U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

Mexico: Changing the Narrative on Immigrants

By Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed deported citizens at Mexico City’s airport two weeks ago, a first for the president. / Gobierno de México / Creative Commons

President Donald Trump’s decision to put Mexican immigrants at the top of his enemies list has prompted Mexico to become more active – and more creative – in reaching out to compatriots in the United States to help them remain there or to cushion the shock of deportation.  Largely because unauthorized Mexican immigration had been in decline for many years, it rarely made front-page news in Mexico, but since Trump’s rhetoric during last year’s campaign and since winning the presidency there has been no topic more popular in Mexico.  The 5.8 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the United States, according to Pew Research Center estimates, have their home country worried about the economic impact their deportation could cause.  As Washington’s threat to deport millions looms ever larger, the Mexican government and other institutions are preparing for such a scenario.  Their game plan includes both helping Mexicans fight deportation and easing their transition if deported.

  • Mexican consulates in the United States are actively offering legal advice to any migrant facing deportation. President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the country would send $50 million to hire lawyers and set up outreach programs.  The consulates also set up a 24-hour hotline for immediate help and are actively sharing infographics on social media indicating how undocumented immigrants should react if they are detained.
  • Two weeks ago, President Peña Nieto personally received 135 deported Mexicans at Mexico City’s airport – the first time ever. Throughout the encounter he shared an upbeat and welcoming message.  He described Mexico as a “land of opportunities” and said, “The doors are always open.”  Dressed casually in a shirt without a tie, it was an image reminiscent of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm welcome of refugees.
  • Mexican political leaders have launched Operación Monarca, a multi-party movement to form alliances that benefit deported immigrants. A group of Mexican senators involved in the initiative participated in a forum last week in Phoenix, Arizona, entitled “Agenda Migrante,”at which dozens of undocumented immigrants shared anecdotes of their current situation, expressed their worries, and demanded Mexican officials and advocacy groups fight U.S. policy harder.
  • Universities in the country are also embracing the returning Mexicans. Universidad Iberoamericana, a private institution with various campuses around the country, offered 1,500 full-ride scholarships to incoming deported youths.  The public Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, also announced it’s starting to work with some U.S. colleges to assure that their students who are deported can continue their studies in Mexico.
  • Since Trump threatened to overhaul the tech-favored H1B visa work program, cities like Guadalajara have declared interest in becoming a technology hub. Mexicans hold a little more than one percent of the approximately 300,000 H1B visas (India has more than half), but the number of returning workers with technical qualifications could be significant.

President Trump’s border wall and its cost remain major irritants in the relationship, and there is great uncertainty over how the “renegotiation” of NAFTA will proceed, but Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and President Peña Nieto continue to say Mexico is willing to cooperate with the United States wherever they can.  They are hopeful to keep a strong relationship, while staying firm in their conviction that Mexico will not pay for the wall.  Their shift on the undocumented in the United States reflects that commitment.  No longer are unauthorized immigrants considered a long-term and one-sided issue in U.S.-Mexico relations, but rather an immediate and mutual problem.  Mexico’s welcoming and warm message is probably small comfort to those being deported, and it is unclear if any of these actions could mitigate the economic and social impact for them, but the Peña Nieto government appears to be giving priority to avoiding a major train wreck with Trump over immigrants for now, and leaving the details for the future.

February 20, 2017

* Carlos Diaz Barriga is a CLALS Graduate Fellow.

A Return to Political Instability for Ecuador?

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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Presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso (center, blue shirt) in Cuenca, Ecuador during a campaign rally last month. / Samurai Juan / Flickr / Creative Commons

General elections on Sunday could mark the beginning of the end of an impressive period of stability in Ecuador. Ecuadorians will elect a new congress and a replacement for the powerful and populist Rafael Correa, the longest-serving chief executive in the country’s history. Although the president’s handpicked successor, ex-Vice President Lenín Moreno is leading public opinion polls with 32 percent of likely voters in a crowded eight-candidate field, the chances of him winning a first-round victory outright are slim. Public approval of Correa and his ruling Alianza PAIS (AP) has fallen over the past two years as economic growth has slowed, and the administration is embroiled in allegations of corruption, including those against Jorge Glas Espinel, incumbent vice-president and Moreno’s running mate. Given Ecuador’s two-round presidential system, in which candidates must win by 10 percent or gain 40 percent of the vote, Moreno probably will end up in a run-off election on April 2.

  • The other seven candidates are vying for the chance to face Moreno in the second round. Three of them poll between 8 and 21 percent, and the rest appear to have 4 percent or less of the vote. However, rejection of the entire field is high – nearly 12 percent of respondents say they will cast a null vote – and a whopping 35 percent maintain that they are undecided.

Moreno does not appear likely to win the runoff. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that voters will coalesce around an opposition candidate – most likely the CREO movement’s Guillermo Lasso, a conservative former economy minister and banker who ran a distant second to Correa in the 2013 presidential race – who would then defeat Moreno.

  • If Moreno and Glas win, they will likely continue Correa’s leftist “Citizens’ Revolution,” especially its improvements to social welfare and emphasis on science and technology, and maintain close ties with China, which has become a key partner in trade and infrastructure investment over the past decade. If the opposition wins, it will try to repeal some of Correa’s onerous taxes, reverse stringent regulation of the media, shrink the size of the state, and seek improved relations with the U.S.

Regardless of who wins, the fragmented support for the candidates and their parties bodes poorly for Ecuador’s political stability, especially in the context of fiscal constraints, a stagnant economy, and burden of recovery from last April’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake. The so-called muerte cruzada (mutual death) in Article 148 of the country’s 2008 Constitution, moreover, will loom larger under a divided government. This clause gives the president a political “nuclear option” to dissolve the National Assembly in the event of gridlock, triggering new legislative and presidential elections – while the incumbent president is allowed to rule by decree on urgent economic matters in the interim. Correa, who enjoyed majority or near-majority government throughout his unprecedented ten-year presidency, never invoked the muerte cruzada, but his successor will feel stronger temptation to dissolve the Assembly in order to govern unilaterally. Ecuadorians should brace for an end to the country’s unprecedented political stability – and for the specter of Correa, much like the possibility of muerte cruzada, to loom large over the new government’s economic and political decisions.

February 17, 2017

* John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

Haiti’s Electoral Crisis Finally Concludes, for Now

By Emma Fawcett*

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Newly inaugurated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse speaks with the Dominican press. / Karla Sepúlveda / Presidencia República Dominicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, inaugurated this week following an 18-month electoral crisis, is likely to have a short honeymoon before the country’s multiple crises hit him hard.  While the transfer of power was long overdue – after a year of transitional rule by interim President Jocelerme Privert – questions remain about Moïse’s ability to govern.  He is a 48-year-old businessman with no political or governing experience.  The election delays suppressed voter turnout to a paltry 21 percent, so the 55 percent of votes that he won amounts to just 9.6 percent of registered voters.  Tensions remain high among the other 53 former presidential candidates.

  • Challenges to Moïse’s term in office have already emerged. While Haitian presidential terms are five years, some constitutional experts believe that Moïse lost a year due to the electoral crisis – that interim President Privert’s year in office counted – and therefore that he has only four years remaining.
  • Moïse already faces allegations of corruption. In a case he claims is politically motivated, he has been under investigation for money laundering since irregularities in his bank transfers were first discovered in 2013.  Four opposition senators last week requested additional information about the investigative judge’s findings, and another former presidential candidate has filed as a plaintiff in the case.  The judge’s order and the prosecutor’s intentions have not been made public, but the investigation has been expanded to include interviews of Moïse’s wife and several other associates.  Several senators boycotted the inauguration in protest.

Haitian economic and social problems remain severe.  The mandate for MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission that has been in place for the last 12 years, expires in mid-April.  Foreign assistance has continued to decline, although Hurricane Matthew caused $2.8 billion in damage last October and another 30,000 cases of cholera are expected this year.  Thousands of Haitians have fled the island, including about 5,000 currently awaiting entry on the US-Mexico border.  Inflation exceeds 14 percent a year, and growth for 2017 is expected to be -0.6 percent.  Even the budget for Moïse’s inauguration was slashed by 50 percent in light of austerity measures, although several foreign presidents and a U.S. delegation led by Omarosa Manigault, a former reality TV star and assistant to President Trump, attended.

Moïse faces tremendous challenges – without anything resembling a popular mandate.  If he is prosecuted, moreover, Haiti could be rapidly plunged back into political instability.  But  foreign media indicate that many Haitians hope that his business background as a banana exporter and auto parts dealer will help him revive the economy, especially the agricultural and textile sectors.  Moïse has indicated repeatedly that he hopes to preserve and expand Haiti’s preferential trade agreements with the United States: “President Trump and I are entrepreneurs, and all an entrepreneur wants is results, and therefore I hope we’ll put everything in place to make sure we deliver for our peoples.”  With the electoral uncertainty finally over, Moïse is slightly better positioned than his two most recent predecessors – transitional President Privert and embattled President Michel Martelly – to foster political stability, engage the diaspora, and encourage foreign direct investment.  But with so many competing priorities and the distraction of his money laundering case, it will be enormously difficult for the new president to serve “all Haitians” as his inaugural address promised.

February 9, 2017

 Emma Fawcett is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focused on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean countries: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Peru: Can the Shamans Save the Glaciers?

By Karsten Paerregaard*

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A ceremony at Mount Huaytapallana during the Andean New Year. / Photo by Karsten Paerregaard.

Peru – one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change – is experiencing a surge in religious ceremonies highlighting the plight of its rapidly shrinking glaciers, but the increased attention has downsides as well.  Peru has 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which provide most of the country’s fresh water and have been integrally linked to the identity of the Andean people since the Incas.  They are rapidly shrinking, however.  Mount Huaytapallana, a 5,500-meter-high glacier about 300 kilometers east of Lima, has shrunk 50 percent over the past quarter century – with profound implications for life throughout much of Peru.  Shamans in the region, whose ceremonies and offerings have long constituted a critical means of regulating the relationship between society and nature in the Andes, are reviving the practices to draw attention to this environmental crisis.

  • Most participants in ceremonies on Mount Huaytapallana come from Huancayo and other nearby cities in the central highlands, hoping that Huaytapallana will listen to their prayers and bring them good fortune. The Andean New Year on June 24, one of the most spectacular events, attracts more than a thousand people.  They offer food, drinks, candles, and cloths that are burned while the shamans say prayers to Huaytapallana in Quechua.  The event reminds people of the suffering that global warming is causing to the mountain.
  • In the southeastern highlands, Mount Ausungate attracts even bigger crowds. Around the feast of Corpus Christi each year thousands of pilgrims walk up to a sanctuary to pay tribute to an image called Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i (the Lord of the Snow Star), declared an Intangible Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2011.  The image represents Christ, who according the local legend revealed himself at the sanctuary in the 18th century, but it is also a religious relic of a pre-Columbian tradition of worshipping Andean mountain deities.  Dance groups from eight communities of pilgrims, known as naciones, play music and dance around the clock, and men dressed as bears climb the nearby glaciers of Ausungate to set up crosses and until recently set off fireworks.  An estimated 50,000 visited the sanctuary last year.

The glaciers are symbols of both the country’s indigenous past and the damage that global climate change is inflicting.  The growing participation in Andean ceremonies with religious overtones reflects the deepening concern for the profound social, economic, and spiritual implications of the environmental degradation.  It is fueled by a search for alternative answers to problems that global climate change is causing in Peru and that the country’s governments so far have failed to provide.  The surge in interest also, ironically, is cause for concern.  According to the regional government of Junín, responsible for the protection of Huaytapallana’s environment, visitors leave more than four tons of trash on the mountain every year.  The commercialization of the offering ceremonies makes it difficult to hold the shamans accountable for participants’ activities.  At Qoyllur Rit’i, Peru’s Ministry of Culture is in charge of preserving the pilgrimage according to Andean traditions, enhancing people’s awareness of Ausungate’s cultural importance, but pilgrims’ presence on the glaciers remains an issue of continuous dispute.  Shamans and environmentalists are a potentially powerful alliance, but even mitigating the environmental impact of activities by people concerned with climate change is not a simple matter.

February 6, 2017

* Karsten Paerregaard teaches in the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  He has participated in a CLALS project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, on Religion and Climate Change in Cross-Regional Perspective.

Return of the Monroe Doctrine: Making Latin America Irate Again

By Max Paul Friedman*

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Uncle Sam stakes his claim in the Western Hemisphere in a political cartoon outlining the basic tenants of the Monroe Doctrine (1912). / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

A vigorous resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine may well be at hand under U.S. President Donald Trump, even though history shows us that it will contradict another favored policy – “America First” – which signals a desire to return to the most notorious isolationist organization in U.S. history.  The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 as a means of blocking external interference in the Western Hemisphere, was the central pillar of U.S. policy toward Latin America until Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, told a roomful of Latin American diplomats in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  The statement was part of an effort to rehabilitate the U.S. image in a region long accustomed to seeing the United States as seeking to control it through persuasion when possible, and force when necessary.  In a policy paper published last December, Craig Deare, a dean at the U.S. National Defense University and now Trump’s top Latin America advisor on the National Security Council staff, denounced Kerry’s statement “as a clear invitation to those extra-regional actors looking for opportunities to increase their influence.”  He specifically mentioned China.

A revitalized Monroe Doctrine, however, contradicts the Administration’s other strong impulse, present in its statements far beyond Latin America, toward isolationism.  Trump is promising to build a literal wall between Latin America and the United States, but the Monroe Doctrine was decisively unilateral and interventionist.  It stated that the United States would not intervene in European affairs if European powers did not intervene in the Americas, but Monroe carefully did not state that the United States would not intervene in the region.  Indeed, Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and other U.S. leaders desired and expected the future annexation of parts of what was then Spanish or Latin American territory in Cuba, northern Mexico (later Texas), and beyond.  Later, even in the “isolationist” early decades of the 20th century, the United States was vigorously engaged in military intervention and outright occupation of several countries in Latin America.  The Marines were in Nicaragua (1912-33), Haiti (1915-34), and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

  • Latin American resistance prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which supplanted the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism with respect for national sovereignty, but during World War II, FDR threatened Latin American governments with economic embargoes and other measures if they didn’t round up and intern thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese. After the tide in the war turned in 1943, the Latin American deportation and internment program was continued by U.S. officials seeking to turn the program to economic advantage by crushing commercial rivals.

Even Obama had difficulty reversing the United States’ longstanding desire to guide political and economic developments in Latin America – continuing, for example, Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba and elsewhere – but steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and other initiatives made important strides toward assuaging Latin American irritation with U.S. imperiousness.  Obama went further than any president since FDR in restoring good relations, and ended the Cold War in Latin America.  Donald Trump’s competing impulses – the interventionism of Monroe and the isolationism of “America First” – will keep U.S.-Latin America relations on edge.  His unilateralist style has already hit its first victim, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, and is likely to claim more soon.  If Trump revives the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism more broadly in response to a perceived threat from China throughout the region, he is likely to succeed only in making Latin America irate again.

February 2, 2017

* Max Paul Friedman is a Professor in the History Department at American University and author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

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An interim detention center in São Paulo, Brazil. / Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

It has been a horrific start to 2017 in the Brazilian prison system, and reversing the trend will take much more than increased public funding.  A wave of violence began on New Year’s Day when 56 inmates were killed during a riot inside of a penitentiary in Manaus.  A series of deadly inmate uprisings followed that massacre, bringing the number of inmates killed this month to 120.  Macabre images of inmates’ decapitated corpses strewn about prison yards captured on cellphone cameras and posted to the internet reminded Brazilians that overcrowding, a weak state presence, and institutionalized gang power have combined to make Brazilian prisons – with over 600,000 inmates – tinderboxes ready to ignite at almost any time.

  • During a year I spent conducting fieldwork inside jails and prisons in Rio de Janeiro for a book and documentary film in 2011, I saw inmates crammed into cells at three and four times their intended capacity. On the worst nights, men unable to find space on the floor or a concrete bunk tied their torsos to the steel gates with t-shirts and attempted to sleep while standing.
  • The Comando Vermelho and other gangs controlled entire cellblocks and used smuggled cell phones and strategic visitors to maintain regular contact with leadership. This communications capability and weapons caches inside the cellblocks enabled them to act as the de facto government. Prison guards knew that they were outgunned and outnumbered, and they knew their off-duty lives could be easily extinguished by an order initiated inside the prison.  January’s riots revealed how thin the veneer of state control really is inside.

Impassioned pleas, prompted by the riots, to reduce overcrowding and provide more resources to Brazil’s prison system are being launched in a time of austerity.  The Brazilian Senate recently approved legislation that could freeze public spending for the next 20 years.  Public investment would certainly reduce the likelihood of future riots, but the crisis in Brazil’s jails and penitentiaries is not caused simply by underfunding.  It is the result of decades of the state treating inmates, and the residents of the neighborhoods where most of them were born, as less than full citizens.  Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, leader of the human rights organization Rio de Paz, told me the state and public’s reactions to the many thousands killed by the police and hundreds murdered in prisons each year were limited because “they are poor people, people with dark skin, people considered killable.  These are deaths that don’t shock us, they don’t make the Brazilian cry.”

There is no excuse or justifiable defense for the inmates involved in the 120 murders that occurred inside Brazilian prisons this month.  It was an inhumane slaughter propelled by gangs, greed, and a power grab.  But the solution to Brazil’s profoundly troubled prison system lies much deeper than increasing public spending or reducing overcrowding.  Refusing to treat people as killable, gang-affiliated or not, is a goal that may take decades and will require a commitment that is much costlier than any public spending intervention or new legislation.  Laws protecting human rights would have to be enforced for all Brazilians, including prisoners.  Law abiding middle and upper-class citizens would have to push back and no longer tolerate some of the world’s highest murder rates and jails where 80 men squeeze into a cell built for 20.  Transformation this profound would be a difficult message to sell on the campaign trail, but anything less than that sort of social and cultural change from the government and the public will fall short of fixing the deeply rooted problems with Brazil’s prison system.

January 27, 2017

*Andrew Johnson is a Research Associate with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture’s Religious Competition and Creative Innovation (RCCI) initiative at the University of Southern California.

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.