Argentina: From Gradualism to Shock Therapy

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri announced yesterday to deal with the sharp depreciation of the Argentine peso and acceleration of inflation in the past couple of months are a belated but entirely appropriate effort to stem the country’s massive capital flight.  His administration intends to lower government spending and reimpose taxes on exports to reduce the fiscal deficit faster than envisioned in May, when a three-year economic program was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is in addition to a previously announced government hiring freeze and cuts to subsidies for electricity and other services.

  • Specifically, the goal now is to minimize the public sector’s financing requirement for 2019, limiting it to rolling over debt maturities coming due plus borrowing $15 billion mostly from the IMF, World Bank, and Latin America’s development banks (CAF and IADB), to cover the interest payments coming due next year. All told, the fiscal deficit contraction that would be achieved between 2017 and 2019 is equivalent to about four percentage points of GDP, compared to the previously pledged 2¾ percent of GDP in savings embodied in the IMF program.
  • In return, Macri’s government has requested the IMF to speed up disbursements under the $50 billion loan facility, which had envisioned a $15 billion up-front payment in June, made on schedule, plus installments of about $3 billion per quarter through June 2021, depending on performance and need. The Fund’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has instructed IMF staff to work with the Argentines to reach a rapid conclusion of discussions to present to the Executive Board for approval.

Macri’s announcement was an admission that what had been advertised in May as a strictly “precautionary” loan must now be amended to provide emergency financing full-throttle.  While a number of emerging-market currencies have come under downward pressure in recent months, the sell-off in Argentina is only comparable to that in Turkey: both the Argentine peso and the Turkish lira currently buy about half as many U.S. dollars as they did at the start of the year (now 100 pesos = $2.60 vs. $5.40 then).  The currency downdraft has dragged Argentine stocks and bonds down when measured in dollar terms; the probability of a debt default in Argentina, as deduced from bond yields, currently ranks highest of all in the emerging markets but for Venezuela, in default since late 2017.

  • Last December, the central bank of Argentina (BCRA) committed itself to achieving an inflation rate of 15 percent during 2018, but prices rose more than that just in the first six months of the year. Given the cost-push pressures unleashed by the peso’s sharp depreciation since May, Argentina would be lucky to end the year with inflation cumulating less than 40 percent.  The patent failure of monetary policy to stabilize the currency and curb inflation thus far will probably be hotly discussed during the government’s negotiations with the IMF.  Last week the BCRA hiked its target interest rate to 60 percent from 40 percent in early August, which is more than double the level that prevailed through May.  Chances are that the IMF will pressure the central bank to keep interest rates significantly above expected inflation until the fever breaks.

We wrote in mid-May that we were witnessing in Argentina the demise of President Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism in tackling the poisoned inheritance left after 12 years of populism under presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.  Now we are beholding the embrace of “shock therapy” in fiscal and monetary policies by the Macri administration.

  • Macri and his economic team keep blaming adverse circumstances, such as the worst drought in 30 years, which has delivered the poorest harvest since 2009; risk aversion among investors because of the tightening of U.S. monetary policy; and uncertainty generated by the “corruption copybooks” scandal involving Kirchner government officials and construction industry businesspersons. Their diagnosis is patently wrong.  Despite the poor harvest, Argentine export earnings through July have increased in the best performance in several years.  The tightening of U.S. monetary policy has been very gradual and well telegraphed in advance; it has not caused problems in prudently managed countries.  And the recent scandal is tarnishing Macri’s opposition in the legislature and has not reached the scope of the “carwash” scandal in Brazil.
  • Macri and his team are reaping what they sowed. In 2016-17 they claimed that they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose precious seats in midterm congressional elections and end up as lame ducks.  And then, after Macri’s party Cambiemos did well in the October 2017 contest, they claimed that in 2018-19 they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose the presidential elections in October of next year.  Up until February, local and foreign investors were willing to give the Macri administration the benefit of the doubt, but then they got impatient, started to pare their positions especially in short-term government bonds, and subsequently decided to exit on a large scale when the central bank failed to tighten monetary conditions sufficiently to keep the peso from depreciating rapidly.

September 4, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

U.S.-Latinx: Might Trump Prompt “Statistical Disobedience”?

By Stephan Lefebvre*

Eric Garcetti at a press conference

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a press conference on the 2020 Census. Garcetti leads a coalition of over 160 U.S. mayors that oppose adding a question about citizenship on the census. / Office of Eric Garcetti / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census have set the stage for confrontation between Latino/a/x individuals and the U.S. government.  Community groups, civil rights organizations, a group of 18 U.S. states, and others are challenging the administration in court – oral arguments for the first of six legal challenges began last Friday.  Grassroots organizing around Latinx statistical disobedience is also under way, urging individuals to respond to the citizenship question randomly, without regard to their own status, to make the results unusable.

  • The legal challenges have yielded documents revealing the discriminatory intent of the citizenship question. Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas known for his anti-immigrant views and inaccurate claims about voter fraud, wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in July 2017 advocating the citizenship question.  Kobach said – falsely – it was necessary to deal with the “problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes.”  Several months later, the U.S. Justice Department issued a “formal request” to the acting director of the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question to attain data “critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”  Claiming the measure is necessary to prevent “vote dilution” among minority groups, it is very different from the alleged problem Kobach identified.  Representation in the U.S. Congress is based on total population, not total voting population, as confirmed in 2016 unanimously by the Supreme Court in Evenwel v. Abbott.
  • It is still not clear where the idea for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census came from, but its purpose – to weaponize the census to be used against Latina/o/x and other undocumented communities – has been clear from the start. Kobach has said that his advocacy was informed by conversations with Steve Bannon, the far-right activist and former senior advisor to President Trump.  Secretary Ross initially testified to Congress that the proposal for a citizenship question was initiated by the Justice Department, but he later issued a memo contradicting this when documents came to light showing his earlier involvement.

Census Bureau testing of the 2020 Census questionnaire indicates that there is deep concern among the undocumented and Latinx communities.  Field staff conducting interviews report many red flags.  In presentations made during a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, Census Bureau documents quote one interviewer saying, “There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door.  I could hear them inside.  I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving. … It’s because they were afraid of being deported.”  In another case, a Spanish-speaking respondent said, “The possibility that the census could give my information to [U.S. government] internal security, and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”  In response, community-engaged scholars like Angelo Falcón of the National Institute for Latino Policy are calling for “statistical disobedience,” the willful misrepresentation of one’s legal status.

If the six legal challenges to the citizenship question fail, the prospects of statistical disobedience will be high.  Falsifying responses on the census is a punishable offense, but some community leaders have argued that if the Latinx statistical disobedience is widespread, enforcement will be highly unlikely.  This is not unlike other acts of historical civil disobedience.  The grassroots campaign behind statistical disobedience not only helps prevent the citizenship question from being used to target undocumented and Latinx communities; it can also drive up participation and awareness of the 2020 Census by Latinx communities who have been historically under counted.  Community leaders want to be ready.

August 21, 2018

* Stephan Lefebvre is a Ph.D. student in Economics at American University studying stratification economics.  His forthcoming article in the journal Diálogo is titled “Bold Policies for Puerto Rico: A Blueprint for Transformative, Justice-Centered Recovery.”

Honduras: Would a Constituent Assembly Help?

By Hugo Noé Pino*

Several people raise their hands in the Honduran National Congress

A recent session in Honduras’ National Congress. / Congreso Nacional de Honduras / Creative Commons

The need for Honduras to convene a National Constituent Assembly appears increasingly compelling even though the country’s political elites continue to oppose one.  Proponents of an “ANC” argue that it would not only help the country overcome the fraud perpetrated in last November’s elections; it would give oxygen to the country’s failing democracy.  They note that the current constitution, promulgated in 1982, has been violated and modified so many times – such as when President Juan Orlando Hernández was allowed to run for reelection – that the document’s original meaning has been obscured if not lost.  ANC proponents cite other facts pointing to the need for an assembly:

  • The constitution calls for a “planned economic policy,” in which the state and law “shall regulate the system and process of planning with the participation of the Powers of State, and political, economic and social organizations shall be duly represented.” But that planning model, which has never been implemented in Honduras, has been overtaken by the neoliberal model, based on market freedoms, adopted in the 1990s.  Amendments passed in 2012 were intended to create special employment and development zones, but not a single one has emerged.
  • Since the 2009 coup, Honduran society has been polarized by violations of the law, the concentration of power, abuses, corruption, and other problems – all aggravated by the widely contested election of last November. Business, workers, farmers, trade unions, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors have been unable to find agreement on how to deal with the nation’s pressing problems.  ANC supporters say that true national reconciliation is going to require a new social pact that a new constitution can create.
  • Backers also argue that the ANC would breathe new life into the political parties – deeply discredited by the corruption and chaos engulfing them – and allow them to become a mechanism for intermediation between society and the state. An assembly, they say, would bring political leaders and the people together in pursuit of better alternatives to the current system.  A system of checks and balances, including a new judicial system, would help guarantee the separation of powers and enhance citizen participation in public policy.

Prospects for an ANC do not look good at this moment despite important endorsements, such as that of the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference in a public letter last December.  Most of the political elite, responsible for setting the country on its destructive course, stridently oppose the idea, but proponents feel the elites will eventually have to accept one.  The “national dialogue” launched after the November elections has made no progress or, worse, has aggravated tensions.  The black cloud over those elections and the surge in corruption cases under investigation – an important achievement of the Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) and its partners working under the Attorney General – have driven politicians to dig in their heels.  Their efforts to hold onto power, prevent transparency, and block accountability puts them directly against the sort of reforms an ANC would represent. 

  • Even when the political class eventually allows the ANC proposal to take off, many obstacles lay ahead. One of the first – and extremely difficult – steps would be selection of a truly independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee a referendum on the ANC and the election of assembly delegates.  The questions on the ballot would be simple, focused on support for the ANC and support for presidential reelection, but the task of making Honduras an inclusive society, with transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law would take the sort of vision and discipline that only a new constitution would provide.  While critics claim an ANC would be playing with fire, it’s certainly better than the current situation in which we are all threatened with being burned.

August 14, 2018

* Hugo Noé Pino is currently a professor and coordinator of a Ph.D. program at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (Unitec) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Honduras: Narcotics Trade Accelerating Deforestation

By Luis Noé-Bustamente*

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (Honduras)

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. / UNESCO / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The rapid increase in deforestation in Honduras is being driven to a significant degree by the narcotics trade’s use of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder drug profits.  Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  Research indicates that the burgeoning drug trade connects businesses involved in illegal logging, timber sales, and the use of the cleared land for cattle ranching as a mechanism to launder drug trafficking money.  Criminal organizations insert illegal timber into the existing legal supply-chain, hiding illicit profits within legal revenue streams.

  • Drug traffickers’ access to capital gives them immense social, economic, and political influence in remote areas. Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters shows that they are able to conduct unusually large, remote, and fast forest-clearing in areas where they also collaborate with illegal loggers to grab land, enabling them to later merge both activities through cattle ranching operations.  Last year, a spatio-temporal study led by Dr. Steven Sesnie, an ecologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that as much as 25 percent of the annual forest loss in Honduras during the past decade can be linked to the drug trade.

Even though these emerging regional bosses are growing in influence and audacity, the Honduran government does not acknowledge the scope of their illicit activities – even in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve (RPBR), the country’s largest natural forest reserve (approximately 800,000 hectares).  In 1997, the Honduran Congress designated three different zones in the RPBR to provide some long-term protection of its sparsely inhabited core zone and to promote sustainable development in its more populated buffer and cultural zones.  Available information indicates, however, that enforcement has been very spotty, with only very rare action against only low-level violators.

  • Parts of the RPBR have experienced what forestry experts call alarming levels of cleared forest patches – even in areas with limited or no road access, where only illicit traders go. The RPBR’s secluded “cultural zone” is experiencing forest clearing at an estimated rate of more than 100 hectares per year (50 times more than in 2005).  Sensie’s report directly correlates this with increased drug trafficking throughout the country.  Indeed, there is a positive and substantial correlation between the country’s recorded percentage of GDP from drug trafficking (based on the same study) and the amount of irregular forest loss.

Under current conditions, Honduras has limited ability to address the institutional, socioeconomic, and criminal factors that exacerbate deforestation.  Unemployment, corruption, weak law enforcement, and violence create an environment that facilitates the illegal triad attacking Honduran forests – the narcotics trade, illegal logging, and land grabs.  The country has shown little political will to use what few legal tools it has to keep illegal groups from bribing and, failing to buy them, intimidating the law enforcement and government officials who give them harvesting or transport permits.  High unemployment and poverty in rural Honduras also create a strong incentive for local residents to cooperate with criminal organizations to obtain income and protection for their families – and severely dissuading them from with what few investigations might be undertaken in their areas.

  •  The increasingly obvious link with the narcotics trade, however, offers a way to squeeze illicit logging and livestock operations. Earlier this year, two months after U.S. prosecutors indicted Honduran Congressman Fredy Najera Montoya for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, Honduran courts finally – after years of allegations against Najera for “operational irregularities” – accused him of environmental crimes related to his illegal use of wood products and forging official documents.  Such actions, as well as a recent agreement to work with USAID to better enforce environmental laws, are good signs, but meaningful progress addressing deforestation must take into account the underlying causes: the country’s weak rule of law, lack of economic opportunity for most of its population, and the near-total lack of institutional presence in much of rural Honduras.

July 17, 2018

* Luis Noé-Bustamente is a CLALS research assistant.  He is on a team dedicated to a new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

Colombia: Duque Preparing to Turn the Clock Back

By Christian Wlaschütz *

Uribe and Duque

Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe (left) and President-elect Iván Duque (right). / Centro Democrático (left), Casa de América (right) / Flickr, modified / Creative Commons

Colombian President-elect Iván Duque is not losing any time fulfilling campaign promises to take steps that will derail the peace process or at least put serious obstacles in its way, which will likely drive dissident FARC guerrillas back into the country’s already troubled rural areas.  Four weeks after his election and three weeks before his inauguration, Duque’s strong coalition in Congress has already passed legislation weakening the special peace courts (JEP) established for peace accord implantation.

  • Anyone who may have speculated that Duque would distance himself from his political godfather, former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, as did outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos at his time, does not understand the president-elect’s dependence on Uribe. Santos had always belonged to Colombia’s elite and had his own standing, while Duque has no backing on his own.
  • As Duque assembles his first government, observers expect that he will tap into his campaign alliances – including individuals keenly opposed to the peace accords. Among them are Vivian Morales, a leading representative of the Christian churches, and Alejandro Ordóñez, a Catholic conservative and former Inspector General of the Republic (2009-17) who allied with Duque after losing to him in the primaries.  Morales and Ordóñez were among the main figures behind the negative campaign that led to popular rejection of the peace accord in late 2016, arguing that it promoted homosexuality and would weaken the traditional family.

The changing international context makes it easier for Duque to pursue his agenda.  When Santos assumed the presidency in 2010, he had strong support to pursue peace, led by U.S. President Obama and visibly demonstrated by the frequent presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  He immediately issued the “victims’ law,” admitted that Colombia had an armed conflict, and moderated the violent discourse of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.

  • Now the United States has shifted away from international cooperation and reduced its support for “soft” issues. President Trump has signaled priority to rigid counternarcotics and security policies, and not negotiated settlements.  Since Duque’s agenda includes a strong stance against the “Venezuelization of Colombia,” – referring to the emergence of a left-wing authoritarian government allied with Cuba and Venezuela – he is widely believed to be confident of Trump’s support for initiatives against FARC and other members of the Colombian opposition whom he claims are aided by alleged allies in the neighboring country.  The European Union, for its part, is currently completely immersed in internal affairs regarding migration and its own future.  In general, international enthusiasm seems to be suffering from fatigue –undermined by perceptions of Colombia popular rejection of the accords coupled with frustration over the high number of assassinations of social leaders.
  • The number of threats and assassinations of those who either support the political opposition or defend human rights and victims’ rights is simply breathtaking. Colombia’s weekly Semana reports that, in addition to killings related to land restitution, those related to political vendettas are increasing, concluding that the “ghost of political extermination” – similar to that of the Patriotic Union, a leftist party exterminated in the 1980s and 1990s – is back.

Duque’s efforts to weaken the peace process appear likely to advance – to the detriment of Colombian security.  Former FARC combatants will have little incentive to remain demobilized in cities and towns where they have little hope of inclusion in political and economic life, and are likely targets for harassment and assassination.  More likely, they will return to rural areas, which have already been experiencing a resurgence in criminality in the last year, and align themselves with active criminal groups there.  The insecurity and selective killings may lead Colombia towards times that it already seemed to have overcome.  The new president’s coalition of people with a strong resentment against the policies of the last eight years is not likely to take the steps necessary to lead Colombia into a different future, laying the groundwork for more crises, as the United States, EU, and the international community in general stands by.

July 12, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

U.S. Immigration Policy: New Obstacles to Asylum

By Jayesh Rathod*

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. / Glenn Fawcett / U.S. Customs and Border Patrol / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s decision to reverse established U.S. policy to grant asylum to certain victims of domestic violence increases the importance of – and challenges to – experts called on to demonstrate the credible threat applicants face if denied asylum and deported.  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 11 issued the opinion, which rescinded precedent that had paved the way for survivors of such violence to receive asylum.  More generally, the case – known as Matter of A-B- – creates additional legal roadblocks for asylum applicants who fear harm at the hands of private (non-state) actors, such as gangs and intimate partners.

  • Federal regulations permit the Attorney General to refer immigration cases to himself for decision, in order to revisit a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and issue a new opinion that creates binding nationwide precedent. Sessions has made frequent use of this special procedure, certifying four cases to himself since the beginning of the year.  Each of these cases is poised to limit the rights and protections afforded to asylum seekers and others facing removal proceedings.  For example, Sessions vacated the BIA’s decision in Matter of E-F-H-L-, which had held that asylum applicants are entitled to a full merits hearing, including the opportunity to present oral testimony. The vacatur opens the door to summary denials by Immigration Judges.

In Matter of A-B-, Sessions explicitly overruled the BIA’s 2014 decision in Matter of A-R-C-G-, which provided a legal road map for asylum-seekers fleeing domestic and gang violence.  Under applicable case law, an applicant – such as a domestic violence survivor or target of gang violence – who fears persecution by a private actor may qualify for asylum, provided they can prove that their home country government is “unable or unwilling” to control the private actor.

  • Courts had previously expressed distinct views on how to interpret this standard, yet most embraced a plain-language reading of “unable or unwilling.” In Matter of A-B-, however, Sessions – in language that many legal scholars judge to be meandering and slightly inconsistent – suggests applicants must meet a higher standard and show “that the government condoned the private actions,” that those actions “can be attributed to the government,” or that the government “demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the victims.”  Sessions opines that “[n]o country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity,” implying that deficiencies in law enforcement efforts will not necessarily translate into a successful asylum claim.

The unclear language in Matter of A-B- has left some wondering about the precise legal standard that is now in place.  What is certain, however, is that Matter of A-B- presents a smorgasbord of reasons for skeptical immigration judges to deny asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America.  While a CLALS-hosted workshop underscored that country conditions evidence has always been critical to these cases, adjudicators will now pay even closer attention to country experts, and will demand more evidence regarding efforts by home country governments to control private violence, and of the relationship between those governments and private actors.

  • The new requirements stack the deck against asylum-seekers. The governments in the Northern Triangle of Central America – with Washington’s strong financial and political support – have long argued they’re making efforts to curb gang violence.  Before Matter of A-B-, the “unable or unwilling” standard allowed asylum claims to succeed while permitting these governments to save face under the theory that they were trying, albeit imperfectly, to control violent private actors.  By demanding even more unfavorable evidence regarding these home country governments, Matter of A-B- sets up a likely conflict between the legal standard for asylum and the preferred messaging of those governments and the Trump administration.  Facing an array of entrenched interests, it will be difficult for country experts to show that governments commit or condone the violence against asylum-seekers or that authorities are “completely helpless” to protect victims.

July 10, 2018

* Jayesh Rathod is a professor at the Washington College of Law and founding director of the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.

U.S.-Latin America: “Zero Tolerance” Makes Zero Progress

By Ernesto Castañeda *

Children and adults stand in a line

Central American migrant children and their parents. / Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC / Wikimedia

U.S. President Donald Trump’s family separation policies, despite his June 20 executive action ending them, will have long-term negative consequences and will do nothing to stem the flow of migrants into the United States.

  • Hundreds of families remain separated. Families are detained indefinitely for applying for asylum or crossing into the United States.  Political outrage in the United States may be new, but these policies are not.  Millions of families have been separated across U.S. borders for many years.  After growing up without their parents, children who did not originally accompany migrating parents often attempt to reunify with them in the United States, resulting in the increase of unaccompanied minors that we have seen since 2014 and the surge in violence in Central America.
  • The Trump Administration’s policies fail to address the underlying causes of migration – violence, impunity, corruption, and poverty in sending countries and high U.S. demand for low-cost workers – which show no sign of abating. Many Mexicans and Central Americans are fleeing kidnappings, extortions, and death threats as they explain during credible-threat interviews that give them valid claims for asylum.  U.S.-backed militarized responses to drug trafficking have produced much of the violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America, generating asylum-seekers.  Beyond the traditional economic and social reasons, many recent immigrants are escaping violence, as they did during the Mexican Revolution and the political violence in Central America in the 1980s.

Family separation and the detention of unaccompanied minors in shelters are not new practices either.  What was new in recent months was the separation of families that come to the United States seeking asylum.

  • These forced separations cause the children lifelong trauma. The American Psychiatric Association recently stated that “the evidence is clear that this level of trauma also results in serious medical and health consequences for these children and their caregivers.”  Separation inflicts trauma on adults too; parents suffer from being away from their children due to their decision to migrate.

The logic behind “zero tolerance” is to discourage migration by making conditions as miserable as possible for intending migrants – building psychological walls as well as the physical wall that Trump has pledged to build along the border with Mexico.  By ignoring the underlying causes of these movements of people, this approach is not only cruel but unlikely to be successful.  The concern is also misplaced, despite the increasing visibility of refugees and asylum-seekers in the media, as border apprehensions show a steep downward trend.

  •  The U.S. Congress has so far rejected solutions to the issue of family separation, such as creating larger guest worker programs, strengthening asylum courts, passing the DREAM Act, and demilitarizing responses to drug trafficking. Until the underlying causes of migration are addressed, Washington will be squandering its money prosecuting and causing lasting trauma for innocent children and parents.  Contrary to Trump’s claim that immigrants hurt U.S. culture, my research shows that immigrants are skillful at integrating into American life.  New pathways for legal immigration are the only way ahead to reduce undocumented migration.

 July 3, 2018

 * Ernesto Castañeda is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at American University and author of A Place to Call Home: Immigrant Exclusion and Urban Belonging in New York, Paris, and Barcelona (Stanford, 2018).