El Salvador: Just Saying No to Gold Mining

By Rachel Nadelman*

El Salvador mining

Photo Credit: laura / Flickr / Creative Commons

El Salvador’s refusal to allow gold mining within its borders sets it apart from most other Latin American countries, but the mining suspension is far from permanent.  Since 2007, three successive presidents, from both the right-wing ARENA and left-wing FMLN parties, have maintained an administrative metals mining “industry freeze.”  This executive action has created a de-facto moratorium that prevents all mining firms – international and Salvadoran, public and private – from accessing El Salvador’s estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits.  Some in the Salvadoran media trumpet this policy.  When former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a philanthropic visit to El Salvador earlier this month, a number of news stories fixated on one of his travel companions: Canadian mining magnate Frank Guistra.  Some media slammed Guistra as “persona non grata in El Salvador.”  They showcased his billion-dollar global mining investments, labeling him (incorrectly) a major shareholder in Oceana Gold, the Australian company suing El Salvador for $284 million for having denied the firm a license to mine.

The mining freeze represents a drastic break from El Salvador’s past economic strategy.  In the 1990s, after the civil war, El Salvador, encouraged by international donors and creditors, embraced mining as an opportunity for economic growth.  Environmental activists challenged the policy, emphasizing the country’s ecological vulnerability and worsening threats of water scarcity and deforestation.  Consecutive ARENA governments ignored these arguments and implemented legal and regulatory reforms to attract foreign mining firms.  But a community-based social movement changed that.

  • Led by a decade-old Salvadoran coalition “roundtable” (with some international support) against mining, this movement strategically promoted a campaign that is pro-water rather than anti-industry, based on rigorously collected and analyzed scientific evidence.
  • The Salvadoran Catholic Church, citing doctrine as prioritizing water and land over economic gain, has provided the movement a level of non-partisan, moral legitimacy.
  • Individual government officials from across elected, appointed, and civil servant ranks have ensured that El Salvador’s weak but existent administrative mechanisms resist pressure from powerful multinational business to reverse policy.
  • A number of Salvadoran companies relying on water and land resources, such as agrobusiness, ranchers, and producers of juices and soft drinks, have largely stayed out of the debate, eliminating a potentially huge obstacle to the movement’s agenda.

The media’s zeal – strong enough for them to mistakenly connect Frank Guistra to Oceana Gold and the ongoing lawsuit – reflects strong popular support for the administrative freeze on mining.  My field research and earlier studies indicate that most Salvadorans do not see the environmental threat from mining as imagined.  Nonetheless, the suspension is precarious – based only on executive action and not legislation that would permanently prohibit mining.  Many in the anti-mining movement believe that a suspension is inadequate over the long term because a change in government could lead to its reversal.  New mining technology, which purportedly would ward against environmental damage, could give political leaders a pretext for lifting the moratorium.  Yet others who support the freeze under current environmental conditions want to have the option of opening the country to mining available in the future.  For those who advocate that total prohibition is the only solution, the fight to stop mining permanently for El Salvador will be a long one.

November 23, 2015

* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, whose dissertation research focuses on the unique aspects of El Salvador’s mining policies.

Correction: November 23, 2015

The original photo accompanying this blog was incorrectly labeled as being from a Salvadoran mining town.  The photo was actually taken in a town named El Salvador, Chile, and is unrelated to the content of this post.

Colombia: Historic Progress, Historic Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong

Colombia Peace

The leadership shown by Colombian President Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” – encouraged by the Vatican and the governments of Cuba, Norway, and the United States – will be tested as challenges to completion and implementation of a final accord are certain to be intense.  The President and FARC leader announced last week that they’d resolved the thorny issue of justice for guerrilla and government commanders accused of serious crimes and set a deadline of 23 March 2016 to sign a peace agreement.  The most important – and controversial – provision covers “transitional justice” for a range of offenses, including crimes against humanity.  Most of the estimated 6,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants will get amnesty, while commanders will choose between confessing their crimes and serving five- to eight-year terms performing labor in institutions other than prisons, or refusing to cooperate at the risk of much longer terms in prison.  (The same procedures will be established for government military officers accused of atrocities and those guilty of financing the paramilitary fighters who ravaged the countryside through the mid-2000s.)  The FARC also agreed that guerrillas would begin handing in their weapons when the final accord is signed.  Negotiators had previously agreed on rural development strategies, political participation, and counterdrug policies.

Almost universally, the agreement has been hailed as an historic achievement.  The announcement in Havana capped three years of talks facilitated by “guarantors” Cuba and Norway and later supported by the United States, represented by former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson.  During a mass in Cuba several days earlier, Pope Francis had implored the two sides to strike a deal, noting that “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry called the Havana accord a “major breakthrough” and pledged that Aronson would stay closely engaged.

Latin American peace accords – most ending wars much shorter than the five decades of Colombia’s – provide ample evidence that the road ahead, however historic, will not be without difficult challenges.   

  • The accord will require a constitutional amendment, and President Santos will have to submit it for congressional approval and a national referendum. Former President Uribe, who leads Centro Democrático, has already declared war on it, calling it “a coup against democracy” that will lead to a “new dictatorship backed by guns and explosives.”  (Uribe also attacked Kerry’s statement as “deplorable.”)  Public discussion of details of guerrilla abuses, including forced youth recruitment and sexual violence, will play into opponents’ hand.
  • Colombian Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordóñez, an Uribe ally, said last week that any accord that does not entail prison terms for FARC commanders guilty of crimes would be “legally and politically untenable.” He claimed that it would violate victims’ rights and international law, which requires that punishment for war crimes be “proportional to the crimes committed.”  Human Rights Watch also condemned the provision and predicted the International Criminal Court would do so as well. 
  • Fulfilling commitments in the agreement to address the longstanding lack of government infrastructure in huge expanses of the country, help even modestly the resettlement of the more than 5 million persons displaced by violence, and expand programs to alleviate poverty and income inequality will have price tag beyond Colombia’s current ability to pay. Informal estimates of the 10-year cost are $30 billion.  The willingness of Colombian elites, who only grudgingly paid a war tax, to help foot the bill is far from certain.
  • The FARC’s ability to enforce discipline among its rank and file is also untested. There are reports that some commanders oppose any agreement.  Moreover, like demobilized paramilitary combatants, many combatants know no life other than rural combat and will be tempted to keep their weapons and join criminal networks that continue to terrorize rural communities.
  • The outstanding U.S. warrants for the extradition on drug-trafficking charges of reportedly dozens of FARC commanders may require some finessing, but Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, suggested confidence that Washington will not demand extraditions if, as is almost certain, they would be a deal-breaker.

September 29, 2015

Puerto Ricans in Florida: Swing Constituency in a Swing State

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

A surge in the number of Puerto Ricans moving to Florida suggests a major shift in the impact of Latino issues in next year’s U.S. elections. As the island’s economic crisis deepens and severe austerity looms large, thousands of Puerto Ricans are arriving in Florida monthly, according to estimates, with the single biggest destination being Central Florida. The director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration office in Central Florida has estimated a 15 to 20 percent increase in the number of new arrivals in recent months. The director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center has called it “the biggest movement of people out of Puerto Rico since the great migration of the 1950s.” Anecdotal accounts follow trends first identified in the 2010 census and a 2013 Pew Research Center indicating an uptick in island-born Puerto Ricans arriving in the mainland. Puerto Ricans in Florida now number almost one million – only 200,000 short of the number of the state’s Cuban-Americans. The three counties around Orlando – seen by pundits as essential to any statewide or national campaign – were home to about 271,000 Puerto Ricans (representing about 14 percent of the total population of those three counties) in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Many of the new residents are white-collar workers, in contrast to those in the last major wave of arrivals who came to work at Disney World in the 1980s.

Because Puerto Ricans residing on the island are citizens but do not have the right to vote in presidential elections, an influx of hundreds of thousands onto the mainland introduces a substantial expansion of the 2016 electorate, which could be of particular relevance in the hotly contested election in Florida. Although polls show that Puerto Ricans tend to vote Democratic, their support for the party’s candidate at the presidential level is not a foregone conclusion. The director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College of the City University of New York has said that among the new arrivals “there is a large number of independents … and party affiliations mean less to them” than among mainland-born Puerto Ricans. Of the six members of the Florida State Legislature of Puerto Rican descent, three are Democrats and three Republican. (Orlando-area State Senator Darren Soto – born in New Jersey but strongly identifying with the island of his father’s birth – is running as a Democrat.) Democratic strategists privately claim confidence that the new diaspora will be in their column. They note deep dissatisfaction among on-island Puerto Ricans and the new arrivals toward the Republicans’ opposition to legislation that would allow the island the right to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy, as well as polls showing significant support for Hillary Clinton. The Orlando Sentinel reported recently that Democrats had taken the lead in voter registration in Osceola County and won control of the County Commission. A deputy director for strategic initiatives at the Republican National Committee, however, told the Washington Post that she sees the Puerto Rican vote in Florida as “up for grabs.”

A decade and a half after the trauma of the Bush-Gore presidential vote in 2000, neither U.S. party dares to take Florida’s 29 electoral votes for granted. The Pew Research Center estimates that some 800,000 Latinos are turning 18 each year –about 2,200 per day – nationwide, making them the biggest source of new voters in each election cycle. It’s hard to see, however, what the Republican Party is doing to win the hearts and minds of Puerto Rican voters in Florida and elsewhere. As American citizens, Puerto Ricans do not have a direct stake in U.S. immigration reform – an issue that galvanizes other Latino constituencies – but the tone and policy prescriptions of that debate may well influence their perceptions of the two parties. The claims and counterclaims of optimistic partisan operatives aside, some Republican candidates’ rhetoric about immigration, Latin America, and U.S. Hispanics in general – including Donald Trump’s colorful admonition of Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in public – has got to alienate many Puerto Ricans. Perhaps, as AULABLOG previously stated, one or two of the Republicans are likely strike a moderate-sounding approach to immigration in the coming months. Indeed, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush yesterday endorsed immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for “DREAM Act” children, and said, “We don’t need to build a wall. We don’t need to deport every person that’s in this country.” But particularly if the eventual GOP nominee proves reluctant to call for federal legislative or financial assistance for a bankrupt Puerto Rico, the party may face an uphill struggle trying to appeal to Florida Puerto Ricans – a rapidly growing swing constituency in a crucial swing state.

September 22, 2015

U.S. Government Abuse of Apprehended Migrants

By Michael S. Danielson*

Photo Credits: Larry Hanelin, Kino  Border Initiative, 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credits: Larry Hanelin, Kino Border Initiative, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not fulfilling its obligation to protect the civil and human rights of migrants apprehended, detained and deported back to Mexico.  A study released this week entitled “Our Values on the Line: Migrant Abuse and Family Separation at the Border” (full text) found that more than one-third of deported migrants experienced some type of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities.  The abuses included theft, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and inhumane detention conditions.  In violation of U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, these conditions include but are not limited to being held for over 12 hours in facilities without beds, overcrowding, excessively low temperatures, lack of adequate food, and denial of medical treatment.  Commissioned by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), the report details the results of an in-depth survey of 358 Mexican migrants deported from the United States to the border city of Nogales, Mexico, from July 2014 to March 2015 – and corroborated by short-form surveys of 7,507 other migrants in the same area.

  • Since 2005 CBP has sought to deter Mexican migrants from attempting to enter the U.S. through a policy of “enforcement with consequences.” Formally launched in 2011 as the “Consequence Delivery System,” this package consists of measures against individual migrants that are so harsh as to be obviously intended to cause hardship and suffering.  In so doing, Border Patrol has abrogated its previous commitment, undertaken in 2004, to use its authorities to preserve family unity and ensure humane treatment of apprehended migrants.  Making things worse, Border Patrol agents often incorrectly enter names into computer databases, deny access to phone calls, and deny access to the individual’s consulate.
  • Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members and apprehended together by the Border Patrol were separated from each other and deported to different ports of entry days, weeks, or months apart.
  • Twenty-eight percent of migrants surveyed were deported at night – to Nogales and other destinations with high levels of violence – making them particularly vulnerable to abuse by criminals and corrupt police and other public officials. One of every seven women was placed in this vulnerable position.
  • Migrants alleging abuse were unlikely to file a formal complaint. Less than one out of every 12 deported migrants in the survey claiming some type of abuse filed a complaint with U.S. immigration authorities.  Reasons for not filing a complaint include being unaware of the right to do so, fear of retaliation, and a belief that it would not make any difference.
  • The abuses were not carried out by “a few bad apples,” but rather reflected policies across Border Patrol and poor oversight of their implementation. The patterns of abuses are too extensive to argue otherwise.

Punitive border enforcement punishes people whose suffering in their home countries had already grown unbearable, and there is no evidence that these policies deter unauthorized immigration.  In fact, a recent report of the DHS Inspector General found that the CBP has failed to accurately measure the deterrent effect and the cost-effectiveness of the core policies of the Consequence Delivery System.  Evidence is much stronger of the negative and unintended consequences of these policies, both for migrants and border security.  In personal communication presented in the report, CBP’s former Assistant Commissioner of Internal Affairs James Tomsheck attests that an attempt to enhance the enforcement capacity of the agency through a hiring surge of some 12,000 new agents in just over two years was marred by a predictable deterioration of the vetting process and a sharp and consistent decline in “the quality and suitability of the Border Patrol applicant pool.”  This new report points to several key areas for reform to help limit abuse by Border Patrol agents, including stronger independent and internal oversight mechanisms to tackle misconduct and abuse; an accessible and accountable complaint process; an overhaul of CBP training; equipping CBP agents with body-worn cameras; and improving CBP short-term detention conditions.  The study also recommends that deportations to Mexican border towns occur only during daylight hours and that DHS, responsible for CBP, put in place a process to identify family relationships and preserve family unity upon deportation.  Such measures would begin to address the most pressing problems faced by migrants and their families – without triggering a spike in migrant traffic.

September 17, 2015

*Michael S. Danielson, a CLALS Research Fellow, was the principal researcher and drafter of the report.

Remittances and Sustainable Community Development in Latin America

By Aaron T. Bell and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remittances to Latin America hit a record high in 2014 at $65.3 billion, according to the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank, but their impact on development would be much greater with better coordination between sending  and recipient communities.  Mexico receives over one third of those funds, but remittances represent a significant component of GDP for many countries across the region.  The bulk comes from the United States, where 54 million Hispanics include 19 million first-generation immigrants, according to 2013 U.S. census figures.  In several Central American and Caribbean countries, funds sent home by migrants represent the largest single source of foreign exchange.

  • Remittances alleviate poverty by contributing to household income, helping to satisfy basic consumption needs, and sometimes enabling savings and investments in education.
  • Groups of migrants from particular communities sometimes pool resources through hometown associations to support shared objectives back home. A paved road or a new soccer field affects quality of life in tangible ways, and émigré financing of local political campaigns can determine the results of elections for mayors and other officials.
  • But remittances seldom promote local economic development initiatives that will generate sustainable incomes and opportunities for wide segments of the population – missing opportunities to address the causes of migration in the first place.

Some governments, development agencies, and philanthropies look to remittances as a potential mechanism for ensuring that Latin American citizens enjoy living conditions that afford them the “right not to migrate” from home communities.  Last month the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) convened a workshop to explore the challenges and opportunities for linking diaspora organizations in the United States, their communities of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean, and potential philanthropic partners to advance community development in the region through the effective deployment of remittancesParticipants identified several challenges.

  • Cooperation between immigrant-led diaspora organizations and their sending communities and governments is not a given.
  • Despite some research into hometown associations – created in the United States by migrants to connect with their communities of origin – we have relatively limited knowledge about how they function and the conditions that enable them to support community development.
  • Effective transnational cooperation requires broad multi-sectoral partnerships aligning immigrant-led groups, sending community organizations, and possibly governments and international funding institutions.

Despite information gaps and practical obstacles, there are successes to celebrate, such as the Salvadoran Fundación para la Educación Social, Económico y Cultural, with which the IAF has partnered.  Technical training on how to handle incoming funds and face-to-face meetings between participants and supporters in the United States and El Salvador have promoted transparency and trust.  Participants in the CLALS/IAF workshop offered several potential avenues for community organizations and philanthropic foundations to build enduring institutional connections.  It was agreed that further research should be conducted on hometown associations and other forms of diaspora organization to better understand how they function, how they relate to their affiliated sending communities, and how they can be catalysts to promote local development.  Policy-based research institutions in Latin America should be brought into the conversation, as should mainstream Latino organizations in the United States.  And immigrant associations and their counterparts in Latin America should not have to grapple with complex development challenges alone.  Indeed, U.S.-based community organizations and philanthropies could play a valuable role in catalyzing cooperation aimed at promoting development by making the case for public policies and transnational collaborative efforts that support “the right not to migrate.” Such development-supporting initiatives could, at least in theory, gain resonance across political groupings in the United States, appealing both to those interested in fostering global development and those concerned about immigration.

August 4, 2015

OAS: Almagro’s Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OEA – OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The OAS’s new Secretary General, Luis Almagro Lemes, appears to be steering his organization toward a coordinating role that, he hopes, places it above the fray of hemispheric tensions.  He has not chafed at Washington’s version of democracy promotion, and indeed has embraced elements of it.  He has readily admitted the “inexorable conclusion” that the OAS needs to be “revamped and modernized”; that it needs to “reinforce its legitimacy”; and that its structure and resources need to be better realigned with the four pillars of its mission—democracy, human rights, security, and integral development.  His promises of internal reform so far have not been radically different from those put forth by his beleaguered predecessor, José Miguel Insulza, or even diverged from proposals embodied in U.S. legislation passed in 2013.  They have been articulated, however, in the sort of Washington consultancy language that might help his cause in the U.S. capital, such as references to evolving “from the OAS’s traditional command and control toward an organization that operates like a matrix geared to results in which the hemispheric and national dimensions feed into and enrich each other.”  Elected in March and inaugurated in May, in June Almagro received a mandate from the OAS General Assembly to restructure the General Secretariat, reorganize old offices into new ones, and implement other aspects of his plan.

Regional reactions to Almagro’s election and reform plan have been positive if sometimes not overly enthusiastic.  At the General Assembly meeting, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Blinken spoke of a “new chapter … in the history of the OAS” and said, “We have a new secretary general, a new strategic vision statement, and renewed attention to genuine reform.”  South America’s preeminent power has been generally aloof toward the OAS, but the Brazilian Senate in mid-July approved a new OAS permanent representative, and last week Brasilia paid $3 million of its $18 million in late dues—modest relief from the slow strangulation caused by dire cash-flow issues because of non-payment by several key countries.  Almagro has also won support in Latin America through his repeated signals of a desire to work more closely with other hemispheric bodies—even CELAC, which was created in 2011 as a direct challenge to the OAS and supposed U.S. influence over it.  He pledged to “seek out areas where we can complement the work of other bodies,” citing by name CELAC, UNASUR, SICA, CARICOM, and MERCOSUR.  According to press reports, his close cooperation with UNASUR as Foreign Minister of Uruguay in 2010‑15 lends credibility to that promise.  Almagro also has won regional praise for pledging to continue efforts for bring Cuba back into the OAS as a full member—building on the success of the Summit of the Americas in April driven by the Washington-Havana rapprochement.

Outgoing Secretary General Insulza was a relatively easy act to follow because, often unfairly, his image was tattered after 10 years in the crossfire between Washington and the countries pushing to undermine U.S. influence in Latin America.  Almagro appears eager to push the re-set button, and the success of the Summit of the Americas and his pledges on democracy, reform, and hemispheric cooperation have given him a good start.  But leading the OAS is going to take more than artful rhetoric, internal restructuring, and a few reforms.  President Obama’s move on Cuba removes one major irritant from hemispheric relations, but an effective Secretary General is going to have to navigate the shoals of longstanding North-South tensions.  The “spirit of genuine and equal partnership” that Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke of wanting with the OAS will be difficult to achieve, and the supporters of CELAC, UNASUR, and other alternatives to the OAS will find it equally tough to accept the OAS as a valid venue for debate and compromise.  Almagro will also have to show that he can run the organization in a professional and modern way to overcome the perception left by his predecessor of weak management of the institution.  He has declared himself a man of practical solutions, not ideology, but pleasing everyone—trying to be a coordinator who threatens no one’s interests—may not be a workable strategy for long.  If the OAS is to fulfill its mission, moreover, the United States and others will have to give Almagro the space to do his job.

July 27, 2015

Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

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

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

February 5, 2015

U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014


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