Desafíos para Chile

Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile ante una mesa redonda en Londres

El viernes 9 de octubre oímos las posiciones de Edgardo Riveros ante unos temas. El asunto que discutió a un nivel más profundo fue la Alianza del Pacífico, un acuerdo de comercio libre entre Chile, Colombia, México y Perú.

Frente a unos embajadores en un cuarto de lujo en Canning House, dijo que el TPP es un chance de profundizar las relaciones exteriores, un paso importante para el subsecretario, que quiere que Chile aproveche las oportunidades globales.

(Hablando, derecha) Edgardo Riveros, el Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile

(Hablando, centro) Edgardo Riveros, el Subsecretario de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile

Observó que el mundo funciona en bloques y redes de vínculos, notando que la Alianza del Pacífico es un “desafío especial”, diciendo que es un grupo que trae problemas para superar. Actualmente, Chile exporta más a los países de Mercosur (Argentina, Brasil, Paraguay, Uruguay y Venezuela) que a los otros tres estados miembros de la Alianza del Pacífico, algo que quiere cambiar el subsecretario.

Después de su discurso, Sr. Riveros aceptó unas preguntas: una sobre la posición de poder de Brasil en la región y la segunda que trata de la posibilidad para América Latina a transformarse y acercarse como la Unión Europea en términos de supranacionalidad.

Respondió que sí existe un parlamento de Unasur (la Union de cada país en América del Sur) pero Latinoamérica “corre un esprint, no un maratón como en el caso europeo”. Por el momento, él cree que hay muchos instrumentos internacionales que tiene que fortalecer, y el rumbo hacia una multinacional soberanía más cohesiva y de colaboración está algo para muchos años en el futuro.

La cuestión de Bolivia y el acceso al mar

Yo quise saber la visión u opinión política que nos pudo ofrecer el subsecretario sobre Bolivia y la cuestión del acceso al mar para el estado andino, que perdió su costa después de una guerra contra Chile en los finales del siglo XIX.

Cuando pregunté al político, unos gemidos y acogidas sonaron por el cuarto, pero claro que este tema trata de Chile y de las relaciones exteriores del gobierno en Santiago.

Sr. Riveros me dijo que su país está listo para discutir el tema, pero afirmó a este blog que “Chile y Bolivia tienen definidos los límites territoriales”. Nos dio una idea de la política que seguirán los diplomáticos chilenos en La Haya cuando dijo “no tiene obligación de negociar”.

Por el subsecretario, no vale mucho la idea de cuestionar acuerdos históricos – “no puede desafíar cada tratado”. Tiene razón que los mecanismos de diplomacia global quedarían paralizados si los acuerdos entre países fueron desafiadas todo el tiempo pero él no puede forzar que los bolivianos olviden sus sueños.

Es claro que Sr. Riveros cree que la posición chilena es una de poder: el territorio es reconocido internacionalmente como parte de su país. Pero a la vez Chile tiene una debilidad: Bolivia no tiene nada que perder y su postura como desamparado puede afectar a Chile, que corre el riesgo de parecer ser el bravucón en la disputa.

En septiembre, la Corte Internacional de Justicia dio a conocer la decisión que sí estaría en una posición de oír el caso sobre el acceso al mar, un paso que fue entendido extensamente a señalar que Bolivia ha marcado el primer gol de partido.

Lo que espera La Paz es que logrará la devolución de acceso al mar, probablemente por el uso mutual de un puerto chileno.

Este resultado ofrecería al país naval un regreso a las olas: Bolivia ha mantenido una marina a pesar de que el país ha sido un estado sin costa desde 1904 – el año de la cesión de la región litoral a Chile.

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Corbynmanía – a Latin flavour to Labour

Argentina calls the radical new leader of the UK opposition “one of ours”

The rapid rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his leftist acolytes in the British Labour Party has been met with mixed responses in the UK but a thumbs-up in Latin America.

For the governing Conservatives, there was early gloating over a man deemed originally to be ‘un-electable’ but this has been replaced by worried, cautionary rhetoric.

In the Labour ranks, there has been elation, bemusement, uncertainty and angst.

Some of the loudest cheers of approval have come from thousands of miles away.

For Argentina, the election of Jeremy Corbyn is a decisive and positive move in support of a man whose politics resonate deeply with many people across the country and, indeed, throughout Latin America.

Corbyn has pursued justice for the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.

He has led a UK parliamentary mission to the leftist Bolivia of Evo Morales.

He is blood brother to trade unions and a thorn in the side of ‘savage capitalists’.

He supports debt renegotiation and nuclear disarmament.

And the Latin links do not just exist on a political level: his second wife was Chilean and his current partner is from Mexico.

Finally, just this afternoon, on Tuesday 15 September, while he was addressing the British Trades Union Congress, he stood up for the rights of organised workers in Colombia, a notable right-leaning and Washington-minded Latin state.

Most tellingly for Buenos Aires, he is an anti-imperialist pacifist, in the true oratorical mould of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales or Cristina Fernández and he opposed the 1982 Falklands War, arguing for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

The current British government is intransigent.

It says it believes in the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination as underlined by their decision to maintain their status as a British Overseas Territory (and thus British nationality) in a 2013 referendum.

Case closed.

Or maybe not?

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Buenos Aires sees it as very much open.

In an interview with the Pagina 12 newspaper on 14 September, the Argentinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alicia Castro, said she feels “joy, a great satisfaction” after Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest.

She lauded his “emphatic show of solidarity with Argentina”, even going on to claim that “he is one of ours”.

Corbyn certainly has not followed the majority of his compatriots on the Falklands/Malvinas issue.

He is a member of the European Pro-Dialogue pressure group and in March this year questioned the increase in military spending in the Falklands by the UK government. (This blog reported on that at the time.)

In her interview, the ambassador went on: “his leadership can decisively guide British public opinion in favour of dialogue between the two governments”.

The swelling wave of socialist pride and power carrying Mr Corbyn at the moment certainly seems to have a momentum to it that comes from leftist Latin seas far from these shores.

No change, please

Bolivia and Brazil have voted their incumbent presidents back in; Uruguay will have a new leader, probably from the same party as the outgoing José Mújica, by the end of next month

For the third successive time, Bolivia chose to put Evo Morales in the hot-seat. The popular president took his established brand of ‘indigenous socialism’ to the electorate again and they faithfully returned him to power. There was no need for a second round: the incumbent won 60% of first-time votes. Under Morales, Bolivia has been a staunch member of the ALBA coalition of countries and the president praised two of his leftist colleagues – one aged and ailing, one deceased – in his celebratory speech after claiming victory:

“this triumph is dedicated to Fidel Castro, to Hugo Chávez – may he rest in peace – and to all anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist presidents and governments”

Morales has stabilised the Andean country and overseen growth driven by a commodities boom. But he has had to manage contradictions in office. He supported new roads and building projects in previously untouched indigenous lands, while at the same time standing up for his roots in the coca-growing low-income community. But these cracks have not been big enough for the opposition to expose, such is the overall, nationwide strength of Morales and his Movement to Socialism party. His nearest opponent, conservative Samuel Doria Medina, eventually came in well behind Mr Morales with 24%.

In Brazil, the electorate also plumped for the incumbent, which gave them four more years of Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate. After eight years of government under her predecessor and political father figure, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva, it was widely thought that Rousseff could also cruise into a second term herself.

But some significant factors made this the closest run election Brazil has seen since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Firstly, the entrance of Marina Silva into the race after her running mate, presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, died in a plane crash, ignited the campaign. There was now the possibility that Brazil could have its first black leader in Silva, the daughter of poor rubber tappers from the Amazon. But when one poll showed her winning a possible run-off against Ms Rousseff, the attack cogs of both the president’s party, the PT, and Aécio Neves’ PDSB, grinded into action, and Silva’s campaign was dismantled. She came a distant third in the first round.

Secondly, the Petrobras corruption scandal hurt Dilma Rousseff and her staff. A long list of kickbacks allegations, where ministers received cash siphoned off the state oil giant’s coffers, is being investigated. She firmly rejects any involvement and has hinted she will sue the right-wing magazine that has been printing splashes about the scandal. The kickbacks allegedly took place when she headed the Petrobras board but, in the end, her rival Aécio Neves was just as tainted by claims he would be a ‘rich president for the rich, upper classes’ as she was by the oil corruption story. Ms Rousseff has slashed poverty and increased welfare support, especially in the poor north-eastern states, but this has come at a cost to the economy, which is drifting away from the export-power growth witnessed during the eight years of the previous PT leader, Lula da Silva.

That was something that Aécio Neves’ team hoped to capitalise on, in particular Arminio Fraga, a respected economist and would-be finance minister. Coupled with the stumbling weakness of its rivals in the Rousseff administration, it made the Neves PDSB machine a viable replacement for the government. The markets certainly favoured Neves, and they rose whenever he had a surge and, tellingly, collapsed six per cent when the Rousseff victory was finally confirmed.

It ended up as a battle of the poorer north-east versus the richer south-east and one that ran to a nail-biting conclusion, the incumbent seeing off her challenger 51% to 49%. Brazilians seemed to be aware that the economy needs bolstering, and the finances need more structuring and less ministerial meddling, but the successes of the Rousseff administration in combating poverty still rung loudly. But this was a negative campaign fought on the back of sleaze allegations, mass protests last year against failing public infrastructure, a weak economy and a controversial World Cup that the country limped out of embarrassingly, losing their last two matches, the semi-final and third place play-off, 7-1 and 3-0 respectively. Dilma has a tough job on her hands for the next four years and has already said she hopes to be “a better president” this time around.

Just to the south of the biggest country in Latin America is one of the smallest. Uruguay has also been in electoral mood recently, with the first-round of its vote to replace the inimitable José Mújica. The humble leader, well-known for eschewing the trappings of the presidency by giving away 90% of his salary to charity, living in a farmstead and driving himself around in an old VW Beetle, cannot run for immediate re-election and was elected to the Senate. Mújica’s presidency was defined by a series of liberal reforms, including the legalisation of gay marriage and the production, sale and consumption of marijuana but there are signs that some of the policies could be amended by the incoming leader. That will either be Tabaré Vázquez, from Mújica’s leftist Broad Front or the conservative National Party’s Luis Lacalle Pou. Vázquez looks the more likely of the two to win at the moment. The two men meet one month today in a run-off.

A las urnas…

Eight Latin American countries go to the polls next year – what can we expect?

First up across the region are Costa Rica and El Salvador, where there will be legislative and presidential elections on 2 February. The Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla, is constitutionally barred from running for consecutive terms. So although the number of female leaders across the region has risen to four recently with the re-election of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, it will soon drop back down to three as Chinchilla leaves office (Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina are the other two women leaders). In fact, although it is unlikely, the number could be down to two by the autumn – as Brazilians go to the polls in October. Back in San José, no one candidate is storming the race, meaning that the country could need a run-off to split the field, an electoral practice that is common in Latin America but that has not taken place in Costa Rica since 2002. Johnny Araya of the National Liberation party and Broad Front’s José Villalta look to be the strongest of the candidates so far.

El Salvador is another country that prohibits presidents running again straightaway and, as such, Mauricio Funes will be stepping down this spring. The leading contenders to take his place go head-to-head on 2 February, with a run-off scheduled for 9 March if needed. It is the smallest country in Latin America and much of the new president’s focus will be on gang violence, which has been increasing recently despite a truce between the criminals in 2012.

Next up is Colombia, which has elections to both houses of parliament on that Sunday 9 March. Nearly three months after that, on 25 May, is the race for the hot-seat as the presidential candidates face the public. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is going once more and it looks as though he will follow his one-time mentor, ex-leader Álvaro Uribe, in securing consecutive terms in office. Peace talks with the Farc rebels are currently taking place and Santos has said that 2014 will be a crucial year for peace – he feels that it is his national duty to see the talks through to ‘the end’. He has so far wavered between moderation and muscle: at once trying to maintain the talks without completing retreating from the hardlines drawn up by Uribe during his two terms in office – ten more militants were killed in a bombing raid just after Christmas.

But in Panama there is no chance of seeing the same face again as Ricardo Martinelli is leaving office. On 4 May the isthmus nation is due to hold legislative ballots to its one National Assembly as well as the ballot for the head of state.

The Dominican Republic has a vote for the chamber of deputies and the senate the week after, on 16 May. Only legislators are on the ballot papers in 2014 because Danilo Medina was voted into the presidency in 2012 for a four-year term.

Evo Morales, the charismatic Bolivian president, is seeking a controversial re-election next year on 5 October. Technically, Evo has served two terms in office – the maximum that a politician can reach in the Andean nation. But because his first term (2006-9) predated the constitution that was re-written in 2009, the courts ruled that his time limit re-started under the new legal framework in 2009, rather than in 2006. As such, he is free to run again next autumn. Another victory and a full term in office would take his reign in the mountains up to 2019, which at 13 years would be almost as long as Hugo Chávez served in Venezuela. Evo’s time in office so far has been celebrated and criticised and has swung from a defence of coca farmers, to facing protests over subsidy cuts and road-building plans, to a cosy familiarity with other leftist countries, such as Venezuela and Ecuador.

Brazilians head to the polls on the same day in October, also for a general election. The country has been a regular in the world news this year, from widespread and – at times – violent protests against poor public services, to the visit of Pope Francis, and the excitement about and criticism of the upcoming World Cup. The festival of football happens thee months before the election and although the soccer-mad nation would love to see a sixth victory for a seleção there have also been the calls for the money to have been spent elsewhere in the economy. Dilma has continued with the Workers’ Party’s statism but has not had quite the popularity that her predecessor Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva enjoyed. That said, her recent poll showings have improved from over the summer of civil discord and should be strong enough to see off her efficient main challengers, Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party and the Socialists’ Eduardo Campos.

Uruguay is the last of the Latin American countries to vote in 2014, with a general election on 26 October. The little South Atlantic nation has been making headlines of its own this year, with a ground-breaking legalisation of marijuana and same-sex marriage. Its football team stands a good chance of doing well at the World Cup, with several tremendous players blooming right now. Its outgoing leader, José Mújica, has won widespread acclaim for his low-key presidency, as he eschews many of the presidential trimmings and stylings by driving himself in slacks and jackets to work from his small farmstead and flying economy class. And much of this contributed to Uruguay being the inaugural winner of The Economist‘s ‘Country of the Year’ award. Whoever takes up the mantle in Montevideo will certainly have interesting shoes to fill.

Feliz Año!

Bolivarian bluster

A Latin American left-leaning bloc show their internal unity and their international exposure

The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of socialist nations is certainly filled with bombastic leaders living up to its florid name. The bloc has just had its most recent get-together and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was a more than willing host for the club.

The leaders met yesterday for talks and debates and came out with some conspicuous agreements. Firstly, they ensured they set themselves against popular opinion at the United Nations by resoundingly supporting Russia and China’s veto of a proposed Security Council resolution on Syria endorsing an Arab League peace plan. These Latin and Caribbean countries are well known for their dislike of all things Western (as far back as September 2010 this blog highlighted the friendship between Bolivia and Iran – see ‘Latin-Persian alliance on the way? – 25/09/10′). Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador last month to re-affirm the mutual contempt for London, Paris and New York. Hugo Chávez called the veto “very positive” and Bolivian president Evo Morales said that ALBA “joins the veto”.

Controversial statements like these were not surprising. Chávez took this opportunity to criticise the handling of the Libya conflict by the Western powers with his famous categorical hyperbole :

“They invade, bomb, destroy a country, assassinate its president…it’s imperialism’s schizophrenia”

There are two Latin American nations sitting as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and, notably, neither of them are in ALBA. Colombia and Guatemala (who both currently have conservative presidents) voted in favour of the resolution condemning the violence in Syria and calling on president Bashar al-Assad to stand down. So despite the fact that the leftist bloc’s title supposedly includes ‘the Peoples of Our America’, their support for Russia, China and Iran and anti-Western sentiment is not shared across the region.

One topic that does garner more backing from Latin Americans outside ALBA is the Falkland Islands/Malvinas territorial dispute. This weekend ALBA favourite Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian leader, called for:

“more concrete, more forceful decisions, Latin American sanctions against Great Britain…[the UK’s position is] an assault on sovereignty, extemporaneous colonialism”

Hugo Chávez has excitedly addressed Queen Elizabeth II in the past to hand over control of the islands to Argentina and this blog has covered the issue in previous posts (see ‘An island life for me‘ – 11/02/11).

The membership list of ALBA is a real political mix, including regional giants like Venezuela, Central Americans like Nicaragua and tiny Caribbean states like Antigua & Barbuda. The noises they make are often parochial proposals. But every now and again they come out with provocative opinions on sensitive global issues. ALBA loathes foreigners meddling in other states’ affairs but it seems unmovable on the Syrian violence even if, in this case, the UN resolution was based on Arab League reforms drawn up by Middle East politicians. While the Western powers will not lose sleep over the failure of St Kitts & Nevis to support them, Ecuador and Cuba are important players in that developing region and it is worrying that the ALBA organisation seems fundamentally opposed to all Western ideals.

Pacha Mama Mia

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia face resistance from indigenous communities over environmental plans

When Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, became the leader of Bolivia in 2005 he also became the first indigenous president. He came to power on a mandate to govern with a sort of ‘indigenous socialism’. Morales has been a strident defender of the rights of Bolivia’s native inhabitants and their stunning natural environment. He always liked to equate their struggle against colonial invaders with his fight against foreign traders, the US and Western capitalism; politics with which Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader currently battling cancer, has identified very strongly.

But it has been six years since his arrival and the outlook is now different for Evo. In the past he has called any interference in the way-of-life or homeland of the indigenous communities ‘ecolocide’. Now he is the one being accused of destroying pacha mama. On 16 August indigenous activists took the first steps on a 233 mile-long protest march from the Amazon plains to the capital, La Paz. Normally, this would be a demonstration that Morales would be more than happy to join. But the march is in opposition to one of his policies, namely a government plan to build a 190 mile-long highway through a national park in aboriginal territory.

The road would potentially link the Beni plains to the Chapare, where Evo was a coca farmer before going on to lead a coca farmers’ union. Brazil has stumped up $420m for the project and certainly knows a thing or two about controversial environmental politics and upsetting local tribes, having given the Belo Monte dam the green light on 1 June. Foreign investors are on the horizon and the forest stands between them. Morales’ ‘indigenous socialism’ seems to be morphing into something more like ‘investment socialism’.

Ollanta Humala, who replaced Alan Garcia in the Peruvian presidency in July, has also found that he is having to alter the populist, pro-indigenous policies he has previously championed. In opposition he had been a creature in the mould of Chavez and Morales, denouncing free trade and capitalism but he has since ensured his new government is not seen as isolationist and instead said:

“We are building a government of national unity. This isn’t a Cabinet of the left or the right, but a Cabinet for all of Peru.”

He has angered native Peruvians with his plans for expanded oil and gas investment and exploration. And, just like in Bolivia, new roads through the Amazon rainforest have been proposed. The indigenous communities have criticised Humala and seem ready to rise, just as Bolivia’s Indians are now doing against one of their own.

Both countries could do with more infrastructural integration with neighbours and natural resources can be shared and developed but there is now a strengthening indigenous challenge. The once-quiet, Quechua and Aymara-speaking communities seem to have found a collective and growing voice.

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.

An Arab and his amigos

Colonel Gaddafi appears to be increasingly isolated. Will he look to his Latin friends for an exit route?

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, suggested (erroneously) back in February that Muammar Gaddafi had fled Libya and sought refuge with the friendly face of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president – a claim which Caracas criticised heavily. However, that idea was not a whimsical prospect dreamt up by Mr Hague at random – Mr Chavez has made it a habit of his to befriend states with clear anti-US rhetoric and ideals, such as Iran and Cuba. Libya has been no exception and in 2009, Gaddafi named a football stadium after the Venezuelan premier (only for rebels to rescind the honour a few weeks ago). (Football seems to be a peculiar source of mutual content for states which take pleasure in upsetting the US.)

Now Colonel Gaddafi is losing support in the Maghreb and in his own cabinet , can he look west across the Atlantic for help? Chavez has derided the ‘no-fly-zone’, calling it ‘total madness’ and his thoughts have been echoed by many across Latin America.

Brazil abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973, the document which gave the allies their international legal permission to crackdown on Gaddafi’s forces. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, did not agreed with the UN’s decision and announced his ”condemnation, repudiation and rejection” of the intervention.

Similar noises were made by Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, a constant thorn in the side of the West, criticised the UN for turning itself into ”an instrument of warmongering and death for these powers”. Fidel Castro accused NATO of ”demonstrating the waste and chaos that capitalism perpetuates” and the President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, although ‘lamenting’ the attacks by Gaddafi, pointed out that ”saving lives with bombs is an inexplicable contradiction in terms”. Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay also came out against Resolution 1973.

But there were some resolute stances from the Latin Americans in favour of the allied action. Mexico, Peru, Chile and El Salvador all came out in favour of the Security Council’s decision. Colombia said that the Gaddafi regime had ”made fun of” the resolution and President Santos called for an end to the fighting.

So Gaddafi seemingly has a few open doors in Latin America. Whether he will choose to walk through them remains, at this stage in the crisis, very hard to predict. However, public opinion can be fickle in Latin America and presidents are always on the hunt for high approval ratings – giving the Colonel some free bed and board might not go down too well. So as this situation develops, despite their previous announcements, it is not a given that the Latin capitals will continue to be so welcoming to the dictator.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.

Rivers run deep in Central America

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has voted in favour of a resolution ordering Nicaragua to remove its troops from the disputed Calero Island. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been at odds since a confusing dredging incident took place near the island in the San Juan river on 22 October.

The problems began when there were suggestions that the Nicaraguans dumped the sediment they had scooped up on the Costa Rican side of the river. In addition, authorities in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, claimed that the dredging had affected the nature reserve on Calero Island.

The Costa Rican government maintains that Calero Island was illegally occupied by Nicaraguan forces who set up camp there during the dredging. Officials from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, simply state that Costa Rica is kicking up a fuss about nothing because the island is their territory.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has stood firm. His counterpart in the row, Laura Chinchilla, has said she is ready to talk about the sovereignty issue as long as the troops leave. Ortega is saying nothing apart from stating that he does not believe the OAS is the forum to mediate the issue.

As ever in Latin America, there are shadows in the background behind each party. Venezuela and Bolivia dismissed the resolution but 24 other nations sided with Costa Rica. Nicaragua has had territorial disputes with Costa Rica before and Colombia (over the San Andres and Providencia islands).

Ortega is on the Washington radar, along with those two countries who voted against the resolution. The US likes the idea of Chinchilla ‘soft-socialist’ progressive politics, as opposed to the vociferous socialism advocated by Venezuela and Bolivia.

As we saw last year with the Honduran army’s removal of president Manuel Zelaya, events in these smaller countries of Central America can have larger ramifications across the Americas.

The OAS has now passed two resolutions to no effect. It will not advocate armed action, so as this issue gains significance (and as long as the Nicaraguans stay on Calero), expect those shadows to step forward to take a more prominent role in the debate.