Transparency in Brazil: More Progress than Meets the Eye

By Vanessa Rodrigues de Macedo*

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Antonio Thomás Koenigkam Oliveira / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amid all the corruption scandals shaking Brazil in recent months, positive signs about future prospects for accountability – in a country where it has historically been lacking – are easy to overlook.

  • The judicial system is improving and – since the historic conviction of 25 of 37 defendants in the notorious mensalão bribery case in 2012 – has shown commitment to meaningful outcomes in corruption cases.  Prominent offenders who in the past would have been untouchable today face a significantly higher probability of conviction and imprisonment.  In March, the Supreme Court authorized investigations into more than 50 high-ranking officials, including the leaders of both legislative houses.  In July-August, prosecutors launched investigations into former President Lula da Silva (as an informant) and senior Petrobras officials.
  • Important transparency initiatives are also taking hold. On paper, these are some of the most demanding standards in the world.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) enacted in 2011 ranks among the top 20 FOIA laws in the world, according to the Global Right to Information Rating.  Since 2012, more than 300,000 FOIA requests have been made through the online request system (e-sic) created by the law. No fewer than 98.34 percent of these requests have been replied to, with an average response time of 14 days.
  • Brazil has been at the forefront of promoting transparency globally.  Together with the United States, it was the founding co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multi-stakeholder partnership that now involves more than 60 countries.

The impact of such initiatives has been limited, however, because they were launched as a result of the mobilization of a handful of NGOs, journalists and international actors, rather than broad societal pressure.  Street protests against government policies have had massive turnouts over the past couple years, but mobilizations in favor of concrete transparency measures and similar reforms have not involved wide swaths of citizens.  Cultural change at the popular level has been slow, reflecting a lack of social maturity to accept responsibility to monitor public policy and demand transparency.  Nonetheless, some important initiatives, such as joint government-citizen policy conferences to discuss public policies, are attracting significant citizen participation. Between 2003 and 2010, 70 such conferences drew 6.5 percent of the Brazilian population, according to academic tallies, and from 2010 to 2014 there were 26 more conferences.

That these achievements haven’t ended corruption is not a sign that they’re useless. Rather, the consolidation of transparency norms and institutions; the continued assertiveness of Brazilian prosecutors and judges; and the expanding opportunities for citizen engagement suggest that the prospects for inculcating a culture of accountability in Brazil are not as bleak as might appear in the almost-daily headlines about endemic corruption in politics and big business. Having transparency initiatives in place has the potential over time to make corruption less frequent, and the more engaged that Brazilian society becomes in the implementation of transparency norms the more likely it is that massive scandals such as those around Petrobras and Lava Jato will become the exception rather than the rule.

*Vanessa Macedo is a CLALS research fellow and political science PhD candidate at the Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (IESP/Uerj).

Brazilian Truth Commission Looks at Police Violence

By Paula Orlando

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

A new truth commission is about to investigate Brazil’s legendary police brutality and, for the first time, attempt to bring some public accountability for the crimes committed by the state. Police kill an estimated six people per day. Civil society organizations persuaded the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly (ALESP) to establish the commission, the first to focus on human rights violations in the post-dictatorship period. It will hear testimony from witnesses and survivors of police brutality, and examine documents and other evidence related to major cases of police violence in the city and state in the last decades. The initiative follows the recent release of reports by the National and Sao Paulo State Truth Commissions on human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In fact, the reports suggested that present-day violence should be understood as a legacy of the lack of accountability for past violations.

The “Truth Commission of Democracy Maes de Maio” – named after a prominent movement of family members of victims of police violence that fights for justice and changes in security policies – held its first hearing on March 21. Parents of some of those killed in May 2006, when at least 493 civilians were killed in a period of 10 days, testified. (The National Truth Commission had accounted for 434 people killed during the 21 years of military rule.) The violence in May 2006 took place in the context of a conflict between the police forces and the “First Command of the Capital” (PCC) – a criminal organization formed within the detention system, and was justified as part of a “war on crime.” A study conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School and the Brazilian Human Rights Organization Justiça Global contends that at least 122 deaths were directly linked to the police, and many of these bodies showed signs of execution. Four other civilians remain missing after nine years, and nearly all the cases have been archived without a resolution. With the participation of representatives designated by the National Secretariat of Human Rights, legislators, and members of social movements, the new commission will also examine other massacres, such as one at the Carandiru penitentiary in 1992 and the nighttime slaughter – also linked to police officers – of several people who were sleeping near the Sé Cathedral, in downtown Sao Paulo, in August of 2004.

The truth commission is more than a symbolic step towards recognizing and bringing some degree of state accountability in human rights violations; it shows the growing pressure of the movement against anti-police violence and in favor of justice and reparations for victims. Deputy Adriano Diogo, a major proponent of the panel, has warned that the way ahead “will be difficult; this is a discussion that the Brazilian government does not accept to have.” Insofar as the truth commission succeeds, it will not only create an institutional space linked to the state to clarify cases of police violence; it will stimulate an important discussion of the legitimization of police brutality in the context of “fighting crime.” In addition, it could contribute to the understanding that unlawful police violence is a form of political violence that no democratic society should endure.

April 6, 2015

Mexican Judicial Reform: Example of the Need for a Closer Look

By Todd A. Eisenstadt

Foro: el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, a un Año de su Implementación en Baja California, con la ponencia: “Hacia una Justicia más Transparente” /Photo credit: Gobierno de Baja California  / Flickr / CC

Foro: el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal en Baja California / Photo credit: Gobierno de Baja California / Flickr / CC

Mexico’s judicial reforms have proceeded at an uneven pace in each of the country’s 32 states since they were approved as a constitutional amendment in 2008.  The new and spacious “tower of justice” in Baja California shimmers in the desert sun, an outward sign of the $100 million-plus program that is the centerpiece of the state’s “law and order” administration.  However, halfway across Mexico, in the state of Puebla, litigators, police, and judges – untrained in the new judicial system they are implementing – watch their first important case, a manslaughter conviction, give way to a plea bargain after a series of errors.  Morelos, Oaxaca and other states do not have inter-connected computer systems for prosecutors and defenders, and Nayarit has not even passed a state-level criminal justice code to bring that state up to compliance with the 2008 reforms.  And Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez in 2011 held the distinction of being the most violent city in the world, a punitive “counter-reform” reducing the rights of the accused has set back that state’s reform efforts.

Progress on the reforms has been stymied by lack of a litigation tradition, a failure in interagency cooperation, a shortage of technology and resources, a lack of political will, and a lack of public support.  Mexico’s drug-related violence has put it at the center of hemispheric debate on judicial reform, but even heralded reforms of the 1990s, such as in Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, and Peru, have been unevenly implemented.  Chile’s reforms, widely seen as successful, were made possible by overcoming inertias, including judicial resistance to the creation of an adversarial relationship between defense and prosecution that moved judges into an institutionalized neutral position.  Legal scholar Mauricio Duce also argues that the retooling of Chile’s Ministerio Público – an autonomous body that functions as a fiscalía or justice ministry – was crucial because the institution became the “engine” of the reforms.

Each country brings its own history, culture and institutional strengths and weaknesses to the challenge of judicial reform. With the results of the first generation of reforms so mixed, a rigorous review of  what has worked – and not – in Latin America, Africa, or Eurasia and elsewhere can help overcome these dramatic shortcomings in the implementation of  reforms. The political commitment to reform is important, but understanding the political contexts and legal/administrative components in each case is also essential for improving the rule of law and accountability, deterring violent crimes, improving human rights recognition, economic development, and establishing security and law and order. When academics, program managers, and political leaders understand why a country like Mexico can have such vastly varying results from the same reforms, they can all take a giant step toward achieving more lasting and positive change.

Todd A. Eisenstadt is a professor of government at American University.

Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.

El Salvador: Memory, the persistent discomfort

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

The sudden closure of the Legal Aid Service – Tutela Legal – of the Archbishop of San Salvador appears to be a massive blow to efforts to hold human rights violators and war criminals from the civil war accountable for their deeds.  Without previous notice or warrant, workers arrived at their offices on September 30 to find new locks on the doors and private guards blocking the entrance.  That same day some of the workers claimed to have discovered evidence indicating that Monsignor José Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop, had long before decided to close Tutela.  The office was opened in 1982 by Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas to fulfill a project designed by his predecessor, Mons. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop killed two years earlier during mass by a death squad and who is now under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican.  It holds one of the most detailed archives on the repression, crimes and human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran war, mainly by state-sponsored agents.

Mons. Escobar Alas has surprised observers in the past.  In late 2011, he ordered the removal of a mural by a popular Salvadoran artist from the Metropolitan Cathedral without any explanation to the artist or to the church’s large congregation.  The mural commemorated the earliest attempts at a negotiated settlement to the war.  Facing an outcry, Escobar Alas claimed the mural was Church property and that the Church was entitled to do with it as it pleased.  The same tone was evident after the Tutela closing as protests came not just from a good number of Catholics but from the Ombudsman’s office, the President of the Republic and 258 US and Salvadoran scholars who ran an ad in a major newspaper.  The Archbishop and his spokesmen provided at least three different versions of the event, saying alternately that Tutela was closed because it had already served the purpose for which it was created in the war years; it was closed to give its spaces to an ad hoc commission (with an unclear mandate and authorities); and that the Church had encountered financial wrongdoings in Tutela so grave that it had to close.

The closure happened at a time of important progress in human rights accountability.  At the center of it all was access to Tutela’s archives, some 50,000 files about the infamous 1980s – potentially crucial evidence in ongoing or upcoming judicial processes that Salvadoran elites have long tried to keep under wraps.  For the first time in a decade, last month the Attorney General’s office made public its intention to open a special unit committed to review war massacres such as the one in El Mozote, where some 1,000 peasants were killed by a U.S.-trained elite battalion.  Also, for the first time since the early post-war period, an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice agreed to hold a hearing on the admissibility of a case under the Amnesty Law, the legal provision that has prevented many cases from being brought to justice.  And for the first time, there is a real chance for a Spanish court to address the murder of six Jesuit priests and their two aides after one of the accused in that massacre, a colonel, was convicted and imprisoned in a U.S. jail pending extradition to Madrid.  In all of these legal cases, the files held by Tutela Legal would provide crucial documentation to prosecutors.  The only credible explanation for the closing of the service is that pressure was brought to bear on the Archbishop by interests that wish to block access to this important body of evidence in the event that they are unable to prevent trials from opening. 

The ad hoc commission that the Archbishop said will be formed will include members with credibility – including Father José María Tojeira, former Jesuit envoy for Central America, and Mons. Jesús Delgado, Archbishop Romero´s biographer – and may hold some promise.  But the vagueness about its authority and technical questions, including the legal admissibility of Tutela files as the chain of custody is broken, raise serious doubts.  Whatever happens, the many Salvadorans who believe in the healing power of memory – and accountability – will need to remain constantly vigilant.  The same memory has been a persistent discomfort to some Salvadoran elites, who have long thwarted such efforts.

 

U.S.-Cuba: Time to End the Visa Charade

By Eric Hershberg

Slide1Bad habits die hard, especially when they involve Cuba and American bureaucrats eager to appease the right wing.  For more than 50 years, Washington has been at loggerheads with a revolutionary regime eager to reciprocate incessant aggression and stick its finger in the eye of the Colossus to the North.  Although nothing as absurd as a confrontation at the brink of nuclear war has occurred since 1962, during the ensuing decades both governments have repeatedly provoked one another to exacerbate a conflict that even in 2013 bizarrely perpetuates the Cold War.  To this day, the U.S. proclaims “regime change” as its bottom line condition for normalizing relations with a sovereign country for which such imperial proclamations are justly anathema.  Havana, in turn, is not beyond demonizing American citizens – people who have no connections to the U.S. government or its misguided regime-change programs – who seek to engage their Cuban counterparts.  Last month I spent two hours in the Havana airport answering hostile questions from government goons for whom my assurances that my visit was academic in nature were mysteriously insufficient to get me smoothly admitted through immigration.  An American University colleague reports that she suffered similar harassment at the Havana airport in March.

One manifestation of the anachronistic dispute between the two governments is the infantile tit for tat that both parties play with permitting travel across the Florida Straits even for purposes both claim to support. The dynamic is pernicious, and reflects a combination of ideological extremism and petty bureaucratic behavior on both sides.  Organizers of scholarly meetings in Cuba are increasingly being told that the participation of one person or another would not be acceptable to unspecified authorities in Havana, and the result has been that they have been “disinvited” from workshops in which their participation would have been appropriate.  More troubling, from my perspective as an American citizen, is that since the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies was established three years ago, on three separate occasions the State Department delayed the visas of Cuban academics who I had invited to the University and refused to say why.  Last week, when the Latin American Studies Association convened its annual meeting in Washington, assembling 5,000 scholars from around the world, Cuban researchers who have long traveled to and from the U.S. were denied visas, again for no stated reason. They included three individuals with whom the Center has time-tested, ongoing working relationships:  Rafael Hernández, who edits one of Cuba’s principal journal of society and culture and has taught as a Visiting Professor at Harvard and Columbia; Milagros Martínez, who directs international academic affairs at the University of Havana; and Juan Luís Martín, arguably Cuba’s most innovative sociologist.

That the Cuban government interferes with academic life should be no surprise.  That the practice continues on the U.S. side is another matter.  One would think that Washington would by now have gotten beyond this shameful charade, five years into an administration that knows better.  Somewhere in the system and its mysterious processes –the opacity contradicts our democratic principles – bureaucrats are denying visas arbitrarily and with no accountability.  What threat do these academics, whose work has at times catalyzed important debates in Havana, conceivably pose to the United States?  What is the U.S. national interest in slamming the door on people eager to hear what we have to say in our universities and academic conferences?  The State Department’s visa denials undermine the professional activities of American citizens and contradict the Administration’s own policy of “people-to-people” relations.  It may be too much to expect President Obama to risk incurring the wrath of a shrinking minority in the Cuban-American community and in the Congress to put forth a rational Cuba policy.  But one would have thought that Secretary of State Kerry has the wherewithal and influence required to put an end to the use of visa requests as a means of restaging scenes from a cold war era that ought to have been left behind twenty years ago. The State Department’s actions over the past month evidence its disregard for academic freedom and the hollowness of its assurances to the scholarly community that it does not intend to interfere with our work.  I say: Enough is enough.

 

Violence in Mexico: Forging a Civic Compact for Urban Resilience

By Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

Ciudad Juarez | Photo by Daniel Esser

The media’s regular chronicling of human resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters and large-scale violent conflicts cover only part of story.  As inspiring as tales of individual heroism, resistance and resilience can be, they provide little guidance for public policy aiming to strengthen social ties within damaged communities, in which safety nets need to be created to work both preventatively and post-victimization.  Supported by a field research grant from the Social Science Research Council’s Drugs, Security and Democracy Program (DSD) and working jointly with a team of researchers based at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, this writer recently spent four months on the U.S.-Mexico border to answer this question.  Members of 320 randomly sampled households in Ciudad Juárez were interviewed about their knowledge of non-violent collective action during the past five years.  Overall, the findings provide hope that Juárez’s social fabric has not suffered as badly as is widely claimed, but both Mexican and international policy-makers need to understand the nature of collective resilience before they can effectively support it.  Juárez no longer tops the world’s ranking of most violent cities per capita, as it did in 2010 and 2011, although organized violence continues to wreak havoc, exemplified by 30-60 murders per month.  Analysts agree that the downward trend is less the result of concerted government action and more a reflection of a reshuffling – likely temporary – of power structures within the transnational drug business.  Strikingly, most survey respondents argued that neighborly help had not decreased during the violent times.  Roughly a quarter even argued that residents’ willingness to help each other had in fact increased, mainly because people felt more united amid the terror.  Many people reported knowledge of collective street monitoring, peaceful marches, protests and public vigils, with between 5 and 8 percent saying they have actively participated in them.  For those residents, violence was not an abstract phenomenon; more than 30 percent reported personally knowing someone who had been murdered, and just under 20 percent had themselves been victims of violent crimes.  Surprisingly, almost two-thirds said they had not lost trust in local politicians and that they would vote for candidates promising to combat violence.

These findings serve as reminders of the political dimension of resilience in the context of chronic violence, implying that there are important local collective dynamics that can be leveraged through responsive and accountable political representation.  They also suggest that policymakers at all levels need to be mindful of the existence and potential of collective agency under extremely adverse conditions.  The violence in border cities created an opportunity for forging a civic compact between entities of the state on the one hand and neighborhood residents on the other, to mend frail ties between the electorate and its representatives.  This kind of deliberate state-building at the local level is precisely what Mexico needs in the aftermath of former President Calderón’s heavy-handed and, as many have claimed, detrimental strategy emphasizing federal-level and military-led programs and operations.  President Peña Nieto and his cabinet appear likely to embrace a local approach to increasing security as it complements his commitment to improving social services especially in secondary cities.  However, the most critical building block for effectively executing such a civic compact is a politically unbiased, data-driven selection of beneficiary communities and their needs.  Akin to approaches to civic reconstruction in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, communities should be in the driver’s seat in both project selection and monitoring.  After all, state-building is as much about procedural inclusion and justice as it is about tangible outcomes.

Dr. Esser teaches international development at American University’s School of International Service.  Click here for more information about this project.

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

Political Participation in Latin America Expanding

participatory democracy coverFrom local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries.  Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute.  Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites.  These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule.  Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole.  We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela).  A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.

New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network.  More information on the project can be found here .  (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.