Mexican Migration Crackdown Creates a “Wall” Before the Wall

By Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson*

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo/ Adam Isacson, WOLA

Facing U.S. threats to impose potentially steep tariffs on Mexican goods last June, Mexico has adopted a series of measures along its southern border with Guatemala that, while somewhat effective at stopping the flow, seems a partial solution with high financial and political costs.

  • Mexican authorities’ apprehensions of migrants in June, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his threats, reached 31,416. Captures that month and in July were three times greater than the same period in 2018. (The total of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended by the United States and Mexico last year is estimated to be more than a million.)
  • Mexico deployed nearly 12,000 of its newly minted National Guard troops to the southern border states with Guatemala. Many identify themselves to visitors as “soldiers”; appear to have little (or no) specialized training for migrant interdiction; and wear military uniforms with black armbands that read “GN.” The Guard, however, has not reduced criminal activities against migrants. Local and international experts report that criminal elements assault, rob, rape and kidnap people transiting the area and prosecutors’ offices take little action to investigate these criminal attacks. Observers report that coyotes, working with corrupt officials, arrange safe passage for many migrants on designated “safe buses” for up to US$2,600 per person.
  • Local observers say the enhanced operations have largely shut down what was the most transited of the four main routes through which migrants have traveled in recent times, but some people are learning to take alternate routes through puntos ciegos (blind spots) where government patrols don’t often go and where risks for migrants can be greater. One such corridor, in central Chiapas, seems to continue to be exploited robustly.

The Mexican government has been reluctant to deal with the consequences of its acquiescence to Washington’s demands, according to numerous border-area observers. At its peak, the aggressive patrolling filled detention centers to far over capacity (some at 300 percent capacity) with poor health conditions and alleged mistreatment. Apart from the members of the National Migration Institute’s Citizen Council, officials have restricted independent monitoring of detention facilities by human rights groups and migration specialists. The country’s refugee agency is on the verge of collapse, yet the Mexican government has yet to allocate sufficient resources to it. Over the course of 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received over 70,000 asylum requests – more than double in 2018 – but its 2020 budget is a mere US$2.35 million (4 percent of UNHCR’s budget for Mexico operations).

  • The U.S. push has put the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in a bind. On his first day in office, he signed a decree with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – from which the vast majority of migrants come – to address the underlying causes of the migration. Another agreement was reached with El Salvador, to fund programs to preserve and create jobs in agriculture. While the Mexican government has not left behind the focus on reducing the “push” factors of migration, it has been largely put on the back burner.

The Mexican government has put managing U.S. relations ahead of addressing the strategic migration problems it faces. It did not push back when the Trump administration announced it would be returning U.S.-bound asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their hearings through the “Remain in Mexico” program, and under the threat of steadily rising tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican goods, it has largely complied with nearly all U.S. demands. The results have been mixed, and the costs have been high.

  • Sources in the southern border region report that the National Guard deployment and other Mexican actions over the past seven months have reduced – although estimates range from “not very significantly” to “probably just around 30 percent” – the number of Central American migrants arriving in Mexico. Shelters are not as full as they were in mid-2019, but several remain very full. Data on other nationalities is sketchy, but anecdotal information indicates that Cubans, Haitians, and even Africans continue to find their way to shelters in the area.
  • In complying with U.S. demands, AMLO and his government have risked violating some of their fundamental stated values. AMLO had campaigned on independence, transparency and improved human rights, but the border deployments of the National Guard represent a further militarization of Mexico’s border security strategy – with a significant risk of human rights violations – and the detention of fearful Central Americans and extra-continental migrants in substandard conditions.

January 17, 2020

* Maureen Meyer is Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Adam Isacson is WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. The full text of their report is at The “Wall” Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border.”

Honduras: A Renewed MACCIH with Teeth?

By Eric L. Olson*

President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, January 16,

Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras, January 19, 2016/ Flickr/Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/oasoea/24115247729/in/photostream/

As the January 19 deadline for renewing the Support Mission to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) approaches, the Honduran government — never enamored of it — has a chance to demonstrate a commitment to root out one of the principal problems that undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and the opportunities citizens yearn for.

  • The Organization of American States has been engaged for months in low-profile discussions with Tegucigalpa on the future of MACCIH, created by an agreement between Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro on January 19, 2016. Despite concerns that MACCIH lacked the independence and capacity to conduct investigations that its UN-based counterpart in Guatemala (CICIG) once had, it has demonstrated that Honduras can indeed conduct independent, non-partisan investigations into systemic corruption, and begin to prosecute and hold accountable senior officials.

Working with its partner in the Public Ministry, a special anti-corruption prosecutor’s unit (UFECIC), MACCIH has had a key role in 13 major cases involving 124 individuals, including 80 government officials and 44 private citizens. Several cases involve networks of corruption in the Honduran legislature as well as the former first lady (now sentenced to 58 years in prison), and graft and corruption in the country’s public health system (IHSS). The official evaluation of MACCIH’s first four years by the Mesa de Evaluación, a process established by agreement between the Honduran government and OAS, has recommended full renewal.

The brave work of the UFECIC prosecutors, who formalize the investigations that MACCIH first develops, has been crucial. MACCIH screens and recommends the prosecutors and investigators that make up UFECIC, but its mission is to support, not conduct, prosecutions. This distance is intended to strengthen capacity within Honduras’s justice system.

  • Honduran civil society, previously skeptical that MACCIH would work, is now largely on board. The Coalition for the Renewal of MACCIH has issued statements calling for the mandate to be extended — proclaiming ¡Renovación Ya! — as have the National Anti-Corruption Council, the Association for a More Just Society, the Catholic Bishops Conference and its Evangelical counterpart, and others. Even members of the business community, long leery of anti-corruption initiatives, support renewal.
  • At least rhetorically, the United States supports MACCIH renewal. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak and other State Department officials have endorsed it, and Democrats in the U.S. Congress have been strong advocates. Washington’s implicit approval of the Guatemalan government’s dismantling of CICIG, however, remains a concern for MACCIH supporters.

President Hernández’s foot-dragging on renewal has fueled worries. Renewal could be done simply with an exchange of letters in which the government signals its desire to renew the mandate as is; unless the agreement is to be amended, no congressional action or further steps are needed. The delay has given rise to fears that the government is seeking to limit the length of the new mandate (from the current four years to two or even one). There is further concern that the government, with pressure from Congress, seeks to limit the MACCIH mission to citizen oversight functions, prevention efforts, and technical training. These are all important elements of the mission, but the heart and soul of the MACCIH’s success has been its support for the UFECIC and its investigations. To undermine or limit investigations would likely lead to the demise of UFECIC and render the MACCIH toothless.

Renewal of MACCIH — with the investigative elements of its mandate intact — gives President Hernández, who labors under a cloud of allegations about involvement in narcotics trafficking and other illicit practices, an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and building judicial and democratic institutions. If the mandate is changed, not simply renewed, it will have to be approved again by the Honduran Congress, where odds are long. The Congress has already recommended MACCIH not be renewed and, as the official Mesa de Evaluación documented, it has already attempted to reverse anti-corruption legislation, such as by lowering penalties for misuse of government funds.

  • Hernández has the clout to direct his supporters in Congress, many of whom fear MACCIH’s investigations into their activities, to abandon their obstructionist tactics, while reaching out to opposition legislators who support MACCIH. Alternatively, he could ignore Congress altogether and simply reach an executive agreement with the OAS, something that would carry less legal weight but may preserve MACCIH’s essential elements.
  • The President’s inaction hurts MACCIH and broader anti-corruption efforts as well as Honduras. Failure to push renewal — with teeth — will not only damage his reputation and further erode his legitimacy in the eyes of Hondurans and the international community; it will send a message of hopelessness and despair to Hondurans seeking to build a better future for their country.

January 13, 2020

* Eric L. Olson is Director of Policy, Seattle International Foundation, and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

 

Chile: Can the Constitutional Plebiscite Lead to a New Social Contract?

By Peter M. Siavelis*

An agreement between the Chilean government and opposition to hold a referendum in April on whether to scrap the current Constitution — legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship — has helped reduce tensions throughout the country and signaled that stakeholders are willing to compromise in order to reestablish Chile as a model of stability in a tumultuous region.

  • The most significant, violent, and deadly protests since the end of the Pinochet era exploded in Chile on October 20, after several years of simmering protests and social discontent. The protests, accompanied by looting, attacks on property and infrastructure, and 23 deaths, represented a turning point. Widely billed in the press as sparked by opposition to increased transport fees, this social mobilization represents a much wider demand for a fundamental rewriting of Chile’s prevailing social contract. It shocked the international community and Chileans alike, challenging the idea that Chile was a model of peace and economic development in a regional sea of economic crisis and social conflict.
  • The initial response of center-right President Sebastián Piñera’s government only created more conflict. Calling protestors delinquents and terrorists, and contending the country was at war with itself, he conjured uncomfortable parallels with the dictatorship. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses by police and security forces reinforced these parallels.

Piñera eventually bowed to public and elite pressure and announced a set of immediate reforms, including boosting the minimum wage and pension payments, cutting the price of medicines, lowering public transportation costs, slashing electricity prices, implementing higher taxes for the rich, and reducing the salary of members of congress, who are the highest paid in the region. For the longer term, Piñera acquiesced — one month after the initial explosion of protests — to a process to potentially scrap Chile’s 1980 Constitution, which was also the target of protesters’ ire. The agreement, dubbed acuerdo por la paz y una nueva constitución, grew from intense negotiations between the government and political parties. It was approved in Congress by a wide margin (127 in favor, 18 against, and 5 abstentions).

  • The legislation establishes that on April 26 a nationwide plebiscite will ask Chileans whether they want a new constitution and how it is to be drafted, with two simple questions: if the voter wants a new constitution, and, if so, if the voter prefers a “Constitutional Convention” or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention.” The former will entail a constituent assembly of citizens elected by the population, and the latter a body of one-half members of Parliament and one-half private citizens.
  • Most polling shows over 80 percent of Chileans in favor of a new constitution, and a large majority of those preferring a constitutional convention — an indication of the low regard in which Chilean politicians are held by the public. Whatever mechanism is eventually used, a second plebiscite will be held at a date to be determined for ratification of the new constitution.

The agreement left elements of both sides dissatisfied. The right grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but its more extreme elements remained concerned that a Constitutional Convention will establish social guarantees similar to those of Venezuelan Chavismo and undermine social peace and Chile’s development. More progressive signatories of the agreement added their support, thrilled at the prospects of doing away with the authoritarian constitution, but were concerned it did not go far enough to offer guarantees of gender parity or reserve representation for Indigenous groups and independents.  The Communist Party and a smattering of small parties refused to sign because they wanted deeper reforms.

For now, the immediate reforms and the acuerdo have calmed the pace and tenor of protests, and most accounts point to a peaceful plebiscite in April. This constitutional moment is a big one for Chile. Given the government’s recognition of the severity of the crisis, there is no reason to doubt its sincerity to make the plebiscite go smoothly and provide a framework for moving peaceably forward. If the plebiscite is successful, Chileans will achieve what was nowhere on the horizon only months ago: a definitive end to the Pinochet constitution, one of the dictatorship’s most objectionable legacies. This change will be followed by a reconfiguration of Chile’s fundamental social pact and reforms to its extreme form of neoliberalism, which has created staggering economic and social inequality at the root of these protests. However, for Chile to reestablish its status as model of economic development and social peace, it will have to walk a careful line between reform between competing interests and reestablish some sense of order and predictability after what undoubtedly has been Chile’s most significant social convulsion since the end of the dictatorship. The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and its political class — which is fundamentally different than others in the region in terms of political skill, respect for the rule of law, and relative probity enhances the possibilities that the country will be able to walk this line.  

January 9, 2020

* Peter M. Siavelis is Chair and Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University. His most recent edited book on Chile, with Kirsten Sehnbruch, is Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.

Cuba: Facing a Tough New Year

By Eric Hershberg, William M. LeoGrande, and Max Paul Friedman*

Intensified U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Venezuela are forcing renewed belt-tightening in Cuba and hindering the government’s ability to undertake even its modest economic reform agenda, but the country is not entering a new “special period” and significant instability does not appear likely in 2020 despite some increased social tensions. The big losers from U.S. sanctions are the small private-sector businesses — B&Bs, restaurants, and entrepreneurs — providing services to U.S. visitors, an estimated 638,000 a year before the Trump Administration clamped down over the course of 2019. But the government has also been forced to make major cutbacks.

  • To cope with fuel shortages caused by U.S. sanctions against oil companies shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba, the government reduced production in many factories to maintain energy supplies to consumers and avoid overly straining the power grid. Public transportation also faced drastic cuts, largely because of a lack of diesel fuel needed to distribute gasoline. Only some of the affected bus routes have since been restored.
  • Shortages of an array of necessities — from bread, coffee, meat, and many basic medicines to all energy products — have been severe and show no sign of abating as the economy sputters. Domestic demand for products that Cuba can produce, including electric bicycles and appliances, is strong, but financing is too tight. The government is phasing out the convertible peso (CUC) that it artificially pegged to the dollar and is establishing new hard-currency stores to capture dollars now flowing abroad as Cubans buy both consumer goods and inputs for domestic private enterprises in Panama and elsewhere at the rate of $25 million per month — hard currency the government desperately needs. Those dollars the government captures will supposedly be made available for domestic producers to import essential inputs. Cubans expect the CUC to become worthless paper sooner as some vendors now accept only foreign currency, and the street value of a dollar is now more than 1.15 CUC (compared to the official rate of 0.87 CUC).

One leading economist deemed 2019 to have been the worst year since 1993 — with growth essentially flat — and said the forecast for 2020 looks no better. State-owned enterprises are failing to perform efficiently despite years of rhetoric about rationalization and improvements. Foreign purchases, long hindered by a lack of hard currency, have been made even harder by the U.S. sanctions, as suppliers increasingly fear Washington’s scrutiny. The government has not responded to growing pressures by accelerating the sorts of meaningful reforms that have long been needed to increase production and efficiency.

  • Its strategy focuses on import substitution, according to a senior economic official, to reduce the need for hard currency by producing more consumer goods and inputs domestically. The tourism sector has boomed over the past decade, but more than half the hard currency revenue it generates goes to imported inputs. Cuba spends some $2 billion importing food while more than half its arable land lies fallow.
  • Financing investment needed to make import substitution a viable strategy is difficult. Cuban government officials speak of doubling domestic investment, now only 11-12 percent of GDP, but without increasing indebtedness — a huge task for such an inefficient economy. In addition to encouraging tourism enterprises to substitute local for imported inputs, the government hopes to improve conditions during 2020 by implementing a decades-old proposal to establish a closed dollar-based system in which companies retain a portion of revenues to finance investment and imports.
  • Foreign direct investment is the other potential but a largely elusive source for capital. Government fact sheets continue to emphasize the importance of the Mariel Special Export Zone, which has some 50 promised users, $2.5 billion in promised activity, and 7,000 promised jobs. Actual activity in the Zone, however, falls far short of that. The Trump administration’s activation of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (“Helms-Burton”), which allows the previous owners of property expropriated after the 1959 revolution to sue anyone benefiting from it, has made new investors hesitant.

While the economic outlook looks difficult indeed, there are few signs that the government is anxious about social frustrations and tensions becoming a serious challenge, much less an existential threat. The government continues to resist obvious (and relatively easy) reforms, such as allowing cuentapropistas licenses for multiple lines of business. Allowing the CUC to disappear gradually may be a precursor to addressing the years-old distortions caused by the country’s multiple currencies and exchange rates, but there’s still no sign that the government is ready to implement a unified peso. Havana apparently calculates that the country is hardly the pressure-cooker that U.S. policy aims to create by, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly told EU diplomats recently, “starving” the population so as to bring about a regime collapse.

  • Young independent journalists say that public organizing via social media is at times successfully pressing the government, which they deem largely ignorant of popular concerns, to revoke unpopular measures. Yet growing access to the internet may also serve to distract youth from more threatening forms of organizing. Giving people a sense of input on issues like the arts, animal rights, and sexual identity that do not threaten core government policies and processes is probably taking an edge off discontent.
  • The new year is likely to be difficult, particularly as the Venezuela crisis drags on, but, as observers say, “Cuba does ‘bad’ pretty well.” Hope is never a plan, but virtually everyone in Havana expresses hope that U.S. elections in November might bring back a pro-engagement U.S. policy that helps grow Cuba’s private sector and relieving pressure on sources of financing for Cuba to move ahead with its modest reform strategy.

January 7, 2020

*AU Professors Hershberg, LeoGrande, and Friedman traveled to Cuba in December.

Argentina: End of the “Right Turn”?

By Santiago Anria and Gabriel Vommaro*

From right to left, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez, and other ministers

From right to left, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Alberto Fernández, and other ministers / Wikipedia / Creative Commons / https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Ministros_de_Cristina.jpg

The inauguration of Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last week confirms that the pronouncements of the death of Latin America’s “left turn” were premature — and that, rather than turning in any clear direction, political winds in the region appear to be blowing in all sorts of directions, with the only discernible underlying pattern being anti-incumbent votes following periods of economic crisis or economic downturns.

  • Obituaries for the “left turn,” which started in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, have been appearing for years, particularly since the election of former President Mauricio Macri in 2015 and other right-leaning politicians in the region. Macri was widely seen as a bellwether of a broader “right turn” in the region — a turn that spread to Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. For the very first time since the country’s democratic transition, a right-wing political party, in alliance with other parties, gained national power via democratic elections. To avoid the fate of other non-Peronist presidents, none of whom were able to finish their terms of office, Macri built a national coalition with broad societal bases of support.
  • The victory of left-Peronism in October, however, was formidable. The team of Fernández and Fernández obtained 48.1 percent of the votes, well above the 40.3 percent of the incumbent Macri. With two antagonistic camps capturing almost 90 percent of the vote, the elections were probably the most polarized since Argentina entered its democratic transition in 1983.

Rather than represent systemic shifts to either the right or left, the Fernández-Fernández victory is further evidence that Latin American electoral politics follow a routine alternation-of-power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting driven by broad societal discontent — a sharp repudiation of incumbents that couldn’t deliver growth, adequate social services, and security. The left-right axis in Argentina is marked by high levels of polarization, with two major rival coalitions — Peronists and non-Peronists — structuring the electoral supply and disputing the center.

  • The defeat of Macri and his Cambiemos coalition revealed the center-right’s failure to carry out its desired free-market reforms aimed at dismantling the statist economic model based on the domestic market, wide social protections, and state intervention in the economy. Macri’s coalition lacked the unity to achieve pension reform and other difficult measures. Instead, Macri resorted to a “gradualism” that did not work in policy terms or politically. Similarly, his conciliatory approach to foreign creditors did not result in the expected capital inflows and economic growth. That fiscal gradualism was financed with a high rate of external indebtedness that made the Argentine economy even more fragile and ended in a massive financial crisis, after which the Macri government changed its approach towards greater economic orthodoxy.
  • The legacies of the previous Kirchnerist governments, including constraints on the government’s ability to cut spending, were also severe obstacles. Trade unions and social movements retained a high mobilization capacity and blocked attempts to remove state protections, effectively blocking labor reform and other Macri priorities. Once the government lost access to international credit and asked the IMF for a bailout — the largest in IMF history — it began to lose the support of social sectors that had been important to its rise, including business and large segments of the middle-class.

Center-left Peronism may also be unable to escape the left-right alternation. Widely discredited a few years ago and seen as a retreating force, especially due to corruption allegations and mismanagement, it kept strong connections with its societal core not only through the memory of the good old days of redistributive policies associated with the commodity boom, but also because there was no major shift in the political orientation of its main leader, Cristina Fernández. She broke with the conventional wisdom of Peronism that would have anticipated more leadership pragmatism and ideological eclecticism. As in the past, it has made promises that may eventually undermine its popular support.

  • The Fernández-Fernández formula will look and govern differently than it did during the Kirchnerist governments. It will be a broader center-left coalition formed by the Peronists and backed by a wide array of progressive parties and movements. But in addition to facing a hostile regional and global environment, Fernández will face many domestic challenges in a society that accumulated so many pressing demands during the ongoing Argentine economic crisis. Fernández inherits extraordinarily high levels of debt, soaring inflation, and rapidly rising unemployment and poverty levels. The “honeymoon” period, as some of his allies openly say, will be short, and Macri’s Cambiemos is likely going to provide strong opposition. The new government will unlikely escape the routine alternation-of-power dynamics explained by anti-incumbency voting in contexts of deep economic crises after the end of the “commodity boom,” strong inflationary pressures, and broad societal discontent. Polarization and mood swings are likely to remain persistent features of Argentine politics.

 December 17, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College. He is the author of When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Gabriel Vommaro is Full Professor of Political Sociology at the National University of San Martín and Researcher at CONICET. His most recent book is La Larga Marcha de Cambiemos (Siglo XXI Editores, 2017).

Brazil: Will Lula Shake Things Up?

By Fábio Kerche*

lula

Former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2TxyFJ7

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva — out of prison but not acquitted of his alleged crimes — is stirring up the country’s political debate, but he faces tough challenges reestablishing his leadership and revitalizing his party, the Workers’ Party (PT).

  • After serving 580 days of a 12-year sentence, Lula was released from prison earlier this month when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Brazilian Constitution, one can be imprisoned only after judicial appeals have been completed. The court did not explicitly say that prosecutors rushed Lula to prison in order to remove him from the presidential race that led to President Bolsonaro’s election in October 2018, but a number of Brazilian legal experts believe that to be the case. The good news for Lula is that the majority of the Brazilians support his release — 54 percent, according to Datafolha, Brazil’s most important survey center.
  • Even though he is out of prison, Lula will not be able to run for office again unless his previous convictions in lower courts are annulled or overturned by higher courts — which could take a long time. (The electoral law specifies that someone convicted at two different levels of the judiciary cannot run for office.) The former president is apparently hoping that leaks published last June by The Intercept revealing allegedly inappropriate contacts between prosecutors and the judge on Lula’s case, Sérgio Moro, are reason to overturn his convictions. Prospects of such a reversal appear poor, however, because Moro, currently Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, has a clear incentive to put Lula back behind bars, and observers say he retains considerable influence in the Judiciary.

In the short and medium term, Lula’s strategy appears to be to erode the Bolsonaro Administration’s support and lay the groundwork for his own party’s next campaign, in next year’s municipal elections. His freedom allows him to travel around the country, make political talks, and build alliances.

  • His most ardent supporters remain loyal; he still has strong backing at a popular level; and still projects formidable charisma, according to many observers. While some of his speeches since his release have been more aggressive, his current political drive signals that he will seek to broaden alliances beyond the left.
  • But Lula faces huge political challenges. There are signs that his influence has diminished in recent years thanks to his legal baggage and economic mistakes made by the administration of his successor, former President Dilma Rousseff. Some is also due to unrelenting attacks on him and the PT by the media —portraying him as a radical. Splits in the left, including the lack of an identifiable candidate to replace Lula in the 2022 elections, are also a vulnerability.

Brazil has changed since Lula was arrested: Temer was president; the PT led in the polls; the economic elite’s candidate was from the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), and Bolsonaro was not widely considered a viable candidate. Lula’s challenges as he tries to rebuild his image and his party are huge. An immediate one is an effort by some members of Congress to modify the law that protects defendants from prison until all appeals have been heard, except if the defendant poses a threat to society or investigations. The goal is put Lula in prison again, to reduce his influence in the political game. For a number of jurists, however, this modification would be considered unconstitutional.

  • Next year’s local elections will be the first big test of Lula’s ability to negotiate widely and reorganize opposition to Bolsonaro, win control over the government in major cities, and prepare a PT alternative in the 2022 presidential election.
  • Bolsonaro is not without problems. His popularity is suffering due to the economy — high unemployment, low quality of jobs offered, and very low growth — and some unpopular policies, such as tougher rules for retirement. The president and his sons retain a major edge in social media, but Datafolha this week reported that 36 percent of respondents classified Bolsonaro’s government as “terrible.”

Lula’s best hope seems to convince the Brazilians that the corruption charges were political constructions by his adversaries — a tough task — and that PT and its allies can restore the pace of economic growth obtained during his administrations. Next year’s local elections are key for this project.

December 12, 2019

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

 

El Salvador: Draft Budget Confirms Structural Problems in Public Finance

By ICEFI and CLALS*

US banknote lot

U.S. Banknote Lot/ Creative Commons/ https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jqchd

The budget that President Nayib Bukele submitted to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in September increases much-needed social spending appropriate for the country’s current socio-economic context, but it lacks clear objectives and benchmarks — and fails to address ongoing structural problems in public finance.

  • The proposed budget is based on revenues of US$5.466 billion, 92.7 percent of which will come from taxes. In gross terms — without considering tax rebates — that amounts to a tax burden of 18.2 percent of GDP, just below the 18.3 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019. In net terms, the budget claims taxes will reach 18.1 percent of GDP (compared to 17.7 percent in 2019), but that figure is not realistic: it estimates tax refunds of only $16.5 million — compared to $117.4 million for the January-August period of this year. This error threatens to undermine serious Legislative debate.

Spending in the proposed 2020 budget reaches $5.774 billion — equal to 20.8 percent of GDP, compared to 22.3 percent estimated for 2019. Some areas that are already struggling, such as environmental programs, face significant cuts, while others will experience modest decreases and increases.

  • According to the draft, Central Government operating costs will decrease by 1.8 percent of GDP, driven by cuts in contracting of services and purchase of goods as well as in current transfers. Capital expenditures, on the other hand, will increase 0.3 percent over 2019 — that is, about 3.3 percent of GDP.
  • The Central Government’s spending on social development is slated to grow to its highest level in decades — about 10.5 percent of GDP ($2.921 billion), compared to 9.7 percent this year. The main beneficiaries of the increase will be municipal governments, pension systems, trusts for social security, and health care. With some 800,000 children and adolescents lacking schools to attend, the proposed increase in the education budget — from 3.73 percent (in 2019) to 3.75 percent — is minimal.

The budget anticipates a slight increase in the federal deficit. The non-financial public sector, including trusts to cover social security obligations, will experience a deficit of 3.1 percent of GDP (compared to the 2.7 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019) — pushing total public debt to 70 percent of GDP. That’s less than the 70.7 percent estimated for 2019, but ICEFI cautions that the decline could easily evaporate as the government faces growing demands over the course of the year. Either way, debt servicing will remain the most significant item in the 2020 budget, reaching $1.102 billion (4 percent of GDP).

The perennial challenge that El Salvador’s leaders like their counterparts throughout the region  face is how to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequalities to make the state more democratic and effective. But this budget, if implemented as drafted, will achieve neither goal in politically significant ways. The fiscal data underscore that the fundamental structural problems low revenues, inadequate public spending, and high fiscal deficits and public debt remain unaddressed.

  • The increase in capital spending, while positive, is insufficient to have its desired impact of driving economic growth. ICEFI’s analysis indicates that the jump in social spending is certainly warranted by the growing unhappiness in various social sectors, but also falls far short of what’s needed to reverse ongoing negative trends. The cuts in environmental protection from a minuscule 0.07 percent of GDP (2019) to 0.05 percent seem outright foolish for a country that has already shown vulnerabilities, which could aggravate existing economic and social conditions. Rather than taking on the serious challenges El Salvador and its economy face, the 2020 draft budget kicks the can down the road, without credible expectation that the task will be easier in the future.

December 9, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the third in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Bolivia: Prospects for Post-Evo Transition

By Robert Albro*

Crowd march with boy holding the pan-indigenous flag

March in favor of Evo Morales /Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/santiagosuburbano/49098960458/

Bolivia’s streets have been calmer in recent days, but actions by self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez have raised legitimate concerns about what sort of transition Bolivians face after the almost 14-year presidency of Evo Morales. The protests, marches, and violence that have characterized the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on October 20 have left at least 33 people dead – including 30 since Áñez took office and soon thereafter issued a presidential decree (since rescinded) giving security forces immunity from prosecution when engaged in restoring “order.” While Áñez has claimed she is a caretaker whose only charge is to organize new elections within 90 days, she has not behaved like one.

  • Previously an obscure backbencher and opposition senator from an inconsequential political party representing remote Beni, Áñez had planned to retire from politics at the end of her term. Her position as second vice-president of the Senate was largely ceremonial, with little control over budgets. Down the list of constitutional succession, she became acting president only after multiple Morales administration officials resigned.
  • Although unelected and lacking a mandate, Áñez has taken a series of decisive steps to undo Morales’s legacy. A conservative Christian and Morales critic, she has proclaimed Bolivia a “Catholic country” and disparaged its Indigenous majority as “irrational.” She has surrounded herself with a cabinet composed of like-minded critics from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. This region includes the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, together often called the Media Luna (Half Moon), and is the heartland of economic elites whose political power was substantially diminished by Morales’s rise. In 2008 the Media Luna was for months in open revolt against Morales and his government, contending for control of the country’s considerable natural gas revenues. Often cast in racist terms, these elites consistently and categorically rejected Morales’s presidency.

As interim president, Áñez has replaced the military’s leadership, cabinet ministers, and heads of major state-owned companies with her own appointees. She reestablished ties with Washington, severed relations with Venezuela, kicked out Cuban doctors working in the country, and is considering Bolivia’s withdrawal from the largely-defunct UNASUR. Áñez has not sought conciliation with lawmakers from Morales’s MAS party, who still command a legislative majority. Instead, seeming to turn to the playbook of the country’s and the region’s dictatorial past, her administration has accused Venezuela and Cuba of supporting subversive groups in Bolivia, threatening to prosecute former government officials now in hiding and to charge MAS lawmakers and journalists critical of her policies with “sedition.”

These moves do not bode well for an orderly electoral do-over. Luis Fernando Camacho, the Santa Cruz civic committee leader who has emerged as Áñez’s vocal and controversial far-right supporter, already seems to be in campaign mode, despite his scant political credentials. Political moderate and second-place finisher in last month’s election, Carlos Mesa, appears to be largely sidelined. Morales himself has been legally barred from participating, and MAS, while still a political force in Bolivia, lacks an obvious figure to replace him. Meanwhile, Áñez and the far-right cabal gathering around her appear to be gearing up for hardball politics, although they lack legitimacy among Morales’s supporters and the many citizens who might have grown tired of Morales but view with alarm the actions and tone of the new caretaker government. The election may be technically wide open, but Bolivia’s far-right appears intent on seizing this opportunity to restore its influence.

  • By alienating the country’s Indigenous majority and exacerbating latent ethnic and class tensions, while signaling a commitment to reverse the gains made during the Morales years, Áñez is setting up conditions for a period of intense social conflict. If present trends continue, it is hard to imagine that in 90 days, and perhaps for a lengthy period thereafter, Bolivia won’t again experience more paroxysms comparable to what it has endured since October’s contested election.

December 6, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

Honduras: Facing the Budget Challenges?

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Honduran Lempiras

Honduran Lempiras/ Alex Steffler/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Honduras’ proposed budget for 2020 reduces support to the country’s most needy – while protecting the military and security agencies – and, particularly if the debate on priorities is not made more inclusive, risks exacerbating already high political tensions and chronic economic mismanagement. On the revenue side, the draft budget shows a drop in tax revenues from 18 percent of GDP in 2019 to 16.5 percent – which, ICEFI has found, is not justified by technical analysis of the circumstances. Government spending – excluding payment on the national debt but including transfers to funds and trusts – equaled 19.7 percent of GDP, compared to 21.5 percent in 2019. (ICEFI estimates that the average government spending in Central America in 2019 will be 18.5 percent.) This drop will affect most public entities, particularly in social spending.

  • Education faces deep cuts. The budget of the Secretariat of Education, for example, will drop from 4.85 percent of GDP in 2019 to 4.49 in 2020. Transfers to public universities are slated to be reduced 23.1 percent from 2019 levels, and scholarships are also on the chopping block – cut 27.5 percent for national and 37.5 percent for international scholarships.
  • Health spending in Honduras – the country with the highest poverty rates in Central America – will decline from 2.39 percent to 2.37 percent at a time that inflation is more than 4 percent. The budget for Infrastructure and Public Services will be hit hardest – cut from 0.82 percent of GDP to 0.40 percent. Capital expenditures or investment will decline 33.5 percent year on year, including 38.5 percent from machinery and equipment and 34.6 percent for construction.
  • One of the only government sectors seeing increases is in the military and security, according to ICEFI. The 2020 budget proposes a 39.6 percent increase from 2019 on military and security equipment.

At first glance, the budget would appear to produce a surplus in 2020 of about 0.4 percent of GDP, which is double that ICEFI estimates for 2019. But factoring in the transfer of resources to the funds and trusts – a more reliable way of tracking fiscal behavior – the deficit will actually be 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s lower than ICEFI’s estimate of the deficit this year (1.9 percent), but it is achieved at the expense of the wellbeing of a majority of the Honduran population.

If approved and implemented as proposed, the budget will set back several strategic goals that the Honduran government itself has set. The budget confirms the government’s desire to reduce the public deficit principally through cuts to social spending and some capital expenditures – even though the approach contravenes commitments made under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and General Comment No. 19 (2016) on public budgeting for the promotion of children’s rights, which establishes that states should not deliberately adopt regressive measures that undermine child’s rights.

  • Although some provisions of the budget in principle could expand production of goods and services, they do not clearly point to either social inclusion, especially in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. Budget allocations dedicated to attention to women are very low, equaling barely 0.19 percent of all spending. Neither does the budget focus on achieving any particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The transparency and inclusiveness of the budget debate in the Honduran Congress will be crucial to determining the longer-term impact of this budget on human rights and the provision of public goods and services to the most vulnerable Hondurans, including children, adolescents, and women. Executive and Congressional decisions on the budget will shift the country’s path toward prosperity and governance – or continue down a path of instability and tension. More breaks for those capable of paying taxes, while cutting essential services to those who cannot, will be a step in the wrong direction. At a minimum, Honduran leaders should demonstrate the benefits of such moves will outweigh the costs. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Honduran budget will depend on a broad, inclusive, and honest debate.

November 26, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the second in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Costa Rica: Public Finance Plans are Not Sustainable

By ICEFI and CLALS*

President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado Quesada

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica, April 2018/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Carlos_Alvarado_Quesada_CAQ_PAC_03.jpg

The Costa Rican government’s draft budget for 2020, presented to the Legislative Assembly on August 30, reveals that shortfalls in tax revenues, high deficits, and accelerated public debt endangers the country’s ability to continue its social services and maintain its traditional level of democratic governability. The fiscal reforms that Costa Rica has undertaken – Law 9635 on Strengthening Public Finances – have proven, at best, insufficient to correct the imbalances envisioned in the new budget.

  • The budget proposes a tax burden of 13.2 percent for 2020 – equal to that observed in 2018 before the tax reforms were implemented but below ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (13.5 percent). This rollback is alarming because it essentially erases the gains expected from the reforms. It is due to increased levels of tax evasion and avoidance, and illicit capital flows.
  • The government projects public spending to reach 8,475.5 billion Colones (US$14.0 billion), accounting for 22 percent of GDP – slightly below the 22.1 percent approved for this year but higher than ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (20.9 percent). The 2020 proposal implies cuts to public spending that will affect key ministries, including Education and Public Works and Transportation, the budgets of which will decline 1.4 and 0.4 percent from this year, respectively.

Costa Rica’s fiscal deficit poses another long-term challenge. The draft budget contemplates a deficit that would reach 7.8 percent of GDP, higher than ICEFI’s estimate of 6.1 percent for 2019. For Costa Rica’s fragile public finances, this would suggest an inability to achieve fiscal sustainability in the medium term despite the recent tax reform.

  • The proposed budget would grow national debt to 64.7 percent of GDP in 2020, which is double the debt level observed during the earlier years of the decade (29.9 percent).

The failure of the tax reform law underscores Costa Rica’s urgent need for a fiscal accord that responds to the challenges of economic growth, social development, and democratic governance. To avoid such a scenario, tax officials will have to devise and implement plans and strategies next year that will stop and reverse the steady loss of the Executive’s ability to collect taxes. The cuts to education, public works, and transportation could erode Costa Rican well-being. Public budgets reflect the priorities of a society, and both the Executive and Legislative authorities in San José have the obligation to expand debate to include input from affected sectors. Costa Rica will face even greater challenges if it fails to formulate a budget that includes a responsibly progressive tax regime; reduction in tax evasion and under-reporting; greater control over illicit capital flows, adoption of a principle of worldwide income; increase fiscal transparency and accountability, debt restructuring, and maintenance of spending levels that guarantee adequate universal services. 

November 18, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the first in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.