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National Intelligence Threat Assessment and Latin America

By Ludovico Feoli

On January 31st the Director of National Intelligence presented his assessment of worldwide threats faced by the US to the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. As it regards Latin America, the assessment is interesting for what is says as much as for what it omits. The main threats identified are from the drug trade and its derivative violence, but little is said about the strategic implications of waning US regional influence and environmental challenges.

While not stated explicitly, the threat level assessed for the region does not seem particularly significant. Progress is recognized in terms of the region’s stability, both economic and political. While democracy is seen as having advanced regionally, reversions are attributed to “populist, authoritarian leaders” in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. The implications of such reversions are not considered, with the partial exception of Venezuela, where it is suggested that Chavez’ inability or unwillingness to deal with succession despite his uncertain cancer prognosis may lead to a power vacuum. Also implied is the potential for instability given the “country’s 25 percent inflation, widespread food and energy shortages, and soaring crime and homicide rates.” Venezuela has the second largest level of proven oil reserves in the world, on which the US still depends for a large, albeit declining, percentage of its imports.

The drug threat to the US is seen as central, mainly due to its effect on violence and corruption in the region, which are undermining governance and the rule of law along the drug corridor of Central America. In turn, this is seen as fostering a “permissive environment for gang and criminal activity to thrive”. Mexico is described as the primary front of the war on drugs and its progress in degrading cartels and disrupting criminal operations is recognized. The heavy toll in terms of violence is also recognized, with over 28,000 deaths in 2010 and 2011 alone. Yet, the security implications are seen as largely confined to Mexico: “We assess traffickers are weary of more effective law enforcement in the United States. Moreover, the factor that drives most of the bloodshed in Mexico—competition for control of trafficking routes and networks of corrupt officials—is not widely applicable to the small retail drug trafficking activities on the US side of the border”. This view seems at best sanguine. It ignores the broad-ranging social implications of repressive anti-drug policies and the strains they create for law enforcement and the judiciary system. It also underestimates the consequences of a militarized policy that places the onus of enforcement on regional governments. As the dead pile up those governments will be less willing to pay the human costs of US drug consumption, and inter-regional relations will become increasingly strained.

The assessment is remarkably scant about the consequences of waning American influence in the region. While it notes the region’s accommodation of “outside actors”, such as Iran, Russia, and China, it says nothing of the implications. While Iran’s influence is limited to the Bolivarian Alternative partners, the reach of Russia and, especially China, is much broader. China has become the largest trade partner to Brazil, Chile, and Peru and has engaged in direct investment and joint ventures throughout the entire region. It has also sought to increase its soft power with good will gestures like the construction of high-visibility public works, soft loans and donations. The strategic significance of these inroads for the US should merit attention. At issue is competition for scarce natural and energy resources that will become increasingly vital for future economic growth. But also the clout in international affairs that comes with these types of economic and political relations.

Also absent in the assessment is consideration of environmental challenges with regard to Latin America, although elsewhere the report comments on the risks of water security and natural disasters. Environmental degradation and resource scarcity are potential contributors to international conflict. Global warming and climate change can also pose considerable risks for Americans at home. Deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation can intensify the impact of natural disasters creating humanitarian and refugee crises that bear upon the US, as was illustrated by hurricane Mitch in Central America and the Haitian earthquake, among others. The US has a key security interest in partnering with Latin America for the pursuit of environmental goals. The region concentrates a large portion of the world’s biodiversity and forested areas and is therefore an indispensable partner for the control of global emissions and natural conservation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research

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A Lecture by Dr. Carmen Diana Deere: "Gender, Asset Accumulation and Wealth in Ecuador."

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A lecture by Dr. Carmen Diana Deere, Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies and Food & Resource Economics at the University of Florida,
Gender, Asset Accumulation and Wealth in Ecuador: Implications for Women’s Bargaining Power

The Department of Economics, the Center for Inter-American Policy (CIPR), and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies invite you to a talk by Dr. Carmen Diana Deere.

Based on her path-breaking research in Ecuador, Professor Deere will discuss her findings on the association between women's share of wealth and lower incidence of domestic violence and greater egalitarian household decision-making.

Dr. Diana Deere Bio:
Dr. Carmen Diana Deereis Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies and Food & Resource Economics at the University of Florida. She holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a M.A. in Development Studies from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Deere was Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies from 2004 to 2009, and previously was Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was Professor of Economics. She is a Past President of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and of the New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS). Deere is the co-author of Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001), winner of LASA's Bryce Wood Book Award, as well as several other books. Among her co-edited volumes are two special issues of Feminist Economics, on Women and the Distribution of Wealth (2006) and on Gender and International Migration (2012). During 2009-2010 she was a Visiting Scholar at FLACSO-Ecuador, directing the UF-FLACSO study on Gender, Poverty and Assets, which included a 3,000 household survey on asset ownership in rural and urban areas. This project is part of a broader comparative study on the gender asset and wealth gaps which includes Ghana and India, a study initially funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry's MDG3 Fund and currently by UNWomen. Deere's current research is on how gender inequality in asset ownership affects household outcomes such as decision-making and intimate partner violence. She is also conducting research on the factors that shape women's ability to accumulate assets, including property regimes and the role of remittances, savings and access to credit.

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