Cuba: Is the Economic Crisis Prompting Meaningful Reform?

By Ricardo Torres*

Cuban flag jigsaw puzzle / Yasiel Scull / Pexels / Creative Commons license

The economic measures that the Cuban government recently announced may help on the margins with the country’s deepening economic crisis, but they are short-term fixes with potential downsides and, yet again, fall far short of the comprehensive reforms needed for significant growth. 

  • The country’s economic troubles are alarming. While inflation officially clocked in at 77 percent in 2021, the GDP deflator – a broader measure of price dynamics – suggests an increase of 400 percent, which is more consistent with partial data from informal retail vendors and anecdotal evidence. Skyrocketing prices coincide with shortages of practically all goods and services; long lines to buy basic goods; and rapidly expanding blackouts. After a brief rise in May, the Cuban Peso continues to depreciate. 
  • Small but growing numbers of public protests and sustained, strident criticism on social media indicate a notable drop in popular confidence that the authorities can deal with this crisis. As it has expanded electricity rationing, the government has warned that it does not have a short-term solution. The devastation at the Matanzas Supertanker Base will surely be another setback to energy supply shortages and the broader economy. The health system lacks essential medications and supplies, and officials have acknowledged that they lack resources to deal with an infestation of mosquitos responsible for the rapid spread of dengue. 

To respond to some of the more important economic problems, the government announced a series of measures during the National Assembly sessions in late July. Most of the steps are aspirational rather than concrete changes in economic policy, and are aimed at the short-term crisis. The government is reopening a formal market where people can sell hard currency (although they cannot yet buy it); moving to adopt new regulations to open up foreign investment in private companies; and – if the statements are to be believed – probably will implement a program to reduce the fiscal deficit. 

  • Details are lacking, but some aspects of the measures could actually worsen the crisis. The announcement that the exchange market will start with only the state as purchaser of hard currency, offering a rate similar to that in the informal markets, entails significant risks. To stabilize a market, transactions have to go both ways, or else people will continue to buy currency at higher prices on the street – fueling its depreciation. The use of the hard currency market to finance the economy reflects the decline in productive capacity on the island, and the purchase of dollars without increasing the supply in Pesos is frankly inflationary. The most impoverished sectors will not receive relief from this step.
  • With regard to foreign investment, the dominant tendency has been to try to reproduce for private companies an operating framework similar to that of state enterprises. If the Cuban state hopes to give potential investors confidence by using, for example, investment mechanisms like its own, with unclear policies for approving projects, or with extended delays for approval of investments, it will be repeating the same errors as in the past. 

Even if robustly implemented, the measures are at best focusing on the symptoms of the economic crisis, while the short- and long-term real causes remain unaddressed. The ongoing recessive cycle is taking place in the middle of an international situation that is adverse for small countries dependent on imported energy and food, such as Cuba. The island is particularly vulnerable to a context featuring dramatic effects of the pandemic, the Venezuelan crisis, the war in Ukraine, and continued U.S. sanctions. But neither is the government showing resolve to fix the systemic problems rooted in the Cuban economic model itself. 

  • Recycling measures implemented in the 1990s, such as the hard-currency market, will have limited effectiveness. Cuba’s economy operates against a backdrop of structural problems that Cuban leaders have dodged for decades because of the social and political costs of a serious adjustment, ideological dogmatism in economic policy, and for many years the existence of external allies that could “pay the bill” of inefficiencies of the system. 
  • The government perceives that the United States and some groups in the country will take advantage of any change that transforms the distribution of power. That logic is understandable, as is Cuban leaders’ preference for stability over radical reform. They remember well the lessons of uncontrolled perestroika. But they must find a middle-ground between micro-measures of little strategic value and potentially destabilizing change. They can tone down their ideological statements and media wars, and surround themselves with a competent economic policy team to draw up a roadmap for long-term reform. Compared to clinging to empty promises of reform, that approach would potentially help them find some allies and recover the confidence of its citizens and, no less important, recover social peace. Without a strategic plan, as various Communist Party resolutions have warned over the years, the problems will multiply over time, as they have since 1990.

August 9, 2022

*Ricardo Torres is a CLALS Research Fellow.

Latin America: Violence Against Young Women Worsened During COVID-19

By Carina Cione*

Young women gathering together in Cali, Colombia / Universidad del Valle / Creative Commons license

A research and practice-oriented initiative coordinated by la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) of Costa Rica has confirmed that the harmful impact of systemic violence and marginalization on the lives of vulnerable women in Latin American cities has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project corroborated widespread anecdotes about the depth of the vulnerability of young women and mothers to gender-based violence, intimidation, and discrimination – in both public and private spaces – in the region. Women are targeted by gangs in their communities, and by masculine family members or partners behind closed doors in their homes. Often merely because of the neighborhoods in which they live, they suffer from systemic exclusion – shunned by society and excluded from much of their countries’ economic, social, and political lives.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project found that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems. State-imposed quarantine measures confined families to close living quarters, and the burdens on mothers and sisters to keep the home running and to care for the ill multiplied. Loss of family income brought stress and conflict more deeply into homes, worsening already-unstable family dynamics.
  • The pandemic also reduced women’s economic independence. In 2020 and 2021, opportunities to earn money on the formal and informal market evaporated. Neighborhoods are less safe, and traveling through gang-controlled areas in Latin America poses increasing dangers for young women. Of 21 young mothers interviewed by FLACSO-Argentina, only 10 had remained employed during the first years of the pandemic. Most had low incomes and were unable to work remotely, which led them to financially depend upon others to make ends meet. That dependence on male family members, partners, and exes led to greater manipulation and exploitation than before 2020.

Through hundreds of interviews and survey responses, project researchers documented that violence, more than any other underlying factor, is what causes the sensation of living a vida sitiada – a life under siege. Across all five country reports, the majority of young women reported being witnesses or victims of abuse in the home as children, which they said had a “very radical impact” on their daily lives. Many were cared for by mothers or grandmothers who were abused and then, in turn, engaged in physical or psychological abuse of them. A large portion of participants’ fathers were absent. Sexual abuse was common, and some women had even witnessed gang-related homicides of family members.

  • Robbery and sexual violence, including harassment, aggressive touching, and rape, in public spaces are frequent phenomena for women. These crimes often force them to avoid certain parts of their own neighborhoods, to forgo essential travel outside the home, and to severely curtail social contact, thus hindering their ability to develop support networks. The Vidas Sitiadas studies reveal even tougher circumstances during COVID-19. In a survey by Universidad del Valle, half of low-income young women said that their communities in Cali, Colombia, have become more violent since 2020. They avoid spending time outside of their homes, especially in the early morning hours, but 15-20 percent still feel “very unsafe” on the street in the afternoons and early evenings. This limits their ability to cultivate personal connections and impedes their financial independence.
  • Traveling to work is also a risk. Espacio Público, a think tank, and Arbusta, an information technology company in Santiago, Chile, found that 30 percent of young women who commuted in the first years of the pandemic had experienced intimidation or abuse on their way to work. A third of these women face travel times of 60-90 minutes each way – a long time, especially in a vehicle in which passengers do not feel safe. Women who cannot reach their jobs safely either decide to quit or learn a trade they can master in the safety of their homes.

In addition to death, disease, and economic challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed and even reversed progress some Latin American societies had been making, if haltingly, toward updating gender roles and reducing stigmas pertaining to women’s place in society. In some sectors, it has contributed to the re-normalization of violence in the daily lives of women and girls by making many neighborhoods less safe and putting extraordinary stress on families. Women’s exclusion has deepened as COVID-19 has erased their access to jobs and the stigma of being from dangerous neighborhoods further reduces their prospects.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project, coordinated by La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, examines several efforts launched in recent years to begin addressing the underlying systemic causes of the challenges facing young women in these societies. They focus on giving them a chance to get a job, to learn work and personal skills, and to build the personal confidence to improve their lot. Advocates face the usual obstacles to calls for resources to address the big problems, including systemic economic inequity, the epidemic of social violence, and the residual culture of gender discrimination. But the Vidas Sitiadas initiatives have demonstrated that at least modest steps can be made to help women overcome the violent and manipulative environments in which they live.

August 4, 2022

*Carina Cione is Program Coordinator at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. For additional information about the project undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

Chile: Constitutional Process Has Settled Little

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Demonstrators in Santiago, Chile call for a new constitution / www.jpereira.net / Creative Commons license

The Chilean Constitutional Convention handed its proposed draft to President Gabriel Boric on July 4 – in preparation for the “exit” referendum on September 4 that will approve or reject country’s new magna carta – but it hasn’t achieved the national unity, social cohesion, or popular support envisioned when 78 percent of Chileans voted for the convention in 2020.

Historical center-left leaders are publicly supporting the nay option, and opinion polls show support is declining.

  • Former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Talge (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat who played a key role after the Pinochet dictatorship, has urged rejection because he sees “insurmountable disagreements with contents [of the draft] that compromise peace, democracy and the prosperity of our country.” He said the proposed reduction in presidential power and creation of an omnipotent new Senate could lead to dangerous populism. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) has not rejected the draft, but he has pulled back from his expected endorsement of it – a blow to the Boric government strategy for approval.
  • Leading opponents of the Pinochet-era Constitution, including former senior government officials, have criticized the proposed replacement, writing that “the electoral system is distorted with reserved seats, which reminds us of the institutional [appointed] senators of Pinochet’s Constitution.” Like Frei, they believe that the proposed system would incite conflict rather than cooperation.
  • The eight most reliable polls in the country show likely yay votes for the draft are dropping – from around 50 percent in February to about 35 percent this month. Nay votes rose from a third to roughly 50 percent in the same period. Activa Research has found that 62 percent reject the draft, while 38 percent approve of it. The 30 percent who were “undecided” last month has dropped to 20 percent, with most now rejecting the draft.

Five major factors – not all of which are the Constitutional Convention’s fault – appear to be driving this shift.

  • The Convention majority rejected pleas for greater fiscal responsibility as it wrote in a series of expensive new entitlements and nationalizations. Sponsors’ reactions to the criticism also alienated voters by saying “you stand with us, or you stand with Pinochet’s dictatorship.”
  • Favoritism and strident ideological positions undermined consensus. Most of almost 80 percent of Chileans who voted for the constitutional process in 2020 believed the new Constitution would be, for good, a “casa de todos” in terms of the social contract. The tense and confrontational debate during the process and its outcomes establishing group rights rather than universal policies let them down. 
  • Economic uncertainty since the social upheaval of 2019 – aggravated by the COVID‑19 pandemic and war in Ukraine – has undermined popular support as well. Inflation has risen steadily, and the Chilean peso has plunged to a historical low.
  • People feel insecure. The government’s performance in managing crime, drug trafficking, and the armed conflict in the south of the country against Mapuche extremist factions has not been satisfactory. Boric’s emphasis on a negotiated settlement has failed and may have worsened the problem.
  • Approval for Boric, sworn in less than five months ago amid great expectations, dropped to 34 percent this month, the lowest of his mandate. Poor communications have pushed the First Lady (who serves as head of Sociocultural Coordination) and Minister of Interior Izkia Sichesto to have the lowest approval ratings of the cabinet. Although Boric has repeatedly denied that his administration backs the yay option, his General Secretary of the Presidency affirmed earlier this year that Boric’s program requires the new Constitution to be approved.

No matter how the plebiscite on September 4 turns out, the Constitutional process now appears far from ending – and threats to political stability seem likely. If Chileans approve the draft, both sides will seek significant changes. If they reject it, changing the 1980 Constitution will still be essential to avoid tumult in the streets like rocked the country in 2019. Boric recently suggested starting a new Constitutional process from scratch, fueling further uncertainty.

  • While frustrations appear likely to grow and the chance of instability is not negligible, the Constitutional Convention process has shown that – so far – Chilean institutions have been able to maintain Rule of Law. Compared to Venezuela (1999), Bolivia (2006), and Ecuador (2007-08), Chile has followed an open and relatively stable track. But if the plebiscite does not deliver a clear, workable verdict in September, the country will again be at a crossroads – either build on what it’s accomplished since 2019 or try to start anew.

July 27, 2022

*Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government. Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). This updates their recent AULABLOG articles (here and here) on the topic.

Latin America-Caribbean: Illicit Fishing is Environmental Security Challenge

By A.J. Manuzzi*

The Ecuadorian naval vessel, LAE Island San Cristobal / Defense Visual Information Distribution Service / Creative Commons license

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and associated crimes are undermining coastal communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean – hurting the economic wellbeing of licit fishers and reducing coastal and ocean biodiversity, fish stocks, and food security. The EU and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have made ending IUU fishing a priority because it contributes to overfishing, enables labor abuses, and violates international norms on sovereignty and biodiversity.

IUU fishing comprises a diverse slate of illicit acts, including foreign vessels fishing in another country’s sovereign waters without permission; disregard for international environmental laws; and inadequate catch reporting to state authorities. Illicit actors include large distant-water fleets (DWFs) backed by states like China, Taiwan, and Japan as well as individual locally based artisanal vessels with small crews. 

  • Latin America represents only 2.1 percent of global aquaculture production, but its losses to IUU fishing – losses that experts estimate to be $2.3 billion a year – make it the third-hardest hit continent. According to a 2020 study by the Fisheries Economics Research Unit and the Sea Around Us organization at the University of British Columbia, income losses are as high as $600 million, and tax revenue losses are as high as $300 million dollars, with the other $1.4 billion owing to the general redirection of catches from legitimate to the illicit seafood trade.
  • Costa Rica has seen by-kill of young fish from the use of illegal nets as well as incursions by illegal fishermen in its offshore national parks. Until recently, Ecuador faced a flotilla of as many as 340 Chinese vessels catching and storing marine life around the Galapagos Islands. In Jamaica, depleted seafood stocks have pushed local fishers into deeper waters, where there is a risk of collision with IUU fishers searching for diminishing sources of conch and lobster. In Suriname, IUU fishers have been known to steal the nets of domestic fishers.

IUU fishing often involves forced labor and other crimes, further harming coastal communities and billions of people worldwide whose economies and diets are tied to fish. By undercutting legal market prices, it threatens the livelihood of licit fishers who pay fair wages and don’t have the same technological advantages. 

  • Overfishing reduces supplies for local communities. The FAO estimates that total fish consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean will increase 33 percent by 2030 (more than any other region). Overfishing by IUU actors has already forced the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to increase imports of fish and seafood and impose new catch quotas that, when expanded in other countries, would likely affect the more than 3 million people in the region who work in fishing or aquaculture.
  • Related crimes are committed by artisanal fishers operating in coastal waters, where they illegally harvest seaweed, pursue endangered species, fish in the off-season, or engage in smuggling; domestic industrial fishers who misreport catches; and DWFs that use flags of convenience to trick authorities. 
  • IUU fishers threaten biodiversity because they are heavily skewed toward immediate predation, with little concern for the long-term economic impact and environmental costs. They also complicate states’ fishery sustainability efforts, making implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate IUU fishing fall far behind. In addition, shark finning is prominent in Costa RicaEcuador, and Chile despite domestic and international laws against it. Nine of the 12 shark species found aboard a Chinese IUU freighter off Ecuador in 2017 were endangered. 

The regulatory frameworks for fighting IUU fishing are weak; enforcement tools are lacking; and most countries lack the resolve to address the problem. The current international framework includes a hodgepodge of international and national agreements and initiatives, without the active engagement of many of the world’s largest fishing nations. 

  • The cornerstone is the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which binds signatories to reduce illicit fishing by denying IUU fishing vessels access to port services and to lessen access of illicit catch to international markets. International bodies such as the FAO provide tools for tracking vessels, but regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and advocacy groups like Oceana say that there is only limited sovereign commitment to the rules. Some of the most seriously affected countries are those with the fewest resources to combat the problem.

The combination of IUU fishing and related crimes, such as labor abuses and copy-cat practices by local fishers, pose threats to national economies, food security, and ultimately regional stability. What’s needed is obvious: enhanced monitoring, control, and surveillance capacity; updated legal instruments and increased judicial sanctions; and more resolute multilateral action on fishing subsidies and ocean protection. One question is whether the victims of IUU fishing themselves can muster the national and regional resolve to address the problem – sacrificing the short-term gain of permissiveness for the long-term goal of protecting strategic interests. Without that resolve, Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to be victimized by IUU fishing and the inequality, labor abuses, resource exploitation, and violations of national sovereignty it enables.

July 21, 2022

*A.J. Manuzzi is a Master’s student in International Affairs in the School of International Service. This article draws on research he performed as a Research Assistant for a CLALS project on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Argentina: From Bad to Worse?

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentina’s new Economy Minister, Silvina Batakis / Government of Argentina / Creative Commons license

Argentina’s mismanagement of fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies – and its business-unfriendly, interventionist policies destructive of investor confidence – have delivered an increasingly unpopular mix of economic stagnation and accelerating inflation. While the government most likely will muddle through until the next national elections in October 2023, there is a non-negligible risk that remaining public confidence could collapse and lead to uncontrolled inflation, deepening recession, social unrest, and even the resignation of President Alberto Fernández.

  • By early 2021, the Argentine economy had already recovered from the 15 percent drop in real GDP caused by the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020. That was a relatively easy feat because the economy was already in a recession; real GDP in the first quarter of 2020 stood 11 percent below that in the fourth quarter of 2017. So far this year, the pace of economic activity has remained below that 2017 peak, and it has started to drop some more, with the latest consensus forecast projecting GDP declines in the second and third quarters, followed by stagnation in the fourth trimester.
  • Inflation has accelerated from a yearly average pace of under 50 percent in 2020 and 2021 to an annualized rate of 85 percent in the first half of this year. This month’s inflation rate may well have three digits once annualized. To slow down inflation, the government has resorted to price controls on staples sold by supermarkets; import and capital controls to prevent the currency from devaluing faster; export quotas on beef, corn, and wheat to keep domestic supplies higher and prices lower; and hefty subsidies to state-owned and private companies that supply electricity, gasoline, natural gas, mass transit, and water and sewer services to consumers. As a result, the headline inflation rate is underestimated by at least 10 percentage points, while the subsidies are keeping the fiscal deficit about 4 percent of GDP wider than otherwise.

By now Argentina wasn’t supposed to be in such lamentable economic shape. Barely four months ago, the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed negotiations on a $44 billion loan under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The country was granted an up-front disbursement of almost $10 billion, plus $4 billion more in late June.

  • The IMF program has three main targets for this year. The first is a modestly narrower fiscal deficit – 2.5 percent of GDP rather than last year’s 3 percent (measured excluding interest payments on the public debt). The second calls for a nearly $6 billion accumulation of central bank net international reserves, which would take the year-end total to over $8 billion. And the third requires a reduction in central bank financing of the government’s budget deficit, to the equivalent of 1 percent of GDP from 3.7 percent in 2021.
  • The program’s rather modest fiscal and monetary objectives are based on optimistic assumptions, however, and its structural reforms fall way short of what is required to spark confidence and a sustainable economic recovery. Populist economic measures – advocated mainly by the Peronist faction led by Vice President Cristina Kirchner – have greatly harmed the country’s business and investment climate.
  • It is an open secret in Argentina that the main purpose of the IMF loan is really to help the government avoid defaulting on the $44 billion the Fund previously loaned (in 2018-19) to President Mauricio Macri’s administration. That loan is scheduled for repayment in full between September 2021 and mid-2024, and the present government had made it plain to the IMF that it had no means to do so absent a reprofiling or a quid pro quo. Therefore, in Argentina, the new IMF loan is widely understood to be a fig leaf over what is an indirect debt rescheduling on an installment plan – and it is characterized as a debt refinancing by the government itself.

Even the mild conditionality attached to the new IMF loan has already proven difficult to meet and has claimed its first significant victim –Economy Minister and Fernández ally Martín Guzmán resigned on July 2. His replacement is Silvina Batakis, a heterodox Peronist economist handpicked by Cristina Kirchner.

  • All indications are that the government missed the IMF targets for end-June, especially once discounting any window dressing, and that, failing to take restrictive fiscal and monetary measures soon, it will miss the goals for the full year. Argentina’s financial markets have been reacting badly. The stock market index has been trailing far behind inflation; the government’s dollar-denominated bonds have plunged to distressed levels, mostly below 25 cents on the dollar; and the Argentine peso, whose value is set artificially by the central bank under a rationing system, trades in parallel (but legal) and black markets at less than half its official value.
  • Social and political tensions are on the rise, largely because wages and pensions are incapable of keeping up with inflation. On July 9, Independence Day celebrations were marred by nationwide protests against the government, though at least they were peaceful. On July 13, farmers staged a one-day strike to complain against punishing taxes, damaging currency controls, and a scarcity of diesel fuel that has hit them during the harvest season. New Economy Minister Batakis will need to walk a fine line between introducing unpopular corrective measures to break the inflation spiral – restrictive fiscal and monetary policies, in particular – and pleasing political masters who seem to be persuaded that a muddling-through scenario of tightening controls and ignoring market realities is still viable. A miscalculation could lead to triple-digit inflation, widespread social unrest, and the early exit of President Alberto Fernández.

July 14, 2022

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Costa Rica: The First Months of an Atypical President

By Ilka Treminio*

President Rodrigo Chaves Robles speaking before the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly / Julieth Méndez, Office of the President of Costa Rica / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Costa Rica’s new President, in office for less than 90 days, is struggling to establish his credibility and launch his agenda. A political neophyte, Rodrigo Chaves Robles presented himself as the candidate of the recently created Progreso Social Democrático (PSD) party. He had no political career beyond serving as Minister of Finance for six months. He studied economics and was a professional on the staff of the World Bank, where he held senior positions for 27 years.

  • The Costa Rican elections were characterized by several key factors, including the lowest voter participation (56.76 percent) since the country’s return to democracy in 1948; the highest number of political parties (25); and a campaign aggressively focused on allegations of abuse by candidates. Chaves was accused of sexual harassment during his time at the World Bank. His main opponent, José María Figueres of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), was alleged to have participated in various acts of corruption as President in the 1990s. Chaves’s PSD is accused of creating a parallel campaign finance tool that the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) is now investigating.  

Chaves assumed office in May with several immediate challenges. As happened in the 2014 and 2018 elections, the President — who won only 10 of the 57 seats — took office with a parliamentary minority. The strongest party, with 19 congressmen, remains the PLN, and another four parties have members of the Legislative Assembly as well. Of all of them, only the Frente Amplio (FA) is left-of-center; the others are in the center and on the right, which augurs a significant shift of the social and economic models of the country.

  • The Legislative Assembly in May held an historic vote to name Rodrigo Arias as its legislative director — a PLN operator who’d served twice as Minister of the Presidency to his brother, popular ex-President Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-90 and 2006-10). At the top of the new legislative director’s priorities is a state reform law drafted by a special commission headed by Eliécer Feingzaig, widely known for his anti-state agenda. The commission is expected to draft legislation that will reduce or close public institutions and advocate other policies to diminish government.

Chaves’s style suggests that he wants to even out the competing powers between the Executive and Legislative, although at the risk of showing a propensity for emitting decrees.  

  • His most important measures so far have dealt with economic matters, such as one that made the so-called regla fiscal— a complex budget rule that limits government spending to GDP growth and controls on national debt — more flexible, so that he can pursue programs he ran on. He has been criticized because such flexibility was why he resigned as Finance Minister in the past. Another measure was to double senior government officials’ salaries at a time of austerity and reduced spending.
  • Chaves hasn’t been very effective with the Judiciary either.  In an exchange with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice about a ruling on citizens’ rights to speak out against him, his words prompted the court to admonish him for failing to respect the separation of powers.

President Chaves in his first months has been different from his predecessors. His speeches and actions seem guided more by impulse than the deployment of government strategies, which is odd for a technical expert from the World Bank. That approach might appear attractive to certain sectors of the population, but it entails risks for the country’s institutions by appearing personalistic and critical of established institutional procedures. The leadership of Rodrigo Arias in the legislature can be key for the country’s more conservative and traditional sectors — and undermine Chaves’s agenda.

  • Chaves himself is a conservative, but he is more prone to talk with non-traditional sectors and to listen to them. His unusual Presidential style is provoking expectations that he will perform. He seems to be seen by many Costa Ricans as caring about institutional actors, human rights defenders, and some communications media. Over time, however, he will have to watch out that he does not get blamed by disgruntled sectors of society as the man responsible for their unhappiness. Even if his political opponents push the policies that undermine people’s livelihoods — slow government institutions, economic decline, ineffective pacts between political forces, slow progress for the rights of women, LGBTQI+, immigrants, and others — he is the one who would pay the biggest price.

July 6, 2022

Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.

What to Make of Trends in Latin American Presidential Elections?

By Eric Hershberg*

No Left Turn road sign/ Frisky007 / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The results of the June 19 presidential election in Colombia will surely fuel claims about a putative shift to the left in Latin American politics, but as with the so-called “pink tide” that reached a crest during the 2000s, that is probably not the most significant takeaway from the triumphs of Gustavo Petro and other left-leaning candidates in Latin America. To be sure, over the course of the past year and a half the pandemic-plagued region has witnessed left victories at the polls in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and now Colombia. But dig deeper and there’s much more to be said.

Scholars, journalists, and pundits are always inclined to think of political trends in Left-Right terms, reflecting the competing political options in Latin America over the past 30 years as elsewhere. When “neo-liberal” governments promoted market-oriented reforms in the 1990s, and were frequently re-elected after restoring macro-economic stability to economies buffeted by inflation and debt, it was seen as a rejection of the statist development models associated with the Latin American left and of “populism.” When the “pink tide” governments abandoned some neoliberal tenets and opted toward more redistributive policies in the 2000s, the notion was that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, and when inequality diminished modestly amidst a commodity boom, a number of presidents secured re-election. Then, briefly, one heard that a new phase carrying to office leaders such as Macri, Lacalle, Bolsonaro, Duque, Moreno/Lasso, Bukele, and others signaled the triumph of conservatism in the region.

These conclusions ignore, however, that Latin American public opinion has overall been remarkably stable on citizen self-placement along the left‑right divide, with only a modest, and non-linear, shift toward the left. More significantly, the driving logic of Latin American politics since the advance of democracy in the 1980s has been to punish leaders who have presided over a decline in wellbeing, and to reward presidents who are perceived to have delivered material or symbolic rewards to large segments of the population.

  • That is what drove re-elections of leaders who a) conquered inflation during the 1990s (Cardoso, Menem, Fujimori), or b) increased incomes during the commodity boom of the early 21st century, including the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Correa in Ecuador, and Morales in Bolivia. The dynamic has undercut both sides. Neoliberals suffered in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but “pink tide” governments lost power a few years ago where economic stagnation combined with growing popular disgust at corruption. Countries such as Chile and Colombia were swept by protests prior to the pandemic, and alienation from those in power intensified with the impacts of the pandemic.
  • Leaders and governments typically categorized as “left” are by no means a monolith. Max Cameron and I argued 15 years ago the “pink tide” was a series of “Left Turns,” plural. Chavismo shared little with Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, and the Bachelet governments in a highly institutionalized political system such as Chile’s were never plausibly going to resemble those of Rafael Correa in institutionally hollowed-out Ecuador. Today, the Castillo administration emerges from a fractured party system that makes Peruvian politics extraordinarily different than those of Argentina or Brazil, with their enduring Peronist and Workers’ Party institutions.

In the era of Trump and Bolsonaro, when many political actors across the ideological spectrum are running roughshod over basic norms of democratic governance, it is hugely important that failed rightwing candidates in Honduras, Chile, and Colombia have promptly recognized the victories of Xiomara Castro, Gabriel Boric, and now Gustavo Petro. It is encouraging to see instances where electoral counts were clean and even the most unlikely democrats behaved in ways consistent with democratic rule. This opens space for guarded optimism regarding prospects for Brazil, which is holding elections in November, and even conceivably could bolster the cause of electoral democracy in the United States two years later.

  • In Honduras, Chile and Colombia, the margins were not as close as anticipated, in part because of high turnout (particularly among increasingly mobilized youth, who do seem often to tilt toward the left) and because of painstaking efforts by social justice advocates to mobilize their constituencies politically. Pressures from Latin America’s left, which borrowing political theorist Benjamin Arditti’s account can be understood to represent those sectors of the polity that aim to advance the ideals of the French Revolution –drove important cycles of political protest before the pandemic hit and were sustained over the course of the electoral campaigns of the past year. That poses both opportunities and a real challenge for governments in places like Honduras, Chile, and Colombia, which though vastly different in all sorts of ways find themselves with newly elected progressive leaders having to govern amidst tough economic times and restive populations.

June 21, 2022

*Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

Colombia: Inspector General Tipping Scales Against Petro

By Charles H. Roberts*

Secretary General Luis Almagro (second from right) of the Organization of American States (OAS) meets with Colombian Inspector General Margarita Cabello (second from left)/ OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Colombia’s Procuraduría General de la Nación (PGN) – constitutionally barred from intervening in politics – has taken actions during the 2022 election campaign to the detriment of left-of-center candidate Gustavo Petro (Pacto Histórico), undermining its own image and casting a shadow over the second-round vote on Sunday. It has disciplined officials of other parties too, but the pattern of its actions – and inaction – reflect a clear bias against Petro.

  • Last month the PGN, invoking its authorities as the Office of the Inspector General, suspended for three months the mayor of Medellín for tacitly endorsing Petro. That mayor and another were accused of violating Article 60 of the Disciplinary Code, on “breaches related to intervention in politics,” because they publicly indicated support for one of the presidential candidates. The disciplinary actions were taken with no finding of criminal liability by a court of law – a violation of Article 23 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), according to the consistent case-law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
  • The PGN has failed, however, to take equally decisive action when senior officials who favored Petro’s opponents in the presidential election – Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez (Coalición Equipo por Colombia) and Rodolfo Hernández (Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción) – made similar partisan statements. President Iván Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, and Army chief Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro all spoke out explicitly – and in violation of constitutional and statutory prohibitions – against positions taken by Petro and his campaign. (The Law on Electoral Guarantees of 2005 contains specific prohibitions on the President and Vice President’s activities, and the Constitution expressly prohibits members of the military and oversight agencies like the PGN “from taking part … in political controversies.”) Legal experts and civil rights activists, long concerned about PGN politicization, cite such actions as compromising its neutrality.

The failure of Procuradora General Margarita Cabello to refrain from involvement in political matters is part of a broader trend in the Duque Administration to weaken the rule of law and judicial independence. She was Minister of Justice under Duque until January 2021 and was nominated by him for her current job. Critics say she has violated the very same principle – that public servants should remain above politics – that she claims she is enforcing by suspending officials she believes cross the line. When Duque attacked Petro, she did not even reprimand him despite precedent: In the 1970 elections, then-IG Mario Aramburo chastised President Carlos Lleras Restrepo for intervening in the election debate.

  • Cabello’s actions ignore decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. When then-IG Alejandro Ordóñez removed Gustavo Petro as Bogotá mayor in 2013-2014, the Court found that the action violated Petro’s political rights and those of the voters of Bogotá who had elected him by acting without “sentencing by a competent court in criminal proceedings.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a precautionary measure that Colombia implemented, restoring Petro to office just one month after his removal. In its July 2020 final judgment in the Petro case, the Court told Colombia to modify its regime to bring it into compliance with the ACHR, and gave it until October 2021 to do so. (Colombia ratified the ACHR in 1973 and integrated it into its 1991 Constitution.) The Court, whose position is that the PGN is an administrative organ and therefore cannot exercise judicial powers, in a November 2021 resolution found Colombia out of compliance with its judgment. The government has yet to comply. 

IG Cabello’s recent actions raise serious doubts about the Procuraduría’s neutrality and has prompted renewed debate about reform and the need to protect democracy and the rule of law. In a recent interview after the latest suspensions, Gustavo Gallón, director of the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, highlighted the need to “oversee the overseer.” Other long-time observers, such as Rodrigo Uprimny of Dejusticia, have called for shutting the office down, noting that its functions are all redundant with other oversight institutions – or, at a minimum, for it to comply with the Court’s decision. 

  • Candidate Petro advocates placing the Procuraduría under the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía). His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, is running on an anti-corruption platform, but he hasn’t made public remarks on the PGN’s recent actions. Given the PGN’s tilt against Petro and apparent willingness to wade into political waters, however, an Hernández presidency may well seek to harness the office to spearhead his promised anti-corruption drive. No matter who wins the election, Colombian democracy is weakened when the PGN, a unique institution with unique powers, turns its back on Colombia’s commitments to democracy and human rights. 

June 17, 2022

*Charles H. Roberts is a lawyer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Top-down Accountability vs. Electoral Democracy: The Case of Colombia’s Inspector General (and in Spanish), published by the Accountability Research Center in March 2021.

Latin America: Lessons Learned from Abortion Rights Struggle

by Brenda Werth and Katherine Zien*

A protestor tying green scarves to a fence at a pro-abortion demonstration in Argentina / Fotomovimiento / Flickr / Creative Commons license

With the U.S. Supreme Court apparently poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, U.S. supporters of women’s reproductive rights could learn from the strategies of their Latin American counterparts, who have made important advances even if they still feel they must struggle for implementation. The decision will put the United States out of step with global progress being made in sexual and reproductive rights, according to the Secretary General of Amnesty International. In the last 25 years, around 50 countries have increased legal access to abortion. Latin America, a traditionally Catholic region, has been at the forefront of decriminalizing and legalizing abortion rights.

  • In 2012, Uruguay legalized abortion of fetuses up to 12 weeks. In January 2020, Argentina became the largest Latin American nation to legalize abortion, allowing pregnancies to be terminated up to 14 weeks. Mexico followed suit and decriminalized abortion in September 2021, and in February 2022, Colombia decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. Chile, if its new Constitution is approved, will be the first country in the world to make abortion a constitutional right. While abortion rights are more limited in 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, these represent major strides forward.

The progress in Latin America comes on the heels of a revolution in gender and sexuality rights across the region catalyzed by feminist mobilization against gender violence and femicide in movements and street protests such as NiUnaMenos (Argentina), Un Violador en tu camino (Chile), and NiUnaMás (México). Abortion rights – framed as crucial to protecting reproductive health – were integrated into a preexisting human rights framework. Feminist groups have argued that the prohibition of access to legal and safe abortion is an act of gender violence.

  • The path toward legalization is clearest in Argentina, where a human rights culture created initially by groups like Madres de Plaza de Mayo during the last dictatorship (1976-83) led to feminist movements such as NiUnaMenos and the Marea verde (Green Tide), symbolized by the green handkerchiefs donned by supporters of the Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. The Campaign also used inclusive language to expand the definition of those entitled to abortion rights to include anyone capable of gestation, including gender non-conforming individuals. The struggle has also been intergenerational (Barbara Sutton, “Intergenerational Encounters”). Sometimes referred to as the “revolución de las hijas” or “las pibitas,” a young generation including high schoolers took to the streets and transformed public spaces and social perceptions of abortion rights in Argentina.
  • Abortion rights in Argentina thus intersected with progressive legislation on gender and sexuality rights. In 2020, President Alberto Fernández, who described abortion as “a matter of public health” during his campaign, introduced the bill in Congress legalizing abortion. His predecessor, conservative President Mauricio Macri (2015‑2019), had allowed the bill to be debated in Congress, and before him, left-wing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007‑2015) supported progressive legislation on sexual and gender rights even though she refused to support abortion reform because of personal views.

The “doble militancia” (Debora Lopreite, “The Long Road”) – the popular mobilizations and political coalition-building pushing for reproductive rights as issues of human rights, public health, and social justice – contributed to Argentina’s landmark law. Activists continue to be vigilant, however, as abortion access has been hindered by opponents and the high percentage of doctors, particularly in the northwest provinces, who declare themselves “conscientious objectors.”

  • Argentina’s path has been very different from that of the United States. The right to abortion in the United States was nested within the umbrella of privacy rights and became a federal policy via the judiciary rather than the legislature. U.S. activists have not strategically framed it as a human right firmly in the context of public health and social justice. To achieve lasting change, they could shift discourse away from abortion as a single issue, an anti-religious position, or an abstract philosophical debate, and situate it firmly in the context of public health and social justice. Grassroots social mobilization across generations, strategic coalition-building, and transversal relationships between activists and policymakers don’t guarantee irreversible change, but they are more reliable drivers of change than the shifting political winds affecting Supreme Court justices.

June 9, 2022

* Brenda Werth is an Associate Professor of Latin American Studies and Spanish at American University. Katherine Zien is an Associate Professor of Drama and Theater at McGill University

South America: Future Global Green Hydrogen Hub?

by Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

An oil rig off the coast of Brazil / Redacción EFEverde / Creative Commons license

A handful of South American countries have long produced hydrogen using fossil fuels for their domestic hydrocarbon, steel, and petrochemical industries, but early efforts by Brazil, Chile and Uruguay to shift to renewable and carbon-free energy sources, along with the emergence of new lower-cost technologies, could position the continent as a leading global green hydrogen supplier.

  • Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and can be produced from water utilizing the electrolysis process whereby a direct current is applied to separate hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen gas that is produced can be either burned – for heat or to generate electricity – or stored in fuel cells that produce electricity to power transportation.
  • South America has been producing hydrogen for several decades. Many countries on the continent are already important hydrogen producers for the steel and petrochemical industries, including the manufacture of fertilizers, as well as for refining heavy-crude petroleum products. The electricity to facilitate electrolysis in South America currently relies exclusively on fossil fuels. This explains why hydrogen production is today a major source of greenhouse emissions in some South American countries.
  • Countries with substantial hydrocarbon reserves such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru also have the potential to utilize natural gas to produce so-called “blue” hydrogen, which incorporates carbon-capture and storage technology. The technologies to ensure the elimination of all greenhouse house emissions associated with the extraction, transport, and use of natural gas have yet to be developed.

Three South American countries have a jump on producing “green” hydrogen, made exclusively with renewable and carbon-free energy resources such as geothermal, hydro, solar, wind, and even nuclear power for electrolysis.

  • In 2020 the outgoing administration of Sebastián Piñera of Chile launched an ambitious plan to convert the country into a major global exporter of green hydrogen by 2030. An Australian company at the end of 2021 announced plans to invest $8.2 billion to build a major export-oriented green hydrogen complex in the southern Argentine province of Rio Negro. A pilot project in Argentina has been producing small amounts of electrolytic hydrogen from wind power since 2008.
  • Chile and Uruguay are best positioned to attract green hydrogen investment projects, given their long-term national energy plans forged through extensive stakeholder consensus-building efforts as well as stable economic policies and predictable regulatory frameworks. These factors contributed to putting both countries at the forefront of the continent’s transition to a greener energy matrix. The Santiago metro system, for example, is now powered exclusively by renewable energy, while Uruguay is often ranked behind Denmark as a global leader in terms of wind-generated electricity.

Converting South America into a major global green hydrogen exporter will require new and less costly technologies to produce, transport, and consume it. Ideally, South American governments should encourage regional research and development of new technologies to reduce the current high costs to produce green hydrogen, perhaps with funding from the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), which is now based in Montevideo, or the Fund for the Structural Convergence of the MERCOSUR (FOCIM). Regional economic integration schemes such as the Andean Community and MERCOSUR can also facilitate the creation of new supply chains for manufacturing competitively priced inputs such as fuel cells and electrolysers to produce hydrogen from water. Another missing piece is a low-cost way to overcome hydrogen’s comparatively low energy density. At present you need about three times more space to store hydrogen to make the equivalent level of energy sourced from natural gas. Retrofitting existing pipeline networks and devising innovative ways to more cheaply transport hydrogen over long distances, is also necessary.

  • South American countries would be wise to decarbonize domestic transport and industry through wide-spread use of green hydrogen before making the leap to global exports. Serving global markets sustainably will also require the deployment of low-carbon transport options to replace the current fleet of long-distance ships that rely on highly polluting diesel. Utilizing liquid hydrogen or ammonia and even methanol produced with green hydrogen to power ocean-going vessels may provide the solution.

June 3, 2022

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.