
anything. As many questions as I asked, the spokesman repeated the
same words. “The CIA has nothing to add to what President Bush already
said.”

      I spoke to dozens of people, including CIA, U.S. military and
diplomatic officials on the record. The reporting is worthy of a
separate book, but it can be encapsulated for the moment in the words of
retired General Fred Woerner, who had been head of the U.S. Southern
Command in Panama until mid-1989. He refused an order from the Bush
administration to proceed with an invasion of Panama. He was succeeded
by Gen. Max Thurman. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Admiral William Crowe, resigned at the same time and he was replaced by Gen. Colin Powell. Thurman and Powell followed orders.

    At the time, Noriega was no longer the CIA asset who had helped
the United States deal with Fidel Castro and had allowed the United
States to stage operations – sometimes illegally – from Panama to
Nicaragua and El Salvador during the Central American wars. Noriega
was defying Bush, and the president, charged with being weak,
was getting angry. People were referring to him as a “wimp.”

This is what Woerner told me when I asked why the
United States had invaded Panama: “The invasion was a response to U.S.
domestic considerations,” he said. “It was the wimp factor.”

Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison, reduced to 30 years when a former CIA station chief, U.S. military adviser and a U.S. ambassador to Panama argued before the judge that he should not have been imprisoned in the United States at all. After a while, Noriega started coming up for parole hearings – every time, the United States argued that he posed a threat to the Bush and to the United States.

As he limps back home today, crippled by age and illnesses, the only threat he represents is that the news of the moment might provoke us to re-examine the evidence and question why the United States invaded Panama in the first place.

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Panama, Noriega and the US: The Story Behind the Story.

Manuel Antonio Noriega is about to return to Panama 22 years after he was taken in shackles to the United States. Here’s a reprise of a magazine story I wrote about him. Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.
FROM NEW TIMES: UNCERTAIN JUSTICE

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Catching the Bad Guys — The Pursuits of bin Laden and Pablo Escobar Show Similarities

The killing 18 years ago of Pablo Escobar, the feared leader of the Medellin Cocaine Cartel, and the tracking and Osama bin Laden bear strong similarities — so much so, Steve Coll notes, that CIA operatives studied the Escobar case in the methodical, eventually successful discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.

“As they reset their work, the analysts studied other long-term international fugitive hunts that had ended successfully, such as the operations that led to the death of the Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, in 1993. The analysts asked, Where did the breakthroughs in these other hunts come from? What were the clues that made the difference and how were the clues discovered? They tried to identify “signatures” of Osama bin Laden’s life style that might lead to such a clue: prescription medications that he might purchase, hobbies or other habits of shopping or movement that might give him away.”

Covering the pursuit of Escobar in the early 1990s, it became evident that Colombia’s security forces were sometimes in conflict with elements of the military, and sometimes it appeared that Escobar was slip-sliding through the dragnet with official complicity. Escobar was fabulously wealthy, as was bin Laden, and neither hesitated at using bribery or violence to buy safety and time. Escobar ultimately was tracked down by making a mistake and using a telephone. Officials used electronic tracking equipment to pinpoint his location. He died in a firefight with security forces. We don’t know how or whether bin Laden tripped up after all these years.

At first the official version in Escobar’s case was that Colombian authorities maintained operational security and conducted the raid. But the chief of Colombian security forces, Gen. Miguel Maza, squirmed when I asked him whether U.S. officials accompanied Colombians when Escobar was gunned down in a roof-top firefight. It became clear that a phantom U.S. helicopter was airbrushed out of the official government account in that case.

Similarly, Pakistani officials were uneasy about describing their knowledge and role in the final pursuit of bin Laden. In both cases, U.S. officials were rather pragmatic on two accounts — they got the job done, no matter the details or whether either foreign government needed to save face. And in both cases, they overlooked the circumstantial evidence: either for corruption or looking the other way, it seemed incredible that either Escobar or bin Laden would not have been detected — both living in plain sight in the middle of a well-patrolled city.

There was another striking parallel between the cases of Escobar and bin Laden — both had become symbols of the violence they engendered, but neither was able to operate his respective terror network by the time they were tracked down.

By that time, smaller, lesser known cells were doing the dirty work, and devising means of pursuing their criminal enterprises. In Escobar’s case, no drug dealer became as well-known nor as powerful after him, but narcotics dealing became almost institutionalized at a low level. U.S. officials never won their War on Drugs, but were able to turn down the volume after Escobar’s death.

It remains to be seen whether bin Laden will have as mighty and newsworthy a successor, but U.S. officials have said many times that pursuing terrorism is a long term effort. Nevertheless, both of these central actors, bin Laden, and Escobar a generation earlier, have gone to early graves.

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