The Perils of Quédate en Casa: COVID-19 and Gender Violence in Latin America

By Brenda Werth*

Women performing "A Rapist in Your Path" holding up signs

A Rapist in Your Path – Brasília/ Mídia NINJA/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Stay-at-home orders during the COVID‑19 pandemic have had a devastating impact on women in Latin America and brought mass protests against gender violence to a screeching, and troubling, halt. Since the foundational march of NiUnaMenos in June 2015 in Buenos Aires, Latin American activists have revolutionized protest against gender violence in a spectacularly public way, bringing together hundreds of thousands of women and allies on the streets of major cities to denounce gender violence and demand protection of gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Since its debut last November, the flashmob Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Path), created by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, has been performed in more than 200 cities around the world, decrying the role of the state and police in perpetuating gender violence.

  • Even as the coronavirus began to spread, movements against gender violence continued to expand. In March, millions of women marched to commemorate International Women’s Day to demand an end to femicide and gender inequality. In Madrid, among the posters condemning gender violence were some declaring “The patriarchy kills more than the coronavirus.” By March 15, however, Spain was on lockdown, and by the end of the month most Latin American countries had instituted either partial or total lockdowns. Suddenly, slogans condemning gender violence and demanding gender equality were replaced by the urgent message for people to stay home: “Quédate en casa.”

The stay-at-home orders have had severe consequences for women across the globe. In Latin America, where seven out of 10 femicides take place in the home, the weeks following the institution of quarantines saw surges in the reporting of domestic violence, primarily against women, children, and LGBTQ individuals. Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased 40 percent in Argentina, 60 percent in Mexico, and over 90 percent in Colombia. Financial precarity, unemployment, and lack of access to child and eldercare all exacerbated preexisting gender inequalities, creating a “perfect storm” for domestic violence.

  • Quarantines have proven crucial and effective in countering the health threat posed by coronavirus, but they have left victims of gender violence trapped under the same roof with their abusers. One unintended effect of quarantine is the reinforcement of the perception of domestic abuse as a private, family affair, separate from the public sphere, and excluded from the jurisdiction of the state.

Government responses to the increased domestic violence in Latin America have varied tremendously, ranging from acknowledgment to denial of the crisis.

  • Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister of Women, Genders and Diversity, has issued a resolution explicitly allowing individuals to leave quarantine in order to seek assistance and protection against domestic violence. The Argentine government has also collaborated in building innovative campaigns blending awareness of both pandemics – gender violence and COVID‑19. The Barbijo Rojo (red mask) campaign refers to a code word women may employ when talking to pharmacists to let them know they are at risk of harm and unable to seek out help.
  • In comparison, denial has guided Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response. His government has failed to implement any major policy changes to address the increase in gender violence during COVID‑19, and he has maintained that 90 percent of calls to domestic violence hotlines are false. According to AMLO, Mexico does not have the same problem as other cultures with domestic violence because “the Mexican family is exceptional.” The government’s campaign to address domestic violence during quarantine, Cuenta hasta 10, asks family members to “count until ten” before expressing anger in the home. According to Lulú Barrera, the campaign lacks “gender perspective” by disregarding the structural causes of gender violence and ultimately puts women at risk by asking them to sacrifice their wellbeing to maintain peace in the home.

While the health pandemic has highlighted the dire need for movements like NiUnaMenos and messages like that of Un violador en tu camino to continue and expand, stay-at-home orders have halted collective public mobilizations and forced women to return to the private sphere of their homes. The movements have radically transformed awareness and perceptions of gender violence over the last five years, but the current crisis, including the alarming increase in domestic violence, shows the gender-violence pandemic remains strong and could get worse. Protecting public health through stay-at-home orders should not neglect the need to protect women. Solutions must be jointly envisioned and enacted by public health experts, activists, and political leaders.

June 29, 2020

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, at American University.

U.S.-Latin America Policy According to John Bolton

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

John Bolton

John Bolton/ Gage Skidmore/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir highlights his differences with President Trump and several government agencies over tactics for achieving regime change in Venezuela. It confirms, however, that they share an embrace of the Monroe Doctrine that has survived his departure from government. The book, published this week, is Bolton’s version of his 17 months in the Trump Administration. The chapter on Venezuela is 34 pages long and, while confirming much about the Administration’s disdain for the law and longstanding practices in U.S. foreign policy, provides new insights.

  • Bolton’s pledge in November 2018 to rid the hemisphere of the “Troika of Tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – reflected a consensus in the Administration, and he attributes the alliterative trope to a Trump speechwriter. But as the policy gained momentum, the Treasury Department and State Department wanted to go slow on some of the more draconian sanctions against Venezuela that he pushed.
  • Bolton puts the best face possible on Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his claim to the national presidency in January 2019. He credits the Venezuelan opposition entirely for conceiving and initiating the maneuver, even though circumstantial evidence, including the advanced U.S. efforts to build international support for it, suggests otherwise.
  • Tellingly, he says his initial reaction to the country’s repeated waves of electricity outages was that it was the opposition’s work, although he then posits that they resulted from government incompetence and underinvestment, leaving open the possibility that they resulted from an intelligence operation. (Bolton would be violating his secrecy commitments if he admitted as much.)
  • Bolton reports that President Trump consistently argued that Guaidó – whom he called “this kid” – was a lightweight incapable of wrestling control from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Trump was the strongest proponent of military intervention to remove the Venezuelan from office. But Trump also felt he could deal with Maduro as he did with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. He flip-flopped again last weekend. On Friday he told Axios that he “would maybe think about [meeting Maduro],” suggesting openness to dialogue, but on Monday he tweeted that he “would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Bolton barely registers the contributions of Latin American and European governments in support of the American position on the Venezuela issue or the advancement of a negotiated solution.

  • The position of the “Lima Group” on Venezuela gets only a passing mention, although the group’s support was arguably a historic signal of Latin American acquiescence in Washington intervention in the region. The OAS got a backhanded compliment: “Even the Organization of American States, one of the most moribund international organizations (and that’s saying something), was roused to help Guaidó.”
  • Although Norway had been arranging negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó representatives for eight months by the time Bolton resigned as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the book makes little mention of the effort. Nor does it mention U.S. actions that – by design or not – obstructed the talks. The work of Elliott Abrams, the Administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, also gets no serious treatment.

Bolton is gone, but his vision for U.S.-Latin America relations, including revival of the Monroe Doctrine as rationale for Washington’s actions, remains robust. The Administration has nominated the senior director that Bolton brought to the NSC to work on the region, a protégé of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to be President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a perch from which he can exercise influence for five years even if Trump leaves office in January 2021. If the aide is elected, it would break with the tradition of having non-U.S. presidents at the Bank. A half dozen retired Latin American presidents have expressed opposition to that, but Ecuador’s government has labeled the nomination as “very positive,” and Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who took office with U.S. approval after the military forced out President Evo Morales last November, has welcomed it enthusiastically.

  • The Pentagon will not be enthusiastic about military action to remove President Maduro. But some officials have referred to the two paramilitary contractors captured seven weeks ago during the ill-fated “invasion” of Venezuela and six dual-national CITGO employees arrested in 2017 for alleged corruption as “hostages” – a possible pretext for some sort of action that, as Bolton so fervently hoped during his tenure, would prompt the Venezuelan military to finally switch sides.

June 23, 2020

El Salvador: Unwilling to Face Up to the Past

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA/ GuanacoSolido503/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The trial of Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, which began last week in Madrid, provides El Salvador a historic opportunity to learn from the past and reduce impunity in the future, but the government and elites appear unlikely to seize it. Montano is the only defendant in the trial for the murders of six Jesuit priests, five of them Spanish nationals, and two domestic staff on the campus of the Central American University in November 1989. The eight were killed by a Salvadoran Army unit trained by U.S. advisors in what was the last massacre of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) and the first great cover-up by the Salvadoran judicial system of the post-war period, starting with evidence-tampering and later other obstructionism by then-President Freddy Cristiani.

  • In the 31 years since, successive presidents, attorneys general, and supreme courts have failed to prosecute the Salvadoran military high command for ordering the murder of the Jesuits and their helpers. Not even the two FMLN presidents, who governed from 2009 to 2019, took judicial action despite promises to seek justice for them. President Mauricio Funes, the first of them, actually protected a group of former high-ranking military officers that a Spanish Justice alleges were masterminds of the massacre.
  • Despite the country’s political progress since the war, the failure to bring the perpetrators to account has bred a system in which even younger Salvadorans have been raised believing that it is best not to mess with the wounds of the past. People are afraid to condemn impunity, which remains one of the country’s most enduring and democracy-threatening challenges.

President Nayib Bukele, who was elected last year as an outsider committed to ending the corruption of both the FMLN and its conservative counterpart, ARENA (1989‑2009), appears reluctant to grasp the Madrid trial as a way to promote accountability and end impunity. He so far has not made a public statement about it and in recent months has increasingly relied on the corrupt and authoritarian institutions whose legacy is on trial. Some of the police officers, lawyers, and politicians that were part of the cover-up are still active in El Salvador. Some police officials who obstructed the Jesuit investigation are now high-ranking officers in the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) and, according to a variety of evidence, continue to promote a culture of impunity.

  • Bukele and his ARENA and FMLN counterparts in Congress are occupied in a never-ending confrontation over the COVID‑19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Moreover, the President’s security agenda, focused on crushing the gangs, has followed the path of his predecessors, giving the military enhanced powers and nudging the civilian police force back to its military roots. Bukele’s chief of police recently appeared in public wearing a military uniform, possibly violating laws passed in 1992 in fulfillment of the Peace Accords.

These political compromises and alliances and competing priorities seem likely to keep El Salvador from embracing the historic opportunity presented by the Madrid trial – not just to bring justice to the victims of the UCA massacre, but to address the entrenched culture of impunity that has marked Salvadoran politics and its justice system for decades.

  • The United States, the Organization of American States (OAS), and others advocating human rights and transparency also seem likely to miss the opportunity the trial gives them to promote their stated values. The views of political players in Washington today reflect the same schizophrenia visible in the 1980s – with Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing for investigations into the massacres while the Republican Administrations allied themselves with the government and military. (The George H.W. Bush Administration even acquiesced in the harassment of witnesses, including a U.S. military official, who offered important information about the Salvadoran Army’s role in the Jesuit murders.) During the Obama Administration, the State Department gave key support to the extradition of Montano to Spain. Washington risks, once again, overlooking its own responsibilities in these horrible crimes of the past and the damage done to Central America’s fragile democracies.

June 16, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

Colombia: Forced Disappearances Remain High in Norte de Santander

By Jessica Spanswick and Javier Ochoa*

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

Event in Cúcuta, Colombia, hosted by Fundación Progresar and UNDP – a book release featuring stories of 100 disappeared people.

The Colombian department of Norte de Santander, along the most heavily traveled part of the national border with Venezuela, has the highest rate of forced disappearances in the entire country – increasing as implementation of the historic peace accord signed in 2016 has faltered. Homicides, kidnappings, and other disappearances have all surpassed national averages. Fundación Progresar, an NGO based in the province’s capital, Cúcuta, estimates that one person in the area was forcibly disappeared every three days in 2018. During fieldwork with the NGO in 2019, we interviewed surviving family members and heard their accounts of suffering. Some of the reasons for these disappearances have deep historic roots, such as the perennial absence of sustained, trusted government presence in the area, but others reflect trends that have grown in importance since 2016.

  • Armed groups filling the void left by the formal demobilization of the FARC have proliferated. In the last two years, the criminal activity of at least a dozen armed groups was registered in Norte de Santander, ranging from enduring guerrilla groups (National Liberation Army, ELN; the Popular Liberation Army, ELP, also known as Los Pelusos; and dissident FARC groups); armed groups resulting from the demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2004 (including Los Rastrojos); and organized criminal groups (including purported affiliates of the Sinaloa Cartel). Most are engaged in highly profitable cocaine production, narco-trafficking, and gas-smuggling activities in the area.
  • Our analysis of data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that the number of hectares under coca cultivation in Norte de Santander grew from 6,944 in 2014 to 33,958 in 2018, with no sign of abating. The government abandoned voluntary eradication programs and did not honor agreements to help communities within the framework of the peace accord. The province provides a strategic corridor for smugglers to bring in Venezuelan oil products for transportation and to make drugs – more than 100,000 gallons a day when it’s available – and exfiltrate the finished cocaine.

A massive influx of Venezuelans fleeing crisis back home has also led to a spike in disappearances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million Venezuelans (many of Colombian heritage) have fled the country, the vast majority passing through or staying in Colombia. Many, distrustful of both countries’ officials at formal ports of entry and without a proper channel to receive refugee status, transit informal trocha crossings controlled by criminal groups, where they are at risk of extortion, human trafficking, sex trafficking, murder, and forced disappearance. Our research shows that even those paying a fee to pass through these areas are subjected to abuses.

  • Many Venezuelans, including children, are forced to work as raspachines (coca leaf pickers), who have told human rights groups that they want to go to school but are working essentially as indentured slaves. Older youths have been recruited as soldiers. According to five military commanders, as many as 30 percent of the insurgents in that region are Venezuelans who take up arms “in return for food and pay.” They receive more than 27 times the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Others are pressured by criminal groups to join. Another problem is that an increasing number of Venezuelan women and girls are victims of human and sex-trafficking rings in the province. According to local organizations interviewed by Refugees International, they “are often forced to ‘pay’ for passage by providing sexual services.” UN Humanitarian Affairs officials (OCHA) say that “fear of being deported or arrested keeps [[victims]] from seeking help from local authorities.”

The standard solution for reducing the influence of criminal groups in situations like this – establishing state control – remains elusive. The Colombian government has the resources and institutions to address the problem, but it has been slow to take action. Some 99 percent of complaints remain in the initial phase of the criminal process (indagación) – with little chance of moving toward deeper investigation and prosecution. Of 1,106 cases, only six are on, or approaching being on, trial. Having met face-to-face with the families of victims, we know how difficult – and unsatisfying – it is to tell them that governments, NGOs, and others are “doing all they can” to find justice for them.

June 9, 2020

* Javier Ochoa and Jessica Spanswick are recent Master’s graduates of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. Ochoa interned with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Spanswick interned at Fundación Progresar, the Colombian Truth Commission, and the Guernica Center for International Justice. The full text of their study is here.

Latin America: COVID-19 Challenges Higher Education

By Eric Hershberg, Alexandra Flinn-Palcic, and Christopher Kambhu*

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil; Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Priscilla Micaroni/ Creative Commons License (modified) // Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library/ Wikimedia Commons/ Jose Alonso/ Creative Commons License (modified)

The COVID‑19 pandemic has worsened the challenges that Latin American universities already faced and could have a potentially catastrophic impact on higher education in the region.

  • Average gross enrollment doubled – from roughly one-fifth to two-fifths of the college-age population across the region – since the turn of the century, but budget constraints stemming from protracted economic stagnation have left institutions struggling to meet that growing demand. Annual GDP growth languished at 0.4 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). That forced painful cuts at state universities, and private schools have grappled with the stagnant incomes of tuition-paying households.

Due to COVID‑19, ECLAC now projects a regionwide decline in GDP of more than 5 percent in 2020 and forecasts that 29 million people will fall into poverty and 16 million into extreme poverty. To gauge the impact on higher education in the region, last month CLALS surveyed officials at more than 50 Latin American universities. (Read the full report.) More than half are in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has already slashed public university budgets, but the survey results show substantial adverse impacts throughout the region as well as deep trepidation about future prospects. Highlights our survey revealed:

  • Nearly three-quarters of universities have transitioned to some degree of online instruction since closing campuses in March, but 90 percent of respondents said that some students, because of socio-economic and territorial disparities, are having difficulty accessing the internet. Half of survey respondents considered that their institutions were “well-prepared” or “somewhat prepared” to make the transition, but half deemed their institutions to have been inadequately prepared. Fewer than half of the institutions represented had taken steps to address students’ need for connectivity, and in some instances, particularly in public schools, this gap was a factor in the decision not to move instruction online.
  • Most respondents believe that on-site classes cannot resume for some time; only a third at private institutions and a fifth at public institutions (mostly in Brazil) anticipate offering courses on campus through August 2020. As for the remainder of 2020, respondents were divided evenly on the prospects for reopening their campuses.
  • Fully 84 percent of respondents predict a drop in undergraduate registration, with half estimating a 10 to 25 percent decline. Predictions are only slightly better at the graduate level. Roughly two-thirds of the institutions surveyed host some international students, and of those, 60 percent of respondents from public universities and 30 percent from private institutions predict enrollment to decline by more than 50 percent.

Our survey leaves little doubt that Latin American universities are facing their greatest crisis in decades. Continued expansion of higher education institutions – one-quarter of which have been created since the early 2000s – now appears implausible.

  • Declining enrollments portend severe reductions in revenue. Half of respondents report cuts during the current fiscal year, and only one in 10 anticipate stable financing next year – with most expecting cuts of 10 to 30 percent. Hiring freezes are already widespread, and salary cuts loom on the horizon.

The responses to our survey may actually underestimate the depth of the dislocation in store. To re-open their doors, institutions will have to make substantial, unanticipated investments to ensure the safety of students and staff – reconfiguring facilities and developing testing and isolation protocols that will be extraordinarily difficult to implement.

Students will need additional support as the pandemic affects their families, campuses, and communities. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to our survey regionwide, and 96 percent in Brazil, indicated that their institutions provide psychological support services for students. There was virtually unanimous agreement – 96 percent – that these needs will increase over the coming two years.

  • An estimated 700,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean have contracted the virus so far, and more than 35,000 have perished. In most countries these numbers are rising rapidly. In an increasingly bleak landscape, there is reason for concern that Latin America’s university sector may prove to be yet another victim of COVID-19.

June 2, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University. Alexandra Flinn-Palcic and Christopher Kambhu are Program Coordinators at the Center. Read the full report.

El Salvador: How Much has COVID-19 Hurt President Bukele?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele

President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License/ Official Photography from the Presidential House of El Salvador

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – Latin America’s most popular leader one year into his presidency– has raised concerns about his Administration because of his authoritarian approach to governing and managing the COVID‑19 pandemic. He won kudos for his strong and early effort to stem the spread of the virus, scoring a 95 percent favorable rating in a recent La Prensa Gráfica poll. But the resulting economic downturn – and his obvious frustration at the need to engage in political give-and-take as he tries to respond – are fragmenting his alliances and highlighting his Administration’s weaknesses.

  • The anti-COVID measures that Bukele instituted back in March were among the first and most bold in Central America, winning him strong domestic and international praise. He closed airports and public schools, enforced isolation-in-place, and ramped up government assistance to hospitals and vulnerable citizens. As remittances from abroad to families in El Salvador nose-dived, a sustainable aid program became even more important.

The crisis has brought to light some of the President’s weaknesses as a manager and leader, however, and how he has compensated with increasingly authoritarian measures, such as a move to augment spending without Congressional approval, that have alienated many. In social media, he has cyber-bullied opponents, and critics report an increase in harassment by government authorities over taxes, labor practices, and other regulatory issues. He has pushed away former political allies in the country’s two strongest parties – ARENA and the FMLN – and thereby reduced his mobilizational capacity in both San Salvador and the departments. The President had resorted to such tactics even before COVID‑19 – he directed heavily armed police and soldiers to occupy the National Legislature back in February during a confrontation over budget issues – but the pandemic has sparked an escalation.

  • As the scope of the pandemic has hit home since March, Bukele has taken actions that, although conceivably attracting popular support, have drawn strong pushback. The Supreme Court overruled his attempt two weeks ago to unilaterally extend emergency measures that would allow him to continue unchecked public spending to deal with the pandemic. The Attorney General is also investigating whether actions by the President and senior staff amounted to criminal behavior.
  • Public protests have begun in forms appropriate for the age of social distancing – cacerolazos, car honking, protest music, and other signs of anger. International human rights groups have also begun expressing concern about the implications of the government’s rough enforcement of pandemic measures. Bukele directed police to be harsh against and detain individuals perceived as violating quarantine, even as they ventured out in search of food for their families. Amnesty International and others have criticized “arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force,” and Human Rights Watch has criticized Bukele’s “flagrant disregard of the role of the Supreme Court” and called on the Organization of American States (OAS), which has remained silent, to “push Bukele to respect the rule of law.”

El Salvador is now nearing one hundred COVID cases per day, and the public health system is pushed to the limits. The economy, which has already ground to a halt, almost certainly is sustaining long-term damage that will prove increasingly costly politically for Bukele. While his personal popularity has held so far, his honeymoon with the economic and political sectors upon whom he depends to move forward ended months ago and – short of a drastic overhaul in his approach – he seems likely to continue facing a number of challenges. In his most recent move, he got into a fight with Congress when the legislative body rejected his request to postpone the state of the union address scheduled for June 1. His staff keeps struggling with ARENA and the FMLN in Congress to pass one last amendment that would allow him 15 more days of unchecked spending to deal with COVID‑19.

  • The pandemic has laid bare a number of social, economic, and institutional problems about which Bukele could push a broad national debate aimed at driving reforms. Popular distaste for the business elites as well as ARENA and the FMLN give him space for such a venture. But, at least as evidenced in recent months, his concerns about his personal power seem likely to preclude any such initiative.
  • U.S. support for Bukele has been crucial and shows no sign of abating in the immediate term. But growing human rights concerns beyond the Administration of President Donald Trump, including among Members of the U.S. Congress, if not addressed, will become a liability.

May 29, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

 

Chile: Need to Broaden Support for Public Policies

By Claudio Grossman*

President Piñera speaking from a podium

President Piñera calls for agreements on coronavirus crisis and on social protection plan, jobs and economic reactivation/ Prensa Presidencia, Gobierno de Chile/ Public Domain

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, after several months of relative calm stemming from political agreements and social policies forged last November, now faces a more complex and potentially dangerous set of challenges. Until last week, it seemed that the political scenario, while complicated, could turn better for him. A broad agreement to hold a referendum on reform of what remained of Pinochet’s Constitution – perceived as the obstacle to fair pensions, access to quality health and education – was signed in November by all the political actors in the country (except the Communists, some of their allies, and other groups on the left).

  • The agreement is credited with having an important impact in reducing public demonstrations demanding social change despite continued dissatisfaction with the government and the political system in general. By creating a path for transformation, it also contributed to significantly reducing public tolerance for violent actions such as looting, burning Metro stations, and attacks on churches.
  • Chile’s low public debt and significant reserves also allowed the government to adopt urgent economic measures to address at least some of the most extreme examples of unfairness (e.g., meager pensions).
  • In response to national and international human rights observers, including the UN and Organization of American States (OAS), identifying serious violations of human rights during the social protests, the government announced plans to undertake reforms – notably of the Carabineros. They are the police body blamed for weak intelligence-gathering and training and for its inability to maintain public order in accordance with human rights norms.

While Piñera’s popularity remained in the single digits until March – his own political base had become disillusioned with his strategy of constitutional reform – the social conflict appeared mostly channeled in the legal, institutional framework of Chilean society. The Chilean summer, during which the country typically moves in slow motion, also helped reduce social tensions. When the first wave of COVID‑19 hit Chile in March, the reaction of the government – a selective quarantine strategy focusing on areas with the most cases – seemed to be containing the spread of the virus without shutting down the whole economy. The health system was not overwhelmed; Congress, the Judiciary, and other institutions continued to work; and civil society operated freely. Piñera’s approval in the country rose from a squalid 9 percent to 28 percent. Congress, where the government does not have a majority, agreed to move the referendum from April to October – showing an important degree of consensus in the political system. The President’s fortunes might shift, however, as the virus moved from affluent neighborhoods to the more populous barrios in Santiago.

  • The infection has increased exponentially, forcing the hand of the government to announce on May 13 a total quarantine of the sprawling Metropolitan Region (MR), affecting almost 8 million people. Piñera announced that the government would start distributing food packages to 2.5 million low-income households, but protests – driven by complaints that it was too little and too late – followed almost immediately. Santiago again experienced barricades in some neighborhoods and renewed clashes with the police. Some protesters claimed that distributions have privileged some areas based on political grounds. For others, some, if not all, of the protests might have been politically motivated.

As the numbers of infections continue to increase, it seems that the quarantine will not cease soon, with the danger of an increase in protests and calls for social reform fueled this time by the lack of work and means of subsistence of millions in the MR. In the dramatic context created by COVID‑19, a crucial question is whether the current political path – increased social assistance and the Referendum in October – will be feasible. The forthcoming flu season in Chile (June-August) can only compound an already grave situation and bring into sharper relief underlying social tensions.

  • Postponement of the referendum as well as other elections due to take place this year can happen only by legal changes that require the opposition’s agreement. In light of the serious challenges facing Chile, broadening the base of governability of the country might be a daunting task. The President and his center-right coalition and a divided opposition might encounter great difficulty finding creative formulas to identify and implement common goals. Politics, and in particular democratic politics, need to respond properly to the gravity of the tremendous economic and social impact of COVID‑19, including seeking to achieve substantive agreements encompassing basic principles to be included in a possible new Constitution. While it is too soon to tell what will happen, time is running short.

May 26, 2020

* Claudio Grossman is Dean Emeritus and a professor at the Washington College of Law.

Latin America: Organized Crime Taking Advantage of COVID-19

By Carolina Sampó*

Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela Villa Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil/Phillip Ritz/Flickr/Creative Commons License (not modified)

Latin American criminal organizations have faced some new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic – such as disruptions in transportation routes and markets – but they have also exploited opportunities to expand operations in ways that further threaten governments’ control in vulnerable communities.

  • Shelter-in-place controls in the region and the United States have complicated the groups’ most profitable business area: drug trafficking. Moreover, breaks in supply chains, especially those related to chemical precursors from China, have caused shortages of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid preferred by U.S. drug users, and ingredients used to make methamphetamines.
  • Trafficking of cocaine and other plant-based drugs has not stopped within Latin America, although some reduction in their movement to market has driven up prices somewhat. Quarantines have posed new difficulties for transportation, but traffickers usually avoid legal border crossings and pass through areas with no or minimal government presence anyway. Governments have also moved detection and interdiction resources elsewhere. Brazil, as the region’s main consumer, still seems to be receiving regular shipments of cocaine.
  • Shipping drugs outside the region has been more difficult because airports are closed and commercial ship traffic has declined, but criminal organizations have accepted to run the risks of continuing their own maritime activities, which raises the price to consumers. Authorities say that cocaine shipments tend to be large – over one ton – and narco-submarines are being used.

Supply and demand have both declined during the coronavirus outbreak, but prices of meth and synthetic opioids have risen considerably – some even tripling in recent weeks, according to U.S. official sources. Demand from consumers of illicit drugs at parties is down with the implementation of social distancing, but dealers in food delivery services are distributing their merchandise directly to users’ homes. Supply and demand seem to be balanced, but dealers are charging higher prices for their enhanced service and greater risks.

As in the past, criminal organizations are showing high adaptability. International experts report the groups are increasingly getting involved in cybercrime. They have also been caught peddling counterfeit medical items. Interpol has seized substandard masks and sanitizers as well as drugs the gangs claim will help people combat the virus. The pandemic has also enabled criminals to deepen their ties with vulnerable communities, such as by providing essential goods and services.

  • They are consolidating criminal governance in the communities where they play the role of social order providers. In the slums in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the criminal organizations have been the ones to enforce lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID‑19. Where criminal organizations cannot guarantee social order, they use violence or cooptation to establish territorial control. And they continue efforts to expand prison control, using jails to recruit members and build their power base. During the coronavirus outbreak, the gangs have organized riots and jailbreak attempts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Power in the prisons projects into power on the streets.

The pandemic has forced governments to prioritize resources on the health and economic crises it is causing, and efforts to control criminal organizations have by necessity been more lax. The gangs are also scrambling to return to “normalcy,” but they are again demonstrating greater adaptability than are the governments.

  • Governments have no easy solution. While organized crime is diversifying its portfolio of activities, reinforcing its territorial control, building its prison base, and recruiting new members – exploiting the economic and social situation – governments have little choice but to beef up efforts any way they can domestically while paying special attention to cooperation with neighboring countries facing similar challenges, in hopes of hemming in the criminal organizations. It is a huge challenge – against difficult odds – but perhaps the pandemic also gives governments a one-time opportunity to hit the gangs at a time that they face challenges too.

May 22, 2020

* Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

Central America and the Pandemic: Different Priorities and Risky Bets

By Alexander Segovia*

Presidents of Central America participate on a SICA virtual meeting

Reunión Extraordinaria de Presidentes del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA)/Flickr/Creative Commons

In most Central American countries, the social dimension of the COVID‑19 emergency has competed with economic priorities, and in some it hasn’t even been a top priority. Governments have responded independently of one another, showing little regional coordination aside from a $1.9 billion Regional Contingency Plan approved by the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA) and funded by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), to support national-level efforts.

El Salvador has designed a response strategy that prioritizes the health dimension of the crisis, not the need for economic recovery. The rigorous implementation of stay-at-home and social isolation measures has caused a number of problems, including essentially shutting down the economy, with enormous political costs. The Legislative Assembly authorized the government to issue coupons worth $3 billion to help families get by, causing a significant increase in the country’s external debt and fiscal deficit.

  • The Salvadoran response has been well-received by the population so far, but this could change quickly in the face of the high economic and social pain it has caused. Moreover, the authoritarian and militarist way the confinement regulations have been enforced, and the government’s lack of respect for the Constitution and the separation of powers, have also troubled many.

Nicaragua is the opposite case of El Salvador. The government has refused to adopt social isolation measures and has encouraged people to take to the streets and participate in large events. The Ortega Administration’s concern is about the economy, which has been in a deep crisis since the social protests in 2018 and the government’s repressive reaction to them. This priority partly explains the government’s resistance to implementing shelter-in-place and social-distancing regulations.

  • The government is playing with fire. If the health crisis spins out of control, it will cause both a great loss of human lives and a profound socio-economic crisis – which sooner rather than later will spark a social and political crisis of massive proportions.

Costa Rica, with its good universal health care system and the region’s most developed state infrastructure, is best prepared. Its initial response to the health emergency was slow and permissive, reflecting a government decision to confront the crisis in a manner that causes the least damage possible to the economy. It has since acted more decisively and has suffered only 10 deaths from COVID‑19.

  • Costa Rica is the only country in the region trying to finance the additional costs by reducing non-priority public expenditures and by introducing a temporary solidarity tax on capital gains and on the salaries of higher-paid managers in government and the private sector, who have economic security and safe jobs.

Guatemala is implementing a response in which the health emergency is competing with leaders’ desire for economic recovery. This reflects the enormous influence over the government and Congress enjoyed by the economic elites, who hold sway over public policies and have a veto over any that affect their interests.

  • By putting the social and economic challenges on an equal plane, the elites have demonstrated, in what they see as a politically correct way, their ability to equate human life with the accumulation of capital.

Honduras has implemented a strategy that gives insufficient attention to the health crisis by assigning higher priority to containing the economic impact. Its response has been fragmented and confusing; it combines emergency measures with economic recovery actions that will take effect only in the second half of the year. In addition, policymaking processes have been opaque, and there are no guarantees that public funds will be used transparently.

  • Concerns that the crisis has also given rise to greater militarization of the country and an increase in human rights violations by security forces are also mounting.

The best way for Central America to confront the COVID emergency is through energetic responses focused on containing the health crisis – with effective stay-at-home and social-distancing measures – and strengthening of social protection systems and programs, including direct financial payments to households. These policies should be backed up with broad political and social agreements and sustained with absolute respect for democracy and human rights.

  • Preliminary evidence indicates that, while addressing the health crisis has high costs in the short term, delaying that investment increases the number of deaths and leads to a deeper and longer economic crisis. Central American governments and economic elites have a clear choice: pay a smaller price now combatting the virus, or pursue short-term benefits and pay a much higher price in the long run.

* Alexander Segovia is a Salvadoran economist. This blog article is based on and updated from an analysis originally published here by Análisis Carolina in Madrid.

Ecuador: Growing Political and Economic Repercussions of COVID-19

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno speaking at an event

Lenín Moreno, presidente de Ecuador/Flickr/Creative Commons

Despite early aggressive measures against COVID‑19, Ecuador has suffered one of the world’s most devastating outbreaks that, combined with the drop in international oil prices, may be catastrophic for the country’s economy and for President Lenín Moreno. Since March 16, the President declared a national state of emergency and curfew throughout the country; imposed strict social isolation (until May 4) that suspended all face-to-face activities; and established a special security zone in the province of Guayas, epicenter of the pandemic. Even so, Ecuador currently has the second-highest number of documented cases in South America, after Brazil, and the death toll from COVID‑19 may have reached between 7,600 and 11,000 during April.

  • Ecuador’s first case of COVID-19 was detected on February 27 in the port city of Guayaquil. As the virus spread in March and early April, the city experienced an unprecedented humanitarian crisis due to the much-publicized accumulation of hundreds of corpses in homes and on the streets. The local government’s response was erratic, with mayor Cynthia Viteri at one point ordering officials to block the runway at the airport to prevent a flight from Spain from landing, and later comparing the devastation to “the Hiroshima bomb.” Viteri has since estimated that perhaps as many as one-third of guayaquileños have COVID‑19.

Despite the lockdown measures, the national government has also shown a lack of capacity in addressing the public health crisis. Moreno created a task force to deal with the situation in Guayaquil, but even then, the government possessed a limited ability to determine who had the virus, to say nothing of addressing shortages of suits, masks, gloves, and ventilators for hospital personnel. In a national address in early April, the President acknowledged that official coronavirus figures had significantly understated the extent of the country’s health emergency. There have also been worrying accusations of corruption against officials in the Ecuadorian Institute of Social Security (IESS) in outfitting hospitals, and the Attorney General’s office charged the now ex-National Secretary of Risk Management Alexandra Ocles with influence-peddling.

  • The combined impact of the pandemic and oil crisis on the country’s economy may be catastrophic. Petroleum is Ecuador’s largest export commodity and accounts for about a third of its public-sector revenue. The 2020 national budget was planned with an oil price of $51.30 per barrel (currently hovering around $30.00), which will increase the country’s deficit. Ecuador also has little savings to implement a countercyclical fiscal policy and is on the brink of defaulting on its $50 billion debt. Adding to the troubles, due to dollarization, it cannot devalue its currency to reduce its deficit. The collapse of export revenues and massive foreign debt payments have greatly compounded the economic cost of the pandemic, and the country’s GDP may shrink by as much as 7-8 percentage points.
  • The government is just barely muddling through. Private bondholders have accepted the government’s request to defer interest payments on the country’s debt until August 15, freeing up $811 million and buying Moreno some breathing room. However, this could merely postpone a default: a fragmented and intransigent legislature and social sectors have balked at emergency austerity measures. Responding to the country’s social needs and economic well-being is a difficult line to walk. The government has issued a $60 stimulus (bono) that will benefit some 400,000 people, while at the same time it submitted a bill to the National Assembly that proposes an extraordinary tax on both companies and individuals to bring unbudgeted resources into the national treasury.

While the government confronts its public health and economic problems, general elections are nine months away and the National Electoral Council is already debating ways to carry them out. There is too much uncertainty at the moment to determine any potential frontrunner. Moreno is not running for re-election; ex-Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot has suffered due to his city’s lack of preparedness at confronting the pandemic; and the fate of Interior Minister María Paula Romo may rest on the Moreno government’s (so far unconvincing) response. Like leaders around the globe, Moreno is faced with the unpleasant challenge of keeping the country’s economy shuttered longer or risking a resurgence of the virus. The success or failure of his strategy will undoubtedly shape the country’s political and economic future.

May 15, 2020

* John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.