And the Winner is… Trump in Latin America

By Nicolás Comini*

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U.S. President Trump and Argentine President Macri meet in the Oval Office. / Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies toward Latin America ranges from mild to furious in the region and among many U.S. Latin America watchers, but that anger is not likely to drive greater regional unity and demands for a more balanced relationship.  Trump’s rhetoric – emphasizing sovereignty, nationalism, and protectionism – have long been popular concepts in many countries of the region.  During Latin America’s recent “turn to the left,” for example, political leaders embraced a developmentalist emphasis on using tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers to give domestic industries an advantage in national economic expansion strategies.  But the U.S. President’s statements have generally infuriated not only the left as reflecting bias on an array of issues, such as immigration, but also the right.

  • Trump’s policies contradict the prescriptions that Washington has been advocating – and most conservative politicians have embraced – for Latin America for many years. Those prescriptions have emphasized free trade but touched on other issues as well, such as the shift (symbolic and material) of resources from traditional national defense to the “war on drugs.”  Trump’s “America First” approach undercuts his natural allies in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere.  It has also given their leftist opponents a sense of legitimization of their anti-Americanism speeches, something that is surging also because of Washington’s new policies toward Cuba.
  • The U.S. summary abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), conservatives’ last great hope for deeper trade integration with the United States, left them angry. According to the ECLAC, 73 percent of all FDI in Latin America in 2016 came from the United States (20 percent) and the European Union (53 percent).  Individuals with strong anti-Communist credentials in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are all flirting with joining China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Regional organizations show no sign of providing leadership in how to respond to U.S. policy.  UNASUR is fading rapidly, in part, because it was labeled by the new conservative governments as too Bolivarian and anti-American.  Something similar is happening with the CELAC.  MERCOSUR is struggling, in part, because of the political tumult in Brazil.  Indeed, most governments are trying to remain friends with Washington, prioritizing bilateral agendas in detriment of regional (multilateral) institutions and mechanisms.

The surge in resentment toward Washington – within and among Latin American countries – is unlikely to lead to increased regional unity.  Internally, the left and right may agree that Trump is harming their interests, but their reasons are different and prescriptions for dealing with it are far apart.  On a regional basis as well, the current context accelerates the atomization of the region – and threatens to expand the bargaining power of the great powers of the United States, China, Germany, or Israel.  Although China is making inroads, in the end the United States has, and will retain, the greatest influence in Latin America – and the lack of efficient regional decision-making will prolong that situation.  Latin American fragmentation will create an image of acquiescence – and President Trump will think he is not doing so badly in the region.

October 18, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.  He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

Venezuela: Can Trump’s Coercive Diplomacy Help?

By Michael McCarthy*

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U.S. President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017. / John Gillespie / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Trump’s new rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country.  At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump called President Maduro an authoritarian and said “this situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”  Washington’s approach emphasizes sticks – sanctions against President Maduro, senior advisors, and threatened action against the oil sector – over carrots, while also voicing support for the opening of new mediated face-to-face talks between Maduro and the opposition.  A contact group of six Latin American and four European countries is promoting the talks, with the backing of UN Secretary General and the Vatican, to help avoid the worst-case scenario of open conflict.  Previous efforts to coordinate a multilateral coalition that simultaneously keeps the pressure on the government while opening negotiation avenues have failed – and agreeing on a roadmap is even more complex in view of the installation of the Constituent Assembly that stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

  • Trump’s new Executive Order directs financial sanctions that come close to directly threatening Maduro’s vital supports. It bans Caracas from issuing new debt in the United States and prohibits U.S.-based CITGO – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company – from repatriating dividends to Caracas.  These measures will impose austerity on Maduro (who claims he will still make upcoming debt payments) and future actions are likely to try and undermine the government’s economic foundations.
  • In addition to installing the Constituent Assembly, Maduro seems to be pursuing a new regime-survival strategy in which he plays the role of a non-vengeful victim. Maduro criticized Trump’s sanctions and called him “the new Hitler” after the UN speech on Tuesday, but he’s also offered donations to aid post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston and invoked John Lennon in a call for “giving peace a chance” in a New York Times ad earlier this month.  To regain a degree of credibility, Maduro will probably consider making elections for Governors slated for October 15 look competitive, but whether he has the political capital with his base to make bigger political or economic moves is unclear.  He may look to establish a new institutional equilibrium of dual legislatures, though it would hinge on removing the threat of retaliation against the opposition via the Constituent Assembly’s so-called “Truth Commission.”  He may also try to address massive fiscal imbalances by reforming the multi-tiered exchange rate, though this would be difficult as the system’s subsidized dollars help underwrite regime loyalty.

While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally.

None of the piecemeal actions that Maduro is apparently contemplating can defuse the political and social crisis, but a combination of steps may be enough to convince China and Russia to stay in the game.  Despite Trump’s statement that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the Administration apparently is open to a policy of coercive diplomacy that includes genuine support for talks.  Trump attacked his predecessor for “leading from behind,” but figuring out how to sequence sticks and carrots in coordination with Latin American and European countries may require just that.  The bottom line is that the chance of a breakthrough on the biggest issues – the Constitutional road map and conditions for electoral participation – remain low, although some movement by both parties toward the middle seems realistic.  Despite the actions of outside actors, the situation is likely to remain poised over a knife-edge – without the catharsis of either peace or regime change.

September 21, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

China, Latin America, and the New Globalization

By Andrés Serbin*

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Chinese President Xi Jinping received a medal of honor from the Peruvian Congress during his tour of South America last month, which included the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima. / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru / Flickr / Creative Commons

In Latin America and elsewhere, the world is undergoing tectonic movements that indicate the birth of a new world order with new rules of play.  For much of the past decade, dynamism in world commerce and finance has been shifting from the Atlantic basin to the Pacific.  While the international economy has shown fragility and the developed economies – particularly the European Union and the United States – have shown slow growth since the crisis of 2008, China and the emerging economies of the Asian-Pacific region have experienced sustained growth.  China, now the second biggest economy in the world, has been the driver of that growth and, according to most projections, is poised to overtake the United States as the biggest.  After several centuries in which power has been concentrated in the West, the emergence of new powers in a multi-polar world will naturally bring about changes in the norms and rules governing the international agenda.

In Latin America and other regions, there is growing awareness of this process – with China and its own version of globalization at its center.  The region has witnessed the paralysis of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States as well as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that he will withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as part of a broader anti-globalization policy.  Trump’s announcement drew two different reactions from participants from TPP country leaders at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima late last month.  One was the express decision to proceed with TPP even without the United States, and the other was a clear receptivity to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s invitation that they join regional economic groups that he is pushing – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP).

  • Both agreements explicitly exclude the United States and abandon norms customarily pushed in free trade by the West. They emphasize reducing tariffs and give no consideration to labor and environmental regulations and non-tariff measures.
  • They complement China’s “one belt, one road” initiative, a modern-day revitalization of the Silk Road creating trade links between China’s western regions with Russia, Central Asia, and eventually to Europe, developing land and maritime routes along the way. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – an economic and security pact linking China, Russia, four Central Asian nations, and now welcoming India and Pakistan – is explicitly linked to RCEP.

Washington’s pending rejection of TPP eliminates a central part of President Obama’s “pivot” strategy to counter China’s rapidly expanding influence in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, but it also has implications for Latin America and the Caribbean as China moves in rapidly to fill the void left by U.S. withdrawal.  While President-elect Trump has pledged to “renegotiate” NAFTA – which he called “probably the worst trade deal ever agreed to in the history of the world” – China last month presented to Latin America a detailed document proposing a new era in relations with “comprehensive cooperation” in all areas and reaffirming a “strategic association” with the region.  In sharp contrast with the new U.S. President’s views of Latin America, Beijing calls Latin America and the Caribbean “a land full of vitality and hope,” praises the region’s “major role in safeguarding world peace and development,” and calls it “a rising force in the global landscape.”  While some analysts suggest that globalization is slowing if not ending, these developments more strongly indicate that it is rather taking on a new form within a new world order that clashes with the visions and values of the West.  We appear to be transitioning into a world that is genuinely multi-polar with globalization under new rules.

December 13, 2016

* Andrés Serbin is the president of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin American think tank.  This article is adapted from an essay in Perfil, based in Buenos Aires.

What Comes After TPP?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

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President Barack Obama and President Pedro Pablo Kuczynsky at the APEC 2016 summit / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores – Peru / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama administration’s failure to win U.S. approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disappointment for Latin American countries on the Pacific Rim – and such a big opportunity for China to expand its influence that President-elect Donald Trump, despite his theatrical pledge to withdraw from it, might eventually consider rescuing the accord. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima last weekend was the last chance for Latin American leaders to say goodbye in person to President Obama and to mourn the passing – for at least the short term – of his TPP-centered vision for trans-Pacific trade.  In a meeting with leaders of the 11 other TPP countries, Obama tried hard to convince them of “the United States’ continued strong support for trade” despite growing evidence to the contrary.  Both U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, firmly and repeatedly stated opposition to TPP.  The White House continued efforts all the way up to election day (November 8) to persuade the U.S. Senate to approve the deal in a lame-duck session, but the Republican leaders – like Clinton champions of free trade until it became a 2016 campaign issue — slammed the door on it.

With the collapse of TPP, several Asian countries have already signaled a willingness to sign on with China’s own free trade initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which Latin America is not yet part of. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, angry with the United States over trade and other issues, threw his lot with China during a visit to Beijing last month.  (The Philippines, which has also moved aggressively to ally itself with China in recent months, is not in TPP.)  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Trump last week and said his country “could have great confidence” in the President-elect, but he has nonetheless warned his parliament that RCEP will prevail.

  • Latin Americans are also slowly but surely gravitating toward China as trans-Pacific leader in trade. Just days before the Lima summit, Peruvian Foreign Minister Eduardo Ferreyros announced that, while Lima still hoped TPP would become reality, his government has begun talks with China over accession to RCEP. His Chilean counterpart, Heraldo Muñoz, last Friday also expressed preference for TPP but told the Wall Street Journal that his country was leaning toward joining RCEP. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Lima for the summit, was also making stops in Ecuador and Chile. (He’s visited Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela on previous trips.) In an op-ed in Peru’s El Comercio just before the summit, Xi said, “United by the same dream, there isn’t a more timely moment for the deepening of our multidimensional cooperation.”

The APEC forum may have been trying to counter Trump and others’ criticism of the lopsided impact of global trade by issuing a statement – titled “Quality Growth and Human Development” – emphasizing the benefit of global trade to all citizens in all countries. It was certainly in this spirit that the host of summit, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, warned that proponents of trade barriers would do well to revisit the history of the 1930s, singling out for unusually sharp criticism the stance taken by the U.S. President-elect.  On its face, Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggests TPP is totally dead; he’s many times called it a “disaster” being “pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”  Free-traders found a glimmer of hope in an organizational chart reportedly leaked by the Trump transition team last week that listed a former lobbyist from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has strongly supported TPP, as head of his “trade reform” team.   Yet if the new U.S. Administration is going to reengage on TPP, the primary reason would probably be to undercut China’s RCEP initiative.  Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment of both parties believes fervently that the impact of U.S. disengagement with the Pacific Rim would be harmful to U.S. global and hemispheric leadership.  Should those concerns sway the incoming President, he could opt to set aside his caustic rhetoric on TPP, negotiate face-saving adjustments to the accord, and instead focus his tough talk on China. TPP’s flaws may ultimately appear minor and manageable compared to the competing scenario of Latin American governments seeking commercial prosperity through a Chinese-led Pacific economic bloc. That is certainly the hope of most Pacific Rim governments across Latin America, whose alarm at developments in the U.S. already has them eying alternatives across the pond.

November 22, 2016

Challenging Assumptions about Supercycles in Peru and Latin America

By Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge*

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A Southern Copper Corporation train heading towards the Peruvian mines of Toquepala and Cuajone. / David Gubler / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

The commodity-fueled “supercycle” that has propelled Latin American economies for the past decade and a half is ending, but careful analysis of other ongoing cycles will help countries cushion the blow.  ECLAC economist Jean Acquatella has identified four significant global cycles in which Latin America has actively participated as a raw materials exporter through the 20th and 21st centuries: U.S. industrialization; post-war European reconstruction and Japan’s industrialization; the post-1973 OPEC-driven oil boom; and, most recently, urbanization and industrialization in Asia, especially China.  During this fourth cycle – considered a supercycle because of sustained record levels of commodity prices and demand – resource-rich countries in Latin America experienced high growth rates, fiscal abundance, and a decrease in poverty rates as well as an increase in social conflict over the extraction of natural resources.  Slower Chinese growth has since reduced global demand and prices for the region’s minerals and energy, but the impact has been less severe than at the end of previous cycles.

  • José de Echave, of CooperAcción, has emphasized the need to differentiate the recent supercycle from what he terms the “extractive boom,” which started in the early 1990s as a result of the privatization of state mining and hydrocarbons assets and pro-market legislative reforms. His analysis indicates that the extractive boom will outlast the supercycle as long as large-scale projects mature and pro-investment policies continue in place.

The concessions, investments, production and fiscal rent during the past decade and a half in Peru and other countries indeed point to other cycles, some of which have enduring momentum.  Peru has experienced a “concessions cycle” for exploration activities; “investment cycles” as a result of privatization of state assets in the ‘90s and as a result of successful explorations and increased demand and prices starting in 2002; “productive and export cycles” as a result of investments; and a “fiscal cycle” of abundant public revenue.  Several cycles will obviously decline, but the country’s pro-investment policies remain in effect.  The new government of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski is deepening policies started under former President Humala: reducing corporate income taxes, making environment compliance less onerous, and curtailing the oversight capacities of the Ministry of the Environment.  Investments made in the last five to ten years are, in many cases, only now beginning production.  Thus, as contradictory as it might sound, Peru is poised to double its copper production in the next five years.

The complex differences between “extractive booms” and “supercycles” have deep political implications.  The end of a supercycle could mean a substantial reduction in social conflict between local populations and extractive enterprises and government, but the current “race to the bottom” driven by pro-investment policies could fuel new tensions.  The Las Bambas project in the South Andean region of Apurimac, Peru, illustrates the point.  New legal procedures adopted in 2014 easing approval of environmental impact assessments (EIA) have allowed the Ministry of Energy and Mines to approve substantial changes in the project’s design and EIA without informing the local population and authorities, generating a violent local social reaction.  Available data shows analogous phenomena underway in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.  The implications will vary for each country, of course, but careful analysis is needed if state policies and civil society activism are to be on solid ground.

October 11, 2016

Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge are Program Associate and Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

 

Latin America (Overall) Embraces Paris Climate Accord

By Fulton Armstrong

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Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American support for the landmark climate agreement signed at the United Nations last week may not have been enthusiastic during the negotiations, but all but Nicaragua seem eager for early ratification and implementation of measures to mitigate the harm of global warming.  A record-breaking 175 countries signed the accord in one day, including a number from Latin America, committing them to take concrete steps to keep the increase in global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (or, ideally, 1.5 degrees) over preindustrial levels.  To take effect, at least 55 countries producing 55 percent of global emissions must ratify the agreement.  Fifteen small island nations, including several in the Caribbean, already presented their ratification papers last Friday.  China and the United States, the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses, have said they’ll ratify this year – as have France and other EU countries.

The region’s leaders have made significant contributions to the accord over the years.  Mexico and Peru, which were hosts of crucial international conclaves leading up to it, have given it a Latin American imprint, and others supported the final round of talks in Paris last December.  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s reference in her speech to her political troubles back home overshadowed Brazil’s leadership, including its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.  In the past, ALBA countries complained loudly that the wealthy, developed nations, which produce the vast majority of climate-harming gasses, should shoulder the burden of reducing them and should compensate poorer countries for harm that environmental measures cause them.  All but Nicaragua, however, have submitted national plans (called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, INDC) required for full participation in international efforts under the Paris Accord.  Nicaraguan Representative Paul Oquist told the media that “voluntary responsibilities is a path to failure” and that wealthy countries should compensate Nicaragua for the $2 billion cost the measures would entail.

Latin America has clear incentives to support the accord.  Various scientific studies underscore the impact of global warming on the region, with potentially dire consequences.  The World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported that failure to act would cause further extreme weather threatening agriculture; rapid melting of Andean glaciers that provide much-needed fresh water; erosion of coastal areas; catastrophic damage to Caribbean coral reefs; and dieback of Amazon forests.  ALBA demands for compensation may be overstated but contain a grain of truth – they aren’t prodigious producers of greenhouse gasses – and skepticism that the big guys will meet their targets isn’t entirely unwarranted.  President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his personal commitment to addressing the problem, but obstacles posed by the U.S. Senate (which must ratify the agreement), Supreme Court (which in February stalled implementation of his Clean Power Plan), and politicians seeking the Republican Presidential nomination (who have sworn opposition to deals like the Paris Accord) have all but shut down U.S. movement toward ratification.  The ALBA outliers, on the other hand, have made their complaints heard and appear likely to join the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean in pushing for ratification and quick implementation – and probably will soon renew the push for even tougher measures by industrialized nations.

April 25, 2016

Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016

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.

A Post-Correa Ecuador?

By Catherine Conaghan*

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

What seemed like a certainty less than a year ago – Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as a shoo-in for reelection in 2017 – now has given way to competing scenarios as the country’s economic crisis deepens.  The game-changer has been the collapse in revenues from Ecuador’s principal export: petroleum.  With prices for Ecuadorian crude hovering 50 percent below their 2014 average, Correa has had little choice but to slash the abundant government spending that has been the hallmark of his presidency.  Ecuador’s use of the U.S. dollar greatly handicaps its capacity to adjust.  Further aggravating the recession is the economic downturn of Ecuador’s principal external lender, China.  Over $2 billion have been cut from the 2015 budget, and plans to shrink the size of the public bureaucracy are now under way.  His decision in April to suspend the central government’s obligatory payments to the national social security system stoked anxiety about the fund’s future, and an announcement in June of plans to hike taxes on inheritance and real estate transactions sparked street demonstrations around the country.  Indigenous and labor organizations mobilized in mid-August to protest these and other aspects of Correa’s style of governing.  An estimated crowd of 100,000 people marched in Quito.  Scores of protestors were detained and face charges related to the August mobilizations.

The months ahead will not be easy for a president accustomed to buoyant budgets and strong polls.  As one of Latin America’s left-turn leaders, he pushed a state-centric economic model under which poverty declined and the middle class grew.  His approval ratings since he took office in 2007 consistently scored among the highest of any Latin American president.  (They dipped below 50 percent – as low as 42 percent – for the first time in 2015.)  While Correa waxes and wanes on whether he really will pursue reelection, his party is pushing to amend the Constitution through legislation – without a referendum supported by over 80 percent of the public – to allow him a third term.  The opposition strenuously opposes the move.  The National Assembly appears headed toward a final vote on the matter in December.

From now until December, the reelection maneuvering and two possible outcomes will dominate conversations.  Under one scenario, Correa and Alianza País will push ahead with the amendment, ignoring negative public reaction and repressing protests if necessary, and Correa will decide on his candidacy depending on his view of the economy and the state of the opposition.  In a second and perhaps less likely scenario, Correa and his party may just abandon the reelection plan, concluding that the political costs are just too high.  This would set off power struggles within Alianza País over who would head the ticket.  Among the prospective frontrunners are former Vice President Lenín Moreno, current Vice President Jorge Glas, Production Minister (and former Ambassador to the United States) Nathalie Cely, and former Industry Minister-turned-critic Ramiro González.  In the process, Correa will be looking to anoint someone loyal and capable of governing the country until he can return as a candidate in 2021.  Under both of these scenarios, Ecuador is bracing for a volatile year ahead.  Natural disasters – a possible volcanic eruption of Mount Cotopaxi and El Niño – could also fuel uncertainty, giving Correa a chance to shine and rally, or to fail and deepen doubts about his leadership.  After eight years of relative political stability and economic good times, Ecuadorians are pondering whether a post-Correa era could be at hand and what it would mean.

September 8, 2015

* Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Canada’s Queen’s University and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Peru: The Shuffling Continues

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

Pedro Cateriano (l) and President Humala Ollanta. Photo Credit: Galería del Ministerio de Defensa de Perú

President Humala Ollanta’s new prime minister – his seventh in less than four years – won a vote of confidence in Congress two weeks ago, but odds are that his government won’t be much more popular than those of his six predecessors.  Pedro Cateriano, who had served for three years as Humala’s Minister of Defense, was sworn in on April 2, after the Congress turned against Prime Minister Ana Jara over a spy scandal involving Chile.  (The Chileans, whose intelligence service allegedly recruited several Peruvian Marines in 2005-2012, ended the crisis last week after providing what the Peruvians said were “satisfactory explanations” and pledges to “cease old practices” that have been negative for bilateral relations.)  Fulfilling constitutional requirements, Cateriano and his cabinet presented their program to the Congress on April 28 for the vote of confidence, in which there were 73 votes in favor, 10 against, and 39 abstentions.  The government team reiterated a commitment to reduce inequality, remove obstacles to investment, and improve education, health care, and other social services.

Like Humala’s first four years in office, his remaining 14 months (he can’t run again) appear likely to feature a mix of successes and stubborn challenges.

  • Peru’s economy is doing better than most others in Latin America – 2.4 percent growth in 2014 and slightly more than 3 percent projected for this year – but a drop in Chinese demand for Peruvian copper has depressed prices 6.4 percent last year and more than 13 percent this. (Metals account for 60 percent of Peru’s export earnings.)  This has been a drag on growth and caused the trade deficit to rise to $2.5 billion in 2014 and even higher in 2015.  Humala has increased spending, and poverty reduction programs have lifted about a million Peruvians out of “extreme poverty” since he took office, while inflation remains low – about 3 percent a year.
  • Under Humala, Peru is also grappling with image problems abroad. His administration has strenuously rejected a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take up the cases of 64 persons tried for terrorism during previous governments – a process that threatens to disrupt delicate political balances in Peru.  Press freedom in Peru was also downgraded in Freedom House’s most recent report.  With a score of 47, the country is still ranked ahead of others in the region (Ecuador has 64; Bolivia 47; Honduras 68; and Venezuela 81), but it slipped three points because of “an increase in death threats and violence against journalists, ongoing impunity for past crimes, and a lack of political will to address the problem.”
  • The decline in metals earnings has fueled internal tensions as the government has attempted increasingly aggressive policies to open new areas to mining and accelerate mining projects in the pipeline. The mobilization of military troops last week to quell protests over a new $1.4 billion mining project in the south, which have already resulted in the death of three police and several civilians, poses a real problem.

Humala is by no means unique in suffering a contradiction between basically sound economic performance and chronic inability to sustain domestic political support.  His predecessors have suffered variations of the same malady, rooted in part in the country’s notorious lack of a functioning political party system.  But with seven different prime ministers, his government has looked particularly disorganized.  He has arguably been a competent manager but an ineffective leader – muddling through rather than executing a vision for a better future for Peru.  In the runup to winning his vote of confidence, Cateriano showed strong, consultative political skills in garnering the support of most former Peruvian Presidents, but overcoming the administration’s lame-duck status amidst growing conflict over metals extraction and the beginning of campaigning for the 2016 election will be a constant challenge.  And this government’s experience, like that of its predecessors, suggests that his successor will also face powerful headwinds in a persistently fragmented political landscape.

May 11, 2015