Peru: Castillo Surviving Against All Odds – So Far

By Cynthia McClintock*

Demonstrators clash with police officers during a protest against Peru’s President Pedro Castillo after he had issued a curfew mandate / Angela Ponce / Sunday Times / Creative Commons License

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has prevailed in two impeachment votes, but new impeachment threats are almost certain – and the President may continue to prevail but is unlikely to consolidate his administration. Castillo and the Congress have been at loggerheads since Castillo’s inauguration in July 2021. The reasons for the severe impeachment threat are manifold.

  • From the start, many Peruvians hoped for a “do-over” of the 2021 elections. In a field of 18 presidential candidates, Castillo won only 19 percent of the first-round vote, and many observers speculated that he would have lost the runoff to any of the other candidates except the actual runner-up, Keiko Fujimori, whose organized base was much smaller than in previous years due to corruption revelations. In the Congressional vote, Castillo’s party tallied only a tad less than one-third of the seats, with the rest split evenly between hard-right parties and non-programmatic, “centrist” parties.
  • While impeachment requires a two-thirds Congressional vote, the grounds for impeachment – in particular, “moral incapacity” – are vague. Since 2000, three Peruvian presidents have left office upon impeachment or imminent impeachment.

Castillo has steadily lost popular support; his approval rating has fallen to about 25 percent. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel have taken a toll. Last week, a strike led by truckers paralyzed much of Peru’s highlands. This week’s massive protests are another sure indicator. Although the government continues to claim leftist credentials, it has not spearheaded significant new initiatives for social justice.

  • A large number of Castillo’s cabinet ministers have been unqualified. For example, a recent health minister, Hernán Condori, promoted “micro-cluster” water as a remedy for COVID‑19 without scientific evidence; the Peruvian Medical Federation repeatedly asked for his resignation – and he was finally ousted. Castillo’s first set of hapless appointments was widely attributed to his inexperience, but when he appointed his fourth cabinet last month, it appeared that he prioritizes loyalty, not competence.
  • Evidence of government corruption is considerable. Against Peru’s rules, Castillo holds irregular meetings with VIPs outside the Presidential Palace. As part of an expected plea bargain in late March, lobbyist and one-time friend Karelim López gave prosecutors information supporting charges against Castillo’s former chief aide (Bruno Pacheco) and two of Castillo’s nephews for illegal gains from state contracts in the Transport and Communications Ministry.

The President has survived through wily tactics and through legislators’ self-interest.

  • A key figure in Castillo’s party is its founder, Vladimir Cerrón, who recruited him to be the party’s 2021 candidate. Cerrón has been dubbed “El Otro Vladi,” in reference to Vladimiro Montesinos, the spymaster behind the crimes of former President Alberto Fujimori. Through promises of projects in their home areas or government positions, the government has co-opted numerous legislators. The perceptions of government guile are such that, after Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal last month pardoned Fujimori’s corruption and human rights charges, a prevalent rumor was that the government had made a backroom deal with pro-Fujimori leaders for their Congressional votes.
  • For the most part, the government has retained the votes of Peru’s “modern left” – legislators concerned not only about poverty but also gender rights, indigenous rights, and climate change, and committed to democracy – who hold about 5 percent of Congressional seats. At the start, dismayed by the hard-right’s hasty calls for Castillo’s impeachment and assuming that he would appoint a broad-based cabinet, the modern left supported the President. Now they are worried about the President – and also about whether or not their fate is linked to the government’s.
  • Peru’s Congress is as unpopular as Castillo. In particular, the Speaker of the Congress (next in line for succession to the presidency after the Vice-President), María del Carmen Alva of Acción Popular, is unpopular; she is perceived as arrogant and rude. In opinion polls, 80 percent of Peruvians say that, if Castillo is impeached, they want new elections not only for President but also for Congress. However, Peruvian law does not allow re-election of legislators, meaning that all the current legislators would lose their jobs and would fight the move.

While Castillo seems likely to continue to stumble and face challenges, there is some chance that Peru’s political impasse can be broken and a semblance of stable, effective governance restored. One possibility is that, at the end of Alva’s term in July, she is succeeded by a more capable and palatable Congress Speaker, and Castillo could be replaced without a popular demand for new Congressional elections. In its second search for a successor to an impeached president in November 2020, the Congress identified Francisco Sagasti, who was excellent. A second possibility, proposed by Sagasti himself, is a citizens’ initiative for a Constitutional reform that would shorten the terms of the President and the Congress – an initiative that would require only a simple majority in a Congressional vote.

  • Peru’s 2021 elections were held despite a devastating pandemic that obstructed campaigns and opinion polls. Last week’s ferocious protests in Huancayo – hometown of Presidential mentor Cerrón – and this week’s in Lima indicate that Peruvians are frustrated and angry as the war in Ukraine drives up fuel costs and Castillo’s agenda stalls. New elections may be the only way ahead.

April 7, 2022

* Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Latin America: Is There a Constructive Side to U.S. Policy?

By Fulton Armstrong

President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez gathered at the President's desk in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden, joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, talks on the phone with Jeff Zients on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House / Adam Schultz / The White House / Flickr / Creative Commons License.

While many of the Biden Administration’s policies in Latin America – particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and China’s activities – remain largely the same as during the Trump era, some of its actions and statements suggest more nuanced approaches on other regional issues. 

  • National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, has been the point person for maintaining the hard line on Venezuela and Cuba. In early March, he met in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro, who later said, “we’ve agreed to work on an agenda going forward,” but the Administration vehemently denied this and has continued to maintain that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is President of Venezuela. In Cuba, according to various sources, Gonzalez last year vetoed a promised plan for reversing a Trump halt to the flow of remittances to the island. He recently stated that new U.S. sanctions against Russia were also intended “by design” to put pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

At Congressional hearings in February and March, other senior officials have laid out various Administration priorities.

  • Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified that the hemisphere is “under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland.” In addition to helping the region with COVID-19 and the “climate crisis,” she said U.S. policy is to counter China’s “relentless march” to expand its influence in the region and its “challenges [to] U.S. influence.” She also pledged to combat transnational criminal organizations, which “operate nearly uncontested and blaze a trail of corruption and violence that create conditions that allow the PRC and Russia to exploit, threaten citizen security, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.” She said her command is “putting integrated deterrence into action.” 
  • In testimony in February, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, praised President Biden’s recent “Summit for Democracy” and acknowledged that “too many ordinary citizens have seen their governments fail to meet their aspirations for a better future.” He also said the Administration’s “Build Back Better World” initiative, including investments that respond to partners’ infrastructure needs, will counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “will help demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people.” His counterpart in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stressed rule of law programs under the “Root Causes Strategy,” although he noted that “in some cases,” governments lack the political will to tackle the corruption that is a root cause of their nation’s problems.
  • USAID Assistant Administrator responsible for Latin America, Marcela Escobari, testified that her priority is mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 and climate change. While criticizing the state of democracy and human rights in “extreme cases” like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, she expressed concern about “democratic backsliding” elsewhere, noting that “even in more established democracies, authoritarian tendencies have emerged.” 

The Administration has not articulated how some of its steps diverge from the aggressive and transactional approaches that characterized the Trump Administration’s engagement with the region. The White House pressed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hard to reach an accommodation with Argentina, whose government Trump kept at arm’s length, and helped it avoid default on its 2018 stand-by loan. Vice President Harris has given strong support to Honduran President Xiomara Castro since her inauguration in January – and probably contributed to Washington’s decision to request the extradition on drug charges of her predecessor, Trump ally Juan Orlando Hernández. In their Congressional testimony, current officials have repeatedly made nuanced remarks about the perceptions and reality of homegrown challenges in Latin America. Their emphasis on corruption and lack of will to address those scourges suggests awareness that not all is well, even in those countries that Washington embraces as democracies. After a slow initial response, the Administration has been generous in providing support for vaccine availability and for the capacity of public health systems to effectively respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • These factors suggest that while tired regime-change policies on Cuba and Venezuela and “integrated deterrence” against China and drug cartels may remain central to Washington’s approach to hemispheric affairs, there is awareness as well of how deeper cooperation with the region could simultaneously promote both U.S. and Latin American interests. The upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles may be the Administration’s best chance to seek meaningful common ground around the imperative of strengthening democratic governance, a challenge which Washington’s leadership now perceives as one that it shares with virtually all of its Latin American counterparts. 

March 31, 2022

North America: More Support Than Meets the Eye

By Malcolm Fairbrother, Tom Long, and Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz*

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (L) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) join President Joe Biden for the North American Leaders Summit (NALS) at The White House/ The White House/ Flickr/ United States government work

U.S., Canadian, and Mexican leaders’ support for North American integration has ebbed and flowed in the years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994. But our analysis of some previously little-known polls taken a few years ago shows that, even when support for trade integration and other big-picture institutional initiatives has been weak, interest in some forms of cooperation has been relatively strong in all three countries.

  • Discussions of North American integration have been fraught from the beginning. Fiery debates over NAFTA in the early 1990s meant politicians had to work hard to sell regional cooperation. Canadian politicians’ approach to North America has been pragmatic, low-key, and mostly bilateral with the United States. U.S. politicians gave North American cooperation a tepid embrace at best, until Donald Trump turned to repeatedly badmouthing NAFTA and both neighbors. Although Mexican political and business leaders’ enthusiasm for NAFTA has cooled in recent years, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a longtime NAFTA critic, they have made a reluctant peace with its regional economic structures.

Perceptions of NAFTA as a political loser paint too dark a scenario for North American cooperation. Though U.S. views briefly soured and polarized in 2016-17, strong public support for the agreement’s successor – the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) – suggest those negative views were short-lived. North American cooperation beyond trade enjoys robust support. Our analysis of surveys conducted before the “Trump shock” shows that respondents in Canada, Mexico, and the United States have long favored more cooperation in a variety of areas, albeit with a few important qualifications. In our recently published study, Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation, we show: 

  • The three countries share strikingly similar aggregate levels of support for free trade. But levels of support for regional coordination in six different issue areas – currency, energy, defense, economic affairs, environment, and border security – vary by issue and country, and are often higher. For respondents, it matters “on what” North America cooperates in ways that questions about trade and NAFTA do not capture. For example, there was significant support in all three countries for regional policy coordination with respect to environmental protection and border security.
  • Mexicans show the highest level of aggregate support for regional cooperation, but also the greatest variation by issue area, suggesting that they are attuned to the potential costs and benefits of cooperating in an asymmetrical region. Only Mexicans express much support for North American currency coordination, but they showed comparatively little desire for cooperation in energy. They are strong backers of border and environmental cooperation.
  • Although Canadians are skeptical of the benefits of some aspects of the relationship, they also identify cooperation on the border and environment as worth pursuing. Canadians expressed the lowest average support for policy coordination. In contrast to their government’s approach, Canadians slightly prefer trilateralism to bilateralism. Indeed, Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans don’t always want to cooperate trilaterally. Americans report stronger support for regionalism with Canada alone, rather than trilateral cooperation with both Canada and Mexico. 

North America is a highly asymmetric, U.S.-centric region. That shapes patterns of public attitudes as Canadians and Mexicans are concerned about national vulnerabilities vis-a-vis the United States. Mexican citizens’ support appears to be shaped by perceptions that Mexico stands to gain from regional cooperation on many shared problems that Mexico struggles to address alone, such as the environment and border security. Still, support for coordination in the United States also was comparatively high for border security, perhaps a result of politicians’ dramatizing a supposed U.S. inability to “control” the border. 

  • Paying attention to the issues where public support exists and overlaps may allow supporters of regional projects to build on firmer – albeit narrow – ground.

March 22, 2022

Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Umeå University and the Institute for Futures Studies, Sweden, and the Department of Sociology, University of Graz, in Austria. Tom Long is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK and Affiliated Professor in the División de Estudios Internacionales, Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, Mexico. Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz is Associate Professor the Politics Department and Program in Latin American and Latinx Studies at Bates College, USA. This article, part of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative, draws on “Issue-Areas, Sovereignty Costs, and North Americans’ Attitudes Toward Regional Cooperation,” published recently in Global Studies Quarterly. The underlying surveysRethinking North America, were conducted in 2013 by Miguel Basáñez, Frank Graves, and Robert Pastor. 

Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

*Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government.

Brazil: Hoping for Better Times

By Fábio Kerche*

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with a crowd of supporters/ Palácio do Planato/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazilian former President Lula da Silva begins his campaign for the October 2022 elections seeking to broaden his support beyond the left-wing – not just to win the election but to rebuild democracy and create a stronger base for a future administration. Cleared of the lawsuits that kept him out of the 2018 elections (which brought President Jair Bolsonaro to power), Lula leads all polls by a wide margin and could even win the 50 percent of votes necessary for a first-round victory.

  • In second place, albeit with a high level of voter rejection in surveys, appears Bolsonaro. Polls show that he has very faithful supporters – enough to survive the first round of voting – but that he will have problems attracting others in a second round. Much lower in the polls are Sergio Moro, the former judge who arrested Lula in conjunction with the Lava Jato case and prevented him from running in 2018, and Ciro Gomes, a former Lula ally who today variously presents himself as a left-wing or right-wing candidate.
  • The situation is so favorable for Lula that some political analysts speculate that Bolsonaro, Moro, and Gomes, unless their ratings turn around soon, could withdraw their candidacies and run for Congress instead. In Brazil, being a congressperson ensures protection from the Judiciary; members cannot be tried by lower court judges. Being out of office can be dangerous, especially for Bolsonaro, who faces an avalanche of corruption allegations (along with his sons) and possible charges related to policies stemming from the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic.

Lula’s ambitions include building political support in a Congress traditionally fragmented among multiple political parties. His strategy is to dialogue with all, from the moderate right-wing to those who supported his imprisonment for more than 500 days and the impeachment of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

  • He has surprised supporters by signaling that he will offer the vice presidency to former São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, positioned on the center-right in Brazilian politics. Alckmin, who was a member of the PDSB, a party historically opposed to the PT, ran for president against Lula in 2006. Observers believe an alliance with him does not give Lula a significant boost – historically vice-presidential candidates don’t bring in a substantial number of votes – but its symbolism is strong, signaling that a priority is to protect the democracy threatened by Bolsonaro. What is at stake in this perspective are not public policies, as in a normal political campaign, but rather ensuring democracy itself.

Lula’s outreach and emphasis on building a moderate unity government seem intended both to win the election and set a new tone in Brazilian politics – leaving speechless those who accused him of being radical. There is little cost in terms of policies; the platform is not very different from what he did in his past administration: social policies with moderation in the economy. The market is already responding positively and lessening its aversion to the former president. Lula is trying to remind them that in his administration the poor improved their lives, but the economy was in very good shape as well.

  • If Lula should become the new president in 2023, as appears likely, he will still face many arduous tasks. The Bolsonaro government has dismantled many public policies without presenting alternatives. Cuts in the budgets for health, education, science, technology, and more have significantly reduced capabilities. In addition, Bolsonaro appointed unqualified heads in important agencies, disorganizing public services. The economy is bad; inflation is back (10 percent last year); and unemployment is high (11‑13 percent). The International Monetary Fund has forecast a 0.3 percent GPD increase in 2022. Lula is remembered as a great president – he left with 87 percent approval ratings – but he can’t work miracles. In any case, Lula seems to be the hope of better times for more and more Brazilians.

February 17, 2022

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Pegasus: Powerful Tool for Law Enforcement … and Repression

By Fulton Armstrong

Malware infection/ Blogtrepreneur/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Latin American human rights groups’ outcry about Mexican and Panamanian deployment of the “Pegasus” spying tool to keep tabs on critics has had little or no impact, and governments are suspected of using it more aggressively than ever. The Israeli security company NSO has been licensing the software in the region since at least 2010 supposedly to help law enforcement agencies, but recent revelations about Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s extensive use of it indicates that it has become an increasingly powerful tool for repressing political opponents and the media.

  • Pegasus gives users total control of targets’ mobile phones using either the Android or Apple operating system, enabling them to exfiltrate all data on them, turn on microphones and cameras, and commandeer owners’ communications. Because it penetrates a device’s root level, the tool can collect WhatsApp and other encrypted services that users generally think are secure.
  • NSO claims it licenses the software only to governments and requires them to promise to use it only against terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises. According to the press, the software helped Mexican authorities capture Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”) in 2016, and European investigators have used it to arrest dozens of suspects in a multinational child-abuse ring.

But the company clearly is not enforcing license restrictions as governments are using it to spy on critics with impunity around the world, including Latin America.

  • During the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, Mexico used it against human rights experts and journalists investigating disappearances and corruption. Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli used public health funds to buy Pegasus to harass political opponents. Rights groups cite strong circumstantial evidence that Colombia conducted a Pegasus-style attack against critics during protests last year and that Honduras and Guatemala have purchased licenses for similar software.
  • Bukele’s use of a new “zero-click” version of Pegasus – which doesn’t require the victim to tap a malware link – was perhaps the region’s boldest attack yet. It took over the mobile devices of most of the editors, reporters, and staff at the newspaper El Faro. An analysis by the Toronto-based The Citizen Lab found that some of their phones were reinfected up to 40 times to make sure that operating system updates and other adjustments didn’t cut off access to data. The organization said that journalists from other Salvadoran news organizations and prominent human rights activists were also targeted. Bukele’s spokesperson denied it all.

Human rights groups point out that governments that spy on opponents often act on the information they collect – subjecting them to harassment, malicious prosecution, violence, death threats, and physical harm. Observers also warn that the software kit almost certainly has been deployed in other Latin American countries, some of which historically have been aggressive in running tel-taps and electronic intercept operations against citizens.

The international community doesn’t appear likely to categorize it as a serious violation of human rights and demand that NSO stop selling it soon.

  • NSO has obvious business reasons for turning a blind eye to abuses, and the Israeli government has used license approvals in many countries to secure diplomatic support for its positions in multilateral contexts. Panamanian observers credit it with persuading Martinelli to make Panama one of only eight countries to vote with Israel on a UN resolution in 2012, and press reports indicate it remains an important diplomatic tool in Israel’s pursuit of objectives in the Middle East.
  • The EU, which has jealously protected internet privacy, has been relatively quiet, just recently opening investigations. Last November, Washington put NSO on its “entity list” blocked from receiving certain new U.S. technologies – reportedly because Israel violated its promise to block deployment in the United States – but the U.S. government has bought copies for “testing” purposes. (FBI says it will not deploy it, but NSO has reportedly created a separate product, called Phantom, for U.S. collection operations.) U.S. agencies have fought Apple and other phone manufacturers over encryption technology baked into their devices in the past.

Popular outrage doesn’t seem likely to lead to new legislation either. Most citizens, who see themselves as “doing nothing wrong and having nothing to hide,” do not sense the implications of the theft of their information and are therefore unlikely to call for a crackdown. Indeed, told that the software helps authorities break up criminal rings, many may privately support deployments. Salvadoran President Bukele was caught red-handed, but he probably sees his historically high popularity as a green light to continue.

February 10, 2022

How Is the Crisis in Ukraine Like the Cuban Missile Crisis?

By William M. LeoGrande*

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev/ U.S. Department of State & Kennedy Presidential Library/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that the standoff between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine could trigger a crisis akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he wasn’t just referring to the danger of nuclear war, narrowly averted. He was also reminding Washington that Russia is not the only great power jealous of its sphere of influence. Russia has its “near abroad,” and the United States has its “own backyard” as defined in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine warning European powers to stay on their own side of the Atlantic. 

Sixty years ago this October, the Soviet Union projected its military power into the Western Hemisphere by placing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s principal purpose, we know now, was to protect Cuba from another U.S. invasion. (The Bay of Pigs invasion had failed the year before, and Washington had plans for an encore using U.S. troops.) 

To President John F. Kennedy, this intrusion into the U.S. sphere of influence was intolerable, not just because it posed a military threat, but because a U.S. failure to defend its own neighborhood would throw Washington’s credibility into doubt. To Kennedy, it was worth risking thermonuclear war to repel the Soviet incursion. Had Khrushchev not backed down, agreeing to withdraw the missiles, the United States was ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

To this day, the United States has not accepted the idea that a hostile government allied with a rival superpower should be allowed to exist just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This year marks not only the 60th anniversary of the Missile Crisis, but also the 60th anniversary of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba designed to overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with one more to Washington’s liking. As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, candidly proclaimed, “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” 

The Biden administration, however, appears not to recognize its own great power conceits. “We can’t go back to a world of spheres of influence,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN, chastising Russia for its attempts to exert influence over former Soviet states. “We’re not going back to that.” He apparently had not read the U.S. Southern Command’s annual Posture Statements for the past decade, each of which defines the growing influence of Russia, China, and Iran as one of the principal threats the United States faces in the Western Hemisphere. The 2021 version elevates these interlopers to a collective proper noun: External State Actors (ESAs) – external to the U.S. sphere of influence.

When Russian diplomat Sergei Ryabkov suggested that Russia might enhance its military posture in Cuba and Venezuela in response to the U.S. build-up in Eastern Europe, the U.S. warning was unequivocal. Any Russian attempt to deploy missiles in Latin America would be an “aggressive action,” declared United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and would be met with a “strong response.”  “If Russia were to move in that direction,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, “we would deal with it decisively.” 

Biden’s officials seem not to grasp the irony of defending a U.S. sphere of influence while condemning Russia’s claims to its own. Not much has changed in the 60 years since the Missile Crisis, when Soviet missiles in Cuba were, by definition, “offensive” weapons, whereas U.S. missiles in Turkey were merely “defensive.”

If President Joe Biden is serious about replacing spheres of influence with what Secretary Blinken called a “rules based international order” in which small states can decide their own future free of great power coercion, Biden can start in his own backyard. Washington’s policy of regime change toward Cuba, based on economic coercion and subversion – a policy Biden inherited from Donald Trump and continues unchanged – has not worked for more than 60 years. Replacing it with a policy of engagement and coexistence would set a good example for President Putin in his near abroad.

February 1, 2022

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Colombia: Example of Increased Criminality by Women

By Nataly Rendón González*

A prison in Colombia/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Emerging data about women’s involvement in criminal activities is stimulating debate on how best to understand – and solve – the problem. Research into female crime is still insipient, but Colombian researchers and officials have produced data indicating that the focus on male criminal behavior has obscured a growing problem among women. 

  • Female crime is increasing worldwide, and Colombia is no exception. The Centro de Investigación en Política Criminal reported in 2018 that the number of women in Colombian prisons grew 53 percent from 2000 to 2017, with drug-related offenses ranking highest. Between 1991 and 2018, the number of women in prison per 100,000 inhabitants increased by 219 percent, with 1,500 women deprived of liberty in 1991 and 7,944 in 2018.
  • Medellín has developed data providing an interesting context for analyzing the role of women in crime. Although the number of murders in the city decreased from the 1990s to 2014, Medellín remains among the cities with the highest homicide rates in the world – due to demobilized combatants and, especially, the increase of criminal gangs. Observers have also tracked an increase of women committing “minor” crimes, defined locally as crimes “easier” for women to perform because they do not “compromise physical integrity.”

Experts are debating whether the feminine “liberalization” – including women’s growing presence in educational, political, and economic contexts – could be fueling the trend. Expanding opportunity has allowed women to acquire greater skills and reduce the wage gap between genders – thereby decreasing incentives to participate in criminal activity. But some observers posit that the decrease in families’ ability to provide “surveillance and protection” of underage women has created circumstances in which less-successful women gravitate to crime. 

  • Universidad de los Andes Professor (and National Police Major) Ervyn Norza-Céspedes documented as long ago as 2012 that the crimes with the highest participation by women are theft (30.52 percent of female crime); manufacture, transport, possession of narcotics (32.54 percent); and assault (9.27 percent). The average violator is 27-36 years old and either works as a housekeeper or is unemployed.
  • Studies show that women with lower education and economic resources are most vulnerable. The National Penitentiary and Prison Institute of Colombia (INPEC) found that 69.7 percent of Colombian women in prison did not attend secondary school – a conclusion supported by other research confirming a correlation between education and criminal activity. INPEC also found that 66.9 percent of the women criminals lived in the country’s estratos 1 and 2 (roughly low-lower class and lower-class) and that 72.8 percent of them received incomes below two monthly minimum wages in the household.

Additional data collection, research, and analysis are obviously needed to better define the trends in female crimes, the causes, and the implications for society in Colombia and throughout the region. Although preliminary research showing the relationship between the different types of crime and the perpetrators’ socioeconomic and demographic characteristics appears logical, a deeper understanding will be particularly important to finding solutions to this growing problem. 

  • In theory, the increase in crimes committed by women could be controlled with public empowerment policies aimed at increasing employment opportunities for female housekeepers and less-educated women in lower socioeconomic estratos. Additionally, crime policy with a gender focus may include feasible and appropriate ways of reducing the opportunities that some women are currently seeing to commit crimes. This policy can be useful to improving reintegration possibilities and mitigating the vulnerabilities to which women are exposed when they come into the penal system. Further research may also aid the development of alternatives for caring for women who have committed crimes that do not involve physical violence – to help them embrace legal economic opportunities.

January 28, 2022

Nataly Rendón González teaches at the Escuela de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas of the Universidad EIA (formerly the Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia) and is a Global Scholar in AU’s Program for Gender Analysis in Economics.

China-Latin America: Literature Shows Varying Perspectives on Beijing’s Intentions

By Andrés Serbin*

Communicating Influence: China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean project page logo

By frequently casting China-Latin America relations as a “triangular relationship” between China, the United States, and Latin America, much of the academic literature generates a series of misunderstandings. Studies in both the English-speaking community and in China generally portray Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) as a relatively homogeneous and unified area – ignoring regional fragmentation and diversity – in a triangular relationship with the two superpowers. But Latin American analysts are increasingly focused on the widely varying nature of countries’ bilateral and subregional ties with each.

  • Latin American analysts generally produce theoretically more complex, politically diverse, and ultimately contradictory approaches to the relationships. Whereas the theoretical disciplines of international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) are ubiquitous in the English-speaking community, recent debates and critiques in Latin America reveal accelerated development of their own theoretical and conceptual approaches.

The two sets of analyses overlap in several important areas, such as China’s primary interest in securing resources and in investing its booming wealth in the region, but they yield different interpretations of its strategic objectives. Most views center around China promoting a version of globalization based on its geostrategic objectives, generating an increasingly tense dispute between the United States, as the traditional hegemonic power, and the rising PRC. This competition occurs mainly in the commercial and technological arenas, but it has military and cultural elements as well.

  • The Western epistemic community, to some extent reflecting the demands and expectations of the political milieu in which they work, frequently regards the Chinese presence in Latin America as a threat to U.S. interests and the autonomy of LAC countries. In this dynamic, China’s objectives go beyond economics and into spaces from which the United States has withdrawn. Latin America, despite its peripheral situation, is immersed in and eventually subordinated to a broader and more global geostrategic dispute, even if (as most analysts believe) China is not trying to impose its political system and development model on the region. 
  • Others tend to view China’s modernization and transformation, its remarkable need for commodities, and its ability to finance large acquisitions and projects as having important bilateral effects for the region. China has incorporated countries into its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure megaproject. Recently, it has undertaken an aggressive “health diplomacy” project during the COVID‑19 pandemic. 

The Latin American perspective is independent of efforts by LAC-based and Chinese analysts to foster joint research and interaction in the past 25 years; Chinese input into LAC analysis is growing but still limited. 

  • The most prolific LAC authors maintain fluid links with U.S. and European academic counterparts, but their work draws on theoretical frameworks that are rooted in approaches developed in the region. This includes a wealth of economic analysis and statistical data developed by individual scholars, research centers, and networks (such as Red‑ALC China), and institutions such as the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Many aspects of China’s policies, such as their impact on labor, environment, regional industrialization, and increasing LAC indebtedness to China (the “debt trap”) have been criticized, but its “soft power” has expanded significantly and benefited many in LAC.

This significant body of research and publications about China’s activities in LAC reflects three predominant disciplinary and theoretical approaches in addition to analysts’ own perceptions of their national interests.

  • The focus of international relations neorealism on China’s potentially destabilizing effects in the region and its relations with the United States gives short shrift to other important actors in the region and world. It also stimulates an inaccurate vision of Latin America as a monolithic, unitary actor and deep down expresses a subtle neocolonialism and “neocolonialist paradigm.” 
  • The emphasis of the international political economy approach is on China’s intentions as predominantly linked to its development – and not as a threat to the United States. Most argue that Latin America must develop its relationship with China and maintain its links with the United States simultaneously, without getting involved in a confrontation between them. 
  • But LAC is showing a third, hybrid approach mixing IPE and geopolitical analysis to contextualize China’s influence. It has shown that some “benign” impacts have also generated new dependency and center-periphery relations that can be characterized as a “dependency with Chinese characteristics.”

The debate between these differing interpretations –viewing dynamics as either bilateral or triangular – will continue to mold U.S., Chinese, and LAC countries’ policies as China pursues its global projection strategy.

January 21, 2022

* 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 his recent CLALS Working Paper, Latin America-China Relations: A Review of Recent Literature (2010-2020)

Central America: The Great Failure of Capitalism

By Alexander Segovia*

San Salvador’s Torre El Pedregal opposite a slum/ ContraPunto-Diario Digital El Salvador

Central American capitalism is inefficient, concentrates wealth within small elites, and hinders broader economic and political participation – and, even as the COVID pandemic underscores its failures, shows little prospect of changing. With the exception of some aspects of the Costa Rican version of Central American capitalism, the entire region has categorically failed in at least four fundamental areas: building productive, competitive, and integrated economies; achieving social progress for the majority of the population; consolidating democracy; and protecting the environment.

My recently published comparative historical review of the region’s brand of capitalism analyzes the development and implications of its two main stages.

Agro-export capitalism. In the 1870s, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala – and later Honduras and Nicaragua – found that they could incorporate themselves into world capitalism through the production and exportation of coffee and bananas, and subsequently through other primary products. That strategy brought certain innovation, economic modernization, and national cohesion. After World War II, despite extreme dependence on enormously volatile foreign markets, the model generated some material wealth and even some temporary social progress, especially in urban areas. 

  • Agro-export capitalism, however, caused deeper poverty among the population, especially in rural areas; a greater concentration of wealth and power within a small elite; and a disproportionate exploitation of natural resources. The result was a system that concentrated wealth and power on some while excluding others – a system incompatible with democracy everywhere except Costa Rica. The failure to create jobs, promote social progress, and create conditions for democracy was a major driver of the region’s armed conflicts of the 1980s.

Rentier-transnational capitalism. The wars in the 1980s (along with the mass migration and internal economic, political and social crises they entailed), a deepening of capitalist globalization, and a wave of neoliberal reforms throughout the region brought about a transformation that modified the region’s capitalist model for the first time. The new rentier-transnational capitalism, based on the dynamism of services and trade and favoring consumption over production, turned out to be even less productive than before. 

  • These changes worsened the concentration of wealth and power on elites, who were even further bolstered by kinship with a transnational economic elite that emerged in the 1990s. Rather than create wealth, rentier-transnational capitalism deepened dependency on family remittances from abroad – from the very people who left their homeland to escape violence and unemployment that the failed economic model aggravated. 

COVID-19 has deepened Central America’s socioeconomic crisis, worsening poverty and inequality, putting democracy at even graver risk, and increasing the urgency for socioeconomic, legal, and institutional reforms of the system of privileges and perks for the elites and to establish a more equitable distribution of income and wealth. But the region’s form of capitalism, which has so obviously failed, continues to operate with impunity – and very few national and international actors, including most academics, ask why. Without rupturing this model of elite accumulation, neither democracy nor inclusion will come about.

  • Last century and in the first two decades of this, national and international actors tried to make changes, including efforts to adjust the role of the state. They argued that a democratic and social state with enough autonomy from the economic elites could create a capitalism that is more inclusive and compatible with democracy. But their efforts were either simply not permitted by the local conservative forces (often buttressed by regional and international allies) or were modified in such a way that they did not change the status quo. The problems of inequality, weak institutions, and undemocratic practices are clearly not going to fix themselves.
  • The United States has enormous historic responsibility for the configuration, functioning, and maintenance of the Central American variety of capitalism. It had great influence over the formation of national states and economies, especially in Honduras and Nicaragua, and was a fundamental actor in impeding the modernization of capitalism, such as in Guatemala in the 1950s. It has also been consistently the principal ally of the economic elites opposed to democracy and redistribution, and it has promoted neoliberal economic reforms and electoral strategies that further strengthened their economic and political power. If Washington is serious about addressing the root causes of Central America’s troubles, it could shift toward supporting reforms that would move the region toward a capitalism that is inclusive, sustainable, and compatible with democracy. 

January 12, 2022

* Alexander Segovia is a Salvadoran economist who has held wide-ranging positions in government, multilateral institutions, and academia. His book, El gran fracaso: 150 años de capitalismo ineficiente, concentrador y excluyente en Centroamérica (also available on Amazon) was published in October by F&G Editores (Guatemala).