U.S.-Cuba: Putting the “Sonic Attacks” Myth behind Us?

by Fulton Armstrong and Philip Brenner*

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba / Ajay Suresh / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The Biden Administration’s recent announcement that it is resuming “limited” consular functions at the U.S. Embassy in Havana suggests that it’s prepared to put the “sonic attacks” meme – President Donald Trump’s stated rationale for closing the Consulate in 2017 – behind it, but Washington still appears unlikely to restart the normalization process. U.S. and Cuban officials met last month for the first time in four years to discuss implementation of a migration accord signed in 1995. Orderly migration is only one among several interests the United States could advance if it were willing to resume discussions with Cuba. But the Biden administration has placed electoral politics ahead of U.S. interests and appears unlikely to do more.

  • A State Department official told reporters that consular officers will process applications from only the Cuban parents of U.S. citizens, and that persons in all other non-emergency categories will still have to go to Guyana or another third country to apply. A few of the vice-consuls reportedly will fill previously permanent slots, but others will be assigned to the Embassy on a temporary basis.
  • When it ceased consular services in 2017, the State Department unilaterally abrogated a bilateral agreement, which enjoyed bipartisan support for two and a half decades, to process visas in a manner that would keep migration legal and safe. Renewing limited services, officials cited the surge in “irregular Cuban migrants” to the United States “via land and maritime routes.” Cubans are the second largest group arriving on the Southwest border – 16,531 in February alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 1,000 Cubans in the Florida Strait since October.

The State Department has not publicly reconciled its consular decision with its repeated allegations of a Cuban role in, or at least failure to prevent, the “sonic attacks” that the Trump Administration cited, after months of inaction, as reason for reducing the Embassy. Now referred to as “Havana Syndrome” and “unexplained health incidents” by the Biden Administration, those allegations have never been substantiated.

  • Various reports have seriously challenged the official claims, but the U.S. Government has continued efforts to find scientists who will corroborate them. As early as November 2018, scientists of the prestigious JASON advisory group concluded that the reported sounds “most likely” were caused by Caribbean short-tailed crickets; it found they were “highly unlikely” from ultrasound or microwave equipment as alleged. A half-dozen investigations later, CIA officials last January said that all but two dozen of the 1,000 reported cases could be explained by environmental conditions, undiagnosed medical conditions, or stress rather than a global campaign by a foreign power. (Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns soon came forward to stress that “while we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done.”)

The “sonic attacks” in Havana initially took place in late 2016, but the Trump Administration did not mention them in announcing its first round of measures in June 2017 to slow and eventually reverse President Obama’s normalization policies – perhaps because it too didn’t take the allegations seriously. Public complaints by self-identified victims in August 2017 found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, however, and legislators pressed the Trump Administration to use it as pretext to reduce the U.S. Embassy in Havana (and to force Cuba to cut back its Embassy staff in Washington). The Biden Administration embraced the same rationale three and a half years later, despite overwhelming evidence that the blame on Cuba was misplaced, with literally hundreds of victims from around the world (even in Washington, DC) coming forward with similar claims of unexplained head injuries. The Biden Administration seems now to seek a quiet way back to addressing a migration crisis for which it, like the Trump Administration, has been complicit.

  • The Administration seems to think its policies will help it win hearts and minds in Florida, but its failure to provide leadership on issues like “sonic attacks” is further narrowing its political space. Now it faces challenges not only from the usual characters in Congress who oppose normalization, but also moderates such as Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Mark Warner (Virginia), who cosponsored the “HAVANA Act.” In addition to permanently linking the issue to Havana, the legislation, which Biden signed into law last October, has contributed to a surge in alleged cases of anomalous symptoms by offering compensation to “victims.”
  • Neither does the Administration seem concerned about the implications of its Cuba policies for U.S. interests throughout Latin America – one of the main drivers of President Obama’s pivot on the island in 2014. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s statement this week that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas that Biden is hosting in Los Angeles next month if Cuba is not invited is a blow. Similarly, Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua & Barbuda, widely seen as “dean” of the Caribbean diplomatic corps, declared that Biden’s continued embrace of Trump policies on Cuba and Venezuela “has continued to haunt US‑Caribbean relations.”

May 13, 2022

* Fulton Armstrong directs AULABLOG. Philip Brenner is Emeritus Professor of International Relations and History at American University. His latest books are Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence and Cuba at the Crossroads.

Ecuador: Is Coca Codo Sinclair a Bellwether for China in Latin America?

by Julie Radomski*

Mega project Coca Codo Sinclair inaugurates its new tunnel / Carlos Rodriguez / Agenda de Noticias ANDES / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Ecuador’s Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project – celebrated as a triumph of then-President Rafael Correa’s Revolución Ciudadana and a harbinger of the promise of South-South Cooperation when inaugurated in November 2016 – today appears to be a lightning rod for debate around China’s preferred form of international cooperation. The project was emblematic of the new relationship between Latin American countries and development finance’s new regional leaders, Chinese policy banks. Five years into its operations, Coca Codo is riddled with uncertainties and dramas at local, national, and global scales. 

  • The 1500 Mw project consists of a diversion dam; 24.8 km of tunnel to channel water under the Andean foothills; a compensation reservoir; pipes dropping the water 620 meters; and an eight-turbine powerhouse. It supplies Ecuadorians with 30 percent of their electricity, helping to edge out expensive and fossil fuel-driven thermoelectricity.

The project was a crowning jewel of efforts since the mid-2000s by Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank – to provide Latin American countries with billions of dollars in loans, the majority for large infrastructure projects of the variety once financed by multilateral development lenders like the World Bank. Indeed, between 2005 and 2018, the total lending to the region by these two Chinese banks was greater than that of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank combined. Coca Codo was financed by a 2010 loan from the China Export-Import Bank and constructed by Chinese state company Sinohydro.

  • However, since 2015 lending has trended steeply downwards, and since 2019 Chinese policy banks have provided no new loans to Latin American countries or state-owned enterprises. While this by no means indicates a downgrading of China-Latin America relations, the nature of this political and economic relationship is no longer oriented around multibillion-dollar state-to-state infrastructure lending like that which made Coca Codo Sinclair possible. This is likely due, at least in part, to the increased hesitancy on the part of Chinese lenders following political controversies surrounding such projects.

The impacts of the projects of this period are still very much an ongoing and controversial issue for countries like Ecuador.

  • Although vital in providing Ecuadorians inexpensive and emissions-friendly electricity, to this day the project has not been fully turned over to the Ecuadorian government, primarily because its distributors (snail-shaped pipes that channel water to each of the powerhouse’s eight turbines) exhibit thousands of fissures that Sinohydro has been unable to repair despite years and millions spent trying. New fissures continue to emerge that experts say indicate “imminent danger” of equipment failure, or even collapse.
  • The diversion dam is also in danger of collapse due to a rare and catastrophic process of “headward” erosion (erosión regresiva o remontante) along the Coca River. The erosion, resulting from the collapse of the famed 150-meter San Rafael waterfall in February 2020, has so far caused two major oil spills, the loss of houses and land, and the repeated destruction of a major roadway connecting the Amazonian region to Ecuador’s capital. The Ecuadorian state power company, CELEC-EP, is investing millions in new infrastructure to attempt to contain the erosion before it reaches the dam. They are also studying the possibility of building an entirely new dam that could be reconnected to the existing powerplant.

The scientific community is debating the extent to which the dam itself may have contributed to the disastrous erosion. Lack of rigorous environmental assessments and monitoring mean that there may never be definitive evidence either exonerating the dam or proving its guilt in the current social, economic, and environmental crisis. There is, however, broad agreement that, given the instability of the Coca River basin, the dam should not have been constructed at the current location and scale due to environmental risks.

Critics of Chinese global economic expansion have seized on Coca Codo Sinclair as a symbol of the danger of China’s influence in Latin America. Other observers argue that the project’s downsides are a result of national institutional failures, irrespective of the “Chineseness” of its finance, engineering, and construction. Either way, recent patterns in Chinese lending indicate that the country’s decisionmakers no longer see this type of project as the basis of win-win development or mutual cooperation. It appears that environmentally sensitive, politically polarizing mega-infrastructure will not be the face of China-Latin America cooperation going forward. Regardless, Ecuadorians are faced with the return of expensive and unreliable electricity, an irrevocably altered Amazonian River basin, and about $3 billion at risk of being carried away by the river.

May 6, 2022

*Julie Radomski is a PhD Candidate and Fulbright-Hays Fellow at American University specializing in development studies.

Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art

by Juliana Martínez*

Juliana Martinez’s Haunting Without Ghosts, recipient of the 2020-21 William M. LeoGrande Award/ University of Texas Press

Colombian literature, film, and art are haunted by violence. Analyzed through the optic of “spectral realism,” these works yield a richer understanding of the country’s diverse historical, social, and geopolitical challenges. The thousands of people lost to the decades-old ideological, political, and social conflicts as well as the country’s infamous narco wars, haunt its rivers, mountains and towns, as much as its literary, cinematic, and artistic production. But if Colombia is a country of missing people and silenced stories, it is also a country of survivors and storytellers who for decades have been grappling with the question of how to address such violence without simplifying, exoticizing, or commodifying it. 

My recent book, Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art, combines a comparative and cross-media approach with in-depth analysis to examine select works of contemporary Colombian novelists, filmmakers, and artists who I claim use spectrality as a productive mode of storytelling to tackle the ethical and aesthetic challenges that violence poses to artistic representation. (Spectrality is primarily concerned with relations between modes of production and violence. It asks destabilizing questions about the erasures underlying dominant ways of producing goods, knowledge, affect, history, and time and seeks to mobilize alternatives, primarily from within the cultural and academic realms.) The theoretical corpus on spectrality, scholarship on literary realism, and recent Colombian studies on literature, film, and art provide a foundation for “spectral realism”, an original, multi-disciplinary analytical concept that can assist scholars in examining and understanding ethically oriented cultural production that addresses historical violence. 

Spectral realism should not be confused with the fantastic, or with its famous “magical” predecessor. Rather, it is a mode of storytelling that takes the ghost seriously but not literally. It formally assumes the disruptive potential of the specter, shifting the focus from what the ghost is to what it does. Spectrality is in the form, not in the plot.

  • The works analyzed are not “ghost stories”; they do not speak of ghosts, at least not literally. However, in the disruptive force of spectrality, they all find a way to explore the unresolved absences and truncated histories that haunt them. The language of the specter is then justified not by the presence of ghosts in these works but by spectrality’s potential to highlight the violence that underlies hegemonic processes of economic, social, symbolic, or epistemic production. It provides the tools through which symbolic, physical, and sexual violence can be not so much seen, but intensely felt
  • Spectral realism points out common ethical concerns about the representation of violence and highlights similar modes of addressing them. It offers a broad but recognizable critical grammar that brings together the apparently unrelated works of various cultural practitioners. Also, like all things ghostly, spectral realism knows no boundaries. Hence, the questions explored, the theoretical framework proposed, and the methodology used can serve as a productive analytical blueprint to address literature, film, and art about violence in diverse socio-historical and geopolitical contexts.

Spectral realism is productive because the specter does not want pity; it wants action and demands that its story be taken into account in the name of justice. As the ghost of his father tells Hamlet, “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing.” In moments of profound national soul-searching, spectral realists’ works stand as powerful symbols of the yearning for mourning, remembrance, and justice that resonate with many Colombians, particularly when extreme violence truncates such processes or when powerful political and economic interests actively discourage or thwart them.

  • In a world plagued by technologies of hypervisibility ready for consumption, the exploitative and exoticizing gaze of many works that deal with historical violence in and about Colombia often prevails. Spectral realism explores the ethics, limits, and unreliability of visibility and proposes alternate modes of perception. Ethical issues cannot be separated from representational ones, and we need to ask questions about the varied and often intersecting forms of violence that underlie processes of appropriation and distribution of lands and resources in late capitalist modernity.

April 27, 2022

Juliana Martínez is Associate Professor at the Department of World Languages and Literatures at American University. Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art was published by the University of Texas Press, in the Border Hispanisms series. It is winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2020–2021.

Chile: Crunch Time for Constitutional Convention

by Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Chilean protesters advocate for constitutional reform/ Jose Pereira / European Consortium for Political Research / Creative Commons License

Chile’s Constitutional Convention is fast approaching a point that will determine whether it produces a draft magna carta that, even if approved by referendum, fails to heal the splits in Chilean society that drove its creation, or that is delayed so long that supporters of keeping the 1980s-era charter succeed in blocking its approval. The original nine-month period established by law for the Convention to complete its tasks has expired, and its single three-month extension started on March 21 and ends on July 25. The body could conceivably ask the Congress and government for a second extension if it can present a viable timeline for completing the document.

  • Most observers agree that the current draft is flawed but that a majority of voters, eager for the process to end, would probably vote for it. Some polls show popular resentment toward convention members’ “highly paid easy job.” Enthusiasm for the new Constitution is showing signs of waning, however, so efforts to improve it could actually torpedo its passage.

Squabbles between the left and right are wasting precious time rather than moving the draft into the important “harmonization” phase for reviewing the whole text to ensure its coherence and internal consistency. 

  • The Bill of Rights is subject of great posturing and contention, with the left trying to rush through significantly expanded rights and long-contentious policies. For example, the left wants to nationalize sanitary services, highways, and mining, raising concerns about the implications for foreign investment. The right opposes such efforts and, confident that time is on its side, is stalling for time.
  • The left’s push for a new chamber of the Legislature to replace the current Senate has also caused controversy and delay. The proposed partición would have the ability to originate budget proposals, previously the exclusive domain of the President. Critics fear that it will not be subject to traditional checks on its power.
  • Disputes over protecting pension funds have been pitched. The Convention rejected a popular initiative, #ConMiPlataNo (Not with My Money), which was to block the eventual replacement of the private pension system with a public alternative in the wake of “voluntary withdrawals” that the Congress approved in 2020 and 2021 (even though such decisions are the prerogative of the Executive). This action further threatens popular support for whatever the Convention produces.

President Gabriel Boric also appears to be in a bind – ambivalent on how to harness the Constitutional process to support his own political goals. His opponents call him the Volteretas (cartwheels) because he has alternately supported and opposed further delays. He has said he supports giving more time for the body to “listen to the people,” but his spokespersons have said that his government’s crucial reforms depend heavily on prompt approval of the left-leaning Constitution – before further deliberations probably it water down. In fact, aside from tax reform, all of Boric’s significant proposals depend on a new left-leaning Constitution. 

  • Boric set September 4 as the date for the “exit referendum” on the new Constitution, apparently for the symbolism of September with Independence Day (on the 18th) and the anniversary of Augusto Pinochet’s coup (the 11th). His interest, like any president’s, is in launching his programs and building a firm electoral base for himself or a successor. Polls show his popular support slipping – now in the mid‑30s range – further suggesting that the window for him to push his agenda is closing. While his prospects at home seem to be in limbo, he is pushing hard outside Chile, such as with a high-profile trip to Argentina, to project himself as a strong regional leader.

The leftist or left-leaning leaders of the Constitutional Convention seem to be underestimating the need to use their document as originally intended by the 2020 plebiscite directing the drafting of a new Constitution: to heal deep splits within Chilean society and build a new consensus based on the highest common ideals of the nation. It’s natural for them to fight for a framework they find advantageous for their own ideological perspectives, but they risk squandering a historic opportunity to make institutional structures more effective instead of just asserting social rights.

  • Boric’s anxiety is understandable. Chilean Presidents’ honeymoons have been getting steadily shorter; positives can hold steady, but negatives now mount sooner in their terms. Former President Michelle Bachelet, for example, started her first term (2006) with over 50 percent approval, which didn’t begin to erode until five months later. During her second mandate, her approval hovered around 50 percent for several months but her disapproval rate increased drastically – from 20 percent to 32 percent – after just one month. Boric’s been in office a little over a month and already is seeing approvals drop below 50 percent and negatives rise to 30 percent. His political capital to push the Constitution is not likely to increase.

April 22, 2022

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

Peru: Castillo Surviving Against All Odds – So Far

By Cynthia McClintock*

Demonstrators clash with police officers during a protest against Peru’s President Pedro Castillo after he had issued a curfew mandate / Angela Ponce / Sunday Times / Creative Commons License

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has prevailed in two impeachment votes, but new impeachment threats are almost certain – and the President may continue to prevail but is unlikely to consolidate his administration. Castillo and the Congress have been at loggerheads since Castillo’s inauguration in July 2021. The reasons for the severe impeachment threat are manifold.

  • From the start, many Peruvians hoped for a “do-over” of the 2021 elections. In a field of 18 presidential candidates, Castillo won only 19 percent of the first-round vote, and many observers speculated that he would have lost the runoff to any of the other candidates except the actual runner-up, Keiko Fujimori, whose organized base was much smaller than in previous years due to corruption revelations. In the Congressional vote, Castillo’s party tallied only a tad less than one-third of the seats, with the rest split evenly between hard-right parties and non-programmatic, “centrist” parties.
  • While impeachment requires a two-thirds Congressional vote, the grounds for impeachment – in particular, “moral incapacity” – are vague. Since 2000, three Peruvian presidents have left office upon impeachment or imminent impeachment.

Castillo has steadily lost popular support; his approval rating has fallen to about 25 percent. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel have taken a toll. Last week, a strike led by truckers paralyzed much of Peru’s highlands. This week’s massive protests are another sure indicator. Although the government continues to claim leftist credentials, it has not spearheaded significant new initiatives for social justice.

  • A large number of Castillo’s cabinet ministers have been unqualified. For example, a recent health minister, Hernán Condori, promoted “micro-cluster” water as a remedy for COVID‑19 without scientific evidence; the Peruvian Medical Federation repeatedly asked for his resignation – and he was finally ousted. Castillo’s first set of hapless appointments was widely attributed to his inexperience, but when he appointed his fourth cabinet last month, it appeared that he prioritizes loyalty, not competence.
  • Evidence of government corruption is considerable. Against Peru’s rules, Castillo holds irregular meetings with VIPs outside the Presidential Palace. As part of an expected plea bargain in late March, lobbyist and one-time friend Karelim López gave prosecutors information supporting charges against Castillo’s former chief aide (Bruno Pacheco) and two of Castillo’s nephews for illegal gains from state contracts in the Transport and Communications Ministry.

The President has survived through wily tactics and through legislators’ self-interest.

  • A key figure in Castillo’s party is its founder, Vladimir Cerrón, who recruited him to be the party’s 2021 candidate. Cerrón has been dubbed “El Otro Vladi,” in reference to Vladimiro Montesinos, the spymaster behind the crimes of former President Alberto Fujimori. Through promises of projects in their home areas or government positions, the government has co-opted numerous legislators. The perceptions of government guile are such that, after Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal last month pardoned Fujimori’s corruption and human rights charges, a prevalent rumor was that the government had made a backroom deal with pro-Fujimori leaders for their Congressional votes.
  • For the most part, the government has retained the votes of Peru’s “modern left” – legislators concerned not only about poverty but also gender rights, indigenous rights, and climate change, and committed to democracy – who hold about 5 percent of Congressional seats. At the start, dismayed by the hard-right’s hasty calls for Castillo’s impeachment and assuming that he would appoint a broad-based cabinet, the modern left supported the President. Now they are worried about the President – and also about whether or not their fate is linked to the government’s.
  • Peru’s Congress is as unpopular as Castillo. In particular, the Speaker of the Congress (next in line for succession to the presidency after the Vice-President), María del Carmen Alva of Acción Popular, is unpopular; she is perceived as arrogant and rude. In opinion polls, 80 percent of Peruvians say that, if Castillo is impeached, they want new elections not only for President but also for Congress. However, Peruvian law does not allow re-election of legislators, meaning that all the current legislators would lose their jobs and would fight the move.

While Castillo seems likely to continue to stumble and face challenges, there is some chance that Peru’s political impasse can be broken and a semblance of stable, effective governance restored. One possibility is that, at the end of Alva’s term in July, she is succeeded by a more capable and palatable Congress Speaker, and Castillo could be replaced without a popular demand for new Congressional elections. In its second search for a successor to an impeached president in November 2020, the Congress identified Francisco Sagasti, who was excellent. A second possibility, proposed by Sagasti himself, is a citizens’ initiative for a Constitutional reform that would shorten the terms of the President and the Congress – an initiative that would require only a simple majority in a Congressional vote.

  • Peru’s 2021 elections were held despite a devastating pandemic that obstructed campaigns and opinion polls. Last week’s ferocious protests in Huancayo – hometown of Presidential mentor Cerrón – and this week’s in Lima indicate that Peruvians are frustrated and angry as the war in Ukraine drives up fuel costs and Castillo’s agenda stalls. New elections may be the only way ahead.

April 7, 2022

* Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Latin America: Is There a Constructive Side to U.S. Policy?

By Fulton Armstrong

President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez gathered at the President's desk in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden, joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, talks on the phone with Jeff Zients on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House / Adam Schultz / The White House / Flickr / Creative Commons License.

While many of the Biden Administration’s policies in Latin America – particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and China’s activities – remain largely the same as during the Trump era, some of its actions and statements suggest more nuanced approaches on other regional issues. 

  • National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, has been the point person for maintaining the hard line on Venezuela and Cuba. In early March, he met in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro, who later said, “we’ve agreed to work on an agenda going forward,” but the Administration vehemently denied this and has continued to maintain that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is President of Venezuela. In Cuba, according to various sources, Gonzalez last year vetoed a promised plan for reversing a Trump halt to the flow of remittances to the island. He recently stated that new U.S. sanctions against Russia were also intended “by design” to put pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

At Congressional hearings in February and March, other senior officials have laid out various Administration priorities.

  • Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified that the hemisphere is “under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland.” In addition to helping the region with COVID-19 and the “climate crisis,” she said U.S. policy is to counter China’s “relentless march” to expand its influence in the region and its “challenges [to] U.S. influence.” She also pledged to combat transnational criminal organizations, which “operate nearly uncontested and blaze a trail of corruption and violence that create conditions that allow the PRC and Russia to exploit, threaten citizen security, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.” She said her command is “putting integrated deterrence into action.” 
  • In testimony in February, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, praised President Biden’s recent “Summit for Democracy” and acknowledged that “too many ordinary citizens have seen their governments fail to meet their aspirations for a better future.” He also said the Administration’s “Build Back Better World” initiative, including investments that respond to partners’ infrastructure needs, will counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “will help demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people.” His counterpart in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stressed rule of law programs under the “Root Causes Strategy,” although he noted that “in some cases,” governments lack the political will to tackle the corruption that is a root cause of their nation’s problems.
  • USAID Assistant Administrator responsible for Latin America, Marcela Escobari, testified that her priority is mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 and climate change. While criticizing the state of democracy and human rights in “extreme cases” like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, she expressed concern about “democratic backsliding” elsewhere, noting that “even in more established democracies, authoritarian tendencies have emerged.” 

The Administration has not articulated how some of its steps diverge from the aggressive and transactional approaches that characterized the Trump Administration’s engagement with the region. The White House pressed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hard to reach an accommodation with Argentina, whose government Trump kept at arm’s length, and helped it avoid default on its 2018 stand-by loan. Vice President Harris has given strong support to Honduran President Xiomara Castro since her inauguration in January – and probably contributed to Washington’s decision to request the extradition on drug charges of her predecessor, Trump ally Juan Orlando Hernández. In their Congressional testimony, current officials have repeatedly made nuanced remarks about the perceptions and reality of homegrown challenges in Latin America. Their emphasis on corruption and lack of will to address those scourges suggests awareness that not all is well, even in those countries that Washington embraces as democracies. After a slow initial response, the Administration has been generous in providing support for vaccine availability and for the capacity of public health systems to effectively respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • These factors suggest that while tired regime-change policies on Cuba and Venezuela and “integrated deterrence” against China and drug cartels may remain central to Washington’s approach to hemispheric affairs, there is awareness as well of how deeper cooperation with the region could simultaneously promote both U.S. and Latin American interests. The upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles may be the Administration’s best chance to seek meaningful common ground around the imperative of strengthening democratic governance, a challenge which Washington’s leadership now perceives as one that it shares with virtually all of its Latin American counterparts. 

March 31, 2022

North America: More Support Than Meets the Eye

By Malcolm Fairbrother, Tom Long, and Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz*

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (L) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) join President Joe Biden for the North American Leaders Summit (NALS) at The White House/ The White House/ Flickr/ United States government work

U.S., Canadian, and Mexican leaders’ support for North American integration has ebbed and flowed in the years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994. But our analysis of some previously little-known polls taken a few years ago shows that, even when support for trade integration and other big-picture institutional initiatives has been weak, interest in some forms of cooperation has been relatively strong in all three countries.

  • Discussions of North American integration have been fraught from the beginning. Fiery debates over NAFTA in the early 1990s meant politicians had to work hard to sell regional cooperation. Canadian politicians’ approach to North America has been pragmatic, low-key, and mostly bilateral with the United States. U.S. politicians gave North American cooperation a tepid embrace at best, until Donald Trump turned to repeatedly badmouthing NAFTA and both neighbors. Although Mexican political and business leaders’ enthusiasm for NAFTA has cooled in recent years, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a longtime NAFTA critic, they have made a reluctant peace with its regional economic structures.

Perceptions of NAFTA as a political loser paint too dark a scenario for North American cooperation. Though U.S. views briefly soured and polarized in 2016-17, strong public support for the agreement’s successor – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – suggest those negative views were short-lived. North American cooperation beyond trade enjoys robust support. Our analysis of surveys conducted before the “Trump shock” shows that respondents in Canada, Mexico, and the United States have long favored more cooperation in a variety of areas, albeit with a few important qualifications. In our recently published study, Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation, we show: 

  • The three countries share strikingly similar aggregate levels of support for free trade. But levels of support for regional coordination in six different issue areas – currency, energy, defense, economic affairs, environment, and border security – vary by issue and country, and are often higher. For respondents, it matters “on what” North America cooperates in ways that questions about trade and NAFTA do not capture. For example, there was significant support in all three countries for regional policy coordination with respect to environmental protection and border security.
  • Mexicans show the highest level of aggregate support for regional cooperation, but also the greatest variation by issue area, suggesting that they are attuned to the potential costs and benefits of cooperating in an asymmetrical region. Only Mexicans express much support for North American currency coordination, but they showed comparatively little desire for cooperation in energy. They are strong backers of border and environmental cooperation.
  • Although Canadians are skeptical of the benefits of some aspects of the relationship, they also identify cooperation on the border and environment as worth pursuing. Canadians expressed the lowest average support for policy coordination. In contrast to their government’s approach, Canadians slightly prefer trilateralism to bilateralism. Indeed, Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans don’t always want to cooperate trilaterally. Americans report stronger support for regionalism with Canada alone, rather than trilateral cooperation with both Canada and Mexico. 

North America is a highly asymmetric, U.S.-centric region. That shapes patterns of public attitudes as Canadians and Mexicans are concerned about national vulnerabilities vis-a-vis the United States. Mexican citizens’ support appears to be shaped by perceptions that Mexico stands to gain from regional cooperation on many shared problems that Mexico struggles to address alone, such as the environment and border security. Still, support for coordination in the United States also was comparatively high for border security, perhaps a result of politicians’ dramatizing a supposed U.S. inability to “control” the border. 

  • Paying attention to the issues where public support exists and overlaps may allow supporters of regional projects to build on firmer – albeit narrow – ground.

March 22, 2022

Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Umeå University and the Institute for Futures Studies, Sweden, and the Department of Sociology, University of Graz, in Austria. Tom Long is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK and Affiliated Professor in the División de Estudios Internacionales, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico. Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz is Associate Professor the Politics Department and Program in Latin American and Latinx Studies at Bates College, USA. This article, part of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative, draws on “Issue-Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation,” published recently in Global Studies Quarterly. The underlying surveysRethinking North America, were conducted in 2013 by Miguel Basáñez, Frank Graves, and Robert Pastor. 

Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

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

Brazil: Hoping for Better Times

By Fábio Kerche*

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with a crowd of supporters/ Palácio do Planato/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazilian former President Lula da Silva begins his campaign for the October 2022 elections seeking to broaden his support beyond the left-wing – not just to win the election but to rebuild democracy and create a stronger base for a future administration. Cleared of the lawsuits that kept him out of the 2018 elections (which brought President Jair Bolsonaro to power), Lula leads all polls by a wide margin and could even win the 50 percent of votes necessary for a first-round victory.

  • In second place, albeit with a high level of voter rejection in surveys, appears Bolsonaro. Polls show that he has very faithful supporters – enough to survive the first round of voting – but that he will have problems attracting others in a second round. Much lower in the polls are Sergio Moro, the former judge who arrested Lula in conjunction with the Lava Jato case and prevented him from running in 2018, and Ciro Gomes, a former Lula ally who today variously presents himself as a left-wing or right-wing candidate.
  • The situation is so favorable for Lula that some political analysts speculate that Bolsonaro, Moro, and Gomes, unless their ratings turn around soon, could withdraw their candidacies and run for Congress instead. In Brazil, being a congressperson ensures protection from the Judiciary; members cannot be tried by lower court judges. Being out of office can be dangerous, especially for Bolsonaro, who faces an avalanche of corruption allegations (along with his sons) and possible charges related to policies stemming from the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic.

Lula’s ambitions include building political support in a Congress traditionally fragmented among multiple political parties. His strategy is to dialogue with all, from the moderate right-wing to those who supported his imprisonment for more than 500 days and the impeachment of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

  • He has surprised supporters by signaling that he will offer the vice presidency to former São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, positioned on the center-right in Brazilian politics. Alckmin, who was a member of the PDSB, a party historically opposed to the PT, ran for president against Lula in 2006. Observers believe an alliance with him does not give Lula a significant boost – historically vice-presidential candidates don’t bring in a substantial number of votes – but its symbolism is strong, signaling that a priority is to protect the democracy threatened by Bolsonaro. What is at stake in this perspective are not public policies, as in a normal political campaign, but rather ensuring democracy itself.

Lula’s outreach and emphasis on building a moderate unity government seem intended both to win the election and set a new tone in Brazilian politics – leaving speechless those who accused him of being radical. There is little cost in terms of policies; the platform is not very different from what he did in his past administration: social policies with moderation in the economy. The market is already responding positively and lessening its aversion to the former president. Lula is trying to remind them that in his administration the poor improved their lives, but the economy was in very good shape as well.

  • If Lula should become the new president in 2023, as appears likely, he will still face many arduous tasks. The Bolsonaro government has dismantled many public policies without presenting alternatives. Cuts in the budgets for health, education, science, technology, and more have significantly reduced capabilities. In addition, Bolsonaro appointed unqualified heads in important agencies, disorganizing public services. The economy is bad; inflation is back (10 percent last year); and unemployment is high (11‑13 percent). The International Monetary Fund has forecast a 0.3 percent GPD increase in 2022. Lula is remembered as a great president – he left with 87 percent approval ratings – but he can’t work miracles. In any case, Lula seems to be the hope of better times for more and more Brazilians.

February 17, 2022

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

Pegasus: Powerful Tool for Law Enforcement … and Repression

By Fulton Armstrong

Malware infection/ Blogtrepreneur/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Latin American human rights groups’ outcry about Mexican and Panamanian deployment of the “Pegasus” spying tool to keep tabs on critics has had little or no impact, and governments are suspected of using it more aggressively than ever. The Israeli security company NSO has been licensing the software in the region since at least 2010 supposedly to help law enforcement agencies, but recent revelations about Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s extensive use of it indicates that it has become an increasingly powerful tool for repressing political opponents and the media.

  • Pegasus gives users total control of targets’ mobile phones using either the Android or Apple operating system, enabling them to exfiltrate all data on them, turn on microphones and cameras, and commandeer owners’ communications. Because it penetrates a device’s root level, the tool can collect WhatsApp and other encrypted services that users generally think are secure.
  • NSO claims it licenses the software only to governments and requires them to promise to use it only against terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises. According to the press, the software helped Mexican authorities capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”) in 2016, and European investigators have used it to arrest dozens of suspects in a multinational child-abuse ring.

But the company clearly is not enforcing license restrictions as governments are using it to spy on critics with impunity around the world, including Latin America.

  • During the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, Mexico used it against human rights experts and journalists investigating disappearances and corruption. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli used public health funds to buy Pegasus to harass political opponents. Rights groups cite strong circumstantial evidence that Colombia conducted a Pegasus-style attack against critics during protests last year and that Honduras and Guatemala have purchased licenses for similar software.
  • Bukele’s use of a new “zero-click” version of Pegasus – which doesn’t require the victim to tap a malware link – was perhaps the region’s boldest attack yet. It took over the mobile devices of most of the editors, reporters, and staff at the newspaper El Faro. An analysis by the Toronto-based The Citizen Lab found that some of their phones were reinfected up to 40 times to make sure that operating system updates and other adjustments didn’t cut off access to data. The organization said that journalists from other Salvadoran news organizations and prominent human rights activists were also targeted. Bukele’s spokesperson denied it all.

Human rights groups point out that governments that spy on opponents often act on the information they collect – subjecting them to harassment, malicious prosecution, violence, death threats, and physical harm. Observers also warn that the software kit almost certainly has been deployed in other Latin American countries, some of which historically have been aggressive in running tel-taps and electronic intercept operations against citizens.

The international community doesn’t appear likely to categorize it as a serious violation of human rights and demand that NSO stop selling it soon.

  • NSO has obvious business reasons for turning a blind eye to abuses, and the Israeli government has used license approvals in many countries to secure diplomatic support for its positions in multilateral contexts. Panamanian observers credit it with persuading Martinelli to make Panama one of only eight countries to vote with Israel on a UN resolution in 2012, and press reports indicate it remains an important diplomatic tool in Israel’s pursuit of objectives in the Middle East.
  • The EU, which has jealously protected internet privacy, has been relatively quiet, just recently opening investigations. Last November, Washington put NSO on its “entity list” blocked from receiving certain new U.S. technologies – reportedly because Israel violated its promise to block deployment in the United States – but the U.S. government has bought copies for “testing” purposes. (FBI says it will not deploy it, but NSO has reportedly created a separate product, called Phantom, for U.S. collection operations.) U.S. agencies have fought Apple and other phone manufacturers over encryption technology baked into their devices in the past.

Popular outrage doesn’t seem likely to lead to new legislation either. Most citizens, who see themselves as “doing nothing wrong and having nothing to hide,” do not sense the implications of the theft of their information and are therefore unlikely to call for a crackdown. Indeed, told that the software helps authorities break up criminal rings, many may privately support deployments. Salvadoran President Bukele was caught red-handed, but he probably sees his historically high popularity as a green light to continue.

February 10, 2022