Argentina Or Venezuela - Who Has A Better Chance For A Reset With Washington?

"This is how much I care about the U.S."
"This is how much I care about the U.S."
Ana Baron

BUENOS AIRES - The meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Venezuelan counterpart, Elias Jaua, was certainly one of the most significant during the recent annual assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Guatemala.

During their 40-minute encounter, the two top diplomats agreed to reopen a dialogue at the highest level despite the profound differences that continue to separate the two countries.

Following this first step of rapprochement between Washington and Caracas, might something similar occur with Argentina in the near future? In conversations with various specialists from the U.S., Clarín found a consensus that the answer is a clear “No.”

Why is there more hope for warming of Washington's relations with Venezuela than with Argentina?

The reasons can be divided into three categories. In the first place, the Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, was the one who asked for the meeting with the American Secretary of State. It is difficult for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to show interest in approaching the U.S. on the eve of legislative elections in October. To this day, the anti-U.S. rhetoric continues at the domestic, political level in Argentina.

Second, Argentina does not possess Venezuela’s geostrategic value for the United States. Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) the Venezuelan state oil and natural gas company, is the main provider of oil for the United States -- and the economic factor is even more important now than it was in the previous phase of Washington’s policy towards Latin America.

Shifting alliances

Third, Argentina is not among the candidate countries to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is currently of great interest in Washington. On the contrary, Argentina belongs to Mercosur (Southern Common Market), a supposed free trade area that is concerned more and more with resolving internal issues among its members.

While Mercosur was the rising alliance of the 1990s, many now consider it to be in decline. In fact, when announcing the cancellation of the Mercosur summit scheduled for June 28, Uruguayan Vice President Danilo Astori was quite explicit in his pessimism: “We never arrive at the common market, the customs union is shattered, and the free trade area does not work because there is no free movement of goods and services.”

All this makes the rising star of the region right now the Pacific Alliance composed of Mexico, Perú, Chile, and Colombia.

“Argentina is not high on anyone’s priority list in Washington,” Michael Shifter, the President of Inter-American Dialogue, told Clarín. “It’s simply not among the priorities at any level, not at a political, economic, or commercial level.”

More generally, Shifter is very skeptical of the United States’ renewed interest in the region and about the chances that the rapprochement with Venezuela takes hold. “In Caracas, the political situation is very complicated and the anti-Yankee rhetoric is still very strong,” he said. “We have seen periods of a lot of movement with the region and then they evaporate. Maybe Obama is searching for a foreign policy legacy in Latin America, after having failed in other parts of the world, but we shall see.”

Mark Jones from Rice University in Texas, confirmed that “there will be no rapprochement with Argentina. In Washington, there is the impression that the Kirchnerism is reaching its end.”

Jones says there is no fear that "the situation in Argentina worsens like in Venezuela, where there is always the danger that the impact of a destabilized Venezuela influences Colombia.” Jones also believes that Kirchner will not want to approach the U.S. before the elections. “For her, the psychological relation with the youth from the Cámpora movement is what's important, and she will not change it now.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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