Venezuela: A Test of U.S. Hegemony in Latin America

By Eric Hershberg

Lima Group members standing at a podium

Lima Group members in Torre Tagle in Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The showdown in Venezuela reflects an extraordinary attempt by the United States government to resurrect hegemonic power in Latin America.  From the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 21st, it was common for Washington to directly overthrow Latin American governments or to bolster clients seeking transitions to dictatorship or democracy.  But recent years had witnessed a clear decline in U.S. hegemony.  As Latin America appeared to have escaped Washington’s imperial reach, many of us were persuaded of the finality of the Obama administration’s recognition that the era of the Monroe Doctrine had ended.  We were dismissive, perhaps excessively, of the assertion of Trump administration officials and advisors that the infamous Doctrine could somehow be revived.

Yet the dynamics of the Venezuelan confrontation result from an unprecedented, Washington-forged hemispheric coalition – of the genuinely willing – trying to force a regime transition.  Traditionally, Washington conducted such interventions on its own, opposed by most of Latin America.  Yet today not only the 12 members of the Lima Group but also Canada and several EU governments are on board with the administration’s boldly assertive intervention in Venezuela’s political crisis.  Russia’s and China’s support for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro underscores that what is at stake is the enduring relevance of the Monroe Doctrine, which almost two hundred years ago unilaterally established an American veto over extra-regional engagement with nominally sovereign countries “in its own backyard.”

For champions of the Trump administration’s policy, asserting hegemony – after the Obama administration had declared it “dead” – is an end in itself.  Rejecting the Monroe Doctrine did not provoke a crescendo of acceptance from much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and abandoning that stance has been a core aspiration of right-wing foreign policy networks that have taken over the Executive Branch.  Countless statements over the years by the presumed architect of the present intervention – de facto Secretary of State for Latin America Senator Marco Rubio – reflect how an enduring hatred for the Cuban Revolution, and movements inspired by it such as Chavismo and the ALBA alliance, fuels antagonism toward intra- or extra-regional engagement that call into question U.S. authority.  Russian and Chinese interest in sustaining Chavismo thus reinforce Washington’s determination to eradicate it.

  • Venezuela today is an ideal target for a US-sponsored intervention to bring about regime change and reassert American hegemony in Latin America. The dictatorship is increasingly vicious, and Maduro’s claim to legitimacy is entirely fraudulent.  Moreover, Maduro’s government has so wrecked the economy that desperate millions are fleeing the country, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis that overwhelms neighboring countries already unable to provide for the basic needs of their own populations, making them more amenable to an interventionist exit.
  • Venezuela’s opposition has been long hindered by incompetence and racked by competing personal ambitions. With its most assertive leaders imprisoned, under house arrest, or in exile, it has proven incapable on its own of bringing about Maduro’s removal, either peacefully through his rigged institutions or through uprisings in the streets.  Absent an internal path toward regime transition, conditions were ripe for Washington to coax regional partners to back a daring strategy of intervention.  To have any prospects for success, the venture required that the domestic opposition finally unify – or at least acquiesce in –the anointment as Interim President of Juan Guaidó, a young political unknown whose ties with right-wing patrons are not as well known.  That unification, presumably, was made possible by recognition that only with external support could internal resistance succeed, and only with a unified or quiescent opposition would the international partners take the aggressive stance that they did.

Just as the opening to Cuba was the signature achievement of the Obama administration with regard to Latin America, the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government appears destined to be the signature act of the Trump administration.  The support of almost all of Latin America for it will have consequences far beyond the fate of the incompetent dictator clinging to power in Caracas.  If their gambit succeeds, Senator Rubio and National Security Advisor John Bolton could move on next to Nicaragua and then perhaps to the king’s crown in Havana. 

  • Those tempted to attribute this to abhorrence of violators of democratic norms would do well to consider the administration’s supportive stance toward increasingly authoritarian regimes in Honduras and Guatemala. Those cases, and the recognition that much of the opposition leadership wants to restore Venezuela to “what it used to be” (i.e., before Chavez tried with considerable popular support to forever end what Venezuela used to be), underscore the ideological drivers of U.S. policy today.  While Washington may have embarked on a course that can finally extricate Venezuela from Chavista misrule, the history of American influence over the region does not bode well for what a return to U.S. hegemony in Latin America could bring.  Surely that point is not lost on leaders of countries such as Mexico and Uruguay.  If the coming weeks bring a continuing stalemate between the Venezuelan regime and opposition, perhaps their good offices could catalyze a negotiated path to free elections and to a resulting regime that would not be Made in USA.

 

January 31, 2019

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Honduras: Will Political Reforms Go Anywhere?

Honduras Highway Sign

Honduras by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images / Picserver.org / Creative Commons

By Eugenio Sosa*

Honduras’s long-running political crisis and the realignment of its political parties have given rise to broad discussion of political and electoral reforms, but resistance from the political parties – including the relatively new Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) Party – appears likely to stymie significant change.  Honduran civil society groups increasingly believe that only through political and electoral reforms will the country move toward democracy.  Holding elections is an important starting point, reform advocates say, but deepening democracy requires reducing the monopoly of the political parties.  The configuration of the parties has changed significantly since the coup d’état in June 2009; the century-old “bipartisanship” of the National and Liberal Parties has been shaken up and become more volatile.  LIBRE has moved to the front line, and smaller players, like the Partido Anticorrupción (PAC), have faded.  Reformers argue that this realignment affords the country an opportunity to undertake reforms that cut across the country’s institutions and processes.

  • Depoliticizing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and making it a truly independent and autonomous body to supervise elections. The current TSE has fallen far short of its legal requirements to ensure, without prejudice, to enfranchise all citizens. 
  • Professionalizing and depoliticizing the National Registry of Persons – removing the partisan activists who dominate it today and directing it to issue identification cards without political influence. Observers agree that 30 percent of voters on the current lists have deceased or left the country.  Other citizens’ names have been mysteriously dropped from voter rolls or been lost while changing domicile.  Similarly, the country needs a complete, honest census.
  • Allowing regular citizens to staff election tables in polling places. They should be chosen based on clear criteria, such as their contributions to society.  In 2013 and 2017, credentials were being bought and sold with party funds, totally undermining observers’ credibility.
  • Establishing second round balloting when no candidate wins an absolute majority. The country’s shift away from a two-party system has significantly increased the chance that a president would be elected with a percentage of votes below the abstention rate.  A runoff between the top two candidates will give the victor greater legitimacy.

Other important reforms are receiving less attention.  Laws on transparency and accountability in campaign finances, such as the Law on Clean Politics implemented in 2017, have not had significant results so far, but discussion of ways to give them teeth has been limited.  Neither is there much talk about how the incumbent candidate benefits from access to public resources, including access to the national networks, or about the biases of privately owned media, which slant coverage and charge different rates for advertising depending on their preferences.  Guarantees of political participation by sectors traditionally excluded from representation and government, such as women, the indigenous, and youth, are also largely off the table.

The urgency for reform, obvious since the coup in June 2009, has surged since the contested elections in November 2017, during which the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in the face of evidence of electoral fraud.  Honduras is now living the paradox of a President serving a second term that is still prohibited by the Constitution.  Some issues, such as re-election, demand serious national debate and may have to be resolved by plebiscite or through a National Constituent Assembly.

  • Despite the broad base of the organizations proposing reforms, the success of any initiatives will depend on the views, limitations, and vetoes imposed by the three main parties. Even LIBRE, the newcomer that previously challenged the status quo, sometimes appears to be buying into existing systems and could go soft on reform.  As a result, one possible outcome could be that certain reforms are implemented in form – such as modernization of the National Registry of Persons – but the parties retain their influence over the office’s magistrates and personnel.  In addition, neither of the three main political forces appears interested in allowing authentic citizen control over voting tables on election day. 
  • While the need for reform is arguably deeper than at any time since the current Constitution was approved in 1982, and while the proposals for moving forward are constructive and mature, the prospects for change appear limited. The configuration of the country’s political parties has changed, but their priorities and behavior have not. 

January 22, 2019

*Eugenio Sosa is a sociologist and senior analyst at the Centro de Estudio para la Democracia (CESPAD), in Tegucigalpa.  This article is adapted from his essay on the CESPAD website.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

A Right Turn in Latin America?

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. / Marcos Brandão / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

After a long winning streak, the left in Latin America has experienced electoral defeats in a number of former strongholds since 2015 – including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil – but the trend is not unidirectional and so far falls short of being a regional “right turn.”

  • Right wing presidents govern today in those three countries as well as Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Panama, and Peru – a scenario that is quite different from 2010, when about two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of leftist government. Democratization, financial crises, and market liberalization shaped the 1980s-90s, while mounting social discontent against neoliberal market reforms helped to produce a “left turn” that spread across the region following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.  Leftist candidates won 30 presidential elections in 11 different Latin American countries between 1998 and 2014.

The current trend lines are hardly unidirectional across the region.  Mexico, which remained under conservative government when most of the region turned toward the left after 1998, has recently elected long-time leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.  Incumbent leftist parties have been re-elected one or more times in Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.  Notably, leftist parties in some countries where they have been historically weak, such as Colombia and Honduras, have strengthened electorally and organizationally, laying the groundwork for further growth.  Leftists’ records elsewhere are mixed.  Rivalries among Ecuadorean leftists make their future uncertain.  Venezuelan President Maduro and Nicaraguan President Ortega have resorted to increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to maintain their grip on power.

  • With the possible exception of Brazil, the right’s surge is not the result of the sort of social backlash that brought the left to power. In general, the right’s victories appear to be a routine alternation of power rather than a regional wave with common starting points and driving forces.  Argentina and Chile are the two clearest examples of routine electoral alternation of power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting in contexts of economic slow-downs, corruption scandals, and social policy discontent.  In countries like Paraguay and Honduras, on the other hand, the shifts were initiated by non-electoral means – a politically motivated presidential impeachment in the former and a military coup in the latter – and then consolidated through elections after the fact.  In Brazil, the right turn can be traced back to the social protests that broke out against Dilma Rousseff’s leftist PT government in June 2013, but former conservative allies’ opportunistic impeachment of Rousseff, along with their imprisonment of former President and PT founder Lula, seriously weakened her party – paving the way for the election of anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The left in power is still strong, though probably not unbeatable today, in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, at least in part because of their roots in and strong connections with social movements.  Unlike the PT, both Bolivia’s MAS and Uruguay’s FA have managed to preserve more of their movement character and to avoid extreme forms of top-down control and professionalization.  The ability of mass popular constituencies and grass-roots activism to hold party leaders accountable and steer public policies in desired directions—a condition largely absent in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—has helped the left maintain cohesion in Bolivia and Uruguay.  This cohesion, accompanied by significant reductions of inequality, helps to explain the continued vitality of left parties in these countries.  The recent strengthening of leftist alternatives in Mexico and Colombia, moreover, should guard against facile assumptions that a region wide right turn is underway.  Conservative forces’ recent victories are better understood as a reinforcement of the post-neoliberal left-right programmatic structuring of political competition in Latin America than a unidirectional political shift to the right.  That said, Brazil wields significant political and economic influence in the region and, traditionally seen as an “early mover” in the region, may be a bellwether of the future.  The ability of President Bolsonaro and his model of governance to deliver the results that Brazilians want—and to operate within the parameters of democratic institutions—will be key factors in determining the direction and strength of the region’s rightist wave.

January 9, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Mercosur: Diversifying Partnerships

By Andrés Serbin*

Mercosur Summit

A seminar at the 53rd Mercosur Summit. / Sabrina Pizzinato / UCIM / Creative Commons

Mercosur’s signing of a memorandum to increase economic and commercial cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Commission (EAEU) signals the trading bloc’s interest in diversifying its trade and political relationships beyond the western hemisphere.  The presidents of the Mercosur countries – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay –signed the agreement at the 53rd Mercosur Summit, held last month in Montevideo.  At a ceremony at which he accepted the rotating presidency from Uruguay, Argentine President Mauricio Macri emphasized the need for Mercosur to open not just to the Pacific Alliance, but also to Central America, Asia, and Africa.

  • Proposals for closer cooperation with the EAEU have been under study for many years, since Russia first created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) from among the former Soviet republics (except the Baltic countries) after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The CIS was intended as a post-Soviet space under Russia’s leadership that would reconnect its members within a “Eurasian” geopolitical region distinct from both Europe and Asia.  The EAEU, formalized in 2015 under the leadership of Russia and Kazakhstan, now also includes Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.  Mercosur ministers agreed to sign the memorandum during meetings immediately before the summit, stating that enhanced cooperation and coordination with the EAEU – with which Mercosur would account for a combined 6.5 percent of world GDP – was consistent with efforts to strike a similar arrangement with the European Union.
  • Mercosur’s decision comes amid international tensions over trade and protectionism, but it cannot be divorced from the ideological, cultural, and geopolitical elements of the vision for “Great Eurasia” of which Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken (and which Chinese President Xi Jinping has shared). The tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and Western pressures in retaliation, were a key driver of Moscow’s push for formalization of the EAEU as a potential interlocutor with the European Union while at the same time putting a brake on U.S. presence in the region.  Western analysts have debated the power of “neo-Eurasian” identity as a tool of geopolitical projection beyond the creation of a new economic bloc.  China is also a factor in Russia’s calculations.  The “Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (OCS) fostered by both countries and Beijing’s “New Silk Road” project, through Central Asia and to the EU, have also increased the salience of “Great Eurasia.”  Russia and China have increased cooperation in trade, in technology (including military) and against terrorism and extremism.  Through the EAEU and OCS mechanisms, they have extended contacts all the way to India and Pakistan and, potentially in the future, Iran and other countries.

Mercosur’s trade with the EAEU is asymmetrical in favor of the Latin American countries, with the exception of Brazil (with which it is more balanced), according to EAEU officials.  The EAEU has high internal tariffs and limited internal trade – except in bilateral trade between Russia and Belarus – but there are already tariff exemptions for Mercosur members.  Food appears to be the biggest Mercosur export to the region.  Experts believe that trade between the two blocs can be significantly increased, and that a free trade agreement can be signed before the completion of the EU-Mercosur FTA, which has been under negotiation for 20 years.

Although many Western analysts remain doubtful about the success of efforts to form a “Great Eurasia,” Mercosur apparently has determined that engagement with it is low-cost and potentially beneficial.  Beyond the possibility of expanded trade, the memorandum of cooperation signed in Montevideo suggests Mercosur sees a geostrategic interest in signaling openness to such collaboration.  The right-leaning governments of Latin America and the Caribbean are likely to remain generally aligned with the United States, but they have learned the importance of trade diversification over the past two decades.  Setting tradition and ideology aside, most are trying to interact with whomever can bring good deals to their countries in terms of trade, investment, and cooperation.  In the context of Russia and China’s interest in a “Great Eurasia,” Mercosur’s increased outreach to EAEU also reflects an important piece in a strategy to undertake the necessary diversification of its foreign policy in a changing world.

  •  The United States may not appreciate the wisdom of Mercosur’s approach. Eurasia is a blind spot for Washington, which focuses on Russia’s actions in Europe and China’s in Asia – but not in Central Asia itself or as a bridge to India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world.

January 7, 2019

* 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 by Perfil.com.

Nicaragua: Ortega’s Pyrrhic Victory

By Kenneth M. Coleman

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. / Twitter: El Nuevo Diario

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President (and First Lady) Rosario Murillo has continued to persecute its opposition since crushing massive protests in April, which were stilled only at a cost of somewhere between 325 and 535 lives lost, 600 political prisoners, 1,500 wounded, and 40,000 Nicaraguans seeking refuge in Costa Rica.  Paolo Abrão, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has characterized Nicaragua as effectively a “police state,” while Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, has denounced torture by the Nicaraguan government.  Deploying massive force by the Policia Nacional and by hooded shock troops (often retired military and police), Ortega and Murillo “have won” in the sense that they have ended street protests.  In the past month, they have undertaken a systematic effort to silence the remaining voices of dissent.

  • The Catholic Church has been under duress since its effort to mediate a national dialogue collapsed in June. On December 3, Ortega launched the most recent in a series of verbal attacks on the Church, accusing it of being in league with golpistas (coup plotters).  Two days later, a young Russian woman living in Nicaragua – possibly energized by Ortega’s rhetoric – entered the Cathedral of Managua and threw acid on Monsignor Mario Guevara, while he was receiving confessions.  Guevara remains in grave condition.
  • Independent media are constantly under attack. The government has taken down 100% Noticias, an independent station, from the satellite and other distribution networks; has physically attacked and issued death threats to personnel associated with various media outlets; and, on December 14, raided the offices of prize-winning electronic medium, Confidencial, and associated television programs, Esta Noche and Esta Semana.  The Inter American Press Association and Reporters Without Borders, whose investigators in mid-August issued a condemnation of government harassment of independent media, have denounced the recent media harassment as well.
  • Earlier this month, the National Assembly summarily withdrew the legal registrations of nine non-governmental organizations, including the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE). The latter is led by a former Sandinista comandante who was a member of the Front’s original nine-person revolutionary directorate.

Ortega and Murillo’s escalation of pressure on opponents across the board seeks to consolidate their control and create the image of stability that they wish to create.  The business community, which coexisted with them for much of the past 11 years, sided with protesters in April and shows no obvious signs of seeking a rapprochement.  Its leaders are clearly of the view that the national dialogue must be resumed to avoid crippling economic sanctions to an economy that has already contracted four percent this year and promises to contract even more dramatically in 2019 without a change of course.

  • These developments are sure to accelerate a downward spiral in Nicaragua’s relations with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the U.S. government. Under the Magnitsky Act, Washington has already prohibited six individuals, including Murillo, from holding accounts in or doing transactions with U.S. financial institutions.  More sanctions are coming, as the U.S. House and Senate have approved, and President Trump is expected to sign soon, the Nicaraguan Conditionality Investment Act, which will require U.S. representatives to multilateral institutions to vote against most loans to Nicaragua until the Secretary of State attests that substantial measures have been made to restore democracy, allow free elections, protect freedom of speech and assembly, and address corruption.  The Nicaraguan government’s behavior thus far suggest that such actions and a corresponding attestation are an extremely unlikely, if not impossible, scenario.

December 20, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities.  The views expressed herein are his own, not of the Association of American Universities.

Cuba: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuba constitutional reform

Reading about the constitutional reform project in Cuba. / Twitter: @SoberonGuzman

The constitutional reform process that the Cuban government is undertaking — controlled and cautious — and adjustments to one or two regressive regulations may be setting in motion political dynamics that will fuel pressure for more change.  After months of consulta popular, the constitutional drafting committee is preparing a new draft for consideration by the National Assembly during a two-day session beginning December 21.  Current plans are still for it to be subjected to a referendum vote in February 2019.

  • Skepticism about the real impact of the consulta, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of written comments, is deep, but most non-governmental observers believe that participation was so strong that the popular input had an impact. Debate about Article 68 — establishing the constitutional right of same-sex marriage — was most obvious.  Evangelical churches, with Catholic support, led the push against it, organized demonstrations, and circulated posters easily visible on Havana streets.  Local observers report that government officials were surprised by the mobilization and, fearing the article will spark abstention from the referendum or votes rejecting the whole constitution, now face the challenge of balancing the forces for and against it.
  • Debates are reportedly also taking place, including among senior officials, about the role of the Communist Party. Observers say that the party has accepted its subordination to the constitution and laws of the country, but — while it will remain the “fuerza dirigente superior de la sociedad y del Estado” — there reportedly is no consensus on its exact role and relationship with the government.  Another controversial provision deals with vague limits on the “concentration of property” versus the “concentration of wealth.”

The government’s handling of opposition to regulations announced last summer (but scheduled to take effect this month) has also left opponents — justifiably skeptical about any government signals of compromise — wondering where process and policy are headed.

  • The day before a regulation tightening controls on private sector businesses was to be implemented on December 7, the government rescinded several harmful provisions. Under the original version, Cubans could hold only one business license, and private restaurants could have no more than 50 chairs, but both measures were overturned as a result of private sector complaints, according to Labor and Social Security Minister Margarita González.  In a speech to law students, President Díaz-Canel reportedly emphasized the importance of cuentapropista input as well.  There were also hints of a softening of a regulation increasing government control on artists — requiring their credentials to hold shows be validated by a government office — when the government delayed implementation and said it was subject to further elaboration.  With both regulations, officials tried to appear to be listening to the strong opposition they faced.
  • The government has left in place, however, new controls on private transportation operators, particularly the ancient private vehicles (almendrones) running on established routes where public buses are lacking. The government claimed drivers were overcharging, not paying taxes, and not maintaining their cars adequately.  The measure itself, as well as many private drivers’ work slowdown and surrender of their special transport licenses in protest, have significantly hindered Havana citizens’ ability to get around the city.  The government has announced that it is importing several hundred microbuses to cover the routes but has given no sign of compromise on the regulation.

The road to reform in Cuba is littered with unfulfilled expectations; the skepticism of common folk affected by the revised constitution and various regulations, as well as government opponents, is not unwarranted.  It is impossible that the National Assembly could give the thousands of proposed changes to the constitution draft serious consideration in a two-day session.  But some aspects of the ongoing processes, such as the government’s recognition of affected sectors’ concerns, appear likely to create new expectations of government attentiveness and even civic participation.  Non-fulfillment of those expectations may not lead to destabilizing protests in the short term, but it would be yet another negative signal about the Party’s willingness to allow the country to evolve toward the new and more stable model it has claimed interest in establishing since 2011.  The public statements of former President Raúl Castro, President Díaz-Canel, and others suggest awareness that, in the post-Castro era, legitimacy will come from economic results and improved living standards – which require broader and deeper public inputs into policymaking.  Everyone will be watching whether the recent, partial consultations were a short-term show, an experiment, or a hint of a shift in approach.

December 18, 2018

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.