Colombia’s Elections: With New Comes Old

By Julián Silva*

Two men sit in white chairs during an interview

Iván Duque (left), appears to be the frontrunner in Colombia’s May 27 presidential election. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

The first round of Colombia’s presidential election on May 27 has raised the profile of independent voices but does not appear likely to bring significant changes.  Most of the nine candidates represent new political forces, but the strongest are allied with the traditional elites that ruled under Liberal and Conservative banners during most of the 20th century.

  • Since the 1991 Constitution opened space for new competition to the Liberal and Conservative Parties, “independent” groups have shown increasing willingness to take the presidency for themselves. The old clientelistic machines, associated with the land-owning elites and those parties, have lost popularity in the urban-dominated country, and the rejection of the more traditional families seems to have prompted a certain “rebranding” by their heirs.  This year, only the Liberal Party presented a candidate – former minister, vice president, and peace negotiator Humberto De la Calle – but current polls indicate that he is unlikely to reach one of the two spots heading into the second round.  The youngest of the candidates seem to hold the lead: Iván Duque (42 years old) is pulling 38 percent; Gustavo Petro (58) has 29 percent support; Sergio Fajardo (61) has 12.8 percent; German Vargas Lleras (56) has 8.2 percent; and De la Calle (71) has 3.2 percent.

Several ostensibly independent candidates actually have close ties to well-established local and national elites.  Iván Duque, a fairly new figure in the Colombian political landscape, is aggressively supported by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had deep roots in the Liberal Party and Antioquia Department elite before founding Centro Democrático in 2013.  The party is closely tied to land-owning oligarchs, big corporations, and the military, which gives Duque prospects for victory no truly independent candidate could have.  German Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Alberto Lleras, is running on a new ticket called “Coalición Mejor Vargas Lleras,” which receives support from his old party, Cambio Radical, as well as stalwarts of the Conservative party and his family’s Liberal allies.

  • Several independents deserve the label. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, occupies a more leftist space on the political spectrum that was usually excluded by the traditional parties during most of the 20th century.  Former Mayor of Medellín and Governor of Antioquia Sergio Fajardo promises to bring an “academic” perspective to the presidency if elected.
  • In addition to airing complaints about the candidates, social media users have been extremely critical of links that most candidates have to the traditional Colombian political class. Provocateurs mix truthful information with fake news to mislead the electorate and, protected by anonymity and authorities’ loose control over the virtual space, even issue threats of violence.  An unidentified projectile shattered a window of the car in which Gustavo Petro was heading to a rally in the city of Cúcuta.  The Matador, a political cartoonist working for El Tiempo, received death threats after he depicted Ivan Duque as a pig in one of his drawings.

With a little more than three weeks until the first round, the table seems to be set for Colombians to choose between leaders with significantly different political bases.  Current polls suggest they will stick with the neoconservative elite that has improved security and driven economic growth during the last few decades but has been tolerant of corruption, inequity, and even violence in some parts of the country.  But support for a different formula that promises to address some of these chronic problems is not inconsequential, even if the new leaders’ effectiveness is still unproven on a national level.  Colombians will also have a chance to decide if social media will be a vehicle for amplifying the old politics of threats and violence – or perhaps channel legitimate popular voices to demand accountability that exposes “fake news” and hate-mongering for what they are.  On that, too, the old practices and characters seem to have the advantage as they pursue a strategy that creates an image of change to ensure that everything remains the same.  The appearance of change in Colombia probably portends more of the same.

May 2, 2018

* Julián Silva is a CLALS Research Fellow, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Universidad de los Andes, and Professor of International Relations at several Colombian universities.

ALBA’s Future: Continuity or Break Down?

By Marcela Torres

ALBA Emblem | public domain

ALBA Emblem | public domain

The death of Hugo Chávez last March and the increasingly severe economic dislocations inside Venezuela have raised serious questions about the sustainability of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas (or ALBA).  Born out of an agreement between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments in 2004, the alliance was intended as a response to the U.S. goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as well as a vehicle for Chávez to project his Bolivarian vision for Latin American solidarity around a socialist project.  The regional bloc won its first symbolic battle at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in 2005, where Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay definitively halted negotiations led by U.S. allies to create a single hemispheric free trade area (excluding Cuba, of course).  Over time, ALBA and its oil-based extension, Petrocaribe, have had a significant impact on economies in the region, providing crucial underpinning for presidents who signed on to Chávez’s vision for ideological or pragmatic reasons.  Among the greatest beneficiaries have been the Castro government in Cuba and the Ortega government in Nicaragua, which have received petroleum in exchange for food, in the case of Nicaragua, and doctors and teachers, in the case of Cuba. Ecuador and Bolivia, along with several states in the greater Caribbean, have also become key players in the ALBA network.

Venezuela’s leadership of ALBA, frequently described as “petro diplomacy,” has repeatedly come under fire from the country’s political opposition and from government critics in other ALBA-friendly nations.  The critiques in Venezuela rarely acknowledge the degree to which petro diplomacy has been a recurring feature of that country’s foreign policy, most notably during the governments of Carlos Andrés Pérez in the 1970s and 1980s.  Critics inside Venezuela and beyond frequently accused Chávez of building dependent clientelistic networks with countries desperate for energy resources. However, ALBA activities have transcended ideological divides, a fact demonstrated by Misión Milagro in Colombia, where Cuban doctors indirectly supported by Venezuela provide medical services in conflict zones.  If Chavez’s oil and charisma initially defined ALBA’s possibilities, the alliance has also fostered economic ties and investments among member countries, independent from Venezuela.

Though the election of Nicolás Maduro as Chávez’s successor might appear to guarantee political continuity, lacking Chávez’s charisma, Maduro might not be able to continue Chávez’s level of oil-fueled investment in ALBA.  Public spending in Venezuela continues to increase dramatically, with the fiscal deficit at 9-12 percent, inflation exceeding 40 percent, and the scarcity of dollars contributing to shortages of basic consumer goods.  To sustain its financial backing for ALBA, Maduro will have to stabilize the economy at home lest he lose the  popular legitimacy — no simple challenge.  Following the Twelfth Presidential Summit of ALBA in July, the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua joined Maduro in reaffirming their shared commitment to a socialist project in the region and a desire to maintain the international exchanges initiated by Chávez, suggesting that the alliance will not disappear at least in rhetoric in the medium term.  It is possible, however, that Maduro’s leadership will be challenged.  After the airplane in which Bolivian President Evo Morales was traveling was not allowed to land in France and Portugal this summer,  he proposed creating an ALBA army and convening another anti-imperialist summit.  Recently re-elected Rafael Correa of Ecuador has also hinted he might want to lead ALBA.  Without Venezuelan oil and sweeteners like Petrocaribe, it’s hard to see how ALBA will amount to more than a platform for personalistic agendas.

 

Mexico: A hard road for reforms

By Tom Long

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

Enrique Peña Nieto by Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño | Flickr | Creative Commons

During the campaign, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proclaimed in thousands of advertisements, “Me comprometo y cumplo” – I make a promise and I keep it.  Offering a list of potentially transformative reforms – regulations, security, telecommunications, energy, and more – he began with one of the most intractable:  the struggling public education system.  In December, at his instigation, the Mexican congress passed a constitutional reform to create stricter standards for teachers and move hiring authority from the teachers’ union to the government.  Enough states had ratified the amendment by the end of February to make it law.  After years of stagnation and interest-group politics, education reform suddenly became politically expedient, passing with support from the PRI, PAN, and PRD.  Last week, the government put an exclamation point on the reform by arresting the teachers’ union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of using her post for illicit gains surpassing $100 million.  A PRI apostate whose opposing alliance was credited with helping former President Felipe Calderón win his razor-thin victory in 2006, she was not just expendable, but an obstacle.

According to OECD education data, just 45 percent of Mexican students complete their secondary education, though the rate has improved over the last decade.  Mexico spends 3.7 percent of GDP on primary and secondary learning, — less than Chile, Argentina, and Brazil but in line with the OECD average.  Experts believe that Mexico’s educational  problems are largely political, not budgetary.  A full 97 percent of spending goes to salaries, feeding a teachers’ union that has a history of patronage and graft.  The problem has deep roots in the clientelistic structure through which the old PRI governed during its 70 years in power before losing in 2000 – and with which the PAN governments coexisted for 12 years.

The storyline shares certain similarities with PRI President Carlos Salinas’ sacking of the head of oil workers’ union in the 1990s, presaging limited reforms in that sector.  Peña Nieto probably intends the removal of the most visible representative of old-style patronage politics as a clear signal that the PRI will not bring back the bad old ways – despite the possible appearance of the firing and arrest being driven by revenge – but the reform legislation is widely seen as a positive step forward.  Rhetorically at least, the major parties have agreed to a multi-pronged effort for more reforms in the “Pact of Mexico.”  However, forging consensus on further reforms will be more difficult, as entrenched PRI politicians at the local level are already resisting many of the president’s proposals.  The PAN and PRD are already criticizing Peña Nieto for being too cozy with media barons and for handling telecommunications reform behind closed doors.  Security policies and proposed energy reforms are more contentious still.  Reforming other sectors will require going after harder targets than Gordillo and will pose greater tests of Peña Nieto’s ability to win votes in the Mexican Congress.

Venezuela: A New Start?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

The death of President Hugo Chávez yesterday, as has been duly noted, marks the beginning of a new era – new opportunities and new challenges – for Venezuela.  In view of the country’s history and institutional weaknesses through the 1990s, some of the convulsions of his 13 years in power may have been inevitable, but the need is now compelling, across the political spectrum, to take a sober look at the future, set aside some of the stalemated grudge matches, and get serious about becoming something better.

It’s easy to predict at least some short-term instability, bombastic rhetoric, and jejune nationalism, such as some fringe Chavistas’ allegation that the United States was responsible for Chávez’s death.  It’s harder for Venezuelans and outsiders alike to figure out how this country, hindered by the original sins that plague all rentier economies, learns how to do politics in a transparent, inclusive manner.  For analysts like us, the key thing is to set aside wishful thinking and keep our eye on the fundamental drivers of change.  Some thoughts:

  • For better or worse, Chávez had an impact that – if not as transcendental as he wished – dismantled the key institutional pillars of the sclerotic Venezuelan political system.  Beyond that, his legacy includes the profound and intentional division of Venezuelan society and politics into two camps – a tense split that did not exist (or was sublimated) 20 years ago and will take a long time to heal, as has the cleavage around Peronism in Argentina.  Like Peronism, over time chavismo need not necessarily have a standard left-right quality, and it is likely to retain a cult around Chávez’s persona, larger in death than in life.  Evita a la venezolana.
  • Chávez wasn’t the regional or global threat that the Bush Administration made him out to be, but he did open space for a particular species of Latin American populism – call it radical, “socialist,” or clientelist – that coincided with a broader U.S. withdrawal from Latin America.  Few observers could have imagined that this former military colonel – a failed putschist – could capitalize on the region’s crisis of representation and development to bring about the emergence and prosperity of the ALBA coalition and the identities it fostered.  The lifeline of petro-dollars that Chavez opened, a tool that, it is often forgotten, had been deployed by previous Venezuelan governments to gain outsize presence on the international stage, explains some of his influence, but his forceful personality and the siren song of his peculiar Bolivarian ideology multiplied his impact.  His model was not replicated elsewhere, but his fervent regional pride was.
  • Chavez’s successors, of any political stripe, will test Washington’s capacity to keep its hands off.  Venezuela – even the opposition – has changed, and United States policymakers will hear rhetoric and see things, such as a relationship with Cuba that’s likely both to shape and to survive both countries’ transitions, that will test their self-discipline.  Chávez is gone, and chavismo, though certain to endure, will inevitably change.  But Venezuela’s need for space – space granted by its neighbors and the United States – to grow and even make mistakes remains a constant.  Over the 15 years in which Chávez dominated the scene, from his first election in 1998, Washington sometimes resisted the temptation to play into the game, but more than occasionally took the bait.  Washington has often misread Latin America and, by endorsing the 2002 coup against Chávez and other actions, actually strengthened the Venezuelan president domestically and regionally.  Chávez’s passing presents an opportunity for a fresh start for the United States, too.

Political Participation in Latin America Expanding

participatory democracy coverFrom local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries.  Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute.  Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites.  These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule.  Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole.  We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela).  A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.

New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network.  More information on the project can be found here .  (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)