Top Five Events of 2012

A poll of contributors to AULABLOG identified the following five events (listed below in no particular order) as the most important in Latin America in 2012.  We welcome you to post your own list using the Leave a Comment link below.

By: Matt Westgate "Mettamatt" | Flickr | Creative Commons

By: Matt Westgate “Mettamatt” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s third major cancer surgery signaled that change – probably profound – will come to Venezuela much faster than his presidential campaign let on.  We expect growing tensions among his aides, none of whom has his charisma or base, as they jockey in a succession scenario.  We’ll be watching whether the PSUV can become an institutionalized mechanism for channeling Chavismo’s support into a governing project in the post-Chavez era.

The election and inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signals a natural swing back to PRI leadership after 12 years of PAN governments.  Differences over the approach to counternarcotics might flare up in an overall smooth relationship with the United States, but the new president’s biggest challenge is going to be overcoming the persistent economic backwardness that has kept Mexico from achieving the economic growth of others since the turn of the century.

The ouster of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo last June – as well as the United States and Latin America’s ambivalent reaction to it – was a dramatic illustration that democracy in the region rests on a tenuous foundation of sometimes contradictory constitutions and weak institutions.  The continuing struggle of Honduran President Pepe Lobo, three-plus years after the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya, shows that failure to bring those whose power grabs violate laws and the spirit of law to account sows the seeds of long-term instability and even greater threats to democracy.

The Colombian peace talks, the first serious attempt in 10 years at resolving the decades-old conflict, could lead to a watershed in that country’s development.  President Juan Manuel Santos has shown strong leadership, despite incessant carping from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and has smartly acknowledged that success in the talks is far from certain.  If the talks are successful, 2013 could be a defining moment for a country already experiencing strong economic growth and an important degree of social progress.

Washington continued to sit on the sidelines on most regional issues.  President Obama got a spanking at the Summit of Americas from even perennially friendly governments for Washington’s approach to counternarcotics (overly militarized) and Cuba (stuck in the Cold War).  He was silent on Latin America during the campaign, and his rhetoric of “partnership” and “neighborhood” remained unfulfilled.  Although the President won kudos for implementing elements of the Dream Act by Presidential Directive, the Administration boasted of deporting more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, the most of any year in the nation’s history.  The region is likely to remain eager for U.S. leadership on issues of mutual interest in 2013, but most countries’ blossoming dealings with Europe, Asia and even Africa suggest they’re not going to sit around waiting for the U.S. to take up the challenge.

Cumbritis and Prospects for Latin American Regionalism

By Carlos Portales
Washington College of Law and Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

UNASUR Cumbre by  Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

UNASUR Cumbre by Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America has experienced a veritable proliferation of presidential summits (cumbres) in recent years, an indication of how the hemisphere’s complex web of regional ties is shuffling the landscape of multilateral organizations. This trend was manifested in the Nov. 16-17 Iberoamerican Summit in Cadiz, Spain, followed in quick succession by summits for UNASUR on Nov. 30 and MERCOSUR on Dec. 7. The New Year will witness two summits in Santiago, Chile, the first between the European Union and Latin American and Caribbean States, the second among Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  While sometimes useful in isolation, the cumulative impact of these meetings may be less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the region may be suffering a bout of cumbritis that is as distortive as it is productive.

The Cadiz summit reflected Spanish determination to sustain an Ibero-American bloc amidst its own profound crisis. Spain’s investments in Ibero-America, particularly in banking and telecommunications, are keeping alive important sectors of the Spanish economy. When the VI UNASUR Summit met in Lima two weeks later, the Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and suspended Paraguay were all absent. Still, the meeting reaffirmed UNASUR’s role in political and military matters: UNASUR was active in the crisis in Paraguay, sent its first-ever electoral mission to Venezuela, the South American Defense Council provides coordination in defense industries and natural disaster responses, and aspires to support protection of human rights.

The following week in Brasilia, MERCOSUR formally incorporated Venezuela and signed an adhesion protocol with Bolivia. However, as Tom Long wrote in “Mercosur’s future: Whither economics?” on Dec. 18, MERCOSUR’s expanding breadth masks a lack of depth. The trade bloc has not agreed on a common external tariff, and integration has stalled as Argentina and Brazil adopted unilateral protectionist measures both during and after the global financial crisis. Though its market is growing, MERCOSUR’s ability to negotiate with third parties is limited. The countries most interested in boosting trade have split off on their own under the loose Pacific Alliance (PA), whose Presidents met on the sidelines during the Cadiz summit. Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have set high targets for the reduction of customs duties and plan on reducing visa requirements for their citizens while already having FTAs with the US and Europe.  Chile and Peru have reached similar accords with China and other main Asian countries. However, the Alliance is primarily an informal gathering of free-trade-minded presidents, and so far institutionalization is minimal.

Brazil is leading South America-centered institutions (UNASUR and MERCOSUR) when it perceives that these suit its interests; The Venezuela-led ALBA has lost steam due in part to President Chavez’s illness; the PA process remains low-key and trade centered. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States risks irrelevance. Its robust human rights system has come under attack from ALBA countries and others, while four ranking members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee have lambasted its leadership publically. The OAS may not be unsalvageable, and it remains potentially useful, though that potential will only be realized if the United States endeavors to support rather than undermine its efforts.

And Summits alone will not ensure the success of any of these multilateral forums: increasingly ubiquitous conversations among presidents can be effective for defusing immediate crises and for establishing guidelines for cooperation, but their long-term impact on policy coordination will be limited if they are not matched by analogous cross-national dialogue among key government ministries. The symptoms of chronic cumbritis lie in the failure of many presidential declarations to result in concrete advances in cooperation.

Mercosur’s Future: Whither Economics?

By Tom Long

Mercosur’s December 6 meeting in Brasilia might seem to be a watershed. The organization formally integrated Venezuela and signed adhesion agreements with Bolivia. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was in attendance, too, along with officials from other South American countries. The bloc was established starting in 1991, with goals of removing internal tariffs, setting a common external tariff, coordinating commercial policies, and harmonizing regulations. An unwritten objective was to spur industrialization and decrease dependence on foreign manufactures. Yet more than twenty years on, Mercosur appears to be further than ever from establishing a common market. The Inter-American Development Bank notes that Brazil and Argentina have traded protectionist measures, and that “Buy Brazil” provisions in government procurement have been a bilateral irritant.

Mercosur

Expanding breadth masks decreasing depth. While both Mercosur’s total trade and trade among its members have grown greatly over the past decade, the former has outpaced the later.  WTO data show that intra-regional trade as a percentage of total trade has declined from 31 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2011. Instead of being driven by integration, MERCOSUR’s trade patterns are propelled by skyrocketing trade with Asia, led by Argentine and Brazilian commodity exports. In this light, the failure of late October meetings between Mercosur and the European Union suggest that China has taken the place of Europe.

Evaluated from a strictly economic perspective, Mercosur’s recent expansion represents a step backwards. The inclusion of Bolivia will not add much economic heft to the pact, and with the addition of each new member, reaching consensus will become even more difficult. The full membership of Venezuela increases the bloc’s size, but also its dependence on natural-resource exports. Neither newcomer—nor the two original heavyweights—appear committed to the original common market mission. Is the bloc’s raison d’etre shifting from the economic to the political? If so, what will be Mercosur’s relation to ALBA and UNASUR? Whereas Brazil was never fully comfortable with the Bolivarian Alliance—in part because of the anti-U.S. tone—it has now brought ALBA’s two most committed members to its own table. Inside Mercosur, Brazil has a greater voice than it does in UNASUR, but the hijacking of a potentially important trade alliance masks a lack of economic leadership for South America.

After Chávez?

Photo by:     UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala | Flickr | Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s solemn appearance on national television on December 8 may have marked more than his departure for a fourth round of cancer treatment in Cuba.  His designation of Vice President and former Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro as his successor in the event he could not continue his duties indicated an initial farewell from politics as well – with wide-ranging implications in- and outside Venezuela.  Chávez asked “with all my heart” that his supporters elect Maduro to continue the Bolivarian revolution in the event of his death or inability to continue his mandate, with a clear eye to the constitutional requirement for emergency elections to be held within just 30 days should the president die or become incapacitated within the first four years of the term.  On Tuesday, Maduro announced that the president was recuperating after a six-hour procedure in Havana.  He did not declare a sure and speedy recovery but rather asked for Venezuelans’ prayers.

Speculation about the domestic scenario, including struggles within the ruling party, is intense.  Maduro’s most frequently mentioned rival to succeed Chávez is Diosdado Cabello, who was also alongside Chávez as he made the announcement last week.  While Maduro and Cabello both have had years of government experience and demonstrated political loyalty, questions remain about whether they – or anyone else – could replicate Chávez’s connection with poor voters and keep their weak political party together.  Informed speculation about the long-term impact on the region, if the succession stumbles, ranges from predictions of a cutoff of subsidies and subsidized oil, that would destabilize Cuba, Nicaragua and others to, among those who never saw Chávez as effective regionally, shrugged shoulders.

An even greater unknown is how well the opposition would do in the event of a snap election.  It is far from certain that these forces would re-unite around former candidate Henrique Capriles so shortly after he lost the October 2012 election.  The new system of primary elections that produced the single candidate last year would be difficult to replicate so quickly.  With both the ruling and opposition parties vulnerable to tensions and splits, a scenario of instability could easily result.  If Chávez’s health permits, he could conceivably resign the presidency and oversee elections that, although probably skewed, will help maintain the institutional order. If Venezuela is indeed on the brink of a succession process, the fortunes of both Chavismo and the opposition, and indeed of the Venezuelan population, will depend in large part on the capacity of both sides to maintain unity around alternative candidates for the Presidency.

ICJ Decision on Colombia-Nicaragua Dispute Settles Little

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados "orianauta" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo: Patricia Iriarte Diaz Granados “orianauta” | Flickr | Creative Commons

The decision announced last month by the International Court of Justice on a three-decade maritime dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia has pleased Managua and angered Colombia.  The court confirmed Colombia’s sovereignty over seven islets known as San Andrés and Providencia, but it extended Nicaragua’s sovereignty over 200 nautical miles.  The ruling means that, although Colombian jurisdiction includes a 12-mile radius around the islands, Nicaragua will control a much bigger area of the Caribbean – and greater access to fishing grounds and potential underwater oil deposits.

Colombia has rejected the ICJ verdict; refused to withdraw its navy from the contested waters; and withdrawn from the Pact of Bogotá, which recognizes ICJ jurisdiction.  Foreign Minister Holguín said Colombia wants to protect itself from future challenges to Colombian territory.  This position has implications for its neighbors.  Colombia’s withdrawal leaves a pending case brought against it by Ecuador regarding harm caused by herbicides from aerial fumigation near its border.  It also shifts back into bilateral renegotiations Colombia’s dispute with Venezuela over the Gulf of Venezuela, which Colombia had often proposed taking to the ICJ.  According to press reports, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras did not see themselves affected by the ICJ decision.

While ICJ decisions are final and cannot be appealed, the Court lacks the means to enforce them.  Colombia’s rejection of the ruling suggests it will take advantage of that, setting itself and Nicaragua on a collision course that will undoubtedly raise tensions in the region.  (Non-enforcement is an old problem.  The United States got the UN Security Council to support it in rejecting an ICJ decision in the 1980s that Nicaragua was entitled to reparations for U.S. support of the Contras.)  Even if the countries don’t come to blows, the dispute puts regional cooperation in crucial areas, such as counternarcotics, at risk.  It also raises questions about the willingness of countries to work with multilateral institutions.  The ALBA countries support ICJ jurisdiction now, but Colombia’s position probably will embolden them to reject it if inconvenient in the future.  Maritime disputes appear to be increasing worldwide, and Central America promises to be no different.

Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.

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