South America: Is UNASUR Dead?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Three men sit at a table with microphones and two flags behind them.

President pro tempore of UNASUR, Bolivian Foreign Minister Fernando Huanacuni (middle), held a press conference last week to discuss the suspended participation of six member countries. / UNASUR SG / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision of UNASUR’s six center-right members to suspend their participation in the group underscores the immense challenges the regional organization faces but may also lead to its effective reform.  In a letter last Friday to the Foreign Minister of Bolivia, current President pro tempore of UNASUR, his colleagues from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru communicated their decision to suspend participation and budget support for UNASUR immediately.  In the past, single governments have unilaterally withdrawn from a regional organization when they considered it was not serving their interests, but a collective – albeit temporary – exit is unprecedented for an international organization in Latin America.  UNASUR now has only six fully participating members.

  • Although considered by some a left wing organization, UNASUR grew out of an idea that can be traced back to Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first South American Summit in 2000. Institutionalized under the leadership of Presidents Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez in 2008, UNASUR successfully grouped together Bolivarian, center-left, and center-right governments during its first 10 years of existence.  Under the leadership of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, it helped avert a presidential crisis in Bolivia in 2008 and mediated in a conflict between Colombia and Ecuador.  Two years later, it adopted a democracy clause that has been applied once, in Paraguay in 2012.  UNASUR agencies such as the South American Defense Council, the South American Health Council, and the Council for Planning and Infrastructure have enjoyed broad participation and delivered regional public goods.

The six dissenting foreign ministers explained in their letter that their decision was motivated by the “need to solve the anarchy (acefalia) of the organization.”  They referred explicitly to the vacancy of the post of Secretary General since January 2017.  In fact, the organization’s requirement that decisions be by consensus perennially complicates decision-making.  The candidate with majority support – Argentine José Octavio Bordón – was vetoed by Venezuela, which the six believe is in violation of the organization’s democratic commitment.  Venezuela is currently suspended from Mercosur; was not invited to the Summit of the Americas in Lima; and has been singled out by a Resolution of the OAS.  As the application of UNASUR’s democracy clause against President Maduro is also blocked by the consensus rule, the six seemingly had few courses of action to exercise their voice.

  • Some observers say the six– all center-right governments – seek to destroy UNASUR because it is supposedly leftist or Bolivarian. However, the dissenters have not initiated formal procedures to withdraw from UNASUR, which would have de facto started its dissolution.  Indeed, there are different stances among the six signatories of the letter, with some in favor of the dissolution and others in favor of overhauling UNASUR.  The prevailing position seems to be to press the remaining countries, mainly Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, to convince Venezuela to lift its veto of Bordón.

The impasse may provide opportunities to transform UNASUR into a more effective organization.  A first positive indicator has been the political leadership of the Bolivian foreign minister; instead of overreacting to the letter, he has convened all foreign ministers (including the six signatories) to a meeting to solve the impasse.  The Chilean foreign minister and others have urged reform, which in theory could be achieved by introducing a majority-voting mechanism to overcome the sort of deadlocks that hamper the organization.  The risk is obvious:  Bolivia could fail to persuade Maduro to drop his veto, in which case at least a couple of the dissenters would probably withdraw from UNASUR.  Some of these governments have never been enamored with South American multilateralism and believe their interests are best served by cultivating relations with the United States and China bilaterally.  But bilateralism cannot provide regional public goods – such as peace, infrastructure, and economic stability – and hardly ever results in a balanced global economic insertion because it benefits the party in the stronger position.  As several South American countries – including some of the six dissenters – are facing domestic turmoil, breaches of the rule of law, and threats to good governance, a strong regional organization in which all South American states sit as members is more necessary than ever.

April 27, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a former CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

A Summit in Search of the Americas

By Carlos Malamud*

A large round table encompasses a room with various heads of state from the Americas

Last week’s Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. / U.S. State Department / Public Domain

The Summit of the Americas in Lima last weekend has left its organizers and principal participants with a bittersweet feeling, leaning to the bitter.  The absence of Donald Trump, Raúl Castro, and Nicolás Maduro reflects only the existing difficulties.  The bigger problems relate to the impossibility of achieving general consensus about the big hemispheric issues, such as corruption or Venezuela, and – of even greater concern – the lack of clarity and substance of the Latin America policy of the United States.

  • The Summits initially were linked to Washington’s efforts to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but since that project’s failure they have represented the United States’ ongoing interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. That explains why, since the Summit process was created in 1994, no resident of the White House has missed a Summit – regardless of how complicated national and international situations have been.  That was until Donald Trump gave priority to the conflict in Syria over his relationship with Latin American counterparts.

The disturbing thing is not just Trump’s conflict with Mexico, or his hostility toward Cuba and Venezuela.  Neither is the deterioration of the image of the United States in Latin America since President Obama’s term ended.  The fundamental problem is the lack of clear indications from the Trump Administration about its intentions and objectives in the region.  This is the case even with the closest countries.  For example, several South American countries’ exports to the United States could be affected by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.  But no one has clear answers about the policies driving these events, and no one is taking steps to reduce the impact of them or of Washington’s lack of policy.

  • Even though the official theme of the Summit was “Democratic Governance against Corruption,” it was impossible for the participants to go beyond good words and advance any global solutions. Without a doubt, this is good evidence of the weakness of regional integration.  In their Final Declaration, the leaders were unable to include either a condemnation of Venezuela or a call to disregard its Presidential elections on May 20.  Instead, what we got was a statement by the Grupo de Lima plus the United States expressing extreme concern for the situation in Venezuela.  Despite the decline of the Bolivarian project and Maduro’s isolation, Bolivia, Cuba and some Caribbean states dependent for oil on Petrocaribe remain capable of blocking hemispheric consensus.

This probably will not be the last Summit of the Americas, but future of these hemispheric meetings depends in great part on the capacity of the governments in the hemisphere, beginning with the United Sates, to redefine continental relations and find anew the essence of the Americas.  This means more than just responding to the growing Chinese role; it means putting on the table the real problems that affect the continent and going beyond mere rhetoric about them.  For now, with hemispheric relations buffeted by the unpredictable slams issuing in the form of Trump’s tweets, it will be difficult to get there.

April 17, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Will Marielle’s Murder Help Build Consensus on How to Reduce Violence?

By Marcus Rocha*

A woman with a microphone stands in front of a crowd

Marielle Franco campaigning in 2016. / Mídia NINJA / Wikimedia

The murder in March of Marielle Franco – a popular 38-year-old black, gay city councilor in Rio de Janeiro – has stirred outrage across Brazil, but debate over how to increase security has been stifled by political agendas and fake news.  Marielle and her driver were shot dead on March 14 in what press reports characterized as a professional hit job.  Some commentators have speculated it may have been retaliation for her outspoken criticism of the police and military deployments in the cities and favelas.  One of her final posts on Twitter called attention to police violence, citing the case of a young man gunned down by authorities while leaving church.

  • Tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets in Rio and other cities to protest. MC Carol, a black funk singer from favelas near Rio, reflects the popular anger with her immediate hit song entitled “Marielle Franco,” in which she sings:  “You [the system] want to kill us, control us / But you won’t silence us / even bleeding we gonna make it / marching and screaming / I’m Marielle, Claudia, I’m Marisa.”  (Original Portuguese below.)  Claudia and Marisa were women killed during police operations in favelas.

There is no consensus, however, over the meaning of Marielle’s death within a broader agenda of solutions to curb violence in Rio de Janeiro amid an escalation in federal intervention in the state, now entering its second month.  Proponents of President Michel Temer’s push to mobilize the military and other federal assets claim the Councilor’s murder justified the policy.  Opponents argue that Marielle’s assassination and other high-profile murders underscore that the mobilization has not worked, and, indeed, the deaths have fueled widespread skepticism.

  • A poll conducted by Folha de São Paulo newspaper shows these mixed feelings. Seventy-nine percent of interviewees say they support the federal intervention, but 71 percent believe that nothing has changed since it started.  Moreover, 22 percent of people living in affected communities fear the police more than they do drug dealers (16 percent).  Some 15 percent have more fear of milícias– the gangs, which often include former and current police that control much of people’s lives in these communities – and 13 percent of general criminals.  Of those polled, 28 percent say fear all of them equally.  Criminal activities like car theft and robbery have shown no sign of decline.
  • Complicating discussion of Marielle’s murder has been the torrent of fake news about her. Through Facebook pages and Whatsapp messages, far-right groups have spread unsubstantiated allegations that she had links to organized crime.  One Facebook page shows a woman and a man, supposedly Marielle and Marcinho VP, a famous drug dealer, as a couple.  Marco Feliciano, a rightwing preacher turned lawmaker, said during a radio program that Marielle’s death was “just another number” and offered a crude joke.  “They shot a leftist in the head in Rio de Janeiro,” he said.  “It took a week to die because the bullet didn’t find the brain.”  Brazilian justice directed Facebook and YouTube to remove some of the offensive profiles and videos, but fake news is still being shared through social networks.

President Temer’s official announcement that he intends to run for reelection in October deepens the political dimension of his militarized solution to the violence problem.  The federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro has become a key issue on his agenda, but the lack of results is undermining his efforts to shore up his historically low, single-digit approval ratings.  Investigations into Marielle’s murder haven’t identified any suspects yet, and there’s no discussion about changes to security laws or any other measure other than putting more army troops in the streets.  Despite the general outrage, the window for change opened after Marielle’s murder is closing fast.  The Brazilian political system is looking straight to general elections in October, and the speed and depth of the politicization of the assassination, aggravated by fake news, suggest prospects for serious discussion are nil.

[Excerpt from MC Carol’s “Marielle Franco”]

Vocês querem nos matar, nos controlar
Vocês não vão nos calar
Mesmo sangrando a gente vai tá lá
Pra marchar e gritar
Eu sou Marielle, Cláudia, eu sou Marisa

April 5, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a CLALS Research Fellow.

“New Transnationalisms” in Latin American Cinemas

By Dolores Tierney*

Guillermo del Toro speaks on a panel

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who won the Oscar for Best Director last month. / Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

When Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro won the Oscar for Best Director for The Shape of Water last month, it was another example of the “new transnationalism” of contemporary Latin American cinemas.  Working across cultures while preserving his Mexican creative identity, del Toro follows in the footsteps of his compatriots, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Best Director for Birdman in 2014 and The Revenant in 2015) and Alfonso Cuarón (Best Director for Gravity, 2013).  An examination in my recent book of these and three other Latin American directors – Brazilians Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, and Argentine Juan José Campanella – finds that their work is part of a broader shift toward transnational filmmaking: films made in one country produced with capital, creative input, or paradigms borrowed from another, and actors and directors making films in nations other than their own.

  • To a certain extent, Latin American filmmaking has always involved the use of personnel, equipment, and cinematographic styles from Europe and the United States. This comingling has become more radical, however, since the early 1990s, when neoliberal policies in the three major filmmaking nations – Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina – in particular led to a withdrawal of government financial support for the industry.  State-owned film infrastructures, including film institutes, distribution companies, and theater chains, were dismantled.  Production numbers fell from close to 100 annually in each country to less than ten, and Hollywood films increasingly dominated box offices.  In Mexico, government patronage still contributed to Cuarón and del Toro’s first features, respectively Sólo con tu pareja (1991) and Cronos (1993), but large numbers of directors, cinematographers, and actors left to look for work in the United States film industry.

At the turn of the century, however, production shifted toward a new model of transnational production.  Mexican cinema experienced a box office and critical renaissance because deregulation of movie ticket prices encouraged investment in new U.S.-style multiplex theatres situated in upscale shopping malls and neighborhoods.  Among the hits were Amores perros; Y tu mamá también; El crimen del padre Amaro; and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas.  The new multiplex-goers welcomed a range of Hollywood-derived genre films (romantic comedies, teen films), narratives, and practices (tie-in soundtracks) that reflected Mexicans’ own evolving tastes – finding common ground between Mexican and U.S. culture even if, quantitatively, “Hollywood” films still dominated.  In the same general time period, moreover, Mexican state support shifted toward a new model of privately and transnationally financed filmmaking that includes funds from European countries, other Latin American countries, and the United States.  Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro straddled two markets and two cultures, and excelled in both.

  • A similar evolution took place in Argentina and Brazil, with state withdrawal in the early 1990s and then a push to filmmaking in a reformed model of co-production in more recent years. Brazil and Argentina’s most successful domestic films are made with a combination of funds from the state (or state-owned businesses such as Petrobras) and private companies working with foreign partners, such as the Spanish Telefe and U.S.-based Disney affiliate Miravista (in Argentina), and a consortium of foreign firms partnered with Globo in Brazil.

Latin American film critics often lament that the region’s transnationalized cinemas borrow too much from the aesthetic models of the north – the genre templates of the crime film, melodrama, and romantic comedy among others.  But closer analysis shows that, while such artistic appropriation and the international co-producers’ distribution muscle are important, the films’ success also depends on their strong elements of “local exceptionality.”  Transnationally funded artists whose films circulate successfully in Europe and North America have leverage to tackle important sociopolitical aspects of their respective national histories.  Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (La ciénaga, La niña santa, La mujer sin cabeza, Zama) and Peruvian Claudia Llosa (Madeinusa, La teta asustada) are able to get around funding bodies’ prescriptive demands to make films that challenge stereotypes of developing nations.  In his recent Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water, del Toro has made an English-language adult fairy tale with nods to science fiction, spy thrillers, and the musical, but it is much more than a product of U.S. industry.  It is a transnational film that reflects what del Toro refers to as the contradictions of his Mexican identity – a mixing of the “dark” and the “good” – and explores how Latin American and Latinness function in the U.S. political and racial imaginary.  His transnational film doesn’t diminish his Mexican voice; it enhances it.

 April 2, 2018

* Dolores Tierney is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex and former CLALS Fellow.  Her book, New Transnationalisms in Contemporary Latin American Cinemas, was published by Edinburgh University Press last month.