Brazil’s Prison Violence Reflects Deeper Social Problem

By Andrew Johnson*

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 2017

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

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Michel Temer’s Shrinking Presidency

By Matthew Taylor*

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Brazilian President Michel Temer. / PMDB Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

Self-inflicted troubles are forcing Brazilian President Michel Temer into difficult choices between his party and an angry public.  When he became president three months ago, his game plan was simple and bold: undertake legislative reforms that would put the government’s accounts back on track, enhance investor confidence, stimulate an economic recovery, and possibly set the stage for a center-right presidential bid (if not by Temer himself, at least by a close ally) in the 2018 elections.  Allies in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would ensure that he had the backing of Congress to push through reforms that might not bring immediate returns, but nonetheless might improve investor confidence.  Sotto voce, many politicians also assumed that the PMDB would be well placed to slow the pace of the bloodletting occasioned by the massive Lava Jato investigation and stabilize the political system.

Last week, the public’s worst suspicions of the PMDB-led government were confirmed by a two-bit scandal that claimed Government Secretary Geddel Vieira Lima, who was putting pressure – with Temer’s help – on a historical registry office to authorize construction of a Salvador building in which he had purchased an apartment.  Temer sought to repair the damage by holding an unusual press conference Sunday in which he promised to veto a proposed congressional amnesty of illegal campaign contributions.  But Temer now faces another important ethical fork in the road: how to respond to Chamber of Deputies approval of anti-corruption legislation yesterday that – while originally intended to boost efforts to clean up government – neuters the reforms and prevents judicial “abuses,” a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate judges and prosecutors.  The bill now heads to the Senate, which seems unlikely to repair the damage and indeed, may further distort the bill in an effort to undermine Temer’s ability to resurrect the reforms through selective vetoes.  The reform package had been a poster child for the prosecutors spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, and it was pushed by a petition drive that gathered more than two million signatures.  Prosecutors have threatened to resign if Temer signs the severely mangled measure into law.

Despite Temer’s initial successes, the outlook for the remainder of his term remains grim.  The bad news is going to continue, causing the Congress and Temer even more sleepless nights.  A deal expected soon reportedly will require the Odebrecht construction firm to pay a record-breaking penalty for its corrupt practices (perhaps surpassing even the US$1.6 billion Siemens paid to U.S. and European authorities in 2008), and plea bargains by nearly 80 company executives might implicate as many as 200 federal politicians.  It threatens to paralyze legislators and further weaken the PMDB’s already decimated crew, undermining Temer’s ability to coordinate with Congress.  Economic forecasts now show economic growth of less than 1 percent in 2017 and, with 26 state governments facing budget crises, politically influential governors are begging for federal help.  A much-needed pension reform promised by Temer has not yet been made public, much less begun the tortuous amendment process in Congress.  Temer increasingly is being forced to choose between helping his allies and achieving reform, or satisfying a public fed up with politics as usual and baying for accountability and a political cleanup.  It will take all of Temer’s considerable political skills and knowledge of backroom Brasília to revise his game plan for these challenging times.

December 1, 2016

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This is adapted from this CFR blogpost.

Latin America: Wait-and-See Reaction to Trump – For Now

By Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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An effigy of Donald Trump in Mexico City. / Sequence News Media / Daniel Becerril / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Most Latin American leaders publicly reacted with caution to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s U.S. elections, but reactions will sharpen quickly if Trump tries to make his campaign rhetoric about the region and Latino immigrants into policy.  Mexico and Central America showed clear anxiety over the implications for their economies and regional migration pressures.  Some South American presidents expressed mild enthusiasm and voiced hope for a positive relationship with the new administration, although Trump’s avowed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord – under discussion at the APEC summit in Lima this week – has fueled concerns about the future of free trade.  Fear that the new U.S. President, who takes office on January 20, will deport millions of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America and force U.S. firms to shut factories in those countries has seized the media there.

  • Mexican newspapers headlines screamed “Be afraid!” and warned of a “Global shakedown.” Reports recited the many promises Trump had made against Mexico, including his proposal to build a border wall (and make Mexico pay for it); revising NAFTA and raising taxes on Mexican imports, putting conditions on remittances, and charging more for visas. The peso suffered three consecutive days of losses before recovering slightly following interviews by Trump and his team suggesting a softer stand on the wall and free trade.  President Peña Nieto phoned Trump with congratulations and agreed to meet soon to discuss bilateral issues, including presumably the wall.
  • Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported businessmen are worried Trump’s rejection of free trade could have a direct impact on the economy and described the possible mass deportations as a “social bomb” for the country. In Nicaragua, newspapers speculated that Trump’s victory will give a boost to U.S. legislation, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which calls for economic sanctions if President Daniel Ortega doesn’t take “effective steps” to hold free and fair elections.  In El Salvador, the main concern is the deep economic stresses of mass deportations of Salvadorans in the United States.  Honduras shares those concerns but apparently was more wrapped up in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s announcement confirming his intention to make a controversial bid for reelection.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, often given to bombastic rhetoric, has focused on working with Washington in the closing months of the Obama Administration. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, he stressed the need to establish an agenda with the next administration that favors bilateral relationships, but he specifically called on Obama to “leave office with a message of peace for Venezuela” and rescind a determination that Venezuela is a “threat to the United States.” Obama himself last April said the designation was exaggerated.
  • Media in Colombia speculated that Trump will be less committed to aid and support for finalizing and implementing a peace accord with the FARC. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile offered calm reactions to the news.  For Buenos Aires and Santiago, the biggest concern was potentially strained commercial relationships and free trade agreements with the United States, according to press reports.  Brazil offered little reaction to the news, but Trump’s win brought four consecutive days of losses for the real – weakening 7.6 percent since the election.

The political leaders’ cautious reactions conceal a broad and deep rejection for President-elect Trump’s values and intentions as he stated them during the campaign.  Former Mexican President Vicente Fox once again tweeted his disapproval for Trump, while José Mujica, former President of Uruguay, expressed dismay on Twitter, summing up the situation in one word: “Help!”  Press reports and anecdotal information indicate, moreover, that large segments of Latin American society have shown a widespread distaste for Trump’s win.  Their general wait-and-see attitude will end when and if Trump proves himself the unpredictable and reactionary he seemed on the campaign trail.  Latin American leaders have a lot of work ahead as they navigate a new relationship with the United States.

November 15, 2016

* Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga are CLALS Graduate Assistants.

Brazilian Prosecutors: Crossing the Line?

By Fabio Kerche*

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PSB Nacional 40 / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s Federal Prosecutors – treated as heroes by parts of Brazilian society and the mainstream press – have become so powerful and aggressive that they face growing allegations of violating some civil and political rights. The Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation that helped bring down President Dilma Rousseff is not the first time that prosecutors have been in the spotlight; they are often easier to find in newspapers political section than among crime news. For instance, during the 1990s State Prosecutors sued hundreds of mayors and became protagonists in the Mensalão, a campaign finance scandal during the administration of President Lula da Silva. But their activities have never been as intense as recently, leading to the unprecedented “judicialization” of politics, a term that political scientists use to refer to over-reliance on the judicial system to mediate policy debates and political disputes.

The roots of prosecutors’ extraordinary power are in the 1988 Constitution, which assured their autonomy and gave them extensive civil and criminal tools with which to act. At the same time, lawmakers created few processes to ensure prosecutor accountability, making them autonomous even in relation to the Procurador-Geral da República, who is supposed to be the chief Federal Prosecutor but cannot provide effective oversight under current law. After passing the pre-employment examination, prosecutors cannot be fired or demoted. They are an army of 10,000 who are entirely independent of politicians and society. Unlike in the United States, where the President can dismiss a U.S. Attorney and electors can vote out a District Attorney, Brazil lacks analogous mechanisms for ensuring prosecutors’ professionalism.

Two innovations during the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) governments of Presidents Lula and Dilma fed the powers that now try to devour them.

  • While nominating Chief Prosecutors for their two-year terms, they essentially waived their right to choose by going with the candidates with the most support from their own agency colleagues, at times based on institutional interests (such as wages) rather than professional integrity and vision. Not only did this weaken the influence of the incumbent President; it opened the way for leading prosecutors friendly with past administrations to become relentless pursuers of PT leaders. Dilma also approved legislation expanding prosecutors’ authority to offer plea bargains, reducing suspects’ sentences in exchange for information about accomplices and their bosses. Prosecutors and the judge responsible for Lava Jato have been constantly ordering arrests of officials, whose only ticket out of prison is to turn over information. Yet, since potential snitches cannot receive credit for reporting cases and names that have already been provided by others, this process has created a voracious accusation market and a deluge of new “facts” and new names, particularly including PT leaders. Suspects are condemned by public opinion, creating a true cycle that feeds on itself.

A survey released last week by Vox Populi and Brazil’s largest trade union federation, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), shows that 43 percent of Brazilians think prosecutors are “fair” and treat all politicians equally. But an almost equal number – 41 percent – claim prosecutors persecute politicians from the PT and do not act against politicians from its principal adversary, the PSDB. With Brazilian society split over the Brazilian Prosecutors Office’s integrity, the lack of any instrument for punishing or rewarding prosecutors is particularly problematic. Brazilian citizens have few political and legal tools to wield against prosecutors whom they believe abuse power. When institutions fail and do not shape behavior, personal and political agendas become paramount. This is not a good democratic model, even when prosecutors are supposedly fighting against corruption. It opens the door to political witch hunts and erodes popular confidence in democracy and its institutions.

October 27, 2016

* Fabio Kerche is a CLALS Research Fellow and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

NiUnaMenos Gains Momentum

By Brenda Werth* and Fulton Armstrong

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Protesters gather in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the NiUnaMenos movement, which has sparked mobilizations across the country and in many other Latin American cities. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Protesters have taken to the streets in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America to raise awareness about violence against women and girls, pushing for an end to machista culture.  News media estimate that a demonstration under the banner of NiUnaMenos – “not one less woman” due to femicide – in Buenos Aires last Wednesday drew tens of thousands of supporters dressed in black, despite freezing rain.  Other banners declared “We want to live” and demanded “No more machista violence.”  The immediate issue driving the protest was the brutal attack earlier this month on a schoolgirl in Mar del Plata – 16-year-old Lucía Pérez – who was drugged, raped, and tortured to the point of suffering cardiac arrest and died from internal injuries.

  • Argentina passed laws between 2008 and 2012 protecting a range of rights relating to human trafficking, violence against women, marriage equality, and gender and sexual identity, creating new space for discussion of the issue. But the Casa del Encuentro, an NGO that helps victims of gender violence, says that data through 2015 indicate that somewhere in Argentina a woman is killed every 30 hours.  The government’s Secretariat of Human Rights says that 19 women and girls were murdered in the first 18 days of October.  Argentine President Macri, challenged since early days of his administration to address the problem, has reiterated pledges to push legislation that would establish a hotline for reporting abuse and create more shelters for abused women as well as better ways of monitoring abusers.

Similar protests were held in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and El Salvador – with thousands of protesters in capital cities demanding an end to the systematic violation of women’s rights.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced last week that she was joining the NiUnaMenos movement.  She condemned the murder of a 10-year-old girl asphyxiated, burned, and buried by her step-father.  Movement organizers cite research showing that violence against women is a serious problem in much of Latin America.  The Mapa da Violencia published by FLACSO Brazil last year shows that seven of the 10 countries with the highest female murder rate are in this region – with El Salvador (8.9 homicides per 100,000 women), Colombia (6.3), Guatemala (6.2), and Brazil (4.8) near the top of the list.

The demonstrations reflect growing global awareness of gender violence as a violation of human rights and that legislation, while helpful, is not enough.  NiUnaMenos and other groups are also rewriting the traditional definition of violence against women as attacks perpetrated by strangers rather than boyfriends, husbands, or family members – just as coverage of femicide in Mexico in the 1990s raised public awareness of gender violence as systematic and deeply structural as opposed to “every-day,” “familial,” and “private.”  NiUnaMenos is challenging “the culture of violence against women” in machista societies and condemning “the men who think that a woman is their property and they have rights over her and can do whatever they want.”  In Argentina, the mainstream media have stimulated much of the backlash, with reporting that exploits private details of victims’ lives and portrays victims in a manner that suggests responsibility for the crimes committed against them.  This recycling of the “algo habrá hecho” logic that circulated freely during the dictatorship coincides with a renewed focus in Argentine society on cases of torture during those years, treating them specifically as acts of sexual violence.  A week or two of protests obviously will not change ingrained culture, but the burgeoning movement highlighted by NiUnaMenos offers hope of continued progress in protecting the fundamental rights of women throughout the hemisphere.

October 24, 2016

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

Brexit: Limited Implications for Latin America

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

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Photo Credit: Elionas2 / Pixabay / Creative Commons

The June 23rd British referendum result – a 52-to-48 percent vote to leave the European Union (EU) – has roiled the world’s leading financial markets, but contrary to many opinions issued in the referendum’s wake, the economic and financial implications of Brexit for Latin America have been either mild or favorable.  Hard line Brexit statements made earlier this month by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and various rebukes from policymakers on the Continent, have had financial-market repercussions for the pound.  Most notably, sterling has fallen sharply, and it is now down more than 15 percent from its high on the day of the fateful vote, plummeting to three-decade lows against the dollar.

  • The market reaction initially led to a mostly regional (UK and Europe) correction in stock prices. Even this was short-lived: for example, the FTSE 250, an index of domestically focused UK firms, at first dropped by 14 percent but recovered fully by early August – and has since been trading above the pre-referendum level.  Moreover, the UK recession many feared did not materialize, at least not during 3Q16.
  • Financial markets priced in fairly quickly the conclusion that the Brexit shock would lead to greater dovishness among the world’s major central banks. Most relevant to Latin America and the emerging markets (EM) generally, the Brexit helped to persuade the U.S. Federal Reserve to delay its tightening until at least the end of 2016.  While Latin America’s trade and investment ties to Europe are not insignificant, the region’s major economies are far more dependent on the health of the U.S. economy and on the mood in the U.S. financial markets, and secondarily on trends in China.
  • If the UK and the Eurozone had stumbled and were headed for a recession, however, one likely casualty of Brexit would have been a noticeable drop in world commodity prices, with strong implications for the major economies of Latin America. While commodity prices have softened somewhat (non-oil commodities have averaged 2¼ percent lower since the Brexit vote, and oil has traded 7½ percent below), confirmed expectations of loose monetary conditions in the U.S. and Europe during 3Q16 have more than compensated.  This is why most EM stocks, bonds and currencies have rallied, with the parade led by the Brazilian Real (BRL), so far the best-performing of 24 EM currencies tracked by Bloomberg (up about 20 percent year-to-date).

The medium-term implications of Brexit for Latin America will depend on how much “noise” emanates from London, Brussels and other European capitals during the negotiation process (likely, 2Q17-2Q19).  Prime Minister May has now made three statements that define her bargaining position: Article 50 (exit) negotiations will begin by next March; the imposition of migration controls on EU citizens coming to the UK is non-negotiable; and the UK will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  The latter two points mean that Britain cannot remain a member of the single market, and is therefore committed to forging a customized free-trade agreement with the EU, which could sow uncertainty and thus depress economic growth in Europe and beyond.

The most probable scenario – slow and halting Brexit negotiations, with progress hard to achieve until close to the end (in 2019) – will encourage uncertainty and speculation among economic agents and thus will be a drag on economic growth especially in the UK, and much less so in the rest of the EU.  However, it need not generate the kinds of waves that will reach, never mind derail, Latin America’s economic trajectory.  It is much more likely that what does or does not happen in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Caracas or Mexico City, and above all in Washington, DC – courtesy of the Fed, the White House, and the U.S. Congress, in that order – will overshadow just about any headlines generated by the Brexit negotiations in Europe.  There is room for Latin America to clock higher GDP growth numbers in the years ahead when compared to the disappointing regional averages of 1 percent growth in 2014, zero growth in 2015, and a contraction of about -0.6 percent in the current year (as per IMF estimates).  This assumes that the Fed’s tightening is gradual (namely, no more than 0.25 percent increases in the Fed’s target rate per trimester) and that the UK’s divorce proceedings are not overly hostile.  This scenario foresees that creditworthy governments, banks and corporations in Latin America will retain access to the international capital markets on reasonable terms, despite some initial retraction in investor interest ahead of, and right after, the resumption of the Fed tightening cycle.

 October 17, 2016

*Dr. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Can Latin America Escape the Middle-Income Trap?

By Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider*

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Photo Credit: Inter-American Development Bank / CLALS / Edited 

Most literature on the “middle-income trap,” widely understood as a core obstacle to sustained development in Latin America, focuses solely on economic dynamics and understates the importance and challenges of political coalition-building.  That literature, largely generated by economists in academe and international financial institutions, argues convincingly that in Latin America, as well as Southeast Asia, once countries achieve some degree of success in economic development, they get stuck.  They are unable to compete with low-cost producers in traditional sectors – initial development success brings higher wages and other costs – while they also have failed to gain the capacity to compete with developed economies in frontier industries, where technological capabilities and productivity levels are far higher.  These analysts stress that Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico – or for that matter Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – need to build on their achievements over the past half century in order to make the leap into the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations.  They highlight the trap’s proximate origins in productivity slowdowns and recommend policy solutions that focus on improving human capital through investment in education and vocational training.  But identifying problems and potential solutions does not explain why leaders fail to adopt the solutions.  In other words, it’s not clear from existing writings why the trap is actually a trap.

The literature does not acknowledge that fundamental political obstacles, especially lack of effective demand and pressure for these solutions, are at the heart of the problem.  As is evident from the history of failed programs to improve education and R&D, political will to invest in such public goods is in short supply.  Politicians are rarely willing to forgo the short-term political benefits of satisfying entrenched interest groups for the long-term developmental benefits of creating institutions capable of helping the broader citizenry to upgrade its capacity for technology absorption.  A core reason for this lack of political will is the weakness of the societal constituencies that might demand the necessary policies and effective institutions.  Our research indicates that relations among key societal actors in middle-income countries are less amenable to building the consensus that economists advocate. In a recent article, we argue that the same conditions that facilitated or accompanied movement to middle-income status – such as foreign investment, low-skilled and low-paid work, inequality, and informality – have generated political cleavages that impede upgrading policies and the construction of institutions necessary to implement them.  This fragmentation is why the trap is a trap. Three lines of fragmentation are key:

  • Big business is divided between foreign and domestic firms. The former can undertake productivity-improving measures in-house and/or at their home headquarters, whereas local firms tend to focus in non-tradeable services and commodities whose demand for better training and R&D is lower than in manufacturing.
  • Labor is fractured between formal and large, growing informal sectors. Enjoying longer job tenure and on-the-job training for specific skills, formal workers have little interest in broader skills development.  Informal workers, on the other hand, constantly shift jobs and would prefer investments in vocational institutions offering general training.
  • These societies remain overall less equal and, as is now well known, inequality undermines the will and capacity to provide broad public goods such as quality universal education and support for technology development.

 Pro-growth coalitions of various types have been key to productivity improvements in now-high income East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan.  The fact that these countries had stronger (and more autocratic) governments does not preclude developing or building on such coalitions in countries with messier political systems and weaker bureaucracies.  First, leaders can build on sectoral pockets of high productivity, such as aquaculture in Chile, wine in Argentina (and rubber in Malaysia).  Second, international and regional institutions can help supplement demands for skills by supporting programs that focus on technical and vocational institutions that actually meet and are linked to employers’ needs.  Third, organizations such as the ILO can promote business associations that represent the local firms for whom collective technical training and R&D are especially important.

August 22, 2016

* Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider teach political science at Emory University and MIT, respectively.

Brazil: Sacrificing Anti-Poverty Success?

By Hayley Jones*

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Photo Credit: Senado Federal / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s flagship antipoverty program, the Bolsa Família, faces an uncertain future as the government of Interim President Michel Temer confronts adverse economic and political circumstances.  The program, which provides direct cash benefits to poor households on the condition that children fulfill education and health-related targets, was an important factor in Brazil’s progress on poverty and inequality since the early 2000s – between 2001 and 2013 the poverty headcount ratio declined from 24.7 percent to 8.9 percent, and the Gini coefficient declined from 59.3 to 52.9.  The Bolsa Família (formerly called Bolsa Escola) was a pioneer in the use of cash transfers in social policy in the 1990s.  The idea is enticingly simple: the cash allows families to meet immediate needs, while the education and health conditions ensure poor children are better equipped to lift themselves out of poverty in the long run.  Under Presidents Lula and Dilma, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) put the policy at the heart of its platform, and reaped advantages at the polls with the expansion of coverage and benefits.  The program now reaches about one-quarter of the population.

The social gains made in part thanks to the Bolsa Família may now be at risk.  Brazil has been hit hard by the collapse of commodity and oil prices over the last two years and is currently experiencing what is predicted to be the country’s worst recession since the 1930s.  GDP fell by roughly 4 percent in 2015 and is expected to do the same in 2016.  The deep political crisis gripping the country since earlier this year further threatens the program.  Temer, his party (PMDB), and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles have stressed the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit.  While many areas of social spending, such as pensions and education, are protected in the budget under the 1988 Constitution,  the Bolsa Família is not.  With the large political constituency benefitting from the program, there is likely little appetite in the interim government to ax the program altogether.  In fact, at the end of June Temer announced a 12.5 percent increase to the Bolsa Família – more than the 9 percent promised by Dilma – to compensate for inflation.  But he also emphasized that benefits should be temporary and that there is a need to focus on exit doors from the program.  Social Development Minister, Osmar Terra, has suggested that the program could be made more efficient and costs cut by 10 percent.

Temer may not be entirely wrong to highlight the need for exit strategies, but they should be exit strategies from poverty rather than from the Bolsa Família itself.  There is so far little evidence that it has done much to change the life trajectories of poor young people that would allow them to move out of poverty. The emphasis on increased school enrollment and attendance as transformative obscures much deeper problems, including poor school progression and completion rates in low-quality schools, a lack of educational infrastructure and resources, poorly trained teachers, and outdated curricula, among others.  If Temer is serious about moving beneficiaries out of poverty and the program, priority will have to be given to correcting regressive spending in public education (which prioritizes higher over basic education); better aligning curricula with labor market demand; and addressing the poor job opportunities for low- and semi-skilled workers. Economic realities and the rhetoric on efficiency and exit strategies do not bode well for such changes.  Under Temer, the Bolsa Família seems likely be limited to a policy tool for risk insurance and meeting basic needs rather than a platform for extending the social gains of the last decade.

July 12, 2016

*Hayley Jones is a DPhil (PhD) Candidate in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.  Her thesis examines long-term poverty reduction in the Bolsa Família program.

Almagro’s Freshman Year: Bold Actions or Unnecessary Risk?

By Maria Carrasquillo*

Luisito

Photo Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera (OAS)/Flickr/Creative Commons

Secretary General Luis Almagro’s quest to revitalize the Organization of American States (OAS) seems premised on being an “activist” Secretary General in what could be a make-or-break gambit to assert the organization’s hemispheric leadership.  Only 13 months in office, Almagro has taken an approach that is a clear departure from the low-key, consensus-building ways of former Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.  In his 2015 inaugural address, Almagro laid out his plans for the rejuvenation of the OAS, including internal changes to “adapt it to the realities of the 21st century” and “insert [it] into a world different from the one in which it was developed and has grown and operated.”  Almagro underscored the need for the OAS to promote transparent and inclusive elections throughout Latin America and, in regard to democratic governance, “lend a hand to countries that are going through moments of tension and conflict.”

Almagro has taken a number of positions that confirm his desire to redefine the OAS’s role in the region.

  • In 2015, Almagro took the lead in developing a plan to fight corruption in Honduras, resulting in the formation of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH) – a watered-down version of the successful UN-backed CICIG in Guatemala. The jury is still out on whether MACCIH will have a serious impact, but Almagro has staked his reputation on its credibility.
  • He has claimed that the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff lacked sufficient justification and that accusations against her were politically driven. Almagro also called for anticorruption investigations under Operação Lava Jato to continue as essential for the rule of law.
  • Prior to the Peruvian elections, Almagro warned that the disqualification of two candidates reflected unequal application of the law and raised concerns that the contests would be “semi-democratic.” Following a meeting with disqualified frontrunner Julio Gómez, Almagro called for the reinstatement of both candidates’ right to participate in the elections.
  • Perhaps Almagro’s most controversial action has been his attempt to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter against the government of Venezuela, without a finding by the Permanent Council, as required under Article 20 of the Charter, that the situation there amounts to “an unconstitutional alteration of a constitutional regime.” The Permanent Council implicitly rejected his appeal by urging more dialogue between the OAS and Venezuela.  Almagro then sent a strongly worded letter to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accusing him of lying and “betraying his people,” and calling for the release of political prisoners, restoration of legitimate powers to the National Assembly, and a referendum to recall Maduro in 2016. (The Permanent Council is set to discuss the situation in Venezuela again on June 21.)

Almagro has taken on some very difficult issues, and explanations for his motivations are varied but not mutually exclusive.  Some observers perceive a personal embrace of OAS principles, others detect a desire to avoid the sort of U.S. criticism that plagued Insulza and constrained U.S. support and funding, and still others speculate about his future political ambitions as a reformist on the non-radical left of Latin America.  The democratic principles he is defending are clearly enshrined in OAS documents, but his activism has so far not reversed adverse situations: Rousseff was impeached, the Peruvian candidates were forced to sit out the election, and Maduro has yet to soften.  Being an “activist” Secretary General in the case of Venezuela entails great risks; his predecessors were criticized both for getting too directly involved in the country’s internal affairs and for remaining passive in the face of growing authoritarianism in Caracas.  It seems, moreover, as though Almagro has often acted alone, and the tone of his letter to Maduro was uniquely strident.  A great deal is on the line for the OAS.  If Almagro’s activism works, it will enhance the organization’s leadership on a range of issues confronting the hemisphere, but it may also put the OAS in the middle of future conflicts in which failure would bring a loss of institutional credibility. 

June 16, 2016

* Maria Carrasquillo is a recent graduate of the M.A. Program in American University’s School of International Service and a research assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.