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.

UNASUR and the Venezuelan Hot Potato

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Ernesto Samper UNASUR

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Venezuelan crisis, which the hemisphere has turned to UNASUR to resolve, could break the South American organization and overshadow its past successes in regional mediation.  UNASUR was created in 2008, amid the proliferation of regional organizations such as ALBA that excluded the United States and Canada, as an inter-governmental mechanism to promote regional autonomy, conflict prevention and resolution, and the coordination of public policies, particularly regarding social issues, security, infrastructure, and energy.  It has been driven by individual presidents’ leadership and managed by high-ranking officials and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, has not shown deep commitment to greater civil society participation.  Among its important successes have been defusing internal conflicts in Bolivia and Ecuador, as well helping reduce tensions between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Colombia and Venezuela.  In years past, the group’s effectiveness raised questions about the OAS’s comparative ability to deal with regional conflicts.

In recent years, however, UNASUR has suffered decline.  As the commodities boom ended, regional economies were hit hard, and internal political factors started to change the political map, undermining leftist governments and enabling the election of center-right governments less committed to the UNASUR vision.  This coincided with the profound decline of Venezuela as it fell into the abyss of hyperinflation, debt, scarcity, criminality, and debilitating political instability.  The Venezuelan opposition’s achievement of a parliamentary majority last December, after 17 years of Chavista hegemony, brought no relief as the government reacted with an all-out effort to block it.  UNASUR, which first sought to foster a dialogue between the government and the opposition in 2013, has repeatedly failed to broker a solution.  In May 2016 the organization turned to three former heads of state – Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Dominican Lionel Fernández, and Panamanian Martín Torrijos – to attempt mediation again, to no avail so far.  The government continues to resist change, and the opposition, in addition to remaining firm in its demands of a recall vote to remove Maduro and the unconditional release of political prisoners, has shown persistent mistrust of UNASUR and its representatives, whom they perceive as allies of the government. Such suspicions may not be unfounded, considering Zapatero’s objections regarding the participation of some relevant opposition leaders in the dialogue process.

For the first time in its almost 10 years of existence, UNASUR faces potential failure in its attempt to solve a strategically important political crisis in the region.  To hold off an initiative by OAS Secretary General Almagro to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the OAS Assembly called on UNASUR and the former presidents to renew mediation efforts yet again last month, but neither Maduro nor the opposition has budged from their fundamental positions.  The situation is, again, stalled.  Indeed, in the context of declarations, extraordinary sessions, initiatives and trips, the commitment to end the crisis in Venezuela still appears quite limited among OAS members, including UNASUR.  Governments supporting dialogue seem most eager to avoid risking valuable political capital both in the domestic and the international spheres.  Neither UNASUR nor the OAS is prepared to handle the Venezuelan hot potato, and both stand to lose credibility for this failure.  But UNASUR’s general lack of leadership and direction in recent years suggests that failure in this crisis, with implications beyond Venezuela’s borders, would be potentially fatal to the organization.  UNASUR, with previous achievements in social, political and regional matters, must now prove that it is still a viable regional mechanism, able to deal collectively with the political turbulence of a changing regional landscape.

July 6, 2016

* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont are members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum Marks New Political Era

By Miguel Centellas*

Referendo Morales

Photo Credit: Organo Electoral Plurinacional de Bolivia and Alain Bachellier, respectively / Wikimedia and Flickr / Creative Commons

Bolivian voters’ rejection last week of a constitutional amendment to allow an incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term is a setback for President Evo Morales but a step forward for the country.  Both the government and opposition understood the national referendum as a plebiscite on Morales, who is now the longest serving head of state in Bolivian history.  Had the referendum passed, Morales would have been able to run for a fourth five-year term in 2019.  (Because Morales was first elected in 2005, before the new constitution was approved in 2009, the high court decided that he was eligible to run for reelection in 2014.)  During the months leading up to the referendum vote, polls showed a narrow gap between the votes in favor of the amendment and the No votes, with a large number of undecided.

As the final count began to crystalize (the official count is not yet available), it became clear that No won by a slim margin (51.3% to 48.7%).  At first, Morales and members of his government disputed the results, arguing that late-arriving rural ballots would vindicate him.  Later, they claimed opposition fraud and manipulation, including a “dirty” war waged by the opponents and the media.  Several scandals, however, appear to have been the real cause of Morales’s loss.

  • New developments in lingering accusations of fraud committed at the Fondo Indígena, an organization established to support economic, social, and political development of marginalized peoples. Government auditors last year uncovered more than a hundred incomplete or non-existent projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.  The case involved several ex-ministers in Morales’s government and leaders of his MAS party.
  • New allegations of corruption involving Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a romantic liaison of the President in 2006 who is now an executive for a Chinese-owned company (CAMC) that was awarded a large number of no-bid contracts for government development projects. Some sources claim millions of dollars have been misappropriated.  Zapata was arrested shortly after the vote.
  • Accusations that the MAS (and, implicitly, Morales) instigated angry protesters to attack the municipal building in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, killing seven people and injuring many others. The mayor, Soledad Chapetón, and La Paz provincial governor Felix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, were the first two opposition candidates to win those positions since MAS came to power.  The government dismissed the allegations and suggested that Chapetón orchestrated the violence to make herself a martyr.

The results of the referendum – and, more importantly, the frenzied reactions from Morales and other high-ranking members of his government – make the immediate future appear uncertain.  Morales accepted the results of the referendum but also ominously pointed out that there are other ways to amend the constitution.  He also dared opponents to initiate a recall referendum to remove him.  Nevertheless, some members of MAS – showing eagerness to carry the party’s wide support among Bolivians into the future – have begun publicly discussing possible successors.  Another positive sign is that Bolivia’s electoral court showed itself to be truly autonomous, bolstering opposition confidence in a key institution.  The question is whether Morales believes his party (and by extension his legacy) is worth preserving, or whether he wants to risk them for another dubious bid for reelection.  Claims that Morales’s setback is part of a “conservative tide” sweeping through Latin America may be premature, but this referendum may have repercussions elsewhere.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa’s public comments that he would not seek reelection in 2017 may now become firmer.  The day of the three- or four-term president seems over.

March 3, 2016

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Bolivia: Implications of Referendum for Democracy and the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Evo Referendum

Photo Credit: zak / Flickr / Creative Commons

A Bolivian referendum on February 21 – one month after the 10th anniversary of President Morales’s rise to power – threatens a break with the country’s tradition and the democratic principle of power alternation.  A “Yes” vote on the constitutional amendment up for approval would allow Morales and Vice President García Linera to run in 2019 for a fourth consecutive term – a scenario that the fragmented opposition claims would mean not only greater concentration of power in a personalistic leader but also a shift toward authoritarianism, similar to that in Venezuela.  The government claims that a “No” vote would mean the end of an era of unprecedented economic and democratic stability, the end of measures that have empowered subordinate groups in society, and the return of the right and neoliberalism.  Opinion polls so far show the vote will be close.

Morales’s efforts to extend his time in office are consistent with his tendencies to dominate politics and the policy process.  Yet my research shows that increased political incorporation during his government has also given previously marginalized groups enhanced influence over agenda-setting and policy-making and led to important shifts in domestic power relations.  In today’s Bolivia, well-organized interest groups typically belonging to the “informal” labor sector (such as coca growers, cooperative miners, and transportation unions) have greater influence over policy from within the state (in representative institutions and state bureaucracies at all levels) and from without (direct pressure in the streets).  This has resulted in greater regime responsiveness to the groups’ interests and in policies that expand economic and social benefits, as well as improvements in poverty and inequality reduction – even without meeting some of their fundamental needs such as employment and health care reform.  While in some instances newly empowered groups have mobilized and served as a check on state power, their role is founded on a highly particularistic relationship of the MAS and allied groups and, as such, can actually be an obstacle for governing in the interest of broader segments of society.

An intense government campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment is already under way and will likely deepen in the coming weeks.  The Morales government lacks the kind of epic framing it had when it first won the presidential election in 2005.  Citizens today express concerns similar to those voiced during previous governments – concentration of power, widespread corruption, inefficient institutions, weak protection of liberal rights, politicization of courts, and hostility to opponents and the press.  A “Yes” victory on February 21 would not automatically mean a shift to an authoritarian regime as core features of authoritarianism (i.e., power exercised by a small group overriding the will of the citizens) are not currently evident.  In addition, Morales’s tendencies to dominate often meet strong checks from a relatively autonomous civil society.  Comparative evidence suggests, however, that a fourth Morales term might lead to further power concentration and decreased political input from below — which could mean a weakening of the MAS as an organizational actor for the empowerment of subordinate groups independent of its undisputed leader.  A “No” victory, on the other hand, would not necessarily mean the end of the social and political transformations carried out by the MAS.  If nothing else, Bolivia’s “process of change” over the past decade has given rise to a “new normal” of more inclusive institutions and basic social programs that benefit large sectors of the population and will be difficult for any future government to reverse.

January 19, 2016

* Santiago Anria is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University’s Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

From Lima to Paris … and Beyond

By Evan Berry*

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Photo Credit: Ron Mader / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “COP 21” Climate Conference beginning in Paris this week appears likely to produce meaningful results yet fall short of policymakers and civil society leaders’ high hopes for an international accord.  Strong action on climate change is of particular significance in Latin America – because of its environmental vulnerability and the key role it plays in helping establish a post-carbon global economy.  The coastal communities of the greater Caribbean Basin, the intensely biodiverse forests of the Amazonian region, and the glaciated peaks of the Andes are acutely threatened by climate change.  Concern about climate change is higher in Latin America than in any other region of the world, according to the Pew Research Center.  Several nations from the region have played key roles in putting the international community on a path toward a substantive agreement at COP 21, especially Peru, host of last year’s UN climate talks.

The negotiations in Paris are designed to develop an architecture for international cooperation on carbon mitigation and climate adaption that, while essentially voluntary, will catalyze bolder action in the future.  In anticipation that COP 21 will conclude an agreement signed by all the negotiating parties, the international community finds itself again trying to strike the right balance between critical pressure for stronger action and acceptance of an imperfect, but necessary, policy apparatus.  Although observers expect that more mitigation will be necessary, Paris will provide several powerful tools for states afflicted by climate change.  Most especially, through the vehicle of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), financing for large-scale adaptation projects is now starting to flow.  Because the mandates of the GCF prioritize low-carbon agriculture, climate-compatible cities, resilience in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and financing for forests, the fund will have a special impact in Latin America, one of the world’s most urbanized and forested regions and home to more than 20 SIDS.  Indeed, the first round of CGF projects, announced this month, includes two in Latin America – an energy efficiency bond in eastern Mexico and an indigenous people’s forest management project in Peru.

While there is room to be optimistic that these talks will make important progress, many probably will be dissatisfied with the outcome.  According to independent evaluations, several Latin American countries have put forward robust plans to limit carbon emissions, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil.  But many stakeholders, particularly environmental NGOs and leftist governments like Bolivia and Ecuador, are likely to be skeptical about the outcome of the negotiations.  They will be right to point out that the sum total of emissions reductions being discussed at COP 21 is insufficient to keep warming below the consensus 2°C limit, and that the anticipated deal is almost certain not to be legally binding and may also have weak measures for verification.  The “Road to Paris” may not take interested countries as far as they’d like to go, but in Latin America as elsewhere, critics might be well advised temper their skepticism, embrace the incremental progress, and begin preparing for the next round of climate change politics. 

November 30, 2015

* Evan Berry is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Co-Director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs master’s program at American University.

Pope Francis’s Pastoral Mission

By Alexander Wilde*

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America – like all papal visits since Pope Paul VI made the first in 1968 before the historic meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia – is pastoral.  The media are grasping for the implications of his visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay this week, looking for a theme, for example, in the common factors of their poverty, indigenous populations, and environmental conflicts.  Others wonder if this Argentine pope, well acquainted with Peronism, carries a political message about the dangers of left-wing populism.  Yet others posit this trip in terms of religious “competition” to recapture market share from Evangelicals.

This visit and this extraordinary pope, however, are focused on his broader pastoral message – conveying to the faithful his deepest beliefs about what their faith demands of him and of them.  Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, has given a strongly social orientation to this pastoral ministry, while reinforcing its spiritual foundation in personal faith.  In doing this, he has embraced the renewal wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and what he apparently judges the positive insights of liberation theology.  Christians must live their faith in the world and their times, and that includes engaging with other “men and women of good will” to realize God’s purposes for humanity.  Pope Francis repeats that phrase, taken from Pope John XXIII, in his new environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.  Visiting these three countries – in which conflicts over land, oil, forests, and water have mobilized social protests – presents clear opportunities to speak out about how the encyclical’s analysis and moral judgments may apply in concrete settings.

Pope Francis brings to his pastoral visit a belief that he and the Catholic Church should “meet people where they are.”  During 15 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that meant being an active presence among the poor in the villas miserias.  Now he links that pastoral injunction to global issues of poverty, development, and the environment.  He appears to feel a deep responsibility to spur action but at the same time a strong grasp of the intractability of the larger processes, political and natural, involved.  He has said more than once that he expects his papacy to be brief, suggesting that he may view this trip within a God-given responsibility to use his limited time and moral authority to help us confront the most fundamental problems of our future together in this world.  Latin Americans have shown growing awareness of these problems.  Their response to this trip is probably not best judged by Mass attendance but rather by whether they can take concrete steps to link, as Francis does, the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the earth” in their societies. 

July 7, 2015

* Alexander Wilde is editor of Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming December 2015). 

Bolivia’s Elections and Evo’s Surprising Political Malaise

By Robert Albro

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Departmental and municipal elections in Bolivia last week dealt a significant setback to President Evo Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).  Benefiting from strong economic growth, broad-based support from among the country’s many social movements, and the absence of major controversy, last October Morales was elected to a third term as Bolivia’s president with an impressive 61 percent of the vote.  He is on track to be in office until 2020, making him the longest-serving leader in Bolivian history.  Last week, however, the party won just four of nine races for departmental governor and two of the races for mayor in Bolivia’s ten largest cities, reversing a trend of sustained MAS dominance since Evo’s election in 2006.  Most alarming for the MAS is that it lost across the board in the previous strongholds of La Paz and El Alto.  This unexpected outcome has touched off speculation that the MAS is running out of steam.

The MAS emerged as a national political force during the sustained social ferment of the early 2000s.  It reaped the benefits of widespread popular disenchantment with government as a movement for change and indigenous enfranchisement, and it built a successful coalition across ethnic, class, rural-urban, and to some extent, regional differences.  The MAS’s rise coincided with the collapse of the country’s established political parties.  As the only remaining national political movement, the MAS has since often identified its approach to governance as a bottom up, participatory, or popular plebiscite – a multiethnic and plurinational vision of local autonomy that it has successfully enshrined in the country’s constitution.  Addressing last week’s upset, Vice President Alvaro García Linera noted the MAS had done a poor job of cultivating new local leaders.  Evo suggested it was a “punishment vote” in response to recent corruption scandals involving MAS candidates.  Nor did Morales do his candidates any favors when he threatened not to work with opposition politicians in El Alto or La Paz if they were elected.

Despite this setback for the MAS, local opposition at the polls does not necessarily lead to national opposition.  The political opposition remains fragmented, and the MAS remains the country’s only truly national political party.  Even where it lost races for governor or mayor, in most cases the MAS enjoys a majority in the state legislatures or city councils.  However, several factors – corruption scandals, continued dependence on the extractive industries, and the party’s habit of co-opting right-wing non-masistas as candidates where it thinks they will win – point to the stubborn persistence of different national and local political realities.  When the MAS has run into problems in recent years, as with recent controversy over a plan to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, it is because it misread local political terrain, chose poor candidates, and ran afoul of regional or local autonomies.  The horizontal and plural coalition-building that has been the MAS’s hallmark can be a clunky local political instrument.  Last week highlighted that local electorates are less driven by social movement ferment, ideology, or historical change; are notably distrustful of MAS impositions from above; and are more interested in prosaic matters of good governance and candidates they know and trust. It was certainly not the beginning of the end of the MAS.  But if the national party continues to struggle in the face of diverse local political realities, it could signal for the MAS a gradual death by a thousand cuts.

April 9, 2015

Pension Reform: Uneven Progress

By Christina Ewig*

Two Women

Nathan Gibbs / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent pension reforms in Latin America show promise for greater gender equity across the region, but progress remains uneven in coverage and generosity.  Since 2007, 13 countries have either introduced or expanded some form of non-contributory pension, offered to defined groups as a social right, while others have made reforms to their existing pension systems that specifically compensate for gender inequalities.  These reforms in several instances were conceived with the participation of gender equity advocates.

  • The introduction of non-contributory pensions has equalized pension coverage between women and men in the region, according to a comprehensive study by the Organización Iberoamericana de Seguridad Social.
  • The equalization of men’s and women’s retirement age in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Uruguay makes it easier for women to attain the minimum number of working years for eligibility for a minimum pension.
  • The use of gender-neutral mortality tables in Bolivia and a return to the state-run defined-benefit system that treats men and women equally in Argentina, are also improvements.
  • More innovatively, in the 2007 expansion of the non-contributory pension in Bolivia and the 2008 reforms of the traditional pension systems in Chile and Uruguay, women were given credit toward their pensions for children born or adopted, to compensate for time out of the labor market.

The need for such reforms is great globally and in Latin America.  Women face much greater risks than men of poverty in old age due to workplace discrimination and gender imbalances in family carework responsibilities – the “motherhood wage gap” – during their working years.  Women are employed in smaller numbers than men in the formal economy, and they are often concentrated in the lower-paid and less-stable informal sector.  Domestic workers, primarily women, are in a sector notorious for employers’ evasion of pension payments.  Women in Latin America are also more likely than men to be found among the ranks of the unemployed or partially employed.  When employed full time in the formal sector, they face a diminishing but still substantial wage gap, earning 17 percent less on average than similarly educated men, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.  While the original pay-as-you-go pension systems were based on a male-breadwinner model that envisioned women as “dependents,” the 1990s push toward pensions that relied entirely on individual earnings magnified the effects of these discriminatory employment contexts and carework imbalances.  Moreover, in the individual capital account model, practices such as the use of differential mortality tables to determine monthly payments further reduced women’s income in old age, due to their greater expected longevity.

Despite the progress toward greater gender equity in pension policy, the issue deserves wider attention because advances have been uneven.  For example, while most countries in the region have adopted some form of non-contributory pensions, the percentage of the population eligible for these varies dramatically – as does the monthly payment.  Moreover, while the gap in pension coverage between men and women has narrowed, the compensation levels remain dramatically unequal.  Reforms, like those of Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile, that build-in compensation for market and carework inequalities deserve wider replication. 

February 26, 2015

*Dr. Ewig is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She is the author of Second-Wave Neoliberalism: Gender, Race and Health Sector Reform in Peru.

Elite Power and State Strength: A Timely Focus of Academic Studies

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

Insufficient state revenues are one fundamental reason that many Latin American governments fail to provide their citizens with adequate education, health care, public transportation, environmental protection and the physical and technological infrastructure needed to move their countries toward high-income country status.  As a whole, the region’s governments were able to spend only 14.8 and 15.25 percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  Rationalization of expenditures is a goal that can only be pursued in practice if there are adequate funds to begin with, and few Latin American states have that luxury.  (To be sure, even where states are well financed, as in Brazil and Argentina, governments typically fail to spend resources efficiently.)  Historically primitive and regressive tax systems have not evolved in a manner consistent with the development needs of the region.  During the second decade of the 21st century this remains a major obstacle for those who strive to build more effective and democratic states across Latin America.

Several ambitious new books in comparative political economy offer insightful and complementary analyses of the political conditions that perpetuate state weakness as well as the dynamics that offer hope of overcoming it.

  • Aaron Schneider’s 2012 Cambridge University Press volume on State-Building and Tax Regimes in Central America was an initial contribution to this emerging literature, linking that sub-region’s changing relationship to the world economy to aggressive efforts by different factions of the elite to fashion tax systems that reflect their narrow interests rather than a broader agenda of societal development.
  • A book that will be launched later this month in Guatemala City builds on this work by underscoring the importance of political contestation regarding the fiscal arena more broadly – encompassing state expenditure as well as revenue. That study, prepared under the auspices of CLALS and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), illustrates the ways in which Central American elites have exercised disproportionate influence to render states ineffective and regressive: they contribute little to state coffers and extract much from them, with consequences that diminish the life chances of a majority of that region’s population.
  • Tasha Fairfield’s conceptually ambitious and empirically rich comparative study of South American cases, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, is a landmark contribution to literature on elites and Latin American political economy. It consists of a thorough comparative analysis of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, revealing that strong business associations tied closely to the state augment elite capacity to block progressive tax reforms.  Conversely, she finds that social movement influence over the state can undermine elite capacity to resist the sorts of taxation needed to redistribute wealth.
  • Evelyne Huber and John Stephens demonstrated previously, in their 2012 University of Chicago Press book on democracy and the left, that there is a clear link between the capabilities of the political left in democratic regimes and the prospects for more equitable social policies in Latin America. Such policies, as this recent wave of publications make clear, will only come about if societies develop systems of taxation compatible with the emergence of effective states.

Scholarship on Latin American economic development has until recently devoted little attention to political power imbalances as drivers of state weakness and the consequent failure of societies across the region to forge pathways toward developed-country levels of income and opportunity.  These studies highlight the centrality of elite collective organization and behavior, as well as the political strength of countervailing forces in society, for determining levels of taxation across the region.  Taken as a whole, this welcome wave of social science research restores Latin American political economy to its rightful place as a domain of scholarship that speaks to the concrete challenges facing the region today and in the future.  Policymakers throughout the hemisphere who speak of democracy and economic growth need the clear analysis to progress that scholarly works such as these provide.

February 5, 2015

Uruguay: Another Center-Left Victory

By Aaron Bell

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Frente Amplio (FA) emerged from Sunday’s general elections in Uruguay looking stronger than observers had forecast – and signaling Latin Americans’ confidence in the center-left.  Despite a rough campaign season, which included polls showing the FA’s support stuck in the low 40s, and public sniping between the party’s leaders – candidate Tabaré Vázquez and current president José Mujica – just days before the election, the FA gained last-minute momentum in the polls and won 47.9 percent of the vote.  As expected, Vázquez received less than the outright majority needed to avoid a second round of voting on November 30 against the candidate of the Partido Nacional (PN), Luis Lacalle Pou, who won 31 percent of the vote.  But the FA preserved its majority in the lower chamber of parliament, and it can have the edge in the senate if Vázquez wins in November, as his vice president, Raúl Séndic, would hold the deciding vote.  The Partido Colorado (PC) candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, won only 12.9 percent of the vote and placed third in every department.

The elections revolved around Vázquez and Lacalle Pou’s leadership identity and policies; neither candidate argued for substantial structural changes.  In exit interviews, those who voted for the FA credited it with positive changes in its decade at the helm.  The 41-year-old Lacalle Pou has run as a youthful leadership alternative to the 74-year-old former president Vázquez, and he promised fresh ideas for taking on crime and education, considered leading concerns for Uruguayan voters.  While exit interviews suggest that this message appealed to his party’s voters, it did not translate into substantial youth support.  Polling by Factum prior to the election showed that 51 percent of voters aged 18-37 preferred the FA.  Public security has been the leading concern for Uruguayan voters, and both traditional center-right parties, the PN and PC, supported a referendum (also held on Sunday) that would have lowered the age of criminal responsibility for major crimes from 18 to 16.  But long-term polling trends have shown a decrease in the number of Uruguayans prioritizing security from its peak last year, and indeed the referendum failed with 47 percent of the vote; almost the entirety of undecided voters ultimately chose to oppose it.

The FA now has momentum and is well positioned to win the second round and enjoy the support of a parliamentary majority.  A likely PN-PC voting bloc in the second round once held a slight lead over the FA but now appears likely to fall short because of tensions between them.  The PC’s underwhelming performance at the polls has been compounded by Bordaberry’s decision on Sunday night to support Lacalle Pou without consulting PC officials, and his offensive off-the-cuff verbal attack on the Vázquez camp during a conversation with a PN official that same night, for which he has since apologized.  The left-leaning Partido Independiente, which came in fourth place with 3.1 percent of the vote, will make a decision on which candidate to support this week; their votes alone would be enough to push the FA over the top.  As a result, barring a major turn of events, it appears as though the incumbent pink tide will prevail in Uruguay – with implications, perhaps, beyond.  Indeed, a second-round FA victory will be the sixth this year for a left-leaning party, following the pattern set by Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil.  While the citizenry may be impatient with the pace of progress in Latin America following nearly a decade of left-leaning governance, voters seem to be eschewing the right and maintaining the modestly but consistently leftward tilt that has characterized the region’s politics for much of the 21st century.

October 30, 2014