Mexico: Competing State Strategies and Results on COVID

By Piper Neulander*

Disinfecting city street in north-central Mexico./ Carl Campbell/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the face of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s relatively cavalier attitude toward the COVID‑19 virus, the governors of states as varied as Nuevo León and Oaxaca have implemented contrasting approaches – with different levels of success and political gains. AMLO’s response has been colored by relatively late shutdowns, limited ramping up of national-level coordination mechanisms, and the maintenance of strict austerity despite an extraordinary decline in economic activity. Yet state governments have a large degree of autonomy in Mexico’s federal system, and some have taken advantage of it. Nuevo León – a northern, industrial, relatively urbanized and wealthier state – and Oaxaca – a southern, more rural and poorer state – both initially followed AMLO’s hesitant lead towards the virus, but eventually diverged in their strategies.

Nuevo León

The governor of Nuevo León, independent Jaime Rodríguez, has adopted policies that have departed sharply from federal guidelines. The state began to count private and state labs’ coronavirus tests together and quickly, while the federal government still only had one lab to officially confirm tests. It also used its own measurement system in many industries to allow for slower, safer re-openings – developing 12 measures, rather than the federal government’s four – and cooperated with neighboring states to prevent spread of the disease.

  • These policies gave Nuevo León a fighting chance to slow the spread through its dense population and industrial workplaces. Early testing meant the state had a far more accurate initial count of cases, and local processing of the tests enabled faster action. While these steps made Nuevo León citizens more aware of the spread within their communities early on, they caught medical workers unprepared for the surge, prompting protests over the lack of preparation.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat, who aligns himself closely with AMLO, took advantage of that relationship during the pandemic. The state received federal help from the military to build much-needed hospitals in the region – one of which AMLO personally inaugurated during a tour of the Istmo region. (It was unclear, however, if the hospital actually began operating upon inauguration.)

  • This strong partnership with the federal government, however, made the state vulnerable to the same pitfalls as national-level policies, including inadequate testing and slow identification of virus trends, contributing to striking lethality rates from COVID‑19 in certain Oaxacan counties. The county of Juchitán, for example, experienced an 18 percent fatality rate.

In Nuevo León, Rodríguez saw a huge boost in popularity during the early months of the pandemic – an average of 25 percentage point increase in various polls conducted between March and May. His approval rate for his handling of the COVID crisis specifically was 72.3 percent in June – one of the five highest approval rates among Mexico’s 31 states. In Oaxaca, where polling figures vary, most pointed to a 6.6 percentage point increase in Murat’s approval rate between May and July. Also in June, opinion on compliance with isolation and decreased mobility was at 68.3 percent approval in Nuevo León and 60.6 percent approval in Oaxaca.

The governors’ political fortunes seem to parallel the states’ health results. Rodríguez was successful on two fronts: relative success against the coronavirus, and clear success in grasping the moment for his own political purposes. He was smart to forge his own path against the virus, focusing on essential tools like testing and regional cooperation, and, despite the health workers’ protests, delivering quality care to victims of the disease. Rodríguez was consistent and clear with the public about the risks of the virus, allowed his Secretary of Health to guide a response to the virus, and harnessed his urban, industrially supported state’s strengths in his response, while avoiding many of the mistakes of the federal government. In Oaxaca, Murat’s close adherence to AMLO’s lead placed the state at a disadvantage in combatting COVID‑19. While he did also gain in popularity for his response, the gain was smaller. Much of Oaxaca’s actions were boosted by support from the federal government, making the state-level response less distinguishable from Mexico’s central government strategy.

September 18, 2020

* Piper Neulander is a student in the School of International Service focusing on Latin America.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 15, 2020

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

COVID-19 Presents Challenges for Latinos in U.S. Election

By Stephen Nuño-Pérez*

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish./ GPA Photo Archive/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic – in addition to having a deep impact on U.S. Latinos’ economic wellbeing and health– is aggravating the community’s anxieties about whether their votes will be counted in the November 3 elections. A recent poll by Latino Decisions shows deep concern that Latinos’ impact on vote counts, already depressed by their traditionally anemic turnout rates, will be even more severely reduced by a lack of confidence in mail-in voting.

  • Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – have all-mail voting systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and California is adjusting its system in response to the pandemic to mail ballots to every voter automatically. Other states have more strict requirements to request a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot.
  • There has been a widely disseminated argument that VBM gives the Democratic Party an advantage, but much of the research shows that neither party gains an advantage. Utah and Oregon, for example, are two very different states that are roughly 90 percent non-Hispanic white, yet Republicans control the legislature, the Senate, and the Governorship in the former, and Democrats control all three levels of government in the latter.

Latinos have traditionally preferred to vote in-person on election day, and Latino Decision’s latest poll shows that the conventional wisdom that VBM will significantly increase their participation during the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated. While states with VBM systems tend to have higher turnout rates, the research pinpointing the causal relationship between VBM and turnout is somewhat mixed. Indeed, VBM raises concerns for Latinos. Researchers in Florida have been ringing the alarm on its inequities. Dr. Daniel Smith at the University of Florida has shown that VBM in Florida has disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters and young voters.

  • Latino Decisions’s latest poll surveyed 1,842 registered Latino voters on their concerns about voting during COVID‑19. Overall, 74 percent said they had health concerns about voting in person. (Ironically, the older respondents were slightly less concerned than the younger.) Eighty-one percent of those who identify as Democrats expressed worries, compared to just 60 percent of those who identify as Republicans.
  • While 53 percent of Latinos across demographic groups in the survey overall said they prefer to vote in-person, there was some variation in preference by state. For instance, 66 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they prefer VBM (compared to 80 percent of non-Latinos), and just 43 percent of Latinos in Texas said so. When asked if they had confidence that their mail-in ballot would be counted, just 47 percent of those who prefer to vote in person said they had confidence in the system. By comparison, 85 percent of those who prefer VBM said they had confidence in the system. Here again we see partisan differences in confidence, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they had confidence in the VBM system and 64 percent of Latino Republicans saying they had confidence their mail-in ballot would be counted.
  • A majority of Latino voters from both parties in the survey said they were confident they could navigate their states’ systems for switching from in-person to mail-in ballot. First-generation Latinos, those who were not born in the United States, were slightly less confident, at 48 percent, that they could navigate the system to request a VBM ballot.

The survey results suggest a strong need for efforts to improve VBM systems and build confidence among Latinos to vote by mail. Rejection rates of Latino mail-in voters in states like Florida are too high, and it is up to state elections officials to implement a multi-layered approach to fixing elements of the system that are seen as broken. Shoring up education on the VBM process will also build confidence in it. COVID‑19 makes this difficult, but addressing the VBM system’s flaws will help build credibility and improve participation in the November election – for Latinos as well as non-Latinos.

September 4, 2020

* Stephen Nuño-Pérez is Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions.

Colombia: Poisoning the Future with Glyphosate?

By Luis Gilberto Murillo, Pablo Palacios Rodríguez, and Michael Julián Córdoba*

Fumigation in Colombia

Fumigation planes spray the Colombian countryside./ KyleEJohnson/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country and has the greatest number of unique species in the world, but the government’s approval of the widespread use of glyphosate – by agroindustry as well as in drug-eradication operations – continues to threaten this important resource for humanity. The country undoubtedly has greater awareness than many others of the link between protecting and taking advantage of its environmental richness. Economic and political interests, however, are shoving those values aside. The COVID‑19 pandemic has accelerated deforestation in some parts of the country as the nation prioritizes public health and economic recovery.

  • The use of herbicides such as glyphosate (known commercially as Roundup) in agriculture and, especially in the past, aerial eradication of illicit drug crops poses the greatest threat. The Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) estimates that glyphosate in 2016 represented 17 percent of the 10 million liters (equal to 359 medium-size swimming pools) of herbicides used in the country. Industrial farms use it in fields that produce a vast array of foods, including sugar, rice, citrus, bananas, and fresh vegetables.
  • The ICA and the National Police say that 10 percent of the glyphosate that year was sprayed from airplanes to destroy illicit crops. (In the previous 20 years, some 2 million hectares had been sprayed.) This practice has continued despite growing evidence that aerial fumigation is inefficient and ineffective – most often merely forcing growers to move production elsewhere, expanding deforestation. UN experts estimate that 60 percent of coca producers replant eradicated fields. Spraying glyphosate is also expensive, costing about US$70,000 per hectare.

The administration of Colombian President Iván Duque has been reversing what progress his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, and the courts had made in ending the use of glyphosate.

  • Santos began a process that, if continued, would have led to a total prohibition of the use of glyphosate. The policies were based on the growing body of evidence that the substance could cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015 designated it as “possibly carcinogenic for humans.” Previously, in 2005, Colombia’s National Health Institute had already demonstrated its genotoxicity (causing mutations) and cytotoxicity (harming cells). The government also argued that more than half of the U.S. states had prohibited the use of glyphosate. The Constitutional Court backed Santos’s push in part to protect the rights of Afro-Colombians and the Indigenous of Chocó, who studies show have been seriously affected.
  • Since taking office two years ago, President Duque’s administration has changed policy back, including on spraying glyphosate to reduce illicit drug production. It has dismissed the validity of existing studies and asserts that the scientific evidence about the herbicide’s effect on the environment and animal and human health is weak. The Colombian government is intensively pushing to resume fumigation of coca fields. The government is also sympathetic to agro-industry’s argument that any substitute herbicide could be worse than glyphosate.

The science is clear even if the politics is not: Glyphosate, especially when aerially sprayed, has serious implications for ecosystems and is already showing toxic effects on many species of plants, many of which are endemic (unique) to Colombia, as well as insects necessary for ecological balance. Trustworthy studies indicate that up to 40 percent of the country’s biodiversity is threatened. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that, in the United States alone, glyphosate threatens 74 species with extinction – a small fraction of what Colombia stands to lose. Agro-industry’s argument that other herbicides could be worse dodges the fundamental issue that continued reliance on glyphosate is dangerous.

  • The pandemic has been a convenient excuse for the government to avoid thoughtful debate and pull back on enforcement of the few existing regulations in place governing the use of herbicides. But now is actually a good time to take up the issue, as environmental protection and the fight against climate change are central to the post-COVID period.

August 24, 2020

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a former Colombian Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and CLALS Fellow. Pablo Palacios Rodríguez is a professor of biology at the Universidad de los Andes. Michael Julián Córdoba is coordinator for public policy at Fundación Tierra de Reconciliación.

Cuba: Getting Serious about Reform?

By Ricardo Torres*

Miguel Diaz Canel_Cuba

Cuban President, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez/ Cubadebate/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The economic reform proposals that the Cuban government announced on July 16 sound promising, but they feel very similar to past efforts, and authorities have yet to demonstrate commitment to implement them in a manner that matches today’s serious global and national conditions. The measures come at a time that Cuba is experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), the country’s imports fell 41 percent in the first five months of 2020 – more than any other country in the region except Venezuela. The commission predicts the island’s gross domestic product will decline 8 percent this year – a conservative estimate in view of its dependence on tourism, remittances (almost all from the United States), and distant trading partners.

  • The announced measures are too general to permit a detailed analysis of their potential impact, but a substantial number of them represent a more flexible interpretation of policies agreed upon during the Seventh Party Congress in 2016. They feature a 180-degree shift of focus on the private sector and cooperatives, which just two years ago the government was taking steps to severely limit. The greater use of the U.S. dollar – an inevitable consequence of the severe balance-of-payments crisis – is also noteworthy.

The political and economic moment calls for measures that are bold enough to change expectations – reduced because of past non-performance – and produce real results. After years of false starts, the government’s willingness to make the reforms a reality remains in question. The biggest doubts deal with how far the authorities will go toward restructuring state enterprises – an unavoidable step for any true transformation. The government faces five immediate challenges to managing the current crisis and ensuring a positive impact from the package of reforms.

  • Convincing domestic and foreign public opinion that this time reform is for real and will be sufficient and permanent. Decisions over the past four years have been erratic, undermining the conceptualización that then-President Raúl Castro announced in 2016 as an “updating” of “the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model.”
  • Creating and consolidating new, agile, and effective mechanisms for decision-making. The country lacks a system for guaranteeing that the best ideas for transformation reach the highest levels of government, are examined, and are adopted in a timely fashion. Ensuring that bureaucrats do not distort the policies is also essential.
  • Avoiding the hidden traps of some measures that have already been tried, which will remind Cubans of the worst moments of the Special Period in the 1990s. The dollarization scheme implemented back then, for example, was complicated by rule changes the government made midstream. Authorities also rejected the necessary restructuring of the enterprise system and public sector. Cuba survived – collapse was avoided – but emerged without a sustainable economic model. Genuine development was not achievable.
  • Achieving a critical mass of changes that become self-reinforcing and overcome trenchant ideological resistance and create enough momentum to refloat the economy. In the 1990s, Cuba benefited from a world economy that was growing – radically different from today. The current situation requires much greater internal efforts.
  • Adding social justice as a priority in the reform package. Although a central talking point in official discourse, it is either totally missing from the new strategy or implemented in ways that are not relevant to the new social structure of the island. Cuba needs a debate about modern social policies to address its multidimensional inequalities.

So far, the big winners in this new scenario are the private sector and cooperatives as well as people who have access to U.S. dollars. But the entrepreneurs face obstacles, such as the requirement that they use government-controlled enterprises in all foreign trade. The idea that the state intends to create its own micro, small, and medium enterprises also detracts from the reform message.

  • Expanded dollarization will further segment the productive sectors, but this time it probably will allow producers to purchase capital goods – an essential step in any process of stimulating production over the long term. The potential impact will be greater if combined with the promised, but often delayed, move toward a sustainable monetary and exchange scheme. The big question remains, however, if the government is serious about making it happen this time.

August 17, 2020

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

The Difficult – if Not Impossible – Game of Bolivian Politics

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jeanine_Añez_Bolivia

Jeanine Añez, January 2020/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Evo Morales’ shocking resignation in November 2019 laid bare Bolivia’s deep social and political divisions – which the increasingly tense impasse over elections is making much worse. Morales’s denouement marked the culmination of political decay traceable to at least 2016, when he and the MAS lost a referendum on re-election and ignored the results. Their insistence on re-election sharply polarized politics, became a focal point for opposition, and left the government vulnerable to a violent conservative backlash.

  • After Morales’s ouster – some call it a coup, others a popular revolt – a relatively unknown figure, Jeanine Áñez, became interim president with a narrow mandate to call elections and promote social pacification. She revealed, however, a personal ambition to stay in the presidency and a commitment to prevent the return of Morales and the MAS by any means, reflecting a raw animosity that was latent in important segments of Bolivia since Morales first came to power in 2006. She brought the Bible “back in the presidential palace” and militated against Morales, deeming him Bolivia’s “number one enemy,” and attempted to fracture and demobilize his social base.
  • Elections have been postponed several times due to the COVID‑19 pandemic. National protests and highway closures by peasant and labor allies of the MAS have surged in the past week, and Áñez’s sinking popularity provides reasons for her attempts to delay the electoral process. Road blockades by movements that back the MAS – and also by grass-roots groups that operate with independence from MAS – demanding elections and COVID assistance are giving rise to worrying threats and direct action by vigilante groups, which in many cases are promoted or at least tolerated by the government.

Similar to the “impossible game” described by Guillermo O’Donnell in post-1955 Argentina, the political field is sharply divided into two major antagonistic camps – masistas and anti-masistas – and neither can govern effectively while excluding the other.

  • Under Áñez, the anti-masista camp has splintered into at least two groups with clearly distinctive class and regional bases of support, but with the shared goal of preventing the return of Morales and the MAS. Through legal channels, Áñez and allied elite agro-industrial groups have pressured electoral authorities to ban MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce. (The MAS used similar draconian measures at least once in the past to exclude candidates.) Credible human rights reports show that MAS leaders, supporters, and allied social organizations have been harassed, intimidated, and violently repressed by state and paramilitary forces.
  • Such attempts to suppress the MAS, Bolivia’s largest party and one with deep societal roots, have spurred social mobilization, conflict, and instability. They also have motivated the MAS to unite, adjust its structures, and recover at least partially after its dramatic political defeat. Polls show that although the MAS no longer commands supermajorities, it could win an election in the first round due to the sharp fragmentation and mutual antagonism within the anti-masista camp. The ongoing popular mobilizations and street confrontations, however, can also undermine the MAS’s electoral reach, especially in urban segments.

Carlos Mesa, who came in second but did not qualify for the runoff under the official, but contested, vote count in the election last October that culminated in Morales’s downfall, is claiming the political center and has emerged as the candidate of the anti-masista urban middle class in the country’s western region. He is currently polling second (behind MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce) but, alienated from the MAS and repelled by Áñez’s authoritarian turn and mismanagement of the pandemic, will have difficulty building a majority. His past experience as Bolivia’s president also shows he is not especially savvy navigating troubled waters.

If elections are held this year, whoever wins the presidency will not “take it all” and will likely have to deal with a divided Congress, a highly mobilized and sharply polarized society, and a deep economic and public health crisis. Bolivia appears to be headed to a difficult – if not impossible – game with highly unpredictable consequences. Continued attempts to undo Morales’s legacy and restrict the participation of the MAS risk sending the country further down an uncertain and perilous road to prolonged violence and conflict.

  • The strength of the social movements backing the MAS make the stakes in this “impossible game” especially high, but Bolivia is not the only country in Latin America where recent efforts have been made to ban specific parties or candidates from participating in elections. Former Brazilian President Lula’s imprisonment on highly contested corruption charges prevented him from running for president at a time when he was leading in the polls, clearing the path for the far-right anti-establishment candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro. Ecuador and Peru both face political conflict over the electoral participation or proscription of parties associated with former president Rafael Correa, in the former, and Keiko Fujimori, in the latter.
  • Adjudicating the misdeeds that supposedly justify these disqualifications inevitably politicizes the judiciary and other oversight institutions, and the exclusion of major political currents from participating in democratic politics is deeply polarizing. The electoral proscriptions of Peronism in Argentina and the APRA party in Peru historically suggest that it is virtually impossible to stabilize democratic institutions when a country’s largest and best-organized political forces are banned from participation because elite groups, who are smaller and less densely organized, find them threatening. The Bolivian case is surely different from post-1955 Argentina, but Áñez’s backers and the MAS should not ignore the historical experiences of the region that suggest these games rarely end well.

August 12, 2020

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

Guyana: Victory for CARICOM?

By Wazim Mowla*

David Arthur Granger, Former President of the Republic of Guyana.

David Arthur Granger, Former President of the Republic of Guyana/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) played the critical role in bringing Guyana’s five-month political impasse over the March general elections to an end – without compromising on its longstanding principle of non-intervention – but the threat of broader international sanctions was certainly key. The grouping, which has 15 member states and five associate members, conducted the vote recount, demanded by all of Guyana’s opposition parties, and certified that Presidential challenger Mohamed Irfaan Ali of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) won. After local and international stakeholders accepted the legitimacy of the recount, CARICOM’s institutions and individual leaders were increasingly forceful in calling for the incumbent President, David Granger, to concede defeat.

  • The initial tabulation of votes gave victory to Granger but was contested as fraudulent by the opposition parties and international observers. A high-level CARICOM team of Caribbean Prime Ministers brokered the recount agreement between Granger and opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo. CARICOM sent a three-person team to scrutinize the recount and produced the widely accepted elections observation report, which the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), an institution of CARICOM, upheld. Granger refused to concede, however, accusing CARICOM of interfering and showing bias. He launched scathing attacks on CARICOM’s current chair, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who joined other CARICOM leaders in speaking out against the then-government.
  • CARICOM was not alone in demanding that Granger accept the election results. In mid-July, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo called on him to “step aside” and announced restrictions on the U.S. visas of “individuals responsible for or complicit in undermining democracy in Guyana.” During an Organization of American States Permanent Council discussion on the Guyana crisis several days later, Secretary General Luis Almagro forcefully called for the incumbent administration to accept the recount, in which OAS observers also had a role. He said that “Guyana’s democracy remains hostage” to Granger and individuals doing his bidding.

The prime ministers who spearheaded CARICOM’s efforts in Guyana emphasized the organization’s interest in protecting democracy throughout the region, which they saw as threatened by Granger’s behavior. After the CCJ ruling on the recount, Chairman Gonsalves stated that there was a “rogue clique within Guyana [that] cannot be allowed to disrespect or disregard, with impunity, the clear unambiguous ruling of the CCJ. The time for decisive action is shortly.”

  • Keeping U.S. unilateralism at bay – consistent with CARICOM’s fundamental principles of non-intervention and sovereignty – was another important reason for CARICOM’s activism. Gonsalves saw an opportunity to promote CARICOM as a viable and sovereign organization that was capable of solving problems within its own community. He and other CARICOM leaders privately expressed concern that the longer Granger and his supporters refused to leave office, the more likely the Caribbean would see history repeat itself in the form of U.S. intervention.

CARICOM was heavily invested and influential during the crisis, and its leaders clearly deserve great credit for getting Granger to step aside so President Ali could be sworn in on August 2 and inaugurated last weekend. The long delay, however, suggests that the organization did not have enough leverage by itself to force Granger’s hand – and that pressure from the Commonwealth of Nations, the OAS, and the United States was also decisive. The additional foreign actors acquiesced in CARICOM’s authority in Guyana’s situation and based their actions on the organization’s elections reports and the CCJ ruling. CARICOM was vindicated in its insistence that the Guyana crisis remain a “community affair.”

  • If Granger had not conceded, CARICOM’s credibility and ability to hold its member states accountable during periods of democratic backsliding would have faced damaging blows. The organization would have faced an existential decision – to push even harder and potentially exceed the mandate of its Civil Society Charter, or to pull back and lose credibility. Under such a scenario, the United States and the OAS would eventually have escalated pressure, and Guyana probably would have achieved its transfer of power. But CARICOM and democratic institutions throughout the region would have emerged weaker. As Ali’s inauguration brings this stage of the Guyana crisis to a close, CARICOM has passed the test, with some outside help, and validated, for now, its fundamental belief that problems should be solved “in the family.”

August 10, 2020

* Wazim Mowla is a graduate student at American University, specializing in Caribbean Studies.

Tough Times in Latin America

By Andrés Serbin*

Protests in Chile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 3, 2020

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

 

El Salvador: What Makes Gang Members Defect?

By José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen*

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador.

A member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang displays his tattoos inside the Chelatenango prison in El Salvador./ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

In El Salvador, gang members do not quit their gangs and stop their criminal behavior in a single, clear-cut event, but rather through a process of interaction with a viable alternative, particularly religious groups. The gangs exert control over their members through a combination of benefits – such as employment, an identity, and security – and coercion and fear of the consequences of disloyalty. The gangs exert overwhelming influence over the social environment and regulate members’ lives and peer relationships on the street and in the prisons, where government policies enable them to have near-total control of individuals. Escaping that control is a difficult and dangerous process.

  • Our research, including a 112-question survey of nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador and 24 in-depth interviews, shows that a number of factors fuel members’ desire to defect, but that exiting a gang first requires a cognitive shift that anticipates a life outside the group. The disengagement process starts with first doubts, including a critical assessment of one’s current actions, and is followed by “ anticipatory socialization” – an examination and gradual embrace of a new role. Specific experiences and activities help shape the new identity, and the process culminates in a post-exit validation.

Our surveys reveal that members grow more disillusioned with the gangs the longer they are in them. In interviews, they speak of traumatic events, such as armed threats against their families, as increasing their desire to leave – as well as their fear of the consequences of defection. Certain important life events can also influence gang members’ calculus but, according to our survey and interviews, are of secondary importance. Marriage, the reestablishment of significant relationships, parenthood, and employment are catalysts for reducing criminal behavior, but they are not themselves decisive. Age is also a factor, with adolescence being the period in which social embeddedness can be deepest, but longevity can weaken it.

  • Religious affiliation emerged as the single strongest predictor of members’ disengagement intentions. Our research confirmed that most active members who express the intention to defect are Evangelical Christians. Those individuals are two times more likely to consider leaving the gang than those without religious affiliation. Importantly, religious participation enables them to see others who have effectively and safely separated from gangs, making potential defectors three times more likely to harbor such intentions.
  • Evangelicalism seems to be the only kind of disengagement approved by the gangs. Indeed, a gang member who defected when he was 25 years old told us, “The only way that you can leave is through the Church.” Another said, “If you are a true Christian, [the gang leaders] do not harm you. But if you become a Christian just for the sake of leaving the gang, they order to kill you or beat you up.”

Life events that in other countries serve as “hooks for change” – incidents that prompt members to defect – do not appear to be as relevant in the initial stages of disengagement in El Salvador. Drivers that other studies show to be key, such as finding a job, establishing a stable relationship, or having a child, have less impact in El Salvador apparently because of the gangs’ pervasive influence in people’s daily lives – influence difficult to escape. These events do not necessarily occur outside the reach of the gangs, which often control the environment under which deserters have to survive. In addition, time in prison, which in many contexts increases members’ desire to quit, does not stimulate defections because the gangs’ near-total control over Salvadoran prisons makes defection there nearly impossible.

  • With Evangelical Pentecostalism providing the most viable – and the only gang-tolerated – way out, government and non-governmental organizations seeking to encourage defections may be tempted to promote the churches and fund their outreach to gang members. Our research suggests, however, that the crucial point might not only be the religious orientation of churches, but their ability to share the social spaces that the gang inhabits. To the extent that other NGOs can also access those spaces and being accepted by the community, they may give gang members some additional opportunities for disengagement – subject of our ongoing research.
  • Identity-based theory attributes the defectors’ actions to the emotional experience of guilt and conversion, but the differential associations – particularly meeting other successful defectors – provided by affiliation with the religious groups turn out to be significantly more important. Gang members yearn for the alternative social support systems that family, employment, and new neighbors – and government programs – cannot provide.

July 27, 2020

* José Miguel Cruz is Professor and Director of Research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, and Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University. Their full article is Mara Forever? Factors associated with gang disengagement in El Salvador.

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

By Fulton Armstrong

Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 20, 2020