Five Questions About Nicaragua’s Predicament

By A Long-time Observer*

Students protesting against President Ortega/ Jorge Mejía Peralta/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As the people of Nicaragua prepare for presidential elections on November 7, they are a nation that sought to overcome dictatorship, revolution, and civil war by accepting and practicing democracy – just to find itself back at square one. The following questions address the recent past for an understanding of Nicaragua’s current predicament.

  1. How to explain President Daniel Ortega’s presence on the front lines of Nicaraguan politics for the last 40 years? Ortega has been head of government or head of the opposition in Nicaragua since 1979, when he led a coalition government of Sandinista guerrillas and independent civilians and then became President in his own right after elections in 1984. During the 1980s, the other main Sandinista leaders were busy running ministries and representing the country abroad, while Ortega started building a party structure loyal to himself. After losing the next election in 1990, his grip on the party increased as dissident Sandinistas left in protest over the transfer of public assets (mostly confiscated from Somoza and his cronies in 1979) as private property to the party leadership that remained loyal to Ortega.
  2. What is the Sandinista party (FSLN) today in terms of numbers, structure, and historical significance? The importance of the party structure has dwindled as the government relies more on alliances with non-Sandinista economic groups and Ortega becomes the great decider assisted by a small circle of confidants and family members. The party with a mass following is no more. Less able to mobilize people to counter or cower opposition as it might have done during, for example, the critical months of the 2018 uprising, it has resorted to outright repression (killings, imprisonments, exile).
  3. What was/is the role played by Venezuelan assistance during the latest Ortega governments? When Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, Nicaragua was still recovering from the Contra War of the 1980s, which had drained the country of productive resources, and three neoliberal administrations, which cut social spending and sought to attract private investment. The 2008 worldwide economic downturn was an early challenge. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela immediately stepped in to assist by providing Nicaragua with oil on credit and by purchasing foodstuffs for his own country. From 2010 to 2014, Venezuela provided more than $500 million yearly in petroleum. Venezuelan aid also altered the composition of the Nicaraguan business class by allowing Sandinista entrepreneurs to access credit and subsidies from semi-private companies set up to handle Venezuelan oil imports, as well as supporting social programs for their base in the countryside and urban barrios.
  4. What role does the private sector play in Ortega’s Nicaragua? Outside of the new Sandinista-owned businesses, the principal beneficiary of Venezuelan assistance was the traditional private sector headed by the country’s large agribusiness and banking concerns. Ortega mostly abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric and embarked on a new national development policy defined as “socialist, Christian, and caring,” while Nicaraguan companies exported meat and cereals to Venezuela at market prices. COSEP, the largest private-sector interest group, gave legitimacy to the alliance of convenience between Ortega and his public-private hybrid model. The economy grew at respectable annual rates of 4.5 percent to 6.0 percent from 2010 to 2017, but Venezuelan assistance declined after 2015, as did the Nicaraguan economy shortly afterwards. The last three years have witnessed negative economic activity, compounded by COVID‑19 and political unrest.
  5. What is the nature of the opposition to Ortega and how does it resemble opposition to the Somoza regime of decades past? It is difficult to estimate what proportion of the electorate would still support Ortega in an open election. There are no recent trustworthy polls, nor has the opposition been allowed to mobilize in public gatherings or participate in open political debate. However, the manner in which the regime has declared most, if not all, opposition candidates ineligible to run, and arrested many others, would suggest that it fears even the most timid of rivals. Nor does it have the economic resources to fund a large-scale campaign with even token opposition candidates akin to the “loyal” opposition that the Somoza dictatorship cobbled together to provide a veneer of legitimacy.

Ortega finds himself bereft of strong international support – even from a Latin American left that historically sided with the Sandinistas in their struggle against imperialism and interventionism – and must rely increasingly on the police and the army as a line of last defense. The army chief since 2010, General Julio César Avilés Castillo, has presided over a noticeable increase in the strength of the Nicaraguan Army, including the purchase of T-72 tanks and armored personnel carriers – cementing its political loyalties. The police, too, are now equipped with late-model pickups purchased from a dealership owned by a close business apologist of the regime.

  • Nicaragua’s current political landscape has a lot more to do with power – political, economic, military – than with the wishes of the electorate or the respect for human rights. No one doubts that Ortega will win his fourth consecutive election – by hook or by crook – come November 7, and Nicaragua’s predicament will not be over until at least one of the legs of the Ortega alliance gives way.

October 20, 2021

Latin America: Is COVID Creating Space for Tax Reform?

By Tasha Fairfield*

National strike in Colombia against the Duque administration’s proposed tax reform/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic and associated fiscal stress have pushed taxation to the forefront of national political agendas in Latin America and beyond, but leaders need to learn from past failures to achieve success. The question of taxing the rich has gained salience, giving rise to multiple proposals for wealth taxes around the globe. Debate over raising revenue to finance social spending and other pandemic-related priorities by taxing economic elites is particularly important in Latin America, given its staggering inequality.

  • Economically, raising revenue from the upper crust of the income and wealth distribution can actually be optimal and efficient, as Piketty and Saez have shown. From a normative perspective, almost everyone agrees that, in principle, those with more should bear a larger portion of the tax burden. Taxing the rich should be especially popular in highly unequal countries, where the rich are a tiny fraction of the populations and the vast majority would stand to benefit.  

The politics of taxing economic elites tend to be more complicated, however. On the one hand, big business conglomerates and wealthy individuals often enjoy multiple sources of power that end up mattering more than public opinion during the policymaking process. On the other hand, while the majority may approve of progressive taxation, neither voters nor social movements have given priority to demanding that economic elites be taxed more heavily. They tend to see taxation as not directly affecting average citizens, and the technical details of reform initiatives can be difficult. Public support can nevertheless play an important role in counterbalancing the power of economic elites – especially during electoral periods, when politicians tend to be more concerned about what voters want.

  • When progressive tax initiatives do not visibly and narrowly target economic elites – as occurred in Bolivia’s attempt to reinstate an individual income tax in 2003 – the public may reject them. In the Bolivian case, Finance Ministry experts designed a technically appealing flat tax that would be easy to administer yet progressive in practice, thanks to a threshold exemption that produced higher effective tax rates for higher income earners. But the flat marginal tax rate sparked widespread misperception that the proposal was regressive.
  • Inconsistent government messaging also fostered misperceptions that the tax would affect a wide swath of Bolivians. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada at one point asked the “middle class” to “assume this sacrifice,” even though in reality that “middle class” was only a tiny, privileged group of highly paid wage-earners and independent professionals. The proposed reform ended up provoking popular protests, despite the fact that most participants would have been exempt from the tax, and the reform was quickly abandoned. 

The pandemic era increases the opportunity that a strategy linking tax reform to social spending – an approach that has been used successfully in many previous instances – will gain momentum. Programs that provide tangible benefits naturally draw greater interest and support from popular sectors than taxes targeting economic elites.

  • The more immediate and visible the associated benefits, such as expanded and more generous cash transfers, the more effective this strategy can be. In Chile, for example, center-left governments in the 1990s and 2000s made popular social spending initiatives contingent on tax increases, leaving the rightwing opposition exposed to popular wrath if they the chose to vote against the package. An analogous approach is earmarking tax increases to finance social programs. Technocrats dislike earmarking because it creates budget rigidities, but the political advantages are clear.
  • The pandemic has greatly augmented social need and threatens to exacerbate inequality. Colombia’s experience last May, however, shows that linking spending to taxes alone may not be enough. The Duque administration’s proposed tax reform was explicitly intended to finance expansion of basic income support for poor Colombians, and the measures were presented together within a single reform package. Yet the initiative failed because the tax measures were not adequately targeted at economic elites. A second effort later in the year fared better because the sales tax measures and a proposed income tax threshold reduction were removed.

October 13, 2021

* Tasha Fairfield is an associate professor in development studies at the London School of Economics. Her book, Private Wealth and Public Revenue in Latin America: Business Power and Tax Politics, examines how and when the interests of economic elites prevail in unequal democracies through comparative analysis of tax reform in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia after economic liberalization.

The Interamerican Democratic Charter Turns 20: Is it Becoming Irrelevant?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, September 2011./ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the clear merits of its text, the Interamerican Democratic Charter (IADC) has been enforced inconsistently over the 20 years since its singing; its effectiveness in curbing democratic backsliding remains unclear; and, with little chance of being reformed, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant.

  • The Charter was speedily adopted in Lima on September 11, 2001, while the world was reacting to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It emerged from a proposal by the government of Peru after the resignation of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori to reinforce existing multilateral instruments for democracy. It became the main multilateral framework to deal with breakdowns of democracy and backsliding in the hemisphere.
  • The IADC developed a shared and precise definition of representative democracy; expanded the scope of action of the OAS to address coups and violations perpetrated by the elected governments; and defined procedures for various enforcement actions ranging from the dispatch of missions to the imposition of sanctions and the suspension states from the OAS.

Limits on the IADC mandate have compromised its enforcement and effectiveness, however. The enforcement of measures is under the control of governments, which take decisions through consensus or qualified majority-voting (in the case of suspensions from the OAS). Even though the IADC is grounded on the principle that democracy is a “right of the people” (Art.1), non-state actors and state institutions other than the executive branches have limited capacity to activate the IADC, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights does not play any role in its enforcement.

  • The IADC has not been invoked in cases in which member states have conflicting interests. For instance, it was not applied against Haiti in the wake of the forced removal of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 or against Honduras after the electoral fraud of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017. In both cases, Washington obstructed enforcement of the Charter for reasons other than “the defense of the right to democracy” of Haitians and Hondurans. More recently, Mexico has obstructed enforcement against Nicaragua despite the serious violations of the opposition’s political rights by President Daniel Ortega. Similarly, the IADC has been altogether ignored when the attacks against democracy have taken place in powerful states, such as after the assault against the U.S. Capitol in January.
  • Against this backdrop, the activism of current Secretary General Luis Almagro – who has pressured member states to take a stance through social networks and moral shaming on various occasions – has sought to work around governments’ monopoly of enforcement and break gridlocks. But his actions often compromised the impartiality of his post as he has been perceived as taking sides in the conflicts at hand and overreaching his powers under the IADC.
  • Disappointment with the IADC and Almagro’s performance has led Mexico and other governments to advocate for reinforcing alternative regional forums such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). However, these announcements have little credibility if they are not accompanied with sustained political leadership – in the face of certain U.S. opposition – and commitment of resources to build strong regional institutions.

Ironically, the IADC came into existence precisely when the conditions that made it possible – a liberal consensus and an international agenda on democracy promotion – were fading away. These two decades have demonstrated that the democracies of the hemisphere, including Washington, are not always willing to put the defense of democracy in the neighborhood before other foreign-policy interests. Governments are also prone to bypass the OAS and the IADC and go unilateral if they feel that a crisis affects their interests, as the Lima Group and the U.S. unilateral sanctions against Venezuela have recently shown.

  • These two decades have also demonstrated that member states are not up to even discuss reforming the IADC. They are reluctant, for example, to create an enforcement authority, which would render the application of the Charter more impartial and possibly more effective. This is certainly disappointing news for those who believe in Inter-American relations based not only on Realpolitik but also on principles and norms. The IADC will continue being a roadmap for the states in the region and a reminder of the commitment to democracy, but it will be – paraphrasing the first OAS Secretary General Alberto Lleras Camargo – what the states want to make of it.

September 28, 2021

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Pandemic Relief for Latino-Owned Businesses: Lessons from the Washington DC Metropolitan Area

By Robert Albro and Eric Hershberg*

Latina microenterprise in Washington DC/ Credit: Liz Albro

While the impacts of the pandemic and public health measures to contain it have been widespread across all demographic groups in the United States, minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected, with Latino-owned enterprises hit the hardest. A newly released CLALS study describes steps taken by local jurisdictions to ameliorate these impacts, identifies challenges experienced by Latino business owners in accessing pandemic relief, and offers recommendations to better support minority enterprises in anticipation of future crises.

  • By June of 2020, a Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative pulse survey reported that 83 percent of Latino businesses had experienced a negative impact from COVID‑19, and the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the number of Latino business owners nationwide had declined 32 percent.
  • In the Washington Metropolitan Area, Latino business owners surveyed by CLALS during the same time period reported catastrophic losses of customers and sales, pressures on liquidity, employee layoffs, and dramatic disruptions of their day-to-day business operations.
  • In many cases the industries in which Latino businesses are concentrated made them more vulnerable. The onset of the pandemic had an immediate negative impact on Latino front-line workers in essential industries and on restaurants and retail establishments that rely heavily on foot traffic, forcing widespread closures. An estimated 25 percent of Latino businesses nationwide are either permanently shuttered or remain temporarily closed.

Nearly all Latino business owners CLALS surveyed in mid-2020 – 94 percent – ranked as most important the need for greater access to financial assistance to survive the crisis. However, the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing disparities between Latino-owned and other businesses, with Latinos among those receiving the least support to help weather the economic catastrophe.

  • According to a 2021 Federal Reserve report, Latino businesses were less than half as likely as White-owned firms to be approved for a loan during the COVID‑19 emergency. And the U.S. Small Business Administration reported only 7 percent of Latino businesses that applied received Paycheck Protection Program funding in 2020, compared to 83 percent for White-owned enterprises.
  • Latino small business owners experienced multiple barriers to access, including in many cases not having a relationship with a bank or professional financial service provider, lack of access to timely Spanish-language information about programs, immigration status, and inadequate accounting that left them ineligible for government relief.

CLALS’s study documents all federal, state, and local pandemic relief programs in the DC-metro region, and concludes that outreach by assistance providers did not always reach Latino business owners because local governments did not necessarily seek to engage them through preferred channels and familiar institutional counterparts. It further concludes that cities and counties striving to improve support for businesses in historically underserved communities in advance of the next crisis can be more inclusive and effective by discussing challenges and sharing best practices among each other,  targeting aid sooner to specific industries and business types, coordinating at the outset with trusted community ambassadors with strong local knowledge, and improving their awareness of how and where to best engage minority and Latino business owners, both in-person and through the right channels of communication.  

Nationwide Latinos are the most likely to start a business of any group, and they are also the fastest growing population in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Our region’s economic prosperity is increasingly connected to the success of its Latino entrepreneurs. How well its business ecosystem supports new Latino start-ups, business growth and stability, during normal economic periods but also the next inevitable crisis, will be a big part of sustaining any such prosperity. But this, in turn, will depend upon applying key lessons learned from the present pandemic crisis, including further institutionalizing the advantages of inter-jurisdictional collaboration and information-sharing, and the need to better support non-governmental and community-based institutions other than banks – which effectively channeled information, financial and technical assistance to Latino and minority enterprises throughout the crisis – as mediators between local jurisdictions and often hard-to-reach Latino business owners.

September 21, 2021

* Robert Albro is a Research Associate Professor in American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. Eric Hershberg is the Center’s Director and a Professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. This report is part of an ongoing Center research program examining Latino Entrepreneurship.

China in Latin America: Influential But Not Liked

By Andrei Serbin and Luiza Duarte*

President Michelle Bachelet participates in a document-signing ceremony with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping./ Government of Chile/ FlickrCreative Commons License

An on-line survey of Latin American international relations experts reveals that China is viewed as having great influence in regional commerce, surpassing the United States and Europe, but that its engagement with the region is perceived as relatively negative. Although Chinese media have been increasing efforts to enter the information landscape in Latin America, they are not perceived to be a significant source of news for Latin American opinion leaders and do not appear to have significant influence on public opinion.

The questionnaire was administered by CLALS and CRIES last May and June as part of a broader project to assess the role of China and its communication strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It targeted academics and other thought leaders throughout Latin America. Some 379 experts responded.

Key findings:

  • China was perceived by 80 percent of the experts to have a “high” level of influence in Latin America, and only 5 percent said it was low. According to respondents, China’s influence was surpassed only by that of the United States. Madrid and Moscow scored slightly lower than Beijing.
  • The specific areas of Chinese influence were not homogeneous across the region. Asked about Beijing’s role in culture, the economy, health care, and technology, about 90 percent of respondents cited the economy as top area, followed by technology and medicine. (In each of these three categories, it was surpassed only by the United States.) Fewer than 5 percent named culture – higher than Russia and India but lower than six other countries on the list.
  • On the positive or negative impact of that influence, fewer than 10 percent said they had a “very good” opinion of the Asian power, while a little more than a quarter said they had a “good” opinion. About one-third said they had an “intermediate” opinion of Beijing, and the final third had a “bad” or “very bad” estimation. When asked to compare China with other world or regional powers, respondents ranked it among the lowest. A little more than one third view it negatively, 32 percent as neutral, and a little more than 25 percent positively. Germany, Japan, and Spain scored highest as “very good” and “good,” even if they’re ranked as having a lower level of influence. The United States scored somewhat lower, but China and Russia had stronger negatives and weaker positives. Only Russia’s influence is perceived more negatively than China’s.
  • Most of the experts felt the principal priority for having relations with China should be commercial, followed by foreign direct investment and other financial ties. International security ranked as their lowest priority – even lower than multilateral cooperation and human rights. Importantly, this order of priorities is the same as with U.S. relations – with the only statistically significant difference being a preference for cooperation on international security with Washington.

Important among the findings of the survey is that China is failing in its efforts to use media tools to create a positive image for the country and its government. Beijing has made significant investments in establishing a media presence, principally through its China Global Television Network (CGTN).

China’s state broadcaster launched CGTN Español in 2007, and it has significatively expanded operations worldwide in the past decade, multiplying platforms, newsrooms and crew. CGTN doesn’t have a Portuguese-language TV channel, but content in that language is produced by other Chinese media outlets, such as Xinhua, Radio China International, and People’s Daily.

  • Despite these efforts, fewer than 4 percent of those interviewed say Beijing’s influence was “high” or “very high,” while 38.8 percent say it was “low,” and 30 percent say it was “very low.” U.S. media influence, on the other hand, is high. More than 70 percent of the experts said CNN, for example, has “high” or “very high” impact. China’s CGTN international television network also ranked lower than the United Kingdom’s BBC, Venezuela’s Telesur, Russia’s RT, and France24.
  • According to most of the experts consulted, CGTN’s influence is principally “neutral,” but 33 percent of them said they didn’t know how to characterize it. That said, a greater percentage of them say its effect on China’s image is “positive” (about 20 percent) than “negative” (about 12 percent). In this regard, CGTN’s impact is similar to that of CNN (which is not a government entity tasked with burnishing the United States’ image) and RT, and much better than Telesur. But BBC and France24 reflect more positively on the British and French governments.
  • Even if findings indicate that Chinese media have “low” influence among Latin American leaders, a growing number of media-sharing agreements are facilitating the distribution of Chinese content through local media in Latin America. The influence of this indirect consumption has yet to be measured.

September 17, 2021

Luiza Duarte is a journalist, has a PhD in Political Science, and is a Research Fellow at CLALS, the Brazil Institute, and the Wilson Center. Andrei Serbin Pont is the Director of CRIES and an International Relations PhD candidate at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. The survey is part of a CLALS project on China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State

Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

Demonstration in Support of Bolsonaro/ Editorial J/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s September 7 holiday brought supporters of President Bolsonaro out in droves to hear him – standing next to his Defense Minister and his vice president (a retired general) – threaten the country’s Supreme Court, which he accused of politicization and abuse, and Congress, which has angered him by failing to pass his pet electoral legislation replacing electronic polling with paper ballots. Although the day’s events did not lead to significant violence, they portend further tensions and perhaps major disruptions ahead.

Great trepidation preceded the Independence Day confrontations. Some observers even worried that the demonstrations might become a rehearsal for an “auto-golpe,” triggering violence that might provide the excuse for a military intervention. The fact that the demonstrations (and counter-protests) came off without significant violence was cause for a collective sigh of relief.

  • While the crowds in Brasília, São Paulo, and a few other cities were energetic, they were – with a few exceptions – peaceful. Although small skirmishes with the police broke out, the police did not escalate matters, join demonstrators, allow conflict to escalate between protestors and counter-protestors, or otherwise create conditions that might generate excuses for the re-imposition of “law and order.” Even though many of Bolsonaro’s supporters carried messages calling for an end to the high court and for military intervention, and a few uniformed officers wandered through the crowds, both state police forces and the military chose to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the fact that reasonable observers worry that September 7 could become a breaking point is itself a sign of how bad things have become. Indeed, the question now is less one of whether Bolsonaro will further ramp up tensions, but of how he will do so.

  • The weak president, whose net popularity rating has been in the negative double digits since March appears to be trying to seize back public attention after a series of embarrassing scandals enveloped his family and his administration. His recent statement, repeated to demonstrators on September 7, that he would only leave office “under arrest, dead, or victorious” suggests he is willing to heighten tensions to protect his self-interest.
  • Bolsonaro may have further isolated himself politically this week, alienating legislative allies from the transactional and fickle Centrão parties that back his administration. They are likely to melt away as the 2022 elections approach, looking to back a winner. Impeachment murmurings in Congress also picked up yesterday. His record shows that, as his hold on power evaporates, he will be increasingly willing to push matters to hold onto office.

The Independence Day crowds were impressive enough that Bolsonaro’s appetite for adulation may be sated for now, but his supporters remain an angry minority bent on defending their leader. The 13 months between Independence Day and the October 2022 elections will be marked by significant tension, exacerbated by the President himself, along with any of his allies in the military and police who are willing to be dragged along. 

  • An analytical survey by Wendy Hunter and Diego Vega points to a number of worrisome factors within the military, including a three-fold increase in the number of military personnel in appointed positions between 2014 and 2020; Bolsonaro’s decision to increase military salaries and budgets (against a general context of fiscal austerity); and his calls to deploy the military to “defend civil liberties” against those calling for a vaccine mandate. The military has “become more assertive in engaging in political debates” and “leverage[d] the relationship to advance their own interest.” Yet Hunter and Vega also note that the military high command has growing reservations about propping up an increasingly unpopular president, and they “do not anticipate a democratic breakdown through an institutional military intervention, a traditional coup or even an incumbent takeover.”
  • A possibly greater challenge to democracy may emerge from Brazil’s truculent state police forces. The run-up to September 7 suggested that Bolsonaro’s appeal among the police might be even more widespread than within the military, and high-ranking police officers in São Paulo state in particular have been worryingly active in national politics in recent weeks. A number of high-profile police officers who were elected to public office during the 2018 elections were present in the September 7 demonstrations. The increasing politicization of police forces is particularly perturbing because of their potential to disrupt street-level politics. But so far, police discipline has held, with only small groups of police, many of whom are retired, actively backing the President.
  • With the police and the military seemingly on the sidelines, one possibility is that Bolsonaro may encourage supporters to target the courts. It is no mistake that a weakened Bolsonaro has chosen the vulnerable Supreme Court as his foil, and one of his most frightening bits of bluster on September 7 was the threat not to comply with the Court’s decisions. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Court pushes Bolsonaro into a corner, ordering another ally to jail, for example – with the President and his allies responding with flagrant disobedience and heated rhetoric about the court’s alleged partisanship and illegitimacy.

September 8, 2021

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article updates one published on the Brazil Research Initiative blog.

Latin America: Enduring Less Drastic Declines in Remittances than Predicted

By Gabriel Cabañas*

Ria Money Transfer/ Adam Fagen/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The decline in remittances during the COVID-19 pandemic has been less severe than predicted for Latin American and Caribbean countries because many migrants are in essential jobs and industries benefitting from generous U.S. income-protection measures, and a good U.S. recovery suggests positive trends will continue.

  • In April 2020, a month after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, the World Bank estimated the resulting economic shock would cause remittances globally to drop by around 20 percent over the year – the greatest single year drop ever recorded. The Bank said the decline hinged on the fall of wages and employment of migrant workers. Other factors loomed large, such as China’s announcement that its economy had contracted 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, and Europe, especially Italy, faced growing cases of the coronavirus.

More recent data tell a different story. The pandemic reduced global economic growth to -4.5 percent to -6 percent, which, while devastating, was cushioned by good performance in numerous sectors and industries. Contrary to the prediction of a 20 percent decline in 2020, remittances experienced only a 7 percent drop. Some remittance-receiving countries, including Mexico, actually reported growth in remittances from 2019 to 2020.

  • Generous stimulus programs, which the World Bank could not have predicted, preserved an income flow for companies in “essential” industries employing migrant workers, and those losing jobs received generous unemployment benefits.
  • A shift to digital remittances also made it easier and less costly for migrant workers to send money to their families. Western Union, which is the largest single remittance handler (with 10 to 20 percent of the market), reported that revenues increased 16 to 20 percent in 2020. Other channels appear to be growing even faster. The impact of remittances from migrant workers in the United States was further increased by currency devaluations in emerging economies hit hard by COVID.

Policymakers and academics have traditionally viewed remittances as having marginal positive impact on the economies of recipient countries – judging that foreign direct investment (FDI) has a much deeper impact – but that assessment is changing. A report published last year examined 538 estimates of the impact and found that 40 percent showed a positive correlation, 20 percent showed a negative correlation, and the remaining 40 percent were neutral. Observers increasingly think that remittances used by recipient families for consumption are often their optimal use. During periods of income shock, such as environmental catastrophe, increases in remittances replace roughly 60 percent of lost income, according to some estimates. During the Great Recession (2008-09) FDI dropped 39.7 percent, but remittances only dropped 5.2 percent. For a select group of remittance-receiving countries, including El Salvador, remittances have grown to provide more than 20 percent of GDP.

  • In 1970 remittances worldwide totaled less than $50 billion (in 2018 dollars), and in 2018 they exceeded $600 billion – surpassing all overseas development assistance and, in 2019, all FDI (except Chinese investment). Some experts claim much of this growth is a function of measurement error – caused by how banks track remittances – but the fact that remittances have been steadily growing since the 1970s is no illusion.
  • The hemisphere’s continuing challenges emerging from the pandemic raises questions about the future, but – as long as generous stimulus plans, essential work protection, and a strong dollar continue – remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean appear likely to allow recipient countries some continued reprieve from the economic devastation caused by COVID-19 and help them achieve an earlier economic recovery.

September 3, 2021

* Gabriel Cabañas is studying international relations and economics in the School of International Service.

Central American Youth Migrants Show Signs of PTSD and Stress

By Daniel Jenks and Ernesto Castañeda*

Central American migrants/ Peter Haden/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The trauma experienced by Central American minors before, during, and after their unaccompanied journeys to the United States puts them at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems, creating further obstacles to their success in school and broader integration into U.S. society. New research into results from the CLALS Pilot Project Household Contexts and School Integration of Resettled Migrant Youth, which included interviews and qualitative surveys (including a validated PHQ-9 Modified for Teens and the Child PTSD Symptom Scale, CPSS), revealed that about one-third of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala show symptoms of moderate to severe PTSD — significantly higher than the general population.

  • The study team interviewed or administered surveys to more than 100 subjects, including youths who arrived in Maryland before 2017, their parents, and social service providers, teachers, and local officials. At least 20 percent of the youth respondents exhibited symptoms of mild or moderate depression, and 38 percent said that they felt sad or depressed most days during the last year.

Many of the youths suffered deeply from separation from parents who preceded them in traveling to the United States, sometimes blaming them for problems and abuses they suffered back home, but they generally fared better than those whose parents had not emigrated. Those most deeply harmed were forced from their homes by gang violence, police corruption, and other symptoms of low state capacity, and suffered trauma along the journey to the United States. They were able to come to the U.S. and escape those problems because they had family in the United States.

  • Carlos, who migrated when he was 15 years old, left El Salvador because he was facing death threats from local gangs because he refused to join. He was scared to go to home and school. Other youths experienced pre-migration trauma that included natural disasters, war, gang violence, victimization, witnessing a crime, physical and sexual abuse, or attacks based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Other studies document the particular abuses faced by girls and young women.)
  • Migrating from Honduras at 13 years old, Samantha was on a bus near the Guatemala-Mexico border when gangs barricaded its door and threatened to set it on fire if they were not given a hefty fee. For the rest of the trip through Mexico, the coyotes gave her and others enough to eat only once a day. Indeed, the increased risk of undernutrition, dehydration, assault, kidnapping, and other forms of violence was common for unaccompanied youths.

Inside the United States, many face the stresses of family reunification and issues of acculturation, although our research indicates that the resulting anxiety is less severe than from the in-country and en-route traumas they experience. One mitigating factor is having access and feeling welcome to use supportive social services, education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.

  • Resentment toward parents who “abandoned” them in Central America — even those parents who were loving, reliable providers — is often deep. School challenges, language struggles, and stress related to their own legal status or that of their family further tax mental health. Complex, intimidating legal proceedings, threats of deportation, and prolonged forced separation from family get many youths off to a stressful start. Many also experience discrimination and hate crimes, becoming more aware of them as they learn English. Real or perceived lack of access to social services exacerbates stresses, and fear of dealing with authorities means that many problems go unreported.
  • Some learn to prosper. Diana, a 16-year-old from El Salvador, was scared and apprehensive when she started school in Maryland, but she found friends whom she could trust and could help her in school, and her mood improved drastically for the better.

We found that the psychological distress and disorders experienced by Central American youths in a troubling number of cases can exacerbate existing obstacles to integration, family reunification, and success in school. These obstacles, in turn, can create new stressors that exacerbate PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

  • Dealing with the traumas that plague youths in Central America is a massive undertaking that, rhetorically at least, the United States and Central American governments are addressing. Inside the United States, successful cases show that the cycle of further trauma exposure, depression, and PTSD can be overcome by making migrant processing more humane, increasing access to mental health services and education, and providing guarantees of protection to those who seek help – reforms that will be very challenging. The underlying problems are deep-rooted, and even when the Executive or Legislative branch pushes particular elements of reform, change will be hard to implement because of institutional and cultural barriers.

August 26, 2021

* Ernesto Castañeda directs the Immigration Lab and teaches sociology at American University, and Daniel Jenks is the Lab’s deputy director. This article is adapted from their full study published in Trauma Care journal.

Caribbean: Need for Overhauling Regional Maritime Transport

By Ryan Sullivan*

Container ship in freeport, Bahamas/ Corey Seeman/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

A lack of coordinated policy and overreliance on a one-size-fits-all trade structure have long hindered the development of the maritime transport infrastructure that the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Caribbean need to build a stable system for moving goods to and from the islands. The region’s current infrastructure, which carries more than 90 percent of its goods, is vulnerable to disruptions and inefficiencies.

  • Data published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) show the SIDS of most of the Caribbean have the lowest Liner Shipping Connectivity Index (LSCI) in the world (The Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago are the exceptions). LSCI was established to measure a country’s port connection to global markets by applying factors such as the number of regularly scheduled shipping services, the reach of these services, and vessel capacity. Connectivity in the Caribbean has been an issue for decades because global shipping companies believe the economies of scale and distance to major shipping routes make carrying goods in the region an unprofitable endeavor.
  • The growth in global container shipping has amplified connectivity issues. The shipping companies have steadily increased container capacity and employed advanced technology on vessels to the point that the port infrastructure in the region – the age of most port infrastructures in the Caribbean averages 50 years – is inadequate. Mega container ships call on only large transshipment hubs from which smaller, feeder ships pick up containers for delivery to islands – creating an indirect path to and from global markets that has been estimated to increase the costs of goods by 7 percent compared to the world average. In addition, shipping cartels have consolidated the power of these multinational shipping companies to the detriment of local companies dependent on their services.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has created shockwaves across supply chains, affecting both developed and developing economies. UNCTAD reports note that SIDS were among the most affected by supply chain shocks, highlighting their trade dependency for critical foodstuffs and medical supplies.

Proposed solutions have mostly looked at encouraging free trade agreements to reduce costs of trade and at encouraging foreign investment to increase capital flows and drive demand for cargo capacity. But none addresses the inherent lack of connectivity and high costs involved in this critical mode of transportation. U.S. President Biden recently issued an executive order that has empowered the Federal Maritime Commission to actively investigate unfair competition and enforce antitrust laws in the maritime sector. This signals a failure in the current trade structure since companies are being bullied as they attempt to bring their goods to the global market.

  • These challenges have raised questions about the wisdom of continuing to rely solely on private shipping companies to provide logistics, fueling policy reviews aimed at increasing coordination among the governments of the Caribbean, with assistance from international development banks, to promote a network of interisland transport services and increase investment in infrastructure upgrades. Governments are seeking unprecedented cooperation in digitalizing customs document processes and streamlining delivery of vital goods to their destinations.
  • Some SIDS experts point to the European experience in subsidizing short sea transport services. Greece created a network of ferries with a hub-and-spoke model of logistics centered at the Port of Piraeus to transport passengers and cargo to and from islands in the Aegean Sea. However, the service has seen no profits and is only viable under a single trade regime without the headache of various customs laws. Other proposals have not led to action due to resistance from maritime nations to easing cabotage measures meant to protect their maritime industries. Using Europe as an example for coordinating a secure interisland transport system would provide a unified policy approach that the Caribbean governments have so far been unable to reach.

While technology has advanced operational processes, the major impediment for Caribbean SIDS is the lack of willingness, at least so far, to coordinate policy in establishing a resilient and sustainable maritime transportation network of their own. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), whose 15 member states and five associate members bill themselves as the oldest surviving integration movement in the developing world, would be the best platform to promote comprehensive, strategic solutions, but there’s little sign of progress ahead.

  • One solution would be to encourage a multinational public-private partnership to create capacity for businesses to ship less-than-container-loads (LCL). The smallest container size available on the market currently is a 20-foot container. Most businesses are unable to fill one but are still obligated to pay tariffs of a full-container-load (FCL). The old one-size-fits-all approach is unrealistic for island logistics, and it imposes extra cost per good for the shipper and capacity issues for feeder ships. Additionally, efforts to streamline customs processes through digitalization should continue to be a priority beyond the pandemic, and concrete customs policies for seamless interisland trade would promote an environment for secure supply lines. Once the friction in interisland trade is reduced and capital and goods flow, the conversation can move toward developing a permanent maritime infrastructure – such as a regularly scheduled transport service with the sole purpose of serving the needs of the small islands of the Caribbean.

August 18, 2021

* Ryan Sullivan is a master’s candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in International Trade Relations.

Latin America’s Head-First Dive Toward E-Commerce

By Alexander Borushek*

Left: Tech Park/ Sebastian Bassi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)
Right: Informal work/ Alba Sud Fotografia/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

The boom in e-commerce during the COVID‑19 pandemic has been stronger in Latin America than in most other regions, presenting profound consequences for traditional informal economies as well as for citizens previously disconnected from formalized economic and financial networks. Since March 2020, long-lasting and recurrent lockdowns have upended informal economies by forcing people away from face-to-face – and often cash-based – transactions. In response, retailers and consumers have been pivoting toward new online alternatives.

  • The growth in e‑commerce has also been a bright spot in an overall bleak economic landscape, with sales growing by an astonishing 63 percent in 2020, topping $100 billion. Not only did this far exceed estimates from prior to the pandemic (12.5 percent projected in November 2019) or in its early days (19.4 percent in June 2020); it was the largest percentage increase of any region in the world.
  • Latin American consumers appear quite content with the shift. More than 80 percent of the region’s first-time online shoppers say they plan on continuing to do so after the pandemic. This is good news for established entities like Argentina’s e-commerce giant MercadoLibre – which already accounted for about half of all online sales in Latin America and saw 2020 revenues double – and international competitors such as U.S.-based Amazon, Singaporean conglomerate Shopee, and China’s Alibaba subsidiary AliExpress, which are looking to make inroads in the region.

Record sales also highlight the region’s urgent need to address the deficiencies that separate its e-commerce sector from the larger and more sophisticated ones in the United States, Western Europe, and the Asia-Pacific.

  • Of particular importance is infrastructure. Beyond underinvestment in bridges, ports, and highways, the region suffers from significant bottlenecks in the logistics planning processes that affect how and at what speed products are delivered.
  • Larger crossborder synergies are hampered in part by a lack of uniform importing schemes, in contrast to the ease with which products pass through borders of the European Union or into the United States. Another obstacle is the chronically low quality, reliability, and “relevance” of the region’s postal services, according to the Universal Postal Union. In its report last October, the UPU concluded that “compared with its level of economic development, the region has the worst relative [postal] performance worldwide.” Moreover, 60 percent of the “last-mile” delivery industry is made up of either small, often informal, businesses or independently contracted drivers who use their own vehicles. This results in a huge lack of cohesive route optimization. MercadoLibre and other big players are trying to build out independent fulfillment networks, but a lot of work remains.

The e-commerce ecosystem is giving other investors, retailers, and consumers a general sense of optimism that positive change can occur.

  • Millions of citizens have been brought into the banking system since the pandemic, often through nimble fintech platforms like MercadoPago or Brazil’s NuBank (the latter having seen record numbers of new users). Coupled with widespread smartphone ownership and the already-high penetration of mobile internet and data, more people than ever are shopping and will be able to purchase items online.
  • International investor interest in the sector is also high. Recently the U.S. e-commerce firm Etsy announced that it had acquired its Brazilian counterpart Elo7 in a $217 million deal. Additionally, SoftBank’s Latin America Fund has at present five e-commerce ventures in its portfolio, including the Colombian super-app Rappi.

While Latin America’s e-commerce sector has yet to display the speed of Amazon Prime or offer the panoply of services available in China, it is highly unlikely to be just a temporary byproduct of the pandemic. Recurring pandemic scares might just provide the momentum the e-commerce industry needs to consolidate its role as an integral piece of the post-COVID economic equation – helping societies address deep-rooted problems that plagued the people simultaneously dependent on the informal economy and most likely to benefit from increased access to banks and other formalized financial networks.

August 10, 2021

* Alexander Borushek is a graduate of American University’s School of International Service and currently a Business Development Representative for Envoy Global, a tech firm that works in immigration and global mobility.