Costa Rica: Public Finance Plans are Not Sustainable

By ICEFI and CLALS*

President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado Quesada

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica, April 2018/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Carlos_Alvarado_Quesada_CAQ_PAC_03.jpg

The Costa Rican government’s draft budget for 2020, presented to the Legislative Assembly on August 30, reveals that shortfalls in tax revenues, high deficits, and accelerated public debt endangers the country’s ability to continue its social services and maintain its traditional level of democratic governability. The fiscal reforms that Costa Rica has undertaken – Law 9635 on Strengthening Public Finances – have proven, at best, insufficient to correct the imbalances envisioned in the new budget.

  • The budget proposes a tax burden of 13.2 percent for 2020 – equal to that observed in 2018 before the tax reforms were implemented but below ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (13.5 percent). This rollback is alarming because it essentially erases the gains expected from the reforms. It is due to increased levels of tax evasion and avoidance, and illicit capital flows.
  • The government projects public spending to reach 8,475.5 billion Colones (US$14.0 billion), accounting for 22 percent of GDP – slightly below the 22.1 percent approved for this year but higher than ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (20.9 percent). The 2020 proposal implies cuts to public spending that will affect key ministries, including Education and Public Works and Transportation, the budgets of which will decline 1.4 and 0.4 percent from this year, respectively.

Costa Rica’s fiscal deficit poses another long-term challenge. The draft budget contemplates a deficit that would reach 7.8 percent of GDP, higher than ICEFI’s estimate of 6.1 percent for 2019. For Costa Rica’s fragile public finances, this would suggest an inability to achieve fiscal sustainability in the medium term despite the recent tax reform.

  • The proposed budget would grow national debt to 64.7 percent of GDP in 2020, which is double the debt level observed during the earlier years of the decade (29.9 percent).

The failure of the tax reform law underscores Costa Rica’s urgent need for a fiscal accord that responds to the challenges of economic growth, social development, and democratic governance. To avoid such a scenario, tax officials will have to devise and implement plans and strategies next year that will stop and reverse the steady loss of the Executive’s ability to collect taxes. The cuts to education, public works, and transportation could erode Costa Rican well-being. Public budgets reflect the priorities of a society, and both the Executive and Legislative authorities in San José have the obligation to expand debate to include input from affected sectors. Costa Rica will face even greater challenges if it fails to formulate a budget that includes a responsibly progressive tax regime; reduction in tax evasion and under-reporting; greater control over illicit capital flows, adoption of a principle of worldwide income; increase fiscal transparency and accountability, debt restructuring, and maintenance of spending levels that guarantee adequate universal services. 

November 18, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the first in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Costa Rica: Anything is Possible in Upcoming Elections

By Carlos Malamud*

Two boring men look out into space

The apparent front-runners in the Costa Rican presidential election, Juan Diego Castro (left) and Antonio Álvarez (right). / Wikimedia, edited / Luis Madrigal Mena (left) / MadriCR (right) / Creative Commons

In the run-up to Costa Rica’s presidential and legislative elections on February 4, the words “uncertain” and “uncertainty,” “volatility,” and “surprise” are crowding out all others.  Since current President Luis Guillermo Solís’s unexpected victory in 2014 marked the end of two-party domination – in which power was shared by Liberación Nacional (PLN) and the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) – fragmentation has deepened.  Today there are 13 candidates for President and a heightened number of undecided voters.  Alongside the many who don’t know who they want to vote for, there are others, including many liberacionistas, who do not want to reveal their support for other candidates.  The country is in a scenario in which anything can happen.

  • According to most polls, former Minister of Justice and Security Juan Diego Castro (of the minority Partido Integración Nacional, PIN) and Antonio Álvarez (of the PLN) are practically at a technical tie. Castro’s campaign has focused on combating corruption, an issue of steadily growing concern to Costa Ricans, and the threat posed by gangs.  Close behind are Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) and evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado (Restauración Nacional).  The latter’s support surged last week when he denounced a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court accepting same-sex marriage.  It’s unclear whether any of the candidates’ issues have lasting support or only an ephemeral presence on the electoral agenda.

Since these four top candidates each have about 15 percent of the vote so far, it will be difficult for any to reach the 40 percent necessary to avoid a runoff.  The two strongest – Álvarez and Castro –also have strong negatives.  If, as seems most likely, the undecided and the “hidden vote” do not give one candidate or other a clear victory, there will be a second round between the top two vote-getters on April 1 (Easter Sunday).  Polls also show that many voters see Piza as the best “second option.”  For that reason, the results of a second round of voting are also difficult to predict.

Insofar as Costa Rica was the exception in Central American or even Latin American politics in the past, things have changed very rapidly.  Its distinction in the 1960s and 1970s as one of only four countries without military dictatorships (along with Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela) has faded into different clichés.  The lauded former President Óscar Arias once made the specious argument that the constitutional prohibition on presidents running for consecutive terms was a violation of politicians’ human rights.  In addition, the conviction of two ex-presidents on corruption charges has laid bare the links between part of the political class and misgovernment.

  • Solís’s election in 2014 ended Costa Rican bipartisanship. It’s possible that the new President will be from the PLN or PUSC, but the two traditional parties’ hegemony is over.  That Costa Rica could become like its neighbors is no consolation.  To avoid that fate, it should strengthen its principal institutions, beginning with the Judiciary and the National Assembly, without forgetting the important role of the political parties, which are key to democratic regeneration.

January 25, 2018

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

What does “Canada is back” mean in the Americas?

By Stephen Baranyi*

27950219435_acf41153d5_h

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the “Tres Amigos Summit” in Ottawa, June 2016. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers’ statements following their election in October 2015 that “Canada is back” reflect a global strategy that is likely to give a boost to Canada-Latin America relations.  Canada never “left” the Americas during the decade of Conservative governments led by Prime Minister Harper, but the new administration is patching up its predecessors’ mixed record.  Building on the Americas Strategy launched in 2007, Ottawa signed new bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and others; broadened its engagement in regional security affairs; and greatly increased its whole-of-government engagement in Haiti.  Canada played a major role at the Summit of the Americas in Panama (April 2015) and hosted the Pan American Games (July 2015).  Yet the revelation of Canada’s espionage in Brazil, visa restrictions on Mexicans, the poor reputation of some Canadian mining firms in the region, and its inability to reach a trade agreement with the Caribbean Community fed a growing desencanto in Canada’s relations with the region.

Through mandate letters issued to ministers in late 2015, the Trudeau government made clear that the Americas would remain an important priority, despite renewed emphasis on Asia and Africa, and that inclusive growth, the responsible governance of Canadian extractive activities abroad, and women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights would get emphasis in the region.  In June, Canada hosted the “Tres Amigos Summit” with NAFTA partners United States and Mexico.  Ottawa also announced that by December, Mexican citizens would no longer need visas to enter Canada, removing a big irritant in Canada-Mexico relations.  The government reaffirmed its partnership with Colombia by indicating its desire to make bilateral free trade more inclusive and announcing projects to support the implementation of peace accords.

  • Ottawa has opportunities for deeper involvement in these countries. In Mexico, Canadian interests will be served through a better balance between pursuing economic opportunities in sectors like petroleum and supporting Mexicans struggling to strengthen rule of law in a system compromised by corruption.  Colombia also requires a sophisticated whole-of-Canada engagement strategy, particularly since the failure of its referendum on the peace accords on Sunday.  Ottawa has signaled interest in continuing to support the rule of law and broader development in Haiti, but Trudeau’s ability to justify large expenditures there will depend on the completion of legitimate elections by February 2017.

Ottawa’s appointment of a new Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and commitment to revitalizing it as “the premier multilateral organization of the Americas” points to broader engagement on a regional level.  The Trudeau administration could join the Latin American and Caribbean trend on drug policy by decriminalizing the sale of marijuana at home and supporting reforms to OAS and UN counterdrug programs.  Assisting the implementation of the UN Small Arms Treaty, which Ottawa is poised to ratify, could also contribute to rule of law and security in the Americas.  Canada will also find many partners (from Chile to Costa Rica) to promote gender equality.  With regard to First Nations, Ottawa may be tempted to focus on funding new aid projects; yet Canada’s credibility will remain suspect until it ratifies the American Convention on Human Rights and ensures that all Canadian mining firms respect the rights of indigenous communities to free and prior informed consent in large-scale extractive activities.  The Trudeau government will probably monitor the multi-dimensional crisis in Venezuela, the situation in Brazil, and other challenges in the region – over which it probably lacks the leverage to make a significant difference but can lend moral authority to solutions.  Given its clear commitment to a global, rather than regional, strategy, the current administration is wise to carefully select entry points on which its thematic priorities align with opportunities in particular countries.

October 5, 2016

* Stephen Baranyi is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies.  He also chairs the Latin America and Caribbean Group (LACG) of the Canadian International Council.  The author acknowledges his LACG colleagues’ input into this blog, while taking responsibility for its limitations.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

U.S.-Cuba Migration: The Powerful “Pull” Factors

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban women

Photo Credit: Guillaume Baviere / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama Administration’s repeatedly stated commitment to continue implementing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is driving a surge in Cuban emigrants through dangerous human trafficking routes in Central America and causing tensions in a region already tied in knots over illegal migration.  The flow of Cubans up the isthmus has been increasing steadily – reaching some 45,000 over the past year – but seemed a manageable issue until Costa Rica broke up a smuggling ring last month.  The publicity prompted Nicaragua to close its borders to the underground railroad, which is carrying thousands each month northbound.  The migrants have been starting their journey by air from Havana to Ecuador (which until last month didn’t require a visa) and are escorted by coyotes as they bribe their way across borders headed north.  A summit of Central American foreign ministers two weeks ago failed to reach agreement on a Costa Rican proposal to create a “humanitarian corridor” for the Cubans by issuing them safe passage.  Relations between San José and Managua, already on edge as they await an ICJ decision this month on a territorial dispute, have turned bitter.

The special treatment that Cubans receive upon setting foot in the United States – including automatic access to permanent residency in one year – is the main stimulus of the flow.  The Clinton Administration adjusted how it handled those intercepted at sea, establishing a distinction between intending migrants with “wet feet” and “dry feet,” which reduced the seaborne flow somewhat.  But Cuba’s decision in 2013 (long urged by the U.S. and international community) to stop requiring citizens to get exit permits; the flow of a billion-plus dollars into Cuba through remittances and small businesses (with which to pay coyotes and corrupt officials along the way); and the growing sophistication of smuggling networks in Central America have fueled a shift in the flow overland.  Despite the Administration’s no-change pledge, some intending migrants say the current rush is being driven by fear that U.S.-Cuba normalization will end the preferences granted to Cubans who reach U.S. soil.

The Adjustment Act authorizes – but does not require – the President, through the  attorney general, to grant parole to Cubans arriving into the United States illegally and grant them permanent residency one year later.  In the absence of any change in Washington’s approach, Cubans will certainly try to avail themselves of its generous provisions.  To move the thousands stuck in Central America off the front page there, Washington may issue them expedited visas and help them with transportation to the United States.  Such gestures, however, will have a high political cost throughout Central America, where the U.S. has asked governments to stanch the movement of their own citizens fleeing violence and dire poverty, and where even well-off, law-abiding citizens have to jump through hoops and pay hundreds of dollars for tourist visas.  As the impasse in Central America grew intense last month, the State Department tweeted a reminder that “There exist legal and safe options for Cubans who want to migrate to the United States.”  Reversing policies that encourage illegal and unsafe migration – while proposing that Congress support a doubling or tripling of the current 20,000 Immigrant Visas the Embassy in Havana issues each year – would make a lot of sense.

December 7, 2015

AULABLOG will examine the powerful “push” factors driving migration from Cuba in a subsequent article.

CELAC: Losing Relevance?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to normalize diplomatic relations could leave a big hole in the agenda of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met January 28-29 for its third heads of state Summit in San José, Costa Rica.  Raúl Castro kicked off last year’s summit, in Havana, with a speech decrying the United States NSA spying scandal.  In San José, he moderated his tone, noting that “our America has entered a new era” since CELAC was founded (2010) while also calling on the U.S. to end the trade embargo – a point other member states echoed – and to return the naval station at Guantanamo Bay.  In concrete terms, the results of last week’s CELAC summit were modest.  The technocratic goals of quantifying progress on poverty and technology development announced by Ecuador, the group’s 2015-2016 President Pro-Tempore, suggest no major changes are imminent.

Since President Chávez’s death March 5, 2013, the former leader’s Bolivarian vision of Latin American and Caribbean integration and unity has shown signs of weakening.  CELAC now faces even tougher challenges defining and defending its identity and mission beyond the creation of a common political space for regional decision making insulated from the U.S. and Canada.  With Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, losing support amid economic crisis, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) can no longer throw its weight around on the international scene.  Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas – increasing the likelihood of its participation in the OAS – is a major achievement but represents the loss of a major rallying point. 

Going forward, three issues will determine the groups trajectory.  The Cuba issue wont go away suddenly, but rapid change in U.S.-Cuba ties could reset hemispheric relations and leave CELACs mission muddled and potentially irrelevant.  Disagreement among CELAC members over issues such as Puerto Ricos status may create tensions, as they did when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave the island a high profile during the presidential plenary underlining the risks inherent in the unity within diversity principle embraced by CELAC.  (Ecuadoran President Correa, another ALBA supporter, chided Ortega.)  But perhaps the biggest determinant of the groups future relevance lies in its emerging relationship with ChinaA CELAC-China foreign ministers forum met in Beijing last month, formalizing the Asian nations relationship with CELAC.  The forum announced the 2015-2019 China-CELAC cooperation plan calling for the doubling of two-way trade and the increasing of Chinese investment in the region to $250 billion.  Exclusion of the U.S. and Canada may remain a tenet of CELACs platform, but the groups leaders may judge that its long-term relevance can be rescued by reaching out to China instead.

February 2, 2015

*Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.

Drug Dealing in Costa Rica: A Perverse Path toward Social Inclusion

By Rodolfo Calderón Umaña*

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Central America’s emergence as a principal transit route for illicit drugs from South America to the U.S. has given rise to local retail markets supplying users within the region.  A study of three Costa Rican communities – one in greater San José and two along the Caribbean coast – highlights several factors that determine the scale and consequences of these local markets.  Among the most important are the high levels of social exclusion experienced by households in these localities and residents’ motivation to become involved in the business because it offers resources (money, power and prestige) that cannot be achieved through the legitimate channels of education or quality employment.  Other factors include the proximity of the communities to drug trafficking routes and the extent of previously existing demand from local consumers.

One of the most significant characteristics of local drug markets in these communities, as elsewhere, is that they are socially and territorially bounded because trust is the key factor shaping relationships between suppliers, sellers and consumers.  Some local suppliers maintain direct ties to cartels, but they operate their businesses independently.  Youth are assigned the most vulnerable tasks and are thus disproportionately represented among those arrested and convicted of crimes.  Violence serves as the principal instrument for controlling and regulating the drug trade, and the result is that for youth in these settings violence becomes normalized as a routine form of behavior.  This spawns a generalized climate of fear and insecurity, and the typical response of community residents is to retreat from public space and to isolate themselves inside their homes.

These findings support calls for new responses to the drug trade at the community level.  Central American governments, encouraged to a significant degree by U.S. programs, have tended to emphasize repressing and “combatting” the scourge of drug trafficking, yet where this approach has been implemented – particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle — social problems have only gotten worse.  In Costa Rica, it’s not too late to undertake a comprehensive strategic review of policies in this domain and to bolster programs to stabilize affected areas.  Particularly if designed and implemented from the bottom up, programs can identify and reach out to vulnerable residents before they are drawn into drug micro-markets as vendors, consumers, or both.  Vocational training programs matched to real employment opportunities are absolutely fundamental – to reduce residents’ social exclusion.  Our research findings indicate that enhancement of public spaces where community residents can congregate and initiatives focused on building trust between communities at risk and representatives of the state can also be highly productive.  Costa Rica is at a critical juncture: it can either sustain and expand the participatory policy frameworks that buttress community cohesion and resilience or run the risk of falling into the devastating spiral of delinquency and violence that has plagued its neighbors in the Northern Triangle.

*Dr. Calderón Umaña is a researcher at FLACSO-Costa Rica.  The study is being conducted by FLACSO-Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre.