Chile’s Transition to Clean Energy Matrix

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Giant wind turbines in Northern Chile

Parque Eólico Canela in Coquimbo, Chile, one of many wind-producing farms in Northern Chile. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Since Michelle Bachelet’s return to the presidency in March 2014, Chile has aggressively pursued an ambitious program to transition the country’s energy matrix toward non-conventional renewable resources.  The emphasis on non-conventional includes mini-hydro facilities with a generating capacity under 20 Megawatts, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and potentially ocean currents.  Chile aims to generate 60 percent of its electricity from domestic renewable energy resources (including all forms of hydro) by 2035, and 70 percent by 2050.  To encourage that transition, Chile is one of only two Latin American countries (the other being Mexico) to establish a carbon tax, under which energy-intensive industries and utilities that exceed mandated emissions levels are charged US$5.00 per ton of CO2 emissions.  Chile’s drive to adopt a cleaner energy matrix is motivated as much by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is to enhance energy security.

  • During the mid-1990s, Chile faced consecutive years of severe drought that had hugely detrimental impacts on the country’s dams, responsible at the time for around 50 percent of the country’s electricity. An abundance of natural gas in neighboring Argentina led to the construction of pipelines across the Andes and new thermal generators in Chile, but Argentina began cutting natural gas exports in 2004 (and eventually stopped them altogether) because disastrous policies there had caused domestic shortages.  Bolivia, in turn, rebuffed Santiago’s entreaties to purchase its gas unless Chile granted it territorial compensation for the loss of Bolivian access to the Pacific after the 19th century War of the Pacific.  Chile had to build two expensive receiving terminals to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from East Asia as well as Trinidad and Tobago.  The Chileans were also forced to use more coal and diesel, exacerbating the already precarious air quality in many Chilean cities, particularly during the winter.

In recent years, more than half of all investment in non-conventional, renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean has been directed to Chile, primarily to build solar and wind parks to supply the mining industry in the north of the country.  The shift to renewable energy has largely been financed by the private sector, with no subsidies other than reimbursement for small-scale photovoltaic and other nonconventional contributors to the grid at the full retail price (and no transmission charge).  Chile’s antipathy to subsidies reflects the country’s market-based economic orientation and a conscious decision to prioritize state-of-the-art renewable technology sourced from elsewhere rather than encourage the development of its own industry.  The recent investment boom in renewables was driven by the business-friendly climate, the fact that Chile is not a significant hydrocarbons producer, and the inflationary impact of the last three years of drought on the price of hydroelectricity.

Chile has several other things going for it in achieving its goals, including a good regulatory framework and resources that are in growing demand.  Chilean regulators allow generators to sell electricity in only one of three time blocks during the day — giving solar and wind power a competitive edge in public purchase agreement auctions.  This more than halved the bidding price offered by generators and made solar power competitive with natural gas and even electricity sourced from hydro.  In the near future, as the country’s energy matrix shifts to greater reliance on solar and wind power, Chile intends to utilize hydroelectricity to supply peaks in demand for electric power (usually in the evening hours) to make up for intermittencies in sunshine and wind.  (At the moment, fossil fuels provide that function.)  New developments in storage technology will also help.  Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, needed to make storage batteries.  The interconnection of Chile’s northern and central grids in 2018 should also facilitate greater use of different renewables and redirect the electric power generated from them to where it is most needed.  Chile, already a leader in Latin American alternative energy production, is poised to enhance that position.

September 11, 2017

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He taught a seminar on “Energy and Climate Cooperation in the Americas: The Role of Chile” at Stanford’s Santiago campus during the summer 2017 quarter.

Who Really Benefited from the Commodities Supercycle – and Who Loses with Its End?

By Carlos Monge*

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Latin American governments and business associations have tended to overstate the benefits of extractive industries during the commodities supercycle that ended in 2014-15.  Resource-rich Latin American countries did experience high rates of economic growth and diminished poverty and inequality during the boom years.  On the surface, this would appear to strengthen arguments that – despite their negative environmental impact – extractive industries are the key to progress, especially in resource-rich areas.  Nevertheless, a closer look at data from household surveys in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru shows that things are a bit more complicated.

  • The inequality gap between individuals, as measured on the GINI Index, has narrowed, but the gaps between groups of the population have not evolved evenly. For example, the National Resource Governance Institute (of which I’m regional director) recently completed a study of the performance of social indicators during the supercycle that concluded that the poverty gap between urban and rural populations has increased in all countries.  (The report is available in English and Spanish.)  In Peru and Chile, the gap increased more in territories where extractive territories are located, while in Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador less so.  The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous populations increased only in extractive territories in Ecuador, decreasing in both extractive and non-extractive settings in the rest of the countries considered.  Regarding gender, in all five countries the gap between men and women increased slightly in non-extractive territories and decreased a bit more in extractive ones.

This report establishes correlations between the increase in extractive activities, the availability of extractive rents, and patterns of inequality reflected in social indicators, but it does not establish a causal relation between such variables.  For example, the data show that urban populations in Peru’s extractive regions have benefited more than rural ones – which some very preliminary research shows is probably because urban centers provide extractive projects with the goods and services they need, while less sophisticated rural areas do not.  At the same time, rural populations have to compete with the extractive projects for those same urban goods and services, and with local governments for the labor force that the public sector contracts to develop infrastructure projects that are paid for through increased revenues delivered by the extractive sector.  This is what we have called the “Cholo Disease.”  A variation of the “Dutch Disease,” it reflects a loss of competitiveness resulting not from large exports of raw materials causing the currency to appreciate, but rather from increases in the cost of labor and of urban goods and services consumed by campesinos.  However, a more definitive explanation regarding exactly how this happens in Peru and in other countries certainly needs further research.

While our data clearly show the impact of mining and hydrocarbons extraction and the resulting expenditure of extractive rents on the poverty gaps between urban and rural populations, men and women, and indigenous and non-indigenous populations, further investigation into the causes and consequences is needed.  The end of the supercycle has already meant a fall in growth rates and extractive revenues, leading to a worrisome rebound in poverty rates.  We are still unable to answer, however, the question of how broadly it will impact the substantial segments of Latin America’s population that emerged from poverty but remains in a vulnerable position – and how it will aggravate poverty gaps among individuals and between groups in extractive and non-extractive territories.

May 16, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Chile: Has the Center-Left Really Turned the Page?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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By choosing to support Presidential candidate Alejandro Guillier, the Chilean Socialist Party is turning the page on its ideological platform. / Movilh Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Chilean Socialist Party’s rejection of former President and party standard-bearer Ricardo Lagos as its candidate in the Presidential election scheduled for November signals a break with the political program and leadership that it has offered since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.  But the center-left still has a lot to do to sustain its base going into the future.  In a secret vote – a process that caused heated discussions and revealed deep divisions between factions of the party – the Central Committee decided to support political newcomer Senator Alejandro Guillier.  Already the decision to choose the candidate through a closed-door voting by the leadership, instead of a general consultation as wanted by the party’s constituency, prompted José Miguel Insulza (another historic party figure and former Secretary General of the OAS) to withdraw his own candidacy.

  • The preference for Guillier, a well-known journalist and non-militant of the Socialist Party (PS), has an obvious explanation: the polls. While Guillier ranks second in the polls just behind the center-right candidate – billionaire former President Sebastián Piñera – Lagos remained stuck beneath the threshold of 5 percent. The PS decision cannot be reduced to mere pragmatism, however.  Lagos represented continuity with the generation that has represented the center-left since the restoration of democracy, based on market friendly policies with social redistribution.  Much of its base has grown disillusioned by the pace of redistribution, however, and combined with dismay over signs of corruption –modest in scale by regional standards but politically embarrassing to the party and to incumbent President Michelle Bachelet – that disenchantment jeopardizes PS prospects moving forward.  By following the polls and choosing Guillier, the PS is turning the page of the transition to democracy period.

But the PS may be abandoning its previous ideological platform without a clear idea of what is going to be the new one.  The ideological and programmatic orientations behind Guillier’s candidacy are unclear.  To become the single candidate of the center-left, moreover, Guillier will probably need to compete in primary elections against the candidate of the Christian Democrats.  Whoever emerges from that process will compete in November against two rather well defined ideological positions.

  • The right-wing candidate, Sebastián Piñera, offers a program oriented to undo the progressive reforms undertaken by the Bachelet government, such as reforms of the tax, pension, and education systems. Polls suggest that this program of “neoliberal restoration” may attract centrist voters who, skeptical of the political and social changes associated with those reforms, may prove receptive to Piñera’s contention that they are the cause of a recent slowdown in economic growth and tightening of the labor market.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, the leftist coalition Frente Amplio strives to enhance and deepen the reforms; expand social rights and redistribution; and reduce the role of markets, particularly in the educational sector and retirement pensions. In a strategic move, Frente Amplio chose a charismatic journalist (and former radio colleague of Guillier), Beatriz Sánchez, as its candidate.  According to polls, she is already attracting support from prospective voters who Guillier would need in order to become Chile’s next President.

In selecting Guillier, the center-left is acknowledging the exhaustion of its base with the generation that led the Chilean transition to democracy.  Disillusion is particularly deep among younger Chileans who must be a critical foundation for any enduring project of social reform.  Party stalwarts like Lagos and Insulza represent precisely the wrong message in that context.  But if the center-left is clearly trying to turn the page, to succeed it must define its post-transition programmatic platform — or risk being relegated for the first time since Allende’s Unidad Popular to be the third political force after a united right and a united left.

April 20, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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Students protest in Santiago, May 2016. A highly-mobilized Chilean civil society has beset Michelle Bachelet’s second term as president. / Francisco Osorio / Flickr / Creative Commons

With national elections looming at the end of 2017, President Michelle Bachelet’s startling reversal of fortune raises the question of whether the traditional parties’ failure to win broad popular support could give rise to an anti-establishment populist leader.  At the end of her first government in 2010, Bachelet was the most popular president in post-democratic transition Chile.  This go-around, high-profile corruption scandals involving party financing and real estate deals implicating her family (along with both governing and opposition parties) have cut into her support.  Irregularities in the electoral registry before the 2016 municipal elections, an ineffective response to devastating forest fires, concessions over major reforms, and a slowing economy have also hurt her approval ratings, which are hovering near 20 percent, the lowest of any president since 1990.  Her administration has been beset by protests over education reform, labor relations reform, and the private pension system that the military government established in the 1980s.  Tensions and violence flare up continuously over land rights in the south between Mapuche communities and extractive industries.  All of this is occurring in a context of marked secular decline in voter participation and political party identification.

The trend of volatile approval ratings and a mobilized civil society now spans three administrations – Bachelet, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), and Bachelet again – from 2006 to 2017.  Unlike in Brazil and Argentina, where “middle class” revolts demanding clean, efficient government and economic growth signified a rightward turn after prolonged center-left rule, most of the protests in Chile come from the left flank, rather than the right.  Moreover, the mainstream parties appear seriously detached from the most active groups in civil society and, as seen in declining levels of party identification, from the citizenry at large.  This raises questions about the future of Chile’s party system, whether its center-left and center-right coalitions can hold together, and the chances for outsider populists.

All things considered, Chile has been a case of exceptional partisan and electoral stability in Latin America since 1990.  The dominant parties and coalitions have won all the elections, without the rise of a major “outsider” populist or a major new “movement party.”  But the next elections may provide a sort of “in between” outcome.  Ex-President Piñera, who has independent tendencies on the right, and a center-left alternative, Alejandro Guillier, are the current frontrunners in presidential primaries scheduled for July.  Guillier is a type of insider, nominated by a small party in a large coalition, with outsider credentials who does not really belong to Chile’s traditional casta política.  At this early point, if Piñera and Guillier win their respective primaries, both would appear to have a shot at winning in November or in December’s runoff – with neither outcome representing a breakdown of the system, nor a widespread electoral protest against mainstream parties.  This suggests, for now, the continuation of a system that is on the surface highly stable in institutional terms, but in reality highly detached from society at large and in particular from youth and the more active, mobilized sectors of civil society.  Neither political coalition shows many signs of significant internal renovation, although Guillier represents at least some change in leadership of the Nueva Mayoría.  However, political systems have been known to limp along under these conditions in the absence of major economic meltdowns, and that may be the most likely outcome of the next electoral cycle in Chile.

February 13, 2017

*Eduardo Silva is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government at Cornell University.

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.

Can Latin America Escape the Middle-Income Trap?

By Rick Doner and Ben Ross Schneider*

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

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

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

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

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

August 22, 2016

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

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

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

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

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

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

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

May 26, 2016

Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

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Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

The Panama Papers: Damning Evidence Against Latin American Elites?

By Emma Fawcett* and Fulton Armstrong

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Photo Credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

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

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

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

April 11, 2016

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

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

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

March 24, 2016

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