U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016

The Zika Virus and a New Debate on Reproductive Rights

By Rachel Nadelman*

Zika Women

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson and PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

The call by half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean governments for women to put off pregnancies – as the World Health Organization warns the feared Zika virus is “spreading explosively” – is stimulating a new debate on reproductive rights in the region.  El Salvador’s Health Ministry has urged women to “avoid becoming pregnant this year and next,” and Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia, and others are issuing similar advisories.  A mosquito-borne disease spreading rapidly in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, Zika is blamed for causing devastating neurological birth defects in newborns whose mothers contract the virus during pregnancy.  The U.S. Center on Disease Control has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to the more than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries now hosting the disease.

Named for the Uganda forest where it was discovered in the late 1940s, Zika is carried and transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, best known as the vector for life-threatening viruses like yellow fever and dengue.  Within the Western Hemisphere, the Aedes population has increased drastically in recent years, linked by scientists to changes in climate.  Yet Zika’s arrival in Latin America last year, first documented in Brazil, and subsequent expansion did not attract major attention until the pattern of birth defects emerged.  Zika’s symptoms are sometimes imperceptible or typically mild, including fever, joint aches, and conjunctivitis, so health officials did not consider it a major threat to the general population.  Although definitive clinical proof is still lacking, Zika is now linked to microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that causes children to be born with small heads because of abnormal brain development in the womb or immediately after birth.  The emergence of Zika in Latin America has coincided with a more than 20-fold increase in the incidence of microcephaly.  (Brazil has reported 4,000 cases in the past year, a drastic increase from just 150 in 2014).  The babies suffer from poor brain function and reduced life expectancy.  Doctors are finding traces of the virus in the brains of microcephaly-inflicted babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth.

Warnings and advisories offer no help to the millions of women who live in afflicted countries.  Governments are launching fumigation programs to reduce the Aedes mosquito population and thereby limit disease transmission.  Asking populations to refrain from having children appears a bit facile, if not cynical, in a region with low levels of access to birth control for reasons that range from religious dictates to economic obstacles.  Severely restrictive abortion laws also complicate potential parents’ options.  Five Latin American countries (including Honduras and El Salvador, hard hit by Zika) ban abortion without exception, even to save the mother’s life.  Others criminalize abortion with few allowances.  According to the Guttmacher institute, 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe, contributing to high maternal mortality rates. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Zika’s link to these devastating birth defects has generated unprecedented public discussion throughout Latin America about women’s and families’ rights and responsibilities for taking control of reproduction.  It is far too early to know if the health advisories will have practical impact on the incidence of microcephaly – or on attitudes toward reproductive rights over the longer term.   

February 1, 2016

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on El Salvador’s decision to leave its gold resources unmined.

Haiti: Postponed Elections, Ever-Deepening Crisis

By Emma Fawcett*

Haiti Elections 2016

Photo Credit: mackendy mentor, Kurious, and KeshtoKar (modified) / YouTube, Pixabay, and Wikimedia Commons / Licensed for noncommercial reuse

Postponement of Haiti’s protracted electoral process has triggered a seemingly existential crisis.  The January 24 vote, a runoff to select a president, was postponed indefinitely in the face of violent protests challenging the legitimacy of the first round in October.  Those elections trimmed the field of 54 presidential candidates down to two: President Martelly’s hand-picked successor, banana exporter Jovenel Moïse, and opposition candidate Jude Célestin.  While that round was mostly peaceful and the vote tallies were upheld by most outside observers (including the OAS), Haitian human rights groups and dissidents cited widespread cases of fraud and other irregularities.  Célestin disputed the count and boycotted the runoff, which he says Martelly rigged to install Moïse.  Martelly has dismissed the accusations, and the embattled Provisional Electoral Council has been unable to assuage the opposition alliance’s concerns.  Last week’s postponement of the runoff was the second, but the clock is ticking louder now because Martelly is scheduled to, and reaffirmed his intent to, step down on February 7.

  • The postponement triggered international pleas for a speedy resolution. The U.S. State Department condemned “electoral intimidation, destruction of property, and violence”; while the OAS, the UN, and the EU all issued calls for Haitians to come together to end the crisis.

International efforts to foster elections as a means of laying groundwork for political and economic stability in Haiti have repeatedly stumbled, even when stretching the rules to accommodate Haitian reality.  The OAS and the State Department intervened on Martelly’s behalf in the 2011 election by pushing him into the runoff and asking opponents to stand down.  In addition to providing up to $4 billion dollars in economic and reconstruction aid, the United States has since spent more than $30 million on the elections, and continued to push for them to go ahead as recently as January 21.  But these efforts have backfired, as members of opposition parties, the Haitian private sector, and the Catholic Church regard the electoral process as illegitimate and increasingly resent what they feel is U.S. interference.  The political crisis also jeopardizes economic development that Washington has encouraged.  Royal Caribbean, a cruise line that leases a recreational area on Haiti’s northern coast, skipped its port call in Labadie several times over the past week because small boats of protesters approached its ships. Protesters also threw rocks at the windows of the new Marriott hotel in Port-au-Prince.

Haitian democracy is – yet again – at a perilous juncture.  Martelly’s departure from office on February 7 will be disruptive, but his strong-arm tactics and entourage of shady characters threatened a peaceful transition of power anyway.  (His critics point out that an extension of his term in office is what he has sought all along.)  U.S. officials have spoken publicly of a transitional government emerging, but selecting one and imbuing it with credibility will be a massive task.  Business leaders have proposed that a “consensus” prime minister head an interim government for six months, during which a new Electoral Council would coordinate new elections, but the negotiations lack transparency.  If the government, the protesters, and the business community are unable to reach an agreement – as seems likely at this point – Haiti will face a power vacuum with increased violence that will be even more difficult to resolve. 

January 28, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

El Chapo’s Recapture: A Fictionalized Reality Show

By Núria Vilanova*

Chapo Kate Penn Film

Photo Credit: Abd allah Foteih, Fanpage.- & Sachyn Mital – (modified) / Flickr & Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent interview granted by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo and his subsequent re-arrest validate yet again the observation of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that no matter how hard fiction strives to emulate reality, reality always surpasses it.  Narco-lives and deeds have attracted myriad fiction writers, filmmakers, and musicians giving way to a successful narco-literature and narco-cinema that has fascinated the general public, journalists, and scholars alike.  A recent example is the popular Netflix series Narcos, based on one of the most notorious drug traffickers, Pablo Escobar.  Well known also are the corridos in Northern Mexico that sing the adventures and prowess of powerful drug lords (often in exchange for large payments).  The narco-corridos are today the epical portrayal of criminal lords whose lives straddle glory and vileness.

In the interstices between reality and fiction rest the publicity-mongering and recapture this month of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the subject of an intense six-month manhunt following his escape last July from a high-security prison.  No film would have been sufficiently credible and convincing had it attempted to stage El Chapo’s flight, but the reality is that the most prominent narco-lord since Escobar was able to vanish through a highly sophisticated tunnel whose construction required great engineering expertise.  The final seconds of his stay in his cell before entering his path to freedom were recorded by a security camera.  Megalomania – his eagerness to have his life and deeds taken to the big screen – apparently led to his undoing.  He reached out through intermediaries to soap-opera and film actress Kate del Castillo, whose role as narcotress in the popular show La reina del sur apparently captivated his heart, to set up a meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn to present his version of his reality to the world.  Playing the role of an adventurous and intrepid journalist, Penn produced a 10,000-word report-interview for Rolling Stone magazine.  Thus, the three main characters of this story – El Chapo, Kate del Castillo, and Sean Penn – traveled from reality to fiction and back in a fictional-yet-real encounter.  The three characters straddled between two dangerous dimensions in complicity – reality and fiction – unaware that their secret meeting would somehow provide the clue that enabled Mexican security to shut El Chapo down again.

The reality-fiction play brings a much higher toll than just El Chapo’s return to prison.  Dozens of the corrido singers who extol the narcos’ lifestyle have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mexico since the late 1990s.  Mexico is also at the international forefront on the number of journalists assassinated since 2006, when former President Calderón launched a bloody (and failed) war on drugs.  While the Mexican actress has not made any substantial comments on her apparent role in El Chapo’s return to prison, Penn has blustered his innocence as a courageous journalist-star whose mission was to make his countrymen reflect and make a self-critique of the bloodthirsty, futile war on drugs.  We, the audience, would probably wish this reality show would have brought about a less trivial outcome, but the last episode is not yet written.

January 25, 2016

* Núria Vilanova is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of World Languages and Cultures.

Lobbying Washington: Does it Work?

By Aaron T. Bell*

LatAm Lobbying

Photo credits: Jack Says Relax & AlexR. L., respectively / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results.  Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents.  Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies.  In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.

  • Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
  • In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies.  From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.”  In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
  • Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
  • More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.

A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent.  Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure.  The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped.  Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort.  MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed.  In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.

January 22, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Bolivia: Implications of Referendum for Democracy and the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Evo Referendum

Photo Credit: zak / Flickr / Creative Commons

A Bolivian referendum on February 21 – one month after the 10th anniversary of President Morales’s rise to power – threatens a break with the country’s tradition and the democratic principle of power alternation.  A “Yes” vote on the constitutional amendment up for approval would allow Morales and Vice President García Linera to run in 2019 for a fourth consecutive term – a scenario that the fragmented opposition claims would mean not only greater concentration of power in a personalistic leader but also a shift toward authoritarianism, similar to that in Venezuela.  The government claims that a “No” vote would mean the end of an era of unprecedented economic and democratic stability, the end of measures that have empowered subordinate groups in society, and the return of the right and neoliberalism.  Opinion polls so far show the vote will be close.

Morales’s efforts to extend his time in office are consistent with his tendencies to dominate politics and the policy process.  Yet my research shows that increased political incorporation during his government has also given previously marginalized groups enhanced influence over agenda-setting and policy-making and led to important shifts in domestic power relations.  In today’s Bolivia, well-organized interest groups typically belonging to the “informal” labor sector (such as coca growers, cooperative miners, and transportation unions) have greater influence over policy from within the state (in representative institutions and state bureaucracies at all levels) and from without (direct pressure in the streets).  This has resulted in greater regime responsiveness to the groups’ interests and in policies that expand economic and social benefits, as well as improvements in poverty and inequality reduction – even without meeting some of their fundamental needs such as employment and health care reform.  While in some instances newly empowered groups have mobilized and served as a check on state power, their role is founded on a highly particularistic relationship of the MAS and allied groups and, as such, can actually be an obstacle for governing in the interest of broader segments of society.

An intense government campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment is already under way and will likely deepen in the coming weeks.  The Morales government lacks the kind of epic framing it had when it first won the presidential election in 2005.  Citizens today express concerns similar to those voiced during previous governments – concentration of power, widespread corruption, inefficient institutions, weak protection of liberal rights, politicization of courts, and hostility to opponents and the press.  A “Yes” victory on February 21 would not automatically mean a shift to an authoritarian regime as core features of authoritarianism (i.e., power exercised by a small group overriding the will of the citizens) are not currently evident.  In addition, Morales’s tendencies to dominate often meet strong checks from a relatively autonomous civil society.  Comparative evidence suggests, however, that a fourth Morales term might lead to further power concentration and decreased political input from below — which could mean a weakening of the MAS as an organizational actor for the empowerment of subordinate groups independent of its undisputed leader.  A “No” victory, on the other hand, would not necessarily mean the end of the social and political transformations carried out by the MAS.  If nothing else, Bolivia’s “process of change” over the past decade has given rise to a “new normal” of more inclusive institutions and basic social programs that benefit large sectors of the population and will be difficult for any future government to reverse.

January 19, 2016

* Santiago Anria is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

Colombia Peace: The War System Yields to Peace

By Nazih Richani*

Colombia Peace Mural

Mural “Nostalgia” painted by the creative collective Deúniti at La Presidenta Park in Medellín, Colombia. Photo Credit: Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amidst growing optimism at the prospects of achieving a peace agreement in Colombia after more than a half century of irregular warfare, predictions about whether the parties can reach an accord, and sustain it over the long term, should be informed by understanding the underlying logic that fueled the conflict and may now be bringing it to a close. Civil wars are complex social systems with peculiar properties, dynamics, and political economy.  Similar to other social systems, a war system—a set of violent interacting units—rests on a point of equilibrium, which can shift depending on the system’s inner dynamics and external stimuli.  The exponential growth in the 1990s of Colombia’s two main Marxist rebel groups—the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, an instrument of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.  An expansion of the radius of the war and surge in combat-related fatalities, massacres, land dispossession, and displacements followed.  The failure of peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) indicated that the war system was largely unchanged despite the escalation.

The intervention of a new actor—the United States—disrupted the equilibrium of the war system.  Under “Plan Colombia,” Washington (committing about $10 billion) and Bogotá ($80-100 billion) modernized and restructured the Colombian armed forces.  This new phase in the war system marked a departure from the “comfortable stalemate” that characterized the conflict between 1964 and 2000.  New weapons, air power, tactical flexibility, and expanding mobile commando brigades with U.S. military and technical support, enabled the Colombian armed forces to put the FARC on the defensive.  It took the FARC leadership more than eight years to adjust, losing territory and, more importantly, three of its main leaders: Raul Reyes (2008), Mono Jojoy (2010), and Alfonso Cano (2011).  But the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth”—reverting from “mobile war of positions” to guerrilla warfare, creating more interdependent commando units, and using more snipers and mines—changed the balance anew.

The new equilibrium in the war system, in which the law of the diminishing returns of the war’s investment started kicking in, drove both sides to conclude that the time for peace was arriving.  Colombia’s ruling elites concluded that prosecuting the war would be too costly at a time that U.S. attention was shifting to other theaters and threats.  FARC commander Alfonso Cano, months before his targeted killing, communicated the intention of his movement to seek a negotiated settlement as well.  The cost of continued war had become too great for both sides, and external factors—the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the changing Andean regional political environment—were also factors.  FARC became convinced that trading bullets for ballots could help in achieving the remaining objectives of its armed rebellion.  As the two sides continue to make progress in peace talks in Havana, outsiders who want the accords to succeed would do well to remember that disruptions to the war system equilibrium could easily threaten both sides’ commitment to signing and implementing a final deal.

January 11, 2016

Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014 the State University of New York Press  published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Gender Violence in Argentina and the Education of Mauricio Macri

By Brenda Werth*

Macri Ni Una Menos

Photo Credit: Mauricio Macri Facebook page. Public Domain.

Argentina’s new President, Mauricio Macri, has an historic opportunity to address the country’s longstanding crisis of gender violence.  In a radio interview in 2014, he notoriously stated that “All women like to be catcalled,” and asserted, “I don’t believe the ones who say they don’t.”  Little did he know at the time that the most intense period of his presidential campaign in 2015 would coincide with a revolution in public awareness of gender violence in Argentina.  #NiUnaMenos – a movement launched in response to a rash of femicides and their graphic coverage by the news media – organized  marches in cities across Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, drawing an estimated 300,000 protesters in Buenos Aires alone last June.  Journalists, artists, and activists, in collective denunciation of machismo and violence against women, demanded that the government develop a plan of action to implement the Comprehensive Law on the Prevention, Punishment and Elimination of Violence against Women (Law 26.485), approved in 2009.  The law was a significant milestone in addressing violence against women at the national level, yet without government support, its effectiveness has been limited.  Current data indicate that a femicide takes place every 30 hours in Argentina, and statistics suggest that the total number of femicides occurring in 2015 will meet or surpass numbers in 2014.  The NiUnaMenos movement has captured the public’s attention.

The presidential candidates (Macri included) took note of the impact of NiUnaMenos and pledged support to prevent violence against women as outlined in the five major points it published.  Macri posted a picture of himself holding a handmade #NiUnaMenos sign on Facebook and Twitter.  Yet activists remain concerned about Macri’s sincerity, not just because of his 2014 remarks.  As mayor of Buenos Aires (2007-15), he undermined initiatives to prevent violence against women and provide assistance to victims.  Specifically, in 2014 he closed an outreach center for victims of sexual violence that had operated under the Subsecretary of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, and he reduced the budget of the National Agency for Women from 0.1 percent in 2007 to 0.06 percent in 2015.

Macri has his work cut out for him if he wants to be perceived as a leader confronting Argentina’s gender violence.  Although his promises to slash government spending suggest social programs will suffer, there are some promising signs.  Macri’s Minister of Social Development, Carolina Stanley, has offered the post of President of the National Council for Women to Fabiana Tuñez, the founder of the Casa del Encuentro, a leading NGO on gender rights and eliminating sexual violence – and key in the #NiUnaMenos movement.  In a broader human rights framework, Macri’s agenda still remains relatively undefined.  Although his vision will depart significantly from former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s, he has reiterated his commitment to continuing trials against former military accused of human rights abuses during dictatorship, rejecting claims that such efforts reflect “politics of revenge.”  In interviews, moreover, he has emphasized a forward-looking conception of human rights, rooted in the 21st century, focusing on issues related to pubic health, education, and freedom of expression.  While some observers view this as a regression to a “culture of amnesia” associated with the Menemist era, Macri has an opportunity to move the country forward by heeding activists’ demands for leadership addressing gender violence in Argentina. 

January 7, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American Unviersity.

The Politics of the Refugee Crisis in Latin America

By Luciano Melo*

Syrian refugees Uruguay

Syrian refugees arriving in Uruguay. Photo Credit: International Organization for Migration / Flickr / Creative Commons

Several Latin American governments have pledged to accept Syrian refugees – part of one of the largest refugee movements in history – but support for robust resettlement programs appears likely to fall short.  According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 6 million Syrians have been displaced within their country and 4 million more have fled abroad, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  One million have entered Europe, putting a heavy burden on the EU, and the United States has agreed to settle 10 thousand (although the refusal by 31 U.S. governors to accept them raises questions about follow-up).  Public support for receiving migrants dropped in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November, but France has announced that it will admit 30,000 new refugees in the next two years, a measure that President Hollande characterized as the country’s “humanitarian duty.”

Several Latin American governments also have agreed to absorb refugees.

  • Brazil, with ties to Syrian immigrants since the 19th century and one of the largest communities outside Syria, has promised to accept 20,000 refugees from the current conflict. More than 8,000 have already settled in Brazil.
  • Venezuela also set a goal with the UNHCR of receiving 20,000 Syrians, but President Nicolás Maduro’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “the only leader with authority in Syria” suggests low enthusiasm for implementation.
  • Chile and Argentina have had modest programs to settle Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Chilean President Bachelet has agreed to settle 100 Syrian families, whereas Argentina’s “Syria Program” agreed to offer permanent residence to 300 Syrians after three years.
  • Uruguay, which resettled Syrian families from Jordanian camps in 2004, recently suffered a setback when refugees in September protested in front of a government building complaining about the cost of living and lack of jobs. Observers estimate that almost 100 Syrians will actually leave the country.

The cost of settling families and individual refugees can be high, and each country will face challenges in meeting their commitments.  Brazil is in a deep crisis – with negative GDP growth expected next year, impeachment processes initiating against President Dilma, and gigantic corruption scandals rocking the political system.  The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with skyrocketing inflation, and the country appears to be in permanent political crisis.  Chile has experienced an economic slowdown since the price of copper fell, and Argentina has been trying to recover from recession and double-digit inflation rates in the first months of the newly elected President Macri.  Even Uruguay expects lower growth – down to 2 percent from the previously estimated 2.5 percent – and a fiscal deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP.  The good news is that accepting refugees does not necessarily affect the economy negatively.  Turkey and Lebanon, which have resettled 2.2 million and 1.8 million since the war started, are expected to have 4 percent and 3 percent growth in the coming year, confirming that the issue is mostly political rather than economic.  In Latin America, in contrast with the U.S., the crisis has not been used by leaders to polarize public opinion.  In fact, the topic is barely on the radar of common citizens, and the media rarely cover it.  The Syrian war and ISIS terrorism are remote concerns, and more pressing local matters – recessions, corruption scandals, and impeachments – take precedence.

January 4, 2016

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.

Brazil: Not-so-Happy New Year

By Matthew Taylor*

Brazil Basta

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

A vicious combination of corruption scandal and economic malaise suggests a troubled new year awaits Brazil.  Economists estimate gross domestic product has contracted 3 percent this year and will decline a similar amount in 2016, while inflation and weak government finances hamper efforts to stimulate growth.  Two of three big rating agencies have cut Brazilian debt from investment grade to junk. Unemployment has risen from under 7 percent a year ago to nearly 10 percent, with forecasts of 12 percent on the horizon.  Efforts to reform fiscal policy are getting nowhere, and the champion of fiscal reform, Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, has just resigned.  The bonanza launched by the 2003-2010 presidency of Lula da Silva – seemingly setting Brazil on a unique path of state capitalist development – is long over.

The country’s interconnected scandals cast shadows on many of the leading players on the national stage, including President Dilma Rousseff.

  • Petrobras, the crown jewel of Brazil’s state capitalist model, is at the center of allegedly massive corruption schemes. Rousseff, who was chair of the Petrobras board at the time of the alleged wrongdoing, has claimed absolute ignorance.  But the charges implicate Brazil’s leading political and business elites, many of whom have been jailed in recent months.
  • A feud between Dilma and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, reached a new low this month after Cunha’s approval of impeachment proceedings against her. (His own ethics problems continue to fester.)  The charge against Dilma is not of personal corruption but rather that Rousseff flouted budget laws by using public banks to cover up unauthorized debt issuance and off-books spending.  Rousseff supporters have argued that the impeachment charges represent the worst of golpismo, or coup-mongering, and a constitutional overreach that threatens to undermine democracy.

For Brazil, 2016 will be dramatic and unpredictable – as the country weathers the most dangerous political crisis since the impeachment and resignation of President Fernando Collor in 1992.  Dilma’s opponents will have difficulty convincing two-thirds of the Chamber and Senate to oust her, but the crisis is already creating significant fissures in the democratic system.  The parties have been turned upside down.  Even if Dilma survives in office, she faces nearly impossible odds in restoring the credibility of her administration and party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT.  There are early indications that the PT will face a bloodletting in the 2016 municipal elections, and former President Lula, the party’s once-ironclad standard-bearer, has the highest rejection rate (55 percent) of any potential candidate in the 2018 presidential contest.  The PMDB, Dilma’s coalition partner, is threatening to break with the government, but is internally divided. The opposition PSDB is facing scandals, protests, and troubles of its own in the states it governs.  The newfound proactivity of prosecutors and judges is making democratic checks and balances work as never before – and is largely welcomed by Brazilians – but Brazil’s old party system may not be able to keep pace.  Rumblings for a rethinking of the political system will grow louder in the new year, as the crisis deepens.

December 21, 2015

*Matthew M. Taylor is associate professor at the School of International Service at American University.

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