Outside In

Photography by William S. Speer By Johannes Werner December 31, 2009

Latin American Democracy

Caution—strong political headwinds are rising in Latin America.

Too busy with healthcare, Afghanistan and the climate ummit, the White House last November dropped the ball on the coup d’état in Honduras. 

Caving into the pressure of U.S. near-government organizations with strong ties to the movers and shakers behind the coup, U.S. bureaucrats with their own ideological agenda and a small band of Congresspeople, the Obama administration made a surprising U-turn, signaling it would recognize the results of a highly questionable presidential election Nov. 29.

Why should we care?

After all, Honduras— the eighth-smallest and third-poorest country in the hemisphere— looks like peanuts. Southwest Florida employs only a few hundred Honduran citizens, mainly as construction workers, maids and kitchen aides. And Honduran imports are minor, mainly fresh fruit to Port Manatee, while we export only used cars and construction supplies to this Central American nation.

Well, the issue is bigger.

What our government is doing in Honduras may set a bad example for our involvement elsewhere, curbing our potential business growth in a hemisphere that is economically expanding in times of global recession.

First, by respecting elections held under the tutelage of coup soldiers trying to hold off scores of outraged demonstrators, the United States is alone in the world. The broad hemispheric consensus, including that of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), is to not recognize these elections as legitimate. And that pits us against the rising power of the hemisphere, Brazil.

But what’s more important is that we are slipping into an attitude that pits us against the most effective and broadest emancipation movement in Latin America in at least 200 years. In Honduras and elsewhere, we are tying our interests to a minority of people fighting tooth and nail against giving up long-held privileges to what they call chusma (the best translation would probably be riffraff).

How do they hoodwink us into supporting the minority? By making us believe that groups behind the coup in Honduras are supporting democracy, which is supposedly under attack by Hugo Chávez and his kin.

But no matter what you think about his substance or style, this goes way beyond Hugo. It goes beyond Mel Zelaya (the Honduran president soldiers put on an airplane at gunpoint in June). It goes beyond Evo, Rafael, Fernando, or whatever other Latin American leader we decide to put into the bad-guy basket.

For us businesspeople, it should be about governability—an essential ingredient to good business.

Let me explain.

We are living in an unparalleled time of chusma power in Latin America. Neither Hugo nor Evo nor any other of the populists would be president without the support of broad social organizations. These ain’t the 1990s anymore. Today you can’t govern Brazil while ignoring landless peasants or industrial unions; you can’t govern Bolivia or Ecuador without the support of indigenous organizations; you can’t govern Haiti without the consent of small farmers; you can’t govern Venezuela while ignoring the urban poor. And the outrage in the streets of Honduras these days is unheard of among this long-quiet and patient populace.

I was in Caracas last March for work, and it dawned on me while watching opposition groups there that we have no other choice but to arrange ourselves with Hugo and other populist leaders for quite some time to come. Unless Hugo Chávez dismantles himself or dies in office, I don’t see a way that any opposition candidate could rise to power in that country for the next several election cycles. The old political parties that had dominated the power game for a century or longer are in shambles and—worse—in denial about the new realities. The opposition party leftovers have no issues that appeal to the majority of the voting population. (Beyond running on freedom of expression and private property issues, the Venezuelan opposition implicitly suggests a return to the 1990s—simply unacceptable to most voters).

Speaking in dollars and cents, stemming a tide of broad social movements or destabilizing existing populist governments will be costly both to U.S. taxpayers and U.S. businesses. To taxpayers, it would mean more Mérida Accord and Plan Colombia-style military programs, spending billions of additional dollars on bases, aircraft carriers, helicopters and drones. To businesses, it means oppressing broad movements or destabilizing elected governments; and that will curb budding markets.

Just think about it for a moment. How about embracing emancipation in Latin America instead of fearing it?


Foreign Tourist Penalty

Florida tourism officials are excited about a $200 million-a-year, global tourism marketing campaign the U.S. Congress recently funded with broad bipartisan support.


But I’m not the only one concerned about a backlash to the way we agreed to fund this campaign: slapping a $10 fee on foreign travelers before leaving for the United States. Visitors from visa-exempt countries must register on a U.S. government Web site 72 hours before departure. That’s when we will charge them the fee.

Says John Bruton, EU ambassador in Washington: “The proposed $10 penalty for entering the United States is being sold as a ‘tourist promotion’ measure. But only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed.”

Put yourself in the shoes of a European tourist. As a heritage of 9-11, we already are one of the most difficult places in the world to get into if you carry another country’s passport. No matter where and when your plane lands, you usually stand in line for at least 45 minutes, to be suspiciously eyed and meticulously fingerprinted. Crossing into U.S. territory is already one of the most damaging moments when it comes to global perceptions of the United States, and it happens a hundred thousand times a day. To top it off, you will now be charged $10 to earn the privilege of entering this fortress.

My guess is many potential visitors will feel like flying to the United States for the last time, just to shove the 10 bucks into a U.S. agent’s face and turn around to get back on their plane.

The fee reminds me of the extortions I and my family had to cope with at the hands of Mexican cops at countryside road blocks in their supposed war on drugs.

OK, the U.S. fee is legal. But it is dumb. As is, the new marketing campaign may barely be able to compensate for the loss of visitors infuriated by the new entry fee.

Learning from Cuban Oil Experience

The Vietnamese and Russian state oil companies reportedly have agreed to partner in offshore drilling in Cuba. Both PetroVietnam and Zarubezhneft have long track records in deepwater drilling, some of them in joint ventures. The two companies have leases for a total of six offshore blocks in Cuba. PetroVietnam has already conducted seismic tests on its four blocks; Zarubezhneft just contracted two near-shore blocks in 25-year deals with Cuba.

Talking about oil, here’s another possible Florida-Cuba link: Invite Cuban oil, tourism and environmental experts to Florida and have them do a show-and-tell about their experiences with near-shore oil drilling. If the oil industry has its way in Tallahassee, we might get precisely the kind of directional drilling in our 3- to 10-mile zone that Canadian and Cuban oil companies have been performing along the northwestern coast of Cuba. Most of their drilling, by the way, is done just miles from Varadero, the beach resort that captures nearly one-third of tourism in Cuba.


The Power of American Culture

Talk about dysfunctional relations: We just witnessed one of the most remarkable displays of U.S. power in Cuba in 50 years, and only a handful of people in the United States took notice.

In October, Jonathan Farrar hosted a party in Havana and 200 Cubans came.

Farrar happens to be the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section (our quasi embassy in Havana), and the 200 guests happened to be, plain and simple, the cream of the crop among Cuban artists. The reception at Farrar’s residence was the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, Zubin Mehta, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg and David Letterman all attending the same party at a foreign embassy in Washington.

The way the party came about was remarkable: This time, the usual handful of dissidents was not invited. Farrar’s move was apparently noticed by Cuban officials; and that, in turn, opened the floodgates of long held-back longing for Carnegie Hall, Broadway, Latin Grammies and Hollywood among Cuban artists.

That speaks to the power of American culture among Cuba’s elite. I don’t think the Canadian, Spanish, Venezuelan or Chinese embassies in Havana could have pulled off a similar event.

This raises another issue: Hollywood vs. the Fourth Fleet—which is the more effective projection of U.S. power? ■

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based, award-winning business journalist who covers Latin America and global issues for a variety of publications. He writes the column “Outside In” for Biz941 and is also the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and the Venezuela Trade & Investment News.

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