Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.

Mexico: Will AMLO Bring a “Fourth Transformation” or Return to Authoritarian Past?

By Daniela Stevens*

President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Eneas / 500px / Creative Commons

A week before his inauguration, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to stress his commitment to be a “good president” and leader of the country’s “Fourth Transformation,” but some of his early actions suggest that he will challenge political pluralism and destabilize the investment environment.  His sexenio could have a rocky start both politically and economically.

  • AMLO’s handling of a “national consultation” over the ongoing construction of Mexico City’s new international airport – a project that he criticized as corruption-laden – raised red flags about his intended governing style. Most observers say the consultation was unconstitutional and, with only one percent of registered voters participating, inconsistent with the President-elect’s pledge to respect the “people’s will.”  AMLO’s reaction to the criticism – asking “¿quién manda?” (who governs?) – was widely interpreted as a sign that the airport maneuver was not about careful financial planning but rather political power.  He held another referendum last weekend, a “consultation” with citizens on 10 projects on which he seemed to have made up his mind beforehand.  These referendums seem intended to legitimize his intentions and enhance his power.
  • He and his party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena), appear to be moving ahead with plans to increase control over public spending, eroding institutional checks on presidential power. The Morena majority in the Tabasco state congress, for example, last month approved a provision empowering the next governor, also from Morena, to assign public works and acquisitions directly, without public bidding.  If the Supreme Court does not deem the reform unconstitutional, the administration will build a refinery in Tabasco without any review of the integrity of the process.
  • To reduce imports of gasoline and natural gas, AMLO plans to halt oil exports and reserve production for national consumption only, as well as to build a new refinery and modernize six existing ones. Critics say such policies reflect an outdated vision of national sovereignty closely tied to oil, and that they would directly diminish Mexico’s creditworthiness, endanger the finances of state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), and, according to Moody’s, result in a two percent decrease in GDP.  Additionally, oil experts say, the emphasis on refining would detract from important efforts to expand exploration and production.  The country cannot immediately meet domestic demand for crude.  Similarly, the transition team seems to disregard the potential of renewable energies and the need to electrify transportation.

Morena proposals to reduce the autonomy of regulatory agencies are scaring investors as well.  A Morena Congressman, for example, is pushing to incorporate the energy sector’s regulatory agencies into the Secretariat of Energy, subordinating them to greater political control.  Although AMLO did not publicly support the initiative, his appointee as Secretary of Energy, Rocío Nahle, has already asked the director of the National Commission of Hydrocarbons, one of the regulatory agencies, to step down three years ahead of schedule.  Given its debt and deficits, Pemex can ill afford to strain its partnerships with private capital.

It’s too early to assess how many of these actions reflect AMLO’s and Morena’s inexperience or a considered approach to governing, but the incoming leadership so far seems unaware or unconcerned that such measures undercut their stated vision of ushering in a “Fourth Transformation” on a par with the country’s three previous ones – independence (1810–1821), the Reforma wars (1857–1861), and revolution (1910).  The hints of authoritarianism, alongside decisions to appoint single-representatives in the states and to maintain a pervasive military presence in the streets, suggest AMLO’s tenure may indeed transcend history – as a government not different from the priista centralized governments of the 20th century, and the militarized calderonista administration (2006 2012) he vehemently criticizes.  After 1997, when the hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) – from which AMLO had already defected to lead the leftwing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) – lost the majority of the Chamber of Deputies for the first time, political analysts and academics pointed out the disadvantages of divided governments in presidential systems, such as political gridlock.  A unified government under AMLO, however, may not be the answer for Mexico either, unless progressives in Morena committed to democracy and its institutions find a way to restrain his impulses and keep his government on a democratic path. 

November 27, 2018

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

Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez (left) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (right). / República / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his political allies – the group of government officials, congressmen, judges, mayors, and entrepreneurs whom opponents call the Pacto de Corruptos that support his efforts to shut down corruption investigations by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) – may be winning the current battle, but the war is not yet over.  Undoubtedly, the government has achieved some hits, trumpeted by Morales in speeches and in the victory celebrations of the newly elected Congress Directive Board that supports him.  CICIG’s opponents have:

  • Prevented CICIG Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country, even after the Constitutional Court and Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, explicitly stated that he is free to enter whenever he wants.
  • Lobbied in Washington to gain U.S. support for Morales, exploiting access and friendships with U.S. Vice President Pence and other officials close to President Trump such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. They have used the “Bidkov affair” – involving a prosecution instigated by CICIG and the Attorney General’s investigation into the purchase of false Guatemalan identity documents by a Russian family opposed to President Putin – to feed opposition to CICIG.  (Rubio accused CICIG of doing the Russian president’s dirty work.)  Morales and his backers have also used the decision to move the Guatemalan embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other unrelated actions to punch important buttons within the Trump administration.
  • Achieved some progress in swaying Guatemalan public opinion through an anti-CICIG social media campaign aimed at stimulating nationalistic feelings and fueling the view that CICIG Commissioner Velásquez, a foreigner, went too far. They have even raised old Cold War flags, saying that Velásquez is a Communist and that the fight against corruption is a question of “red ideology.”
  • Consolidated their control over the Guatemalan Congress, securing enough votes to reject initiatives that would remove Morales’s immunity and allow investigations against him to proceed.
  • Further strengthened opposition to CICIG among factions of the private sector.

A more careful analysis, however, reveals cracks in Morales’s victory chariot.  He and some of his ministers are not only in grave danger of being charged with disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling; the Attorney General and CICIG have continued their work, albeit with a much lower media profile, and are producing results.  U.S. support for Morales’s efforts to destroy CICIG may diminish after Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives and begin scrutinizing his “impressive” claims about deporting ISIS terrorists from Guatemala and seizing drug shipments.  The U.S. Congress may now uncover an ugly truth: drug trafficking and migrant flows are increasing.

  • More importantly, Morales and his Pacto do not yet appear ready for elections scheduled for June-August 2019. (The new government will take office in January 2020.)  They are floating proposals for a constitutional amendment to allow for a presidential reelection, which would ensure them continued immunity, and to dissolve the Constitutional Court, or to make it a crime to criticize members of Congress.  Measures like these take a lot of time and energy.

The ferocity of Morales’s attacks against CICIG may not be fueled by confidence of victory but rather by a deep and desperate fear of justice after January 2020 – a basic survival instinct of people who know they have crossed a line.  The final outcome of all this will be, as it should, in the hand of voters.  The real issue for Guatemala might not be the fight between Jimmy Morales and CICIG, but rather between the Pacto and the huge number of voters beyond their grasp who are sick and tired of the corruption and impunity.  U.S. policy toward Guatemala has shifted from supporting CICIG and its efforts to investigate corruption and build Guatemalan institutions committed to the rule of law, to turning a blind eye in thanks for an apparently compliant ally and for completely unrelated reasons, such as the location of the embassy in Israel.  While Washington applauds the government’s (still unfulfilled) promises to stanch the northbound flow of migrants, it allows one of the biggest causes of migration – corruption and impunity at all levels of society – to continue unabated.

November 21, 2018

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Bolivia: The Exceptional Case of the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

MAS rally in Bolivia

A rally celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the MAS in Bolivia. / Tercera Información / Wikimedia Commons

Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is one of the most important and electorally successful new parties in Latin America because it has succeeded in achieving and maintaining high levels of internal grassroots participation and bottom-up influence, even after assuming national power.  Unlike the ad hoc electoral vehicles created to sustain the support of a single charismatic leader like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the MAS has maintained autonomous forms of social mobilization by popular constituencies that have contributed to keeping party vibrancy and served as a check on concentrated executive power.

  • A “party of movements,” the MAS began as a largely indigenous coca growers’ union, but after 20 years of existence and more than a decade in power, it still deviates from the conventional wisdom that such parties inevitably become oligarchic in their operation. Compared to most other movement-based parties, the MAS remains responsive to the interests, demands, and preferences of its social bases – propelling its leader, Evo Morales, to the presidency but also, at times, limiting his authoritarian tendencies.  My research, recently published in a book entitled When Movements Become Parties, reveals that Bolivia is a rare example in which a party’s social movement origin not only facilitated party-building but also enabled the party to preserve high levels of grassroots participation in the selection of candidates and the crafting of public policies, with “bottom-up” correctives to hierarchy and concentrated executive authority.
  • While institutional checks and balances can be (and have been) weakened by an ambitious leader like Morales, governing parties more open to bottom-up input preserve opportunities to establish checks on decisions and constrain strategic behavior and hierarchical control. Channels to exert “voice” provide incentives for the social bases to shape important decisions, as these bases become de facto veto actors within the organization.  At the broader regime level, when a governing party establishes and upholds well-developed opportunities for bottom-up grass-roots participation, instances of bait-and-switch policy-making are less likely – a condition conducive to policy stability and ensuring the “continued responsiveness” that is central to democratic representation in between election cycles.  Finally, when governing parties are more open, they may generate opportunities and incentives for the political empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups by boosting the input that those groups have in the political power game.

The MAS has avoided extreme forms of professionalism and “top-down” control.  While the party as a bureaucratic organization remains weak after 20 years, that reality has allowed the social bases to act autonomously and continue to influence, constrain, and hold the party’s leadership accountable.  This has enabled the party to maintain unusually strong ties with the country’s major popular movements, which still provide a formidable mass base and coalition of support.  Today, 12 years after it gained power for the first time, the MAS remains the only truly national party in Bolivia and is that country’s dominant party.  The ongoing strength and relative autonomy of social mobilization in Bolivia not only explains much of the MAS’s continued success but also sets the Bolivian case apart from the Brazilian PT, where social mobilization withered, and from Venezuela under Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, where mobilization is strong but largely controlled from above.

The system is far from perfect.  Poised to seek a fourth term in 2019 after a legally dubious maneuver, polls show that Morales may not be unbeatable.  The party lacks a viable successor, and another reelection can open the door to further abuses and greater personalization of power – all of which can undermine the development of the democratic regime.  This could also atrophy the links between the party and segments of its movement base, a process already under way.  Power is already concentrated in an executive administration that too often treats opponents and the press with raw hostility.  Institutions are inefficient, liberal rights are poorly safeguarded, and courts are feeble and politicized.  Even if checks and balances on presidential authority have weakened, however, autonomous grassroots participation, inclusion, and accountability are highly robust.  Inclusion has created a “new normal” in the Bolivian political arena, with larger numbers of Bolivians enjoying rights of citizenship and greater input into political decision-making and into determining who gets what, when, and how – with the MAS at the center.  Seen from the long arc of Bolivian history, this is an exceptional change in a society characterized by social and political exclusion.

November 14, 2018

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College.  His new book, When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2018), studies the internal politics of Latin America’s three most innovative leftist parties: Bolivia’s MAS, Brazil’s PT, and Uruguay’s FA.

Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (far right) meets with members of the National Assembly in October 2018. / Diego Cevallos / Asamblea Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno begins the post-honeymoon phase of his presidency, he appears firmly committed to positioning himself as a judicious voice and centrist in a region where ideological moderation and restrained oratory are the exception rather than the norm.  This might be unexpected given his political background and four years as vice president under leftist firebrand Rafael Correa (2007-17), but it makes sense given the country’s challenging economic situation and political constraints.  As previously noted, Moreno had two choices when taking office: remain loyal to his socialist roots, govern through his Alianza PAIS legislative bloc, and double down on Correa’s (fiscally unsustainable) “Citizens’ Revolution;” or move towards the political center, splinter his legislative majority, and abandon Correa and many of his policies.  He has decisively opted for the latter, attempting to navigate a middle ground between the left and the right.

  • No issue depicts the thin line Moreno walks more than Ecuador’s foreign policy, and no foreign policy issue reflects that tug-of-war better than his handling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assangeto whom Correa granted asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Londonis now a costly and increasingly undesirable houseguest.  He is a liability in Moreno’s quest for technical assistance, international loans, and greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States, which is still seeking justice for Wikileaks’s publication of U.S. classified material.  Although Moreno has called Assange “more than a nuisance” and “an inherited problem,” the president has been reluctant to push him out over concern for his human rights.  In July, Moreno suggested Ecuador was seeking guarantees that Assange would not face the death penalty.  Maintaining its delicate dance, however, in October, the government broke from its longstanding dialogue with British authorities over Assange’s situation and announced that it will no longer pay for his food and medical care.
  • Ecuador is also seeking closer relations with its right-of-center neighbors, beginning to distance itself from the region’s leftist governments, and attempting to rebuild ties with the United States. Since June, Moreno has attended the inauguration of Colombian President Iván Duque, met with Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, welcomed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Quito, and launched a security agreement with Washington.  Moreno has also changed his tone with regards to Venezuela.  Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, he spoke of the burden caused by arrival of more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day and called for a national dialogue in that country, provoking an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two capitals that culminated in the Ecuadorian government tweeting that “corrupt, murderous, and lying socialism of the 21st century is still alive in Venezuela and producing the most massive migration in the country’s history.”

Moreno’s strategy to confront the country’s fiscal deficit, which was 5.5 percent of GDP in 2017, is an even greater departure from his predecessor’s approach.  Whereas Correa pursued financing primarily through oil-for-loan deals from China after Ecuador’s selective default in 2008, Moreno has turned to other global lenders such as the World Bank and Japan.  He has also pursued new commercial relationships and market-friendly policies, including a free trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association, beginning accession talks with the pro-market Pacific Alliance, and continuing to encourage foreign investment in Ecuador’s hydrocarbon industry.  However, Moreno has not fully committed to Washington consensus-style reforms: the government announced measures in August to reduce its $60 billion debt, but it also authorized over $1.2 billion in loans to the housing sector, agriculture, and small and medium-sized business to reactivate the domestic economy.

Although not an ideological rightist like Chilean President Sebastián Piñera or Colombian President Iván Duque, Lenín Moreno has reoriented many of Rafael Correa’s domestic and foreign policies out of necessity as he confronts Ecuador’s difficult economic situation.  Given that the country’s fiscal deficit and outstanding debt are strategic challenges, it seems likely that he will continue to judiciously tread this middle path.  Although fiscal austerity measures have lowered Moreno’s approval rating and provoked protests from the Correista left, it would be a mistake to bet against him.  Moreno has not only upended expectations but also proven far more resourceful and politically sophisticated than his critics—and probably even his admirers—expected.  He may also send Julian Assange at some point an eviction notice.

November 6, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.  The views expressed here 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.