Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.

Panama: A Central American Singapore?

By Tom Long*

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

Singapore (left) and Panama City (right) / William Cho and Jim Nix / Flickr / Creative Commons

As a transportation hub, logistics center, and regional financial player, Panama has long been painted by investment bankers and Panamanian politicians as a potential “Singapore of Latin America,” but that vision still seems a way off.  In some respects, Panama’s story has been quite impressive.  For a decade, it has boasted GDP growth far beyond the regional average, even surpassing 10 percent in some recent years.  Unlike many of its neighbors, its dollar-based economy relies on services, not exports of commodities or low-value-added light manufacturing.  Since the 1989-1990 U.S. invasion to unseat General Manuel Noriega, the total size of the Panamanian economy has quadrupled in constant dollars.  It is also different from Singapore in important ways.  Singapore’s approach to planning and public housing might be helpful in Panama City, which has suffered traffic, environmental degradation, and inadequate housing for the poor as a consequence of poorly planned growth.

In other important ways, however, the Panama-Singapore comparison is less apt.

  • Singapore is a city, with nearly two million more people than Panama has spread across 100 times the landmass. Urban-rural divides are wide in Panama, with poor delivery of health and education services outside the cities, exacerbating inequality.  A Singapore-style strategy in Panama would leave the countryside behind – and indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations would benefit much less.
  • Differences between the two countries in governance – for better and worse – are profound. The Panamanian people are much freer under the country’s democracy than they would be under a single-party-dominated system like Singapore’s.  In other ways, though, Panama’s governance leaves much to be desired.  Corruption is a massive problem, and watchdog groups highlight weakness in the rule of law, judicial independence, and press freedom.  Projects to expand the Panama Canal and build a capital city subway are over budget and behind schedule, and have suffered from strikes, contract disputes, and questionable bidding practices.  While it may seem easy to blame the corruption on former President Martinelli, who faces criminal charges, the problem has much deeper roots.
  • The two countries have very different policies toward education. Singapore invested, and continues to invest, heavily in world-class universities.  Panama lacks these, weakening its ability to compete globally in industries where innovation is key.  While Panama’s primary education has improved, its research and development lags.
  • A final difference is where the countries find themselves in their political and economic evolution. Singapore became independent 50 years ago, but it has been only a quarter century since Panama ended its kleptocratic, military rule.  It has been just 15 since the United States officially turned control of the canal over to Panamanian authorities.  The roots of its problems cannot be easily or quickly extirpated.

Panama’s boosters often use the comparison to highlight the areas in which Panama excels – economic growth, unique geography, and infrastructure crucial to global shipping and air transit.  The comparison might be more helpful in highlighting areas where Panama needs to improve.  These include dedicating resources to higher education and R&D, addressing inequality, rooting out corruption, and enhancing political and bureaucratic accountability.  Singaporean scholar Alan Chong argues that Singapore’s attempt to present itself as a model, global city is in part a foreign policy strategy of “virtual enlargement.”  The city-state’s wealth, reputation, and active role in international organizations allow it to “punch above its weight” in Southeast Asia and beyond.  Some chapters of Panama’s recent economic story might be the envy of neighbors with their own canal dreams, but the country will need to focus on governance and accountability if even its logistics-hub strategy is in fact going to deliver shared welfare at home and enhanced influence abroad – let alone become a Latin American equivalent of an Asian Tiger.

March 2, 2015

* Dr. Long is a visiting professor in International Relations at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, which is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Pension Reform: Uneven Progress

By Christina Ewig*

Two Women

Nathan Gibbs / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent pension reforms in Latin America show promise for greater gender equity across the region, but progress remains uneven in coverage and generosity.  Since 2007, 13 countries have either introduced or expanded some form of non-contributory pension, offered to defined groups as a social right, while others have made reforms to their existing pension systems that specifically compensate for gender inequalities.  These reforms in several instances were conceived with the participation of gender equity advocates.

  • The introduction of non-contributory pensions has equalized pension coverage between women and men in the region, according to a comprehensive study by the Organización Iberoamericana de Seguridad Social.
  • The equalization of men’s and women’s retirement age in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay makes it easier for women to attain the minimum number of working years for eligibility for a minimum pension.
  • The use of gender-neutral mortality tables in Bolivia and a return to the state-run defined-benefit system that treats men and women equally in Argentina, are also improvements.
  • More innovatively, in the 2007 expansion of the non-contributory pension in Bolivia and the 2008 reforms of the traditional pension systems in Chile and Uruguay, women were given credit toward their pensions for children born or adopted, to compensate for time out of the labor market.

The need for such reforms is great globally and in Latin America.  Women face much greater risks than men of poverty in old age due to workplace discrimination and gender imbalances in family carework responsibilities – the “motherhood wage gap” – during their working years.  Women are employed in smaller numbers than men in the formal economy, and they are often concentrated in the lower-paid and less-stable informal sector.  Domestic workers, primarily women, are in a sector notorious for employers’ evasion of pension payments.  Women in Latin America are also more likely than men to be found among the ranks of the unemployed or partially employed.  When employed full time in the formal sector, they face a diminishing but still substantial wage gap, earning 17 percent less on average than similarly educated men, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.  While the original pay-as-you-go pension systems were based on a male-breadwinner model that envisioned women as “dependents,” the 1990s push toward pensions that relied entirely on individual earnings magnified the effects of these discriminatory employment contexts and carework imbalances.  Moreover, in the individual capital account model, practices such as the use of differential mortality tables to determine monthly payments further reduced women’s income in old age, due to their greater expected longevity.

Despite the progress toward greater gender equity in pension policy, the issue deserves wider attention because advances have been uneven.  For example, while most countries in the region have adopted some form of non-contributory pensions, the percentage of the population eligible for these varies dramatically – as does the monthly payment.  Moreover, while the gap in pension coverage between men and women has narrowed, the compensation levels remain dramatically unequal.  Reforms, like those of Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile, that build-in compensation for market and carework inequalities deserve wider replication. 

February 26, 2015

*Dr. Ewig is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is the author of Second-Wave Neoliberalism: Gender, Race and Health Sector Reform in Peru.

Venezuela: Crossing the Line

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Maduro’s arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma reflects a new level of vindictiveness and almost desperation at home – and threatens to leave his government more isolated than ever in Latin America.  In a three-hour televised speech, Maduro alleged that the mayor, whom he called a vampire and fascist, was plotting with military officers to remove him from office.  Ledezma has been a strident opponent – playing a prominent role in last year’s salida movement – and the Associated Press cites unnamed sources as acknowledging the existence of identified coupists.  But Maduro’s evidence against Ledezma was negligible, mostly a document on a national transition accord.  Other Maduro opponents are also reportedly to be arrested soon.  At the same time, the President said that the U.S. Embassy was trying to turn the military against him by, he alleged, calling generals’ wives to say their U.S. visas were being revoked.

The increasingly repressive nature of the Maduro regime is drawing scorn from throughout Latin America, including countries that previously tolerated the excesses of deceased President Hugo Chávez.  UNASUR has announced it will hold an extraordinary meeting soon on the deepening crisis caused by Ledezma’s arrest, and the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador will make an urgent visit to Caracas this week.  Chilean President Bachelet and Senate President (and daughter of the assassinated President) Isabel Allende expressed their “concern” over the arrest.  Colombian President Santos, heretofore restrained in his criticism, told the press he was “worried.”  Amnesty International also condemned the action.  Washington’s vehement denials of Maduro’s allegations that it was involved have not been challenged.

Maduro’s Latin American neighbors are likely to continue hewing to traditional non-interventionism, but even the left appears to regret that recent events confirm the monumental squandering of the Chávez revolution’s opportunity to carry out a radical project of redistribution and propose an alternative model for the region.  Chavismo had a social base, but Chávez and, to a much greater extent, Maduro have failed to develop a democratic or economically coherent approach to their revolutionary project.  Venezuela is now paying the price and, as many predicted, the situation is getting worse before getting better.  It is impossible to say how and when the impasse will break, and hard to identify who’s capable of ending the misery – be it the military or a faction within Maduro’s own party.  It’s clear, though, that this crisis is not sustainable and regional patience with it is growing thin.

February 23, 2015

Bracing for Economic Pain in Brazil and Beyond

By Kevin P. Gallagher*

Brazilian Real

Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s warning to U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2012 – that his monetary-easing policies were creating a harmful tsunami of financial flows to emerging markets – was spot-on.  U.S. growth and interest rates have been appreciating currencies, causing asset bubbles, and exporting financial instability to the developing world.  Brazil and other emerging-market countries may soon be facing capital flight and exchange rate depreciation that could lead to financial instability and weak growth for years to come.  From 2009 to 2013 countries like Brazil, South Korea, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia and Taiwan all had wide interest rate differentials with the U.S. and experienced massive surges of capital flows.  The differential between Brazil and the U.S. was more than 10 percentage points for a while.  According to the latest estimates by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), emerging markets now hold a staggering $2.6 trillion in international debt securities and $3.1 trillion in cross-border loans – the majority in dollars.

Now the tides are turning.  Many emerging market growth forecasts are continually being revised downward.  China’s economy is undergoing a structural transformation that necessitates slower growth and less reliance on primary commodities.  The prices of oil and other major commodities are stabilizing or declining.  As growth and interest rates pick up in the United States, the dollar gains strength – and emerging market currencies fall.  Brazil’s real hit a 10-year low last week, down to 2.87 to the dollar, amid continuing predictions of zero growth for the country this year.

The traditional tools for weathering the storm may not be available or enough for developing economies.  Floating exchange rates and the resulting depreciation can cause the debt burden on firms and fiscal budgets can bloat overnight, especially in a lower growth environment.  Increasing competitiveness would have helped boost exports, but an IMF study shows that Latin America failed to use one of the biggest commodity windfalls in its history to invest, hindering competitiveness to ride out the tsunami in short-term inflows.  Local bond markets help, but most debt is indeed in dollars, and most local debt is held by foreigners who are always the first to dump such debt.  Interest rate hikes can also be dangerous; they don’t reverse flight and can choke off what little growth there is to be had in a downturn.  Depleting foreign exchange reserves doesn’t always work; increasing debt could bring financial instability but threaten prospects for growth and employment.  Having no good options, emerging-market and developing countries may need to resort to regulating the outflow of capital alongside these other measures.  Such moves have traditionally been shunned by international institutions and capital markets, and new U.S. trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stripped out balance-of-payment exceptions that allow nations to regulate capital.  But new research in cutting edge of economics by the IMF and others now justifies such measures to prevent or mitigate a full-blown crisis.  If we have learned anything from the global financial crisis since 2008, it is that nations need as many tools at their disposal to prevent and mitigate financial instability.  Instability anywhere can lead to instability everywhere, so we need all tools and hands on deck.

February 19, 2015

* Kevin P. Gallagher is an associate professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Pardee School for Global Studies, where he co-directs the Global Economic Governance Initiative.  His new book is Ruling Capital: Emerging Markets and the Reregulation of Cross-Border Finance.

Inter-American Educational Exchange: A Drop in the Bucket

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Obama administration’s program for strengthening inter-American ties through cooperative education – “100,000 Strong in the Americas” – is now several years old and making incremental progress toward its stated goal of a multilateral exchange of 100,000 students between the United States and Latin America.

  • The latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that the number of Latin American students studying in the United States during the 2013-14 academic year (AY) rose 8.2 percent from the previous AY to 72,318 – the largest number to date and the largest annual percentage increase in at least 15 years. Mexico and Brazil now rank ninth and tenth respectively as places of origin for foreign students in the United States.
  • The most recent data on U.S. students studying in Latin America is less promising. In the 2012-13 AY, 45,473 U.S. students studied in Latin America, the highest number to date but a smaller annual percentage increase (1.8 percent) compared to the late 2000s.

Countries’ investments in such exchanges vary widely.  Under “100,000 Strong,” figures for U.S. spending are elusive.  In early 2014 the State Department announced the creation of the Innovation Fund, partnership grants that will be awarded over the next several years to strengthen collaboration between higher education institutions – including 38 grants totaling over one million dollars last year.   Mexican President Peña Nieto has introduced Proyecta 100 Mil, which in addition to sending 100,000 students to the United States by 2018, hopes to entice 50,000 U.S. students to study at its own universities.  (U.S. students in Mexico dropped from 10,000 in 2005-06 to less than 4,000 in 2012-13 because of security concerns.)  Both countries’ financial commitment to international education pales next to that of Brazil.  President Rousseff announced last summer the renewal of its Science Without Borders program, the first phase of which cost US$1.36 billion.

These programs, universally seen as laudable, have thus far let certain countries fall through the cracks.  Vice President Joe Biden recognized in his recent New York Times editorial that “inadequate education” is one of the barriers holding back Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which thousands of children have fled in recent years.  The development assistance portion of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion budget for Central American assistance is in part slated for strengthening literacy and vocational education.  Bringing Central America into the Innovation Fund program is a logical addition to the President’s efforts, yet Central American partners were notably absent in 2014.  Only one of the five grant rounds was open to Central American countries – where it arguably could have a greater national-level impact – and of the 109 recipient institutions of Innovation Fund grants, only two were from the region – and none from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).  That disparity suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric, education exchange is considered a supplementary tool rather than a leading means of bolstering development in Latin America.  While the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program deserves applause as a cooperative, multilateral program, it remains an underutilized tool of U.S. engagement in much of the hemisphere.

February 16, 2015

U.S.-Cuba: What Now?

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

CLALS and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) convened a small group of Cuba experts to discuss the course that U.S.-Cuba relations could take now that Presidents Obama and Castro have decided to reestablish diplomatic relations.  A two-page summary of conclusions – not coordinated with workshop participants – and “wildcards” that would alter events can be found here.  Here are highlights:

  • The two presidents are committed to using their remaining time in office – Obama until January 2017 and Castro until February 2018 – to burnish their legacies as leaders who solved an historic impasse.
  • The timelines for full normalization of ties between the two countries – including political, economic and social relations – certainly will go beyond their terms in office, and the process will take time and energy beyond their offices and governments.
  • The Summit of the Americas in April can be a crowning jewel to both Presidents’ efforts if issues such as civil society representation at the event can be resolved. The timing of the Summit will hold the White House’s attention for this period.
  • Greater emphasis by the Obama administration on the tangible benefits to the U.S. made possible by steps toward normalization would serve it well, including formalization and expansion of bilateral cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and environmental and health issues. The criteria for policy success should consist of benefits to the American people, rather than “helping” Cubans or facilitating “regime change” in Cuba, as the Castro government will (as any government would) remain firm that its political system is not negotiable.
  • The potential for trade will be strong enough to persuade U.S. business to press for the broadest possible implementation of the new measures and, if the Cubans can articulate a clear strategy to attract (and protect) investments, for embargo-loosening legislation in Congress.
  • Potential obstacles require attention, but none appears insurmountable. Provocateurs in both countries could undertake actions intended to torpedo the normalization process.  In addition, the Washington’s “democracy promotion” programs for Cuba – which are unlike any others around the world – will certainly strengthen hardliners in Havana arguing for a go-slow engagement with the U.S.  With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could suspend the Bush-era program to persuade Cuban doctors to defect to the United States, a policy that hinders bilateral medical cooperation and threatens to sour talks.
  • Hardliners in the U.S. Congress will continue to be rhetorically opposed to improved relations – because they oppose Cuba or Obama – but the Obama policy has plenty of running room before needing legislation to advance.
  • Cuba may have limited capacity to effectively manage the various processes of change in the bilateral relationship. This may slow down the process and dictate the need to proceed sequentially rather than along many fronts at once.
  • Several “wildcards” – including leadership changes – could impact the normalization process.

February 11, 2015

Argentina: Who killed Alberto Nisman?

By Fulton Armstrong

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo.  Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress.  Three main scenarios have emerged.

Scenario A:  Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing.  He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him.  Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.

Scenario B:  Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government.  Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known.  In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case.  (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.)  Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.

Scenario C:  In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine.  Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding.  Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE.  Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.

However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any.  CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret.  The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives.  Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects.  But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.

February 9, 2015

Elite Power and State Strength: A Timely Focus of Academic Studies

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

Insufficient state revenues are one fundamental reason that many Latin American governments fail to provide their citizens with adequate education, health care, public transportation, environmental protection and the physical and technological infrastructure needed to move their countries toward high-income country status.  As a whole, the region’s governments were able to spend only 14.8 and 15.25 percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  Rationalization of expenditures is a goal that can only be pursued in practice if there are adequate funds to begin with, and few Latin American states have that luxury.  (To be sure, even where states are well financed, as in Brazil and Argentina, governments typically fail to spend resources efficiently.)  Historically primitive and regressive tax systems have not evolved in a manner consistent with the development needs of the region.  During the second decade of the 21st century this remains a major obstacle for those who strive to build more effective and democratic states across Latin America.

Several ambitious new books in comparative political economy offer insightful and complementary analyses of the political conditions that perpetuate state weakness as well as the dynamics that offer hope of overcoming it.

  • Aaron Schneider’s 2012 Cambridge University Press volume on State-Building and Tax Regimes in Central America was an initial contribution to this emerging literature, linking that sub-region’s changing relationship to the world economy to aggressive efforts by different factions of the elite to fashion tax systems that reflect their narrow interests rather than a broader agenda of societal development.
  • A book that will be launched later this month in Guatemala City builds on this work by underscoring the importance of political contestation regarding the fiscal arena more broadly – encompassing state expenditure as well as revenue. That study, prepared under the auspices of CLALS and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), illustrates the ways in which Central American elites have exercised disproportionate influence to render states ineffective and regressive: they contribute little to state coffers and extract much from them, with consequences that diminish the life chances of a majority of that region’s population.
  • Tasha Fairfield’s conceptually ambitious and empirically rich comparative study of South American cases, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, is a landmark contribution to literature on elites and Latin American political economy. It consists of a thorough comparative analysis of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, revealing that strong business associations tied closely to the state augment elite capacity to block progressive tax reforms.  Conversely, she finds that social movement influence over the state can undermine elite capacity to resist the sorts of taxation needed to redistribute wealth.
  • Evelyne Huber and John Stephens demonstrated previously, in their 2012 University of Chicago Press book on democracy and the left, that there is a clear link between the capabilities of the political left in democratic regimes and the prospects for more equitable social policies in Latin America. Such policies, as this recent wave of publications make clear, will only come about if societies develop systems of taxation compatible with the emergence of effective states.

Scholarship on Latin American economic development has until recently devoted little attention to political power imbalances as drivers of state weakness and the consequent failure of societies across the region to forge pathways toward developed-country levels of income and opportunity.  These studies highlight the centrality of elite collective organization and behavior, as well as the political strength of countervailing forces in society, for determining levels of taxation across the region.  Taken as a whole, this welcome wave of social science research restores Latin American political economy to its rightful place as a domain of scholarship that speaks to the concrete challenges facing the region today and in the future.  Policymakers throughout the hemisphere who speak of democracy and economic growth need the clear analysis to progress that scholarly works such as these provide.

February 5, 2015

CELAC: Losing Relevance?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to normalize diplomatic relations could leave a big hole in the agenda of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met January 28-29 for its third heads of state Summit in San José, Costa Rica.  Raúl Castro kicked off last year’s summit, in Havana, with a speech decrying the United States NSA spying scandal.  In San José, he moderated his tone, noting that “our America has entered a new era” since CELAC was founded (2010) while also calling on the U.S. to end the trade embargo – a point other member states echoed – and to return the naval station at Guantanamo Bay.  In concrete terms, the results of last week’s CELAC summit were modest.  The technocratic goals of quantifying progress on poverty and technology development announced by Ecuador, the group’s 2015-2016 President Pro-Tempore, suggest no major changes are imminent.

Since President Chávez’s death March 5, 2013, the former leader’s Bolivarian vision of Latin American and Caribbean integration and unity has shown signs of weakening.  CELAC now faces even tougher challenges defining and defending its identity and mission beyond the creation of a common political space for regional decision making insulated from the U.S. and Canada.  With Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, losing support amid economic crisis, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) can no longer throw its weight around on the international scene.  Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas – increasing the likelihood of its participation in the OAS – is a major achievement but represents the loss of a major rallying point. 

Going forward, three issues will determine the groups trajectory.  The Cuba issue wont go away suddenly, but rapid change in U.S.-Cuba ties could reset hemispheric relations and leave CELACs mission muddled and potentially irrelevant.  Disagreement among CELAC members over issues such as Puerto Ricos status may create tensions, as they did when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave the island a high profile during the presidential plenary underlining the risks inherent in the unity within diversity principle embraced by CELAC.  (Ecuadoran President Correa, another ALBA supporter, chided Ortega.)  But perhaps the biggest determinant of the groups future relevance lies in its emerging relationship with ChinaA CELAC-China foreign ministers forum met in Beijing last month, formalizing the Asian nations relationship with CELAC.  The forum announced the 2015-2019 China-CELAC cooperation plan calling for the doubling of two-way trade and the increasing of Chinese investment in the region to $250 billion.  Exclusion of the U.S. and Canada may remain a tenet of CELACs platform, but the groups leaders may judge that its long-term relevance can be rescued by reaching out to China instead.

February 2, 2015

*Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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