Intense Electoral Year in Latin America

By Carlos Malamud*

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Chilean President Michelle Bachelet with the leaders of her coalition, Nueva Mayoría. The Chilean presidential election of 2017 will determine the legacy of the Nueva Mayoría. / Gobierno de Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The new year will be an intense one for Latin American elections.  Although perhaps not as important as those taking place in 2018, this year’s elections will have a significant impact on the countries holding them and, in some cases, the region as a whole.

  • In Ecuador’s presidential and legislative elections on February 19, the PAIS Alliance will run a slate of nominees for the first time without Rafael Correa heading its slate. The President said he’s stepping down for family reasons, but Ecuador’s economic problems, aggravated by the decline in oil prices, apparently convinced him to seal his legacy on a high note now rather than end his time in office in defeat.  The party’s presidential candidate, former Vice President Lenin Moreno, has a 10-point lead in polls over his closest competitor and has the advantage of facing an opposition divided among seven candidates, but his leadership remains uncertain.
  • In Mexico, the state governors of México, Nayarit, and Coahuila and mayor of Veracruz are up for election on June 4. The race in México state will measure the popular backing of the four parties in contention – PRI, PAN, PRD, and López Obrador’s new Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) – in the 2018 presidential election.  The older parties will begin to weed out the weaker pre-candidates.
  • Elections for half of the Argentine Congress and a third of its Senate in October will define the second half of President Mauricio Macri’s presidency. The government is confident that economic recovery will strengthen its election prospects.  A weak showing will strengthen the Peronista opposition and complicate Macri’s agenda.  The Peronistas are currently divided into three big factions – that of Sergio Massa; the “orthodox” wing headed by some provincial governors, and corruption-plagued Kircherismo grouping headed by former President Cristina Fernández.  Open, simultaneous, and obligatory primaries (known by the Spanish acronym PASO) in August will be an important test for all.
  • Chile will elect a successor to President Michelle Bachelet on November 19. Primaries in July will reveal whether the country’s two big coalitions – the center-left (including the President’s Nueva Mayoría) and the center-right – are holding, as well as the presidential candidates’ identity.  The names of former Presidents Sebastián Piñera and Ricardo Lagos are in the air, but it’s too early to know how things will play out in the environment of growing popular disaffection with politics and politicians.
  • Honduras will hold elections on November 26. Due to a Supreme Court decision permitting reelection, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández could face a challenge from ex-President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who was removed from office by the Army in June 2009, running as head of the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party.
  • Also in November, Bolivia will elect members of various high courts, including the Constitutional, Supreme, and Agro-Environmental Tribunals and the Magistracy Council. These elections will reveal the support President Evo Morales will have as he tries to reform the Constitution to allow himself to run for yet another term in office.

These elections in 2017 have a heavy national component but will shed light on the region’s future direction.  The success or failure of the populist projects in Ecuador and Honduras, or of President Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría in Chile, will tell us where we are and, above all, help us discern where we’re headed.

January 17, 2017

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  This article was originally published in Infolatam.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Can Latin America Escape the Middle-Income Trap?

By Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider*

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Photo Credit: Inter-American Development Bank / CLALS / Edited 

Most literature on the “middle-income trap,” widely understood as a core obstacle to sustained development in Latin America, focuses solely on economic dynamics and understates the importance and challenges of political coalition-building.  That literature, largely generated by economists in academe and international financial institutions, argues convincingly that in Latin America, as well as Southeast Asia, once countries achieve some degree of success in economic development, they get stuck.  They are unable to compete with low-cost producers in traditional sectors – initial development success brings higher wages and other costs – while they also have failed to gain the capacity to compete with developed economies in frontier industries, where technological capabilities and productivity levels are far higher.  These analysts stress that Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico – or for that matter Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – need to build on their achievements over the past half century in order to make the leap into the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations.  They highlight the trap’s proximate origins in productivity slowdowns and recommend policy solutions that focus on improving human capital through investment in education and vocational training.  But identifying problems and potential solutions does not explain why leaders fail to adopt the solutions.  In other words, it’s not clear from existing writings why the trap is actually a trap.

The literature does not acknowledge that fundamental political obstacles, especially lack of effective demand and pressure for these solutions, are at the heart of the problem.  As is evident from the history of failed programs to improve education and R&D, political will to invest in such public goods is in short supply.  Politicians are rarely willing to forgo the short-term political benefits of satisfying entrenched interest groups for the long-term developmental benefits of creating institutions capable of helping the broader citizenry to upgrade its capacity for technology absorption.  A core reason for this lack of political will is the weakness of the societal constituencies that might demand the necessary policies and effective institutions.  Our research indicates that relations among key societal actors in middle-income countries are less amenable to building the consensus that economists advocate. In a recent article, we argue that the same conditions that facilitated or accompanied movement to middle-income status – such as foreign investment, low-skilled and low-paid work, inequality, and informality – have generated political cleavages that impede upgrading policies and the construction of institutions necessary to implement them.  This fragmentation is why the trap is a trap. Three lines of fragmentation are key:

  • Big business is divided between foreign and domestic firms. The former can undertake productivity-improving measures in-house and/or at their home headquarters, whereas local firms tend to focus in non-tradeable services and commodities whose demand for better training and R&D is lower than in manufacturing.
  • Labor is fractured between formal and large, growing informal sectors. Enjoying longer job tenure and on-the-job training for specific skills, formal workers have little interest in broader skills development.  Informal workers, on the other hand, constantly shift jobs and would prefer investments in vocational institutions offering general training.
  • These societies remain overall less equal and, as is now well known, inequality undermines the will and capacity to provide broad public goods such as quality universal education and support for technology development.

 Pro-growth coalitions of various types have been key to productivity improvements in now-high income East Asian countries, such as Korea and Taiwan.  The fact that these countries had stronger (and more autocratic) governments does not preclude developing or building on such coalitions in countries with messier political systems and weaker bureaucracies.  First, leaders can build on sectoral pockets of high productivity, such as aquaculture in Chile, wine in Argentina (and rubber in Malaysia).  Second, international and regional institutions can help supplement demands for skills by supporting programs that focus on technical and vocational institutions that actually meet and are linked to employers’ needs.  Third, organizations such as the ILO can promote business associations that represent the local firms for whom collective technical training and R&D are especially important.

August 22, 2016

* Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider teach political science at Emory University and MIT, respectively.

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

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Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

The Panama Papers: Damning Evidence Against Latin American Elites?

By Emma Fawcett* and Fulton Armstrong

Panama Papers

Photo Credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

The “Panama Papers” have revealed the reputed secret accounts and tax-evasion strategies of a number of Latin American leaders, but preexisting widespread perceptions that political and economic elites are corrupt may reduce the immediate shock value of the revelations.  More than 11 million documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca – given an initial review by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – provide evidence of 215,000 arrangements by which 14,153 powerful and wealthy clients from around the world hid their money from the prying eyes of the media, tax collectors, and public-accountability experts.  Early reports already indicate Latin Americans – small-time players compared to the Russians and some Europeans – are among those mentioned.

  • The Petrobras scandal that has paralyzed Brazil will find further fuel in these files. Investigators in Operation Car Wash apparently had no knowledge of many accounts held by Petrobras officials.  A secret company linked to House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who’s leading the charge to impeach President Rousseff, reportedly figures prominently.
  • Argentine President Macri, his father, and brother reportedly had an offshore company for 10 years. They closed it in 2009, two years into Macri’s term as Buenos Aires mayor, but he did not report it.  The government says he was only “circumstantially” the CEO.
  • The president of the Chilean branch of Transparency International, Gonzalo Delaveau, resigned because he was linked to at least five offshore companies.
  • Mexican President Peña Nieto’s association with tycoon-contractor Juan Armando Hinojosa, who reportedly had a massive array of shelters worth US$100 million, is once again a liability. The President was dragged through the mud – and eventually exonerated of personal involvement – over a mansion that Hinojosa allegedly gave to his wife.  The Mexican government is investigating several dozen others named in the documents.
  • Many other cases are in the wings. Pedro Delgado (former governor of Ecuadorian Central Bank and cousin of President Correa); financial backers of Peruvian Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori; and an array of former central bank and intelligence officials – Peruvians, Venezuelans, Panamanians, and others – are all being looked at.  In El Salvador, the Attorney General, already criticized for his investigative zeal, has raided Mossack Fonseca’s offices, suggesting more revelations to come.

Allegations of tax evasion, hidden income, and other forms of corruption are a mainstay of Latin American political lifeand the Panama revelations will only aggravate the oft-held opinion that rich, powerful people play by their own rules to maintain wealth and power.  Ramón Fonseca, one of the founders of the law firm, claims that the publicity is part of “an international campaign against privacy,” which he called “a sacred human right [and] there are people in the world who do not understand that.”  The backlash against someone like Argentine President Macri may not be too great, especially because his family ended the tax haven years ago.  But what makes the allegations potentially disruptive is the number of people implicated – across public and private sectors – in so many countries, in an investigation that has only just begun.  Further revelations are sure to come and, although themselves a sign of transparency, challenge people’s faith that leaders will come clean.  The revelations will fuel popular cynicism and discontent in the short term, but renewed demands for transparency may eventually help rekindle popular confidence in government.

April 11, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.   Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

President Obama’s Visit to Buenos Aires: An Important Gesture

By Katherine Hite*

Parque de la memoria Argentina

Parque de la Memoria, Argentina. Photo Credit: Jennifer Yin / Flickr / Creative Commons

While most eyes are on U.S. President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the timing and agenda of his follow-on travel to Argentina – while controversial – also is a significant opportunity for the United States to burnish its image in Latin America.  Obama arrives in Buenos Aires on the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s military coup d’etat, marking a brutal period of systematic human rights violations in which the United States lent tacit support.  In an important attempt to ameliorate the controversy over his timing, Obama will be delivering a cache of declassified documents on both what the U.S. knew regarding the 1976-1983 repression and on the green light that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the dictatorship’s dirty war against political opponents during the final year of the Ford presidency.  In addition, the President will visit the Parque de la Memoria, site of a memorial to the thousands of victims of the military regime.  He’d expressed interest in a visit to the ex-Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), notorious former clandestine detention site where an estimated 5,000 Argentines were imprisoned, 90 percent of whom were murdered, but political sensitivities in Buenos Aires precluded it.

Argentina has pioneered efforts to come to terms with the past, from prosecuting and jailing former military officers guilty of violations, to “recuperating” former clandestine detention centers, where citizens were tortured, executed, and made to “disappear.”  Human rights activists have converted several of these former centers, such as the ex-ESMA, into spaces to remember and to educate the public with a message of accountability and of “never again.”  Some memory sites also seek to connect human rights violations of the past to ongoing violations, including police brutality and the abuse of the incarcerated, as well as to present-day struggles for social justice.  Argentine school children learn about their past and study the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an important moment for the U.S. president publicly to recognize the U.S. historic role in Argentina’s tragic past – and for Argentines to show Washington, itself accused of torture and clandestine detention in recent years within its “War on Terror,” that such abuses can never be tolerated and that perpetrators must be brought to justice for a democracy to be healthy and stable.  Countries throughout the region, including Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have similarly created memorials and museums of memory.  Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights gets over 10,000 visitors a month.  It houses a large permanent display documenting the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and like the ex-ESMA, opens its spaces to human rights organizations, artists, theater groups, and others for workshops, plays, movie series, and more.  In El Salvador, the Museum of the Word and the Image sponsors an exhibit on the roots of the country’s civil war as well as memories of the suffering and resistance.  It has also sponsored exhibits on Salvadoran migration to the United States during the war and connects past to current violence, both within El Salvador and in close relation to the United States.  Together these efforts invite acknowledgment, reflection, and dialogue.  President Obama’s activities in Argentina, like President Clinton’s apology in Guatemala for the U.S. role in past violations in that country, are an important gesture that, within a broader U.S. commitment, could help facilitate a less tarnished image for Washington in Latin America along with his historic shift in policy toward Cuba.

March 21, 2016

* Katherine Hite is professor of political science at Vassar, with special interest in Latin American politics, social movements, and the legacies of violence for governments and societies throughout the Americas.

Behind Argentina’s Making up with its Creditors

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Pensive Macri

Photo Credit: Mauricio Macri / Flickr / Creative Commons

A recently concluded agreement in principle between Argentina and most of its holdout creditors is part of a 180-degree turn in economic policy that the new administration of Mauricio Macri is attempting to make in order to end five years of economic stagnation, 10 years of double-digit inflation, and 15 years of isolation from the international capital markets.  President Macri has to navigate very carefully, however.  First, he does not have a majority in either congressional chamber, so he has to work hard to persuade legislators to support his policy initiatives.  Second, the judiciary and the Executive branch are packed with political appointees from the Néstor and Cristina Kirchner administrations, and while some of them have been fired, Macri and his economic team must still tread cautiously.  Third, all the key economic institutions, such as the government’s commercial and development bank (BNA), the central bank (BCRA), and the social security administration (ANSES) have been stuffed to the gills with either risky or unprofitable assets (from bad loans to government IOUs), thereby compromising their effectiveness.  Last but not least, Macri must be mindful of his very fickle electorate: over the past seven decades, Argentines have periodically voted non-Peronists into office to clean up the mess left behind by the Peronists, but then they have soured and yanked their support.  It is a sobering fact that not a single non-Peronist government has ever made it to the end of its constitutional term in office.

This is why the Macri administration is going for some “quick wins” rather than for major structural reforms or the necessary dose of fiscal austerity and monetary restraint.  And this is the context within which his willingness to “bury the hatchet” with private and official creditors must be understood.  As a former businessman, Macri realizes that if one takes over a money-losing enterprise – in this case the public sector, which is running a deficit equivalent to more than five percent of GDP – one needs to cultivate sources of interim financing until the enterprise can be turned around.  After all, the prior government had been living hand-to-mouth on loans from the BNA, the BCRA, and ANSES, with increasingly inflationary consequences.  Having lost official international reserves and seen the currency depreciate rapidly after abolishing capital controls, the authorities are now under great pressure to obtain interim financing from abroad to help stabilize international reserves and support the weak currency.

President Macri faces a very difficult governance challenge in the months and years ahead.  His ability to mend fences with private creditors – Argentina has been in arrears to all its bondholders since mid-2014 – as well as with the IMF, multilateral development banks, and official creditors such as the Ex-Im banks – is crucial to the restoration of financing to the private and public sectors and the fostering of an investment-friendly climate.  Macri’s agreement in principle with most holdout creditors is a big step in the right direction, but he must now secure the requisite congressional approvals to dismantle Kirchner-era legislation inimical to a settlement and obtain interim financing at reasonable interest rates to clear all overdue debts.  These are early and relatively easy tests for a government that is yet to adopt most of the divisive and unpopular austerity measures that circumstances warrant.

March 10, 2016

*Dr. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at the School of International Service.