Tuesday, August 13, 2013

NSA Surveillance to Top Kerry's Agenda in Brazil Visit

While Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed the NSA’s digital surveillance programs during his visit to Colombia yesterday, it is guaranteed to be a bigger issue in Brazil, where officials have sent clear messages to Washington that they see it as a potential violation of sovereignty.

After meeting with officials in Colombia yesterday, Kerry has arrived in Brasilia for a visit meant to shore up relations with Brazil’s leaders. The New York Times has a good overview of the politics of his Colombia visit, noting that it comes at a time when President Juan Manuel Santos hopes to cast himself as less tied to the U.S. Semana reports that Kerry also praised the peace talks with FARC guerrillas, calling it a “valiant, necessary and imaginative effort.” And while the secretary of state did provide clarifications on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) activity in the country, Kerry told reporters this was a “very small” part of his discussion with officials. Colombian Foreign Minister Holguin also downplayed the issue, saying Kerry had provided her with the “necessary assurances” on the matter.

Kerry will not get off so easy in Brazil, however.  When O Globo broke the story that the NSA was conducting surveillance on digital communications throughout Latin America, it framed the agency’s data collection center in Brazil as a regional nucleus in the program. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza explained last month, this is because Brazil is one of the most important telecommunications hubs linking South America to Africa and Europe.

In the aftermath of the announcement, President Dilma Rousseff condemned the NSA’s activities as a potential violation of sovereignty, and her administration requested an official explanation from the United States. As the Washington Post notes, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota also joined the foreign ministers of Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay in meeting directly with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week to protest the surveillance programs.

The AP reports that Kerry is aware of the sensitivity of the issue in Brazil. Sunday’s edition of Estado de Sao Paulo featured an op-ed written by the U.S. official, in which he called for deeper relations between the two countries. “We both agree we must find a way to work through and move beyond this issue,” he wrote. “The stakes are far too high to let one issue detract from the clear momentum we've built toward an even more effective strategic relationship.”

News Briefs

  • In a further indication of the toll that revelations of NSA surveillance in the region have taken on U.S.-Brazil relations, Reuters reports that the Brazilian government has taken discussion over a deal to purchase 36 fighter jets from the U.S. off the table during Kerry’s visit. As one anonymous Brazilian official told the news agency: “We cannot talk about the fighters now …You cannot give such a contract to a country that you do not trust.”
  • On top of the inaccuracies noted in yesterday’s post on the Washington Post’s article on Iranian influence in Latin America, there are other reasons to question the narrative of Iran’s diplomatic initiatives as a growing threat in the region. Much of the latest wave of press coverage on the issue cites a May report by Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman on an alleged Iran-sponsored terrorist network in Latin America. However, as IPS reporter Gareth Porter points out, the allegations in Nisman’s report rely primarily on testimony provided by members of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a group that was officially listed as a terrorist organization until last year, and has formally registered to lobby the Obama administration.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has announced a shake-up in the country’s military command, and yesterday announced new heads of the army, navy, police and air force, El Tiempo reports. Semana provides some insight into the move and its significance for security in Colombia. The magazine notes that one of the main objectives was to remove Army General Sergio Mantilla from power, as he is considered an impediment to peace talks with the FARC.
  • Brazil’s Estado de Sao Paulo reports that millionaire Eike Batista has backed out of an agreement  with the Rio de Janeiro state government, under which his oil company OGX has contributed roughly $8 million a year to the state’s  Police Pacification Unit (UPP) program. The announcement comes in the wake of a major decline in profits for Batista’s company. O Globo reports that the Rio government claims the UPPs are not at risk, though the paper notes that Batista’s contribution amounted to nearly five times what the state allocated to the police units last year.
  • President Enrique Peña Nieto has finally touched the third rail of Mexican politics: reforming the country’s state monopoly over oil company PEMEX. On Monday, the president unveiled a new proposal which would allow foreign companies to partner with PEMEX, a move he claimed would be essential to creating jobs, lowering electricity bills spurring overall economic development, according to El Universal. Even as he spoke of the need to open up the oil industry to foreign investment, he insisted that the country would retain “complete control” over it, the L.A. Times and New York Times report. The move has been criticized from both major opposition parties, the leftist PRD and conservative PAN, which presented counterproposals more in line with their political slants. Animal Politico has copies of the plans presented by both parties as well as the administration.
  • El Salvador’s La Prensa Grafica reports that a court has ordered the preventative detention of 73 veterans in the country’s civil war, accusing them of “acts of terrorism,” homicide and disturbing public order. The men, who fought on both sides of the country’s armed conflict, participated in a protest demanding greater benefits last week, which was profiled by El Faro.
  • Cuban leader Fidel Castro turns 87 today, and Reuters marks his birthday by looking at his role in the island country’s government, which has been drastically reduced in recent years. The news agency notes that some in Cuba feel that Raul does not measure up to Fidel, which give the latter’s occasional public appearances  more weight and serve to legitimize the reform process his brother is overseeing.
  • Yesterday the Washington Post published an editorial criticizing Raul Castro’s recent speech bemoaning a lack of civility and respect for others’ rights in the country, contrasting them with the government’s crackdown on political dissidents and raising questions about opposition figure Oswaldo Paya’s death.
  • After Human Rights Watch released a statement condemning a recent executive order issued by Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa which has the potential to restrict NGO work in the country, local papers Hoy and El Comercio reported on the development. The decree is being challenged in local courts.
  • Yesterday, the Peruvian military announced the army had killed three Shining Path rebels  in an operation in the country’s  Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE), one of whom was identified as a high-ranking guerrilla known as Comrade Alipio, Peru21 reports. Peru’s IDL-Reporteros features a detailed account of the operation, as well as an overview of Alipio himself, whom the news site interviewed in 2011RPP reports that President Ollanta Humala announced that the identity of the individuals was confirmed, and claimed the blow would cause an internal power vacuum in the group. 

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