Latin America: Research Can Drive Inclusion

By Judith Sutz and Rodrigo Arocena*

A woman points to a microscope while a man looks on.

Researchers from Uruguay’s Universidad de la República worked with partners from the World Health Organization on a project to prevent dengue fever in Salto, Uruguay. / PAHO / Flickr / Creative Commons

Research programs that address “invisible problems” in society – challenges that are generally overlooked – increase marginalized people’s inclusion far beyond solution of their immediate problems.  Problems lacking “agency” get little or no attention as competing demands for public funding crowd out resources for studying problems suffered by marginalized groups.  The solutions that arise from most research, moreover, are often too expensive and too elaborate for the less fortunate.

  • Many health problems denominated “neglected diseases” fall within what the World Health Organization calls “the 90/10 gap.” Some 90 percent of all the health research done around the world is devoted to the kind of health issues suffered by 10 percent of the world population, while the 90 percent get scant attention.

Money and political will are only part of the problem.  Research to identify a problem is in itself a challenge.  Our research indicates that some initial research is often all that is necessary to make an “invisible problem” explicit enough for policymakers to be forced to pay attention.

  • In Uruguay, a university research program in 2010 uncovered the link between rice workers’ health problems, including early death, and agrochemicals seeping into the water spread at plantations. The link was difficult to detect because their symptoms were all “normal” and had other common explanations, but an interdisciplinary team analyzed epidemiological data to confirm it, which prompted the Ministry of Public Health to take action.

A second challenge is developing new approaches to adapt existing solutions that work for the well off to sectors without resources.  Many times in the past, research stopped when a solution, albeit a costly one, was found – which has the consequence of excluding sectors of modest means.  But we know that new intellectual directions can break through even those technological barriers.

  • Once a vaccine was found for the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a dangerous pathogen that causes meningitis and other life-threatening diseases in children under five, the threat disappeared from developed countries. But it remained dangerous elsewhere in the world due to the high cost of the vaccine.  Researchers at the University of Havana explored a new approach and designed a synthetic vaccine with a very low cost of production – which many scientists have hailed as an important success.  Argentinean scientists’ development of a probiotic yogurt – called Yogurito – has provided an affordable solution to provide lactobacilli that children need for digestive health.  These “frugal innovations” yield huge benefits.

An inclusive research agenda – promoted by universities and other thought leaders throughout Latin America – can transform knowledge into a tool for social inclusion if the knowledge produced and diffused in the innovation system is focused on the broadest possible segment of society.  A Copernican shift of research agendas worldwide is unlikely in the short term, but a commitment to human sustainable development will necessarily open spaces for broader agendas over time.  Democratization of access to higher education is one important driver in building “inclusive innovation systems.”  In both developed and underdeveloped societies, “developmental universities” can play a big role in solving problems and, importantly, enfranchising broader segments of the population.  Inequality in knowledge – forgetting people with forgotten problems – is a source of broader inequality the reversal of which will be of benefit to all.  Seeing victims of illness who lack the cures that wealthier citizens have as agents, rather than just as patients, is an important first step.

September 20, 2018

* Judith Sutz is Professor and Academic Coordinator of the University Research Council of the Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and Rodrigo Arocena was the University’s rector.  Their recent book is Developmental Universities in Inclusive Innovation Systems: Alternatives for Knowledge Democratization in the Global South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Mexico: Is Centralization the Way to Battle Corruption?

By Daniela Stevens*

A large group of people stand on a stage.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (center left) meets with current President Enrique Peña Nieto and members of his cabinet during the transitional government period. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Half way through Mexico’s five-month transition period, an effort by President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to increase central government oversight over states’ affairs suggests an agenda that may go beyond the “republican austerity” he frequently calls for.  His plans to lower the numbers and salaries of high-ranking bureaucrats have been well received, but he raised hackles when he announced plans to appoint a single federal representative – a delegado – to liaise with each of the 32 states, eliminating the 20 to 30 central government representatives that until now have been dispersed throughout each jurisdiction.  He claims the measure is to save on the bureaucracy payroll, but many observers are concerned it will concentrate more power in his own hands.

  • Criticism has already forced AMLO to repackage his plan somewhat. He uses mixed language to refer to the responsibilities of the delegados.  While he has strongly defended his legal ability to appoint a single delegado, he more recently reassured aggravated governors that his representatives would maintain “institutional relations” and respect local elected officials’ autonomy and authority.  Olga Sánchez Cordero, AMLO’s appointee as Secretary of the Interior, further clarified that the delegates would only be in charge of social development programs, constituting a “layer of proximity to citizens” currently or potentially enrolled in social programs.  Under AMLO’s proposal, delegados would take over all kinds of programs, including youth scholarships, conservation efforts, health care, and social security programs for special populations – a herculean portfolio for a single representative.
  • Critics argue that the appointment of single delegados reporting directly to AMLO will undermine federalism. Electoral and administrative decentralization were integral to Mexico’s long democratization process.  For decades, the president was not only the predominant force over the legislative and judicial powers; he also appointed governors from the hegemonic party to the states.  The delegados would potentially create a power structure that parallels and rivals that of the state governors.  Some governors argue that the constitution does not recognize intermediate authorities, and wonder whether persons with partisan agendas will get too deeply involved in local budgets and policies.  In addition, the position would be coveted for its discretionary power and direct link to the president – giving politicians from AMLO’s party, Morena, a leg up as potential candidates for governor.

If done right, however, the measure could alleviate the plague of corruption that permeates the states, and the governorships in particular, and which AMLO has repeatedly condemned.  Governors routinely abuse their powers and engage in serious acts of corruption and financial crime.  As Agustina Giraudy has documented, undemocratic governors have used their offices to perpetuate “subnational undemocratic regimes” in the wake of Mexico’s 2000 transition to electoral democracy at the national level.  Former Governor Javier Duarte, of Veracruz, stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the public budget, and others, like Humberto Moreira in Coahuila, left their state with large debts.  Oversight from an anti-corruption executive in Mexico City might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Ideally, state legislatures – rather than the president or his delegado – would constitute the brake on governors’ decisions, providing a real counterweight anchored in local political dynamics.  AMLO’s efforts to turn Mexico into an “authentic democracy” will miss the mark – and amount to a crass political move – if the transformation does not include an institutionalization of leadership.  His party, Morena, is extraordinarily dependent on his personal leadership; it is an amalgam of politicians who abandoned other parties or joined it because of personal ties to him.  AMLO, who plans to preach integrity by example, cannot alone be the foundation of the “fourth transformation” he purports to lead (the first being independence, the second the “Reforma,” wars, and the third the 1910 Revolution).  With institutionalization, AMLO and Morena could put appointees and delegados through a transparent, legal vetting process – based on merit – and give them clear, legal operational responsibilities.  Failing that, their reforms may prove to be a primarily partisan project.

September 14, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: Diving into Uncertainty

By Marcus Rocha*

Brazilian presidential candidates 2018

Brazilian presidential candidates, from left to right: Lula da Silva, Jair Bolsonaro, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva, and Ciro Gomes. / Wikimedia, edited

With voting just a little under four weeks off, Brazil faces the most confusing, unpredictable, and consequential election since democratization in the 1980s.  The two leading contenders – former President “Lula” da Silva and firebrand conservative Jair Bolsonaro – are in jail and the hospital recovering from a stabbing, respectively, but the former is being left behind, and the latter is likely to try to use his victimhood to overcome other weaknesses.  At a point that Brazil needs stability and leadership, it is lurching toward an election that appears unlikely to produce either.

  • Lula’s Workers Party (PT) hierarchy continues to push his candidacy, but yet another rejection last week of his appeal of his conviction on corruption charges is increasingly opening the way for Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, to assume the party mantle. Haddad has polled poorly, only 6 percent as recently last week, but a serious PT mobilization will be a big asset.  (Announcement of his candidacy is expected today.)
  • Prior to Bolsonaro’s stabbing, his weaknesses seemed likely to hold him back despite a good 22 percent in recent polls. His popularity may rise as he seeks sympathy for his injury, but his strong negatives – 44 percent of people polled say they will never vote for him – will be hard to erase.  His Social Liberal Party (PSL) has a very narrow base in Congress, and the former Army captain and lawmaker’s main tactic – divisive rhetoric attacking human rights advocates and praising the military dictatorship of 1964-85 – does not conceal his lack of a serious political agenda, according to many observers.

The proliferation of other parties is also deepening confusion.  Brazil has 35 parties, and for the first time faces the possibility that neither of the two Brazilian parties with a virtual monopoly on presidential succession – the PT and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – will make it into the runoff in Brazil’s two-round system.  The PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin has a strong Congressional base (which under the law determines his access to media time) but continues to poll poorly (9 percent).  Marina Silva, of the Rede Sustentabilidade, and Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) – both of whom currently have 12 percent – have a shot at a place in the second round.  Another eight candidates show much less promise.

The political chaos has not brought protesters out into the streets or threatened a broader social crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign, but it has thrust Brazil into uncharted territory.  Bolsonaro’s stabbing and his certain efforts to play the victim will almost certainly continue push his rhetoric beyond that traditionally acceptable in Brazil.  The political parties, however flawed, were sources of predictability and stability, but no longer are.  Investigations into corruption, also previously thought to strengthen the political system, have contributed to uncertainty.  The courts are accused of political bias.  As the PT and PSDB slip, none of the smaller parties appears poised to gain broad enough confidence to lead the country through its numerous challenges.  In the first- and second-round votes on October 7 and 28, Brazilians will choose between trying to revive the old – clinging to PT or PSDB – or continuing the search for something that is not yet visible on the horizon.

September 11, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Trump on NAFTA: An Offer Canada Can’t Refuse?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in July 2018. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat last week to abrogate free trade with Canada while signing a new bilateral agreement with Mexico alone has led many to think that NAFTA – which will be 25 years old on January 1, 2019 – has no future.  But the likeliest outcome remains just a set of fairly modest changes to the agreement.  Much of Trump’s bluster on NAFTA does not reflect the facts in U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade, though Canadian officials will still have to take his threats seriously.  Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose government sat out the United States’ renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico this summer, rushed to Washington after the bilateral accord was announced, launching new talks with U.S. counterparts.  While Trump has said he will make no concessions, Freeland has continued seeking common ground, and looks ready to compromise on at least some issues.

  • The best econometric studies suggest that North American free trade has had disappointingly modest benefits – nowhere near advocates’ earlier projections. But the transition costs of moving to a world without free trade would still be enormously costly for Canada.  The economic and political risk of the highly unlikely, but not completely inconceivable, scenario of losing NAFTA entirely are just too great for the Canadian government to bear.

Canada, which in past negotiations stood up for Mexico on some key issues, now finds itself in the ironic position of looking to Mexico for support.  The two countries are often in a position to benefit from working together, but Trump’s wrath has tempted each to throw the other under the bus – a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

  • In the last few weeks, Mexico decided to give the U.S. what it wanted: most importantly, protectionist rules of origin for autos and textiles, and some enhanced intellectual property rights. Mexico calculated that, compared to Trump’s threats not long ago to kill NAFTA in its entirety, these concessions were a modest price to pay to keep the agreement alive.  Also importantly, Mexican leaders appear to have avoided a national humiliation of epic proportions – putting an end to Trump’s dream of getting Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border.
  • Looking for a much-needed “win,” Trump has now made an offer he thinks Canada can’t refuse. His wish list covers things Canada specifically fought hard for in the original free trade talks back in the 1980s and 90s, including protections for Canada’s cultural industries and agricultural supply management programs, and what Canada’s trade minister said in 1992 were “the vitally important dispute settlement provisions” of Chapter 19.  Now, just as Canadian opponents of free trade forewarned in the 1980s, Canada’s economy has become so enmeshed with that of its much larger neighbor that the government cannot say no to the demands of an aggressive administration in Washington.

Yet the situation does not spell disaster for U.S.-Canada trade or for Canada itself.  Trump’s claims notwithstanding, the U.S. Congress has final say over U.S. trade policy, and most of its members (with business lobbyists whispering in their ears) recognize that severing the many economic ties built up between Canada and the United States over the last quarter-century would be unnecessarily disruptive and costly.  Freeland and her negotiators will know that Trump’s threat to kill free trade is not really credible.

  •  Even caving on all of Trump’s demands would not be catastrophic for Canada. Contrary to Trump’s zero-sum perspective on trade (like on everything else) as an international battleground, most of the important conflicts with respect to trade are actually within countries.  Canada’s supply management system favors the country’s producers at the expense of consumers, for example, just as do strict rules of origin for U.S. textiles manufacturers.  So while the transition costs of dismantling free trade in North America would be substantial, the impacts of the changes Trump is proposing would be tolerable to all three countries – even if some make no sense (the sunset clause); are just giveaways to specific industries (stricter patents for pharmaceuticals); or favor some industries at the expense of others (U.S. lumber producers and U.S. home builders, respectively, as regards the possible elimination of Chapter 19).  For Canada’s government, the heaviest costs of compromise will be political: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will have to choose which bitter pill to swallow, as any concessions will lead to angry recriminations from one domestic constituency or another.

September 7, 2018

* Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor of Sociology at Umeå University and a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, both in Sweden.  He is originally from Vancouver, and has been a visiting researcher at multiple institutions in all three countries of North America. He has also participated in the Center’s North America Research Initiative.

Argentina: From Gradualism to Shock Therapy

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri announced yesterday to deal with the sharp depreciation of the Argentine peso and acceleration of inflation in the past couple of months are a belated but entirely appropriate effort to stem the country’s massive capital flight.  His administration intends to lower government spending and reimpose taxes on exports to reduce the fiscal deficit faster than envisioned in May, when a three-year economic program was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is in addition to a previously announced government hiring freeze and cuts to subsidies for electricity and other services.

  • Specifically, the goal now is to minimize the public sector’s financing requirement for 2019, limiting it to rolling over debt maturities coming due plus borrowing $15 billion mostly from the IMF, World Bank, and Latin America’s development banks (CAF and IADB), to cover the interest payments coming due next year. All told, the fiscal deficit contraction that would be achieved between 2017 and 2019 is equivalent to about four percentage points of GDP, compared to the previously pledged 2¾ percent of GDP in savings embodied in the IMF program.
  • In return, Macri’s government has requested the IMF to speed up disbursements under the $50 billion loan facility, which had envisioned a $15 billion up-front payment in June, made on schedule, plus installments of about $3 billion per quarter through June 2021, depending on performance and need. The Fund’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has instructed IMF staff to work with the Argentines to reach a rapid conclusion of discussions to present to the Executive Board for approval.

Macri’s announcement was an admission that what had been advertised in May as a strictly “precautionary” loan must now be amended to provide emergency financing full-throttle.  While a number of emerging-market currencies have come under downward pressure in recent months, the sell-off in Argentina is only comparable to that in Turkey: both the Argentine peso and the Turkish lira currently buy about half as many U.S. dollars as they did at the start of the year (now 100 pesos = $2.60 vs. $5.40 then).  The currency downdraft has dragged Argentine stocks and bonds down when measured in dollar terms; the probability of a debt default in Argentina, as deduced from bond yields, currently ranks highest of all in the emerging markets but for Venezuela, in default since late 2017.

  • Last December, the central bank of Argentina (BCRA) committed itself to achieving an inflation rate of 15 percent during 2018, but prices rose more than that just in the first six months of the year. Given the cost-push pressures unleashed by the peso’s sharp depreciation since May, Argentina would be lucky to end the year with inflation cumulating less than 40 percent.  The patent failure of monetary policy to stabilize the currency and curb inflation thus far will probably be hotly discussed during the government’s negotiations with the IMF.  Last week the BCRA hiked its target interest rate to 60 percent from 40 percent in early August, which is more than double the level that prevailed through May.  Chances are that the IMF will pressure the central bank to keep interest rates significantly above expected inflation until the fever breaks.

We wrote in mid-May that we were witnessing in Argentina the demise of President Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism in tackling the poisoned inheritance left after 12 years of populism under presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.  Now we are beholding the embrace of “shock therapy” in fiscal and monetary policies by the Macri administration.

  • Macri and his economic team keep blaming adverse circumstances, such as the worst drought in 30 years, which has delivered the poorest harvest since 2009; risk aversion among investors because of the tightening of U.S. monetary policy; and uncertainty generated by the “corruption copybooks” scandal involving Kirchner government officials and construction industry businesspersons. Their diagnosis is patently wrong.  Despite the poor harvest, Argentine export earnings through July have increased in the best performance in several years.  The tightening of U.S. monetary policy has been very gradual and well telegraphed in advance; it has not caused problems in prudently managed countries.  And the recent scandal is tarnishing Macri’s opposition in the legislature and has not reached the scope of the “carwash” scandal in Brazil.
  • Macri and his team are reaping what they sowed. In 2016-17 they claimed that they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose precious seats in midterm congressional elections and end up as lame ducks.  And then, after Macri’s party Cambiemos did well in the October 2017 contest, they claimed that in 2018-19 they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose the presidential elections in October of next year.  Up until February, local and foreign investors were willing to give the Macri administration the benefit of the doubt, but then they got impatient, started to pare their positions especially in short-term government bonds, and subsequently decided to exit on a large scale when the central bank failed to tighten monetary conditions sufficiently to keep the peso from depreciating rapidly.

September 4, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

U.S.-Latinx: Might Trump Prompt “Statistical Disobedience”?

By Stephan Lefebvre*

Eric Garcetti at a press conference

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a press conference on the 2020 Census. Garcetti leads a coalition of over 160 U.S. mayors that oppose adding a question about citizenship on the census. / Office of Eric Garcetti / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census have set the stage for confrontation between Latino/a/x individuals and the U.S. government.  Community groups, civil rights organizations, a group of 18 U.S. states, and others are challenging the administration in court – oral arguments for the first of six legal challenges began last Friday.  Grassroots organizing around Latinx statistical disobedience is also under way, urging individuals to respond to the citizenship question randomly, without regard to their own status, to make the results unusable.

  • The legal challenges have yielded documents revealing the discriminatory intent of the citizenship question. Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas known for his anti-immigrant views and inaccurate claims about voter fraud, wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in July 2017 advocating the citizenship question.  Kobach said – falsely – it was necessary to deal with the “problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”  Several months later, the U.S. Justice Department issued a “formal request” to the acting director of the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question to attain data “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”  Claiming the measure is necessary to prevent “vote dilution” among minority groups, it is very different from the alleged problem Kobach identified.  Representation in the U.S. Congress is based on total population, not total voting population, as confirmed in 2016 unanimously by the Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott.
  • It is still not clear where the idea for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census came from, but its purpose – to weaponize the census to be used against Latina/o/x and other undocumented communities – has been clear from the start. Kobach has said that his advocacy was informed by conversations with Steve Bannon, the far-right activist and former senior advisor to President Trump.  Secretary Ross initially testified to Congress that the proposal for a citizenship question was initiated by the Justice Department, but he later issued a memo contradicting this when documents came to light showing his earlier involvement.

Census Bureau testing of the 2020 Census questionnaire indicates that there is deep concern among the undocumented and Latinx communities.  Field staff conducting interviews report many red flags.  In presentations made during a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, Census Bureau documents quote one interviewer saying, “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door.  I could hear them inside.  I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving. … It’s because they were afraid of being deported.”  In another case, a Spanish-speaking respondent said, “The possibility that the census could give my information to [U.S. government] internal security, and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”  In response, community-engaged scholars like Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy are calling for “statistical disobedience,” the willful misrepresentation of one’s legal status.

If the six legal challenges to the citizenship question fail, the prospects of statistical disobedience will be high.  Falsifying responses on the census is a punishable offense, but some community leaders have argued that if the Latinx statistical disobedience is widespread, enforcement will be highly unlikely.  This is not unlike other acts of historical civil disobedience.  The grassroots campaign behind statistical disobedience not only helps prevent the citizenship question from being used to target undocumented and Latinx communities; it can also drive up participation and awareness of the 2020 Census by Latinx communities who have been historically under counted.  Community leaders want to be ready.

August 21, 2018

* Stephan Lefebvre is a Ph.D. student in Economics at American University studying stratification economics.  His forthcoming article in the journal Diálogo is titled “Bold Policies for Puerto Rico: A Blueprint for Transformative, Justice-Centered Recovery.”

Honduras: Would a Constituent Assembly Help?

By Hugo Noé Pino*

Several people raise their hands in the Honduran National Congress

A recent session in Honduras’ National Congress. / Congreso Nacional de Honduras / Creative Commons

The need for Honduras to convene a National Constituent Assembly appears increasingly compelling even though the country’s political elites continue to oppose one.  Proponents of an “ANC” argue that it would not only help the country overcome the fraud perpetrated in last November’s elections; it would give oxygen to the country’s failing democracy.  They note that the current constitution, promulgated in 1982, has been violated and modified so many times – such as when President Juan Orlando Hernández was allowed to run for reelection – that the document’s original meaning has been obscured if not lost.  ANC proponents cite other facts pointing to the need for an assembly:

  • The constitution calls for a “planned economic policy,” in which the state and law “shall regulate the system and process of planning with the participation of the Powers of State, and political, economic and social organizations shall be duly represented.” But that planning model, which has never been implemented in Honduras, has been overtaken by the neoliberal model, based on market freedoms, adopted in the 1990s.  Amendments passed in 2012 were intended to create special employment and development zones, but not a single one has emerged.
  • Since the 2009 coup, Honduran society has been polarized by violations of the law, the concentration of power, abuses, corruption, and other problems – all aggravated by the widely contested election of last November. Business, workers, farmers, trade unions, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors have been unable to find agreement on how to deal with the nation’s pressing problems.  ANC supporters say that true national reconciliation is going to require a new social pact that a new constitution can create.
  • Backers also argue that the ANC would breathe new life into the political parties – deeply discredited by the corruption and chaos engulfing them – and allow them to become a mechanism for intermediation between society and the state. An assembly, they say, would bring political leaders and the people together in pursuit of better alternatives to the current system.  A system of checks and balances, including a new judicial system, would help guarantee the separation of powers and enhance citizen participation in public policy.

Prospects for an ANC do not look good at this moment despite important endorsements, such as that of the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference in a public letter last December.  Most of the political elite, responsible for setting the country on its destructive course, stridently oppose the idea, but proponents feel the elites will eventually have to accept one.  The “national dialogue” launched after the November elections has made no progress or, worse, has aggravated tensions.  The black cloud over those elections and the surge in corruption cases under investigation – an important achievement of the Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) and its partners working under the Attorney General – have driven politicians to dig in their heels.  Their efforts to hold onto power, prevent transparency, and block accountability puts them directly against the sort of reforms an ANC would represent. 

  • Even when the political class eventually allows the ANC proposal to take off, many obstacles lay ahead. One of the first – and extremely difficult – steps would be selection of a truly independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee a referendum on the ANC and the election of assembly delegates.  The questions on the ballot would be simple, focused on support for the ANC and support for presidential reelection, but the task of making Honduras an inclusive society, with transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law would take the sort of vision and discipline that only a new constitution would provide.  While critics claim an ANC would be playing with fire, it’s certainly better than the current situation in which we are all threatened with being burned.

August 14, 2018

* Hugo Noé Pino is currently a professor and coordinator of a Ph.D. program at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (Unitec) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.