Brazil on the Global Stage: Power, Ideas, and the International Order

By Matthew Taylor and Oliver Stuenkel*

Now available via Palgrave Macmillan.

Now available via Palgrave Macmillan.

Brazil has risen to become the seventh largest economy and fourth largest democracy in the world – yet its rise challenges the conventional wisdom that capitalist democracies will necessarily converge to become faithful adherents of a U.S.-led global liberal order.  Indeed, Brazil demonstrates that middle powers, even those of a deeply democratic bent, may offer important challenges to prevailing conceptions of the world order, differing in their views of what democracy means on the global stage and how international relations should be conducted among sovereign nations.  For Brazil, successful diplomacy involves an increased voice for the developing world, greater accountability in multilateral institutions, and a desire to reduce emphasis on coercive instruments.

  • Because the role of middle powers such as Brazil is often less easily understood in the realist terms that dominate U.S. foreign policy circles, its foreign policy stances are often portrayed by frustrated Washington officials as quixotic and naïve, or ridiculed as puerile and petulant third-worldist jabs at a stereotypical Tío Sam, intended only to win popular approval from a nationalistic and anti-American electorate. In fact, Brazilian foreign policy positions usually have deeper and more enduring origins, embedded within a deeply held set of beliefs that together shape Brazil’s rational strategic perspective on the structure of power in the world today.
  • Brazil’s new role on the world stage has much to do with the country’s success in addressing its own domestic challenges under a succession of democratically elected presidents. Over the past three decades, Brazil has left behind its history of economic disarray, established a robust democracy, and begun to address its record-setting inequality.  It has found paths past the hyperinflation and financial crises of the 1980s and 1990s, undertaken substantial institutional reforms to overhaul the gargantuan and inefficient public sector, and implemented highly regarded social policies.  Even its recent stumbles can be seen in the positive light of democratic progress: the demonstrations that took hold in many Brazilian cities in 2013 and 2014 can largely be attributed to a growing middle class impatient with the pace of change and increasingly conscious of its political rights, a direct consequence of the important successes of the past generation.  Although the country continues to face a number of domestic challenges, the gains of the past generation appear to have fostered an enduring intent to play a role on the world stage.

These conclusions and others are presented in a book entitled Brazil on the Global Stage: Power, Ideas, and the Liberal International Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), co-edited by Professors Matthew Taylor and Oliver Stuenkel.  The book is based on a conference sponsored jointly by American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and School of International Service, and includes contributions by eight faculty members from AU and Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), as well as experts from the Washington community.  It offers a general evaluation of Brazil’s stance toward global order, while also addressing its postures on specific aspects of governance, including trade, foreign and environmental policy, humanitarian intervention, nuclear proliferation, and South-South relations, among other topics.

May 21, 2015

*Professors Matthew Taylor and Oliver Stuenkel teach at American University’s School of International Service and the Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil, respectively.

Venezuela: Globovisión Doesn’t Show Strong Pro-Government Bias

By Mike Danielson, Michael McCarthy, and Paula Orlando*

Photo Credit: CLALS and Rodrigo Suarez / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: CLALS and Rodrigo Suarez / Flickr / Creative Commons

A study conducted by CLALS has revealed that, contrary to popular perception in Venezuela, Globovisión – standard bearer in news television for the opposition’s political agenda until a May 2013 ownership change – does not exhibit a strong pro-government bias.  Our report, Bias or Neutrality? An Assessment of Television News Coverage in Venezuela by Globovisión, concludes that Globovisión’s framing of the issues has tended to be neutral, and that there was no significant bias in favor of the government or the opposition.  To examine the station’s performance during the first 15 months of new ownership (May 2013-August 2014) – the previous owners felt compelled to sell after mounting fines caused them to operate at a loss – the study examined content during four critical junctures: the 2013 municipal elections, street demonstrations in 2014, the international attempts to mediate Venezuela’s internal political crisis, and shortages of basic goods.  Using content analysis to examine coverage of government and opposition representatives, the favorability of the presentation and portrayal of prominent individuals and organizations, and the choice of issues and perspectives receiving coverage, the review concluded:

  • Non-partisan actors received most coverage (45.3 percent), and pro-government and pro-opposition partisans were equally likely to receive attention (28.4 and 26.3 percent, respectively).  Even in the instances that a small pro-opposition bias was found, pro-opposition voices received only slightly more visibility in terms of total on-air minutes – receiving 37.5 percent, while 33.6 percent went to pro-government partisans, and 28.9 percent went to nonpartisan actors.
  • Pro-opposition perspectives were favored in the periods focused on the municipal elections and street demonstrations, and coverage was more neutral when focused on the international dimensions of the crisis and the shortages of basic goods.
  • There was, however, a pro-government slant regarding story placement, as stories that were more favorable to the Administration of President Nicolás Maduro tended to “lead” as the first stories in a news broadcast.

Privately owned news media in Venezuela face numerous challenges to providing visibility and fair depiction to sharply different perspectives on enormously controversial events.  Although this report calls attention to the need to reassess the perception that Globovisión is strongly biased in favor of the government, notable holes in the channels news coverage suggest international concerns about press freedom issues in Venezuela remain justified.  For example, the case of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López received less attention from Globovisión than from international outlets such as CNN en español or NTN24.  Additionally, footage of former presidential candidate and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles was shown 11 times in the studys sample, but Capriles was not an interview guest on any of the Globovisión programs.  President Maduro, on the other hand, appeared 42 times (beyond government-controlled network broadcasts called cadenas). In spite of Venezuela’s chronic political crisis and extremely difficult political circumstances and the related pressures on news media, Globovision coverage, on balance, was not significantly biased either in favor or against the government.

May 19, 2015

*Mike Danielson (Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University), Michael McCarthy, and Paula Orlando are CLALS fellows.  Click here to see their full report and here to see their interview with Voice of America.

Peru: The Shuffling Continues

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

President Humala Ollanta’s new prime minister – his seventh in less than four years – won a vote of confidence in Congress two weeks ago, but odds are that his government won’t be much more popular than those of his six predecessors.  Pedro Cateriano, who had served for three years as Humala’s Minister of Defense, was sworn in on April 2, after the Congress turned against Prime Minister Ana Jara over a spy scandal involving Chile.  (The Chileans, whose intelligence service allegedly recruited several Peruvian Marines in 2005-2012, ended the crisis last week after providing what the Peruvians said were “satisfactory explanations” and pledges to “cease old practices” that have been negative for bilateral relations.)  Fulfilling constitutional requirements, Cateriano and his cabinet presented their program to the Congress on April 28 for the vote of confidence, in which there were 73 votes in favor, 10 against, and 39 abstentions.  The government team reiterated a commitment to reduce inequality, remove obstacles to investment, and improve education, health care, and other social services.

Like Humala’s first four years in office, his remaining 14 months (he can’t run again) appear likely to feature a mix of successes and stubborn challenges.

  • Peru’s economy is doing better than most others in Latin America – 2.4 percent growth in 2014 and slightly more than 3 percent projected for this year – but a drop in Chinese demand for Peruvian copper has depressed prices 6.4 percent last year and more than 13 percent this. (Metals account for 60 percent of Peru’s export earnings.)  This has been a drag on growth and caused the trade deficit to rise to $2.5 billion in 2014 and even higher in 2015.  Humala has increased spending, and poverty reduction programs have lifted about a million Peruvians out of “extreme poverty” since he took office, while inflation remains low – about 3 percent a year.
  • Under Humala, Peru is also grappling with image problems abroad. His administration has strenuously rejected a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take up the cases of 64 persons tried for terrorism during previous governments – a process that threatens to disrupt delicate political balances in Peru.  Press freedom in Peru was also downgraded in Freedom House’s most recent report.  With a score of 47, the country is still ranked ahead of others in the region (Ecuador has 64; Bolivia 47; Honduras 68; and Venezuela 81), but it slipped three points because of “an increase in death threats and violence against journalists, ongoing impunity for past crimes, and a lack of political will to address the problem.”
  • The decline in metals earnings has fueled internal tensions as the government has attempted increasingly aggressive policies to open new areas to mining and accelerate mining projects in the pipeline. The mobilization of military troops last week to quell protests over a new $1.4 billion mining project in the south, which have already resulted in the death of three police and several civilians, poses a real problem.

Humala is by no means unique in suffering a contradiction between basically sound economic performance and chronic inability to sustain domestic political support.  His predecessors have suffered variations of the same malady, rooted in part in the country’s notorious lack of a functioning political party system.  But with seven different prime ministers, his government has looked particularly disorganized.  He has arguably been a competent manager but an ineffective leader – muddling through rather than executing a vision for a better future for Peru.  In the runup to winning his vote of confidence, Cateriano showed strong, consultative political skills in garnering the support of most former Peruvian Presidents, but overcoming the administration’s lame-duck status amidst growing conflict over metals extraction and the beginning of campaigning for the 2016 election will be a constant challenge.  And this government’s experience, like that of its predecessors, suggests that his successor will also face powerful headwinds in a persistently fragmented political landscape.

May 11, 2015

Puerto Rico: Debt and Budget Crisis

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Erica Feliciano / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Erica Feliciano / Flickr / Creative Commons

Puerto Rico’s debt and budget crises – worsened by the legislature’s rejection last week of the governor’s proposed fiscal reforms – threatens to plunge the island into a deeper, longer-term depression and is already causing tensions with Washington.  The government and state-run corporations are $73 billion in debt, with little prospect of paying it off.  The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) alone owes investors, mostly based on Wall Street, about $9 billion.  Last year, the government restructured about $19 billion of PREPA, the water company, and the highway administration’s debt – giving itself barely a year’s breathing room.  The inability to make good has caused internal political tensions and thrust the government into the danger of defaulting, which would shut off access to much-needed credit for potentially years to come.  Hedge funds and others have been buying Puerto Rican paper at deeply discounted rates.

No solution seems possible to make good on such monstrous debt.  Governor García Padilla last year took steps to rein in spending and dramatically reduce the deficit – from $2.2 billion to $200 million a year.  Government personnel have declined by 16,000 positions without disruptive layoffs.  But such measures have barely made a dent in the $73 billion in outstanding liability.  García Padilla has been reluctant to fight PREPA over its inefficient management structure, force it to shift away from expensive hydrocarbons (which account for 98 of electricity production), and adopt renewable energy sources.  The legislature last week killed the centerpiece of his budget reform – a 16 percent value-added tax – and further complicated efforts to persuade lenders that the debt will be paid.  A broader economic slowdown over the past decade, with even tourism registering declines, has been a key factor.  The Governor’s biggest hope at this time seems to be legislation in Washington, introduced by Puerto Rico’s non-voting member in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would allow the corporations to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy – which Puerto Rico (unlike the 50 states) is forbidden to do under current federal law.

The economic crisis is triggering a political crisis on the island and potentially in relations with Washington.  As Argentina’s failure to make good on its debts has demonstrated, U.S. hedge funds have extraordinary clout and will use it to block anything that lets Puerto Rico off the hook, reducing the chances that Representative Pedro Pierluisi’s bill will pass to practically nil.  The United States may press the island harder to reform its inefficient corporations, but it will ultimately have no option but to watch the crisis deepen.  The situation will give greater urgency to another referendum on Puerto Rico’s status, which the Governor said will take place in 2016, with two contradictory trends at play.  While many Puerto Ricans undoubtedly resent aspects of Washington’s attitudes toward the island, polls show no change in single-digit support for independence.  Most Boricuas, if nothing else, value their U.S. citizenship and the ability to move stateside if conditions on the island get much worse.  Even if the debt crisis frays relations with Washington, inertia argues for no redefinition of the relationship.  There is little indication that Washington will clarify the island’s status unless Puerto Ricans become a factor in Florida during the 2016 presidential campaign.

May 7, 2015

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Honduras: Dare Anyone Criticize?

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez Honduras

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision last week by the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court to legalize presidential reelection appears to have benefited a man – current President Juan Orlando Hernández – whose political fortunes got a shot in the arm from the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya for proposing a constitutional assembly to consider just such an action.  A Liberal Party magistrate said he wanted to recant his vote the next day, but the ruling party published the decision in the Gaceta Oficial before he could.  The Supreme Court, ruling in favor of petitions by former Nationalist President Rafael Callejas and several members of Hernández’s National Party, repealed two key articles of the Honduran Constitution, including one that says “the citizen who has served as the head of the executive power cannot be president or presidential candidate.”  Callejas immediately announced that he was resurrecting his Callejista movement, called MONARCA, which won him the presidency in 1990, and his campaign literature appeared in the streets of Tegucigalpa soon after.

The Court did not explicitly overturn Article 4 of the Constitution, which states that an “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the republic is obligatory.”  That action reportedly will fall to the National Party-led Congress, but President Hernández is almost universally seen as the big winner from the Court decision, culminating his effort to continue as President.  After the coup that removed Zelaya from power, Hernández had a hand in congressional strategies to give a constitutional and legal framework – widely debunked – to Zelaya’s military ouster and later, while serving as president of the Honduran Congress and while campaigning for president, Hernández engineered the removal of four of the five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and replaced them with more sympathetic judges.  He subsequently had a role in selecting a replacement for the fifth, who became Attorney General – making for a court unanimously indebted to him.  (He was sworn in as national President in January 2014.)  Reacting to the court decision last week, Hernández noted that “reelection is something that is a general rule around the world … Prohibition of it is the exception … [and] Honduras has to make progress.”  His opponents have vowed to fight the repeal.  Leaders of the Partido de Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) have accused the justices of “betrayal of the fatherland.”  One said the court “guaranteed the impunity” of the Hernández government, but the opposition’s legislative strategies have failed before.

Representing Central America’s most violent and most corrupt nation, President Hernández is seen in Washington as essential to success of U.S. policy in Central America and initiatives such as the “Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle.”  With a request for a billion dollars on its way to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration can ill afford to point out Hernández’s hypocrisy for doing what he condemned former President Zelaya for trying to do in 2009.  Political inconveniences aside, the political cynicism and tensions that his and former President Callejas’s maneuvering will incite in violence-ravaged Honduras can hardly be seen as helpful to the goals of good governance and democratic consolidation that all profess.  When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engineered a similar judgment by his Supreme Court in 2009, allowing him to run for an additional term, the State Department did not mince words about its “concern” for its implications.  Hernández, in contrast, was in Washington securing support for funding when his court announced its decision.  The U.S. Southern Command’s new task force of some 250 Marines is expected to arrive in Honduras and begin training of security forces involved in “fighting the drug traffickers.”

May 1, 2015

While Mexican Government Resists Scrutiny on Rights, Citizens Welcome It

By David Crow*

"Do you how many migrants have died this year in Mexico? The government doesn't either." Photo Credit: Grupo Cinco Amnistía Internacional México / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Do you how many migrants have died this year in Mexico? The government doesn’t either.” Photo Credit: Grupo Cinco Amnistía Internacional México / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Mexican government is rejecting recent criticism of its human rights record, but its citizens welcome it as necessary to hold the government to account on its international rights commitments.  Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (and Professor of Human Rights Law at American University) released a scathing report on Mexico last month, revealing that torture continues to be “widespread” and occurs at every level of government and in every security agency.  Mexico’s Foreign Ministry vociferously challenged the report and indulged in ad hominem attacks against Méndez, branding him “unprofessional and unethical.”  According to Méndez, the Mexican government had pressured him to tone down the report’s findings, but he refused because it proffered no evidence that the report was wrong.  Mexico’s strategy of denying the obvious – the ubiquity of torture is well documented – has been a public relations disaster, according to human rights and international relations experts.  It is rooted in a deep-seated historical aversion to outside prying.  The cornerstone of Mexican foreign policy, the 1930 “Estrada Doctrine,” has meant abstaining from passing judgment on other governments – and Mexico expects the same in return.  Though Mexico is signatory to a number of international rights protocols (including the Convention on Torture), the Méndez kerfuffle seems to betray an atavistic revulsion to external scrutiny.

Ordinary Mexicans, however, do not toe the government line on sovereignty.  They reject the notion that rights are conduits for foreign interests, view international organizations favorably, and welcome international oversight – particularly if it’s not from the United States.   The Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico (in The Americas and the World and the University of Minnesota  (Human Rights Perceptions Polls) teamed up last year to probe Mexicans’ views on human rights.

  • Asked “[h]ow much does promoting U.S. interests have to do with what you understand human rights to be?” Mexicans averaged just 3.0 on a 1-7 scale (anything under 4 indicates disagreement and anything over, agreement).
  • Mexicans also reject the notion that human rights “spread foreign values” (3.2).
  • In contrast, they strongly support the idea that rights “protect against torture and murder” (5.5).
  • Mexicans view international organizations favorably, awarding the United Nations and Amnesty International scores of 65 and 60 (out of 100), respectively – the two highest ratings of all organizations evaluated.
  • And 50% of the public said UN supervision would “help the human rights situation” (36% felt it wouldn’t), while 48% viewed monitoring by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights favorably (35%, unfavorably). Mexicans split over U.S. supervision: just 43% said it would help, compared to 46% who said it wouldn’t.  Nonetheless, that 43% are willing to accept U.S. oversight is perhaps a measure of just how bad things have gotten.

While a “multilateral turn” is occurring among its citizens, the Mexican government can’t seem to break free from the old isolationism, with serious implications for the country.  The horrifying rights situation dominates international perceptions of Mexico and, along with persistent high-level corruption, threatens to derail President Peña Nieto’s reform agenda, scaring off risk-averse potential foreign investors and weakening his hand domestically with Congress and the public at large.  To reverse these trends, Mexico must make strides, quickly, to improve observance of rights.  International pressure – “naming and shaming” of rights violators – is a key ingredient.  As its citizens have done, the Mexican government must embrace, not shun, international involvement.

April 27, 2015

*David Crow is an Assistant Professor in the International Studies Division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE, Mexico City).

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Political Step Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists will use guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don't Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists used guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don’t Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.” Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign / Flickr / Creative Commons

The chairmen of key U.S. Congressional committees agreed on legislation allowing President Obama to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, but major political and substantive obstacles to an agreement remain. The leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees announced the move, with the key Democratic senator involved claiming that the Obama Administration had addressed his deep concerns about the secrecy of the talks. If passed, their bill would give the President “fast-track” trade authority – power to negotiate an accord that the Senate would eventually vote on but without the power to amend it, which would significantly increase chances of passage. Obama’s advisors have called TPP the “cornerstone” of his Asia policy, and the President said last week that it would help “make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.” Supporters estimate that TPP would stimulate growth by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers affecting $2 trillion of goods and services (about one-third of global trade) each year among its 12 members.*

Opposition in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere remains intense, however. The Senate Democratic whip, charged with tallying support and opposition, stated that only one-quarter of Senate Democrats support the measure – and those opponents have made clear their concerns about the implications for U.S. workers and consumers. Although tariffs are on the table, most observers say the focus of the negotiations is on “harmonizing” regulations, which big multinational corporations – which have access to the talks that citizens’ groups lack – systematically seek to eliminate. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are pushing hard for extending patents and trademarks so that cheaper generic medications cannot be sold. Critics say revisions to copyright and trademark provisions would also have implications for public information and the internet. Industry is seeking to roll back environmental protections in place since the early 1970s. The negotiations have been secret, but a leaked chapter of the draft agreement revealed that companies were gaining the right to sue governments if any regulatory action ever caused their profits to fall short of target – a massive burden on budgets.

The lack of transparency, which the leading Senate Democrat claims has been addressed, may have stoked opponents’ concerns. But the differences between U.S. backers and opponents appear significant and unlikely to fade without some serious political horse-trading, which the Obama Administration has been unwilling to do. In his statement last week, Obama admitted that “it’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise” – particularly regarding job creation – but neither he nor the Congressional chairmen have provided hard data showing that dismantling a host of regulations to accommodate corporate agendas will help consumers and un- or under-employed U.S. workers. If history is any guide, the Latin American signatories – Mexico, Chile and Peru – may see a favorable impact regarding employment in certain sectors, and others may see it as the only game in trade right now and thus worth trying to join, but Washington’s vision of TPP as primarily an Asia policy – to counter Chinese influence – suggests that they too see the advantages of participation accruing across the Pacific rather than to the north.

* Currently envisioned as members are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam: Korea last week expressed interest in joining the talks, but the United States told it to wait. Colombia is interested, and Panama and Costa Rica seek membership in the “Pacific Alliance,” which is related to TPP.

April 20, 2015

Corruption in Chile and Brazil

By Luciano Melo

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Pres. Rousseff (l) and Chilean Pres. Bachelet. Photo Credit: UN Women / Flickr / Creative Commons

A growing perception of corruption in Latin America, most recently in Brazil and Chile, is eroding confidence in two of the region’s most dynamic presidents – Dilma Rousseff and Michelle Bachelet.  The Chilean and Brazilian corruption cases are both serious, but differing perceptions and expectations in the two countries suggest the scandals will have different impacts.

  • Chile has long been the darling of economists and political scientists (and U.S. policymakers) in terms of democratic maturity, economic development, and transparency. The use of political influence to secure millions of dollars in sweetheart loans there has pulled the country down from its high perch, and since the issue directly touched President Michelle Bachelet’s own family members, it has become a huge deal in and outside Chile.
  • Although among the six main economies in the world and alone among the BRIC countries in boasting a stable democratic system, Brazil, by contrast, has repeatedly been tainted by corruption scandals that would lead to the fall of most Scandinavian governments in a matter of days. Former President Lula’s son became a millionaire while his father was in power, yet this fact hardly stained the ex-President’s popularity.  The scandals weighing down President Dilma Rousseff are different.  Brazilian citizens customarily have thought of Petrobras, one of the few remaining state enterprises after the wave of privatizations under President Cardoso during the 1990s, as a great source of national pride, and this sentiment was encouraged by the PT government, never a fan of the neoliberal predilections of its predecessor.  So when the scandal touched almost all of the party’s leaders, in addition to the prized national oil company, even Brazilians inured to corruption felt pain. Moreover, Lula and Dilma’s party, the PT, had promised to do politics in a different way.  As a union leader and a woman who fought against the dictatorship, respectively, they represented the rise to power of leaders based entirely outside the traditional parties and their murky ways of doing business.  Now, some of Dilma’s disillusioned supporters are demanding her impeachment, and many famous artists who once endorsed the PT are feeling betrayed.

Latin American voters have long manifested contrasting expectations of their presidents – cynicism about their venal nature coincided, as Latin America specialist Guillermo O’Donnell once said, with hope that they be “acclaimed saviors.”  Within the codependent relationship between citizens and politicians, trust is impaired once betrayal surfaces, but the marriage normally continues.  In some cases of rupture, as happened with impeached President Fernando Collor in 1992, it hasn’t meant the end of the political affair.  In the October 2014 elections Collor was reelected as Senator for the state of Alagoas.  Dilma and Bachelet have already said they will not resign, and that they intend to implement a comprehensive cleanup.  The road will be easier for Bachelet.  The Chilean scandal is still small and remains manageable, and although the decline in commodity prices has already  affected the country’s economy, further taxing Bachelet’s popularity, Chile has a sovereign reserve fund to cushion any blows.  For Dilma the conjuncture is considerably bleaker.  She was on the board of Petrobras while its executives were engaged in costly shenanigans, and it is now known that the fraudulent scheming also involved the Health Ministry and the state-owned bank Caixa Economica Federal.  And in Brazil, in contrast to Chile, the fiscal situation is sufficiently tight as to constrain the president’s room to maneuver as the commodity-driven economy stagnates.  At this point both women appear likely to survive their challenges, but the road ahead looks a lot tougher for Dilma than for Bachelet.

April 16, 2015

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