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

Ecuador’s Return to the Past

By John Polga-Hecimovich and Francisco Sánchez*

Inauguration of the President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso/ Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Ecuador’s underlying political and economic pathologies bode ill for its governability and democratic stability as President Guillermo Lasso, inaugurated in May, attempts a return to the neoliberalism, fiscal austerity, and minority government that marked the contentious politics of the 1990s and 2000s.

  • This “return to the past” is the result of successive governments’ inability to resolve longstanding structural deficiencies. The Revolución Ciudadana of President Rafael Correa (2007‑17) reflected an illusory stability that depended on favorable political-economic conditions. Correa promised political, economic, and social transformation; promulgated a new Constitution to achieve it; and touted a national plan of buen vivir. He survived 10 years in office, more than double any other president in Ecuador’s history, but his change was not fundamental or durable – a consequence of the inefficiency, centralization, and personalization of decision-making under one man.
  • Under the Lenín Moreno government (2017‑21), Ecuador’s pathologies reemerged salient as ever. Correa’s acolyte in the recent presidential election, Andrés Arauz, lost in the runoff against Lasso, who campaigned on a platform of fiscal austerity that was hardly an attractive proposition for an electorate battered by the COVID‑19 pandemic and years of slow economic growth.

While breaking with one version of its past – correísmo – the electorate seems to have resigned itself to another. Ecuador’s longstanding political dysfunction, driven by multiple factors, looms large.

  • Ever-changing rules of play. Since independence from Spain in 1820, Ecuador has had 20 constitutions and myriad electoral rules. In moments of crisis, especially since Ecuador’s democratic transition (1978‑79), elites have generally sought to alter the formal rules of the game – as a kind of restart button. Although Correa proclaimed that the Constitution he pushed through would endure for 300 years, it was modified 23 times in nine years to correct errors and alter citizens’ rights.
  • Weak rule of law and persistent corruption. “Extractive elites” siphon resources from the people and often support institutions and policies inimical to sustained economic growth. Stories abound of the cultivation of party adherents and votes through clientelism, and corruption has politicized the judiciary. Correa created a breeding ground for scandal. In 2017, the court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison and banned him from politics for 25 years, whereby he fled to exile in Belgium.
  • Fragmented parties. Ecuador’s party system is one of the most fragmented and weakly institutionalized in the world. Since returning to civilian rule, the parties have proven unable to sustain electoral support – most last only a handful of elections before they disappear. Despite high party turnover in the legislature, voters lack clear institutional channels of representation.
  • Slow growth and surging debt. Since the mid-2010s, economic, political, and social crises have reversed many of the gains made during the greatest economic boom in the country’s history. Correa’s large investments in infrastructure, such as roads, hydroelectric plants, schools, and health facilities, reduced political pressures. But the average annual deficit jumped to 3.5 percent of GDP between 2007 and 2017, and total foreign debt jumped from $10.5 billion to $31.5 billion, and reached $40 billion by 2020, while domestic debt grew fourfold. President Moreno’s efforts to change course provoked outrage and social unrest.
  • Significant interbranch conflict. Ecuadorian executives have been politically weak despite an institutional structure that strengthens the presidency relative to the legislature. They have to build coalitions through the distribution of pork and other perks, leading to weak and corrupt governance.

These factors drastically reduce Lasso’s policy options. In legislative elections held last February, moreover, his Creando Oportunidades (CREO) party won only 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. His 4.8-point margin of victory in the second presidential round gives a false sense of a popular mandate. It was a case of “outcome inversion” – when the first-round winner is defeated in the runoff – in a context of low party-system institutionalization.

  • Another challenge is that the country’s long-standing pathologies and the turmoil they cause have undermined Ecuadorians’ support for democracy, which fell from 66.7 percent in 2014 to 54.4 percent in 2019, a trend that is mirrored in several other Latin American states. Satisfaction with how democracy works in Ecuador, peaking at 68.8 percent in 2014, has once again become a minority position.

After the promises of reformist leaders, stability, and favorable economic conditions, Ecuador – like much of Latin America – seems to have returned to, or to never have actually escaped from, the volatility of its past. Its social, political, and economic weaknesses are mutually reinforcing. Economic hardship exacerbates the highly transactional and patrimonial nature of the political system and weakens the party system as lawmakers switch allegiances and votes based on whichever political broker can offer more.

  • Limited political and economic resources handicap Lasso’s efforts to address urgent problems, including the pandemic, that would sorely challenge even an experienced leader. Without a team with public-sector know-how, inexperienced politicians often end up absorbed by the pathologies of a political system that make their weaknesses more acute. From a historical perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that Lasso will succeed where previous presidents have failed.

July 27, 2021

* John Polga-Hecimovich is associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Francisco Sánchez is professor of political science and administration and director of the Iberoamérica Institute at the University of Salamanca. This article is adapted from their recent essay in the July issue of Journal of Democracy.

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.

South America: Reality Check on Lithium Fantasies

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Lithium mine at Salinas Grandes salt desert Jujuy province, Argentina/ EARTHWORKS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and transition to an energy matrix centered on renewable energy guarantees a steady demand for lithium, but speculation that South America is on the cusp of a lithium boom is premature. The chemical is critical in the production of rechargeable batteries for mobile devices, electric vehicles, and, increasingly, renewable energy storage systems. The so-called Lithium Triangle of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile holds just over half the world’s currently known lithium deposits, while Brazil and Peru have large amounts of spodumene hard rock that contains lithium.

  • Lithium in its natural form is part of a chemical compound that requires a complex re-composition process to make, among other things, lithium‑ion battery cells. How it is mined entails significant cost differences. Lithium from the brine below salt flats in Argentina and Chile is currently the most cost-competitive. While Bolivia also has brine deposits, the lithium is less concentrated, contains more impurities, and is found at more difficult-to-access lower depths in the Uyuni salt flats. Accessing lithium in spodumene hard rock pegmatites is even more complicated and hence costlier. The advantage, though, is that this type of lithium synthesizes better with the higher nickel content required to improve electric vehicle performance and range.

The region’s largest producers adopted different approaches to capitalizing on lithium reserves.

  • In 2008, then-President Evo Morales of Bolivia restricted extraction to the state-owned Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL) because past commodity boom and bust cycles profited foreigners and left little wealth but plenty of environmental catastrophes and other social ills in their wake. In 2017, lithium extraction was transferred to the newly created Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB).  Morales also promoted public-private partnerships to jointly produce batteries and even electric vehicles in Bolivia. The latter echoes a failed Andean Pact initiative during the 1970s in which aspects of automobile production were to be distributed among different member states. The scheme failed because, among other reasons, manufacturing anything in isolated Bolivia was cost prohibitive due to poor infrastructure. Several decades later, logistical realities still make exporting a Bolivian-produced electric vehicle, let alone lithium‑ion batteries, economically unfeasible.
  • Chile, which also deems lithium to be a strategic mineral, imposes onerous production quotas on private-sector producers and requires that they sell 25 percent of their output at preferential rates to domestic downstream buyers. The set-aside provision is designed to encourage manufacturing in Chile of lithium‑ion battery components such as cathodes, hydroxide, and electrolytes. While Argentina is more accepting of private investment in its lithium industry, the country is notorious for recurring economic crises and erratic oscillation in economic policy that make investing in the country a high-risk proposition.

Complicating resource extractive activities in South America are heightened environmental sensitivities. Indigenous communities are well versed in the prior consultation obligation of ILO Convention 169 as well the free, prior, and informed consent requirements of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For over a decade now, the continent has seen numerous energy and mining projects blocked and even abandoned because of an actual or perceived failure to adequately consult with detrimentally impacted Indigenous communities. Lithium brine deposits in the Lithium Triangle countries are found in some of the most arid spots on the planet, raising concerns that the water-intensive lithium brine extraction process directly competes with subsistence agricultural activities in nearby communities. This has sparked major road blockades protesting mining projects in Argentina’s Jujuy province and in southwestern Bolivia, as well as court litigation in both Argentina and Chile.

The panorama for the lithium industry in South America is subject to new social and political realities that were not true of past commodity booms. There is little tolerance today for extractive investment projects that are not environmentally sustainable and do not benefit local communities. This trend will accelerate with efforts to turn the voluntary United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into a binding legal treaty. In addition, Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) principles emanating from the UN’s Principles for Responsible Development now make it very difficult for corporate management to push through projects that result in serious environmental damage and human rights abuses.

  • An example of this trend was the announcement last month that Daimler AG, Volkswagen AG, and BASF would join Dutch smartphone manufacturer Fairphone to launch the Responsible Lithium Partnership so that extraction in northern Chile will not negatively affect the sensitive ecosystem or the people who live in the surrounding areas.

July 14, 2021

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.

South America: Mounting Tensions, Few Solutions

By Christopher Kambhu*

Protest in Colombia/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

Across South America, calls for structural change have re-emerged on the streets and at the ballot box, but governments face many obstacles to constructively address them. These calls are a continuation of region-wide protests in 2019, when citizens demanded reforms or rewrites of the existing social contract to address various political, economic, and social inequities. While government pandemic measures pushed protestors off the streets throughout 2020, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities that prompted protests.

  • Inequities in Colombia have sparked nationwide social conflict. Protests against a proposed tax reform have broadened into demands for a basic income and accountability for security forces accused of killing dozens of protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, but radical groups have created “autonomous zones” free of police presence and established roadblocks, causing goods shortages in major cities. Negotiations between the government and protest leaders have yet to gain traction. President Ivan Duque’s approval rating has plummeted to historic lows as he appears unable to meet the moment. Backlash against demonstrators is emerging, with some wealthier residents violently repelling protestors from their neighborhoods.
  • In Ecuador and Peru, citizens have used the ballot box to voice their frustrations, leading to surprising electoral outcomes. Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s new center-right president, has formed a governing coalition with indigenous and social-democratic parties that are the second and third largest in the national legislature (Lasso’s party is the fifth largest). In Peru, provincial teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo has narrowly won June’s presidential runoff over Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a controversial former president convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. Castillo’s far-left party, which began contesting national elections only last year, is now the largest in Peru’s legislature, but needs to forge complex alliances to govern effectively.
  • Chile took a different path. Under intense pressure, the government acceded to popular demands for a constitutional rewrite. A national plebiscite last October assented to the rewrite by a wide margin, and elections for the Constituent Assembly in May demonstrated widespread rejection of the current elites. Most members are political independents or newcomers; a sizable number rose to prominence during the initial wave of protests in late 2019. The membership has gender parity, a first for such a body, with 11 percent of seats reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

Efforts to forge new social contracts are difficult at best and each path faces obstacles to success. Colombia’s current political leadership appears unable to calm tensions, and voters must wait until national elections next year to elect new leaders. While demands for change in Ecuador and Peru have elevated some candidates and parties to unprecedented success, sharp ideological divisions and partisan fragmentation in both legislatures appear likely to limit potential reforms. Castillo’s mandate is tenuous and weakened by Fujimori’s rather Trumpian allegations of fraud and attempts to throw out ballots. In Chile, the ideological diversity of the Constituent Assembly could very well preclude it from reaching the required two-thirds majority needed for any proposal to enter the new Constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in 2022.

  • The inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and a busy electoral schedule will keep reform issues at the forefront of political discourse; these debates will likely intensify with 11 countries across Latin America holding national elections over the next 18 months. While upcoming elections offer a timely opportunity for citizens to push their countries in new directions, governments will face political, fiscal, and social challenges which threaten implementation of any proposed reforms. At this early stage in the region’s electoral supercycle, political leaders have yet to capably address their citizens’ demands.

July 7, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

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

Peru: Approaching Ungovernability?

Voting in Peru during the presidential election/ Presidencia Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Disputes over the final vote count in Peru’s June 6 presidential runoff are likely to drag on, but those promoting fear and mistrust in the political system already appear to be the clear winners, with grave consequences for the future of the country’s democracy. The two leading candidates – leftist Pedro Castillo and rightist Keiko Fujimori – both represent significant threats to liberal democracy, and the country’s elites and media are complicitous in moving the country closer to ungovernability.

  • Castillo and his Perú Libre party ran on an unapologetically non-democratic platform, promising a Leninist government and suggesting an end to the democratic alternation of power. Fujimori defended the corrupt dictatorship of her father, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and as leader of Fuerza Popular has fought a constant battle against the rule of law.
  • First-round voting in April showed that neither of them won many hearts and minds – 18.9 percent voted for Castillo and 13.4 percent for Fujimori – but they advanced because the other 17 candidates were even worse, deeply divided, and weak. Preparing for the second round, rather than reach out to the 70 percent of voters who rejected them, they showed the arrogance of immoderation and left citizens wondering which would be less likely to tyrannize them.

Other political leaders and the country’s elites, instead of demanding that the two candidates commit to democracy, made things worse. Unlike the elites in other countries, Peru’s do not seek to take over the levers of political power; rather, they are most comfortable maintaining a mediocre status quo. The left showed unconditional enthusiasm for Castillo, and conservatives like author Mario Vargas Llosa embraced Fujimori – while the two candidates proceeded to tear the country apart with fear-mongering, scare tactics, and empty promises.

  • Fujimorismo based its campaign on causing panic by feeding people’s fear of communism and terrorism, and linking Castillo to them. By mid-May, politicians who had said they’d hold their nose while voting for Keiko began casting her as a national savior. Her allies filled the streets with posters warning of the “Communist invasion.” Business leaders said they would fire employees if Castillo won. Castillo resorted to similar tactics to stir panic about a return of a Fujimori to the Palacio de Gobierno.
  • The media shed all pretense of independence and hyped these warnings as if truth, exhuming stories of terror from the past to drive home the point. Polls and vote results show, however, that the media’s gross bias prompted many voters who had intended to cast empty or unmarked ballots to vote for Castillo.

Peru may well be entering a period of ungovernability. Five years of political turmoil, corruption scandals, and institutional decay, under four different Presidents, had already wounded the country before this election, but fear – which, as Martha Nussbaum said, is the feeling that controls people, not liberate them – now runs even deeper and stronger. Well-founded questions about both Fujimori and Castillo’s commitment to democracy will keep tensions high, and the political, business, and media elites have created a climate in which allegations of fraud will persist despite international observers’ conclusions that the elections were clean. The forceful rejection of Fujimori by half of the population, and the Castillo’s utter lack of even basic governing skills are real risks. Arbitrary manipulations of the Constitution will be attempted to strengthen or weaken whichever government takes office. Calls for military intervention are certain. Political opposition will radicalize. The historic split between mestizo-dominated Lima and the rest of the country, vulgarly called la Indiada, is worsening.

  • But this is not Peru’s inescapable fate. Its democracy still gives the people the weapons with which to impede an authoritarian project. They do not have to believe that Fujimori’s backers are all corrupt anti-patriots, nor that all of Castillo’s are anti-Peruvian Communists. It’s true that the country has been wracked by the pandemic like no other, and that it is hindered by debt and other challenges. While neither of the candidates and their forces have demonstrated the greatness and humility needed to lead through these crises, rescuing Peruvian democracy requires accepting that the one with the most votes will be President, even if purely by chance, and deserves an opportunity to govern without calls for a coup to remove them. A country decimated by the pandemic needs the hope of being able to move into the future together.

June 18, 2021

*  This article is a synthesis and translation of commentaries and interviews by Alberto Vergara, who teaches at la Universidad del Pacífico in Lima and was co-editor of Politics after Violence: Legacies of the Shining Path Conflict in Peru.

Haiti: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Police get in position as the protesters escalate their chants/ Ben Piven/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the Haitian government’s postponement of a referendum on a Constitution drafted by a committee hand-picked by President Jovenel Moïse, the President’s power grab looks likely to persist, almost certainly prolonging and deepening the country’s current crisis. Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020 because – in part owing to his own obstructionism – legislative elections in 2019 were postponed and a new legislature could not be seated. He has also insisted that delays in his inauguration in 2017 entitle him to a one-year extension of his term, until February 2022. Political tensions have triggered large, violent protests and catalyzed a surge in murders, kidnappings (up 200 percent over 2020), and other crimes – a deterioration that the Catholic Church calls “a descent into hell.” Gangs, often acting as surrogates for political factions, have been terrorizing neighborhoods and have attacked nine police stations in the past week, according to the Miami Herald.

  • Most controversial among Moïse’s actions has been a new Constitution drafted by a closed group of his allies and a referendum on it originally planned for June 27. The new Constitution would give him significantly greater powers by, for example, eliminating the post of Prime Minister and making the Legislature a unicameral body easier for the President to control. Many observers view it as mostly a tool to consolidate his one-man rule and increase impunity. Although Moïse has denied he intends to seek a second turn, his Constitution would allow him one.
  • Criticism of the Constitution and referendum has been widespread. The entire political opposition has condemned it, as has the Catholic Church. Even the head of Moïse’s Parti Tèt Kale has publicly opposed it. Thousands of demonstrators have spontaneously taken to the streets in generally peaceful protests, while massacres by pro-government forces have escalated in slums generally supportive of the opposition.  

The international community, which has been permissive of Moïse as he’s pursued most of his plans over the past year-plus, criticized his efforts to ram through the Constitution – lamenting the lack of transparency and the narrow participation in its drafting – and finally pressed him to suspend the referendum. But it is also quietly facilitating some of the steps required to lead up to such a vote.

  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in February criticized Moïse’s human rights record, but the OAS has embraced his claim to an extended term and, while expressing concern about process issues, was not forceful against the Constitution gambit. Indeed, an OAS mission visiting Port-au-Prince this week will focus on the surge in violence and preparations for future elections, not stopping his Constitution.
  • The Biden Administration has been slow to take a stance on Moïse’s machinations – not announcing opposition to the referendum until this week. It has criticized his inability to quell the violence without linking it to his policies or agenda. Announcing last week that the United States was extending Temporary Protective Status for 100,000 Haitians, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas noted that Haiti is “currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Haitian crises have been so deep and long in recent decades that this one is difficult to distinguish from others, but it is a perfect storm of a sustained political power grab amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its massive economic hit. Moïse is almost certain to push for his new Constitution as a condition for holding elections. Haitian elites have never heeded lofty appeals for them to build democracy and make compromises. They expertly exploit the international community’s reluctance to punish them because of the harm it will cause the Haitian people. (UNICEF reports that severe acute malnutrition among young children has doubled over the past year.) Cooperation between government opponents in Haiti and the Diaspora has introduced an element of protest and resistance not seen since the mid-1980, but the international community still heeds primarily local political and economic elites.

  • Washington’s hesitance to become more forceful probably reflects the view that it has no better alternative than tolerating Moïse. If so, it would suggest the Biden Administration has not learned the lessons – such as that the elites are unreliable partners – of the failed U.S. pledge during Barack Obama’s presidency to help Haiti “Build Back Better” after the 2010 earthquake and the Trump Administration’s coddling of Moïse in return for his opposition to Venezuela at the OAS. The State Department’s belated opposition to Moïse’s referendum, however, may be a sign that it is listening to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and Haiti Caucus’s urging that the Administration get out of its “source bubble” and reach out to constructive opposition voices.

June 10, 2021

Venezuela: Lessons Learned from Failed Negotiations

By Nancy Haugh*

Protest in Venezuela/ MARQUINAM/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As both sides to the Venezuela crisis express willingness to return to the negotiating table, a review of the shortcomings in previous talks – particularly their overly ambitious agenda and excessively narrow participation – should improve the odds of success in future rounds. Four dialogues between Chavistas and the opposition preceded the collapsed 2019 talks. In each case, both sides were willing to negotiate with the presence of a neutral, trusted third-party mediator and met several times, but other requisite conditions outlined in negotiation literature, such as including potential spoilers at the table, were missing.

  • The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution worked hard to create a negotiating structure that did not aggravate the fears of both sides by, for example, not inviting the United States or the Venezuelan military to participate. It also declined a request from the International Contact Group (ICG), a coalition of Latin American and European countries, to a merge its negotiation process with one the ICG had already launched over concerns that the ICG’s goal was regime change through electoral reform, not a negotiated agreement.
  • Talks stumbled, however, because of a tactic used by self-declared President Juan Guaidó that negotiation specialists call “Type C coercive diplomacy” – his penchant for making maximalist demands and threats while borrowing power from the U.S. and other external sources – and because of problems with his “boundary role.” He was trying to represent constituencies that were not at the table, particularly his U.S. benefactors and Venezuela’s moderate opposition, to gain leverage over the government. But he could not credibly offer relief from Washington’s sanctions, which combined with the threat of military intervention were intended to effect the immediate removal of President Nicolás Maduro and hold new Presidential elections. Talks broke down in August 2019 when the U.S. imposed new sanctions, including freezing all Venezuelan government assets under U.S. jurisdiction, without consulting with Guaidó.

The government took advantage of the opposition’s “boundary roles” problem. Maduro’s team had no incentive to negotiate with a person who could not alter the U.S. sanctions. Government negotiators had previously said they were open to modifying the electoral calendar and engaging in legislative and electoral power-sharing if U.S. sanctions were lifted at least one year before the polling day. That offer fell off the table, but another – “inviting the opposition to seek a recall referendum against Maduro in two to three years’ time” – apparently still stands.

  • September 16, 2019, the day after a weakened opposition declared that negotiations had been “exhausted,” Maduro reached an agreement with an offshoot of the opposition movement, the moderate National Dialogue, and the opposition split was formalized. Under this deal, Maduro would neither need to resign nor be barred from running in future elections. Ultimately, the agreement was only partially implemented, with 29 of 58 promised political prisoners actually released from prison. Additionally, instead of fulfilling its commitment to “dialogue and reconciliation,” the government formed a commission to investigate alleged corruption on the part of Guaidó and his team.

Despite the efforts of the Norwegian team, the 2019 talks neither fully addressed the needs and fears of both sides nor defused the influence of external stakeholders. In March, Norwegian mediators began to quietly explore re-initiating talks between representatives of Guaidó and Maduro. Though previous rounds failed to meet their main objective, they demonstrated that progress is indeed possible with a modified strategy.

  • The literature on international negotiations suggests that increasing the number of parties at the table makes cooperation more difficult, increases information costs, and makes defection more likely, but the previous talks suffered from having too few at the table. By not including a wide array of opposition voices, a secondary channel opened for the government to reach an agreement and walk away from the process when the United States announced sanctions.
  • Negotiating partial agreements, instead of a comprehensive one, appears more promising as a means of solving problems and creating momentum. The country’s historic economic and humanitarian crises offer the best chance of finding agreement and building trust between the parties and, even if not resolving the parties’ biggest needs, will benefit the people they claim to care about.
  • Involving a balanced mix of regional actors as guarantors would comfort each side while pressuring them to be accountable. The members of the anti-Maduro “Lima Group” could help, as could Cuba, which has supported Maduro and has a strong record of supporting successful negotiations.

Four months into the Biden Administration, the position of the most important external actor has yet to go beyond broad statements about continuing “to work with international partners to increase pressure in a multilateral fashion toward [the] goal of free and fair elections.” In mid-May, Guaidó proposed a progressive lifting of U.S. sanctions in return for steps by Maduro toward free and fair elections overseen by a third party – suggesting a shift away from his maximalist stance – but Washington has remained publicly silent.

June 4, 2021

* Nancy Haugh completed their Master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, with a focus on dialogue, human rights, and foreign policy in Latin America.

Brazil: Case Study of How NOT to Handle a Pandemic

By Ingrid Fontes*

A health professional from the Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) prepares a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine/ International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Most of the blame for Brazil’s inept response to the COVID‑19 pandemic – including the highest per capita death rate in the world (214 per 100,000) – falls squarely on the shoulders of President Jair Bolsonaro. Some of the severe criticism of the President – including some in an ongoing Senate investigation – is surely politically driven, but government foot-dragging and bad decisions, compounding the country’s political economy of corruption, have worsened the 15-month crisis.

  • The country has recorded 16.2 million cases and 452,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID‑19 Dashboard. Since early May, Brazil has had a moving average of more than 2,000 deaths per day.
  • Vaccinations have lagged even though Brazil has a competent infrastructure for administering conventional flu shots. As of this week, Brazil has administered a total of 63.7 million doses, with nearly 14.74 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, and 7.15 percent receiving both doses (13.2 million) – out of a population of more than 212 million. That’s below Chile (41 percent fully vaccinated) and Uruguay (28 percent); more than Mexico (9 percent); and well ahead of Peru (3 percent) and Ecuador (3 percent), according to a tracking website.

Government efforts ran into some longstanding obstacles, but many problems directly resulted from Bolsonaro policies that, according to many observers and experts, were minimalist if not obstructionist.

  • The country’s health system has long been underfunded, but the chaos has been the result of government actions. Four ministers of health have cycled through the job during the pandemic. The President and his administration have willfully disseminated information about the pandemic and vaccines, including that some shots will “turn you into a crocodile,” that have been roundly debunked. Bolsonaro has hosted large events without masks and social distancing.
  • Initially calling COVID a “little flu,” the government failed to begin arranging the purchase of vaccines in mid-2020 and later refused several offers by Pfizer that would have guaranteed it millions of vaccines. It rejected a liability waiver that the United States, EU, UK, Japan, and other Latin American countries had accepted.
  • The government also refused public calls to develop an immunization plan and delayed training healthcare professionals to administer the vaccine. When Brazil received its first batch of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines last month, the government stated it would distribute them to its 27 capitals in a “proportional and equal” division, but the lack of a detailed plan has led to wasted doses, shortages, and the suspension of vaccinations.

Corruption has also hampered efforts. Congress authorized US$50.8 billion in April 2020 and allowed all levels of government to purchase ventilators, intensive care beds, masks, and other supplies without bids and the usual bureaucratic review. By August, auditors were already warning that less than 8 percent of funds expended had gone directly to fight the disease. Of seven field hospitals the ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro ordered, five never opened. State and public prosecutors have already developed various cases of companies bilking more than US$70 million in each of various schemes. A lot of key equipment, such as respirators, and protective gear, never reached patients.

  • The government was slow to crack down on scams, such as the sale of bogus cures, that stole citizens’ money and undermined their confidence. The resident of a luxury building in Belo Horizonte, for example, told police that both the nurse and vaccine he paid US$100 for turned out to be false.

Other Latin American countries have struggled with the pandemic, of course, but Brazil’s performance falls far short of what it could have achieved with effective leadership and transparency. The harm has been magnified by the country’s interconnected and problematic political economy, specifically corruption. which has created a perfect storm of government ineffectiveness.

  • The President’s personal role is not to be underestimated, both in his deeds, such as undermining state and local governments’ efforts to contain the disease, and his inaction. Ironically, even communities that oppose Bolsonaro, or at least have no reason to heed him, have been heavily influenced by his example. Indigenous leaders report, for instance, that his refusal to accept the Chinese vaccine has contributed to vaccine hesitation among the 410,000 adults in indigenous villages. His rhetoric has made thousands of supporters refuse taking the vaccine.

* Ingrid Fontes is a student in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service, with a particular focus on Brazil.