Nicaragua:  Tensions Mount

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

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Protesters convene in Managua, Nicaragua last month. / Voice of America / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

President Daniel Ortega’s increasing reliance on turbas, the masked and hooded supporters mobilized to beat back protests, suggests he’s confident that he can tough out the challenge posed by growing demands that he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, resign, or, at a minimum, agree to early elections – increasing the prospect of a prolonged, unequal struggle ahead.  According to Nicaraguan press reports, turbas and police sharpshooters killed at least 15 marchers in May 30 Mother’s Day protests.  Approximately 100 protesters have been killed in street protests since April 18.  A delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the OAS issued a preliminary report after four days of in-country hearings expressing “shock” at the extent and depth of human rights violations.

  • An attempt at national dialogue mediated by the Nicaraguan Catholic Bishops Conference (CEN) was initially suspended after the government delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, claimed an agenda proposed by the bishops was the route to a golpe de estado, and was once again suspended after the Mothers’ Day killings. Death threats have been issued over social media against Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez.  Báez in particular has pushed for discussion of democracy in the dialogue.  The government has firmly refused to discuss protesters’ demand – endorsed implicitly by the Church – for an expedited election calendar (sooner than the currently scheduled presidential election of 2021).  Bishop Abelardo Mata, the Secretary of the CEN, has taken the position that Daniel and Rosario must go – as popular anger is such their own lives may be at risk.

The protesters, who are generally university students, have refused to respond with force to the turbas’ aggression, although there have been isolated reports of burned vehicles and occasional use of home-made mortars.  They have established tranques (roadblocks) on national highways leading into and out of major cities, including Managua.  Initially opened every hour or two so that traffic could move – and even suspended when a tentative agreement with the government was reached – the tranques have been stiffened to include total blockages of traffic on major routes in response to turba attacks.  Some roadblocks have been thrown up by peasants still angry about the government’s now-defunct deal with Chinese investors to build the “Grand Canal” across the country.  Independent media reports indicate that citizens are blaming Ortega and Murillo for the resulting inconvenience, and previously unpoliticized people are calling for them to step down.

  • While resisting violence, protesters are not engaged in “civil disobedience” a la Gandhi or Martin Luther King, as no one willingly goes to jail. To be taken away by the turbas or the Policía Nacional is to greatly increase the probability that one’s body will turn up in the morgue, according to local observers.  Timely intervention by individual priests has saved some lives, but the Catholic Church increasingly finds itself threatened too.

The Catholic Church’s leadership has been key and benefits from the quiet but crucial support of the business community, including the strongest private sector organization, COSEP.  Many of the dynamics in today’s confrontation are similar to those leading to the collapse of the Somoza government 40 years ago, with one glaring difference: the lack of an opposition martyr on a par with revered journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was assassinated in January 1978, 16 months before President Somoza fled into exile.  Ortega is clearly willing to escalate the intimidation of his opponents, but – should an oppositionist of Chamorro’s stature assume leadership of the current protests – the president would probably not wish to see him martyred, assuming the president still controls the forces he has unleashed. Given recent events, it is unclear if the president wishes to see any dialogue reconvened.  If he does, he will probably need to look outside the country for mediation, as the CEN has increasingly sided with protesters over the government.

  •  If the crisis drags on and on, Ortega could conceivably agree to early elections, but the opposition would still be leery of any deal that did not include a wholly new Consejo Supremo Electoral and a commitment to allow all parties to register, which are demands that probably cross a red line for Ortega. As Nicaragua mourns its dead, the anger is unlikely to subside – and an unequal struggle between the government and a generally nonviolent opposition is likely to fester if not explode.

June 1, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

Chile: Between Stability and Uncertainty

By Eduardo Silva and Kenneth Roberts*

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

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

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

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

February 13, 2017

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

Civics Lessons from Guatemala

By Robert Brenneman*

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor with sign "We demand justice" Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor holding sign that proclaims “We demand justice.” Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemala’s popular movement for justice and transparency is suddenly and happily discovering that nothing breeds success like success.  Many Guatemalans have grumbled for years about rampant corruption among the political class, but in recent weeks a surging popular movement has finally emerged giving voice and energy to years of that frustration with impunity and graft.  The movement picked up steam after a public exposé of a shadowy tax fraud and contraband network called “La Línea,” orchestrated out of Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s office by her private secretary.  The report was produced by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  (Click here for analysis of the Commission’s renewal.)  President Pérez Molina not only renewed CICIG’s term until 2017; on May 7 he also accepted the resignation of Baldetti and her secretary, who had served as the key money-raising dealmakers for his administration.  The U.S. Embassy suspended the visas of many of the officials named in the report, including the luckless former vice president herself.

These actions have not been enough to appease the appetite for justice and transparency sought by the growing crowds of flag-waving nonviolent protestors converging each Sunday afternoon in front of the Guatemala City’s Municipal Palace.  An estimated 57,000 gathered under thunder and pouring rain on May 17.  Empowered by the relatively swift impact of their movement, and outraged by the mounting evidence pointing to the president’s personal connections to the corruption network, the crowds of protestors  led principally by students of the public university  have shifted to demanding that the president himself step down.  Pérez Molina, sensing that the wheels are coming off his administration, has requested the resignations of his closest advisors and top officials, including his Interior Minister and his Chief of Strategic Intelligence.  He has revoked or rescinded several of the most lucrative (and obviously corrupt) government contracts that he had vociferously defended only a few weeks ago.

President Pérez Molina’s political future remains up in the air.  Many Guatemalan political analysts believe he should step down.  José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s influential daily El Periódico, argues that resigning is “the only way out of an impossible labyrinth” of the president’s own making.  But many others view the president’s fate as less important than whether the country takes advantage of the opportunity to use public pressure to pass sorely needed structural reforms.  For years Congress has ignored several bills that would tighten campaign finance rules and bring transparency to government contracting.  Since pay-to-play politics is not unique to this administration, fixing the problem will require legal and structural changes, not merely changing the nameplate on the presidential suite.  One hopeful sign is that Manuel Baldizón, leader of the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), has not managed to coopt the popular outrage to kickstart his own election campaign.  A popular banner at the protests warns him “¡No te toca!” (“It’s not your turn!”).  The leaders of the movement recognize that Baldizón – who has many skeletons in his own closet and heads another investment-financed party – is hardly the answer.  The protesters’ focus on reform rather than politics suggests that the most certain – and long-lasting – outcome of all is the strengthened civic sphere that appears to have emerged as the protests grow and the newspapers report daily arrests and resignations.  In this civics lesson, the Guatemalan public is both pupil and teacher.

May 26, 2015

*Dr. Brenneman teaches sociology at St. Michael’s College and is author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press 2012).

Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during one of his weekly broadcasts Enlace Ciudadano / Mauricio Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

Taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s playbook, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is intimidating and steadily increasing controls on his opponents.  He regularly uses his Saturday morning broadcasts to name and shame them.  Actors from all walks of Ecuador’s civil society – journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, bloggers, union and social movement leaders – have been the target of his insults and thinly veiled threats on the weekly program, Enlace Ciudadano.  In February, Correa’s show was skewered by HBO comedian John Oliver – and, to Oliver’s delight, Correa fired back by tweeting insults (click here and here).  Journalists and civil society leaders applauded Oliver for drawing attention to the continuing deterioration of civil liberties in Ecuador.  Correa’s virulent rhetoric and intimidating use of media is part of a larger matrix of policies endangering freedom of expression and association in Ecuador.  Over the last two years, the Correa administration has worked methodically to mount a legal framework allowing for greater government control over the media and civil society organizations.

  • The 2013 Law of Communication and a new oversight agency, the Superintendence of Information and Communication, are intended to ensure that all print and broadcast media provide “truthful information” that is “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized.”  Superintendent Carlos Ochoa was selected from a short-list of nominees provided by Correa.  Among alleged violations recently singled out for sanctions are items in the leading newspaper El Universo and its accomplished political cartoonist, Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla.
  • Issued in 2013, Executive Decree 16 also has civil society – from neighborhood associations to think tanks, business chambers, unions, and advocacy groups – under pressure. In addition to elaborate regulations for the legal registration of organizations, the decree stipulates conditions allowing the government to “dissolve” them.  These include group involvement in “partisan activity” and “interfering in public policies.”  To date, only one organization – the Fundación Pachamama involved in environmental activism – has been dissolved, but civic leaders fear that the decree will induce ”self-censorship” and stifle participation.

The new laws amount to a project – unprecedented for Ecuador – of surveillance and regulation.  They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential re-election.  After years of pledging that he would not seek a third term in office, Correa reversed course and has tasked his legislative super-majority with finding a swift route to amending the constitution.  Most public opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Ecuadorians would prefer a referendum to decide whether or not yet another consecutive re-election should be allowed.  The road to re-election may be more difficult than Correa and his advisors imagine, but they enter the fray with the weight of the law on their side.  With powers to control the media and limit the activity of civil society, the Correa administration enjoys the upper hand as 2017 approaches.

March 12, 2015

*Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  She specializes in Andean politics.  She is the author of an article, “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador,” in the April issue of the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Bolivia: Lessons from the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Bolivian President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) prepares for the October 12 general election – which opinion polls indicate it will win by wide margins – the MAS appears to be a remarkably diverse organization capable of adapting operations to different regions of the country.  It fits neither the typical journalistic portrayal of Latin American social and political movements as clashing with political parties and elected governments, nor political scientists’ characterization of parties as unitary actors under the control of a unified leadership.  Founded by coca growers in the mid-1990s as their “political instrument” to contest power, the MAS has become the collective political expression of grassroots organizations now in power – to this day having diffuse boundaries and multiple faces, combining features of a grassroots movement and a party, and being a remarkably successful instrument for exercising rule.

The MAS’s regional diversity is one of its greatest strengths.  As an organizational actor, it looks and operates differently in different contexts depending on how the political space is structured.  In the Bolivian central region of the Chapare, where strong peasant unions are aligned with the MAS and control the territory, civil society and party are fused.  Grassroots organizations monopolize the political space, and local decision-making structures are embedded in the union structure.  Their success is rooted in “agrarian union democracy,” which emphasizes that “bases” exert control on the leadership – that the rank and file should lead and leaders should follow.  In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the MAS has made inroads in traditionally hostile territory by developing an unusually strong local party organization with remarkable mobilization capacity, and that capacity gives it a central role in local governance.  As in other cities with large informal economies, the local structure draws support from two powerful urban sectors – transportation workers and street venders – and is organized territorially in districts that operate both during and between elections.  Rather than having the features of a movement, in Santa Cruz the MAS looks and works more like a conventional political party.  In the Chapare, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the MAS organization has considerable latitude to operate locally within alliances and policies usually defined at the national level.  As a result, the MAS and its governmental counterparts are not often, or by necessity, in tension.

Latin American history offers many examples of political movements becoming personalistic vehicles for charismatic leaders.  More than 10 years since it became a credible electoral vehicle, the MAS may offer a more promising organizational alternative.  Morales is certainly a charismatic leader, with significant popular legitimacy and authority within the MAS.  His leadership cannot be overstated, and he is the dominant figure binding a wide array of grassroots movements and organizations.  Yet, the MAS has remained permeable to popular input in areas where civil society is strong and has mechanisms to arrive at collective decisions.  In the last general elections in 2009, grassroots influence was consequential: it led to the massive entrance of individuals and members of allied grassroots organizations into the highest level of political representation.  Their participation in Congress (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly) has pushed to diversify the legislative agenda still largely subordinated to the executive.  New MAS leaders willing or able to challenge Morales’s leadership have not emerged but, as the candidacies for the upcoming elections are defined, the strong regional dynamics could alter the composition of the new parliamentary group.  Whether the MAS will remain open, and whether it will manage to outgrow its dominant leader figure, will depend on the continuing strength of allied groups in civil society.

*Santiago Anria is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.