The Anticorruption Imperative for Latin America

By Matthew Taylor*

Bar graph showing accountability in Latin America

Graphic courtesy of author. For a larger version, please click here.

Latin America’s reactions to the massive transnational scandals involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and its subsidiary Braskem are an important sign of progress in anticorruption efforts.  But across the region, courts’ reluctance to challenge elites remains a major obstacle to deeper accountability.  Brazilian, Swiss, and U.S. authorities’ announcement in December 2016 of a multibillion dollar global corruption settlement with the Brazilian firms – valued at $3.5 to 4.5 billion – was remarkable for being the largest in history.  It was also shocking for its revelations: Odebrecht admitted using a variety of elaborate subterfuges to launder bribe payments and corrupt proceeds, including by setting up a bribe department and buying an offshore bank.  Graft allowed executives to rewrite laws in their own favor, and guaranteed that the right officials were in the right place when public contracts were up for bidding.  The firms netted $3.60 for every $1 they spent on bribes in Brazil, and admitted to paying $788 million in bribes across twelve countries, including ten in Latin America.

The political salience of the charges is roughly similar in all ten Latin countries, muddying the reputations of presidents or former presidents in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, Venezuela and, of course, Brazil.  Ministers and high-level officials have been implicated in the remaining countries: Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Nearly one year after the settlement, it is time to ask how well law enforcement and judicial processes are resolving the allegations against these high-powered public and private sector elites.

  • In a paper forthcoming in Daedalus, I argue that accountability can be thought of as the outcome of a basic equation – A = (T + O + S) * (E – D) – combining transparency (T), defined in its most essential sense as public access to information about the government’s work; oversight (O), meaning that government functions are susceptible to surveillance that gives public or private agents the right to intensively evaluate the government’s performance; and sanction (S), effectively punishing wrongdoing and establishing societal norms to their rightful place. These are tempered by institutional effectiveness (E) – understood as the outcome of state capacity, relevant laws and procedures, and citizen engagement – and political dominance (D), which diminishes the incentives for active oversight or energetic sanction.  The graph above uses a combination of data points from the World Justice Project to measure each of the five variables.
  • The comparison yields mixed findings. On average, the nations implicated in the Odebrecht settlement do quite well on transparency, effectiveness, and political dominance – the outcome of a generation of democratic rule (with Venezuela being the obvious outlier).  But all ten countries perform comparatively poorly when it comes to oversight, and abysmally when the criterion is sanction.  This does not bode well for accountability, especially if we consider that among the Odebrecht Latin Ten, the highest-scoring country on the sanction criteria is Argentina, whose score is still below the middle-income country average.  In Brazil, where trial courts have led the way in imposing sanctions on business elites, political leaders are nonetheless protected against meaningful sanctions by an arcane system of privileged standing in the high courts.

Latin American judicial systems – long rigged to protect local economic and political elites – remain the principal obstacle to accountability.  The Odebrecht settlement signaled that a new day has arrived: new international norms and law enforcement across multiple jurisdictions are likely to continue to upset the cozy arrangements that have protected the region’s elites from corruption revelations for decades.  But true accountability will only come when local courts and prosecutors are empowered to effectively punish corrupt elites.  That implies changes in legal procedure, new laws, and most importantly, political will.  Perhaps the Odebrecht case will galvanize domestic public opinion and mobilize policymakers about the need to improve local justice systems.  The enormous costs of corruption revealed by the Odebrecht settlement suggest that change cannot come soon enough.

November 6, 2017

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University.  His forthcoming article in Daedalus is entitled “Getting to Accountability: A Framework for Planning and Implementing Anticorruption Strategies.”

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.

Haiti and Dominican Republic: No Détente in Sight

By Emma Fawcett*

Resettlement camp at Corail Cesselesse, Haiti Photo Credit: Oxfam International / Flickr / Creative Commons

Resettlement camp at Corail Cesselesse, Haiti Photo Credit: Oxfam International / Flickr / Creative Commons

Tensions stemming from the Dominican Republic’s forced repatriation of Haitians are spilling over into other aspects of the traditionally problematic relations between the two countries, with little prospect of resolution.  Over the summer, the Dominican Republic began a forced repatriation process for Haitians who did not comply with its 2014 National Plan for the Regularization of Foreigners.  After a temporary suspension prompted by international outrage, deportations resumed on August 15 at a rate of 50 to 100 per day, and the International Organization for Migration reports that many more Haitians are “spontaneously returning.”  Of the half million previously found to be without residency permits, about 288,000 people registered for the regularization process –180,000 of whom were rejected and are likely to be repatriated.  According to Amnesty International, 27 percent of those who have left voluntarily say they were born in the Dominican Republic, but they fear arrest or harassment because they lack proper documentation.  At least four camps filled with recent deportees have sprung up on the Haitian side of the border, and the United Nations Human Rights Council has warned that conditions are abysmal and sanitation facilities inadequate.  The Haitian government has promised to assist in resettlement efforts, but there has been no coordinated response.  At the Tête à l’Eau camp, the government initially provided $30 in assistance to deportees, but ran out of funds.

In retaliation, Haiti on October 1 began enforcing a ban on the overland importation of 23 Dominican goods, including wheat flour, cooking oil, and soap.  These products must now enter by boat or plane to Port-au-Prince or Cap Haïtien.  Smugglers found in violation of the new regulation will have their goods confiscated.  Originally announced a year ago as a way of increasing customs revenue and reducing smuggling, the measure is expected to cause prices for staples to increase by up to 40 percent in Haiti and will cost the Dominican Republic $500 million in trade revenue.  A Dominican Chamber of Commerce official noted that the measure “violates norms of free bilateral commerce and international agreements.”  Market women who run much of Haiti’s informal economy by acquiring goods across the border and bringing them home to sell have already faced difficulties since the Dominican immigration crackdown began, and the trade ban poses a further threat to their livelihoods and those of their customers.  The Association of Haitian Industry (ADIH) hopes that the measure will improve demand for domestic products.  The Dominican government and businesses have argued that trade and migration issues should remain separate matters.

The new, slower pace of deportations has allowed the Dominican government to continue with their original strategy while avoiding further media attention and threats to their tourism industry.  Ongoing presidential campaigns in both countries – with Haiti’s elections on October 25 and Dominican President Medina seeking reelection next May – have made the antagonism politically useful for both.  However, the heaviest costs, including deportations, resettlement in makeshift camps, and potentially dramatic increases in food prices, are, as usual, borne by Haiti’s poorest.  A recent World Bank report on Haiti noted that “a social contract is missing between the State and its citizens,” and the Haitian government’s inability to provide for returnees and short-sighted trade policy is clear evidence of that.  The international community – the OAS in particular – has made serious missteps in its efforts to encourage bilateral talks, including a call for dialogue by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro that was misinterpreted as a call for the unification of Hispaniola.  In response, the Dominican press has doubled down on its inflammatory rhetoric.  Neither side sees advantage to ending the stalemate, at least until after the Haitian electoral process has concluded. 

October 6, 2015

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

 

Dominican Republic: Heavy-handed Migration Policies

By Emma Fawcett*

Haitian sugarcane collectors in Dominican Republic. Photo Credit: El Marto / Flickr / Creative Commons

Haitian sugarcane collectors in Dominican Republic. Photo Credit: El Marto / Flickr / Creative Commons

The government of the Dominican Republic has not yet begun massive forced repatriations of the potentially 200,000 Haitians who have failed to comply with its “National Plan for Regularization of Foreigners,” but its plans to conduct sweeps for undocumented persons and put them in processing centers are already causing fear.  Last Wednesday evening marked the ominous deadline for those without legal residency to register in a process that began following a 2013 Tribunal Constitucional decision that Haitian descendants born in the Dominican Republic after 1929 did not qualify for Dominican citizenship.  After a barrage of international outrage at the prospect that hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent risked statelessness, President Danilo Medina and the Dominican Congress took action to create a path to citizenship for some and offer regularized – but temporary – residency to those who can prove they lived in the country before October 2011.

The Regularization Plan affects an estimated 524,000 people, including some 460,000 that a survey by the Ministry of the Economy in 2012 found were in the country without residency permits.  An estimated 250,000 people have started registration processes, but local media report that only 10,000 of them have all the necessary documents – including Haitian passports that are slow and expensive to get – and only 300 have received their temporary residency permits.  Applicants cannot be deported while their cases are evaluated, but there have already been reported instances of indiscriminate deportations.  Long lines outside the Ministry of Interior – with waits of up to 15 days – have frustrated many who tried to register.  Those who have already registered have been asked to carry their documentation at all times, to avoid difficulties with Police and Army patrols targeting Haitian neighborhoods armed with clubs and Tasers.  Amnesty International and other observers have called on the government to respect human rights, but there is widespread fear that, once international attention diminishes, many thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent will be forcibly deported.  The fear is already driving hundreds of voluntary departures.

Dominicans have relied on Haitian migrant labor for generations, and many of those without documentation were born in the Dominican Republic, speak only Spanish, and have no ties to Haiti.  Pogroms against Haitian descendants are not unprecedented either – most infamously when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937 ordered attacks on Haitians living along the border, killing an estimated 35,000 in less than a week.  Dominican officials appear committed to preventing such gross violations now and claim that their immigration policies are more forgiving than elsewhere in the region.  While Haitian President Michel Martelly has said that the country “is ready to receive with dignity our sons, our brothers,” his government’s obvious inability to help the repatriates raises the prospect that a humanitarian crisis will result.  In a nationwide address the night that the Regularization Plan registration expired, Dominican President Medina spoke of his intention to run for a second term, not about the wrenching experience some half-million persons in the country were about to face.  Taking on Haitian immigration is a popular way for Dominican politicians to pander to the electorate, drumming up support from the working class and reminding voters that the country once suffered under Haitian rule, from 1822-1844.  With the world watching, a Trujillo-era ethnic cleansing seems unlikely, but the fate of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent hangs in the balance.  

June 22, 2015

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.  Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Pension Reform: Uneven Progress

By Christina Ewig*

Two Women

Nathan Gibbs / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent pension reforms in Latin America show promise for greater gender equity across the region, but progress remains uneven in coverage and generosity.  Since 2007, 13 countries have either introduced or expanded some form of non-contributory pension, offered to defined groups as a social right, while others have made reforms to their existing pension systems that specifically compensate for gender inequalities.  These reforms in several instances were conceived with the participation of gender equity advocates.

  • The introduction of non-contributory pensions has equalized pension coverage between women and men in the region, according to a comprehensive study by the Organización Iberoamericana de Seguridad Social.
  • The equalization of men’s and women’s retirement age in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay makes it easier for women to attain the minimum number of working years for eligibility for a minimum pension.
  • The use of gender-neutral mortality tables in Bolivia and a return to the state-run defined-benefit system that treats men and women equally in Argentina, are also improvements.
  • More innovatively, in the 2007 expansion of the non-contributory pension in Bolivia and the 2008 reforms of the traditional pension systems in Chile and Uruguay, women were given credit toward their pensions for children born or adopted, to compensate for time out of the labor market.

The need for such reforms is great globally and in Latin America.  Women face much greater risks than men of poverty in old age due to workplace discrimination and gender imbalances in family carework responsibilities – the “motherhood wage gap” – during their working years.  Women are employed in smaller numbers than men in the formal economy, and they are often concentrated in the lower-paid and less-stable informal sector.  Domestic workers, primarily women, are in a sector notorious for employers’ evasion of pension payments.  Women in Latin America are also more likely than men to be found among the ranks of the unemployed or partially employed.  When employed full time in the formal sector, they face a diminishing but still substantial wage gap, earning 17 percent less on average than similarly educated men, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.  While the original pay-as-you-go pension systems were based on a male-breadwinner model that envisioned women as “dependents,” the 1990s push toward pensions that relied entirely on individual earnings magnified the effects of these discriminatory employment contexts and carework imbalances.  Moreover, in the individual capital account model, practices such as the use of differential mortality tables to determine monthly payments further reduced women’s income in old age, due to their greater expected longevity.

Despite the progress toward greater gender equity in pension policy, the issue deserves wider attention because advances have been uneven.  For example, while most countries in the region have adopted some form of non-contributory pensions, the percentage of the population eligible for these varies dramatically – as does the monthly payment.  Moreover, while the gap in pension coverage between men and women has narrowed, the compensation levels remain dramatically unequal.  Reforms, like those of Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile, that build-in compensation for market and carework inequalities deserve wider replication. 

February 26, 2015

*Dr. Ewig is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is the author of Second-Wave Neoliberalism: Gender, Race and Health Sector Reform in Peru.

Private Security Filling a Void in the Dominican Republic

By Maribel Vásquez

Photo credit: Harry Pujols / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Harry Pujols / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Criminality and violence often translate into fear and institutional distrust in Latin American contexts – and give rise to private security companies (PSCs) that play an increasingly important role in public security with little or no civilian oversight.  In the Dominican Republic, for example, PSCs are proliferating as surveys indicate a widespread perception that the Ministry of Interior and Police (MIP) is woefully inadequate in scale and capabilities.  According to a study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and the UNDP in 2012, over 50 percent of Dominicans said that they believed that the National Police was involved in criminal or illicit activity. More troublesome, of all countries surveyed*, the Dominican Republic, with 64.8 percent, reported the highest percentage of people who believe that security is deteriorating in the country.

With such levels of public disorder and perceived police ineffectiveness, the Dominican Republic has experienced a boom in PSCs.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in 2011 reported that PSCs employed 30,000 people in the Dominican Republic – and the number has surely grown since then.  The country has 29,357 formally registered police officers, yielding a ratio of 1.02 private security agents for each police officer.  Often, PSCs are better equipped in the country than security forces.  In the Dominican Republic, PSCs are under the jurisdiction of the Superintendence of Private Security (SPS), a branch of the armed forces – a fact that causes tension with the civilian companies and the police in whose jurisdiction they operate.  This absence of the MIP – the state institution directly responsible for citizen security – from the oversight process has inhibited coordination between the PSCs and the police, and diminished the government’s ability to provide public security.

The traditional definition of national defense in the Dominican Republic and other Latin America countries has included citizen security and entailed deep military involvement – and often abuses – in matters now considered best handled by civilians.  The continuing shadow of the Dominican military in security affairs has weakened the National Police.  President Danilo Medina last year deployed soldiers to patrol the streets alongside the police to combat crime.  Such practices make the police less legitimate in the eyes of the public – and further drive popular demand for PSCs.  Reforming the public security landscape in the Dominican Republic will require great political will.  More effective civilian participation in security affairs, through oversight and professionalization of the National Police, must take place to ultimately strengthen democratic accountability.  The PSCs should be brought under civilian control.  

*LAPOP-PNUD (2012). Countries surveyed: Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, República Dominicana, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Caribbean Integration: Necessary but Elusive

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas*

Embed from Getty Images

The dream of Caribbean solidarity has never been in greater peril.  Norman Girvan, who died on April 9, was committed to the cause of Caribbean integration all his adult life, including during his time as Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States.  Born and raised in Jamaica, he saw no contradiction between Jamaican nationalism and Caribbean solidarity.  After steady progress from CARIFTA (a free trade area formed in the 1960s by a number of former British colonies) to CARICOM (a customs union formed in 1973 by all British ex-colonies and many colonies) to a commitment starting in 2006 to build a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), regional integration has gone backwards.  The CSME was never completed; a ‘pause’ in its implementation has been introduced by the Heads of Government and the famous Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM) – itself formed to promote Caribbean unity in international agreements but then largely dismantled.  Suriname (in 1995) and Haiti (in 2002) have joined CARICOM, but the Dominican Republic is still outside after 25 years of discussions.  Cuban membership is still a distant dream, and the only non-independent state that participates today is the British colony of Montserrat, with a population of 5,000.  CARICOM may in theory represent much of the Caribbean population, but Haiti – its largest member by far – is not in the CSME.

Countries outside the Caribbean have reacted in very different ways to the region since the end of the Cold War.  The European Union (EU), three of whose member states – France, Holland and the United Kingdom – still have territorial ties to the Caribbean, has negotiated an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with CARIFORUM (CARICOM plus the DR) that will in due course give the EU unrestricted access for almost all goods and services.  The agreement has generated very little enthusiasm in the CARIFORUM states despite the improved access for some of their goods and services in the European market.  Venezuela has persuaded most oil-importing countries to join Petrocaribe, but only a handful (Antigua & Barbuda, Cuba, Dominica, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines) have been attracted by the more ambitious ALBA.  The United States, a colonial power itself in the region thanks to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, still offers asymmetrical trade privileges through the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and its related acts, but some of these provisions will end in 2020, and it is far from clear what will replace them.  Canada, which established CARIBCAN (similar to the CBI) in 1986, is negotiating its own version of the EPA with a broadly similar set of countries, but the negotiations have stalled recently.  Only China appears to have made huge advances in the region through increased exports and major foreign investments despite several of the countries that still recognize Taiwan.

All integration schemes, as Norman Girvan would have been the first to recognize, involve a balance between widening and deepening.  Through its premature commitment to a CSME, the member states of CARICOM took deepening too far.  At the same time, widening – necessary to negotiate with outside powers – has not gone nearly far enough.  It is a scandal that the Dominican Republic remains outside and that so little has been done to embrace Cuba despite the good political relations all states have with the island.  And the non-independent territories, as numerous as the independent states, should not be overlooked.  France and the UK have dropped their objections to closer ties between their territories and CARICOM, and the Dutch territories are largely autonomous already.  Even the U.S. territories would welcome closer links.  And when relations between Cuba and the United States are normalized, as could happen quite soon, it would be in the Caribbean’s interests to have fully embraced Cuba first.  That is an outcome that Norman Girvan would have strongly welcomed.

*Dr. Bulmer-Thomas is a professor at the University College London Institute of the Americas, fellow (and former director) at Chatham House, and author of numerous books, including The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars (2012).

Dominicans of Haitian Origin: Foreigners in their native land

By Maribel Vásquez

Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic / Photo credit: ElMarto / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic / Photo credit: ElMarto / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Nearly three months after the Dominican Republic stripped residents born to unauthorized migrants of their Dominican citizenship, the Constitutional Tribunal’s controversial decision remains the source of high tensions in the country. The ruling expanded on a 2010 amendment to the Constitution stating that children born in the Dominican Republic must have at least one parent with legal residency to be eligible for Dominican citizenship. The court has now determined that the ruling can be applied retroactively to 1929 – in effect leaving three generations of immigrants’ children in legal limbo. At an estimated 200,000, Dominicans of Haitian descent are the largest affected group. In recent years, they have already been denied identity documents, and officials have refused to return copies of their birth certificates, arguing that such births occurred while their parents were “in transit” and therefore did not meet the criteria for Dominican nationality.

International criticism of the ruling was immediate. Many critics have called it racist. After visiting the Dominican Republic earlier this month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a highly critical report. The United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has also expressed concern that the court’s decision threatens to leave hundreds of thousands stateless. CARICOM has called on the Dominican Republic to “right this terrible wrong” and suspended its membership application. Caribbean leaders have expressed outrage.  Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, said the ruling created a “grave humanitarian situation,” and the former prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Lester Bird, said the ruling was “so absolutely racist that it’s almost pathetic.” The United States has kept an extremely low profile on the issue.

The tribulations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic date back to the country’s independence in 1844, after 22 years of Haitian occupation, during which tensions between Dominicans and Haitians were high. Since then, relations between the two peoples of Hispañiola have often been in turmoil, most notably when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937 issued orders that led to el corte – “the cutting” – that massacred over 30,000 Haitians along the border. The Constitutional Tribunal’s decision appears to reflect the tradition of anti-haitianismo that underlines Dominican national identity. It raises questions about the legal status of past political figures and surely excludes the living from political processes. Applied retroactively, for example, the ruling leaves former Santo Domingo mayor and three-time presidential candidate, José Francisco Peña Gómez stateless in death. While the prospect of another el corte is inconceivable for many of the now-stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent, incidents of violence against them have risen since the ruling – and activists have called the disenfranchisement of Haitian-Dominicans a “civil genocide.”

Obama’s Second Trip to Central America

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

The White House has cast President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Central America on May 2-4 as “an opportunity for the President to demonstrate his leadership in the international community in a really important way.”  The spokesman emphasized the “important people-to-people ties” between the United States and Central America because “there are a lot of immigrants” from the region.  The Administration’s press releases stress that the summit in San José, with the presidents of the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic under the rubric of the Central American Integration System (SICA), will focus on collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in the region and on “our ongoing collaboration on citizen security.”

Regional reaction to the visit and summit has been positive – Obama’s interest is clearly welcome – but leaders are already managing expectations.  Costa Rican Foreign Minister Castillo last weekend cautioned that the United States is not able to provide significant new assistance for either economic or security programs.  Commentators note that the visit has not been preceded by the sort of diplomatic activity that would indicate the rollout of significant new policies or programs.

At a summit in Guatemala with Vice President Biden one year ago, Costa Rican President Chinchilla crystalized regional criticism of the U.S. counternarcotics strategy when she said that Central America “is sacrificing the lives, making its enormous sacrifice” and, in a clear reference to Washington, called on the “international community [to] take greater co-responsibility in this struggle.”  Hosting the SICA summit with Obama suggests she is prepared to put such criticism aside, perhaps in hopes that talks focus on the economic and immigration issues.  The White House spokesman’s reference to immigrants – at a time that Obama is pushing ahead with related legislation – may indicate that immigration will be a primary concern for him also.  The last time Obama went to Latin America, for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, he seemed ill-prepared for criticism of U.S. policies, including its counternarcotics strategy, even from Washington’s closest friends.  With perhaps the exception of Nicaraguan President Ortega, the participants in this Central American get-together seem less likely to deliver a similar grilling, making what diplomats call a “successful meeting” very likely.

Is Chairman Menendez the Right U.S. Signal for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, Professors of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

Fresh and credible allegations about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s bullying of Latin American governments and influence-peddling for political cronies raise further doubts about what Washington is signaling to the region – and the implications for U.S. relevance in the second Obama Administration.  Secretary of State Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is now a major architect of U.S. policy, and his activities and policies are an indication of U.S. intentions around the world, especially in Latin America, which has been the focus of much of the Senator’s attention.

Media reports have documented well how Menendez persistently intervened on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor to pressure the government of the Dominican Republic to institute port security programs over legitimate objections of local authorities.  When Dominican officials appropriately exercised their duties and pointed out that the donor lacked expertise for the exorbitantly priced contract, Menendez only turned up the heat.  This was consistent with an ongoing pattern of behavior.  In 2011, according to reliable sources, Menendez demanded a U.S. policy of forcing the government of El Salvador to fire a cabinet minister he did not like, clearing the way for the military to capture the position.  Earlier, when the OAS opened discussions on whether to lay out conditions for Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric body, he threatened to cut all of its U.S. funding.  A self-proclaimed champion of “democracy promotion” and “accountability” in Latin America, the New Jersey Democrat never missed a chance to criticize centrist or left-leaning governments.  Governments in the region are not the sole targets of his interventions:  Menendez has used his influence to intimidate bureaucrats throughout the U.S. foreign policy community into either supporting his initiatives or, at least, turning a blind eye to them.

Latin American opinion-makers grew accustomed to Menendez’s ways during his tenure (2010‑12) as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on the western hemisphere, but his ascension to the chair of the full committee from within Obama’s own party makes his voice – and style – much more important.  His influence-peddling for his buddies’ business interests – at the expense of other U.S. government and foreign partners’ priorities – can only fuel greater cynicism about U.S. preachiness on anticorruption and “democracy promotion.”  It also further risks U.S. relevance at a time that many in the region remain hopeful of a revival of President Obama’s short-lived emphasis on “partnership” in the “neighborhood.”  The investigations into Menendez’s activities may run into serious obstacles – many bureaucrats fear his ire, and will be reluctant to talk – but it’s already clear that his bullying and influence-peddling make him the wrong person for a leadership role in U.S. policy toward Latin America.