U.S. Immigration Policy: Not Just Getting Rid of “Bad Hombres”

By Eric Hershberg, Dennis Stinchcomb, and Fulton Armstrong

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An agent from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)./ Department of Homeland Security / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The immigrant deportation policy that the Trump Administration announced last week is among the most aggressive in U.S. history and promises to create tensions between Washington and Latin America and disrupt communities across the United States.  Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly has told agencies under his aegis to “use all authorities to the greatest extent practicable” to remove undocumented immigrants from the country.  President Trump called his new initiative a “military operation” – which an embarrassed Kelly denied during meetings in Mexico City intended to control damage from other Trump statements.  The White House said the measures will “take the shackles off” the enforcers, and U.S. media reported enforcement officers’ celebratory comments that they “can finally do their job.”  The Administration will also ask Congress to authorize a large expansion – another 15,000 – of enforcement positions.

  • The rationale repeatedly refers to deporting “criminals” – whom Trump calls “bad hombres” and “bad dudes” – but the new policy will exempt no classes or categories of “removal aliens,” including non-criminals. U.S. press already report roundups of individuals with no criminal records who are being expelled from the country within 72 hours.  Fear among immigrants is pervasive, and there are many reports (such as here and here) of families hunkering down in their homes, withdrawing children from school, and setting up contingency plans for protecting U.S. citizen kids should their undocumented parents be grabbed by the authorities and sent abroad.
  • The policy weakens protections from “expedited removal” that the Obama Administration put in place, which allowed immigrants caught after they had been in the country for 14 days or more to be released pending proceedings to determine their eligibility to remain in the United States. (Details remain murky but supposedly will be announced soon.)  Individuals facing expedited removal are not entitled to appear before a judge.
  • It increases efforts to press local police to help federal agencies find and deport undocumented immigrants, blurring the line between local and federal forces. Legal experts say this commingling of forces violates the Constitution, and many local police chiefs lament that it reduces the willingness of immigrant communities to help them fight crime.
  • It removes privacy protections for people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, putting their personal information in the hands of vigilantes, blackmailers, and others who have no need to know it. Trump previously threatened to withhold federal assistance from “sanctuary cities” in the United States, which he accuses of causing “immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our republic” because they are reluctant to implement his deportation policies.

Two new measures suggest a long political campaign against undocumented immigrants.  DHS will create an office – with the acronym VOICE – to collect information from victims of alleged crimes.  It will be funded with “any and all resources that are currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens” (most of whom have never committed a crime).  The Administration will also “identify and quantify all sources of direct and indirect” assistance to Mexico, obviously to evaluate U.S. leverage against the Mexican Government if the Administration is not pleased with compliance with Washington’s wishes.

Deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the United States will be impossible, but the new measures will push unprecedented numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans back into societies that have no jobs and no security for them.  That burden and the loss of immigrants’ remittances will cause those countries incalculable harm.  The Administration’s rhetoric hammering on “criminal immigrants” is deceptive:  DHS admitted in 2014 that most of the “criminals” it deported were guilty only of their undocumented presence (31.3 percent) and traffic violations (15 percent), and it would be foolish to expect that the Trump government will be more judicious.  The insinuation that immigrants commit more crimes than do native-born citizens, moreover, has been debunked; they are incarcerated at a rate half that of native-born.  These polices may enjoy the support of Trump’s political base, but the attacks on the defenseless; subversion of traditional values such as the right to legal counsel and the right to privacy; coercion of local police and civilian authorities; and the deportation of countless friends and neighbors whose everyday contributions enrich community life in the United States will have a profound impact extending far beyond its immediate victims.

 February 27, 2017

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

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Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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

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.

El Salvador: Dealing with the New Reality of Violence

By Eric Hershberg

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A farm in Morazán, El Salvador, a department that has maintained some sense of normalcy through its strong social organizations. / Cacaopera de Cerca / Flickr / Creative Commons

A surge in violence in El Salvador over the past five-plus years demands a more comprehensive and inclusive strategy than the ongoing Plan El Salvador Seguro.  A rigorous and highly readable study released last month by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social (INCIDE) employs quantitative and qualitative data to demonstrate that the pattern of violence in El Salvador has worsened.  Murders increased 66 percent in the 2010-2015 period; the murder rate of 102.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 made it the most violent year in decades.  Multiple-victim murders increased 126 percent in the same period, and murders of women skyrocketed 750 percent – from 40 in 2012 to 340 in 2015.  Gang-on-gang violence has produced a 72 percent increase in deaths, while armed confrontations between gangs and state personnel are growing more frequent.  Kidnappings and disappearance have surged.  For the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has experienced forced displacements, both within the country and to other countries, most notably an unprecedented flow of rural Salvadorans into Nicaragua.

The 2012-2013 truce among the gangs and the government of then-President Mauricio Funes reduced violence somewhat, but INCIDE notes that it also allowed gangs to consolidate their control over territory while government planners failed to address the deeper causes of the violence.  While documenting that Salvador Seguro has had some positive results and won support, the study posits that the current strategy of frontal attack on gangs has also eroded the social and community fabric that represents an essential intangible asset for durable success in reducing violence.  Many communities live in fear of violence from all sides.  The INCIDE report emphasizes that the causes of spiraling violence are complex, deeply rooted, and require integrated responses tailored to specific conditions in different territories.  What is needed, says INCIDE, would be a strategy that:

  • Shuns one-size-fits-all national solutions. The government has failed for years to understand that the drivers of violence and stability are different across territories throughout the country.  INCIDE advocates the creation of a “territorial map” detailing each community’s security situation, the resources it can bring to bear against violence, and what it needs from national-level programs in order to strengthen local communities.
  • Empowers those local communities. A comparison between two locales – in Morazán and Jiquilisco – revealed that the former, which has fewer police and army personnel than the latter, has been able to maintain a more normal way of life because it has strong social organizations and a social commitment to preventing violence through informal vigilance, youth programs, and cooperation with authorities.  Jiquilisco lacks these assets and lives essentially in lock-down mode.

More research and better-targeted territorial strategies are certainly essential, but even INCIDE’s Director, Alexander Segovia (who was a senior aide to President Funes and principal author of the INCIDE study), wouldn’t say they will guarantee success.  In an extensive interview with the on-line magazine Revista Factum, he blamed the failure to stem the violence on the “negligence of the economic, political, and intellectual elites” of the country.  He asserted that El Salvador must “change perspectives – to examine how it’s been dealing with the topic of violence and insecurity, from the design of public policies to the participation of the different actors who make up society.”  Prevailing approaches emphasizing sectoral solutions – strengthening agriculture, industry or tourism in affected areas – have been too piecemeal to bring results.  INCIDE’s research underscores the need for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach tailored to specific local conditions.  Mobilizing and fostering cohesion in communities victimized by the violence may be a lot more difficult, but it is also potentially the most successful means to a solution.

Click here for the full text of INCIDE’s report and here for Director Alexander Segovia’s interview with Revista Factum.

September 26, 2016

As Mexico “Absorbs” Central American Refugees, Record Numbers Reach the U.S.

By Dennis Stinchcomb

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The meeting of world leaders that President Obama convened on Tuesday to rally support for refugee resettlement and inclusion across the globe was good diplomacy but contradicts Washington’s policies even in the Americas.  At a meeting on the margins of the UN General Assembly, Obama thanked Mexico for “absorbing a great number of refugees from Central America,” yet the data make clear that Mexico is hardly absorbing refugees.  During the first seven months of 2016, as WOLA has reported, Mexico granted asylum to just under 1,150 Central Americans but deported over 80,000 others.  Meanwhile, far greater numbers of Central Americans have reached the U.S., principally women with children (whom U.S. Customs and Border Protection labels “family units”) and minors traveling without a guardian (“unaccompanied children”).  With one month remaining in Fiscal Year 2016, apprehensions of Central American women with children total over 61,000 – up 79 percent from FY15 – and are on pace to surpass the FY14 record.  Likewise, apprehensions of unaccompanied children have already exceeded the FY15 total, and September numbers will likely push the current tally of 42,000 just shy of the FY14 record.

This renewed influx comes despite the Obama administration’s multi-pronged strategy to deter unauthorized migration from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

  • U.S. support for Mexico’s Southern Border Program has resulted in unprecedented numbers of both detentions and deportations of Central Americans in Mexico, yet the dramatic increases in arrivals to the U.S. and shifting points of entry – including an upswing in seaborne trafficking – suggests that the exodus from the Northern Triangle continues and that human smugglers have adapted to stepped-up enforcement measures by forging new routes through Mexico.
  • Ongoing raids by U.S. Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) authorities, which under the banner of Operation Border Guardian aim to roundup unaccompanied youth who had been ordered deported from the U.S. and have recently turned 18, have not stemmed the tide of new arrivals fleeing untenable circumstances in their countries of origin.
  • Despite a July 2016 expansion of the CAM Program for in-country processing of youth applications for refugee status and for others in Central America asserting that they are at risk of harm, the pool of beneficiaries remains miniscule. Whereas the program had received 9,500 applicants by mid-year, only around 270 had been resettled in the U.S. With a six- to eight-month processing period and room for only 200 applicants at a time at shelters that have been set up in Costa Rica, desperate Central Americans continue to turn to more efficient human smugglers.
  • Public messaging campaigns launched in the region with U.S. government funding, to warn Central Americans of the dangers involved in irregular migration and to dispel misperceptions regarding U.S. immigration policies, also appear fruitless, as outlined in a recent American Immigration Council report).

President Obama’s efforts to galvanize international action in response to forced displacement worldwide highlight his own administration’s shortcomings in addressing refugee flows closer to home.  Expedited hiring of border patrol agents and an increase in the number of beds at contract detention facilities, among other domestic measures, have enabled the administration to process large volumes of Central American migrants while avoiding the appearance of a “border crisis” akin to 2014.  Meanwhile, an emphasis on curtailing outflows from Central America (without regard to the justification of people’s decision to flee), detention (rather than absorption) in Mexico, and deportation in both Mexico and the U.S. has not been matched with analogous investments to address the needs of Central American migrants already in the U.S. who may have legitimate claims for asylum or other forms of protection.  Central American families and unaccompanied children, for example, now account for over one-fourth (26 percent) of the 512,000-case backlog in immigration courts, yet only 53 percent of families and 56 percent of unaccompanied minors have access to attorneys.  In failing to guarantee legal representation for these vulnerable populations the administration is sidestepping the same moral obligation to thoroughly vet and provide safe, inclusive communities for refugees that President Obama challenges other governments to fulfill.  Perhaps funding that is supporting Mexico’s strategy of detention and deportation could be better allocated to programs that ensure proper adjudication of asylum claims – in both Mexico and the U.S. – and to genuinely seek to absorb individuals and families who, through due process, are judged to qualify as refugees.

September 22, 2016

Nicaragua: A New Family Dynasty Taking Root

By Aaron T. Bell*

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Left: Photo of Daniel Ortega celebrating his latest presidential triumph (July 20, 2012) / Fundación ONG de Nicaragua / Wikimedia / Creative Commons; Right: Anastasio Somoza DeBayle / DemonSabre / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Events in Nicaragua this summer have demonstrated that President Ortega and his family have a vision for the future that erodes a key element of political democracy – the replacement of the executive through free and fair elections – and risks establishing a dynasty of corruption and authoritarian rule.  In May 2016, President Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) announced his candidacy for a fourth presidential term – his third consecutive.  Since then the government has taken several steps to ensure that Ortega and his family remain in power in November’s elections for President and National Assembly, and beyond:

  • Voting irregularities, a lack of transparency, and accusations of fraud have marred several successive elections since Ortega’s return to power in 2007. In June of this year, Ortega announced that he would not permit international election observers to monitor this fall’s elections.
  • Weeks later, the Supreme Court stripped opposition leader Eduardo Montealgre of his position as head of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) and replaced him with Pedro Reyes, considered by observers to be an Ortega ally. In July, Nicaragua’s electoral council removed 16 sitting members of the National Assembly and 12 alternates after they refused to recognize Reyes.
  • In August, Ortega announced that Rosario Murillo, his long-time partner and wife since 2005, would serve as his vice presidential candidate in the November election. Murillo has been a prominent figure in the Ortega government while serving as both first lady and chief spokeswoman.  Her political ascension is complemented by the rise to prominence in recent years of her and Ortega’s children as operators of business and media interests, including the couple’s eldest son and presidential adviser on investments, Laureano Facundo, who helped sell the stalled interoceanic canal project to Chinese businessman Wang Jing.

Nicaragua’s opposition parties have thus far been unable to mount an effective response and have shown the lack of cohesion and focus that have plagued them for decades. Montealgre announced that the coalition led by the PLI would boycott the election and called on others to do the same.  But rather than present a united front, opposition leaders are fighting amongst themselves to seize the mantle of leadership and challenge Ortega through several competing parties and coalitions.  This will be no easy task: polling conducted by M&R Consultores this summer shows that over 60 percent of voters are likely to vote for Ortega, with the leading opposition parties drawing low single digits.  Over a quarter of potential voters said they were unsure whom they would vote for.  With the opposition beset by division and lacking much legitimacy – tainted as they are by a history of corruption, self-interest, and financial support from the United States – it is unsurprising that protests and civil unrest have been largely absent.  The ouster of the PLI delegates has also stirred the FSLN’s old opponents outside the government, who have been largely quiescent in recent years but condemned the decision: the Bishops of the Episcopal Council, the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce, and the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP), the largest business chamber that has enjoyed a working relationship with the Ortega government.

The FSLN’s authoritarian turn, Ortega’s long reign, and the rise to prominence of both Murillo and the couple’s children invite comparisons between Ortega and Somoza family dynasties.  It may be from COSEP and the business sector, rather than among the weak and divided political opposition, that a serious challenge to Ortega could eventually emerge. It was after all the defection of non-Somoza family interests in the private sector, combined with a popular insurrection led by a guerrilla insurgency, that did away with Nicaragua’s previous family dynasty.  But that combination only emerged following the shock of the 1972 earthquake and resulting massive corruption, the assassination of a national figure like Pedro Chamorro in 1978, and the particularly bloodthirsty turn that the Somoza regime had taken. With similarly game-changing circumstances absent at this juncture, the sort of cross-sector revolutionary movement that ultimately toppled the Somozas appears unlikely.  For the moment at least, an Ortega family will be well on its way to firmly preserving its dynastic power come November.

 September 19, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer in History and American Studies at American University.

Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

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Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016