U.S. Foreign Assistance Portals are Inadequate to Assess Reform on Locally Led Development

By Katerina Parsons*

USAID Administrator Samantha Power / Flickr / Creative Commons License

USAID has committed to increase direct assistance to local partners around the world – rather than directing aid through governments, international NGOs, or for-profit contractors – but civil society groups will have difficulty holding the agency accountable without significant changes to existing transparency portals.

  • In a recent speech, Administrator Samantha Power announced that USAID would increase assistance to local partners to 25 percent of total funding – short of earlier commitments but more than the current 5.8 percent. By the end of the decade, she added, 50 percent of USAID programming would “place local communities in the lead,” allowing them to co-design projects, set priorities, drive implementation, or evaluate programs’ impact. The NGO community has long called for these goals.

The U.S. government’s searchable foreign assistance trackers are still inadequate to assess progress, however.

  • ForeignAssistance.gov was relaunched in October, combining the State Department tracker of the same name with USAID’s Foreign Aid Explorer, which will no longer be updated. Aid organizations applauded the change for streamlining data, but the new site still does not include key data, such as the percentage of foreign assistance that is locally led, or even which implementing partners are based in the countries where they work. Many awards list no supporting documents detailing participants or outcomes; those that do include this information as a PDF file that is not searchable and cannot be easily compared across awards.
  • Some additional information can be found on other U.S. government sites. USASpending.gov, the open data source for all government spending, includes sub-award data for USAID, listing the percentage of the total amount that is sub-awarded and recipient names and sub-award amounts. Because most small, non-U.S. organizations that receive U.S. funds do so indirectly through sub-grants; this information is crucial for transparency.

An example – a Honduran organization for which I worked for several years – illustrates the challenge of tracking aid. According to USASpending.gov, as a USAID sub-grantee on a governance and citizen participation project, it received $787,000 over an eight-year period (FY2011-18) – enough to fund a small office of Honduran auditors, researchers, and legal experts who created a national corruption complaint mechanism, conducted social audits of government agencies, and led consultancies to strengthen the country’s higher courts. While substantial, this funding represented less than 4 percent of the $19.8 million total granted to the U.S. NGO managing the project. The U.S. NGO provided 36 percent of the total grant to Honduran implementing partners. Neither USASpending.gov nor ForeignAssistance.gov account for the remaining 64 percent of award funds.

  • This gap between amount awarded and amount delivered to community-based partners is not atypical. A $34.2 million violence-reduction award (FY2016-23) granted to a major U.S. contractor has given out just 13.1 percent of its funding in sub-contracts – and those only to U.S. and Honduran businesses, not Honduran NGOs. A $4.1 million “civil society and media activity” grant (FY2018-20) awarded just $80,000 to Honduran civil society organizations.
  • USASpending.gov does not code this as “international” or “local” spending; first-hand knowledge or web searches are required to determine the recipients. ForeignAssistance.gov provides even less detail.

USAID’s promises of millions of dollars to empower local organizations so far have not been complemented by a commitment to make public data on localization more transparent. One straightforward fix would be to add a search query to ForeignAssistance.gov for “recipient type” such as “local,” similar to USASpending.gov, where one can filter by contract recipients owned by women, minorities, or veterans.

  • Information on sub-grantees or sub-contractors (local, U.S., international) is also lacking. Additional clarity on the term “local” is also merited; USAID does not distinguish between “local entities” and “locally established partners,” which may be national chapters of international organizations. Particularly in larger multicultural countries, “local” leadership may still not be proximate to communities being served.
  • Fulfillment of Administrator Power’s pledge “to interrogate the traditional power dynamics of donor-driven development and look for ways to amplify the local voices of those who too often have been left out of the conversation” will depend on making public data on localized development transparent enough to make proximate leadership in foreign assistance – or the lack of it – more visible.

December 16, 2021

* Katerina Parsons is a master’s student in Development Management in the School of International Service. This article is based on research done for the Accountability Research Center, where she is a research assistant.

Chile: Astronomy Investments Help but Face Some Criticism

By Noah Rosen*

La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert/ European Southern Observatory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Exceptional atmospheric conditions in northern Chile, an image of political stability, favorable tax policies, and diplomatic credentials for researchers have made the country a leader in international astronomy, but some Chileans want to see more benefits from the cooperation. 

  • Experts estimate that, by the end of this decade, over 70 percent of the world’s astronomical viewing capacity will be concentrated in Chile. The United States – including the National Science Foundation (NSF), universities, and private foundations – and Europe and other global players have invested billions of dollars in observatories, creating significant opportunities for Chilean astronomy as well as its high-tech engineering and computing sectors. 
  • Chilean researchers are guaranteed 10 percent of the observation time on all international telescopes established in Chile, a policy Chilean scientists won in the 1990s. According to Wolfgang Gieren, astronomy professor at Chile’s Universidad de Concepción, “the 10 percent has been the most important factor to boost development of astronomy in Chile.” International observatory projects often include significant funding and scholarship activities, including a multi-million-dollar contribution from the NSF to CONICYT, the Chilean science agency, and an annual scientific scholarship managed by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo de Chile (ANID). 

The diverse range of support has helped Chile rapidly expand its astronomy capabilities. 

  • Four universities have opened new astronomy departments, bringing the total to eight, and PhD students have increased from five in the early 1990s to 40 by 2005. Joint work and technical exchanges have increased also. The Millimeter Wave Laboratory of the Universidad de Chile works with CalTech to develop advanced millimeter-wave receivers and other high-tech equipment. The Astro-Engineering Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica works with the multinational Gemini Observatory to develop adaptive optics and vibration mitigation instruments, in partnership with Harvard and other U.S. universities. 
  • Chile’s domestic high-tech engineering and computing sectors are benefiting as well. The government estimates that 15 Chilean companies have provided advanced engineering and technology services to the observatories. A local firm, AXYS Technologies, installed fiber optics at an Atacama-area observatory that, experts say, was groundbreaking in understanding how fiber optics operate at high altitude (5,000 meters). A Dutch-Chilean engineering company conducted geological studies and construction consulting for the Rubin Observatory and for another observatory in Cerro Tolar. 
  • The huge data processing and storage capacities required by the observatories is positioning Chile as a big data player. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are developing astro-data projects in Chile. The U.S. NSF is funding a data science summer school at Universidad de La Serena to build connections with the future generation of Chilean data scientists. 

Despite these advantages, Chilean scientists and civil society actors continue to question the relative balance of benefits they get for the globally unique natural attributes in their northern deserts, which make cutting-edge astronomy research possible. 

  • Chilean scientists are demanding more guaranteed observation time, in line with what hosts in Hawaii (15 percent) and Spain (20 percent) receive. They argue that current arrangements still make them too dependent on technologies and expertise from the Global North, which largely controls the research agenda. The Chilean government estimates that only 10-20 percent of the international dollars invested in the observatories enter the Chilean economy, the vast majority of which are channeled to goods and services – construction of roads, buildings, electricity, water and gas supply, hospitality, etc. – rather than building Chile’s scientific capabilities. Chilean scientists and engineers argue for new policies that more systematically involve Chileans in telescope construction and maintenance. 
  • Broader questions of justice also persist: in some places, the observatories consume significant amounts of water and electricity while nearby villages go without regular access. Labor strikes at the Atacama observatory some years back raised questions of fair working conditions, especially given that the favorable diplomatic status accorded to observatories limits oversight. 

Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

Pandemic Relief for Latino-Owned Businesses: Lessons from the Washington DC Metropolitan Area

By Robert Albro and Eric Hershberg*

Latina microenterprise in Washington DC/ Credit: Liz Albro

While the impacts of the pandemic and public health measures to contain it have been widespread across all demographic groups in the United States, minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected, with Latino-owned enterprises hit the hardest. A newly released CLALS study describes steps taken by local jurisdictions to ameliorate these impacts, identifies challenges experienced by Latino business owners in accessing pandemic relief, and offers recommendations to better support minority enterprises in anticipation of future crises.

  • By June of 2020, a Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative pulse survey reported that 83 percent of Latino businesses had experienced a negative impact from COVID‑19, and the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the number of Latino business owners nationwide had declined 32 percent.
  • In the Washington Metropolitan Area, Latino business owners surveyed by CLALS during the same time period reported catastrophic losses of customers and sales, pressures on liquidity, employee layoffs, and dramatic disruptions of their day-to-day business operations.
  • In many cases the industries in which Latino businesses are concentrated made them more vulnerable. The onset of the pandemic had an immediate negative impact on Latino front-line workers in essential industries and on restaurants and retail establishments that rely heavily on foot traffic, forcing widespread closures. An estimated 25 percent of Latino businesses nationwide are either permanently shuttered or remain temporarily closed.

Nearly all Latino business owners CLALS surveyed in mid-2020 – 94 percent – ranked as most important the need for greater access to financial assistance to survive the crisis. However, the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing disparities between Latino-owned and other businesses, with Latinos among those receiving the least support to help weather the economic catastrophe.

  • According to a 2021 Federal Reserve report, Latino businesses were less than half as likely as White-owned firms to be approved for a loan during the COVID‑19 emergency. And the U.S. Small Business Administration reported only 7 percent of Latino businesses that applied received Paycheck Protection Program funding in 2020, compared to 83 percent for White-owned enterprises.
  • Latino small business owners experienced multiple barriers to access, including in many cases not having a relationship with a bank or professional financial service provider, lack of access to timely Spanish-language information about programs, immigration status, and inadequate accounting that left them ineligible for government relief.

CLALS’s study documents all federal, state, and local pandemic relief programs in the DC-metro region, and concludes that outreach by assistance providers did not always reach Latino business owners because local governments did not necessarily seek to engage them through preferred channels and familiar institutional counterparts. It further concludes that cities and counties striving to improve support for businesses in historically underserved communities in advance of the next crisis can be more inclusive and effective by discussing challenges and sharing best practices among each other,  targeting aid sooner to specific industries and business types, coordinating at the outset with trusted community ambassadors with strong local knowledge, and improving their awareness of how and where to best engage minority and Latino business owners, both in-person and through the right channels of communication.  

Nationwide Latinos are the most likely to start a business of any group, and they are also the fastest growing population in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Our region’s economic prosperity is increasingly connected to the success of its Latino entrepreneurs. How well its business ecosystem supports new Latino start-ups, business growth and stability, during normal economic periods but also the next inevitable crisis, will be a big part of sustaining any such prosperity. But this, in turn, will depend upon applying key lessons learned from the present pandemic crisis, including further institutionalizing the advantages of inter-jurisdictional collaboration and information-sharing, and the need to better support non-governmental and community-based institutions other than banks – which effectively channeled information, financial and technical assistance to Latino and minority enterprises throughout the crisis – as mediators between local jurisdictions and often hard-to-reach Latino business owners.

September 21, 2021

* Robert Albro is a Research Associate Professor in American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. Eric Hershberg is the Center’s Director and a Professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. This report is part of an ongoing Center research program examining Latino Entrepreneurship.

Latin America: Enduring Less Drastic Declines in Remittances than Predicted

By Gabriel Cabañas*

Ria Money Transfer/ Adam Fagen/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The decline in remittances during the COVID-19 pandemic has been less severe than predicted for Latin American and Caribbean countries because many migrants are in essential jobs and industries benefitting from generous U.S. income-protection measures, and a good U.S. recovery suggests positive trends will continue.

  • In April 2020, a month after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, the World Bank estimated the resulting economic shock would cause remittances globally to drop by around 20 percent over the year – the greatest single year drop ever recorded. The Bank said the decline hinged on the fall of wages and employment of migrant workers. Other factors loomed large, such as China’s announcement that its economy had contracted 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, and Europe, especially Italy, faced growing cases of the coronavirus.

More recent data tell a different story. The pandemic reduced global economic growth to -4.5 percent to -6 percent, which, while devastating, was cushioned by good performance in numerous sectors and industries. Contrary to the prediction of a 20 percent decline in 2020, remittances experienced only a 7 percent drop. Some remittance-receiving countries, including Mexico, actually reported growth in remittances from 2019 to 2020.

  • Generous stimulus programs, which the World Bank could not have predicted, preserved an income flow for companies in “essential” industries employing migrant workers, and those losing jobs received generous unemployment benefits.
  • A shift to digital remittances also made it easier and less costly for migrant workers to send money to their families. Western Union, which is the largest single remittance handler (with 10 to 20 percent of the market), reported that revenues increased 16 to 20 percent in 2020. Other channels appear to be growing even faster. The impact of remittances from migrant workers in the United States was further increased by currency devaluations in emerging economies hit hard by COVID.

Policymakers and academics have traditionally viewed remittances as having marginal positive impact on the economies of recipient countries – judging that foreign direct investment (FDI) has a much deeper impact – but that assessment is changing. A report published last year examined 538 estimates of the impact and found that 40 percent showed a positive correlation, 20 percent showed a negative correlation, and the remaining 40 percent were neutral. Observers increasingly think that remittances used by recipient families for consumption are often their optimal use. During periods of income shock, such as environmental catastrophe, increases in remittances replace roughly 60 percent of lost income, according to some estimates. During the Great Recession (2008-09) FDI dropped 39.7 percent, but remittances only dropped 5.2 percent. For a select group of remittance-receiving countries, including El Salvador, remittances have grown to provide more than 20 percent of GDP.

  • In 1970 remittances worldwide totaled less than $50 billion (in 2018 dollars), and in 2018 they exceeded $600 billion – surpassing all overseas development assistance and, in 2019, all FDI (except Chinese investment). Some experts claim much of this growth is a function of measurement error – caused by how banks track remittances – but the fact that remittances have been steadily growing since the 1970s is no illusion.
  • The hemisphere’s continuing challenges emerging from the pandemic raises questions about the future, but – as long as generous stimulus plans, essential work protection, and a strong dollar continue – remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean appear likely to allow recipient countries some continued reprieve from the economic devastation caused by COVID-19 and help them achieve an earlier economic recovery.

September 3, 2021

* Gabriel Cabañas is studying international relations and economics in the School of International Service.

El Salvador: Exploiting Superpower Competition

By Jeffrey Hallock and Christopher Kambhu*

Government of El Salvador / Creative Commons License

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is taking advantage of superpower competition between the United States and China to get vaccines for his country and boost his domestic image as a strong, independent national leader. Hours after the United States announced a donation of 1.5 million Moderna doses to El Salvador in early July, China announced its own 1.5 million dose donation – and Bukele touted his successes on Twitter. In securing and administering vaccines for millions of Salvadorans, Bukele has achieved a domestic political victory; 44 percent of adults have received one vaccine dose as of last month, well above the regional average.

  • China’s relations with El Salvador center on its longstanding policy goal to weaken international support for Taiwan. China has expanded its influence in El Salvador since the country switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, moreover, Beijing has donated a wide variety of medical supplies to El Salvador, and sold it 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine last spring. For Beijing, vaccine diplomacy is a short-term soft-power and public relations victory that lays the groundwork for future economic deals.
  • Policymakers in Washington primarily view El Salvador through the lens of domestic migration politics. Fleeing gang violence and seeking better economic opportunities, Salvadorans form part of successive waves of migration to the United States from the Northern Triangle (which also includes Guatemala and Honduras). President Joe Biden seeks to address the root causes of migration through anticorruption and good governance initiatives, including denying visas to several senior officials in the Bukele government accused of corruption. This focus has increased tensions with Bukele.

Bukele’s superpower manipulation coincides with increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home since his inauguration in June 2019. With an approval rating well over 80 percent, he is among the most popular leaders in the world. His Nuevas Ideas party and its allies secured a legislative supermajority in February’s elections. Recently, Bukele and his legislative allies have acted aggressively to consolidate power, replacing the Attorney General and all five Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court magistrates with loyalists and preventing oversight of pandemic spending. Bukele also shuttered the OAS-backed anticorruption commission CICIES, which his campaign had supported. Numerous observers believe Bukele’s iron grip on the three branches of government will undermine El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

When Biden first took office, Bukele appeared likely to mimic the delicate dance choreographed by other Northern Triangle presidents: pledge to reduce migration flows to the United States in exchange for leeway on domestic affairs. However, the Biden Administration has not looked the other way as Bukele has violated democratic norms and lashed out at critics, including a Twitter spat with U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres of California. When the Biden Administration recently released a list of corrupt politicians that included several Bukele allies, he strongly criticized the list while publicly praising additional Chinese aid and vaccines.

  • The recent U.S. vaccine donation reflects Washington’s concern about China’s regional influence and acknowledges that the lofty goals of good governance can be overshadowed by other geopolitical considerations. The U.S. retains strong economic leverage over El Salvador through remittances from Salvadoran migrants (some 200,000 of whom are dependent on continued U.S. Temporary Protected Status), but the Biden administration is wary of pushing El Salvador too close to China.
  • While Bukele’s maneuvering has provided him a domestic political victory, diplomatic challenges remain. China’s foreign policy is transactional in nature, and Beijing will likely ask something of Bukele in exchange for its pandemic diplomacy. It is difficult to see what El Salvador can offer China since it already dropped recognition of Taiwan. Perhaps Bukele is betting he can avoid the difficult concessions which plague other nations’ Chinese relations. El Salvador’s strong economic and cultural ties with the U.S. will endure, but for the moment, Bukele is reaping the benefits of instigating great power rivalry.

*Jeffrey Hallock is a doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service. Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

August 5, 2021

Temporary Protected Status: Prospects Under the Biden Administration

By Hannah Bossert and Jayesh Rathod*

National TPS Alliance holding a press conference and vigil in Washington, DC/ uusc4all/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the swell of immigration reform discussions in Washington, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), one form of humanitarian protection, has received significant attention from policymakers and advocates, but the Administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to signal its intended action for significant TPS decisions arising later this year and next.

  • Codified in U.S. immigration law, TPS provides relief from removal and work authorization for nationals of designated countries affected by ongoing armed conflict, natural disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. The Secretary of Homeland Security makes TPS designations for anywhere from six to 18 months, with no legal limit to the number of renewals. When conditions allow for a safe return, the federal government may choose to terminate the designations.
  • As part of its agenda set on restricting immigration, the Trump Administration attempted to end TPS for six countries (including four in Latin America), prompting litigation that has extended the designations while courts review the legality of the terminations.

The Biden Administration has only begun to formulate its policies regarding TPS, which will have a major political and economic impact on immigrant communities in the United States and on the region as a whole. Twelve countries worldwide have been TPS-designated, protecting approximately 320,000 individuals, for a number of years. In March, the Administration extended protection to an estimated 323,000 eligible Venezuelans, and designated Burma in May. But pending decisions include the following:

  • Today nearly 200,000 nationals of El Salvador are protected by a designation made in 2001. Designations in 1999 for Honduras and Nicaragua currently protect around 60,350 and 3,200 persons, respectively. Thanks to federal court injunctions, these work permits and protections from removal remain valid through October 4. The Biden Administration recently agreed to participate in settlement discussions to resolve the pending litigation. The White House might find a way to extend work authorization for the existing beneficiaries; alternatively, it might re-designate these countries for TPS, which would offer protection to tens of thousands who arrived after the initial designation dates. Given the roadblocks that many Central American migrants face in advancing asylum claims, re-designation could be the more attractive option as it would alleviate immigration court backlogs and would not require Congressional authorization.
  • Re-designation was the Biden Administration’s preferred course of action for Haiti, which was also subject to a Trump-era termination effort. On May 22, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas re-designated Haiti for 18 months, expanding coverage to 100,000-150,000 new arrivals and providing an opportunity for those nearly 41,000 Haitians deriving status from the earlier designation to re-apply. The devastating effects of COVID‑19 and the instability surrounding the recent assassination of President Moïse both complicate return for Haitian nationals.
  • Members of Congress recently penned a bicameral letter urging the Administration to consider TPS designations or redesignation for 17 countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as the Bahamas and Guatemala. A Guatemala designation, recently re-requested by the country’s government in the wake of severe hurricane damage, would change its decades-long outlier status when compared to its Central American neighbors.

Despite its name, TPS has enabled decades-long residency for hundreds of thousands of migrants, allowing them to build lives and families in the United States. TPS beneficiaries from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras alone contribute roughly $4.5 billion to the U.S. economy, including an average yearly contribution of over $691 million to Medicare and Social Security. Despite past stagnation in considering longer-term relief for TPS holders, the reality of TPS has prompted new advocacy in Congress aimed at creating pathways to citizenship for beneficiaries via proposed legislation such as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and U.S. Citizenship Act, as well as calls to enshrine these efforts within the budgetary process, as in Senator Bernie Sanders’s Budget Reconciliation Bill.

  • Congressional action has become even more critical given the Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Sanchez v. Mayorkas, which cut off the primary pathway to lawful permanent residence for TPS holders who had entered the United States without permission. This decision, absent  Congressional action, leaves hundreds of thousands in a prolonged and uncertain status. Given the current political climate in Washington, the path forward remains unclear.

July 21, 2021

* Hannah Bossert is  a second-year law student at the Washington College of Law and Dean’s Fellow for the Immigrant Justice Clinic, and Jayesh Rathod is Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law.

U.S.-Southern Cone: Looking at Relations Through a Different Optic

By Noah Rosen*

Top: Display of bottles of Chilean wine/ David Almeida/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Bottom: Notebooks from the Plan Ceibal/ Jorge Gobbi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

While headlines track the highs and the lows in the United States’ relations with Latin America, a closer look at the broad range of interaction shows that, at least in some sectors in some countries, long-term economic relationships and knowledge exchanges have encouraged mutual benefits that rarely get mentioned in public discourse.

Chile’s wine industry, for example, is a powerhouse that has benefited from U.S. investment, open markets, and research and development work. Chilean wine underwent a sea change beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as liberalization and democratization in the country opened opportunities for massive upgrades in quality and opportunities for export to new markets. Global recognition of the quality of Chilean wine grew throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and today bottled wine is Chile’s third most valuable export after copper and salmon. Exports to the United States in 2019 totaled $238 million, reflecting the vital importance of wine to Chile’s economy.

  • Though Chilean exporters were eventually able to diversify their export markets to include Europe and Asia, the exploding U.S. market in the 1990s and 2000s was key to the industry’s upgrading and expansion. Wines of Chile, a public-private partnership that markets Chilean wines, maintains a permanent U.S. office, runs events throughout the country, and organizes visits by U.S. sommeliers to provide feedback to Chilean producers. Knowledge exchange and technology transfer between experts in California, including the University of California at Davis, and Chilean counterparts has helped Chile’s wine industry stay on the cutting edge of production technologies, spurring advances in genetic identification and sequencing of key Chilean varietals.
  • U.S. foreign direct investment and joint ventures have also promoted innovation, technological advances, and access to international markets. For example, an early partnership allowed Concha y Toro to gain a foothold in the U.S. market and opened the door for other Chilean exporters. California winemakers Robert Mondavi, Kendall Jackson, and Canandaigua have established operations in Chile, bringing with them advanced trellis systems, drip irrigation, and other technology that have led to a marked increase in quality across the sector.

The remarkable success of Uruguay’s technology sector has also been aided by U.S. markets and tech exchanges. Visionary domestic programs such as “Plan Ceibal” in 2007, which promoted nationwide digital literacy and provided a laptop to every public-school student in the country, and investments in some of the fastest internet in the Americas, have helped Uruguay become the largest software exporter per capita in the region and third largest per-capita exporter in the world. However, the importance of the U.S. model and the depth of relationships between the U.S. and Uruguayan sectors have earned it the nickname “Silicon Valley of South America.”

  • The United States accounts for 65 percent of Uruguay’s tech revenue (as of 2019) – the result in part of the marketing and relationship-building by Uruguay XXI, the country’s investment, export, and country brand promotion agency. The agency annually sets up a country pavilion at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of Silicon Valley’s most important tech conferences. U.S. ventures in Uruguay have also played an important role in building the local tech market and providing capital and opportunities for local software developers. Major U.S. software and IT companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Cognizant, New Context, NetSuite, and VeriFone, have established bases in Uruguay and hire Uruguayan developers. In 2017, the Agencia Nacional de Innovación e Investigación (ANII) arranged for the highly recognized U.S. tech incubator 500 Startups to run a six-week accelerator program to build skills for 20 Uruguayan startups focusing on growth, product design, fundraising, and building connections.
  • The opening in 2019 of a Uruguayan Consulate in San Francisco reflects the importance of the relationship with Silicon Valley. The incoming Consul emphasized his mission as “opening doors for Uruguayan businesspeople” and pledged to facilitate connections and provide “softlanding support.” The office will also facilitate two-way knowledge and skills exchanges between Californian and Uruguayan universities and institutions. Last month, Amazon announced that Uruguayan vendors would be eligible to sell products on their platform, thanks to the efforts of the Uruguayan Embassy in the U.S.

These positive relationships — facilitated by governments but driven by private-sector partners — don’t erase all adverse twists and turns in U.S. relations with the region. But relatively quiet successes like U.S. cooperation with Chile’s wine industry and Uruguay’s technology sector provide important ballast. They are lucrative for both sides and provide valued jobs: wine in Chile employs over 100,000 people in direct work and represents 0.5 percent of GDP; the tech sector in Uruguay employs 17,000 people, representing 2 percent of the country’s GDP.

June 25, 2021

* Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on the impacts of U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State

Will U.S. Aid Address the “Root Causes” of the Crisis in the Northern Triangle?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Women carry home their monthly food aid rations through a USAID-funded program in Guatemala/ USAID/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s statements this month on the need to address the “root causes” – including government corruption – of the ongoing surge of migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle of Central America reflects the strong agreement among analysts that lasting solutions will require deep reform within the region, but the Administration’s kid-gloves treatment of those governments risks repeating the errors of the past. Harris and Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. envoy coordinating policy toward the area, have emphasized the difficult task of real reform while also addressing the immediate challenge of the humanitarian crises contributing to migrants’ desperation.

  • While recommitting to a campaign promise to spend $4 billion in the Northern Triangle, the Administration last week announced an additional $310 million in emergency assistance to mitigate suffering from recurrent droughts, food shortages, COVID‑19, and back-to-back hurricanes last November. Even before those calamities, 60 percent of Hondurans lived in extreme poverty, and malnourishment stunted the growth of 23 percent of children nationwide. The World Food Program in June 2020 reported that 2.3 million Guatemalans (14 percent) were suffering from food insecurity, and another 800,000 would soon follow. Malnutrition among Guatemalan children under five has skyrocketed.

Addressing “root causes” will be much tougher than sending aid. Zúñiga argues that success will depend on drastically reducing the corruption that robs citizens of state resources and fuels other crime and violence, particularly senior political and military officials’ cooperation with narcotraffickers. Harris has supposedly mentioned this in several virtual meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and will stress it during a visit to the region in June. The Administration is also creating an “anti-corruption task force” to enforce the policy, and Zúñiga offered $2 million to El Salvador if it pursues a hybrid anti-corruption effort called CICIES. Corruption is an endemic problem in all three countries, but the Harris initiative seems most sorely tested in Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández has emerged as the poster child of what a U.S. District Judge last month called “state-sponsored” trafficking.

  • The U.S. drug convictions of Hernández’s brother, Tony, in 2019 and of trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez last month both featured apparently credible testimony about the President’s personal role in protecting the flow of narcotics through Honduras to the United States. These allegations come on the heels of waves of evidence of other corruption, human rights violations, and electoral fraud he has engaged in.
  • Nonetheless, the White House has publicly stated that “we are going to work with [Hernández’s] government and … seek areas of common interest.” While U.S. officials have severely criticized Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – whose migrant flow is a fraction of Honduras’s – for anti-democratic digressions, they have been relatively silent on Hernández. His efforts to portray himself as an indispensable ally appear to have earned him that latitude. Last year, after U.S. concern about trafficking rose, he won brownie points for supporting legislation deterring private jets from entering the country. Recently, he has mobilized the military several times to stop migrant caravans from leaving the country.

This is not the first U.S. Administration to try to cajole corrupt Central American incumbents to become allies in eliminating their own corruption. The humanitarian crisis requires the Harris team to send aid quickly and to collaborate with the same governments that have aggravated, and sometimes caused, people’s suffering. But the Biden Administration hasn’t given an indication yet that it can avoid being taken to the cleaners as previous administrations have, including President Obama and Vice President Biden when they teamed up with the Inter-American Development Bank for the Alianza para la Prosperidad. That initiative cost hundreds of millions but, as the current migration surge indicates, the “push” factors behind it continue to grow. Obama/Biden also made significant efforts – for example, helping CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras begin important processes – but local officials and their elite allies managed to get out from under both.

  • It’s a long shot that, without threats of sanctions similar to those levied against leaders who are not U.S. “allies,” Washington can get these governments to undertake major reforms that would threaten leaders’ wealth and power. But if the United States and others can break the vicious cycle of corruption, bad governance, poverty, and flight in the Northern Triangle, they will be laying the groundwork for breakthroughs far beyond the migration crisis on the U.S. border.

April 30, 2021

United States: Is ICE on the Chopping Block?

By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara*

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) in Chicago, IL/ Flickr/ Public Domain

Even if the Biden Administration does not heed the rallying slogan of hashtag #AbolishICE, the United States Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) could be put on a course that guts the agency’s mission and renders it a non-player in U.S. policy. The new administration’s push for immigration reform and reversal of many of its predecessor’s policies, including overhauling family processing procedures on the U.S.-Mexico border last weekend, signal significant change ahead for ICE – if not elimination of the agency itself.

The agency’s mixed performance on its two principal missions – enforcing immigration laws by removing unlawful migrants and combating transnational crime – has fueled pressure for reform.

Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), which account for $5 billion of the agency’s roughly $8.3 billion budget and 8,000 of its 22,000 employees, regularly fall short of ICE’s stated goals even as the mission has gotten easier. 2019 was the only year to date that it reported meeting removal targets. In 2021, the number of undocumented migrants in the United States is 10 million-11 million – the same as in 2003 – despite dramatic declines in new arrivals. According to a 2017 report by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), unauthorized border crossings were about 1 million in 2003 but had fallen below 500,000 by the time Donald Trump took office in 2017.

  • Significant changes to immigration law such as those contemplated by the Biden Administration could make ICE’s immigrant removal mission obsolete. For instance, its immigration bill creates several paths to legal status for the 11 million undocumented migrants, which if passed would shift the responsibility to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). ICE’s interior operations could very well be moved to CBP or eliminated altogether. 

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with a budget of $2 billion and some 10,300 employees, is one of dozens of federal and state agencies tasked with combating transnational crime. Observers have long noted that it remains unclear why these tasks are not handled by more effective law enforcement agencies. 

  • ICE each year reports its arrests, convictions, and cash and narcotics seizures – metrics that usually represent a small fraction of the total amount of narcotics reaching the street. ICE claimed it seized 6,105 pounds of fentanyl in 2020 – a year in which opioid-related overdoses increased significantly over 2019.
  • In terms of convictions, ICE reported in 2019 that it arrested 37,547 people for various crimes and won 16,792 convictions, a conviction rate of less than 50 percent. By comparison, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) boasts a conviction rate in the high 80s. Policymakers may be tempted to break up HSI as ICE’s core missions decline and place its agents in other agencies.
  • While ICE claims in its yearly reports that it plays a pivotal role in terrorism prevention, it has yet to provide a public accounting of any successful operations and whether it has prevented an imminent attack during its 18 years of operations. 

ICE is not the only agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with problems. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found DHS employees have a 10-point lower Employee Engagement Index Score – a measure of employee enthusiasm and purpose – compared to the federal average. But ICE and its missions are arguably the most vulnerable.

  • Numerous observers report it suffers from a culture of regular misconduct. As the ACLU documented, between Jan 2017 and April 2020, 39 adults died in ICE custody. During the Trump Administration, none of ICE’s directors was confirmed by the Senate – a sign that legislators don’t hold the agency in high esteem – and leadership resignations were common, including the remarkably brief two-week tenure of Jonathan Fahey this January. These issues only add to the damage done by numerous reports of ICE’s underhanded tactics and abuse of migrants, resulting in one 2019 poll finding that Americans considered ICE the worst federal agency. (Even so, according to a 2018 Politico Morning Consult Poll, most voters also say they do not support abolishing ICE.)
  • These contradictions are likely explained by the inertia of government reform and the rise of party polarization. In the past, a federal agency defined by inefficiency, incompetence, and bloat would have generated sharp criticism from Republicans. Yet, statements of support for President Trump during his presidential campaign and Presidency by ICE officials and the union representing its rank and file seem to have bought them protection. While the #AbolishICE groups are still likely to be frustrated that the agency survives, ICE seems destined to take some serious hits and would be wise to accept a serious conversation about its role and performance rather than wait for Mr. Trump’s return.

March 8, 2021

* Brandon Hunter-Pazzara is a CLALS Fellow and PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Princeton University.

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).