El Salvador: Eastern Region’s Weak Democratic Political Culture

By Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza*

Polling place in El Salvador/ Amber/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

El Salvador has made important democratic progress since the peace accord ending its bloody civil war in 1992, but the country still suffers from a profound deficit in citizens’ exercise of their rights and fulfillment of their democratic obligations – creating a serious risk of authoritarian practices and impunity by groups in power.

  • While President Nayib Bukele’s actions have catalyzed debate in the capital about democratic stability, surveys and research in the four departments of El Salvador’s eastern region show that low levels of interest in essential elements of democratic culture – community organizing; oversight of government operations; requests for public information; demands for public accountability; and efforts to root out corruption – are limiting direct and institutional democracy. This is among the key findings of surveys of 1,073 persons of diverse demographic groups by our center, the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia (CIDEMO) at the Universidad de Oriente.

Salvadorans have not lost faith in democracy as a system that, despite imperfections, would best serve their and the nation’s interests. But our surveys, conducted in September 2019, confirm that citizens are deeply frustrated with the country’s failure to achieve it. The country has at times shown the trimmings of democracy, but its political culture remains largely unchanged.

  • Confidence in democracy has been battered by citizens’ belief that the government is unable or unwilling to grapple with their daily challenges. Crime and personal insecurity, at 42.5 percent, are the problems at the top of citizens’ concerns. Poverty and unemployment are also major problems, respectively ranking 13.7 percent and 11.5 percent in the survey.
  • Despite the scourge of crime, the government institutions charged with combating criminal groups enjoy significant popular legitimacy; our polls show the military enjoys 81.2 percent popular confidence and the National Civilian Police, 72.2 percent. But those responsible for building and ensuring democratic practice do not. The Asamblea Legislativa polled at the time as the institution with the lowest level of confidence, and the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, upon which the credibility of elections depends, scored 56 percent.
  • At a little less than 5 percent, corruption ranked significantly lower as people’s greatest immediate concern, but other research indicates that it causes broad citizen apathy toward civic participation. There are widespread perceptions that opportunities to reduce corruption have been repeatedly blocked by those who most benefit from it. These conclusions coincide with those of Transparency International, which in 2019 ranked El Salvador 113 out of 180 countries (with 34 of 100 possible points). Among relatively stable countries, it is among the most corrupt in the world. Slightly more than 90.6 percent of citizens CIDEMO polled support the creation of an international commission against impunity (CICIES), which President Bukele promised during his campaign.

Nearly 30 years after the country started its juridical-institutional transformation, the same hindrances to effective democracy – high levels of poverty, precariousness (vulnerability), and inequality – remain colossal challenges to building a system of social participation, civic education, and inclusion. The country’s relative stability over the past two decades, certainly compared to the war years, disguise the underlying popular sense that the system has failed to serve them. The Oriente of El Salvador is far from the capital, San Salvador, and thus does not benefit from much of the country’s economic activity, and it has lost a great number of migrants seeking a dignified life elsewhere. But other research around the country shows its citizens’ frustration is not unique, as further documented by the World Bank and others that have found that about half of all households countrywide lack the conditions of dignified wellbeing.

  • The fundamental challenge for CIDEMO is to promote dialogue between citizens and emerging leaders to encourage citizen participation and to build capacities in civic education aimed at favoring the goal of expanding the exercise of citizens’ rights and duties. Our wager is that equality and freedom are critical wellsprings of advancing toward optimal levels of democratic governability.

* Rodolfo Mejía-Dietrich and Adán Mendoza are, respectively, the director and fulltime researcher at the Centro de Investigación para la Democracia at the Universidad de Oriente in San Miguel, El Salvador. This article is adapted from their recent study, Democracia, gobernabilidad y corrupción: Estudio de la cultura política en la región oriental de El Salvador. CLALS is providing technical assistance to CIDEMO under a USAID subaward that has made this UNIVO initiative possible.

Guatemala: Can the OAS Help Solve a Political Crisis?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Protest in Guatemala, 2015./ hrvargas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who has faced a number of challenges since his inauguration in January 2020, called in the Organization of American States (OAS) for help in the wake of last month’s protests over the 2021 budget, but the OAS’s impact was more negative than positive. As if the COVID pandemic, two tropical storms, and a series of corruption scandals weren’t enough, protests triggered by Congressional approval of the budget, which was plagued with allocations for corruption schemes and other anomalies, evoked the 2015 citizen mass demonstrations that brought down the government of President Otto Pérez Molina. Demands for the Giammattei’s resignation spread widely and became the main citizen demand: after only 10 months in office, the government was reeling.

  • Guatemala City’s Central Square was filled again with peaceful protesters, but a radical difference distinguished these from the 2015 protests. Away from the Central Square, small groups of individuals whom reliable sources have identified as infiltrators carried out violent acts, including setting the Legislative Palace on fire. These incidents were brutally repressed by the police, which brought back tragic memories of the civil war period. Two young boys lost an eye due to the police beating.
  • The crisis escalated even within the Government. The differences between Giammattei and his Vice President, Guillermo Castillo, deepened to the point that in a press conference the latter proposed that both resign, veto the budget, dismiss the Minister of the Interior and the police chief, and dissolve their highly controversial “Center of Government,” an entity headed by a close friend of the President that duplicated functions already assigned to ministries and state secretaries.

One of the government’s main responses was to invoke the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, based on an alleged coup threat. The OAS announced a mission to gather information and interview diverse Guatemalan sectors and actors. Right after the announcement, however, the lack of evidence of a coup d’état triggered distrust about the mission’s purpose.

  • Making things worse, the appointment of Fulvio Valerio Pompeo as mission head was not well received because, while serving as Strategic Affairs Secretary of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, he was directly involved in the failed sale of military aircraft to Guatemala last year. Almost immediately, the Guatemalan press highlighted this fact, feeding the perception that Pompeo might be seriously biased in favor of the government and against civil society, which had denounced the attempted plane deal. Moreover, OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro’s representative in Guatemala, Diego Paz Bustamante, and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo are long-time friends. Brolo worked for Paz Bustamante in the OAS’s office in Guatemala in 2005-2011, further raising concerns of OAS bias in favor of the government. Due to this distrust, many civil society organizations, and even Vice President Castillo, declined an invitation to meet with the OAS mission.

An agreement earlier this month between the President and Vice President has moderated the crisis and reduced tensions. At a joint press conference, Giammattei announced dissolution of the Center of Government and assigned to Castillo control over the budget readjustment and reconstruction programs for storm damages. They also announced a review of the fitness of the Minister of the Interior and top police authorities to remain in their positions.

  • The Guatemalan crisis is far from over, and serious questions about the rationale for calling in the OAS – invocation of the Democracy Charter – and its response remain.  The OAS actions appeared based more on personal relations between its representatives and Guatemalan officials, particularly the appointment of someone with a clear conflict of interest stemming from the failed plane deal . Perhaps one lesson for OAS member countries from this latest round of Guatemalan convulsions is to think twice and carefully before asking for help from that regional organism, and to first use all local means to deal with an internal crisis.

December 16, 2020

* Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

In the War for the Soul of Peru, a Battle Is Won

By Cynthia McClintock*

Protest in Lima, Peru – November 2020/ Samantha Hare/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The political battles that have seized Peru this month have been intense because the prospects for a democratic, ethical Peru are at stake. On November 9, Peru’s Congress impeached President Martín Vizcarra, a champion of the war against corruption in the country. He was succeeded by the Congress’s Speaker, Manuel Merino, who – after six days of massive protests from all social classes and all regions of the country – resigned. Legislators then came together around a respected centrist, Francisco Sagasti, as Peru’s new president. Sagasti promises to continue the reform effort.

  • The most important cause of the impeachment was elites’ pushback against anti-corruption efforts, particularly the prosecution of under-the-table payments by companies to politicians, an entrenched practice in Peru for centuries. By the estimate of the historian Alfonso Quiroz, under no administration since Peru’s independence was the cost of corruption less than one percent of its GDP. Amid the kickbacks, sub-par companies won bids for state contracts, leading to huge cost overruns and outright project failures. All four presidents elected since 2001 and scores of additional authorities have been prosecuted for this reason. Approximately half the legislators feared an end to their own immunity from prosecution. Legislators of two of the nine political parties in Congress have personal stakes in for-profit universities, which were threatened by newly introduced higher standards for universities.
  • Political interests were also at stake. One political party was pursuing amnesty for its imprisoned leader. Many legislators were dismayed by the brevity of their term (March 2020-July 2021), an upshot from the previous Congress’s confrontation with Vizcarra in late 2019. They hoped to postpone the legislative and presidential elections due in April 2021 and tilt the playing field for the elections in their favor.

The crisis challenges some long-held observations about Peru.

  • The argument of many political scientists that the cause of Peru’s democratic deficits has been the fragmentation among weakly institutionalized parties is questionable. In recent years, Fuerza Popular, led by Keiko Fujimori, was strongly institutionalized; in 2011 and 2016, Keiko was the runner-up for the presidency and, in 2016, the party gained an absolute majority of legislative seats. Merino hails from Acción Popular, a historic party that had recently rebounded. The impeachment vote in the legislature was overwhelming: 105 of 130 legislators in favor. Neither strongly nor weakly institutionalized parties were putting the interests of Peru first.
  • The argument that the cause was the “permanent moral incapacity” clause in Peru’s Constitution per se is also questionable. The clause is vague, but it had also been used to impeach Alberto Fujimori and threaten the impeachment of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Although the allegations against Vizcarra – of kickbacks for public-works contracts during his governorship of Moquegua – were made by suspects in criminal cases aspiring to plea bargains, they are worrisome.

For Peruvians, especially young Peruvians, the fear that their country would remain in the throes of the “traditional corrupt political class” was immense. The protests were the largest in Peru since the 1970s. As Merino enabled repression resulting in at least two deaths and hundreds of injuries, the outcry grew ever stronger.

  • Vizcarra was enjoying an approval rating near 60 percent – in the stratosphere for presidents in Peru. Some 90 percent of Peruvians opposed his impeachment. Despite the allegations of corruption against Vizcarra, what mattered to Peruvians was that he was fighting corruption now.
  • In his six days in the presidency, Merino was disastrous. A three-term Acción Popular legislator from Peru’s north without any known achievements, he was perceived as the embodiment of the term “political hack.” His cabinet appointments were far to the right of most Peruvians. Merino and his ministers dismissed protestors’ concerns, refusing even to acknowledge the police repression.

The challenges in Peru are immense. Elections are to be held in five months even though the pandemic has hit Peru exceptionally hard. Its mortality rate is the worst in Latin America, and the expected contraction of GDP for 2020 is the second worst after Venezuela. But Sagasti is off to an excellent start and seems poised to continue Peru’s move in an ethical, democratic direction.

  • A policy analyst and professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Sagasti was serving for the first time as a legislator with the centrist Partido Morado. Like him, most of the new cabinet members have advanced degrees and considerable experience in the public sector; ministers in the interior and justice portfolios are sympathetic to human rights concerns. In his inauguration speech, he promised to continue the war against corruption and respect democratic principles. He spoke movingly of the youths who had lost their lives in the protests. He ended with a poem – setting a tone that the country desperately needs.

November 20, 2020

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Why Are Chile’s Protests Continuing?

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

protests in chile

Protests began in Chile October 2019/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s political agreement in November to hold a referendum on the country’s Constitution in April reduced protests for a while, but the underlying causes of discontent – deep-seated frustration among many Chilean citizens – continue to fester and drive an array of peaceful and violent protests. Since November, President Sebastián Piñera has promoted an aggressive social agenda, including raising the minimum wage and improving the pension system. A survey by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) in Santiago in early January, however, found that Piñera’s approval rating was around 6 percent – the lowest of any president since Chile’s return to democracy. By almost all accounts, distrust in the government and anger at the corruption of politicians and corporations remains deep. People want solutions “here and now” to many of their demands. Both peaceful and violent protests have continued through the traditionally quiet summer break.

The mobilizations are not as spontaneous as they were in October and November, according to many observers, but there’s little evidence of a conspiracy to disrupt the referendum agreement.

  • Trade unions and traditional social movements organized under the banner of the Mesa de Unidad Social have become important actors, but new activists have also emerged. The loosely organized “Primera Línea” (front line) has engaged in violent clashes with the Carabineros, mainly in Santiago. Anthropologist Magdalena Claude observed and interviewed some members of Primera Línea in January and called them the “ACAB clan,” borrowing an acronym popularized by British punk rockers proclaiming that All Cops Are Bastards. According to Claude’s research, the group is composed of young workers of the service sector, not members of political parties. They do not have a recognized leadership and organize in horizontal networks.
  • Some conservative Chileans are denouncing the protests as the result of “foreign intervention” and a “coup d’état” provoked by the “extreme left.” They cite as evidence a New York Times report on January 19 that the U.S. State Department estimated that nearly 10 percent of all tweets supporting the October protests originated with Twitter accounts that appeared to have links to Russia. Allegations of foreign intervention by Venezuela and other countries have been endorsed by Chilean Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera and President Piñera. Neither the U.S. nor Chilean government has provided evidence to support any of these claims.

Damage to the government’s credibility and reputation since October seems likely to continue to embolden opponents in the runup to the referendum. Carabinero abuses have been verified and condemned by a host of observers, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and various Chilean organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has detailed “multiple allegations of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence by the police against people held in detention.” More than 30 people have died in protests and, although the great majority of the tens of thousands of protestors detained have been released, anger over their arrest is fresh. The government has convened 15 experts to develop recommendations to reform the Carabineros – to enable them to move “forward with urgency the recovery of the public security with absolute respect for human rights” – but challenge of building public trust will be monumental.

  • A prestigious Chilean polling firm, Cadem, reported two weeks ago that 63 percent of the Chilean population approved of the protests and – importantly – 80 percent believe that Chile will be a better country after this critical situation. In any case, the plebiscite in April will take a place in an unstable context, with an uncertain outcome. For the Piñera administration, the challenges seem unlikely to abate, and pressures may surge when the school holidays end in March.

February 19, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a historian, visiting researcher in the Department of History at Georgetown University, and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress.

Chile: Can the Constitutional Plebiscite Lead to a New Social Contract?

By Peter M. Siavelis*

An agreement between the Chilean government and opposition to hold a referendum in April on whether to scrap the current Constitution — legacy of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship — has helped reduce tensions throughout the country and signaled that stakeholders are willing to compromise in order to reestablish Chile as a model of stability in a tumultuous region.

  • The most significant, violent, and deadly protests since the end of the Pinochet era exploded in Chile on October 20, after several years of simmering protests and social discontent. The protests, accompanied by looting, attacks on property and infrastructure, and 23 deaths, represented a turning point. Widely billed in the press as sparked by opposition to increased transport fees, this social mobilization represents a much wider demand for a fundamental rewriting of Chile’s prevailing social contract. It shocked the international community and Chileans alike, challenging the idea that Chile was a model of peace and economic development in a regional sea of economic crisis and social conflict.
  • The initial response of center-right President Sebastián Piñera’s government only created more conflict. Calling protestors delinquents and terrorists, and contending the country was at war with itself, he conjured uncomfortable parallels with the dictatorship. Widespread evidence of human rights abuses by police and security forces reinforced these parallels.

Piñera eventually bowed to public and elite pressure and announced a set of immediate reforms, including boosting the minimum wage and pension payments, cutting the price of medicines, lowering public transportation costs, slashing electricity prices, implementing higher taxes for the rich, and reducing the salary of members of congress, who are the highest paid in the region. For the longer term, Piñera acquiesced — one month after the initial explosion of protests — to a process to potentially scrap Chile’s 1980 Constitution, which was also the target of protesters’ ire. The agreement, dubbed acuerdo por la paz y una nueva constitución, grew from intense negotiations between the government and political parties. It was approved in Congress by a wide margin (127 in favor, 18 against, and 5 abstentions).

  • The legislation establishes that on April 26 a nationwide plebiscite will ask Chileans whether they want a new constitution and how it is to be drafted, with two simple questions: if the voter wants a new constitution, and, if so, if the voter prefers a “Constitutional Convention” or a “Mixed Constitutional Convention.” The former will entail a constituent assembly of citizens elected by the population, and the latter a body of one-half members of Parliament and one-half private citizens.
  • Most polling shows over 80 percent of Chileans in favor of a new constitution, and a large majority of those preferring a constitutional convention — an indication of the low regard in which Chilean politicians are held by the public. Whatever mechanism is eventually used, a second plebiscite will be held at a date to be determined for ratification of the new constitution.

The agreement left elements of both sides dissatisfied. The right grudgingly accepted the arrangement, but its more extreme elements remained concerned that a Constitutional Convention will establish social guarantees similar to those of Venezuelan Chavismo and undermine social peace and Chile’s development. More progressive signatories of the agreement added their support, thrilled at the prospects of doing away with the authoritarian constitution, but were concerned it did not go far enough to offer guarantees of gender parity or reserve representation for Indigenous groups and independents.  The Communist Party and a smattering of small parties refused to sign because they wanted deeper reforms.

For now, the immediate reforms and the acuerdo have calmed the pace and tenor of protests, and most accounts point to a peaceful plebiscite in April. This constitutional moment is a big one for Chile. Given the government’s recognition of the severity of the crisis, there is no reason to doubt its sincerity to make the plebiscite go smoothly and provide a framework for moving peaceably forward. If the plebiscite is successful, Chileans will achieve what was nowhere on the horizon only months ago: a definitive end to the Pinochet constitution, one of the dictatorship’s most objectionable legacies. This change will be followed by a reconfiguration of Chile’s fundamental social pact and reforms to its extreme form of neoliberalism, which has created staggering economic and social inequality at the root of these protests. However, for Chile to reestablish its status as model of economic development and social peace, it will have to walk a careful line between reform between competing interests and reestablish some sense of order and predictability after what undoubtedly has been Chile’s most significant social convulsion since the end of the dictatorship. The strength of Chile’s democratic institutions and its political class — which is fundamentally different than others in the region in terms of political skill, respect for the rule of law, and relative probity enhances the possibilities that the country will be able to walk this line.  

January 9, 2020

* Peter M. Siavelis is Chair and Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs, and Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at Wake Forest University. His most recent edited book on Chile, with Kirsten Sehnbruch, is Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition.

Bolivia: Prospects for Post-Evo Transition

By Robert Albro*

Crowd march with boy holding the pan-indigenous flag

March in favor of Evo Morales /Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/santiagosuburbano/49098960458/

Bolivia’s streets have been calmer in recent days, but actions by self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez have raised legitimate concerns about what sort of transition Bolivians face after the almost 14-year presidency of Evo Morales. The protests, marches, and violence that have characterized the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on October 20 have left at least 33 people dead – including 30 since Áñez took office and soon thereafter issued a presidential decree (since rescinded) giving security forces immunity from prosecution when engaged in restoring “order.” While Áñez has claimed she is a caretaker whose only charge is to organize new elections within 90 days, she has not behaved like one.

  • Previously an obscure backbencher and opposition senator from an inconsequential political party representing remote Beni, Áñez had planned to retire from politics at the end of her term. Her position as second vice-president of the Senate was largely ceremonial, with little control over budgets. Down the list of constitutional succession, she became acting president only after multiple Morales administration officials resigned.
  • Although unelected and lacking a mandate, Áñez has taken a series of decisive steps to undo Morales’s legacy. A conservative Christian and Morales critic, she has proclaimed Bolivia a “Catholic country” and disparaged its Indigenous majority as “irrational.” She has surrounded herself with a cabinet composed of like-minded critics from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. This region includes the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, together often called the Media Luna (Half Moon), and is the heartland of economic elites whose political power was substantially diminished by Morales’s rise. In 2008 the Media Luna was for months in open revolt against Morales and his government, contending for control of the country’s considerable natural gas revenues. Often cast in racist terms, these elites consistently and categorically rejected Morales’s presidency.

As interim president, Áñez has replaced the military’s leadership, cabinet ministers, and heads of major state-owned companies with her own appointees. She reestablished ties with Washington, severed relations with Venezuela, kicked out Cuban doctors working in the country, and is considering Bolivia’s withdrawal from the largely-defunct UNASUR. Áñez has not sought conciliation with lawmakers from Morales’s MAS party, who still command a legislative majority. Instead, seeming to turn to the playbook of the country’s and the region’s dictatorial past, her administration has accused Venezuela and Cuba of supporting subversive groups in Bolivia, threatening to prosecute former government officials now in hiding and to charge MAS lawmakers and journalists critical of her policies with “sedition.”

These moves do not bode well for an orderly electoral do-over. Luis Fernando Camacho, the Santa Cruz civic committee leader who has emerged as Áñez’s vocal and controversial far-right supporter, already seems to be in campaign mode, despite his scant political credentials. Political moderate and second-place finisher in last month’s election, Carlos Mesa, appears to be largely sidelined. Morales himself has been legally barred from participating, and MAS, while still a political force in Bolivia, lacks an obvious figure to replace him. Meanwhile, Áñez and the far-right cabal gathering around her appear to be gearing up for hardball politics, although they lack legitimacy among Morales’s supporters and the many citizens who might have grown tired of Morales but view with alarm the actions and tone of the new caretaker government. The election may be technically wide open, but Bolivia’s far-right appears intent on seizing this opportunity to restore its influence.

  • By alienating the country’s Indigenous majority and exacerbating latent ethnic and class tensions, while signaling a commitment to reverse the gains made during the Morales years, Áñez is setting up conditions for a period of intense social conflict. If present trends continue, it is hard to imagine that in 90 days, and perhaps for a lengthy period thereafter, Bolivia won’t again experience more paroxysms comparable to what it has endured since October’s contested election.

December 6, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2019

* Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

Chile: Can Piñera Contain Popular Rage Against Liberal Capitalism?

By Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protesters in Chile

Protesters in Chile/ Photo by the Authors

Chilean President Piñera’s declaration of a state of emergency and public statements last weekend suggest he is prepared to suppress demonstrations rather than deal with social and political demands. On Saturday, the center-right president also delegated control of public order to Army Commander General Iturriaga and declared nighttime curfews. What started as citizen disobedience – groups of students entering the subway without paying – quickly developed into a massive, albeit uncoordinated, mobilization. Protesters destroyed several subway stations, forcing closure of the transport system that 2.8 million people rely on daily. Despite the government controls, protests spread to other Chilean cities on Sunday, reaching a scale unseen since the end of the military regime.

While the immediate trigger of the protests was an increase in subway prices, underlying the unrest is a deep social discontent over the results of decades of neoliberal policies. Most of them were implemented during the Pinochet era and largely preserved by successor democratic governments. While they were successful in reducing extreme poverty, they have also led to high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

  • The private pension system has yielded huge market revenues instead of dignified pensions; the health sector is split into an underfunded public system and a privatized system that discriminates against women and the elderly; the public education system fails to deliver social mobility; and the public transport system has not helped to overcome extreme socio-geographic segregation in the capital and beyond. Consumer markets are rigged by anti-competitive practices and collusion. The oligarchic political elite sees social policy not as a matter of citizen rights, but as a matter of charity. Parliamentarians refuse to discuss their salaries, which amount to 33 times the minimum wage. Trust in the police and the military has plummeted due to scandals of corruption and abuse of power.

Although some of the protesters targeted symbols of neoliberalism, the government’s response has reflected a lack of awareness of these underlying issues – or, worse, is trying to lay blame on individual vandals. In a televised address from Army headquarters on Sunday night, Piñera sounded a dark note: “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” Suggesting he does not distinguish between social protesters and groups of vandals, he said, “We are ready to do everything to not fall into populism.” Piñera had previously shown a tin ear on Friday night, when shortly after eating at a high-class restaurant, he admonished citizens for evading subway fares. His remarks fueled social discontent coming just days after two businessmen were sentenced to take ethics classes as “punishment” for involvement in tax-evasion schemes and irregular payments to political allies of Piñera’s coalition.

The Piñera government is addressing the crisis as it has done it before with the student movement and the Mapuche conflict over indigenous lands in the south: treating what are indeed political issues and social discontent as a security threat. The president is playing deaf to the legitimate social and political demands of Chilean citizens, undermining the government’s credibility as a political interlocutor while also fueling an escalation of violence.

  • Chile now joins Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and others in facing serious pressure to deal with an array of problems that incumbent governments have failed to address – reminiscent of the social mobilizations in Brazil in 2013 that culminated in impeachment and the rise of a reactionary president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose commitment to democracy is seen by many as questionable at the very least. In this context, the Chilean political elite has a huge responsibility to avoid a breakdown of democracy and the rule of law. The government cannot ignore popular desires for a plan to overhaul the neoliberal Chilean model – and it would be wise not to cast opposing views as a security threat.

* Irina Domurath is a legal researcher at the School of Governance, Catholic University of Chile and external fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

 

 

Ecuador: President Moreno’s Pyrrhic Victory

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019.

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019/ Asemblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno’s agreement with opponents to rescind the austerity measures that sparked the recent crisis has restored calm but leaves his government irreparably weakened. The immediate trigger of the crisis was the president’s announcement on October 1 of a package of austerity measures aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit as part of his government’s $4.2 billion credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The key measure was elimination of a $1.3 billion gasoline subsidy expected to result in a 25-75 percent increase in the price of gasoline. Transport unions, student groups, and thousands of members of the country’s largest indigenous organization, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), took to the streets, paralyzing roads around the country and demanding Moreno step down.

  • Moreno declared a 60-day state of siege, temporarily suspended the right to freedom of association; and on October 7, flanked by the military high command, said he would not back down against what he called a “destabilization plan” orchestrated by his predecessor, Rafael Correa, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Perhaps cognizant that a combination of social pressure and legislative and military action removed all three of Ecuador’s democratically elected presidents from 1996 to 2006, Moreno temporarily moved the seat of government from Quito to Guayaquil and imposed a curfew in Quito.
  • CONAIE President Jaime Vargas and other indigenous leaders, encouraged by the United Nations and the Catholic Church, agreed to direct negotiations on October 12. Two days later, the president signed a decree rescinding the austerity measures and reinstating fuel subsidies, and CONAIE decamped. Moreno removed the head of the military Joint Command and the commander of the army, and on October 15 returned to Quito. (He has so far resisted calls to replace Interior Minister María Paula Romo, a possible 2021 presidential aspirant, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín.)

The crisis has deeply altered prospects for the Moreno presidency.

  • Moreno survived a degree of social protest and political resistance that toppled previous presidents, but he failed to anticipate the popular reaction to lifting energy subsidies, employed a heavy-handed response to protestors, and ultimately backed away from one of the few significant political decisions his government has made. As a result, Moreno lost an opportunity to make structural economic changes and suffered irreparable damage to his political capital and credibility.
  • Indigenous groups and a resurgent CONAIE – after largely disappearing from national political decision-making under Correa – are once again a key national political actor and informal public policy veto player. They not only forced Moreno and the government to reverse course on energy subsidies, but also literally and figuratively earned a seat at the negotiating table. CONAIE appears more unified than it has been at any moment since the early 2000s and may be emboldened to seek further concessions from the government.
  • Correísmo may well be the biggest political loser. Moreno remains in power despite calls from ex-President Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana party to debate the possibility of impeachment and early elections. Correístas were excluded from discussions over the executive decree that restored the gas subsidies. Moreover, CONAIE tweeted a stinging rebuke of Correa, accusing him of opportunism and holding him responsible for the deaths of three indigenous leaders under his government.

Moreno is a lame duck just a little over halfway through his presidency. It is difficult to imagine any policymaking of consequence in his remaining 18 months in office. The government is severely handicapped politically and economically, and the political space for negotiation until elections is almost nonexistent. Moreno’s government is likely to resemble the interim governments of Fabián Alarcón (1997-1998) or Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007), which essentially served as placeholder administrations without ambitious policy agendas. Against all odds, Moreno – with a legislative minority – neutralized Correa and shifted government policy to the right during his first two-plus years in office, which throws his failure to remove the subsidy into sharper relief.

  • Economically, the picture is not much different. The protests forced Moreno to kick the can down the road on energy subsidies, while making it more difficult for the government to close its fiscal deficit. The weight of these necessary reforms will therefore fall to whoever wins the 2021 elections. The failed implementation of this economic reform and subsequent reversal of policy show the limits of Moreno’s political acumen while laying bare the country’s governability challenges.

October 17, 2019

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

Haiti: Is Anyone Listening?

By Fulton Armstrong

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government's misuse of funds from PetroCaribe.

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government’s misuse of funds from PetroCaribe– once again the subject of public anger/ Rony D’Haiti/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manifestation_Haiti.jpg

As Haiti enters a fifth week of protests, President Jovenel Moïse’s support for U.S. policies on Venezuela and Taiwan appears to have secured him Washington’s backing, but his government is in tatters and his opponents don’t look likely to fold soon. For weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have held targeted marches in Port-au-Prince and provincial cities across the country demanding Moïse’s resignation. Violence by demonstrators and police has caused 17 deaths and hundreds of injuries, including the shooting of several journalists, according to human rights monitors. School closures have left up to 2 million children without class and the food supplements they receive there.

  • Protesters originally took to the streets to protest fuel shortages caused by government insolvency, but corruption – including the misappropriation of an estimated $2 billion dollars in profits from the sale of fuel under Venezuela’s previous PetroCaribe program – has become the overwhelming issue. Opposition leaders cite Superior Court audits implicating Moïse and other government officials past and present in schemes to personally profit from PetroCaribe security forces’ use of clubs and tear gas (and unconfirmed use of live ammunition) against demonstrators has further fueled anger in the streets. Haiti’s Catholic Bishops have blamed Moïse for the showdown, and their “Justice and Peace Commission” has publicly called for his resignation.
  • Moïse’s leadership has been unsteady throughout the crisis. He was out of public view entirely for one week, returning only in a pre-recorded radio address broadcast at 2:00 am on September 25 that called for calm and dangled the prospect of a “government of national unity.” Since his inauguration in January 2017, he has lived under the shadow of suspicious vote counts and has either failed to get Prime Ministers confirmed by Parliament or to build a good working relationship with them. The country hasn’t had a budget for two years, and a projected 20 percent inflation during 2019 and mere 1.5 percent growth further drive popular fury.

Moïse is clearly winning the competition for international support. However, he has gained U.S. silence about the evidence of his and senior allies’ involvement in PetroCaribe under Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro. During the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Moïse’s Foreign Minister, Bocchit Edmond, with whom he “reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Haiti partnership and shared hope that Haiti’s political stakeholders would soon identify a path to forming a government that remains firmly rooted in democracy and the rule of law.”

  • The opposition’s calls for support have been much less successful. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican widely seen as President Trump’s top advisor on hemispheric affairs, said it was not the “proper job of the United States to call on a democratically elected President [Moïse] to step down.” (Rubio had praised Moïse for supporting U.S. sanctions to remove Maduro and for preserving diplomatic relations with Taiwan.) The senior Democrat in the U.S. Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, last week also cited Moïse’s position on Maduro as important.
  • UN officials last week issued a “statement of concern,” noting that the protests were hindering aid deliveries and could lead to a humanitarian crisis. The UN remained neutral, however, and called on “everyone” to refrain from the use of violence. An unofficial OAS delegation to Haiti organized by individuals close to Senator Rubio in June told the opposition to “back off,” according to press reports, and reportedly told Moïse that he should “start governing” but it was “not going to ask him to resign.” Overall, however, the OAS has kept a very low profile, especially during the current crisis.

Haitian politicians have often turned to foreign friends and multilateral organizations to rescue them from crises – which they surely stir up themselves – but the international community, rather than addressing fundamental problems, often tries to paper over highly contested elections (like Moïse’s) and institutional weaknesses. The billions in PetroCaribe revenues that have vanished during the past two presidencies – including that of Moïse’s mentor, Michel Martelly – is strong circumstantial evidence that the opposition’s calls for investigation of the current administration have merit. But Moïse seems to be betting – correctly so far – that support for Washington’s priorities, such as condemning alleged corruption and undemocratic practices in other countries, buys him space to snub opponents’ demands. The UN and OAS just don’t seem to want to get more deeply involved, but the opposition, which has surprised many with the length and level of protests, doesn’t seem ready to give up.

October 11, 2019