The Bolsonaro-Trump Relationship: Costs for Brazilian Values and Interests

By Laís Forti Thomaz and Tullo Vigevani*

Bolsonaro and Trump

Jair Bolsonaro (L) shakes hands with Donald Trump (R) at the White House in 2019/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

New priorities in Brazil-U.S. bilateral relations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 have shifted the country away from its longstanding diplomatic values. In his eagerness to demonstrate a strong capacity to reach international deals, Bolsonaro has made concessions in talks that haven’t produced concrete benefits for Brazil.

  • Talks on a proposed merger of Boeing and Embraer ended when the U.S. company walked away from the table. Negotiations with the United States on the use of U.S. technology in space launches from the Alcântara Launch Center have been inconclusive – even after reaching the Alcântara Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) and the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RDT&E). Brazil granted a visa waiver to U.S. travelers without any reciprocity for Brazilian citizens visiting the United States. Even the government’s interest in joining the OECD has been controversial: its candidacy required Brazil to abandon its developing-country status at the WTO, and the Trump Administration then gave priority for OECD accession to Argentina.
  • In trade, for years Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world that has maintained a steady deficit with the United States. The expansion of quotas on ethanol and wheat from Brazil in favor of the U.S. (without opening the market for Brazilian agricultural commodities like sugar) and steel and aluminum tariffs are examples of unbalanced trade issues. The Brazil-U.S. Commission on Economic and Trade Relations has been negotiating various rules, but tariffs are not on the table. USTR Robert Lighthizer has stated, moreover, that the Administration doesn’t have “any plans right now for an FTA with Brazil.” A new “mini” trade deal supported by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil may be forthcoming, but there is no evidence that it will better distribute the benefits of trade between the two countries.
  • When Trump mentions countries with the worst performance in combating COVID-19, he highlights Brazil and supports measures to prevent Brazilians from entering the United States.

The Bolsonaro Administration does not appear troubled by these failures, despite Brazil’s unilateral concessions, because they parallel the President’s worldview. Bolsonaro’s philosophical approach to foreign affairs is not far from the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and the realist theories that prevailed during the Cold War, but this time against China. The inclusion of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally can be seen in this logic. His team considers a close relationship with the Trump Administration as essential to Brazil in order to achieve its economic, strategic, and political objectives.

  • Bolsonaro and his advisors may also believe their responsibility is diluted by the fact that most of the recent agreements emerge from negotiations that started in previous Administrations, especially during Michel Temer’s 28 months in office preceding Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019. But the way that Bolsonaro concluded these agreements reversed key elements of traditional Brazilian diplomacy. Among them are the prominence of the advocacy of multilateralism, opposition to any kind of unilateralism, and respect for international law and sovereignty. Former Brazilian foreign ministers serving presidents of all major political parties since 1990 have issued a statement regretting this shift away from Brazilian allegiance to international institutions.

As with his embrace of chloroquine as a COVID‑19 treatment, Bolsonaro seems to believe that Trump’s solutions to bi-national problems are in Brazil’s interest. The resulting alignment with Washington borders on subservience – harming Brazil’s other strategic partnerships and strong foreign policy principles. Brazil is drifting away from Latin America, especially Argentina, as well as from the BRICS countries. The government is also neglecting Mercosur, despite the collective’s recent agreement with the European Union. Some European countries, concerned about Brazilian government policies on the environment and Amazon rainforest preservation, have been questioning Bolsonaro’s attitudes and cooling on the deal. While the Brazilian Constitution gives priority to peaceful relations with all countries, members of the Bolsonaro cabinet have suggested supporting a possible invasion of Venezuela.

  • The lack of concrete benefits for Brazil from the U.S. relationship does not appear likely to drive a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s approach. Similarly, the government’s Trump-like confrontations with a large part of the international community, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), show no sign of diminishing despite their high costs. Brazil and the United States have been strategic partners – as Presidents Lula da Silva and George W. Bush reaffirmed in 2005 when establishing a new strategic dialogue – yet the two countries’ current presidents have disrupted the terms of this relationship in ways that will take years, if not decades, to mend.

July 13, 2020

*Laís F. Thomaz is Professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Tullo Vigevani is Professor at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp) and researcher of the Center of Contemporary Culture Studies (CEDEC). Both are researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

U.S.-Latin America Policy According to John Bolton

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

John Bolton

John Bolton/ Gage Skidmore/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir highlights his differences with President Trump and several government agencies over tactics for achieving regime change in Venezuela. It confirms, however, that they share an embrace of the Monroe Doctrine that has survived his departure from government. The book, published this week, is Bolton’s version of his 17 months in the Trump Administration. The chapter on Venezuela is 34 pages long and, while confirming much about the Administration’s disdain for the law and longstanding practices in U.S. foreign policy, provides new insights.

  • Bolton’s pledge in November 2018 to rid the hemisphere of the “Troika of Tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – reflected a consensus in the Administration, and he attributes the alliterative trope to a Trump speechwriter. But as the policy gained momentum, the Treasury Department and State Department wanted to go slow on some of the more draconian sanctions against Venezuela that he pushed.
  • Bolton puts the best face possible on Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his claim to the national presidency in January 2019. He credits the Venezuelan opposition entirely for conceiving and initiating the maneuver, even though circumstantial evidence, including the advanced U.S. efforts to build international support for it, suggests otherwise.
  • Tellingly, he says his initial reaction to the country’s repeated waves of electricity outages was that it was the opposition’s work, although he then posits that they resulted from government incompetence and underinvestment, leaving open the possibility that they resulted from an intelligence operation. (Bolton would be violating his secrecy commitments if he admitted as much.)
  • Bolton reports that President Trump consistently argued that Guaidó – whom he called “this kid” – was a lightweight incapable of wrestling control from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Trump was the strongest proponent of military intervention to remove the Venezuelan from office. But Trump also felt he could deal with Maduro as he did with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. He flip-flopped again last weekend. On Friday he told Axios that he “would maybe think about [meeting Maduro],” suggesting openness to dialogue, but on Monday he tweeted that he “would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Bolton barely registers the contributions of Latin American and European governments in support of the American position on the Venezuela issue or the advancement of a negotiated solution.

  • The position of the “Lima Group” on Venezuela gets only a passing mention, although the group’s support was arguably a historic signal of Latin American acquiescence in Washington intervention in the region. The OAS got a backhanded compliment: “Even the Organization of American States, one of the most moribund international organizations (and that’s saying something), was roused to help Guaidó.”
  • Although Norway had been arranging negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó representatives for eight months by the time Bolton resigned as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the book makes little mention of the effort. Nor does it mention U.S. actions that – by design or not – obstructed the talks. The work of Elliott Abrams, the Administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, also gets no serious treatment.

Bolton is gone, but his vision for U.S.-Latin America relations, including revival of the Monroe Doctrine as rationale for Washington’s actions, remains robust. The Administration has nominated the senior director that Bolton brought to the NSC to work on the region, a protégé of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to be President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a perch from which he can exercise influence for five years even if Trump leaves office in January 2021. If the aide is elected, it would break with the tradition of having non-U.S. presidents at the Bank. A half dozen retired Latin American presidents have expressed opposition to that, but Ecuador’s government has labeled the nomination as “very positive,” and Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who took office with U.S. approval after the military forced out President Evo Morales last November, has welcomed it enthusiastically.

  • The Pentagon will not be enthusiastic about military action to remove President Maduro. But some officials have referred to the two paramilitary contractors captured seven weeks ago during the ill-fated “invasion” of Venezuela and six dual-national CITGO employees arrested in 2017 for alleged corruption as “hostages” – a possible pretext for some sort of action that, as Bolton so fervently hoped during his tenure, would prompt the Venezuelan military to finally switch sides.

June 23, 2020

The Other Pandemic

By Alan M. Kraut*

Donald Trump speaking to supporters

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. / Flickr / Creative Commons License

The coronavirus has sparked a virulent wave of racism and intolerance in the United States – as seen in past pandemics – but strong leadership can blunt or even stop it. The current wave echoes a contemporary ethnocentric nationalism that has infected many societies and political leaders around the world.

  • U.S. President Donald Trump denounced the anti-Asian prejudices – including epithets and, at times, spit and punishing blows against Chinese-Americans – that were stirred by his own use of the terms “foreign virus” and “Chinese virus,” but the damage was done. A community was put on notice, “You are the ‘other’ and you endanger us all by your presence.”

Throughout human history, groups defined by race or religion have been persecuted because of their association with disease. The Black Death of the Middle Ages was blamed on Jews, triggering ferocious physical persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, often by torture. Sociologist Erving Goffman observed that the most essential version of stigma was the abomination of the body – because the disease-causing contagion cannot be detected with the naked eye or easily avoided.

  • Throughout American history, epidemics have often been blamed on a specific immigrant or ethnic group and triggered anti-migrant policies. A cholera epidemic in 1832 was blamed on Irish Catholic newcomers who were poor and lived in congested conditions. The anti-Catholic passions of Protestant evangelicals were a factor.
  • Before the Quarantine Act of 1878 quarantine powers shifted from the states to the federal government. Each state had its own laws and immigration depots, such as Castle Garden in New York, which opened in 1855. Later, at federal depots, physicians used increasingly sophisticated medical instrumentation and diagnostic techniques to admit the healthy and those sufficiently robust to support themselves, but their expertise did not curb xenophobic hysteria or the association of immigrant groups and their behaviors with specific diseases. Chinese laborers were blamed for bubonic plague in the San Francisco area in the 1880s, and Italians were blamed for a polio epidemic that swept through the east coast of the United States in 1916. Anti-Semitic xenophobes dubbed tuberculosis the “Tailor’s Disease” or the “Jewish Disease” despite the lower rates of the disease in Jewish communities than in many non-Jewish communities in the United States.

Xenophobia and racism have not always surged in the United States during pandemics – thanks to greater public awareness of immigrants’ contributions and to strong political leadership.

  • There were fewer incidents of xenophobia during the 1918 influenza pandemic because immigration declined dramatically (from 1,218,480 a year in 1914 to 110,618 in 1918), and critics found it awkward to blame newcomers because over half a million foreign-born soldiers of 46 different nationalities were serving in the U.S. military.
  • Many Presidents of both parties since then have not hesitated to encourage Americans to call upon the better angels of their nature with respect to the foreign-born. Sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration act in 1965 that abandoned the most restrictive immigration policy in American history and replaced it with a more welcoming policy. Years later, former Republican President George W. Bush echoed those sentiments, noting that “America’s immigrant history made us who we are.”
  • Xenophobia during an epidemic may be a “social ritual” that reaffirms a hypernationalism in the native-born, but when the drama concludes and the curtain descends, the prejudice and acts of discrimination can either transfer to a different stage or leaders can lead us away from them.

Little such leadership has come from the current occupants of the White House. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller and his allies claim that stopping new arrivals crossing the country’s southern border is necessary to preserve public health from illnesses borne by migrants. In 2018, the surge of migrants toward the border led to inquiries that Miller hoped would reveal – but did not – the spread of highly contagious diseases that endangered residents of states where they settled. More recently, Miller has encouraged the President to use his public health powers to seal the borders. One such federal law, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, allows the Surgeon General and the President to exclude from the U.S. individuals who might pose a danger because they could bring in “communicable diseases.” Ironically, while it has been Miller’s intention to target Latinos, many of them are doing the “essential work” that has kept the nation going during the crisis – in meat processing plants, grocery stores, and hospitals, where they are involved directly in the care of Covid-19 patients. Many thousands of those providing patient care are Latino “Dreamers” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the White House wants to end.

May 12, 2020

* Alan M. Kraut teaches history at American University.

United States: Putting the Hammer to Venezuela

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Trump press conference

Trump at a briefing on April 4th, 2020/ The White House/ Flickr/ Public Domain

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive actions to drive regime change in Venezuela – at a time that the already-desperate country, weakened by its incompetent government and U.S. sanctions, faces a potentially massive COVID-19 crisis – reflect Washington’s favoring of ends over means, with little concern for corollary damage. Regardless of whether President Nicolás Maduro survives the challenge, the country’s massive humanitarian and social disaster is likely to grow worse during the weeks and months ahead. At this point, there is no plausible scenario in which Washington can achieve what it claims is its desired outcome – a stable, democratic government – without a negotiated settlement.

  • The March 26 indictment of Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of narcotics-trafficking and support for terrorism against the United States underscored the administration’s commitment to removing a government it calls a “threat to the hemisphere.” The U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Maduro “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” The indictment forced an end to preliminary talks between Maduro and his opponents over a partial truce that would allow them to make a joint appeal for international aid to deal with COVID‑19.
  • On March 31, the administration announced a “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela. The plan called for Maduro to step down immediately and yield to a “Council of State” to govern until new elections. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other countries recognize as Acting President, would surrender his claim as well, but American officials made clear he had their full support in any upcoming campaign. Coming on the heels of the indictments, the framework was quickly rejected by the government.
  • The announcement on April 1 that the United States and 22 allies were launching “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the Caribbean near Venezuela – with large-scale military assets rarely seen in such missions – was another prong of what U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called “our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities.” Maduro cited these threats and indications of mysterious arms movements in Colombia – reported by a former Venezuelan general who some observers say turned collaborator with the U.S. DEA – as reasons for putting the country on military alert last weekend.

The U.S. actions appear to reflect a calculation that the Venezuelan government is so vulnerable that Maduro’s “former regime” will collapse and, somehow, a more sympathetic successor will emerge. U.S. sanctions over the past year-plus have effectively starved the economy, and the recent crash in oil prices has reduced revenues to a trickle. Observers in Caracas report that fear of COVID-19, in a country without medical supplies or even clean water in many parts, is intense.

  • The administration insists it desires a negotiated settlement, but these enhanced pressures, particularly the indictments, greatly complicate any effort to revive talks as Norway had configured them. Similar to last year’s efforts to provoke a coup against Maduro, this year’s “maximum pressure” seems premised on creating a collapse on a scale that forces the military’s hand. But the task of overthrowing Maduro would fall to an exhausted citizenry and field-grade officers not indicted or otherwise targeted by the United States government.

Whether Washington has a comprehensive strategy, is just taking ad hoc steps to force regime change, or is merely looking to wreak havoc at a time that its handling of the COVID‑19 crisis at home is falling under intense criticism, there is precious little historical evidence that its tactics will work in Venezuela. The movement of warships to the Venezuelan coast may only be a publicity stunt, with the support of some countries in the region, but it entails diplomatic and operational risks. It also is not beyond the pale to suppose that the administration, long frustrated in its regime-change efforts, will begin to believe its hyperbole about Maduro as a narco-terrorist poisoning drug-consuming U.S. youth, and be tempted to deploy measures even more drastic than those taken to date.

  • Negotiations, although difficult, are not impossible. When U.S. opposition to diplomatic efforts to resolve the wars in Central America reached a certain point, regional governments met behind Washington’s back and produced a historic plan – the “Esquipulas Accord” – that led to peace processes in each affected country. This situation is, of course, different, but Esquipulas showed that moving the U.S. to the side can work.
  • The indictments are reminiscent of U.S. tactics to overthrow General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1988-89 – resulting in a massive invasion to arrest that one man. Venezuela is different in many ways, and all parties should heed the adage of former U.S. military commander and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “You break it, you own it.”

April 7, 2020

U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

Puerto Rico: A Mess with Structural Causes

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Roselló and Trump

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló, U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump discuss relief efforts during a cabinet meeting at Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Carolina, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017 / U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea / Public Domain

Puerto Rico’s ongoing political and economic crises are similar to those in many other Latin American systems – but with the additional burden of lacking the sovereignty or U.S. support to act independently in pursuit of solutions. Two weeks of spontaneous, massive protests over vulgar on-line chats and evidence of corruption forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign on August 2. In the nearly 900 pages of “Rickyleaks” published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, Rosselló and his aides are quoted as exchanging misogynistic and homophobic messages about fellow politicians and leaders across society. Protestors accused him of mismanagement and malfeasance in the wake of Hurricane María, which devastated the island in September 2017 (nine months into his term), and of mishandling the territory’s relationship with Washington. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court found his hand-picked successor, Pedro Pierluisi, constitutionally ineligible to take the job, and Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez was sworn in on August 7.

The success of the mobilization in the streets and in social media is a hopeful sign for democracy and good governance in Puerto Rico, according to many observers. But the island’s complex economic challenges, including a massive debt crisis, and a legal relationship with the mainland United States that is vulnerable to shifting political trends make attaining that vision especially hard.

  • The island’s economy has been in recession for 13 years and is severely handicapped by a $124 billion debt crisis caused by irresponsible decisions by its government, private lenders, and Washington policies – driving a loss of productive population, erosion of the tax base, and a downward spiral of public finance and services, akin to that seen in U.S. cities such as Detroit. Hurricane María further plunged the island into misery. An estimated 3,000 people died directly or indirectly because of the storm, often because poor maintenance resulted in much of the island’s electricity and water supplies being disrupted for many months. (Carpetbaggers from the mainland are reestablishing some basic services but at exorbitant prices.) A fundamental problem for the island is that in the 1990s Washington took away tax incentives, such as for the island’s formidable pharmaceutical industry, that had fueled strong growth for several decades. These conditions have accelerated the outflow of citizens to the mainland – an estimated 4 percent of the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants in just 2018.
  • Further complicating matters, the Governor must submit all budget decisions to a Financial Oversight and Management Board established by the U.S. Government in 2016, which has seven members appointed by the U.S. President and one non-voting member appointed by the Governor. The board can block spending, institute hiring freezes, and take other measures when it does not approve of an expenditure. Puerto Rico’s proposed package of measures to climb out from under the debt, result of three years of negotiations, has been derailed by the political crisis.
  • Numerous experts have demonstrated that the U.S. Administration’s claim that it has sent $91 billion of aid to the island is false. As of early this summer, about $11.4 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds had been approved, and only about $5.72 billion disbursed (including assistance to individuals and families). Puerto Rico has only a single representative in the U.S. Congress – a non-voting delegate – and its relations with Washington depend on the goodwill and expertise of a host of bureaucracies that often have conflicting agendas. As a U.S. territory, it cannot easily receive international assistance directly.

Corruption, bad policies, weak institutions, and vulgar leaders are obviously not unique to Puerto Rico (or Latin America), but the behavior that resulted in Rossello’s ouster underscores the toxic, bankrupt nature of much of Puerto Rico’s political class despite years of lip-service to democracy, transparency, and accountability. Full sovereignty, of course, is no guarantee that any of the territories, protectorates, and “special” jurisdictions in the Caribbean would fare better if they weren’t dependent on a protector nation. But Washington’s ability to give – and take away – benefits without dealing with San Juan as an equal partner, and then judging the island’s performance and meting out sanctions, further complicates efforts to find solutions to Puerto Rico’s many problems. Puerto Ricans have shown that they can take to the streets to dump venal leaders, but, made vulnerable by multiple crises, there’s little they can do to wake up the U.S. Congress from its neglectful slumber.

August 14, 2019

U.S.-Mexico: Tariffs, Threats, and Trade Agreements

By Ken Shadlen*

Cargo ships

Cargo ships off shore of Galveston Island, TX / Jocelyn Augustino / Creative Commons / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_38860_-_Cargo_ships_off_shore_of_Galveston_Island,_TX.jpg

The United States’ threat last week to apply tariffs on imports from Mexico, unless Mexico revamped its approach to Central American migrants passing through the country, underscores the power asymmetries in the global economy – and undermines the credibility of U.S. trade agreements elsewhere. President Trump threatened to abrogate U.S. commitments under NAFTA (and the WTO) unless Mexico introduced measures in an area that is not addressed by NAFTA. While the tariffs won’t be applied, at least not now, and there is debate about just how much Mexico changed its migration policies as a result of Washington’s maneuver, the linkage between trade and “non-trade” issues such as immigration, especially within preferential trade agreements such as NAFTA, have deep implications for the political economy of international trade.

  • Many critics of Trump’s threats claim that immigration policy and trade policy are distinct, and that it makes no sense for the administration to link the two. But this misses the point: what is and is not “trade” is determined politically. Since the 1980s, the United States has conditioned market access on the introduction and enforcement of a wide range of “trade-related” policies, including investment, intellectual property, government procurement practices, and so on. Market size confers to the importing country the power to define what constitutes “trade,” and the definition of “trade” thus has changed according to Washington’s preferences. In that sense, Trump’s linkage maneuver is not at all new.
  • On the one hand, NAFTA is the outcome of massive linkage of this sort, as Mexico was required to introduce extensive changes to policies and practices in a range of trade-related policy areas in order to qualify for the agreement. On the other hand, NAFTA was meant to protect against further “ad hoc linkage,” with new conditions attached at the whim of the United States.
  • Prior to NAFTA, Mexico’s exports largely entered the U.S. market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which offers preferential market access to exports from developing countries under a wide range of conditions. But GSP preferences can be withdrawn unilaterally, and, as the importing country, the United States changed GSP preferences in response to its changing sentiments. Beneficiary countries always ran the risk of having the U.S. Congress and Executive attach additional conditions to the program, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
  • NAFTA and other NAFTA-like trade agreements that have followed promised to deliver substantially more predictability and stability than the GSP.

Recent events question these premises. In 2017-18, Trump warned that Washington would withdraw entirely from NAFTA unless it was renegotiated on terms more to his liking. Last week’s threat to remove preferential market access unless Mexico changed its immigration policies and practices is precisely the sort of behavior that NAFTA was meant to protect against. The agreement supposedly replaced the unstable preferences of GSP, which were always vulnerable to the whims of U.S. politicians, with a new set of preferences that were clearly defined, had fixed conditions, and were less prone to being unilaterally withdrawn. But evidently it didn’t.

Washington’s actions are similar to if the Mexican government announced it would stop enforcing copyrights and patents of U.S. firms, unless the United States were to substantially increase science and technology assistance to help upgrade the stock of biologists, chemists, and engineers in Mexico. The reaction to such an announcement would be ridicule, and Washington would claim NAFTA (and the WTO) binds Mexico to protect intellectual property. The United States would assert, moreover, that its science and technology assistance is not covered by NAFTA; Mexico’s threat would elicit no change of behavior on the part of the US. 

  • Beyond NAFTA per se, these events make one wonder why any country would sign a trade agreement with the United States. After all, if countries already have preferential market access under the GSP, then one of the main benefits of reciprocal trade agreements is to lock-in and stabilize those preferences – even with the need to make substantial concessions on “trade-related” policy areas. If, in reality, only half of the bargain is locked in, if the benefits can be made to disappear at the whim of the U.S. President, then for many trading partners the benefits of such agreements will be unlikely to compensate for the costs.

June 11, 2019

*Ken Shadlen is Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

U.S.-Central America: Suspending Aid Won’t Help

By Joseph Wiltberger*

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuni%C3%B3n_Tri%C3%A1ngulo_Norte_con_Vicepresidente_Biden2.jpg / Creative Commons

President Trump’s recent announcement to cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – intended to pressure those governments to stop migrant caravans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border – would suspend and divert an estimated $700 million dollars in funds directed mainly to regional security and economic programs with mixed impacts on migration. A comprehensive impact evaluation of recent U.S. aid to the region has not yet been conducted, so the consequences of this move are open to debate. While some of the aid may help those vulnerable to migration, other allocations to the three countries may be counterproductive to slowing migration.

The three countries have received around $2 billion in aid since 2015, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initially committed Washington’s contribution to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P) in response to a surge in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied minors. The A4P, a document drawn up by the Inter-American Development Bank and the three nations’ governments, has guided most of the U.S.’s strategic aid allocations to the region. The U.S. Congress allocated about $750 million in assistance in fiscal year 2016, $655 million in 2017, and $450 million in 2018. About a third of those funds have been aimed at improving citizen security through support for police, the judicial sector, and violence prevention programs. Roughly another third has been geared toward promoting economic development, and the remainder has been split mainly between anti-corruption efforts and support for military personnel through training and arms to fight drug trafficking and human smuggling.

  • NGOs working with communities susceptible to migration complain that the A4P was drafted by Central American leaders without their input, and that its framework – also reflected in U.S. aid priorities – favors elite business and political interests. It gives tax incentives to foreign investors and, opponents say, makes way for resource extraction, maquilas, and other transnational industries dependent on cheap labor and known to contribute to displacement. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to military and police forces notorious for human rights violations that are rarely prosecuted, a problem that human rights advocates warn endangers citizens and can force more migration.
  • Some of the programs aligned with the A4P, however, grasp the underlying causes of migration from these nations and show how aid can help if properly channeled. They aim to combat corruption and reduce violent crime by improving judicial systems and government transparency, and with community-based violence prevention programs. Many projects – such as initiatives to create economic, extracurricular, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, and grassroots endeavors such as cooperatives of women and small farmers – are led by local organizations with a long-standing track record of effective local work on the ground in marginalized areas. One of the more rigorous impact evaluations to date found that USAID-funded community-based gang violence prevention programs were effective.

President Trump’s announcement to cut aid did not reflect an assessment of its effectiveness but instead appears to be a political maneuver to counter domestic political opponents who support aid and to punish the governments he believes have “set up” migrant caravans and should do more to stop them. Ending assistance doesn’t help. U.S. aid to Central America should be focused on proven ways to improve security and economic conditions and to combat corruption and guard against human rights violations – problems that drive the region’s emigration today. Cutting off aid will not stop caravans and runs contradictory to the A4P’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of migration. It is counterproductive to the current administration’s interests. Aid strategies would benefit from setting U.S. political and business interests aside to instead focus more on measures that effectively fight corruption, protect human rights, and provide support for trusted organizations proven to be effectively creating opportunities and safer communities for those most vulnerable to migration.

April 29, 2019

* Joseph Wiltberger is a cultural anthropologist. He holds appointments as Assistant Professor of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge and as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

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

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018