Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

Afro-Colombians and Indigenous: From Hope to Invisible Again?

By Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia*

Firma de la paz

Signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and FARC, 2016/ Gobierno de Chile/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jefa_de_Estado_participa_en_ceremonia_de_la_Firma_de_la_Paz_entre_el_Gobierno_de_Colombia_y_las_FARC_E.P._(29953487045).jpg

Colombia’s delicate and fragile transition to peace, a process enshrined in the 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrillas, has brought some benefits to Colombia’s Indigenous peoples and communities of African descent but has fallen far short of expectations – with troubling implications for those groups in the future.

  • Official figures tend to understate the size and influence of the Afro-Colombians and Indigenous. According to the government, 15 percent of Colombia’s population is of African descent, and 4 percent (from 82 different ethnic groups) are Indigenous. But other estimates, such as that of the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias Sociales y Económicas (CIDSE) of the Universidad del Valle, estimate that Afro-Colombians could be as much as 25 percent of the national population, and Indigenous ethnic groups occupy some 15 percent of the national territory. These groups suffered deeply during the half-century of conflict that the peace accord intended to stop. One of many examples is the massacre of Bojayá, in the predominantly Afro-Colombian department of Chocó, which left more than 100 people dead – mostly women and children who had sought refuge in a church. The Indigenous also suffered great losses.

These historically neglected communities – which numerous observers report experienced a disproportionate deepening of poverty and discrimination during the conflict – saw in the peace accord and its implementation the opportunity to push longstanding demands for full exercise of their rights, especially control over their own territories in places such as Chocó, the Indigenous free farm labor system in Cauca and Nariño, and the ethnic region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

  • The chapter of the peace accord dealing with ethnic matters, included as a result of the activism and leadership of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations, encouraged those hopes. As accord implementation started, these groups focused on achieving protection for social leaders; the removal of anti-personnel mines from their territories; substitution of illicit crops; protection for, and expansion of, traditional homelands; and various environmental protections.
  • Last March, ethnic organizations reported some advances during the early stage of the implementation of the peace accord, during the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and, more recently, when President Iván Duque’s government, in the planning process for regional programs and projects, included about US$5.5 billion in the four-year mandatory National Development Plan 2018-2022. If faithfully carried out, which appears doubtful, such expenditures would benefit Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.

At the same time, however, leaders stated that, of the 13 specific provisions in the accord’s Ethnic chapter, implementation of seven had not even started – significantly less than the accord as a whole. Even more troubling to them, security in their communities has continued to deteriorate.

  • Some 35 percent of citizens displaced since 2016 have been Afro-Colombians and Indigenous. An estimated 40 percent of social leaders murdered have been from these groups, including 11 percent of those promoting manual eradication of coca production instead of forced aerial spraying. Disputes among armed groups with roots in both paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have increased the vulnerability of these communities.
  • Ethnic organizations blame this poor performance on the lack of a fluid dialogue between government and community leaders; the ignorance (willful or not) of the current government to embrace the deals made by its predecessors; and the lack of dedicated budget resources. The government has not convened a meeting of the Special High-Level Authorities of the Ethnic Peoples established by the accord. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders have been largely excluded from critical decisions related to peace process implementation affecting their communities.

Growing challenges to accord implementation further complicate prospects for progress for Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. Political tensions in Bogotá, the government’s efforts to unilaterally alter implementation, the assassination of social leaders, and – most recently and perhaps most disturbingly – some FARC negotiators’ decision to abandon the accord and take up arms anew, all have dire implications for them. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders – lacking a viable alternative – seem likely to continue betting on the peace process and fulfilling their obligations under the accord. The bottom line, however, remains that the slow, inconsistent implementation and the absence of serious dialogue and coordination suggest that, once again, these important communities may become invisible.

September 12, 2019

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a CLALS research fellow and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with 30 years of experience in the areas of environment, sustainable development, and peace building.

South America: Regional Integration or Presidential Posturing?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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

Seven South American presidents’ launch of brand-new regional grouping called PROSUR last week was intended to give a boost to their personal agendas rather than take a serious step toward regional integration. The announcement was made on March 22 at a summit organized by Chilean President Piñera and attended by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. The declared goal of the summit was to overcome what Piñera called the “paralysis” of the decade-old UNASUR.  Its final declaration emphasized the need “more than ever to work together to update and strengthen the South American countries’ process of integration” in the face of current and future challenges, including “inserting ourselves in an efficient way into the fourth industrial revolution and society based on knowledge and information.”

  • The creation of the Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR), however, delivered very little in terms of regional integration. The Santiago Declaration does not tackle the obstacles that hampered UNASUR, such as its decision-making procedure based on consensus. On the contrary, the declaration envisions PROSUR as a forum exclusively based on presidential diplomacy, in which all decisions by definition must be taken by consensus.
  • The Presidents said the new organization will focus on infrastructure, energy, health, defense, and dealing with natural disasters – the same areas where UNASUR had shown some progress. The declaration did not mention any particular ongoing crisis, such as Venezuela, but it made clear that it would work for full respect for democracy, constitutional order, and human rights. Again, this is not a departure from UNASUR, which also had a democracy clause adopted and ratified by the national parliaments.

The summit promised political gains for several participants. For President Piñera, it was an opportunity to project himself as a regional leader able to convene and coordinate South American heads of states, at a time that his domestic popularity is decreasing. Ecuadorean President Moreno – the only central-left president attending the summit – had yet a new opportunity to signal his willingness to coexist with pro-market governments in the region. For Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a well-known skeptic of South American integration, the summit was a platform to show a more palatable image closer to his liberal peers.

President Piñera and his guests blamed UNASUR’s bureaucracy for its lack of effectiveness, opting instead for a lean mechanism based on presidential diplomacy. Most long-time observers believe, however, that UNASUR’s effectiveness was undermined by its very weak organizational capacity, with a powerless Secretary General and personnel made up of low-ranking national diplomats instead of qualified international civil servants. Presidential diplomacy, unburdened by a bureaucracy of specialists who analyze problems and possible solutions, works well when Presidents get along in ideological terms, but precedent shows it is vulnerable to collapse when governments have divergent preferences or when states must agree on complex transnational issues such as migration, drug-trafficking, or deep economic integration.

  • PROSUR will work exclusively as a forum (not as a regional organization) and its decisions and initiatives will have to be executed and monitored by the national bureaucracies of the member states, which by definition look after national interests rather than regional interests. The Santiago Summit has demonstrated that when it comes to regional integration, leftist and right-wing heads of government look and act alike. No matter which ideology they claim, South American presidents fear collective institutions, cherish presidential diplomacy, and prefer to create new initiatives with pompous names from scratch, rather than make necessary reforms to existing ones. As Uruguayan President Vázquez – who did not attend the summit – put it, South America has a long history of integration initiatives that have not brought about integration. The region would be better served by reinforcing and overhauling existing mechanisms such as MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, or the Pacific Alliance, and try to make them convergent in any possible way, rather than adding yet another acronym.

March 29, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Colombia: Ready to Expand Environmental Policies

By Luis Gilberto Murillo*

Lush view of mountain range in Colombia

Jardín, Colombia by Pedro Szekely / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia has provided important leadership in implementing integrated, pro-environment taxes in the country, but there is urgent need for it to do more.  In 2017, Colombia became one of three countries with the greatest advances in implementing fiscal mechanisms to control emissions, one of the principal tasks on its agenda for full membership in the OECD.  But experts believe that the deepening of the global socio-ecological crisis caused by climate change demands broader, accelerated fiscal mechanisms to protect the environment and sustainable development.

  • In 2015, Colombia, as part of its Paris Agreement commitments, set the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2030. A recent report by the Comptroller General of the Republic concluded that the Colombian national economy will need to undergo a significant restructuring to meet that goal and make the country resilient in the face of extreme climate events such as floods and droughts.  The Comptroller report opened the door to discussion of fiscal tools for action and environmental protection, with special priority given to controlling deforestation, water conservation, and improving air quality. Environment taxes on carbon, plastic bags, and motorcycles with motors above 200cc have been a starting point, but the Comptroller assesses that they haven’t been effective enough.
  • The government today has much greater resources – more than 700 billion Pesos (about US$227 million) per year – than before. Moreover, the launch of Colombia’s unique voluntary carbon market, bringing important projects and a flow of resources to rural and ethnic minorities (Afro-Colombians and Indigenous communities), has already demonstrated the positive impact of green taxes.  The program to tax plastic bags has reduced their use by 30 percent in just the first year of implementation, 2017.

Debate over how and where to invest the resources created by environmental taxes will certainly be important.  Most observers believe that the central criterion should be how well projects change the attitudes and behavior of those involved.  Projects will be key, but the contribution of each individual to save the planet will be even more important.

  • The recent finance law, introduced by the current government and approved by Congress, missed a valuable opportunity to adjust existing green taxes and create new ones, especially regarding progress in promoting electric vehicles, innovative renewable energy production, and control over the use of plastics other than bags. Upcoming legislation provides ample chances to expand environmental taxes to achieve these goals.  A better balance between various taxes – on capital and labor on one hand, and pollution and environmental degradation on the other – could lay the foundation for progress.

The gains made thus far underscore the importance of having a strategic vision and discipline.  Improvisation will fail; steady work, technical rigor, and political wisdom are required for progress.  An important first step will be the designation of a technical mission to head the National Planning Department, which is charged with leading and coordinating the country’s development agenda in the medium and long term.  Such a technical mission, along with the Comptroller team, can guide public debate and keep it squarely on the national public agenda.

March 1, 2019

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a CLALS research fellow and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with almost 30 years of experience in the areas of environment, sustainable development, and peace building.

Colombia: Flaws in Transitional Justice Threaten Peace Accord Implementation

By Néstor Raúl Correa*

Acuerdo de Paz Colombia Feb.15.2019 Flickr

People gather at Bogota’s Bolivar main square on September 26, 2016, to celebrate the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a central part of the Colombia Peace Accord signed in 2016, continues to stumble and is seriously, if not fatally, undermining the justice component for accountability by combatants of both sides of the conflict.  In essence a scheme of transitional justice, the JEP offered a special legal framework and exceptional judicial treatment to create the necessary conditions for peace after decades of massive, systematic violations of human rights.

  • The Accord would not only produce temporary justice; it would be negotiated justice – and it would build on other positive results such as the guerrillas’ surrender of arms and subordination to the political regime it had sought to destroy. It was centered on a quid pro quo: “You give me your weapons and, in exchange, I’ll give you softer penalties and allow you to participate in politics.”  One of three institutions established to promote reconciliation, the JEP’s mandate was to guarantee the rights of the victims.

The Peace Accord in general and the JEP specifically, however, have stumbled over multiple obstacles, in particular the opposition of segments of the Colombian populace that have not forgotten the crimes of the FARC and are interfering with the implementation of the JEP.  While every political faction has constructed its own narrative surrounding the Accord, the most radical and divisive is that of the political right.  Various factors have distorted the role of the JEP to the point that it is no longer a trustworthy reference for the conflicting parties, the victims, or citizens in general.

  • Critical constitutional and legal reforms necessary for the JEP to function, which were already thought to take at least four years, were further delayed when the Legislature diluted or postponed accountability of combatants while providing them quick relief for their crimes, especially in Amnesty Law 1820 of 2016.
  • Having eight units (three courts, four sections and one prosecutorial office) and 38 judges, the JEP was practically guaranteed to have lengthy and convoluted proceedings – a Kafkaesque labyrinth. When a guerrilla defendant has previously served in the military or as paramilitary, the process plunges into chaos.  Further complicating matters, the right has been concerned about the neutrality of current judges in the JEP, arguing that it was conceived as a FARC justice mechanism.
  • JEP management and decision-making – dominated by a handful of judges since 2018 – have become burdened with inefficiencies long present in Colombia´s justice system. Budget squabbles, bloated staffs, contract disputes, and even controversy over holidays and vacation time have become distractions.

As a result, the hope of victims on both sides of the conflict that light sanctions for those responsible for major crimes would be counterbalanced by integral and sustainable protection for themselves has vanished.  Nearly 7 million Colombians were displaced by the internal conflict (out of a total of 8,794,542 registered victims).  JEP dysfunction has denied them their voice in the processes against those who victimized them.  Victims were barred, for example, from attending the hearing of an Army Reserve general accused of murdering innocent civilians he claimed were guerrilla members killed in combat (falsos positivos), while a senior FARC commander firmly rejected victim participation as inconsistent with the Accord.  Former FARC combatants have not been held rigorously accountable.  They move freely within the country, and some FARC commanders remain in hiding and have never presented themselves.  This has further undermined civil society confidence in the JEP and the Accord.

The flaws in Colombia’s transitional justice provide valuable lessons for future peace processes.  The whole process should remain simple and expeditious, with fewer sentencing judges and proceedings.  A competent management unit, independent from the judges, should take charge of administration, including core information systems.  The role of foreign judges, particularly in cases of internal conflicts that have somehow been tainted or affect a vast number of citizens, should be increased, clarified, and protected because of the credibility, legitimacy, and independence they can bring.  It is also critical to avoid creating false expectations among victims, particularly regarding their role in judicial hearings.  An efficient, transparent judicial process provides the best guarantees of justice and effective remedies to victims and civil society.

February 15, 2019

*Néstor Raúl Correa is former Executive Secretary of JEP, a former magistrate, and currently a professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Colombia: Slow to Deal with Conflicts of Interest

By María Paula Ángel*

Image of Nestor Martínez

Nestor-fiscal.jpg / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Revelations about Colombian Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martínez’s knowledge of serious cases of corruption prior to his election is raising questions about his ability to do his job with impartiality and independence – and about the efficacy of Colombia’s anti-corruption measures.  Martínez was a legal advisor for Grupo Aval – a partner with the Brazilian firm Odebrecht on a major infrastructure project – with whom a project auditor shared his deep concerns about corruption.  In 2015, Martínez confirmed to the auditor the range of the crimes, including “bribery, money-laundering, use of false documents, improper management, abuse of confidence, fraud, aggravated theft, misappropriation,” according to recordings of unchallenged authenticity.  Martínez failed to report this knowledge to the Supreme Court when he was being considered as a potential Attorney General.  Critics point out that this case makes clear Martínez’s multiple conflicts of interest during the campaign and now as fiscal general tasked with investigating the massive Odebrecht corruption case and the death of the auditor and his son, who were poisoned to death last November.

The Colombian Constitution requires public servants to declare, under oath, their assets and income and the private interests they may have due to their private past before assuming public office, when leaving office, or when the competent authority requests it.  This Income and Asset Disclosure System (IAD), formally implemented in 1995 and managed by the Administrative Department of the Public Function (DAFP), is supposed to provide a means for monitoring inconsistencies or irregularities in officials’ declared income and assets, and for detecting and avoiding potential conflicts of interest before they occur.  Information on the Attorney General’s previous clients, for example, should have identified potential and actual conflicts of interest.  However, the system has major flaws, and it is very difficult for the state or citizens to take advantage of the information:

  • A combination of a badly designed legal framework, political resistance to implementation, resource and capacity constraints, and lack of public awareness of its usefulness hamper DAFP’s work. There are no penalties for failure to submit information.
  • The DAFP only verifies the receipt of the submitted forms; the review of the completeness and accuracy of the information is only carried out, if at all, on a random basis. Similarly, when citizens have asked for a copy of a public servant’s submission, DAFP and the official in question have – unlawfully – denied access, arguing the latter’s right to privacy.  In the rare cases that access is approved, processing and analysis are highly unlikely because documents are often handwritten.

The case of Attorney General Martínez underscores the need for Colombia to move beyond rhetoric and get serious about disclosure and accountability.  Martínez has been through the revolving door in and out of government on at least eight occasions – common for public servants.  The World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offer a range of “good practices,” elements of which are being implemented in the region – albeit also imperfectly.  Argentina has electronic data management procedures that have automated submissions and allow targeted verification of completeness and accuracy of the information more feasible for about 33,000 declarations annually.  Despite its myriad corruption scandals, Guatemala is among the countries that make disclosure compliance statistics publicly available, thus allowing citizens to hold accountable public servants that do not comply.  In Paraguay, the Criminal Appeals Court ordered the government to grant a journalist’s request for IAD submitted by public servants who occupied the highest public positions between 1998 and 2017.  Not one of these countries has adopted a comprehensive, effective approach to anti-corruption, but there is no reason that Colombia shouldn’t lead the way.

January 25, 2019

* María Paula Ángel is a researcher at the Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad (Dejusticia), in Bogotá.

A Right Turn in Latin America?

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. / Marcos Brandão / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

After a long winning streak, the left in Latin America has experienced electoral defeats in a number of former strongholds since 2015 – including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil – but the trend is not unidirectional and so far falls short of being a regional “right turn.”

  • Right wing presidents govern today in those three countries as well as Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Panama, and Peru – a scenario that is quite different from 2010, when about two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of leftist government. Democratization, financial crises, and market liberalization shaped the 1980s-90s, while mounting social discontent against neoliberal market reforms helped to produce a “left turn” that spread across the region following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.  Leftist candidates won 30 presidential elections in 11 different Latin American countries between 1998 and 2014.

The current trend lines are hardly unidirectional across the region.  Mexico, which remained under conservative government when most of the region turned toward the left after 1998, has recently elected long-time leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.  Incumbent leftist parties have been re-elected one or more times in Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.  Notably, leftist parties in some countries where they have been historically weak, such as Colombia and Honduras, have strengthened electorally and organizationally, laying the groundwork for further growth.  Leftists’ records elsewhere are mixed.  Rivalries among Ecuadorean leftists make their future uncertain.  Venezuelan President Maduro and Nicaraguan President Ortega have resorted to increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to maintain their grip on power.

  • With the possible exception of Brazil, the right’s surge is not the result of the sort of social backlash that brought the left to power. In general, the right’s victories appear to be a routine alternation of power rather than a regional wave with common starting points and driving forces.  Argentina and Chile are the two clearest examples of routine electoral alternation of power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting in contexts of economic slow-downs, corruption scandals, and social policy discontent.  In countries like Paraguay and Honduras, on the other hand, the shifts were initiated by non-electoral means – a politically motivated presidential impeachment in the former and a military coup in the latter – and then consolidated through elections after the fact.  In Brazil, the right turn can be traced back to the social protests that broke out against Dilma Rousseff’s leftist PT government in June 2013, but former conservative allies’ opportunistic impeachment of Rousseff, along with their imprisonment of former President and PT founder Lula, seriously weakened her party – paving the way for the election of anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The left in power is still strong, though probably not unbeatable today, in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, at least in part because of their roots in and strong connections with social movements.  Unlike the PT, both Bolivia’s MAS and Uruguay’s FA have managed to preserve more of their movement character and to avoid extreme forms of top-down control and professionalization.  The ability of mass popular constituencies and grass-roots activism to hold party leaders accountable and steer public policies in desired directions—a condition largely absent in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—has helped the left maintain cohesion in Bolivia and Uruguay.  This cohesion, accompanied by significant reductions of inequality, helps to explain the continued vitality of left parties in these countries.  The recent strengthening of leftist alternatives in Mexico and Colombia, moreover, should guard against facile assumptions that a region wide right turn is underway.  Conservative forces’ recent victories are better understood as a reinforcement of the post-neoliberal left-right programmatic structuring of political competition in Latin America than a unidirectional political shift to the right.  That said, Brazil wields significant political and economic influence in the region and, traditionally seen as an “early mover” in the region, may be a bellwether of the future.  The ability of President Bolsonaro and his model of governance to deliver the results that Brazilians want—and to operate within the parameters of democratic institutions—will be key factors in determining the direction and strength of the region’s rightist wave.

January 9, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.