Nicaragua:  Tensions Mount

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

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Protesters convene in Managua, Nicaragua last month. / Voice of America / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

President Daniel Ortega’s increasing reliance on turbas, the masked and hooded supporters mobilized to beat back protests, suggests he’s confident that he can tough out the challenge posed by growing demands that he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, resign, or, at a minimum, agree to early elections – increasing the prospect of a prolonged, unequal struggle ahead.  According to Nicaraguan press reports, turbas and police sharpshooters killed at least 15 marchers in May 30 Mother’s Day protests.  Approximately 100 protesters have been killed in street protests since April 18.  A delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the OAS issued a preliminary report after four days of in-country hearings expressing “shock” at the extent and depth of human rights violations.

  • An attempt at national dialogue mediated by the Nicaraguan Catholic Bishops Conference (CEN) was initially suspended after the government delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, claimed an agenda proposed by the bishops was the route to a golpe de estado, and was once again suspended after the Mothers’ Day killings. Death threats have been issued over social media against Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez.  Báez in particular has pushed for discussion of democracy in the dialogue.  The government has firmly refused to discuss protesters’ demand – endorsed implicitly by the Church – for an expedited election calendar (sooner than the currently scheduled presidential election of 2021).  Bishop Abelardo Mata, the Secretary of the CEN, has taken the position that Daniel and Rosario must go – as popular anger is such their own lives may be at risk.

The protesters, who are generally university students, have refused to respond with force to the turbas’ aggression, although there have been isolated reports of burned vehicles and occasional use of home-made mortars.  They have established tranques (roadblocks) on national highways leading into and out of major cities, including Managua.  Initially opened every hour or two so that traffic could move – and even suspended when a tentative agreement with the government was reached – the tranques have been stiffened to include total blockages of traffic on major routes in response to turba attacks.  Some roadblocks have been thrown up by peasants still angry about the government’s now-defunct deal with Chinese investors to build the “Grand Canal” across the country.  Independent media reports indicate that citizens are blaming Ortega and Murillo for the resulting inconvenience, and previously unpoliticized people are calling for them to step down.

  • While resisting violence, protesters are not engaged in “civil disobedience” a la Gandhi or Martin Luther King, as no one willingly goes to jail. To be taken away by the turbas or the Policía Nacional is to greatly increase the probability that one’s body will turn up in the morgue, according to local observers.  Timely intervention by individual priests has saved some lives, but the Catholic Church increasingly finds itself threatened too.

The Catholic Church’s leadership has been key and benefits from the quiet but crucial support of the business community, including the strongest private sector organization, COSEP.  Many of the dynamics in today’s confrontation are similar to those leading to the collapse of the Somoza government 40 years ago, with one glaring difference: the lack of an opposition martyr on a par with revered journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was assassinated in January 1978, 16 months before President Somoza fled into exile.  Ortega is clearly willing to escalate the intimidation of his opponents, but – should an oppositionist of Chamorro’s stature assume leadership of the current protests – the president would probably not wish to see him martyred, assuming the president still controls the forces he has unleashed. Given recent events, it is unclear if the president wishes to see any dialogue reconvened.  If he does, he will probably need to look outside the country for mediation, as the CEN has increasingly sided with protesters over the government.

  •  If the crisis drags on and on, Ortega could conceivably agree to early elections, but the opposition would still be leery of any deal that did not include a wholly new Consejo Supremo Electoral and a commitment to allow all parties to register, which are demands that probably cross a red line for Ortega. As Nicaragua mourns its dead, the anger is unlikely to subside – and an unequal struggle between the government and a generally nonviolent opposition is likely to fester if not explode.

June 1, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Nicaragua: Protest Abstention, Dedazos and Electoral Farce

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

A group of people holding Nicaraguan flags and banners protest outside

Organized by the Sandinista dissident group Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), protesters took to the streets last year ahead of the general elections to demand recognition of their party, and free and open elections. Many members of MRS will abstain from voting in the upcoming elections. / MRS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in protest abstentionism in Nicaragua’s presidential election last November appears likely to worsen in elections this November 5 – undermining the legitimacy of the Daniel Ortega government but not threatening its control.  The  Supreme Electoral Council, dominated by the ruling Sandinista Party (FSLN), proclaimed that 68 percent of the registered electorate had voted last November 6, but two more credible estimates – that of independent observers (closer to 30 percent) and post-election public opinion polls (50 percent) indicated a much lower turnout.  Non-voters come in at least two variants: the disinterested, disengaged, and poorly informed; and protest abstainers.  The evidence points to the latter reason.

  • Critics of the now-autocratic FSLN had nowhere meaningful to go electorally. In June 2016, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) withdrew recognition of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) from Eduardo Montealegre, a prior presidential nominee who had finished second to Daniel Ortega in 2006, and recognized Pedro Reyes, a political non-entity soon booted from party leadership.  Years before, in 2008, the government withdrew recognition from the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, which included most of the well-known Sandinista dissidents (including author Sergio Ramírez, once Daniel Ortega’s Vice President, and several surviving members of the Sandinistas’ original nine-person National Directorate).
  • Focus groups organized by scholars at Florida International University (FIU) and follow up studies confirmed high abstention rates driven by unhappiness with the election. Interviewees said, for example, “There was no candidate who fulfilled my expectations for making the country better … none … capable of taking the country forward.”

Protest abstentionism appears likely to be equally high or even higher in the municipal elections on November 5, reflecting frustration from an unexpected source:  loyal Sandinistas opposing the imposition of candidates by President Daniel Ortega, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.  Adapting Mexican political discourse, many FSLN nominees for mayors, vice-mayors, and municipal councilors are now criticized as representing dedazos, candidates “fingered” from above.  Two unhappy Sandinistas told the opposition paper Confidencial on August 29 of their discontent.  “It hurts me … but that is what [the party] has left me… not to vote in the municipal elections,” said one in Masaya.  “They didn’t take the party loyalists into account [in picking candidates], so the party loyalists will not take the party into account in the elections in November,” said a former FSLN supporter in Corinto.

  • Associates of the old PLI, reconstituted as Ciudadanos por Libertad (CxL), have been granted legal registration – and intend to compete as long as the Organization of American States observes the elections. The OAS role remains unclear, however, prompting the initial CxL candidate for Mayor of Managua to resign his candidacy earlier this month.

What the opposition proclaimed an “electoral farce” last November seems likely to be repeated on November 5.  Ortega has taken steps to allow “same-day registration” of voters on election day – apparently to counter abstentionism – and recent reports of distributing cédulas (national identity cards necessary for voting) to minors have surfaced in La Prensa, presumably also with an intent to increase electoral turnout.  However, anger over dedazos may be deep enough to keep many members of the FSLN away from the polls.  In spite of high abstention levels, the Ortega family enjoys control over all branches of government – National Assembly, Judiciary, and Electoral Council – and continues to enjoy an implicit corporatist accord with COSEP, the leading business organization, while having long proven adept at undermining potentially competitive leaders.  Overreaching via the dedazos may have caused visible cracks in the partisan foundation of the dynasty – strengthening party dissidents’ portrayal of Daniel and Rosario as usurpers – but no leader capable of undermining their grip over governmental structures is yet visible or appears likely to emerge in the near term.

September 18, 2017

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Shirking Obligations on Gender-based Violence

By Pamela Neumann*

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March against violence in Managua, November 2014. Oxfam en Nicaragua / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent actions by the Nicaraguan government directly conflict with its obligations under accords on gender-based violence, but regional mechanisms, including the OAS, have not been effective at holding Managua to account. The 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará), which Nicaragua ratified in 1995, defines violence against women as any act of physical, sexual, or psychological violence occurring in either the public or private sphere (Article I, III) and obligated state signatories to establish fair and effective legal procedures to address crimes against women (Article VII). The Convention also stipulated that States report steps taken to prevent and prohibit gender-based violence (Article X). In 2004, the OAS introduced a Follow-up Mechanism (MESECVI) to provide additional technical assistance and more closely monitor state actions.

Nicaragua has not submitted information to MESECVI since 2008, and its performance has become even more problematic in subsequent years. In 2012, the government passed a comprehensive law on gender-based violence (Law 779), which significantly advanced women’s legal rights and protections. Over the last three years, however, the law has been substantially undermined by legislative reforms and executive decrees. For example, mediation, an informal practice police historically used to resolve cases, was first eliminated and then reinstated. Mediation puts women’s lives at significant risk because there are no legal consequences for violating the non-binding agreements it produces. In addition, beginning in 2014, women seeking to file a legal complaint for gender-based violence were sent to neighborhood councils or the Ministry of the Family for counseling instead. Police units charged with handling domestic violence cases have been closed for over a year.

The OAS has been leaning hard on Nicaragua to address threats to its electoral process – forging an agreement last month allowing the OAS to send a team to observe municipal elections in November – but its performance as arbiter of signatories’ adherence to the Belém do Pará Convention has been less effective. The convention’s enforcement mechanisms are limited; the main recourse that individuals or organizations have is to submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which can forward it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). But action is inhibited by the stipulation that cases are only admissible when “remedies under domestic law have been pursued and exhausted” and because current regional agreements do not allow for any specific OAS-IACHR action to be taken on the basis of legislative action or inaction. The OAS’s existing instruments, moreover, put the burden on individual aggrieved parties to demonstrate the state’s intentional complicity in denying women due process. This requires showing evidence of state officials actively impeding one particular investigation or engaging in violent acts themselves. Numerous studies, including my own research, have shown that such behavior is in fact ubiquitous, but less than 1 percent of cases even make it to trial. Despite good intentions, the legal remedies afforded by the OAS tend to individualize and privatize the problem of gender-based violence – and the Nicaraguan government is not being held accountable for its failure to prevent or punish fundamental violations of women’s human rights.

March 30, 2017

*Pamela Neumann is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Tulane University.

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 (Overall) Embraces Paris Climate Accord

By Fulton Armstrong

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Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American support for the landmark climate agreement signed at the United Nations last week may not have been enthusiastic during the negotiations, but all but Nicaragua seem eager for early ratification and implementation of measures to mitigate the harm of global warming.  A record-breaking 175 countries signed the accord in one day, including a number from Latin America, committing them to take concrete steps to keep the increase in global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (or, ideally, 1.5 degrees) over preindustrial levels.  To take effect, at least 55 countries producing 55 percent of global emissions must ratify the agreement.  Fifteen small island nations, including several in the Caribbean, already presented their ratification papers last Friday.  China and the United States, the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses, have said they’ll ratify this year – as have France and other EU countries.

The region’s leaders have made significant contributions to the accord over the years.  Mexico and Peru, which were hosts of crucial international conclaves leading up to it, have given it a Latin American imprint, and others supported the final round of talks in Paris last December.  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s reference in her speech to her political troubles back home overshadowed Brazil’s leadership, including its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.  In the past, ALBA countries complained loudly that the wealthy, developed nations, which produce the vast majority of climate-harming gasses, should shoulder the burden of reducing them and should compensate poorer countries for harm that environmental measures cause them.  All but Nicaragua, however, have submitted national plans (called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, INDC) required for full participation in international efforts under the Paris Accord.  Nicaraguan Representative Paul Oquist told the media that “voluntary responsibilities is a path to failure” and that wealthy countries should compensate Nicaragua for the $2 billion cost the measures would entail.

Latin America has clear incentives to support the accord.  Various scientific studies underscore the impact of global warming on the region, with potentially dire consequences.  The World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported that failure to act would cause further extreme weather threatening agriculture; rapid melting of Andean glaciers that provide much-needed fresh water; erosion of coastal areas; catastrophic damage to Caribbean coral reefs; and dieback of Amazon forests.  ALBA demands for compensation may be overstated but contain a grain of truth – they aren’t prodigious producers of greenhouse gasses – and skepticism that the big guys will meet their targets isn’t entirely unwarranted.  President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his personal commitment to addressing the problem, but obstacles posed by the U.S. Senate (which must ratify the agreement), Supreme Court (which in February stalled implementation of his Clean Power Plan), and politicians seeking the Republican Presidential nomination (who have sworn opposition to deals like the Paris Accord) have all but shut down U.S. movement toward ratification.  The ALBA outliers, on the other hand, have made their complaints heard and appear likely to join the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean in pushing for ratification and quick implementation – and probably will soon renew the push for even tougher measures by industrialized nations.

April 25, 2016

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

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.

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.