Latin America: The Massive Challenge of COVID-19

By Carlos Malamud and Rogelio Núñez*

Bolsonaro & AMLO

Presidents Bolsonaro of Brazil and López Obrador of Mexico have been criticized for downplaying coronavirus concerns// Left: Palacio del Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons (modified)// Right: PresidenciaMX/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Latin America has had several advantages as the COVID-19 virus has moved in – including the chance to learn the lessons of Asia and Europe – but it faces it with fundamentally weaker tools: under-resourced health infrastructures, slowing economies dependent on declining commodity prices, comparatively little ability to increase public spending, and politically weakened governments. The WHO numbers are rising and will grow steadily owing both to accelerating infection rates and more widespread testing.

Most governments have taken strong actions, including closing borders, imposing quarantines, and closing schools, but leaders face huge challenges. In many countries, their inability for years to respond to the growing social demands of the emerging middle classes, especially regarding health care, education, and other social services, have already led to major social unrest and incumbent weakness.

  • They’re going to confront the virus with grave institutional problems, including corruption and lack of financing, and a lack of popular goodwill. The worst are Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Haiti (a failed state), but Brazil and Mexico will be most deeply affected. Brazil already has a high infection rate, and Mexico’s will grow as well.
  • In Latin America’s presidential systems, most presidents have put their personal imprint on national policies. Their measures to slow the spread of the virus have faced little backlash. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have gone out of their way to appear oblivious to the scientific indicators that their countries could face catastrophe. Especially for politically vulnerable presidents – Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has a 10 percent approval rating – the virus entails great personal political risk.
  • Making things worse, regional organizations such as the South America Defense Council (part of UNASUR), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and the OAS have not yet provided effective international coordination. PAHO is sending “support teams” with unspecified mandates and no new resources. The Central American presidents have met digitally to coordinate strategies.

Failure of the early control measures could have dire health consequences. Health services are vulnerable and easily overwhelmed. The delayed arrival of the virus has given health officials time to prepare, and the best hospitals are in urban centers with greatest need. But the region has several Achilles’ heels, especially the shortage of facilities and resources.

  • “Universal coverage” is actually only “partial” in all but Costa Rica and Uruguay, according to a London School of Economics study. Some countries improved their preparedness in the wake of outbreaks of chikungunya, zika, dengue, and other contagious diseases, but most still lack the laboratories and field facilities to slow a virus of COVID-19’s scope.
  • Most seriously, many of the health systems lack the infrastructure to identify, treat, and isolate patients enough to slow the spread of such a highly contagious disease. The lack of efficient isolation facilities, coupled with shortages of trained personnel and essential supplies and equipment, leave the region – despite its short-term preparations – vulnerable to an outbreak much larger than in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Market crashes and likely recession in Asia, Europe, and the United States are causing collapse of the prices of Latin American exports and a series of profound pressures on economic growth in the region. Our colleague Federico Steinberg notes that the difference between a “soft-impact” scenario and a catastrophic one will depend on whether the virus is brought under control in the second quarter of the year.

  • Many observers believe the impact will be less severe in Latin America than Asia, but that assumes reasonable success keeping the crisis relatively short. Some decline is inevitable, however, because China, Europe, and the United States’ recovery will take time. Among the sobering predictions is that of the EU’s Director for Economic and Financial Affairs, who on March 13 said the EU and Eurozone will enter a recession this year with growth “considerably below zero,” but his reference to a good chance of a “normal” bounce back next year may be optimistic.
  • Experts expect food exports to suffer more and longer than energy and mineral exports, although the drop in oil prices to 1980s levels will squeeze Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina hard. New oil exploration in Brazil and fracking in Argentina has halted.

Most Latin American leaders are not oblivious to the trials ahead. On March 15, Colombian President Iván Duque said the virus will be “especially difficult for the Latin American countries” and “can overwhelm us.” The crisis requires the region to bring its principal comparative advantages – time and the ability to analyze the successful (and failed) tactics in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. – to bear to compensate for its structural weaknesses.

  • Latin America does not have the resources or mobilizational capacity that South Korea does to carry out a massive campaign to test and treat the population, but the region can avoid total catastrophe if it expands and maintains its drastic measures, adheres to the scientific evidence, and learns from other countries’ efforts to manage the outbreak.

March 26, 2020

* Carlos Malamud is a 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. Rogelio Núñez is a Senior Fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor at El Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Estudios Latinoamericanos (IELAT), Universidad de Alcalá de Henares. This article is adapted from their recent analysis published here on the Elcano Institute website.

This post has been updated to correctly identify the President of Chile.

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

New Western Hemisphere Trade Pacts Push Back Against Big Pharma

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Money_and_pills_in_three_colors

Attempts to limit competition from generics by pharmaceutical giants were called “TRIPS-plus” provisions in USMCA drafts/ Ragesoss/ Wikimedia Commons

Two major trade agreements affecting the Western Hemisphere have recently struck blows against the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to keep drug prices high by limiting competition from generic medications. Big Pharma tried, but failed, to include provisions in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the EU-MERCOSUR Association Agreement that would go beyond those expressly permitted by the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

  • Those provisions would have made it extremely difficult for generic manufacturers to enter the market and contain costs. Unaffordable medicines are a large and growing global problem. Many people die of diseases today not because there is no cure, but because they cannot afford the medications.

In the version of USMCA approved by the U.S. Congress and to be signed by U.S. President Trump this week, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives removed “TRIPS-plus” provisions that would have given “data exclusivity” for new uses of existing pharmaceutical products for up to three years and for so-called “biologics” for ten years. (Biologic drugs are produced from a living organism or contain components of a living organism, including a wide variety of products derived from humans, animals, or microorganisms by using biotechnology.)

  • Data exclusivity would have prevented generic manufacturers from utilizing the original trial results and other test data filed with regulatory health agencies concurrently with the patent application, demonstrating the medication’s safety, quality, and efficacy. Also removed from the USMCA was a provision that would have restricted competition from generic pharmaceutical manufacturers by delaying patent expirations to compensate for “unreasonable” bureaucratic delays in approving the patent. Furthermore, the USMCA now expressly allows generic manufacturers, as per Article 30 of the TRIPS Agreement, to utilize compounds used to make a patented drug in order to develop a generic version in anticipation of that drug’s patent expiration.

Similarly, the IPR chapter in last year’s EU-MERCOSUR agreement does not include TRIPS-plus provisions thanks, in part, to resistance from South American governments concerned about bankrupting their national health care systems because of increasing costs for new medications. The IPR chapter specifically supports World Health Assembly Resolutions on pandemic influenza preparedness and on a global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property – both of which recognize that “intellectual property rights do not and should not prevent Member States from taking measures to protect public health.”

  • The IPR chapter is consistent with the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health of November 2001. Furthermore, all the signatory states are required to implement articles of the TRIPS Agreement providing the legal basis for WTO members to grant compulsory licenses exclusively for the production and export of affordable generic medicines to other members that cannot domestically produce the needed medicines in sufficient quantities. (The only obligation is for the signatory states to make “best efforts” to adhere to the Patent Cooperation Treaty.)
  • The MERCOSUR countries resisted intense lobbying pressure from European pharmaceutical companies to accept provisions on data exclusivity and to compensate for bureaucratic delays by extending the monopoly on a patented medication beyond the 20-year maximum permitted by TRIPS. The fact that the United Kingdom, home to global pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, was distracted by Brexit undoubtedly contributed to this outcome.

The successful pushback against attempts by the major pharmaceutical multinationals to extend their state-sanctioned monopolies to guarantee a steady flow of profits reflects public outrage over multiple scandals that have ensnared the industry in recent years. This includes not only the massive opioid addiction crisis in the U.S., but firms buying up patents that are about to expire and jacking up their prices in excess of 1000 percent. It makes the traditional industry argument of needing extended monopolies to incentivize innovation and the development of new drugs ring hollow as these speculators incur no research and development costs. As a result of the efforts of MERCOSUR and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the pharmaceutical industry may be facing a paradigm shift in which it will be forced to develop a new business model for pricing new treatments.

January 28, 2020

Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the president of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer at Stanford University. He is the author of Bush II, Obama and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Routledge, 2018).

Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

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South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Democracy and democratic values are in crisis throughout South and Central America, but the causes – and solutions – vary across the region, with rays of hope that at least some countries will find their way forward. The Bolivian elections, plagued by suspicions of fraud, reflect some of the problems that affect all of Latin America. The previously unbeaten President Evo Morales, in government since 2006, has now shown his limits and, even if his election is confirmed, will govern without the parliamentary majorities he enjoyed in the past.

  • Latin America witnessed violent protests almost simultaneously in Ecuador and Chile; Mexico blinked during a confrontation with the son of narcotics kingpin Chapo Guzmán; the Congress was dissolved in Peru; an ex-President in the Dominican Republic denounced as fraudulent the primary election he lost and joined another party to be its candidate; and a massive exodus continued pouring out of Venezuela, whose crisis is terminal but without an expiration date.
  • The Argentine and Uruguayan elections on October 27 marked the end of a three-year cycle of elections during which 14 countries voted to elect or re-elect their presidents. Speculation was originally that a swing to the right would counteract the Bolivarianism of the previous swing to the left. That shift never happened. In its place, a more heterogeneous and divided Latin America emerged, reflected in the outcome of the Argentine and Uruguayan elections, and in the not-insignificant fact that Mexico is governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador while Brazil, the other regional power, has Jair Bolsonaro.

The causes of this wave of divisiveness are the subject of different theories. Many observers speak of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the leftist São Paulo Forum. Others think it’s a popular reaction to the drastic adjustment programs of the IMF. Yet others argue about a contagion factor and the impact of social networks, which enable real-time communication and the transfer of vivid images of events. Nonetheless, any theory that tries to harness all of these theories will be flawed because each national reality is responding to different logic and dynamics.

  • All of the countries of the region are experiencing inequality, poverty, corruption, violence and narco-trafficking, unhappiness with democracy and its institutions, rejection of politicians, and the impact of the “new politics” of social media and fake news. But they are not present to the same proportions.
  • Neoliberal, Bolivarian, and populist governments are all suffering from rebellions. The Chilean protests over transportation fees under neoliberal President Piñera were preceded by protests in Brazil in 2013 under progressive President Dilma Rousseff. If Piñera resorts to military force to stop the protests, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did something similar in 2018, killing more than 300. The IMF might have been behind the reduction of fuel subsidies in Ecuador, but it had no role in Chile. While elections went as normal in Argentina and Uruguay, in Bolivia, like in Venezuela, the allegations of fraud have been constant.

The solutions to each country’s challenges will have to be as different as their causes. While one country needs deeper economic adjustment, another needs to fix its political institutions. Each is going to have to find its way through the crises. Latin America will find little solace, moreover, in the fact that this high level of conflict is not exclusive to its region. From Hong Kong to Cataluña, or in Libya and Lebanon, similar challenges are disrupting national life.

  • Amid the many indications that representative or liberal democracy is under direct attack – that we may be facing the end of an era with potentially dire implications – some positive notes are visible in Latin America. In addition to the orderly contests in Argentina and Uruguay, the local and regional elections in Colombia in late October were an effective exercise in democracy – won by the center and lost by the extremes. Uribismo on the right and Gustavo Petro on the left were the big losers. The emerging symbol was Claudia López, the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, who is also a lesbian, environmentalist, and leader against corruption. The path ahead is certainly not going to be easy for Latin America, but there is evidence that, with a big dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s reality, Latin Americans can do a lot better.

November 5, 2019

* 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. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

 

Latin America: Freelance Journalists are Essential but Vulnerable

By Bill Gentile*

Bill on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the northern mountains of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Gentile on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the 1980s/ Backpack journalism – copyright Bill Gentile

Freelance journalists are at the center of covering many of the most important news stories in Latin America but face increasing threats to their security and well-being. Tough economic realities and competition from the internet have forced most traditional U.S. and European media to close their bureaus across the region since the 1980s. Whereas maintaining a bureau may have cost $250,000 a year (and double that for a TV production team), these companies can now get reporting from freelancers for a small fraction of that cost. Consumers of news in and outside Latin America have become steadily more dependent on unaffiliated journalists for information on key developments.

  • Prize-winning journalist Jason Motlagh, for example, is a freelancer who has done groundbreaking stories on gang activities in El Salvador, even accompanying specialists exhuming the bodies of murder victims whose families yearn to give them proper burial. Independent reporter Frank Smyth has covered violence in Central America, and in Colombia he uncovered that U.S. counter-narcotics aid was being diverted to death squads run by Colombian military intelligence. Ioan Grillo has explored tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border through which drugs and humans are smuggled. Stories such as these are rarely, if ever, reported by the “legacy media” that used to have full-time staffers in the region.

Although news consumers outside Latin America depend on them for ground truth, the freelancers lack the infrastructure and protections of their brethren in staff media positions. They hire local “fixers” to navigate complex places and gain situational awareness, but they depend mostly on their wits – and luck – to survive. Many report feeling exploited.

  • Security is their top concern. Criminal groups target any reporter looking into their activities, and freelancers – who often have the depth, language, and ideals to cover them aggressively – pose a particular threat. When journalists working as staff for traditional media have been kidnapped, their companies have helped get them released – something that freelancers can only dream of. Protection from governments is important too. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 75 of the 251 journalists arrested for their work in 2018 were freelancers.
  • Some companies’ tendency to pay late, or never, is another problem. Even journalists with strong track records report having been assigned stories, submitting them on time, and then waiting months for payment. Overdue fees of up to $60,000 are not unheard of. Because of declining budgets, even excellent reporters working for serious news outlets have been forced to change careers.

Despite these trying conditions, freelancers still do solid journalism that supports the interests of the countries in which they work and the international community. But fairness dictates that the media who use them and the consumers of their news, including Latin America watchers like us, support ways to better protect them and their jobs. Some organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, provide assistance to reporters. The London-based organization ACOS Alliance is trying to “embed a culture of safety” throughout the industry. Its “Freelance Journalists Safety Principles” have been endorsed by nearly 100 news organizations, but the code lacks an enforcement mechanism. Some freelancers have proposed forming a trade union, but the mechanisms for binding media to contracts will be difficult to establish. The elements of a solution are not beyond reach, however. The staff foreign correspondent, representing a powerful media organization in North America or Europe, may be a dying breed, but the truth that they seek to report is not.

October 29, 2019

*Bill Gentile, a veteran news reporter, teaches journalism at American University. His video series, FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, is available on multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Video On Demand and Google Play.

Latin American Integration: No New Ideas

By Carlos Malamud*

Heads of state stand for a picture at the 14th ALBA Summit held in Caracas in 2017

Heads of state at the 14th ALBA Summit held in Caracas in 2017/ EneasMx/ Wikimedia Commons

Several proposals claiming to promote regional integration in Latin America, particularly South America, have received attention in recent months, but proponents’ continued reliance on the same political-ideological alignments as always leaves little hope of bridging the deep splits in the region. Coming in the wake of completion of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement, after arduous and complicated negotiations, the proposals appeared to be good news. But that has not been the case.

  • The new push follows the creation of PROSUR by right-leaning governments in March and, more recently, efforts to relaunch UNASUR by left-leaning groups such as the Grupo de Puebla (Progresivamente) – each claiming commitment to unify the region behind their political visions. Two of the main advocates, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera on the right and Argentine Presidential Candidate Alberto Fernández on the left, have taken the easy path of convoking like-minded supporters while rejecting opponents.
  • These groups appear to have learned nothing from the first decade of the 21st century, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez pushed his Bolivarian project. The three efforts emblematic of the period – ALBA, CELAC, and UNASUR – all eventually failed. The rise of neoliberal governments in various countries since then has produced an even more complex situation. The new governments have continued emphasizing ideological conformity, reducing prospects for unity. Last December, a “Conservative Summit of the Americas” inspired by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his son met in Foz de Iguazú to rally the most extreme elements of the region’s right, conditioning participation on total agreement with its tenets.

There are exceptions.  The Pacific Alliance – a trade accord launched by Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico eight years ago – has remained inclusive despite changes of government in each country. MERCOSUR, with its solid foundation and intense commercial exchanges, has also resisted ideological temptation in its way, although dismissive insults between President Bolsonaro and Argentine candidate Fernández do not bode well (even if both know that they need each other in the long run). But the fear is that extreme ideologies will, once again, trump national interests.

The intense electoral cycle of the past three years, and the pending elections in Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay, further complicate the situation. As the “turn to the right” has not turned out as predicted, the results of these three races this month will make regional relations even more unstable. The lack of a new vision for promoting Latin American regional integration is aggravated by the growing sense among both extremes of the political spectrum that they have to dig trenches.

  • The need for a new vision is obvious as the growing attacks on multilateralism and the escalation of the U.S.-China trade war are going to force practically all international actors to take sides. Latin America will suffer potentially grave consequences if its governments and political leaders don’t grasp that inclusion, not exclusion, is the only way to advance unity and integration. Acceptance of differences, dialogue, and negotiation are what’s needed now, as is a creative imagination that can accept reality as it is, with all its problems and imbalances. The question is whether the existing leaders will be able to overcome this sad state of affairs.

October 1, 2019

*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. A version of this article originally was published in the Elcano Blog.

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

Latin America: Which Election Rules Work Best?

By Cynthia McClintock*

President Nayib Bukele and his wife waving to the crowd on his inauguration day

Inauguration of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador / PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American countries’ shift in recent decades from presidential-election rules awarding victory to candidates winning a plurality (“first past the post”) to majority runoff (a second round between the top two candidates if no candidate reaches a majority) has been successful overall. By 2016, 12 of the region’s 18 countries classified as “electoral democracies” used runoff, compared to only one, Costa Rica, prior to 1978. (Click here for a full explanation of the classifications.) Adopted in part due to the traumatic military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote, runoff enhanced the legitimacy of incoming governments and enticed candidates towards the political center. The runoff reform also lowered barriers to entry into the electoral arena by the previously excluded political left – a major challenge to many Latin American democracies in the 1980s-2000s.

  • Under runoff, a new party is not a “spoiler” party. Runoff allows voters to vote more sincerely in the first round – for the candidate whom they prefer – rather than strategically, i.e., for the preferred candidate whom they think can win. Also, a party has a second opportunity – if it is the runner-up, to win, but otherwise to have its voice heard, usually through its power of endorsement. Under plurality, if a new party wants to have any chance to win, it usually must ally with another party with an established political base, but alliances are problematic and dilute the new party’s brand.
  • According to virtually all studies, including my study of Latin American elections between 1978 and 2012, the number of political parties was larger under runoff rules than under plurality rules. And, in my study, a “new party” became a “significant contender” considerably more often under runoff.

Because of the increase in the number of parties, many observers opposed runoff. Although five or 10 or, worse yet, 15 or 20 parties indeed pose challenges for governability, evidence shows that a larger number of parties was not in fact correlated with inferior scores for political and civil rights as measured by Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). Under plurality, the hold of traditional “cartel” parties was not loosened and participation was not expanded.

  • Runoff also impeded the election of a president at an ideological extreme. By definition, a candidate cannot appeal only to the 30-40 percent of voters in a “base” that is outside mainstream opinion. Often, runoff has pulled presidential candidates towards the center – a process evolving over the span of several elections as the need to appeal to the center becomes clearer. Among the presidents in runoff systems shifting towards the center over one or more elections were Brazil’s Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva; El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes; Guatemala’s Álvaro Colom; Peru’s Ollanta Humala; and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. Latin American countries under runoff arguably enter a virtuous circle with lower barriers to entry, the requirement for majority support, and ideological moderation. By contrast, a vicious circle emerged in plurality countries such as Honduras, Paraguay, and Venezuela, where plurality was one factor blocking the emergence of new parties, and perceptions of exclusion abetted polarization.

To date in 2018-2019, elections were held in runoff countries (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador) and plurality countries (Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay). The election in Costa Rica showed the enduring importance of runoff: the evangelical candidate who had won the first round with only 25 percent was defeated by a center-left candidate in a landslide in the runoff. By contrast, legitimacy deficits, with presidents winning less than 50 percent, were likely in both Panama and Paraguay, and a legitimacy deficit was only narrowly avoided in Mexico. Further, in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, leading a new coalition, defeated the two long-standing parties. By contrast, in the plurality elections in Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay, new parties did not make significant headway.

  • Overall, in 2018-2019, the trend was towards the candidate, whether to the right or the left, who most effectively channeled voter anger against official corruption. Also, the trend was towards more severe political polarization and, as a result, the growing possibility that the candidate most able to defeat every other candidate in a pair-wise contest – the “Condorcet winner” – did not win. In two of the three runoff countries – Brazil and Colombia – it appears very likely that the Condorcet winner did not reach the runoff. It is not yet clear, however, what, if anything, should be done to counter this possibility.

 Although of course no electoral rule is a panacea, the greater openness of the electoral arena under runoff rules has facilitated the defeat of long-standing parties that had lost majority support but retained political bases. Presidents have been enticed towards the political center and, with majorities of the vote, not suffered legitimacy deficits. There is no ideal solution to the challenge of the emergence of too many parties, but more promising remedies include scheduling the legislative vote after the first presidential round, as in France, and establishing thresholds for parties’ entry into the legislature. A ranked-choice voting system – the “instant runoff” system in place in only a handful of countries – could conceivably work in the long run, but runoff rules have already helped Latin America expand inclusion and secure victors’ legitimacy.

June 14, 2019

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. This article is excerpted from her paper The Reform of Presidential-Election Rules in Latin America: Plurality, Runoff, and Ranked-Choice Voting, presented at LASA in May 2019.