Latin America: Will WTO Agreement on Fishing Rein in China’s Illicit Practices?

by Mateus Ribeiro da Silva*

Chinese squid jiggers docked in Montevideo’s harbor / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons license

China’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet is the worst of various engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing along South American coasts, but Beijing may be shifting toward supporting a new World Trade Organization agreement that would limit such practices.

  • China has acknowledged having 3,000 ships in its DWF fleet, but studies by various experts, including the Stimson Center and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), estimate the number to be between 10,000 and 16,000. China’s fleet accounts for about 38 percent of all fishing on the high seas and in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Ships from Taiwan are responsible for another 21.5 percent, and Japan, South Korea, and Spain each represent about 10 percent of DWF efforts. DWF ships usually hover outside EEZs but frequently turn off location devices to enter them undetected.
  • Although China’s most egregious IUU practices are around Africa and Southeast Asia, experts say the impact in Latin America is significant – an estimated $2.3 billion a year (see July 21 AULABLOG). Hundreds of Chinese fishing ships operate off the coasts of Central America, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina practically year-round. DWF vessels fish for varieties of squid, tuna, shark, rays, and other species. Oceana, an ocean conservation NGO, says they fish along Argentina’s EEZ for the indigenous shortfin squid, a catch worth almost $600 million USD annually. In addition to turning off their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to operate clandestinely in EEZs, the vessels fish close to protected areas, such as near the Galapagos Islands, and capture – on purpose or in bycatch – endangered species, such as certain sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, and billfish. In 2020, a large Chinese fishing armada just off the Galapagos clocked a combined 70,000 hours of fishing in one month.

Because implementation of existing agreements has been chronically weak, the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiated an innovative trade-based agreement to reduce subsidies to DWF fleets that are causing such economic and environmental harm. Approved in June after 20 years of effort, the Agreement on Fisheries prohibits certain subsidies to IUU fishing, further depletion of current overfished stocks, and fishing outside a member’s regional fisheries organization jurisdiction.

  • Critics are concerned about loopholes that could allow developed nations (including China) to continue current practices, but environmental NGOs hailed the arrangement as a significant first step towards a more sustainable blue economy. It will enter into force when two-thirds of WTO members deposit their instruments of acceptance.
  • In addition to attacking subsidies, the agreement bars fishers from operating outside their own EEZ or in areas overseen by a Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO) in which their port state or flag state is not a member. For their vessels to operate in South American waters, for example, national governments would need either local-access agreements, in the case of national EEZs, or to be members of regional RFMOs. This may encourage countries to join more RFMOs and could, optimistically, contribute to more consensual, negotiated regulation of fishing on the high seas. Governments will have recourse to WTO dispute settlement procedures when harmed by IUU practices.

Chinese support for the WTO agreement and faithful implementation would be major steps toward reducing IUU fishing and providing relief to Latin American coastal countries. Beijing provides its DWF fleets with the greatest subsidies – estimated by Oceana in 2018 to reach $5.9 billion a year (amounting to 38 percent of subsidies provided by the “big ten” subsidizing countries).

  • After years of reservations with the agreement – insisting that it should enjoy the benefits available to developing countries – Beijing now seems to be supporting it. Shortly before WTO approval in June, Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said, “China has taken a constructive part in fisheries subsidies negotiations and supports an early agreement so as to implement the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
  • If China does sign, confidence that it will comply with the agreement will be initially weak. Observers are concerned that the opaque web of relationships between government and business in China will make detecting subsidies difficult. Practices that China has relied on in the past, such as fuel tax supports, are still permissible under the agreement. Shedding its scofflaw image will take time. In early July, just weeks after the WTO agreement was announced, Uruguayan authorities seized a Chinese vessel carrying more than 11 tons of hidden squid, a clear indication of IUU fishing. Although probably not fished after the accord was announced, the squid illustrate that it is still an open question whether China will break old habits and curb the predatory practices of its voracious DWF fleet.

August 30, 2022

*Mateus Ribeiro da Silva recently completed his Master’s in Global Governance, Politics, and Security in the School of International Service. This article draws on research he performed as a Research Assistant for a CLALS project on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

El Salvador: Young Women and Mothers Lack Opportunities after Incarceration

By Carina Cione*

Volunteers from Glasswing International and the U.S. Embassy paint a local library / U.S. Embassy in El Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Incarcerated young women in El Salvador face immense obstacles to creating new lives for themselves after release from detention, but programs to empower them offer a glimmer of hope. Interviews conducted as part of the CLALS-FLACSO Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project have documented the challenges facing young Salvadoran women and provide strong evidence that others throughout Latin America face similar situations.

  • The stigma of a criminal past compounds the systemic exclusion young Salvadoran women often face before arrest just for being from high-crime neighborhoods. Previous offenders who lack support face dismal job prospects. The Vidas Sitiadas reports, which also examined conditions in four other countries, indicate that access to the formal job market is extremely limited; employers turn down job applicants with criminal records. Becoming a student can be just as difficult since universities have the right to refuse admission based on criminal histories. The period of “re-entry” is stressful and lonely as women strive to re-build healthy relationships, establish and maintain financial independence, secure healthcare, and recover from their potentially traumatic incarceration experiences.
  • The problem has surged over the last two decades, as rates of imprisonment in Latin America have risen dramatically, with mass incarceration increasingly impacting women. In El Salvador, since President Nayib Bukele launched a crackdown on gangs in 2019, the number of inmates has since skyrocketed (50,000 just since late March), according to UN experts, human rights agencies, and press reports. The government provides free tattoo removal services for former gang members seeking to break ties with their past, but attention to reintegration programs and post-release services to equip previous offenders with coping skills has been negligible. 

Nonetheless, Vidas Sitiadas and other studies have identified programs for released prisoners that, while still in relatively early phases, appear promising. Two examples in El Salvador:

  • Glasswing International runs the Club de Niñas, in collaboration with prison authorities in San Salvador, for young women in detention facilities or those who are recently released who want to overcome sociocultural barriers to independence. The three-year-old program teaches strategies for surviving traditional gender roles and expectations, healing trauma in a safe space, and breaking out of the conditions and mindsets that led them to criminality. Researchers working with Glasswing found that all of the women serving criminal sentences had suffered repeated episodes of violence beginning in childhood – neglect, abuse, sexual violence, exposure to community violence, parental alcohol abuse, and parental fighting. Many had fled their dangerous home environments at a young age and joined gangs, which provided them with basic necessities, a steady income, and protection – but also subjected them to physical and psychological abuse. The Club encourages them to feel a frisson of optimism for the first time in their young adulthood.
  • Yo Cambio, a four-year-old program run at various Salvadoran prisons, teaches craftsmanship skills to hundreds of inmates that they can use to secure a job upon release. It builds “peaceful co-living” in prison and offers free tattoo removal services for former gang members seeking to break ties with their past. To join the initiative, the inmates have to demonstrate that they practice “positive mindsets” and exhibit wanting to change before joining. 

Programs like these can point to preliminary indicators of success in at least some facilities. Young women interviewed by Vidas Sitiadas valued the safe place that Club de Niñas gave them for honest conversation and building stronger senses of community and self-worth. They underwent skills training to strengthen their likelihood of securing employment post-release, which in turn also helps secure their safety from past abusers. The interviews also show that participants are embarking on a process of developing new prosocial identities, reflecting a desire to engage in positive relationships, and trying to break with past attitudes of rebellion. Mothers promised to try to be better for their children.

Adjustment back into society for previously imprisoned people is anything but simple. The UN General Assembly in 2010 approved a resolution on the treatment of women who are in prison and have been released – called “The Bangkok Rules” – that specifies that they must be provided comprehensive re-entry support by social welfare services, local organizations, and probation authorities. Adherence to such guidelines has not been the norm in El Salvador. The systemic barriers to former prisoners becoming successful members of society remain.

  • Efforts like those identified by Vidas Sitiadas are premised on the hope that progress is possible even if locally and incrementally, but society-level outcomes will change only after broader obstacles to successful reintegration, such as geographic exclusion, are resolved. Studies show that, when re-entering into unchanged social and economic conditions, most previous offenders resort to familiar criminal behavior and fall back into dangerous social circles to meet their basic needs. They also lack accessible mental healthcare to help them grapple with trauma experienced before and during incarceration. But, while programs like Club de Niñas and Yo Cambio alone can’t solve such deep-rooted problems for everyone, they improve individual lives and are proof of concept that, if embraced by political leaders, could have a broader impact. 

August 25, 2022

*Carina Cione is Program Coordinator at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. For additional information about the project undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

OAS Continues to Dodge Accountability for Actions in the 2019 Bolivian Election

By Francisco Rodríguez and Jake Johnston*

A march in favor of Evo Morales / Santiago Sito / Flickr / Creative Commons license

The failure of the Organization of American States (OAS) to explain false claims of fraud it made during the Bolivian elections in 2019 – allegations that played a key role in the military ouster of President Evo Morales – continues to fuel doubts about its ability to monitor elections fairly and objectively.

  • Shortly after Bolivian electoral authorities announced preliminary first-round results showing that Morales had surpassed the 10 percentage point margin of victory necessary to avoid a runoff, an OAS electoral observation mission released a statement expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in trend.” It said the updated vote count “drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” An audit report later published by the OAS claimed to uncover evidence of “a massive and unexplainable surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count” without which Morales would not have crossed the 10 percent margin. 
  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro publicly supported the Bolivian Army’s decision, after three weeks of civil protests, to coerce Morales and much of his government into resigning, paving the way for a caretaker government of questionable legitimacy. Almagro stated that “Yes, there was a coup d’état in Bolivia; it occurred on the 20th of October when electoral fraud was committed.” He said, “The Army must act in accordance with its mandate. No one has exceeded their power so far.” 

The OAS has not responded to requests for information about its analysis. Academic and media studies, however, have shown that the OAS analysis was marred by incorrect methods, coding errors, and misrepresentation of results. In a peer-reviewed paper forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Nicolás Idrobo, Dorothy Kronick, and Francisco Rodríguez (a co-author of this post) show that, rather than “inexplicable” as the OAS alleged, the final results were predictable. They identified mistakes that, if corrected, would have erased the alleged “surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count.”

  • The “change in trend” the OAS claimed to have identified was essentially a matter of votes from certain geographic areas being processed and counted before votes from other areas that were more favorable to Morales. The OAS finding was due to a statistical method that misrepresents data at the “breakpoint” at which fraud is tested for. 
  • When it released its final audit a month after the election, the OAS claimed it confirmed evidence of fraud, but it did not reveal that its calculation excluded the last 4 percent of tallies. These votes were presumably the most likely to be tampered with, but they were among the less pro-Morales. If included, there is no “break in trend” as alleged.
  • Research by David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that a coding error caused the OAS to incorrectly sort time stamps by alphabetical instead of chronological order. An earlier CEPR study showed that the OAS audit withheld information from its comparison of physical vote tallies with those in the online database that did not support the allegations of fraud. 

These mistakes would have likely been identified rapidly by experts had the OAS followed basic standards of transparency. The OAS’s lead researcher has acknowledged at least some of these mistakes, but the flawed analysis remains on the OAS website, and the OAS has not issued a retraction nor amended the sections of the report that present the incorrect results. Mexico and Argentina have tried to discuss the issue within the organization, but Almagro’s office has refused to address the rebuttals. 

  • In March, the U.S. Congress, which provides the majority of the OAS’s budget, passed language in an omnibus spending package that requires the State Department to consult with independent experts and produce a report on the “legitimacy and transparency” of the 2019 Bolivian election within 120 days. The report, due last month, is expected to address the role of the OAS in that election.

OAS technical experts and political leaders’ role in what amounted to a military coup against a democratically elected president has raised questions about their competence and commitment to the democratic values the organization espouses. Errors in coding and calculations may have been merely technical, but political interference cannot be ruled out without a proper investigation. The Secretary General’s explicit support for the removal of Morales was clearly a political decision. 

  • With threats against democratic processes intensifying in many countries, the need for truly independent and neutral observer missions has never been greater. The lack of OAS accountability in Bolivia opens the door for others in the region to levy false allegations of electoral fraud in hopes of receiving international support.  

August 18, 2022

*Francisco Rodríguez is a visiting senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, and Professor at the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. Jake Johnston is a Senior Research Associate at CEPR. 

Cuba: Is the Economic Crisis Prompting Meaningful Reform?

By Ricardo Torres*

Cuban flag jigsaw puzzle / Yasiel Scull / Pexels / Creative Commons license

The economic measures that the Cuban government recently announced may help on the margins with the country’s deepening economic crisis, but they are short-term fixes with potential downsides and, yet again, fall far short of the comprehensive reforms needed for significant growth. 

  • The country’s economic troubles are alarming. While inflation officially clocked in at 77 percent in 2021, the GDP price index – a broader measure of price dynamics – suggests an increase of 500 percent, which is more consistent with partial data from informal retail vendors and anecdotal evidence. [The preceding sentence was updated on August 11 to reflect new information.] Skyrocketing prices coincide with shortages of practically all goods and services; long lines to buy basic goods; and rapidly expanding blackouts. After a brief rise in May, the Cuban Peso continues to depreciate. 
  • Small but growing numbers of public protests and sustained, strident criticism on social media indicate a notable drop in popular confidence that the authorities can deal with this crisis. As it has expanded electricity rationing, the government has warned that it does not have a short-term solution. The devastation at the Matanzas Supertanker Base will surely be another setback to energy supply shortages and the broader economy. The health system lacks essential medications and supplies, and officials have acknowledged that they lack resources to deal with an infestation of mosquitos responsible for the rapid spread of dengue. 

To respond to some of the more important economic problems, the government announced a series of measures during the National Assembly sessions in late July. Most of the steps are aspirational rather than concrete changes in economic policy, and are aimed at the short-term crisis. The government is reopening a formal market where people can sell hard currency (although they cannot yet buy it); moving to adopt new regulations to open up foreign investment in private companies; and – if the statements are to be believed – probably will implement a program to reduce the fiscal deficit. 

  • Details are lacking, but some aspects of the measures could actually worsen the crisis. The announcement that the exchange market will start with only the state as purchaser of hard currency, offering a rate similar to that in the informal markets, entails significant risks. To stabilize a market, transactions have to go both ways, or else people will continue to buy currency at higher prices on the street – fueling its depreciation. The use of the hard currency market to finance the economy reflects the decline in productive capacity on the island, and the purchase of dollars without increasing the supply in Pesos is frankly inflationary. The most impoverished sectors will not receive relief from this step.
  • With regard to foreign investment, the dominant tendency has been to try to reproduce for private companies an operating framework similar to that of state enterprises. If the Cuban state hopes to give potential investors confidence by using, for example, investment mechanisms like its own, with unclear policies for approving projects, or with extended delays for approval of investments, it will be repeating the same errors as in the past. 

Even if robustly implemented, the measures are at best focusing on the symptoms of the economic crisis, while the short- and long-term real causes remain unaddressed. The ongoing recessive cycle is taking place in the middle of an international situation that is adverse for small countries dependent on imported energy and food, such as Cuba. The island is particularly vulnerable to a context featuring dramatic effects of the pandemic, the Venezuelan crisis, the war in Ukraine, and continued U.S. sanctions. But neither is the government showing resolve to fix the systemic problems rooted in the Cuban economic model itself. 

  • Recycling measures implemented in the 1990s, such as the hard-currency market, will have limited effectiveness. Cuba’s economy operates against a backdrop of structural problems that Cuban leaders have dodged for decades because of the social and political costs of a serious adjustment, ideological dogmatism in economic policy, and for many years the existence of external allies that could “pay the bill” of inefficiencies of the system. 
  • The government perceives that the United States and some groups in the country will take advantage of any change that transforms the distribution of power. That logic is understandable, as is Cuban leaders’ preference for stability over radical reform. They remember well the lessons of uncontrolled perestroika. But they must find a middle-ground between micro-measures of little strategic value and potentially destabilizing change. They can tone down their ideological statements and media wars, and surround themselves with a competent economic policy team to draw up a roadmap for long-term reform. Compared to clinging to empty promises of reform, that approach would potentially help them find some allies and recover the confidence of its citizens and, no less important, recover social peace. Without a strategic plan, as various Communist Party resolutions have warned over the years, the problems will multiply over time, as they have since 1990.

August 9, 2022

*Ricardo Torres is a CLALS Research Fellow.

Latin America: Violence Against Young Women Worsened During COVID-19

By Carina Cione*

Young women gathering together in Cali, Colombia / Universidad del Valle / Creative Commons license

A research and practice-oriented initiative coordinated by la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) of Costa Rica has confirmed that the harmful impact of systemic violence and marginalization on the lives of vulnerable women in Latin American cities has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vidas Sitiadas (Besieged Lives) project corroborated widespread anecdotes about the depth of the vulnerability of young women and mothers to gender-based violence, intimidation, and discrimination – in both public and private spaces – in the region. Women are targeted by gangs in their communities, and by masculine family members or partners behind closed doors in their homes. Often merely because of the neighborhoods in which they live, they suffer from systemic exclusion – shunned by society and excluded from much of their countries’ economic, social, and political lives.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project found that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems. State-imposed quarantine measures confined families to close living quarters, and the burdens on mothers and sisters to keep the home running and to care for the ill multiplied. Loss of family income brought stress and conflict more deeply into homes, worsening already-unstable family dynamics.
  • The pandemic also reduced women’s economic independence. In 2020 and 2021, opportunities to earn money on the formal and informal market evaporated. Neighborhoods are less safe, and traveling through gang-controlled areas in Latin America poses increasing dangers for young women. Of 21 young mothers interviewed by FLACSO-Argentina, only 10 had remained employed during the first years of the pandemic. Most had low incomes and were unable to work remotely, which led them to financially depend upon others to make ends meet. That dependence on male family members, partners, and exes led to greater manipulation and exploitation than before 2020.

Through hundreds of interviews and survey responses, project researchers documented that violence, more than any other underlying factor, is what causes the sensation of living a vida sitiada – a life under siege. Across all five country reports, the majority of young women reported being witnesses or victims of abuse in the home as children, which they said had a “very radical impact” on their daily lives. Many were cared for by mothers or grandmothers who were abused and then, in turn, engaged in physical or psychological abuse of them. A large portion of participants’ fathers were absent. Sexual abuse was common, and some women had even witnessed gang-related homicides of family members.

  • Robbery and sexual violence, including harassment, aggressive touching, and rape, in public spaces are frequent phenomena for women. These crimes often force them to avoid certain parts of their own neighborhoods, to forgo essential travel outside the home, and to severely curtail social contact, thus hindering their ability to develop support networks. The Vidas Sitiadas studies reveal even tougher circumstances during COVID-19. In a survey by Universidad del Valle, half of low-income young women said that their communities in Cali, Colombia, have become more violent since 2020. They avoid spending time outside of their homes, especially in the early morning hours, but 15-20 percent still feel “very unsafe” on the street in the afternoons and early evenings. This limits their ability to cultivate personal connections and impedes their financial independence.
  • Traveling to work is also a risk. Espacio Público, a think tank, and Arbusta, an information technology company in Santiago, Chile, found that 30 percent of young women who commuted in the first years of the pandemic had experienced intimidation or abuse on their way to work. A third of these women face travel times of 60-90 minutes each way – a long time, especially in a vehicle in which passengers do not feel safe. Women who cannot reach their jobs safely either decide to quit or learn a trade they can master in the safety of their homes.

In addition to death, disease, and economic challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed and even reversed progress some Latin American societies had been making, if haltingly, toward updating gender roles and reducing stigmas pertaining to women’s place in society. In some sectors, it has contributed to the re-normalization of violence in the daily lives of women and girls by making many neighborhoods less safe and putting extraordinary stress on families. Women’s exclusion has deepened as COVID-19 has erased their access to jobs and the stigma of being from dangerous neighborhoods further reduces their prospects.

  • The Vidas Sitiadas project, coordinated by La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada, examines several efforts launched in recent years to begin addressing the underlying systemic causes of the challenges facing young women in these societies. They focus on giving them a chance to get a job, to learn work and personal skills, and to build the personal confidence to improve their lot. Advocates face the usual obstacles to calls for resources to address the big problems, including systemic economic inequity, the epidemic of social violence, and the residual culture of gender discrimination. But the Vidas Sitiadas initiatives have demonstrated that at least modest steps can be made to help women overcome the violent and manipulative environments in which they live.

August 4, 2022

*Carina Cione is Program Coordinator at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. For additional information about the project undertaken by FLACSO-Costa Rica and its partners, please consult the Vidas Sitiadas website.

Chile: Constitutional Process Has Settled Little

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Demonstrators in Santiago, Chile call for a new constitution / www.jpereira.net / Creative Commons license

The Chilean Constitutional Convention handed its proposed draft to President Gabriel Boric on July 4 – in preparation for the “exit” referendum on September 4 that will approve or reject country’s new magna carta – but it hasn’t achieved the national unity, social cohesion, or popular support envisioned when 78 percent of Chileans voted for the convention in 2020.

Historical center-left leaders are publicly supporting the nay option, and opinion polls show support is declining.

  • Former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Talge (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat who played a key role after the Pinochet dictatorship, has urged rejection because he sees “insurmountable disagreements with contents [of the draft] that compromise peace, democracy and the prosperity of our country.” He said the proposed reduction in presidential power and creation of an omnipotent new Senate could lead to dangerous populism. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) has not rejected the draft, but he has pulled back from his expected endorsement of it – a blow to the Boric government strategy for approval.
  • Leading opponents of the Pinochet-era Constitution, including former senior government officials, have criticized the proposed replacement, writing that “the electoral system is distorted with reserved seats, which reminds us of the institutional [appointed] senators of Pinochet’s Constitution.” Like Frei, they believe that the proposed system would incite conflict rather than cooperation.
  • The eight most reliable polls in the country show likely yay votes for the draft are dropping – from around 50 percent in February to about 35 percent this month. Nay votes rose from a third to roughly 50 percent in the same period. Activa Research has found that 62 percent reject the draft, while 38 percent approve of it. The 30 percent who were “undecided” last month has dropped to 20 percent, with most now rejecting the draft.

Five major factors – not all of which are the Constitutional Convention’s fault – appear to be driving this shift.

  • The Convention majority rejected pleas for greater fiscal responsibility as it wrote in a series of expensive new entitlements and nationalizations. Sponsors’ reactions to the criticism also alienated voters by saying “you stand with us, or you stand with Pinochet’s dictatorship.”
  • Favoritism and strident ideological positions undermined consensus. Most of almost 80 percent of Chileans who voted for the constitutional process in 2020 believed the new Constitution would be, for good, a “casa de todos” in terms of the social contract. The tense and confrontational debate during the process and its outcomes establishing group rights rather than universal policies let them down. 
  • Economic uncertainty since the social upheaval of 2019 – aggravated by the COVID‑19 pandemic and war in Ukraine – has undermined popular support as well. Inflation has risen steadily, and the Chilean peso has plunged to a historical low.
  • People feel insecure. The government’s performance in managing crime, drug trafficking, and the armed conflict in the south of the country against Mapuche extremist factions has not been satisfactory. Boric’s emphasis on a negotiated settlement has failed and may have worsened the problem.
  • Approval for Boric, sworn in less than five months ago amid great expectations, dropped to 34 percent this month, the lowest of his mandate. Poor communications have pushed the First Lady (who serves as head of Sociocultural Coordination) and Minister of Interior Izkia Sichesto to have the lowest approval ratings of the cabinet. Although Boric has repeatedly denied that his administration backs the yay option, his General Secretary of the Presidency affirmed earlier this year that Boric’s program requires the new Constitution to be approved.

No matter how the plebiscite on September 4 turns out, the Constitutional process now appears far from ending – and threats to political stability seem likely. If Chileans approve the draft, both sides will seek significant changes. If they reject it, changing the 1980 Constitution will still be essential to avoid tumult in the streets like rocked the country in 2019. Boric recently suggested starting a new Constitutional process from scratch, fueling further uncertainty.

  • While frustrations appear likely to grow and the chance of instability is not negligible, the Constitutional Convention process has shown that – so far – Chilean institutions have been able to maintain Rule of Law. Compared to Venezuela (1999), Bolivia (2006), and Ecuador (2007-08), Chile has followed an open and relatively stable track. But if the plebiscite does not deliver a clear, workable verdict in September, the country will again be at a crossroads – either build on what it’s accomplished since 2019 or try to start anew.

July 27, 2022

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

Latin America-Caribbean: Illicit Fishing is Environmental Security Challenge

By A.J. Manuzzi*

The Ecuadorian naval vessel, LAE Island San Cristobal / Defense Visual Information Distribution Service / Creative Commons license

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and associated crimes are undermining coastal communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean – hurting the economic wellbeing of licit fishers and reducing coastal and ocean biodiversity, fish stocks, and food security. The EU and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have made ending IUU fishing a priority because it contributes to overfishing, enables labor abuses, and violates international norms on sovereignty and biodiversity.

IUU fishing comprises a diverse slate of illicit acts, including foreign vessels fishing in another country’s sovereign waters without permission; disregard for international environmental laws; and inadequate catch reporting to state authorities. Illicit actors include large distant-water fleets (DWFs) backed by states like China, Taiwan, and Japan as well as individual locally based artisanal vessels with small crews. 

  • Latin America represents only 2.1 percent of global aquaculture production, but its losses to IUU fishing – losses that experts estimate to be $2.3 billion a year – make it the third-hardest hit continent. According to a 2020 study by the Fisheries Economics Research Unit and the Sea Around Us organization at the University of British Columbia, income losses are as high as $600 million, and tax revenue losses are as high as $300 million dollars, with the other $1.4 billion owing to the general redirection of catches from legitimate to the illicit seafood trade.
  • Costa Rica has seen by-kill of young fish from the use of illegal nets as well as incursions by illegal fishermen in its offshore national parks. Until recently, Ecuador faced a flotilla of as many as 340 Chinese vessels catching and storing marine life around the Galapagos Islands. In Jamaica, depleted seafood stocks have pushed local fishers into deeper waters, where there is a risk of collision with IUU fishers searching for diminishing sources of conch and lobster. In Suriname, IUU fishers have been known to steal the nets of domestic fishers.

IUU fishing often involves forced labor and other crimes, further harming coastal communities and billions of people worldwide whose economies and diets are tied to fish. By undercutting legal market prices, it threatens the livelihood of licit fishers who pay fair wages and don’t have the same technological advantages. 

  • Overfishing reduces supplies for local communities. The FAO estimates that total fish consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean will increase 33 percent by 2030 (more than any other region). Overfishing by IUU actors has already forced the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to increase imports of fish and seafood and impose new catch quotas that, when expanded in other countries, would likely affect the more than 3 million people in the region who work in fishing or aquaculture.
  • Related crimes are committed by artisanal fishers operating in coastal waters, where they illegally harvest seaweed, pursue endangered species, fish in the off-season, or engage in smuggling; domestic industrial fishers who misreport catches; and DWFs that use flags of convenience to trick authorities. 
  • IUU fishers threaten biodiversity because they are heavily skewed toward immediate predation, with little concern for the long-term economic impact and environmental costs. They also complicate states’ fishery sustainability efforts, making implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate IUU fishing fall far behind. In addition, shark finning is prominent in Costa RicaEcuador, and Chile despite domestic and international laws against it. Nine of the 12 shark species found aboard a Chinese IUU freighter off Ecuador in 2017 were endangered. 

The regulatory frameworks for fighting IUU fishing are weak; enforcement tools are lacking; and most countries lack the resolve to address the problem. The current international framework includes a hodgepodge of international and national agreements and initiatives, without the active engagement of many of the world’s largest fishing nations. 

  • The cornerstone is the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which binds signatories to reduce illicit fishing by denying IUU fishing vessels access to port services and to lessen access of illicit catch to international markets. International bodies such as the FAO provide tools for tracking vessels, but regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and advocacy groups like Oceana say that there is only limited sovereign commitment to the rules. Some of the most seriously affected countries are those with the fewest resources to combat the problem.

The combination of IUU fishing and related crimes, such as labor abuses and copy-cat practices by local fishers, pose threats to national economies, food security, and ultimately regional stability. What’s needed is obvious: enhanced monitoring, control, and surveillance capacity; updated legal instruments and increased judicial sanctions; and more resolute multilateral action on fishing subsidies and ocean protection. One question is whether the victims of IUU fishing themselves can muster the national and regional resolve to address the problem – sacrificing the short-term gain of permissiveness for the long-term goal of protecting strategic interests. Without that resolve, Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to be victimized by IUU fishing and the inequality, labor abuses, resource exploitation, and violations of national sovereignty it enables.

July 21, 2022

*A.J. Manuzzi is a Master’s student in International Affairs in the School of International Service. This article draws on research he performed as a Research Assistant for a CLALS project on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Argentina: From Bad to Worse?

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentina’s new Economy Minister, Silvina Batakis / Government of Argentina / Creative Commons license

Argentina’s mismanagement of fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies – and its business-unfriendly, interventionist policies destructive of investor confidence – have delivered an increasingly unpopular mix of economic stagnation and accelerating inflation. While the government most likely will muddle through until the next national elections in October 2023, there is a non-negligible risk that remaining public confidence could collapse and lead to uncontrolled inflation, deepening recession, social unrest, and even the resignation of President Alberto Fernández.

  • By early 2021, the Argentine economy had already recovered from the 15 percent drop in real GDP caused by the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020. That was a relatively easy feat because the economy was already in a recession; real GDP in the first quarter of 2020 stood 11 percent below that in the fourth quarter of 2017. So far this year, the pace of economic activity has remained below that 2017 peak, and it has started to drop some more, with the latest consensus forecast projecting GDP declines in the second and third quarters, followed by stagnation in the fourth trimester.
  • Inflation has accelerated from a yearly average pace of under 50 percent in 2020 and 2021 to an annualized rate of 85 percent in the first half of this year. This month’s inflation rate may well have three digits once annualized. To slow down inflation, the government has resorted to price controls on staples sold by supermarkets; import and capital controls to prevent the currency from devaluing faster; export quotas on beef, corn, and wheat to keep domestic supplies higher and prices lower; and hefty subsidies to state-owned and private companies that supply electricity, gasoline, natural gas, mass transit, and water and sewer services to consumers. As a result, the headline inflation rate is underestimated by at least 10 percentage points, while the subsidies are keeping the fiscal deficit about 4 percent of GDP wider than otherwise.

By now Argentina wasn’t supposed to be in such lamentable economic shape. Barely four months ago, the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed negotiations on a $44 billion loan under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The country was granted an up-front disbursement of almost $10 billion, plus $4 billion more in late June.

  • The IMF program has three main targets for this year. The first is a modestly narrower fiscal deficit – 2.5 percent of GDP rather than last year’s 3 percent (measured excluding interest payments on the public debt). The second calls for a nearly $6 billion accumulation of central bank net international reserves, which would take the year-end total to over $8 billion. And the third requires a reduction in central bank financing of the government’s budget deficit, to the equivalent of 1 percent of GDP from 3.7 percent in 2021.
  • The program’s rather modest fiscal and monetary objectives are based on optimistic assumptions, however, and its structural reforms fall way short of what is required to spark confidence and a sustainable economic recovery. Populist economic measures – advocated mainly by the Peronist faction led by Vice President Cristina Kirchner – have greatly harmed the country’s business and investment climate.
  • It is an open secret in Argentina that the main purpose of the IMF loan is really to help the government avoid defaulting on the $44 billion the Fund previously loaned (in 2018-19) to President Mauricio Macri’s administration. That loan is scheduled for repayment in full between September 2021 and mid-2024, and the present government had made it plain to the IMF that it had no means to do so absent a reprofiling or a quid pro quo. Therefore, in Argentina, the new IMF loan is widely understood to be a fig leaf over what is an indirect debt rescheduling on an installment plan – and it is characterized as a debt refinancing by the government itself.

Even the mild conditionality attached to the new IMF loan has already proven difficult to meet and has claimed its first significant victim –Economy Minister and Fernández ally Martín Guzmán resigned on July 2. His replacement is Silvina Batakis, a heterodox Peronist economist handpicked by Cristina Kirchner.

  • All indications are that the government missed the IMF targets for end-June, especially once discounting any window dressing, and that, failing to take restrictive fiscal and monetary measures soon, it will miss the goals for the full year. Argentina’s financial markets have been reacting badly. The stock market index has been trailing far behind inflation; the government’s dollar-denominated bonds have plunged to distressed levels, mostly below 25 cents on the dollar; and the Argentine peso, whose value is set artificially by the central bank under a rationing system, trades in parallel (but legal) and black markets at less than half its official value.
  • Social and political tensions are on the rise, largely because wages and pensions are incapable of keeping up with inflation. On July 9, Independence Day celebrations were marred by nationwide protests against the government, though at least they were peaceful. On July 13, farmers staged a one-day strike to complain against punishing taxes, damaging currency controls, and a scarcity of diesel fuel that has hit them during the harvest season. New Economy Minister Batakis will need to walk a fine line between introducing unpopular corrective measures to break the inflation spiral – restrictive fiscal and monetary policies, in particular – and pleasing political masters who seem to be persuaded that a muddling-through scenario of tightening controls and ignoring market realities is still viable. A miscalculation could lead to triple-digit inflation, widespread social unrest, and the early exit of President Alberto Fernández.

July 14, 2022

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Costa Rica: The First Months of an Atypical President

By Ilka Treminio*

President Rodrigo Chaves Robles speaking before the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly / Julieth Méndez, Office of the President of Costa Rica / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Costa Rica’s new President, in office for less than 90 days, is struggling to establish his credibility and launch his agenda. A political neophyte, Rodrigo Chaves Robles presented himself as the candidate of the recently created Progreso Social Democrático (PSD) party. He had no political career beyond serving as Minister of Finance for six months. He studied economics and was a professional on the staff of the World Bank, where he held senior positions for 27 years.

  • The Costa Rican elections were characterized by several key factors, including the lowest voter participation (56.76 percent) since the country’s return to democracy in 1948; the highest number of political parties (25); and a campaign aggressively focused on allegations of abuse by candidates. Chaves was accused of sexual harassment during his time at the World Bank. His main opponent, José María Figueres of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), was alleged to have participated in various acts of corruption as President in the 1990s. Chaves’s PSD is accused of creating a parallel campaign finance tool that the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) is now investigating.  

Chaves assumed office in May with several immediate challenges. As happened in the 2014 and 2018 elections, the President — who won only 10 of the 57 seats — took office with a parliamentary minority. The strongest party, with 19 congressmen, remains the PLN, and another four parties have members of the Legislative Assembly as well. Of all of them, only the Frente Amplio (FA) is left-of-center; the others are in the center and on the right, which augurs a significant shift of the social and economic models of the country.

  • The Legislative Assembly in May held an historic vote to name Rodrigo Arias as its legislative director — a PLN operator who’d served twice as Minister of the Presidency to his brother, popular ex-President Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-90 and 2006-10). At the top of the new legislative director’s priorities is a state reform law drafted by a special commission headed by Eliécer Feingzaig, widely known for his anti-state agenda. The commission is expected to draft legislation that will reduce or close public institutions and advocate other policies to diminish government.

Chaves’s style suggests that he wants to even out the competing powers between the Executive and Legislative, although at the risk of showing a propensity for emitting decrees.  

  • His most important measures so far have dealt with economic matters, such as one that made the so-called regla fiscal— a complex budget rule that limits government spending to GDP growth and controls on national debt — more flexible, so that he can pursue programs he ran on. He has been criticized because such flexibility was why he resigned as Finance Minister in the past. Another measure was to double senior government officials’ salaries at a time of austerity and reduced spending.
  • Chaves hasn’t been very effective with the Judiciary either.  In an exchange with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice about a ruling on citizens’ rights to speak out against him, his words prompted the court to admonish him for failing to respect the separation of powers.

President Chaves in his first months has been different from his predecessors. His speeches and actions seem guided more by impulse than the deployment of government strategies, which is odd for a technical expert from the World Bank. That approach might appear attractive to certain sectors of the population, but it entails risks for the country’s institutions by appearing personalistic and critical of established institutional procedures. The leadership of Rodrigo Arias in the legislature can be key for the country’s more conservative and traditional sectors — and undermine Chaves’s agenda.

  • Chaves himself is a conservative, but he is more prone to talk with non-traditional sectors and to listen to them. His unusual Presidential style is provoking expectations that he will perform. He seems to be seen by many Costa Ricans as caring about institutional actors, human rights defenders, and some communications media. Over time, however, he will have to watch out that he does not get blamed by disgruntled sectors of society as the man responsible for their unhappiness. Even if his political opponents push the policies that undermine people’s livelihoods — slow government institutions, economic decline, ineffective pacts between political forces, slow progress for the rights of women, LGBTQI+, immigrants, and others — he is the one who would pay the biggest price.

July 6, 2022

Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.

What to Make of Trends in Latin American Presidential Elections?

By Eric Hershberg*

No Left Turn road sign/ Frisky007 / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The results of the June 19 presidential election in Colombia will surely fuel claims about a putative shift to the left in Latin American politics, but as with the so-called “pink tide” that reached a crest during the 2000s, that is probably not the most significant takeaway from the triumphs of Gustavo Petro and other left-leaning candidates in Latin America. To be sure, over the course of the past year and a half the pandemic-plagued region has witnessed left victories at the polls in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and now Colombia. But dig deeper and there’s much more to be said.

Scholars, journalists, and pundits are always inclined to think of political trends in Left-Right terms, reflecting the competing political options in Latin America over the past 30 years as elsewhere. When “neo-liberal” governments promoted market-oriented reforms in the 1990s, and were frequently re-elected after restoring macro-economic stability to economies buffeted by inflation and debt, it was seen as a rejection of the statist development models associated with the Latin American left and of “populism.” When the “pink tide” governments abandoned some neoliberal tenets and opted toward more redistributive policies in the 2000s, the notion was that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, and when inequality diminished modestly amidst a commodity boom, a number of presidents secured re-election. Then, briefly, one heard that a new phase carrying to office leaders such as Macri, Lacalle, Bolsonaro, Duque, Moreno/Lasso, Bukele, and others signaled the triumph of conservatism in the region.

These conclusions ignore, however, that Latin American public opinion has overall been remarkably stable on citizen self-placement along the left‑right divide, with only a modest, and non-linear, shift toward the left. More significantly, the driving logic of Latin American politics since the advance of democracy in the 1980s has been to punish leaders who have presided over a decline in wellbeing, and to reward presidents who are perceived to have delivered material or symbolic rewards to large segments of the population.

  • That is what drove re-elections of leaders who a) conquered inflation during the 1990s (Cardoso, Menem, Fujimori), or b) increased incomes during the commodity boom of the early 21st century, including the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay, Correa in Ecuador, and Morales in Bolivia. The dynamic has undercut both sides. Neoliberals suffered in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but “pink tide” governments lost power a few years ago where economic stagnation combined with growing popular disgust at corruption. Countries such as Chile and Colombia were swept by protests prior to the pandemic, and alienation from those in power intensified with the impacts of the pandemic.
  • Leaders and governments typically categorized as “left” are by no means a monolith. Max Cameron and I argued 15 years ago the “pink tide” was a series of “Left Turns,” plural. Chavismo shared little with Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, and the Bachelet governments in a highly institutionalized political system such as Chile’s were never plausibly going to resemble those of Rafael Correa in institutionally hollowed-out Ecuador. Today, the Castillo administration emerges from a fractured party system that makes Peruvian politics extraordinarily different than those of Argentina or Brazil, with their enduring Peronist and Workers’ Party institutions.

In the era of Trump and Bolsonaro, when many political actors across the ideological spectrum are running roughshod over basic norms of democratic governance, it is hugely important that failed rightwing candidates in Honduras, Chile, and Colombia have promptly recognized the victories of Xiomara Castro, Gabriel Boric, and now Gustavo Petro. It is encouraging to see instances where electoral counts were clean and even the most unlikely democrats behaved in ways consistent with democratic rule. This opens space for guarded optimism regarding prospects for Brazil, which is holding elections in November, and even conceivably could bolster the cause of electoral democracy in the United States two years later.

  • In Honduras, Chile and Colombia, the margins were not as close as anticipated, in part because of high turnout (particularly among increasingly mobilized youth, who do seem often to tilt toward the left) and because of painstaking efforts by social justice advocates to mobilize their constituencies politically. Pressures from Latin America’s left, which borrowing political theorist Benjamin Arditti’s account can be understood to represent those sectors of the polity that aim to advance the ideals of the French Revolution –drove important cycles of political protest before the pandemic hit and were sustained over the course of the electoral campaigns of the past year. That poses both opportunities and a real challenge for governments in places like Honduras, Chile, and Colombia, which though vastly different in all sorts of ways find themselves with newly elected progressive leaders having to govern amidst tough economic times and restive populations.

June 21, 2022

*Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.