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

Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Political Step Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists will use guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don't Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.

In more than 10 cities across the U.S. activists used guerrilla light projection to illuminate monuments and building facades with slogans like “Don’t Let Comcast Choke Your Freedom,” “No Slow Lanes, Open & Equal Internet For All,” and “TPP Dismantles Democracy.” Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign / Flickr / Creative Commons

The chairmen of key U.S. Congressional committees agreed on legislation allowing President Obama to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade accord, but major political and substantive obstacles to an agreement remain. The leaders of the Senate and House tax-writing committees announced the move, with the key Democratic senator involved claiming that the Obama Administration had addressed his deep concerns about the secrecy of the talks. If passed, their bill would give the President “fast-track” trade authority – power to negotiate an accord that the Senate would eventually vote on but without the power to amend it, which would significantly increase chances of passage. Obama’s advisors have called TPP the “cornerstone” of his Asia policy, and the President said last week that it would help “make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.” Supporters estimate that TPP would stimulate growth by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers affecting $2 trillion of goods and services (about one-third of global trade) each year among its 12 members.*

Opposition in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere remains intense, however. The Senate Democratic whip, charged with tallying support and opposition, stated that only one-quarter of Senate Democrats support the measure – and those opponents have made clear their concerns about the implications for U.S. workers and consumers. Although tariffs are on the table, most observers say the focus of the negotiations is on “harmonizing” regulations, which big multinational corporations – which have access to the talks that citizens’ groups lack – systematically seek to eliminate. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are pushing hard for extending patents and trademarks so that cheaper generic medications cannot be sold. Critics say revisions to copyright and trademark provisions would also have implications for public information and the internet. Industry is seeking to roll back environmental protections in place since the early 1970s. The negotiations have been secret, but a leaked chapter of the draft agreement revealed that companies were gaining the right to sue governments if any regulatory action ever caused their profits to fall short of target – a massive burden on budgets.

The lack of transparency, which the leading Senate Democrat claims has been addressed, may have stoked opponents’ concerns. But the differences between U.S. backers and opponents appear significant and unlikely to fade without some serious political horse-trading, which the Obama Administration has been unwilling to do. In his statement last week, Obama admitted that “it’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise” – particularly regarding job creation – but neither he nor the Congressional chairmen have provided hard data showing that dismantling a host of regulations to accommodate corporate agendas will help consumers and un- or under-employed U.S. workers. If history is any guide, the Latin American signatories – Mexico, Chile and Peru – may see a favorable impact regarding employment in certain sectors, and others may see it as the only game in trade right now and thus worth trying to join, but Washington’s vision of TPP as primarily an Asia policy – to counter Chinese influence – suggests that they too see the advantages of participation accruing across the Pacific rather than to the north.

* Currently envisioned as members are the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam: Korea last week expressed interest in joining the talks, but the United States told it to wait. Colombia is interested, and Panama and Costa Rica seek membership in the “Pacific Alliance,” which is related to TPP.

April 20, 2015

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.

Bracing for Economic Pain in Brazil and Beyond

By Kevin P. Gallagher*

Brazilian Real

Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s warning to U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2012 – that his monetary-easing policies were creating a harmful tsunami of financial flows to emerging markets – was spot-on.  U.S. growth and interest rates have been appreciating currencies, causing asset bubbles, and exporting financial instability to the developing world.  Brazil and other emerging-market countries may soon be facing capital flight and exchange rate depreciation that could lead to financial instability and weak growth for years to come.  From 2009 to 2013 countries like Brazil, South Korea, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia and Taiwan all had wide interest rate differentials with the U.S. and experienced massive surges of capital flows.  The differential between Brazil and the U.S. was more than 10 percentage points for a while.  According to the latest estimates by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), emerging markets now hold a staggering $2.6 trillion in international debt securities and $3.1 trillion in cross-border loans – the majority in dollars.

Now the tides are turning.  Many emerging market growth forecasts are continually being revised downward.  China’s economy is undergoing a structural transformation that necessitates slower growth and less reliance on primary commodities.  The prices of oil and other major commodities are stabilizing or declining.  As growth and interest rates pick up in the United States, the dollar gains strength – and emerging market currencies fall.  Brazil’s real hit a 10-year low last week, down to 2.87 to the dollar, amid continuing predictions of zero growth for the country this year.

The traditional tools for weathering the storm may not be available or enough for developing economies.  Floating exchange rates and the resulting depreciation can cause the debt burden on firms and fiscal budgets can bloat overnight, especially in a lower growth environment.  Increasing competitiveness would have helped boost exports, but an IMF study shows that Latin America failed to use one of the biggest commodity windfalls in its history to invest, hindering competitiveness to ride out the tsunami in short-term inflows.  Local bond markets help, but most debt is indeed in dollars, and most local debt is held by foreigners who are always the first to dump such debt.  Interest rate hikes can also be dangerous; they don’t reverse flight and can choke off what little growth there is to be had in a downturn.  Depleting foreign exchange reserves doesn’t always work; increasing debt could bring financial instability but threaten prospects for growth and employment.  Having no good options, emerging-market and developing countries may need to resort to regulating the outflow of capital alongside these other measures.  Such moves have traditionally been shunned by international institutions and capital markets, and new U.S. trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership have stripped out balance-of-payment exceptions that allow nations to regulate capital.  But new research in cutting edge of economics by the IMF and others now justifies such measures to prevent or mitigate a full-blown crisis.  If we have learned anything from the global financial crisis since 2008, it is that nations need as many tools at their disposal to prevent and mitigate financial instability.  Instability anywhere can lead to instability everywhere, so we need all tools and hands on deck.

February 19, 2015

* Kevin P. Gallagher is an associate professor of global development policy at Boston University’s Pardee School for Global Studies, where he co-directs the Global Economic Governance Initiative.  His new book is Ruling Capital: Emerging Markets and the Reregulation of Cross-Border Finance.

CELAC: Losing Relevance?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to normalize diplomatic relations could leave a big hole in the agenda of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met January 28-29 for its third heads of state Summit in San José, Costa Rica.  Raúl Castro kicked off last year’s summit, in Havana, with a speech decrying the United States NSA spying scandal.  In San José, he moderated his tone, noting that “our America has entered a new era” since CELAC was founded (2010) while also calling on the U.S. to end the trade embargo – a point other member states echoed – and to return the naval station at Guantanamo Bay.  In concrete terms, the results of last week’s CELAC summit were modest.  The technocratic goals of quantifying progress on poverty and technology development announced by Ecuador, the group’s 2015-2016 President Pro-Tempore, suggest no major changes are imminent.

Since President Chávez’s death March 5, 2013, the former leader’s Bolivarian vision of Latin American and Caribbean integration and unity has shown signs of weakening.  CELAC now faces even tougher challenges defining and defending its identity and mission beyond the creation of a common political space for regional decision making insulated from the U.S. and Canada.  With Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, losing support amid economic crisis, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) can no longer throw its weight around on the international scene.  Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas – increasing the likelihood of its participation in the OAS – is a major achievement but represents the loss of a major rallying point. 

Going forward, three issues will determine the groups trajectory.  The Cuba issue wont go away suddenly, but rapid change in U.S.-Cuba ties could reset hemispheric relations and leave CELACs mission muddled and potentially irrelevant.  Disagreement among CELAC members over issues such as Puerto Ricos status may create tensions, as they did when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave the island a high profile during the presidential plenary underlining the risks inherent in the unity within diversity principle embraced by CELAC.  (Ecuadoran President Correa, another ALBA supporter, chided Ortega.)  But perhaps the biggest determinant of the groups future relevance lies in its emerging relationship with ChinaA CELAC-China foreign ministers forum met in Beijing last month, formalizing the Asian nations relationship with CELAC.  The forum announced the 2015-2019 China-CELAC cooperation plan calling for the doubling of two-way trade and the increasing of Chinese investment in the region to $250 billion.  Exclusion of the U.S. and Canada may remain a tenet of CELACs platform, but the groups leaders may judge that its long-term relevance can be rescued by reaching out to China instead.

February 2, 2015

*Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Cuba Welcomes “Normalization,” But Only on its Own Terms

By Eric Hershberg

Photo Courtesy of Philip Brenner

Photo Courtesy of Philip Brenner

Cuban President Raúl Castro is undoubtedly as serious about normalizing diplomatic ties as President Barack Obama is, but the island’s government arguably faces more pressing challenges than working out the details of a rapprochement with Washington.  Commentators have observed that after the initial euphoria following the December 17 announcement, officials now speak of a long road ahead.  Full normalization, while welcome, is not the foremost concern of Cuban policymakers.  The paramount objective of Cuban authorities is the survival of the revolution and the one-party state that it engendered.  Top diplomats reiterated on January 23, after the first round of talks in Havana, that there will be no concessions to continued American insistence on changes in Cuba’s domestic political arrangements.

Economic revitalization is imperative.  Despite the reforms introduced by Castro, the Cuban economy remains woefully unproductive, incapable of meeting the needs of its citizenry or generating the foreign exchange that any small island developing state requires to import goods that it cannot produce domestically.  Growth rates are anemic, reaching only 1.3 percent in 2014, and independent projections call into question last month’s official announcements predicting 4 percent expansion during 2015.  Agriculture remains stagnant despite reforms aimed at putting fallow lands to productive use, so imports of food account for $2 billion in the extremely tight state budget put forth for 2015.  The severe shortage of cash, moreover, impedes public investment in Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure, which hinders autonomous producers from securing vital inputs for their businesses or distributing what they produce.  Ideally, foreign investment would supply resources where domestic sources cannot, but for the most part this is not happening either.  A 2013 foreign investment law has to date yielded little fresh capital:  European and other investors with experience on the island explain privately that the conditions for conducting business are such that they are reluctant to commit good money after bad.  The new changes in U.S. regulations may produce some increase in investment flows – primarily in the form of remittances from Cuban Americans to families and friends – and thus continue to provide some economic oxygen, but the likely scale of these flows should not be overestimated.  Washington’s new regulations seem likely to continue blocking investments that could increase the Cuban state’s ability to develop the infrastructure necessary to promote economic growth.

Because the intertwined goals of state security and economic revitalization are paramount, Havana’s engagement with the United States will be conditioned on its compatibility with those objectives.  Critics of the American opening who lambast Barack Obama for acceding to a deal with minimal Cuban concessions are right that Havana did not abandon its position that its political system is non-negotiable.  If by joining the rest of the western hemisphere in acknowledging the Cuban state Washington embarks on a path that will fuel economic activity in Cuba, the two countries will proceed, however gradually, away from confrontation.  The trajectory of U.S. relations with China and Vietnam in recent decades offers an instructive precedent for how this can be achieved and be mutually beneficial.  But if the Americans perceive greater engagement with Cuba as a tool for regime change, or strive to limit financial flows exclusively to private actors, their Cuban counterparts naturally will limit the scope of interaction.  A new round of State Department solicitations for bids to conduct democracy promotion activities in Cuba, like the U.S. negotiators’ insistence last week on getting a photo-op with dissidents before heading back to Washington, suggest that this message has yet to be absorbed by American officials.

January 26, 2015

The Impact of Falling Oil Prices on the Western Hemisphere

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

L.C. Nøttaasen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The sharp drop in the benchmark Brent crude price of oil from just under US$115 per barrel in June 2014 to its current perch around US$50 has important ramifications for the Western Hemisphere.  For Venezuela, which earns some 95 percent of its foreign exchange from petroleum exports, it is a potential disaster.  Underlying political tensions will be exacerbated if there is no money to continue funding social welfare programs or heavily subsidizing gasoline.  It probably also spells the end of PetroCaribe’s generous repayment holidays and what are in essence below-market interest loans for Caribbean and Central American nations.  Sharply lower oil prices also put at risk major energy projects such as the development of Brazil’s pre-salt reserves, which require a minimum price of $50 to $55 to be economically viable.  Equally tenuous are Argentine efforts to regain energy self-sufficiency by exploiting its vast shale oil and gas reserves and Mexican plans to attract foreign investors to participate in deep-water oil exploration and drilling.  The minimum price for a barrel of oil below which new investment projects in Canada’s oil sands are no longer attractive is around $65.  Shale oil producers in the United States are also being squeezed by low petroleum prices.

On the other hand, net energy importers such as Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay benefit from sharply lower oil prices.  Although being weaned off  PetroCaribe will be painful for the Caribbean and Central America in the short term, they will be able to seek oil at the lower prices elsewhere.  The pressure on the Obama administration to lift the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, in response to a glut of domestic shale oil production, could also redound in favor of the Caribbean and Central America by lowering international oil prices further through increased global supply.  Already, 2015 began with U.S. companies authorized to export an ultralight crude called condensate.

In hopes of rallying OPEC to stabilize oil prices, Venezuelan President Maduro last weekend rushed off to lobby Saudi Arabia, which just two months ago refused to decrease production in order to raise prices, but oil industry sources say there’s little chance of a policy change.  Meanwhile, the environment may turn out to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lower oil prices.  Less investment in shale oil production reduces the risk of leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as decreases flaring.  Similarly, slowing down oil sands production in Alberta and Saskatchewan means that the very high levels of greenhouse gas emissions associated with extracting crude oil from bitumen (not to mention the negative impact on water resources) is diminished.  Although lower fossil fuel prices traditionally have undermined incentives to move to greater reliance on renewable and non-traditional energy resources, this may no longer be true.  For one thing many governments around the world are now embarked on ambitious efforts to reduce carbon emissions by, among other things, raising the costs associated with petroleum usage through cap and trade regimes that force companies to buy government-issued pollution permits.  Still others have enacted outright carbon taxes on utilities and large factories per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions.  In addition, the heavy initial capital investment that was previously associated with things like wind, solar and geothermal power are falling.  For example, a combination of technological advances and Chinese overproduction have resulted in much lower prices for solar panels so that the cost of generation from a large photovoltaic solar plant is now almost 80 percent less than five years ago.  Geothermal energy may be the renewable that most benefits as drilling rigs idled by lower oil prices are now available at a lower cost for geothermal projects.  

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at the Villanova University School of Law.

January 13, 2015