Latin America: Which Election Rules Work Best?

By Cynthia McClintock*

President Nayib Bukele and his wife waving to the crowd on his inauguration day

Inauguration of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador / PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American countries’ shift in recent decades from presidential-election rules awarding victory to candidates winning a plurality (“first past the post”) to majority runoff (a second round between the top two candidates if no candidate reaches a majority) has been successful overall. By 2016, 12 of the region’s 18 countries classified as “electoral democracies” used runoff, compared to only one, Costa Rica, prior to 1978. (Click here for a full explanation of the classifications.) Adopted in part due to the traumatic military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote, runoff enhanced the legitimacy of incoming governments and enticed candidates towards the political center. The runoff reform also lowered barriers to entry into the electoral arena by the previously excluded political left – a major challenge to many Latin American democracies in the 1980s-2000s.

  • Under runoff, a new party is not a “spoiler” party. Runoff allows voters to vote more sincerely in the first round – for the candidate whom they prefer – rather than strategically, i.e., for the preferred candidate whom they think can win. Also, a party has a second opportunity – if it is the runner-up, to win, but otherwise to have its voice heard, usually through its power of endorsement. Under plurality, if a new party wants to have any chance to win, it usually must ally with another party with an established political base, but alliances are problematic and dilute the new party’s brand.
  • According to virtually all studies, including my study of Latin American elections between 1978 and 2012, the number of political parties was larger under runoff rules than under plurality rules. And, in my study, a “new party” became a “significant contender” considerably more often under runoff.

Because of the increase in the number of parties, many observers opposed runoff. Although five or 10 or, worse yet, 15 or 20 parties indeed pose challenges for governability, evidence shows that a larger number of parties was not in fact correlated with inferior scores for political and civil rights as measured by Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). Under plurality, the hold of traditional “cartel” parties was not loosened and participation was not expanded.

  • Runoff also impeded the election of a president at an ideological extreme. By definition, a candidate cannot appeal only to the 30-40 percent of voters in a “base” that is outside mainstream opinion. Often, runoff has pulled presidential candidates towards the center – a process evolving over the span of several elections as the need to appeal to the center becomes clearer. Among the presidents in runoff systems shifting towards the center over one or more elections were Brazil’s Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva; El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes; Guatemala’s Álvaro Colom; Peru’s Ollanta Humala; and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. Latin American countries under runoff arguably enter a virtuous circle with lower barriers to entry, the requirement for majority support, and ideological moderation. By contrast, a vicious circle emerged in plurality countries such as Honduras, Paraguay, and Venezuela, where plurality was one factor blocking the emergence of new parties, and perceptions of exclusion abetted polarization.

To date in 2018-2019, elections were held in runoff countries (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador) and plurality countries (Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay). The election in Costa Rica showed the enduring importance of runoff: the evangelical candidate who had won the first round with only 25 percent was defeated by a center-left candidate in a landslide in the runoff. By contrast, legitimacy deficits, with presidents winning less than 50 percent, were likely in both Panama and Paraguay, and a legitimacy deficit was only narrowly avoided in Mexico. Further, in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, leading a new coalition, defeated the two long-standing parties. By contrast, in the plurality elections in Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay, new parties did not make significant headway.

  • Overall, in 2018-2019, the trend was towards the candidate, whether to the right or the left, who most effectively channeled voter anger against official corruption. Also, the trend was towards more severe political polarization and, as a result, the growing possibility that the candidate most able to defeat every other candidate in a pair-wise contest – the “Condorcet winner” – did not win. In two of the three runoff countries – Brazil and Colombia – it appears very likely that the Condorcet winner did not reach the runoff. It is not yet clear, however, what, if anything, should be done to counter this possibility.

 Although of course no electoral rule is a panacea, the greater openness of the electoral arena under runoff rules has facilitated the defeat of long-standing parties that had lost majority support but retained political bases. Presidents have been enticed towards the political center and, with majorities of the vote, not suffered legitimacy deficits. There is no ideal solution to the challenge of the emergence of too many parties, but more promising remedies include scheduling the legislative vote after the first presidential round, as in France, and establishing thresholds for parties’ entry into the legislature. A ranked-choice voting system – the “instant runoff” system in place in only a handful of countries – could conceivably work in the long run, but runoff rules have already helped Latin America expand inclusion and secure victors’ legitimacy.

June 14, 2019

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. This article is excerpted from her paper The Reform of Presidential-Election Rules in Latin America: Plurality, Runoff, and Ranked-Choice Voting, presented at LASA in May 2019.

 

U.S.-Mexico: Tariffs, Threats, and Trade Agreements

By Ken Shadlen*

Cargo ships

Cargo ships off shore of Galveston Island, TX / Jocelyn Augustino / Creative Commons / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_38860_-_Cargo_ships_off_shore_of_Galveston_Island,_TX.jpg

The United States’ threat last week to apply tariffs on imports from Mexico, unless Mexico revamped its approach to Central American migrants passing through the country, underscores the power asymmetries in the global economy – and undermines the credibility of U.S. trade agreements elsewhere. President Trump threatened to abrogate U.S. commitments under NAFTA (and the WTO) unless Mexico introduced measures in an area that is not addressed by NAFTA. While the tariffs won’t be applied, at least not now, and there is debate about just how much Mexico changed its migration policies as a result of Washington’s maneuver, the linkage between trade and “non-trade” issues such as immigration, especially within preferential trade agreements such as NAFTA, have deep implications for the political economy of international trade.

  • Many critics of Trump’s threats claim that immigration policy and trade policy are distinct, and that it makes no sense for the administration to link the two. But this misses the point: what is and is not “trade” is determined politically. Since the 1980s, the United States has conditioned market access on the introduction and enforcement of a wide range of “trade-related” policies, including investment, intellectual property, government procurement practices, and so on. Market size confers to the importing country the power to define what constitutes “trade,” and the definition of “trade” thus has changed according to Washington’s preferences. In that sense, Trump’s linkage maneuver is not at all new.
  • On the one hand, NAFTA is the outcome of massive linkage of this sort, as Mexico was required to introduce extensive changes to policies and practices in a range of trade-related policy areas in order to qualify for the agreement. On the other hand, NAFTA was meant to protect against further “ad hoc linkage,” with new conditions attached at the whim of the United States.
  • Prior to NAFTA, Mexico’s exports largely entered the U.S. market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which offers preferential market access to exports from developing countries under a wide range of conditions. But GSP preferences can be withdrawn unilaterally, and, as the importing country, the United States changed GSP preferences in response to its changing sentiments. Beneficiary countries always ran the risk of having the U.S. Congress and Executive attach additional conditions to the program, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
  • NAFTA and other NAFTA-like trade agreements that have followed promised to deliver substantially more predictability and stability than the GSP.

Recent events question these premises. In 2017-18, Trump warned that Washington would withdraw entirely from NAFTA unless it was renegotiated on terms more to his liking. Last week’s threat to remove preferential market access unless Mexico changed its immigration policies and practices is precisely the sort of behavior that NAFTA was meant to protect against. The agreement supposedly replaced the unstable preferences of GSP, which were always vulnerable to the whims of U.S. politicians, with a new set of preferences that were clearly defined, had fixed conditions, and were less prone to being unilaterally withdrawn. But evidently it didn’t.

Washington’s actions are similar to if the Mexican government announced it would stop enforcing copyrights and patents of U.S. firms, unless the United States were to substantially increase science and technology assistance to help upgrade the stock of biologists, chemists, and engineers in Mexico. The reaction to such an announcement would be ridicule, and Washington would claim NAFTA (and the WTO) binds Mexico to protect intellectual property. The United States would assert, moreover, that its science and technology assistance is not covered by NAFTA; Mexico’s threat would elicit no change of behavior on the part of the US. 

  • Beyond NAFTA per se, these events make one wonder why any country would sign a trade agreement with the United States. After all, if countries already have preferential market access under the GSP, then one of the main benefits of reciprocal trade agreements is to lock-in and stabilize those preferences – even with the need to make substantial concessions on “trade-related” policy areas. If, in reality, only half of the bargain is locked in, if the benefits can be made to disappear at the whim of the U.S. President, then for many trading partners the benefits of such agreements will be unlikely to compensate for the costs.

June 11, 2019

*Ken Shadlen is Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

U.S.-Cuba: You Can’t Get There from Here

By William M. LeoGrande

ventas en cuba

Small Business in Cuba / Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertoyoan/8775169259

U.S. President Donald Trump’s new economic sanctions against Cuba, imposed earlier this week, include limits on travel and family remittances aimed at crippling the Cuban economy and causing regime collapse, but the biggest losers are the small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists who have been agents of change on the island. Senior administration officials, foremost among them National Security Adviser John Bolton, have been explicit that the goal is to rid the hemisphere of “socialism,” starting with the government of Venezuela and proceeding to Cuba and Nicaragua. Bolton previewed the new sanctions in Miami on April 17  – the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Now we know the details.

  • Remittances, which were unlimited under President Barack Obama, will be limited to $1,000 per recipient household every quarter – enough to supplement a family’s meager state salary, but not enough to start and sustain a business. The new limits will hit Cuba’s nascent private sector hardest because funds from the United States were the start-up capital for many small businesses, and their supply chains reach back through Miami.
  • Trump has eliminated the people-to-people category of educational travel, which Bolton denounced as “veiled tourism.” This category covered educational tours not involving academic credit – tours run by organizations like National Geographic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Smithsonian. Authorized originally by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, people-to-people travel was eliminated by President George W. Bush in 2003, in response to complaints from conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida. President Obama restored it in 2011. Trump, like Bush, appears to be pandering to the Cuban American Republican base in Miami in the run-up to the next presidential election. Last year, 638,000 U.S. residents who were not Cuban Americans traveled to Cuba – at least two-thirds if not more under a people-to-people license, mostly on cruises, which Trump also banned. These new travel restrictions will cost Cuba upwards of $300 million dollars annually in lost revenue.

Cuba’s private sector will suffer disproportionately from these measures. In addition to losing start-up capital and access to supplies, these businesses will lose their principal client base. U.S. travelers arriving by air are more likely stay in Airbnb rentals and eat at private restaurants than the Canadians and Europeans who come on tourist vacation packages and stay at the big hotels on the beach. Trump’s first restriction on people-to-people travel in 2017, banning individuals from designing their own people-to-people trips, caused a 44 percent slump in private B&B occupancy. The new restrictions will wipe out many of them.

  • U.S. business and people will take a hit too. In 2017, Engage Cuba, a coalition of business groups favoring trade, released an analysis concluding that U.S. visitors to Cuba generated $1.65 billion in revenue annually for U.S. businesses and accounted for more than 12,000 U.S. jobs in the hospitality sector, most of which would be lost if Trump cut off travel. Most importantly, the new restrictions deprive most U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to travel, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1958 in Kent v Dulles. The Court said the right should be limited only in cases of dire threats to national security.

As usual, tougher economic sanctions will make life tougher for ordinary Cubans, but sanctions won’t bring down the Cuban government, which has survived the U.S. embargo for half a century. Economic hardship and U.S. hostility will heighten Cuban leaders’ sense of being besieged, making them less likely to reform the economy or allow any expansion of free expression. Economic, professional, educational, and cultural ties between people in the United States and their counterparts in Cuba will be harder to sustain, impoverishing both. Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who could be an engine for economic transformation and who Trump claims to support, will suffer from the loss of business from American travelers. U.S. travel companies will lose access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing tourism markets in the Caribbean. But maybe, just maybe, this latest assault on the liberties of Americans by the Trump administration will motivate Congress to finally pass a “Freedom to Travel” bill, assuring that no president can take away the constitutional right to travel just because he thinks it will help him win re-election.  

June 6, 2019

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.

Nicaragua: Can Ortega Circumvent the Talks?

By Fulton Armstrong

Presidente de El Salvador participa en Cumbre SICA-Nicaragua.

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega / https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotospresidencia_sv/30962278823 / Flickr / Creative Commons

While the Nicaraguan government continues to stonewall in negotiations with its broad-based opposition, it is taking a series of unilateral actions that seem intended to preempt the talks – and leave the opposition behind. President Daniel Ortega and his team have flatly rejected key opposition demands, including early elections to replace him (instead of waiting for general elections in 2021) and the immediate, unconditional release of hundreds of political prisoners. They have, however, issued declarations pledging several actions on their own terms.

  • Last week, the Foreign Minister said the government “is complying, and will continue to comply, with all of [its] commitments toward understanding and peace.” Calling itself the “Government of Reconciliation and National Unity,” Managua has issued a “work program” that includes the “definitive release” by June 18 of 100-plus more political prisoners and several hundred others under house arrest. It pledged to work toward a “culture of peace” and “cooperate” with the OAS on reforms of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to prepare for the 2021 elections. It promised legislation that supposedly will help victims of government violence during the April 2018 protests, although apparently with conditions that offend opposition leaders.

The opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which left the negotiating table last week, continues to enjoy widespread support, but press reports suggest mobilization fatigue is undermining its effectiveness and unity. Sympathetic media judged a hastily called national strike last week – protesting government intransigence in the talks – as effective, but they hinted at reduced enthusiasm. The Superior Council of Private Business (COSEP), a leading opposition force, recently released its assessment that the economy is “in a free fall,” with plummeting domestic and foreign investment. COSEP analysts note that the loss of 100,000 private-sector jobs and a similar number of informal-sector jobs is taking a heavy toll on society. The Catholic Church, which remains consistently critical of the Ortega government, has had a lower political profile since Pope Francis reassigned Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, its most outspoken critic of the government, to a Vatican job.

  • The opposition has also been stung by criticism from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who’s led diplomatic pressure on Ortega to loosen up. In April, Almagro accused both sides in the negotiations of “lying” but listed untruths he attributed specifically to the opposition, claiming that “lying is the most antidemocratic practice.” Although the OAS last week approved a resolution, drafted by Canada with Almagro’s support, calling for Ortega to take concrete steps on human rights and election preparations, some 14 small opposition groups the day after accused the Secretary General of a “double standard” – allegedly being lenient toward Ortega but tough of Venezuelan President Maduro.

Government repression and intransigence in the negotiations are the primary causes of the crisis, but the opposition is, once again, showing a lack of focus and discipline. Ortega’s unilateral moves on political prisoners and electoral reform, after the opposition left the negotiation, suggest an effort to render the opposition and negotiation process irrelevant. By making the release of political prisoners its top priority in recent rounds of talks, opponents have given Ortega an area in which concrete and relatively cost-free steps can give the government momentum. Last week’s strike may have done more to show opponents’ weakness than strength inside Nicaragua, and Almagro’s swipe at “liars” – while possibly a reflection of his own personality and personal beliefs – cannot be helping outside. Some of the “liars” that have irritated him may indeed be mere troublemakers or government shills, but any dilution of international interest will be a victory for the government. The Trump Administration, which has pledged regime change in Nicaragua as well as Venezuela and Cuba, has been relatively quiet. Diplomats at the OAS are working hard to muster the four additional votes to reach the 24 necessary to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua, but Ortega seems to think he can end-run a negotiated settlement and undermine his opponents at home and abroad.

May 29, 2019

Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was 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 2017–2018.

Venezuela: Inching Toward Negotiations?

By Fulton Armstrong

A group of Venezuelans protest against International Contact Group for Venezuela. The Venezuelan flag is held in the background as a protester holding a young child looks on.

Community of Venezuelans protest against International Contact Group for Venezuela / https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/montevideo-uruguay-february-8-2019-community-1307825104?src=qNES6S7x3QlbnYg-a1h2wg-1-0 / Shutterstock

As Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó reiterates his welcome to U.S. military intervention, his international supporters – rejecting a military solution – are moving toward promoting a negotiated settlement that would include President Maduro or, in one scenario, a chavista he designates. Guaidó publicly stated this past weekend that he has directed his representative in Washington to meet with the U.S. Southern Command, whose top officer recently said “we’re on the balls of our feet and ready to go,” to discuss “cooperation.” Although the 50-plus countries that recognized Guaidó’s claim as “interim president” in January have not abandoned him, press reports indicate that they are increasingly looking at alternatives to his strategy of instigating the Venezuelan military to overthrow Maduro and, failing that, asking Washington to do so.

  • The failure of Guaidó’s attempted coup in Operación Libertad, on April 30 – after other stalled initiatives over humanitarian aid at the Tienditas Bridge in February and numerous street mobilizations – has dispirited foreign supporters who joined Guaidó’s cause almost four months ago with the expectation that he would replace Maduro within days. Leaders in Latin America and the European Union have repeatedly expressed concerns about senior U.S. officials’ assertion that “all options,” including military action, are under consideration. (Secretary of State Pompeo last week repeated that the United States “will do what’s required.”)

These shifts give momentum to diplomatic initiatives to start and monitor a negotiated internal settlement. Advocates of negotiations, such as Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who last week said the United States was acting “like cowboys,” have begun to push harder.

  • On May 3, the “Lima Group,” including 12 Latin American countries and Canada, called for the first time for broader consultations on initiatives undertaken by the International Contact Group (the ICG, consisting of eight EU countries plus Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Ecuador) and, over the objections of Guaidó’s representative at their meeting, called for dialogue with Cuba to explore ways of ending the crisis. The ICG, meeting on May 7 with the important participation of the Vatican and Lima Group hardliner Chile, agreed to send a “high-level political delegation” to Caracas to discuss “concrete options” with both sides. Soon after, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to urge Havana’s help. (Cuba’s position remains that it would gladly participate if Maduro requested it.)
  • Federica Mogherini, the EU’s chief of foreign affairs, has kept up criticism of Maduro, condemning the arrest last week of National Assembly Vice President Zambrano, but press reports indicate that she’s maneuvering the 28-nation community away from absolute support for Guaidó and toward an inclusive negotiation process that produces a “political solution and early elections.” She has softened her previous demand of Maduro’s departure as a precondition.

The United States still firmly rejects any negotiated settlement, steadfastly repeating that Maduro and the “occupation forces” – Cuba and Russia – must leave Venezuela immediately. But, even if starting a negotiation does not ensure a good settlement, most of the international community is reaching the conclusion that sanctions, such as those that are worsening humanitarian conditions in the country by the day, are increasingly unlikely to produce the desired regime change and stable outcome. Anyone watching Venezuela over the years knows that both the opposition and Maduro (the latter more frequently) have thrown wrenches into past negotiations in belief that they would win a war of attrition. Advocates of a return to negotiations are under no illusion that talks this time will be easy. The U.S. sanctions will soon begin to bite harder, but Guaidó’s stumbles have convinced many that humanitarian suffering does not translate into regime change – and they may even think that now is time to begin using the leverage of sanctions and at least try to get a process going. There are few guarantees in world affairs, of course, but pragmatists seem to be betting that the probability of rescuing Venezuela from an even deeper abyss is greater with negotiations than with more sanctions and rhetoric about military attack.

May 13, 2019

Brazil: Bolsonaro Targeting Political Participation

By Paulo Castro*

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil looking pensive

Jair Bolsonaro / Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom – Agência Brasil / https://flickr.com/photos/129729681@N06/35164638165/ Wikimedia Commons

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – unwilling or unable to engage in the coalition-building necessary to pass legislation – has focused an important part of his first 100 days in office on social policies that he can dominate with executive power while reducing citizen participation in policy formation. Elected in one of the most polarized elections in Brazilian history, Bolsonaro ran a campaign focused on fighting corruption and implementing a market-oriented economic agenda that would lead to GDP growth, with pension reform as its main pillar. His first months have been far from a “honeymoon” with Congress; a wide array of problems add up to a legislative inertia as seldom seen in contemporary Brazil.

  • Lacking a strong base in the House and Senate – and facing dissidence even within his own Partido Social Liberal – Bolsonaro has relied on the risky strategy of ignoring the nature of the Brazilian political system, which includes building support for his agenda in Congress, and is focusing instead on attacking adversaries and what he calls the “ideological agenda” of the Workers Party (PT). Meanwhile, key ministries have yet to announce even general policy goals. The Ministry of Education, which has the second largest budget in the federal government and is responsible for one of the most deficient areas of the country, has been largely silent even though reform of the early education system was one of Bolsonaro’s main campaign promises. The President has issued executive measures, such as the bureaucracy reduction decree this week to help business owners and start-ups, but has introduced no relevant legislative agenda.

Shifting social issues is the one area in which the government is running at full throttle. Social accountability, gender equality, and broader human rights initiatives have experienced budget cuts. Because many PT-era policies were implemented by presidential decree or ministerial order, the Bolsonaro administration can cancel or alter them without Legislative Branch approval. (Many changes in the economic area require amending the Constitution, with a three-fifths majority of both houses of Congress.) Far from the prying eyes of the press and markets, small changes in the government processes threaten to increase the country’s democratic deficit.

  • An executive order signed by Bolsonaro abolished more than 600 civil society participation councils that promoted transparency and accountability by bringing civil society into policy discussions. Bolsonaro has eliminated the National Environment Council, the National Council of People with Disabilities, National Council for the Promotion of LGBT Rights, National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labor, and National Commission for the Eradication of Child Labor, among others. The Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, headed by conservative religious leader Damares Alves, has announced it will limit the number of requests analyzed by its Amnesty Committee, created in 2002 to promote remedial actions for victims of the military dictatorship in Brazil.
  • On the environmental front, conflict between farmers and indigenous people has escalated since Bolsonaro limited the powers of the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI). Along with the National Forest Service, he transferred FUNAIS’s responsibility for the demarcation of new indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is headed by Congresswoman Tereza Cristina, a former leader in agribusiness.

Bolsonaro is trying to appear confident, but the consequences of his inaction on big-picture items such as pension reform – which will affect economic performance and public perceptions of his effectiveness – will reach a point at which his emphasis on social, cultural, and symbolic matters will not be sufficient to maintain his position. By deinstitutionalizing democratic participation on these important social issues, Bolsonaro is further reducing the country’s ability to take up tough issues, such as the priority reforms awaiting Executive and Legislative Branch attention. When it comes to education and health policies, civil society organizations and union representatives have important roles in mobilizing the interests of beneficiaries. While it is natural that opposing governments have opposing political views, Bolsonaro’s actions don’t only reflect policy shifts; they amount to a substantive reduction in accountability and government responsiveness, closing important doors that enable citizens to influence public policy and make political processes more inclusive.

May 3, 2019

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia and professor at the Brasilia Institute for Public Law. He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations. He was a CLALS Research Fellow.

U.S.-Central America: Suspending Aid Won’t Help

By Joseph Wiltberger*

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuni%C3%B3n_Tri%C3%A1ngulo_Norte_con_Vicepresidente_Biden2.jpg / Creative Commons

President Trump’s recent announcement to cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – intended to pressure those governments to stop migrant caravans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border – would suspend and divert an estimated $700 million dollars in funds directed mainly to regional security and economic programs with mixed impacts on migration. A comprehensive impact evaluation of recent U.S. aid to the region has not yet been conducted, so the consequences of this move are open to debate. While some of the aid may help those vulnerable to migration, other allocations to the three countries may be counterproductive to slowing migration.

The three countries have received around $2 billion in aid since 2015, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initially committed Washington’s contribution to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P) in response to a surge in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied minors. The A4P, a document drawn up by the Inter-American Development Bank and the three nations’ governments, has guided most of the U.S.’s strategic aid allocations to the region. The U.S. Congress allocated about $750 million in assistance in fiscal year 2016, $655 million in 2017, and $450 million in 2018. About a third of those funds have been aimed at improving citizen security through support for police, the judicial sector, and violence prevention programs. Roughly another third has been geared toward promoting economic development, and the remainder has been split mainly between anti-corruption efforts and support for military personnel through training and arms to fight drug trafficking and human smuggling.

  • NGOs working with communities susceptible to migration complain that the A4P was drafted by Central American leaders without their input, and that its framework – also reflected in U.S. aid priorities – favors elite business and political interests. It gives tax incentives to foreign investors and, opponents say, makes way for resource extraction, maquilas, and other transnational industries dependent on cheap labor and known to contribute to displacement. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to military and police forces notorious for human rights violations that are rarely prosecuted, a problem that human rights advocates warn endangers citizens and can force more migration.
  • Some of the programs aligned with the A4P, however, grasp the underlying causes of migration from these nations and show how aid can help if properly channeled. They aim to combat corruption and reduce violent crime by improving judicial systems and government transparency, and with community-based violence prevention programs. Many projects – such as initiatives to create economic, extracurricular, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, and grassroots endeavors such as cooperatives of women and small farmers – are led by local organizations with a long-standing track record of effective local work on the ground in marginalized areas. One of the more rigorous impact evaluations to date found that USAID-funded community-based gang violence prevention programs were effective.

President Trump’s announcement to cut aid did not reflect an assessment of its effectiveness but instead appears to be a political maneuver to counter domestic political opponents who support aid and to punish the governments he believes have “set up” migrant caravans and should do more to stop them. Ending assistance doesn’t help. U.S. aid to Central America should be focused on proven ways to improve security and economic conditions and to combat corruption and guard against human rights violations – problems that drive the region’s emigration today. Cutting off aid will not stop caravans and runs contradictory to the A4P’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of migration. It is counterproductive to the current administration’s interests. Aid strategies would benefit from setting U.S. political and business interests aside to instead focus more on measures that effectively fight corruption, protect human rights, and provide support for trusted organizations proven to be effectively creating opportunities and safer communities for those most vulnerable to migration.

April 29, 2019

* Joseph Wiltberger is a cultural anthropologist. He holds appointments as Assistant Professor of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge and as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Cuba: U.S. Sanctions Underscore the Need for Meaningful Reform

By Ricardo Torres*

Cruise ship at Havana Harbor in April 2018/ kuhnmi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Washington’s new measures to tighten the embargo will hurt the Cuban people, especially the private sector, but Havana has little choice but to double-down on reform and make its economy more efficient and independent. Holding Cuba responsible for Venezuela’s resistance to U.S. regime-change policies in that country, and for alleged “acoustic” incidents harming U.S. diplomats in Havana, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton last week announced steps that, taken together, amount to almost full reversal of the engagement that former Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced four and a half years ago, in December 2014.

  • Among key measures is full enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton law of 1996 – ending waivers that three predecessor administrations had invoked – and allowing even Cuban-Americans who were not U.S. citizens at the time to sue companies involved in business dealings (“trafficking”) involving properties nationalized by the Cuban government since 1959. The U.S. officials have also pledged regulations clamping down on remittances to Cuba (which had already been regulated to ensure that senior government officials did not receive them); prohibiting dollar transactions through third-party financial institutions; and stopping “non-family” travel to the island. Details will not be known until the regulations are published, a process that usually takes several months.

The U.S. actions come at a delicate moment for the Cuban economy, will certainly worsen the country’s balance-of-payments situation by increasing the cost of international transactions, and will directly affect key sectors that depend on tourism and remittances.

  • Among the hardest hit will be Cubans engaged in private businesses, who depend on remittances for investment and foreign visitors as customers. At the end of 2018, a little more than 1.4 million formal jobs were in the non-state sector, including the self-employed (cuentapropistas), members of cooperatives, and private farmers – almost equal to the 1.6 million in state enterprises. Many others work in the informal sector to supplement their incomes.
  • The perceived increased risk posed by the U.S. measures will also cause foreign companies to postpone or cancel entirely plans to invest in Cuba.

Trump Administration efforts last year to reverse Obama-era policies, coupled with other challenges – including the weakening of the Venezuelan economy and the shift of a previously key partner like Brazil – are taking their toll on the Cuban economy. In addition, an accumulation of important internal problems has made the country vulnerable. Austerity measures announced as early as in summer 2016, including a reduction in imports and energy rationing in the public sector, have already hurt. Even in the context of a good international environment and improving ties with the United States, the Cuban economy grew slowly over the past decade. The ups and downs in policies dealing with the private sector, agriculture, and in the derailed process of reform in the dominant state sector – as well as setbacks in efforts to attract foreign investment – underscore the economy’s deep structural flaws and damage caused by deficient responses and successive delays.

In these changing times, appeals to “Resist!” are no longer enough. Aggravated by the U.S. measures, the expected worsening of the economic situation will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable of the Cuban people. The external problems could be the argument that the Cuban government needs to push aside obstacles to domestic economic reform. The country has immense internal potential but has been held hostage to the ideological purism that many profess.

  • The government of President Díaz-Canel has already announced new measures to stimulate the development of state enterprises, cooperatives, and the private sector itself. Foreign dependence has proven to be disastrous for Cuba. No foreign power is going to come to resolve the flaws of the Cuban model. Broadening and deepening reform, liberating the domestic productive powers, seems to be the only possible way forward in addition to rethinking international alliances and embracing markets more broadly.

April 23, 2019

*Ricardo Torres is a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Ecuador: Moreno Reverses Another Correa Policy

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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President Lenín Moreno / Flickr / Archivo Medios Públicos EP / Creative Commons

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno’s announcement last week that he had withdrawn diplomatic immunity for Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was long in coming and consistent with his efforts to reverse the excesses of his predecessor, ex-President Rafael Correa. In a three-minute-fifteen-second speech via Twitter, Moreno listed the reasons for his decision: Assange’s disrespectful and aggressive conduct, Wikileaks statements against Ecuador and, above all, Assange’s transgression of “international conventions.” Predictably, Correa, who originally offered the asylum protection, accused Moreno of being “the greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history” who had committed a crime “that humanity will never forget.” Wikileaks accused Moreno of trading Assange to the United States for debt relief. Rhetoric and accusations aside, Assange had long been on shaky ground with the Moreno administration, and recent leaks of the president’s personal information made the decision seemingly inevitable.

  • Correa offered Assange asylum in 2012 to thumb his nose at the United States and contest claims that he did not protect freedom of the press. After Wikileaks leaked hundreds of Democratic Party campaign emails in 2016, he restricted Assange’s internet access at the embassy in London but, for ideological consistency, continued to support his infamous houseguest. Moreno possessed no such ties when he took office in May 2017 and called Assange “an inherited problem.” Assange’s asylum impeded Moreno’s ability to seek greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States.
  • The Wikileaks founder did not seem to understand the significance of this change. Not only was he messy, demanding, and abusive toward embassy staff; he reportedly violated his asylum conditions and, according to Moreno, tried to use the embassy as a “center for spying” – prompting Ecuador last October to impose a protocol regulating his visits, communications, and other matters. The tipping point for the Ecuadorian government was in February, when an anonymous source sent a trove of emails, phone communications, and expense receipts to Ecuadorian journalists, supposedly linking the president and his family to a series of corrupt and criminal dealings, including money laundering and offshore accounts, leading to a corruption investigation by Ecuador’s attorney general. A website also published leaked personal material unrelated to corruption, including photos of Moreno and his family lifted directly from his phone.

Moreno’s decision is unlikely to significantly affect his political capital. Although polls show his approval rating continues to decline as he pursues fiscal austerity policies, public opinion on this issue is likely to split along existing pro-Correa and anti-Correa lines. Further, given that personal information was already leaked, Moreno does not seem to fear potential reprisals from Wikileaks or others for his action. Nor does he appear to harbor additional political ambitions: he has all but ruled out running in the 2021 elections, and his once-dominant Alianza País (AP) party performed poorly in the March 24 regional elections, managing to win a paltry two of 23 governorships and only 28 of the 221 mayoralties. If anything, Moreno should be more worried about the attorney general’s investigation than the fallout from booting Assange.

Little by little in his two years in office Moreno has neutralized Correa’s political power and reversed his predecessor’s policies – often provoking the ex-president (see previous posts here and here). In the last six weeks alone, Moreno announced he would launch an international anti-corruption commission; hosted and expressed his support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, saying that Venezuela and Ecuador “are both on the way out of the abyss in which we were placed: this poorly named 21st century socialism”; and signed a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF – all actions that would have been unthinkable from 2007 to 2017. Ultimately, giving Julian Assange asylum was politically costly and brought no benefits to a government that’s too weak to waste political capital on an international troublemaker. Recent events may have triggered his ouster from the embassy, but the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

* 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.