COVID-19: A Race Against Time to Vaccinate

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

A woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine in Brazil/ International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Latin American governments’ rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been plagued by an unequal distribution of doses, a lack of ancillary supplies, and political disharmony – and most have little prospect of making up for lost time. The region has struggled to obtain enough doses despite Chinese, Russian, and U.S. vaccine diplomacy, and only 3 percent of the population is inoculated. There is also intra-regional inequality: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have 90 percent of available doses. Only Chile has implemented a successful immunization program.

  • Argentina’s efforts are hampered by a lack of doses, despite deals with AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, and Sputnik. The administration of President Alberto Fernández has been forced to prioritize delivery of first-round shots and delay second shots. Scientists warn that this decision, similar to that of the United Kingdom, could jeopardize vaccine effectiveness. They have also criticized the pace of immunizations. While Argentina made a deal with Mexico last year to produce 150 million AstraZeneca doses for distribution across the region, it has yet to bear fruit.
  • Mexico is also struggling with a lack of doses, which caused the government to delay its vaccination campaign launch from December to February. While the Argentine-Mexican deal for AstraZeneca doses intends to address this deficit, a lack of ancillary inputs has significantly delayed manufacturing. Fewer than 3 percent of Mexicans have been fully vaccinated, and the government’s plan aims for herd immunity only by March 2022. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has criticized vaccine inequities as part of his discourse supporting marginalized populations, even speaking at the UN about this issue, but his administration’s list of vaccine priority groups has drawn fierce criticism. In some rural areas, citizens received vaccines before the medical staff administering them, raising concerns that AMLO is prioritizing political considerations over public health.
  • Brazil faces a host of problems. Its vaccination scheme relies primarily on China’s Sinovac, which health experts say has the lowest efficacy of any vaccine, though the government signed a deal with AstraZeneca last month to produce 12.2 million doses domestically. President Jair Bolsonaro has regularly denigrated COVID vaccines, part of his laissez-faire attitude towards the pandemic. Although an estimated 4 percent of Brazilians are fully immunized, an inadequate record-keeping system makes monitoring progress difficult. Furthermore, the spread of a new COVID-19 variant from Manaus threatens to significantly undermine current vaccination efforts.

By contrast, Chile’s vaccination program is a regional success, with nearly 30 percent of its population fully inoculated. Following the program’s December launch, more than 3 million doses were administered in the first three weeks, and the government aims to fully vaccinate 80 percent of the population by June.

  • Chile’s success is due in part to government efforts to procure vaccines from multiple sources (including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Sinovac) and hosting clinical trials in exchange for early access and better prices. The health ministry mobilized the national vaccination system to implement its program and established clear guidelines and a national schedule, avoiding the confusion and contradictory messaging that plague other nations.

The disparity between Chile’s and its neighbors’ results was not a forgone conclusion. Brazil also has a robust national vaccination system, and along with Argentina and Mexico secured vaccine deals around the same time as Chile. The key lies in the more aggressive approach of President Sebastian Piñera’s administration in acquiring as many doses as possible – from wherever they could be sourced – and in its ownership of Chile’s vaccination program. Unlike most governments in the region, in the second half of 2020, when many vaccines were still in development, Chile oriented its health infrastructure and bureaucracy toward a successful inoculation program. Most other countries in the region did not, and they have no available roadmap to make up for lost time.

April 22, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

COVID-19: Vaccine Diplomacy Drives Hard Bargain

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

Sinopharm Vaccine Supplies Arriving in Peru/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Cancillería del Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China, Russia, and the United States are offering millions of desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines to Latin American governments in exchange for policy changes that suit the supplying governments, and – with limited supply and fierce global demand for vaccines – regional governments are playing along.

  • China’s strategy builds on its promotion of medical supplies from its state-owned and private firms to become Latin America’s COVID-19 partner of choice. It has signed deals for vaccines produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm totaling nearly 200 million doses regionally, including with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The government has offered $1 billion in loans to facilitate vaccine purchases.
  • Russia, in turn, has secured deals for nearly 125 million doses of its state-developed Sputnik vaccine with Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. It is also negotiating with Brazil and Venezuela to host vaccine trials in exchange for more favorable supply deals. Moscow aims to build upon these connections to forge stronger commercial ties.
  • While the United States has made fewer deals, the administration of President Joe Biden announced in mid-March that it would give 2.5 million surplus AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mexico. The deal occurred the same day as Mexico announced further travel restrictions limiting Central American migration to the U.S. border, suggesting that Washington, like Beijing and Moscow, is linking vaccine deals with favorable policies in the region.

The three vaccine suppliers’ actions are already influencing relations between them and Latin American countries. Before Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had his first phone call with President Biden, he had already finalized a deal for 24 million Sputnik doses and extended a state visit invitation to Vladimir Putin. In Brazil, regulators reversed their earlier position, adopted after aggressive lobbying from Washington, and allowed Chinese telecom Huawei to bid on 5G network construction contracts shortly after reaching a deal for tens of millions of Sinovac doses. In the long term, closer regional ties with Russia and China could influence Latin American governments to tilt more favorably toward the preferences of Moscow and Beijing in bilateral relations, at the United Nations, and in regional bodies such as CELAC.

In addition to offering deals to Latin American partners, the three governments promote their own efforts by critiquing their rivals. Chinese officials describe their objective as equitable vaccine access, contrasting it to Western nations stockpiling many more doses than their populations require. Their U.S. counterparts are no less circumspect; a senior Biden official accused China and Russia of “vaccine mercantilism” while promoting Washington’s collaboration.

  • Claims from Beijing, Moscow, and Washington that they merely wish to advance global vaccine cooperation fail to obscure the hard bargains on offer. All three governments are leveraging the desperation of Latin American officials to extract policy concessions that suit their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paraguay – the only South American nation that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan – which is struggling to access Chinese vaccines. Press reports indicate that China is linking a vaccine deal with Asunción breaking those relations; the Paraguayan foreign minister’s recent call for closer economic and cultural ties with China suggests this pressure is working. Latin American governments face a stark choice: reorient their foreign policies in exchange for vaccines or remain mired in the pandemic’s mounting health and economic costs.

April 16, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

Latin America: Impact of the January 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

By Ilka Treminio Sánchez, Fábio Kerche, and Esteban De Gori*

Tear gas outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021/ Tyler Merbler/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

AULABLOG invited three Latin American experts to comment on the impact of the events in Washington, DC, last month on U.S. relations with the region.

Ilka Treminio Sánchez*

During the Trump Administration, the United States revealed regrettable signs of institutional erosion and democratic backsliding. The political engine that allowed and promoted these actions was based on polarizing political discourse that shaped a hostile atmosphere toward Trump’s and his supporters’ opponents. This behavior escalated to the point of attacks on the electoral results and the violent assault on the Capitol by Trump’s followers on January 6, the day Joe Biden’s victory was certified. The insurrection failed as institutions upheld the legitimacy of the electoral process and the popular will of the citizens.

For Latin America, and for Central America specifically, this episode signifies the rupture of the myth of democratic exceptionalism in the United States. It reveals U.S. fissures and defects that are characteristic of the hemisphere’s weakest democracies. Central America has many times experienced authoritarianism, populism, violence against the adversary, social violence against ethnic groups, attacks on Congress, and attempts to alter electoral results. The Trump Administration’s actions have seriously damaged the United States’ image as a country that guarantees democracy – and its future governments could lose moral authority in the region on this matter.

  • The January 6 assault could give new life to undemocratic “zombie ideas” in Central America, undermining progress in political and civil rights made in the last decades. It could further embolden efforts to weaken election processes and increase presidential authoritarianism already present in the region.

Fábio Kerche*

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and President Trump’s campaign to overturn the electoral results were a sad scene for more than just the United States. Democracy is the regime in which a government can be defeated in an election and then leaves office peacefully. The events in Washington revealed that, even in a country in which democracy was a consolidated regime, it is vulnerable – with profound implications for younger and more fragile democracies worldwide. This includes Latin America and particularly Brazil.

  • It is important to remember that the Brazilian political crisis started when the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections challenged the results. Fortunately, the U.S. political institutions were still strong enough to overcome the impasse in Washington. The United States’ most recent crisis gives Latin Americans cause to consider what should and should not be done to protect and consolidate democracy across our continent. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to reproduce Trump’s style, the failure of the U.S. Capitol insurrection – and the triumph of the country’s Constitutional order – should discourage any imagining that there is a way out of democracy.

Esteban De Gori*

The insurrection was undoubtedly shocking for South America. No government and no citizenry had imagined that a group of persons could occupy the U.S. Capitol as they did, nor that challenges to U.S. electoral processes could be so intense. Among the most powerful events: persons supported by the President overrunning the building and deepening the runaway polarization; the struggle of the democratic system to overcome the challenges to the electoral competition; and, perhaps most profoundly, the erosion of popular faith in the system. Leaders in most of Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela and perhaps others, showed concern and surprise. A crisis afflicting a great geo-economic player in the context of a pandemic and trade war with China could bring greater uncertainties and risks and, especially now, few opportunities.

  • The insurrection and the singularly belligerent government of Donald Trump are not the only things driving reassessment of the United States as a promoter of democracy and the rule of law. Since 2008, to take the financial crisis as a point of reference, doubts about the effectiveness of the country’s political system have deepened. That discomfort helped bring Trump to power as it eroded faith in the political system and its ability to balance desires and demands. The early statements and actions of the Biden Administration suggest awareness of this discomfort and willingness to begin addressing it.
  • The events (and Biden’s efforts to overcome them) do not appear likely to significantly change the U.S. relationship with Latin America. The pandemic and other challenges to democracy have placed extraordinary pressure on the region’s leaders, for whom the images of U.S. insurrection may have engendered even a certain empathy. They now know that parliaments and democratic institutions can be illegally occupied; that debate can go horribly awry; that polarization can seriously deepen in any country of the hemisphere.
  • More than the turmoil in Washington, the pandemic and its economic consequences appear likely to influence U.S.-Latin America relations. Joe Biden will probably remain focused on the country’s customary interests in the region – no great changes – although with less belligerence than Donald Trump. China, the other great regional power, will continue to promote its position without big conflicts or stridency. Even if the United States retains its economic edge in Latin America, its problems – and China’s gradual expansion in the region – put Washington on the downward path typical of a great power in decline.

February 11, 2021

* Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.
* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.
* Esteban De Gori teaches sociology at La Universidad de Buenos Aires and is a researcher at Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET).

Latin America: Moving Toward Active Non-Alignment?

By Jorge Heine*

IV CELAC Summit, Ecuador 2016/ FAOAmericas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

A new Cold War between the “great powers” outside Latin America – the United States and China – has again undermined the region’s ability to defend its own interests and given impetus to new ways of establishing its autonomy. The COVID‑19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the human cost of playing favorites. Over 400,000 have died in Latin America, triggering what ECLAC has called the region’s worst crisis in a century. There is plenty of blame to go around – starting with China, where the virus originated, and continuing with the region’s incompetent management. But less remarked upon has been the U.S. role in contributing to this tragedy due to its obsession with all things Cuban and, more recently, Chinese.

  • In 2019, Washington strongly pressured the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador to expel the teams of Cuban doctors working there. They complied just before the onset of the pandemic, leaving themselves without a critical mass of needed health professionals. At the same time, Washington slashed funding to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), leaving it unable to assist as it did in previous pandemics.
  • Ecuador, with 12,000 deaths, is Exhibit A of the effect, and Bolivia, with 8,000, is not too far behind. Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s agreement to withdraw Cuban doctors from the Amazon contributed to the decimation of Aboriginal tribes. Nonetheless, as the virus was ravaging the region, USAID refused to restore funding to PAHO. In addition to the humanitarian crisis, the region faces a projected negative growth of 8 percent in 2020, the worst performance of any region, and the prospect of yet another lost decade.

Alarm at the cost to Latin American governments of engaging in Cold War games is rising, inspiring support for what my colleagues Carlos Fortín, Carlos Ominami, and I call a policy of Active Non-Alignment for Latin America. Just as in the 1950s, when countries unwilling to choose between Washington and Moscow, between capitalism and socialism, formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the situation today requires some reassessing of international roles.

  • Any new configuration would reflect that the Global South, which represented 20‑30 percent of trade and investment flows in the 1960-70’s, now accounts for 50 percent. The enormous growth of countries from the Global South , particularly of China and India, but also Brazil (under former President Lula), Indonesia and Turkey, does not occur in a vacuum. It has coincided with a growing populism and protectionism in countries of the developed North, which have dismantled the very Liberal International Order they once created, and are now turning inwards.
  • In this emerging Global South, old platforms like the NAM are being replaced by new ones like the BRICS. The old diplomacy of the Cahiers des doleances has been overtaken by the collective financial statecraft of entities such as the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (the so-called “BRICS Bank”). These developments suggest that, far from locking herself up within the confines of the Western Hemisphere, as the anachronistic application of a newly dusted-off Monroe Doctrine portends, Latin America will benefit more from opening up to this new “Post Western World,” in Oliver Stuenkel’s expression.

Active non-alignment is not the romantic resurrection of a bygone era, but rather adapting traditions to this new epoch, in a world in flux. It would expand, not limit, the ties of Latin American nations with the vast emerging non-Western world.

  • Genuine non-alignment does not surrender to any major power but focuses instead on the region’s own goals and objectives. For Latin America, it would entail strengthening regional bodies and deepening its commitment to multilateralism; developing an action plan on climate change; establishing a regional Center for Disease Control (CDC); redefining notions of national security to reflect today’s threats; and committing to gender equality and fair labor relations.
  • Chilean Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand has already expressed support for what he has called “active neutralism,” but sitting governments appear unlikely to take up such an unorthodox approach. Nonetheless, the next electoral cycle – in which ruling leaders are likely to pay a heavy price for the COVID debacles – will probably change many minds.
  • The Administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have its hands full with domestic challenges, and China, fully aware of the sensitive geopolitical situation in place today, does not expect Latin America to take Beijing’s side in its differences with Washington on issues that do not affect the region.  In this conjuncture,  Latin America is at a crossroads, and its current fragmentation and deep-seated crisis call for a fresh approach on how it relates to the rest of the world.

November 13, 2020

* Jorge Heine is Research Professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.

OAS: Almagro’s Veto of IACHR Executive Secretary Threatens Commission’s Independence

By Bruno Boti Bernardi, Isabela Gerbelli Garbin Ramanzini, João Roriz, and Matheus de Carvalho Hernandez*

Regular Meeting of the Permanent Council. From left to right:
Paulo Abrão, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General./ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s decision to block a second term for Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão – citing allegations of mismanagement – is undermining the organization’s autonomy by rejecting the unanimous vote of its Commissioners and ignoring the views of human rights advocates throughout the region. Despite Abrão’s strong reputation, Almagro on August 25 stated the man was unfit to remain on the job.

  • During Abrão’s first term as Executive Secretary (beginning in 2016), the Commission was at the forefront of a number of thorny problems in the region, including U.S. handling of migration, indigenous and environmental causes in Brazil, democratic guarantees in Venezuela and Nicaragua, U.S. police violence, and others. Supporters also credit him with launching institutional transformations and modernizations. Recognizing Abrão’s leadership, the Commission’s seven members in January unanimously approved a second term for him, which would begin last month.
  • Almagro said his veto of Abrão’s reappointment was based on a supposed confidential report stating 61 “functional complaints” against him, including “possible rights violations”. He also alleged that the Commissioners were derelict in not “clarifying the accusations,” which he said included “conflict of interest, differential treatment [favoritism], serious deterioration in the level of transparency of the processes, retaliations and violations of the code of ethics, impunity for sexual harassment accusations.”

Human rights advocates throughout Latin America have accused Almagro of inappropriate interference in the human rights body’s affairs. In one public letter, more than 300 organizations – many with strong records of activism against the sort of workplace and gender issues that Almagro raised – pointed out that the Secretary General violated the IACHR’s statute and longstanding practice requiring prior consultation with Commissioners before taking any personnel actions. They called for dialogue, respect for IACHR’s autonomy, and independent investigations into any allegations made against Abrão or the Commissioners.

  • Experts are also concerned that Almagro’s actions were driven by political factors, particularly his sensitivity to right-leaning governments’ discomfort with the Commission’s criticism. On Almagro’s watch, Argentina (under former President Mauricio Macri), Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Paraguay in April 2019 issued a declaration demanding greater deference from the Commission to the states. Two months later, a block of critical governments tried to influence the election of Commissioners to favor a Colombian candidate (who lost).
  • Right-leaning governments have applied similar pressure on the Inter-American System and other international organizations – while Almagro was supportive or maintained public silence. The United States pushed hard to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance against Venezuela, a mutual defense treaty of 1947, and last week succeeded in using its influence to gain the election of its nominee as president of the Inter-American Development Bank, breaking a six-decade tradition of Latin American leadership at the institution. At the UN, U.S. President Donald Trump directed his country’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council in 2018. The following year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro launched broadsides against the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, when she began speaking out about allegations of abuses in his country.
  • This is not an isolated episode in the IACHR’s history. In addition to the decades of military dictatorships’ resistance, the organization has weathered suspension of states’ payment of dues and even threats – sometimes fulfilled – of the withdrawal of states. In 2011, a controversial process of institutional reform prompted a budget boycott strategy led by some Latin American governments angry at what they considered to be unreasonable interference in domestic affairs.

UN High Commissioner Bachelet’s pledge two weeks ago to push for a solution to the impasse created by Almagro’s veto is key. For 61 years, the IACHR has been the only monitoring forum with oversight over all states in the region, whose main function has been to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas, in accordance with Article 41 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Its Commissioners have worked closely with civil society and the victims of human rights violations, and taken steps to improve monitoring in ways that enhanced protection for the region’s historically marginalized populations. Experience has shown that the expansion of individual and collective awareness of human rights not only remedies violations on a case-by-case basis but also leverages the empowerment of citizens against violations by their governments.

  • These activities are all the more important in difficult times, such as created by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which political leaders’ temptation to resort to un-democratic means of governance can be intense. Protecting the IACHR’s independence and enhancing its ability to function without pressure from governments of any political stripe is essential to consolidating progress made in Latin American human rights and preserving space for more in the future.

September 15, 2020

* Bruno Boti Bernardi is a professor at the Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD). Isabela Gerbelli Garbin Ramanzini is a professor at the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU). João Roriz is a professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Matheus de Carvalho Hernandez is a professor at the Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD).

Tough Times in Latin America

By Andrés Serbin*

Protests in Chile

Protests in Chile/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The year 2019 was an annus horribilis for Latin America, but 2020 – with its pandemic and economic slowdown – has more seriously worsened an array of structural challenges that will prompt even greater instability in the post-pandemic era. Last year’s meager and slowing economic growth, barely reaching 0.1 percent, prompted social protests that shook governments on both the left and right, driving a reconfiguration of the political map of the region. This year’s challenges will affect countries differently and more deeply.

  • The Informe Iberoamérica 2020, recently published by the Fundación Alternativas in Madrid, warns of the current and looming challenges to the region. Preexisting inequality has already been affecting stability, as have the growing demands and expectations, associated with advances made in previous years, of greater redistribution, and better public policies. The worst economic performance in 60 years deepened the structural problems of a region that has generally failed to diversify and develop productive structures and overcome its excessive dependency on exports of raw materials (and on Chinese demand for them). Low confidence in political institutions and disillusionment with political elites and leaders’ ability to meet citizens’ needs (and those leaders’ subsequent delegitimization) signal a crisis of representation and steps backward for democracy.

The political polarization generated by this ominous combination of factors is not only worsening ideological fractures in society; it is reducing the region’s ability to develop responses to an international situation that also entails a complex transition: the rivalry between the United States and China is not the only driver of this process.

  • These and other extraregional actors, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and most recently India, are increasingly making Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the region’s apparent peripheral importance, into a battlefield of geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation that is complicating its struggle to maintain some degree of autonomy from external pressures and to diversify its foreign policies.
  • Three other related factors are aggravating this multi-faceted crisis. The corruption that has traditionally characterized the elites has spread throughout Latin American societies. Military forces are reappearing as political actors in a process that is threatening weakened democratic institutions and giving rise to diverse authoritarian models. Organized crime in its various incarnations – from trafficking in drugs to trafficking in humans – is expanding.

Within this context, to the challenge of leading during a pandemic are added several monumental tasks. Leaders will confront a recession and economic crisis that threatens to ravage the most vulnerable sectors and harm the whole of society. They will be confronted by demands to restore the resilience of democracy and its weakened institutions through strategies and public policies that reflect citizens’ needs.

  • More than ever before, the region’s leaders have an incentive to develop coordinated regional strategies that efficiently deal with these problems as well as other global challenges in ways that promote Latin American and Caribbean international integration with greater autonomy and diversification. Challenges in tough times demand complex, sophisticated social contracts and a deeper regional consensus – all difficult to achieve in a polarized and fragmented region, particularly while grappling with the combined and divisive impact of the pandemic and the economic crisis.

August 3, 2020

* Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a network of more than 70 research centers, think tanks, NGOs, and other organizations focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is adapted from one published in Clarín.

 

OAS: More of the Same in Almagro’s Second Term?

By Fulton Armstrong

Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General

Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General/ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro pledged “an active OAS with clear objectives on the regional political and democratic agenda” upon his inauguration to a second term on May 27, but unfulfilled priorities of his first term and the COVID‑19 crisis appear likely to overshadow any new initiatives. In his address, Almagro boasted that the OAS is “once again the Organization that is the main political forum of the Americas” and said it “must normalize democracy as the ideal political system for the Hemisphere, without discussion or exceptions.” He also spoke of the need to strengthen social inclusion and support “those most vulnerable to poverty who face injustice and discrimination.” He did not use the occasion to announce any concrete proposals.

  • The pandemic has made evident how fragile democracy in the region is. Several governments in the Americas have resorted to undemocratic practices and temporary breaks in Constitutional order. In Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru, and Chile, police have used disproportionate violence to control protests or enforce pandemic regulations. Although the OAS General Secretariat issued guidelines on how to apply extraordinary measures in a manner that complies with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the organization has been silent on violations.

Almagro’s deeply personal role in efforts to promote regime change in Venezuela dominated his first-term agenda but did not yield concrete results. His initiatives to drive change in Nicaragua have also failed to achieve stated goals. Even though many member nations are deeply critical of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, critics argue that Almagro’s actions, often without formal consultation with the Permanent Council, have been excessive and harmed the OAS’s credibility – particularly at a time that the United States has been pushing parallel efforts as part of a revival of its 19th-century Monroe Doctrine.

  • Almagro’s inaction in other areas has raised doubts in some quarters about his and the OAS’s impartiality. He has been silent on the excesses of Brazilian President Bolsonaro in political and environmental matters; on human rights violations during Chile’s protests last year; and on U.S. and Mexican cooperation on migration, which many experts say have led to systematic violation of asylum-seekers’ rights. He acquiesced in Honduras’s decision to shut down MACCIH, the anti-corruption and anti-impunity mechanism he personally helped fashion, suggesting that his commitment to the transparency and accountability it was supposed to force was weaker than his rhetoric. The OAS’s assessments of the Bolivian elections last October, which gave an international imprimatur to the military removal of President Evo Morales, has also raised questions about whether his commitment is to democratic process or regime change in left-leaning countries.
  • The OAS has also been largely missing in action in facing the health and economic threats posed by COVID‑19. Central America, through SICA, tried to develop a subregional strategy in the early days of the pandemic, and Mercosur presidents had important conversations about possible measures to take. Almagro said recently that the OAS had been “quick to leverage our platform for greater coordination … between the states for sharing best practices and models for a successful response,” but the organization has largely remained on the sidelines.

Many of Latin America’s problems are structural, have deep historic roots, and defy ready solutions that any Secretary General could drive. Almagro’s statements suggest continuation of the relatively narrow focus of his first term – heavy on driving political change in leftist countries that coincide with policy priorities of the United States and right-leaning governments in the hemisphere. Reducing poverty and increasing inclusion seem significantly lower priorities. Leftist and left-leaning governments will continue to grumble about the tilt toward interventionism under Almagro, notably his endorsement in principle of military action to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, but fatigue and more compelling issues, such as the pandemic, probably will blunt challenges to his approach.

  • The pandemic, however, is a good opportunity for the OAS to pivot toward implementation of a collective defense of democracy that reduces partiality, confrontation, and ideological drifts; stresses impartiality, mediation, and neutrality; and addresses the underlying challenges of economic and political inequality. 

July 20, 2020

Latin America: COVID-19 Challenges Higher Education

By Eric Hershberg, Alexandra Flinn-Palcic, and Christopher Kambhu*

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil; Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library

Left: Classroom in Campinas, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Priscilla Micaroni/ Creative Commons License (modified) // Right: Universidad de las Américas, Puebla Library/ Wikimedia Commons/ Jose Alonso/ Creative Commons License (modified)

The COVID‑19 pandemic has worsened the challenges that Latin American universities already faced and could have a potentially catastrophic impact on higher education in the region.

  • Average gross enrollment doubled – from roughly one-fifth to two-fifths of the college-age population across the region – since the turn of the century, but budget constraints stemming from protracted economic stagnation have left institutions struggling to meet that growing demand. Annual GDP growth languished at 0.4 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). That forced painful cuts at state universities, and private schools have grappled with the stagnant incomes of tuition-paying households.

Due to COVID‑19, ECLAC now projects a regionwide decline in GDP of more than 5 percent in 2020 and forecasts that 29 million people will fall into poverty and 16 million into extreme poverty. To gauge the impact on higher education in the region, last month CLALS surveyed officials at more than 50 Latin American universities. (Read the full report.) More than half are in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has already slashed public university budgets, but the survey results show substantial adverse impacts throughout the region as well as deep trepidation about future prospects. Highlights our survey revealed:

  • Nearly three-quarters of universities have transitioned to some degree of online instruction since closing campuses in March, but 90 percent of respondents said that some students, because of socio-economic and territorial disparities, are having difficulty accessing the internet. Half of survey respondents considered that their institutions were “well-prepared” or “somewhat prepared” to make the transition, but half deemed their institutions to have been inadequately prepared. Fewer than half of the institutions represented had taken steps to address students’ need for connectivity, and in some instances, particularly in public schools, this gap was a factor in the decision not to move instruction online.
  • Most respondents believe that on-site classes cannot resume for some time; only a third at private institutions and a fifth at public institutions (mostly in Brazil) anticipate offering courses on campus through August 2020. As for the remainder of 2020, respondents were divided evenly on the prospects for reopening their campuses.
  • Fully 84 percent of respondents predict a drop in undergraduate registration, with half estimating a 10 to 25 percent decline. Predictions are only slightly better at the graduate level. Roughly two-thirds of the institutions surveyed host some international students, and of those, 60 percent of respondents from public universities and 30 percent from private institutions predict enrollment to decline by more than 50 percent.

Our survey leaves little doubt that Latin American universities are facing their greatest crisis in decades. Continued expansion of higher education institutions – one-quarter of which have been created since the early 2000s – now appears implausible.

  • Declining enrollments portend severe reductions in revenue. Half of respondents report cuts during the current fiscal year, and only one in 10 anticipate stable financing next year – with most expecting cuts of 10 to 30 percent. Hiring freezes are already widespread, and salary cuts loom on the horizon.

The responses to our survey may actually underestimate the depth of the dislocation in store. To re-open their doors, institutions will have to make substantial, unanticipated investments to ensure the safety of students and staff – reconfiguring facilities and developing testing and isolation protocols that will be extraordinarily difficult to implement.

Students will need additional support as the pandemic affects their families, campuses, and communities. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to our survey regionwide, and 96 percent in Brazil, indicated that their institutions provide psychological support services for students. There was virtually unanimous agreement – 96 percent – that these needs will increase over the coming two years.

  • An estimated 700,000 people in Latin America and the Caribbean have contracted the virus so far, and more than 35,000 have perished. In most countries these numbers are rising rapidly. In an increasingly bleak landscape, there is reason for concern that Latin America’s university sector may prove to be yet another victim of COVID-19.

June 2, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University. Alexandra Flinn-Palcic and Christopher Kambhu are Program Coordinators at the Center. Read the full report.

Latin America: Organized Crime Taking Advantage of COVID-19

By Carolina Sampó*

Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Favela Villa Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil/Phillip Ritz/Flickr/Creative Commons License (not modified)

Latin American criminal organizations have faced some new challenges during the coronavirus pandemic – such as disruptions in transportation routes and markets – but they have also exploited opportunities to expand operations in ways that further threaten governments’ control in vulnerable communities.

  • Shelter-in-place controls in the region and the United States have complicated the groups’ most profitable business area: drug trafficking. Moreover, breaks in supply chains, especially those related to chemical precursors from China, have caused shortages of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid preferred by U.S. drug users, and ingredients used to make methamphetamines.
  • Trafficking of cocaine and other plant-based drugs has not stopped within Latin America, although some reduction in their movement to market has driven up prices somewhat. Quarantines have posed new difficulties for transportation, but traffickers usually avoid legal border crossings and pass through areas with no or minimal government presence anyway. Governments have also moved detection and interdiction resources elsewhere. Brazil, as the region’s main consumer, still seems to be receiving regular shipments of cocaine.
  • Shipping drugs outside the region has been more difficult because airports are closed and commercial ship traffic has declined, but criminal organizations have accepted to run the risks of continuing their own maritime activities, which raises the price to consumers. Authorities say that cocaine shipments tend to be large – over one ton – and narco-submarines are being used.

Supply and demand have both declined during the coronavirus outbreak, but prices of meth and synthetic opioids have risen considerably – some even tripling in recent weeks, according to U.S. official sources. Demand from consumers of illicit drugs at parties is down with the implementation of social distancing, but dealers in food delivery services are distributing their merchandise directly to users’ homes. Supply and demand seem to be balanced, but dealers are charging higher prices for their enhanced service and greater risks.

As in the past, criminal organizations are showing high adaptability. International experts report the groups are increasingly getting involved in cybercrime. They have also been caught peddling counterfeit medical items. Interpol has seized substandard masks and sanitizers as well as drugs the gangs claim will help people combat the virus. The pandemic has also enabled criminals to deepen their ties with vulnerable communities, such as by providing essential goods and services.

  • They are consolidating criminal governance in the communities where they play the role of social order providers. In the slums in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the criminal organizations have been the ones to enforce lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID‑19. Where criminal organizations cannot guarantee social order, they use violence or cooptation to establish territorial control. And they continue efforts to expand prison control, using jails to recruit members and build their power base. During the coronavirus outbreak, the gangs have organized riots and jailbreak attempts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. Power in the prisons projects into power on the streets.

The pandemic has forced governments to prioritize resources on the health and economic crises it is causing, and efforts to control criminal organizations have by necessity been more lax. The gangs are also scrambling to return to “normalcy,” but they are again demonstrating greater adaptability than are the governments.

  • Governments have no easy solution. While organized crime is diversifying its portfolio of activities, reinforcing its territorial control, building its prison base, and recruiting new members – exploiting the economic and social situation – governments have little choice but to beef up efforts any way they can domestically while paying special attention to cooperation with neighboring countries facing similar challenges, in hopes of hemming in the criminal organizations. It is a huge challenge – against difficult odds – but perhaps the pandemic also gives governments a one-time opportunity to hit the gangs at a time that they face challenges too.

May 22, 2020

* Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

Regionalism in the Time of Coronavirus: The Only Way Forward?

By Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Coronavirus Latin America

Map of the COVID-19 outbreak in Latin America as of 30 April 2020/ Pharexia/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

To overcome the multiple challenges of the COVID‑19 crisis, Latin America’s leaders will need to build regional cooperation around pragmatic solutions – an elusive goal for countries with a legacy of disunity and weak collaboration. The coronavirus has hit at a moment of economic vulnerability. Regional growth averaged only 1.9 percent in 2010-19, worse than in the “lost decade” of the debt-crisis 1980s (2.2 percent). Labor productivity, which in 1960 was almost 250 percent of the world average, has fallen steadily in every subsequent decade, and in 2019 sat at a mere 90 percent of the global mean. Persistent squabbling among Latin countries has meant that major global trading states, including the United States and more recently China, could dictate the terms of bilateral trade and investment agreements in ways that favored these larger powers.

  • In negotiating global trade, Latin America and the Caribbean have shown little shared identity or cohesion, whether as a region or as sub-regions. As of late 2018, as global value chains coalesced around three regional hubs – China/East Asia, U.S./North America, and Germany/European Union – Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean were linked to the U.S. but lacked bargaining power to seize more advantageous positions vis-à-vis the United States. South America has deindustrialized since the turn of the century, returning to its historic role of commodity exporter to all three hubs. Intra-regional trade as of 2017 was only 22 percent of all Latin American trade and had fallen since 2013.
  • This is a shaky foundation from which to face the health and economic challenges of COVID‑19. The IMF’s scenario, which assumes an optimistic return to business mostly-as-usual in the third quarter, predicts a contraction of GDP in 2020 of 5.2 percent in the region, driven by brutal collapses in the two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, of -5.5 and -6.6 percent respectively. The extra-regional markets for Latin America’s exports certainly will shrink due to both short-term reasons of global depression and longer-term ones of enhanced economic nationalism abroad. Remittances and tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere will not return to their previous numbers for a long time.

A coronavirus-solidarity virtual summit last month showed that some regional leaders realize the need for joint action. Nine of 12 South American presidents participated, although Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – who has made intemperate and dismissive remarks about his fellow leaders – gave his seat at the video conference to his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo.

  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández participated despite Bolsonaro’s snub (including on previous occasions) and his previously chilly relations with the sponsoring body, PROSUR, founded in 2019 by center-right Presidents Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile as an explicit counter to the pre-existing regional body, UNASUR, which leaned left during the presidency of Bolivia’s Evo Morales (now in exile in Argentina). In so doing, Fernández demonstrated the pragmatism and understanding that Latin American and Caribbean leaders often eschew: if you want to solve policy challenges, you must maintain dialogue with people with whom you disagree.

If there is any light at the end of this tunnel, it could be psychological, as crises tend to focus minds. The disruption in international relations beyond Latin America probably will accelerate the move away from the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and fuel domestic economic nationalism that will shake up the three major global trading hubs – a reorganization in which the region could redefine its place. In this scenario the best defense for Latin America is a strong offense. As Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), said recently, the region’s resilience likely depends on “investment in strengthening regional production chains” to create “complementarities in production structures and regional integration.”

  • Diplomacy enables states to share knowledge and engage in collective action to meet real cross-border challenges, including those of the current crisis. Regional solidarity does not require headquarters buildings, formal treaties, and summit pageantry, nor even similar domestic political systems. The considerable achievements of the loose, informal clubs known as the G7, the G20, and the BRICS prove the value of cooperative models that need not boast costly institutional scaffolding. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), formed in 1967 by 10 countries that were at least as mutually suspicious of one another as they were of China, provides another lesson about somewhat effective regional cooperation that Latin America would do well to note.

April 30, 2020

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is an associate professor at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. Her most recent book, coauthored with C. Roberts and S.A. Katada, is The BRICS and Collective Financial Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 2018).