Local Ownership in Peacebuilding, Colombian style

By Angelika Rettberg*

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“Colombian peace is our American peace.” / urban_lenny / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amid the increased political juggling in Colombia as the government’s peace deal with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) has advanced, one key lesson is that the nature of “local ownership” will have an impact on its success or failure. After the razor-thin victory of the agreement’s opponents in the referendum on October 2 propelled the country into uncertainty, its proponents – buttressed by the informal deadline created by the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Juan Manuel Santos on December 10 – tried a different track. Instead of calling for a new referendum, as many expected, the government appears to have learned its lesson about the perils of direct democracy and sent the new agreement to Congress, where it was approved by an undisputed majority in both houses. A Constitutional Court ruling on December 13 gave Congress fast-track authority to approve required changes in the law, paving the way for implementation. Meanwhile, FARC fighters have begun moving toward the more than 20 camps in which complete disarmament is expected to conclude by June 2017.

The country’s shifting approach to the accord has been caused by uneven local ownership. As scholars and practitioners alike underscore, broad participation in transitional countries must be involved in order to achieve sustainable peace. To avoid difficulties such as those experienced by Guatemala, where many felt the agreement was imposed by international actors, societies need to feel that agreements and the resulting commitments have been developed bottom-up, or at least with domestic actors. The Colombian process was touted as one “by Colombians for Colombians.” International participation was intentionally kept to a low profile and key players in the negotiations were all Colombians. But when the results of the October referendum temporarily pushed the country back to square one – “Nada está acordado” – it became clear that local ownership in this case had a broader meaning: Paradoxically, submitting the agreement to the popular will did not cause collective responsibility behind it to surge but rather gave a boost to people’s sense that they had the democratic right to reject the deal altogether. Similarly, despite the actions of Congress and the Constitutional Court, debate on how the agreement will be translated into action is taking place within and among the domestic institutions, including the Presidency, Congress, the courts, and several control organisms.

Colombia’s peace deal has powerfully posed the question not of whether to include popular opinion in peace deals, but how to do so in the most constructive way. The result will be very much a reflection of the Colombian people’s and their institutions’ capabilities to negotiate and establish priorities and to design policy accordingly. After all, peace is a public policy. The Colombian case thus holds many lessons for peacebuilding in general, and for the potential tensions and dilemmas needed to balance peace, majoritarian democracy, public opinion, and justice. The agreement itself may turn into a moving target as different sectors on all sides of the debate seek to steer implementation toward their interests. Regardless of what happens, the quality of “local ownership” will be central to determining the shapes and contents – and the durability – of Colombian peace.

December 22, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is a Professor of Political Science at La Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

Success of the Implementation of the Peace Accord Depends on Real Participation

By Christian Wlaschütz*

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A march for peace in Colombia after the failure of the October 2016 plebiscite. / Leon Hernandez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The same thing that caused the Colombian government to fail to win the plebiscite on its peace agreement with the FARC in October – a deficient understanding of participation – could complicate implementation of the version of the agreement approved by the Congress last week.  Congressional approval on November 30 is occasion for joy and expectation, but it is also a moment for reflection.  That failure was caused not only by disagreements about political participation and justice issues, but also by the government’s consistently deficient understanding of the meaning of participation in its broader sense, beyond politics, and an over-reliance on the desirability of “peace” in the absence of tangible benefits.  Since negotiations began in 2012, several partial accords on issues such as land reform, political participation, and victims were achieved and publicized.  Unlike the negotiations between the government of former President Uribe and the paramilitary groups a decade ago, there was clarity about the process, the results of the specific negotiations, and the way forward.  President Santos’s decision to submit the final accord to a plebiscite, however, changed the public dynamic significantly and revealed several shortcomings in the government’s strategy regarding communication and participation.

  • Participation has been inadequately understood as a space for the public to be informed and to listen – rather than for the government to listen. Massive public events gave the political elite the opportunity to speak about the process, with only a few moments for the listeners to ask questions.  While many written proposals were submitted to the negotiation process, no comment or feedback was ever given.  This one-way communication did not help the public balance the benefits and costs of the peace process, and there was an enormous gap between the informed, mostly urban circles of academics, organized civil society, and other political and economic actors and the people in the urban and rural peripheries of the country.
  • The distance between elites who negotiated “peace” and the very poor living conditions of many people on the ground transformed peace into an abstract term void of tangible significance. Talk of peace dividends lacked a real connection to people’s everyday experience of corruption, deficient state services, and increasing insecurity.  The high abstention rate in the plebiscite – 63 percent –is clear evidence of the disconnect.
  • Indeed, “peace” has remained a distant objective claimed by many generations of Colombians. Since almost nobody has real experience with what peace is like, how it feels and changes life, the motivation to make deals on things such as justice in exchange was limited.  In contrast, terms such as impunity or privileges for criminals have an authentic meaning based on experience, helping the NO campaign discredit the peace accord.

Despite the Congressional approval, enthusiasm for the peace process has waned in comparison to two months ago, when the first version was solemnly signed in Cartagena.  Even though no plebiscite was legally required on either version, the lack of a second plebiscite has left a bitter taste behind – as if the accord were pushed through despite popular rejection.  Also troubling is a wave of assassinations and threats against civil society leaders.  According to the Jesuit Research Center CINEP, 31 leaders have been killed in the last three months; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counts 57 assassinations in the course of this year.

The legitimacy and success of implementation of the accord will depend on more authentic participatory methods to plan and implement the politically controversial issues of reintegration, land reform, justice, and the creation of a political party by the FARC.  Real participation – with space for exchange, debate, and the certainty of having a stake in the process – would foster shared responsibility for the successful implementation of the accords.  It would also help the people to grasp the benefits of peace and, therefore, the need to make compromises.  The contents of the accord are sufficiently comprehensive to end the armed conflict; whether or not it also helps to transform a structurally unequal society will depend to a great extent on the way participation is defined.  Only with broad participation will the communities protect and support the peace process.

December 6, 2016

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

Colombia: University Professors Appeal for post-Referendum Solution

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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At a march for peace in Bogotá, Colombia, a woman holds a sign that states, “We are the generation of peace.” / Agencia Prensa Rural / Flickr / Creative Commons

A group of Colombian university professors have organized an appeal to their colleagues in and outside the country to sign a petition “requesting an effective solution without delay” to overcome the impasse created by rejection of the peace accord on October 2.  The text of the petition, which currently has more than 1,700 cosigners, is as follows:

[We] university professors, from different disciplines, universities, and regions, join our voices with those underscoring the urgent need to reach, as soon as possible, a final Accord to end the conflict with the FARC.  Delay poses enormous risks.  It is essential to set, with all urgency, an agenda for talks limited to points requiring discussion, with concrete and viable proposals for modifying the existing text.  Reflecting the extremely close results in the October 2 plebiscite, the agenda should address the concerns of the No voters, who won the vote, while respecting the voice of the equally numerous Yes voters, who supported a text that cannot be wholly reevaluated, as well as those who did not speak at the polls.

The result of the plebiscite on Sunday [2 October] provides the unique opportunity to adjust the existing Accord in a way that draws a majority of society.  Capitalizing on that opportunity is the responsibility of all sides:  the FARC, the representatives of No, and those of Yes.  The plebiscite leaves no doubt – and the mobilizations in the streets and social media confirm – that society demands that all be flexible in their positions.  That’s what the youth demand as they convoke marches and other actions to push a quick Agreement, and which we support without hesitation.

The professors are an important voice of society and, as the statement explicitly states, of young people throughout the country who aspire to have a peaceful future.  The statement dodges specifics on what needs to be changed in the accord, but its assumption that sufficient pressure can be brought on all parties, including those who opposed the accord, to find common ground is credible.  Appeals such as this – unprecedented in the sheer number as well as in the wide range of institutions, disciplines, and regions that are represented – will be a good test of the capacity of Colombian civil society, such as the Academy, to push compromise, and for others, such as the economic elites, to achieve compromise.  Agreement may emerge, for example, to move discussion of certain social issues, such as those that riled some religious groups, into another venue so they aren’t an obstacle to agreement on war-and-peace issues.  The professors have their finger on the pulse of the nation and grasp the underlying political, economic, and social drivers of peace – and their optimism that neither side will come to a new negotiating table with dealbreakers is probably more warranted than anyone else’s.

Click here to see the original Spanish version of the petition.

October 14, 2016

Colombia: Peace by Pieces

By Angelika Rettberg*

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Photo Credit: Government of Venezuela / Public Domain.

Despite challenges ahead, the Colombian state’s confrontation with one of the longest active revolutionary groups in the Western Hemisphere appears likely to reach closure by December.  As Colombian writer Héctor Abad has said, the peace agreement preliminary signed on August 24 is long, imprecise, often ambiguous, and tedious – certainly not a piece of entertaining literature – but it is the most eagerly awaited, downloaded, shared, and controversial official document in recent Colombian history.  The signatures of Colombian President Santos and FARC leader “Timochenko” are still pending, as is the result of a national plebiscite, to be held on October 2.

  • Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, defined the agreement as the “best possible” – a lukewarm description that fits well a process that has been rather anti-climactic. President Santos, who started the peace process and staked his reelection (which he barely won) on it two years ago, was more emotional and said, “Today, August 24th, we can say that hope has become reality.”
  • The agreement has already made permanent a cease-fire between the two sides. FARC fighters have begun to gather in the areas in which they will hand in their weapons and await the initiation of transitional justice proceedings.

Even if “yes” wins in the upcoming plebiscite – as surveys now predict – this peace by pieces presents challenges.  The accord has accomplished more than any Colombian process before and, by many normative international and academic standards, has been better designed and more professionally negotiated than any other Colombian accord.  It does not seem, however, to awaken most Colombians’ enthusiasm.  A generalized apathy or, in many cases, open disapproval of the negotiations can be linked to the absence of a sense of conflict-related crisis, especially in urban areas, where there has been a steady decline in battle-related casualties for years.  In addition, as the World Bank and international media have reported, Colombia’s economic performance has been steadily improving.  No longer the Andean problem case, Colombia is now a preferred destination for international investment in Latin America.  The “paradox of plenty, Colombian style” – success in promoting security and investment amid conflict resulting – has ended up eroding support of peace negotiations.

International support for several peace-building tasks will not translate into enormous amounts of desperately needed resources.  FARC demobilization, victims’ reparations, and addressing the needs of the most conflict-affected regions of the country will carry a big price tag for years to come.  Most economic and political resources for implementing the agreements will need to be raised domestically, and local authorities and communities will be increasingly reluctant to prioritize the needs of conflict-related social groups.  In addition, much needed fiscal reform will further affect political support for the government.  A core group of economic elites have backed negotiations unconditionally and have been well represented at the table.  However, the costs and vagaries of the implementation process will strain the support of peace´s crucial allies.  In this context, it will be difficult for any leading candidate to fully endorse the agreements in the upcoming presidential election of 2018.  Considering these limitations, not only the peace agreement, but also the resulting change, may only be “the best possible.”

September 7, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department, Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá.

UNASUR and the Venezuelan Hot Potato

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Ernesto Samper UNASUR

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Venezuelan crisis, which the hemisphere has turned to UNASUR to resolve, could break the South American organization and overshadow its past successes in regional mediation.  UNASUR was created in 2008, amid the proliferation of regional organizations such as ALBA that excluded the United States and Canada, as an inter-governmental mechanism to promote regional autonomy, conflict prevention and resolution, and the coordination of public policies, particularly regarding social issues, security, infrastructure, and energy.  It has been driven by individual presidents’ leadership and managed by high-ranking officials and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, has not shown deep commitment to greater civil society participation.  Among its important successes have been defusing internal conflicts in Bolivia and Ecuador, as well helping reduce tensions between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Colombia and Venezuela.  In years past, the group’s effectiveness raised questions about the OAS’s comparative ability to deal with regional conflicts.

In recent years, however, UNASUR has suffered decline.  As the commodities boom ended, regional economies were hit hard, and internal political factors started to change the political map, undermining leftist governments and enabling the election of center-right governments less committed to the UNASUR vision.  This coincided with the profound decline of Venezuela as it fell into the abyss of hyperinflation, debt, scarcity, criminality, and debilitating political instability.  The Venezuelan opposition’s achievement of a parliamentary majority last December, after 17 years of Chavista hegemony, brought no relief as the government reacted with an all-out effort to block it.  UNASUR, which first sought to foster a dialogue between the government and the opposition in 2013, has repeatedly failed to broker a solution.  In May 2016 the organization turned to three former heads of state – Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Dominican Lionel Fernández, and Panamanian Martín Torrijos – to attempt mediation again, to no avail so far.  The government continues to resist change, and the opposition, in addition to remaining firm in its demands of a recall vote to remove Maduro and the unconditional release of political prisoners, has shown persistent mistrust of UNASUR and its representatives, whom they perceive as allies of the government. Such suspicions may not be unfounded, considering Zapatero’s objections regarding the participation of some relevant opposition leaders in the dialogue process.

For the first time in its almost 10 years of existence, UNASUR faces potential failure in its attempt to solve a strategically important political crisis in the region.  To hold off an initiative by OAS Secretary General Almagro to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the OAS Assembly called on UNASUR and the former presidents to renew mediation efforts yet again last month, but neither Maduro nor the opposition has budged from their fundamental positions.  The situation is, again, stalled.  Indeed, in the context of declarations, extraordinary sessions, initiatives and trips, the commitment to end the crisis in Venezuela still appears quite limited among OAS members, including UNASUR.  Governments supporting dialogue seem most eager to avoid risking valuable political capital both in the domestic and the international spheres.  Neither UNASUR nor the OAS is prepared to handle the Venezuelan hot potato, and both stand to lose credibility for this failure.  But UNASUR’s general lack of leadership and direction in recent years suggests that failure in this crisis, with implications beyond Venezuela’s borders, would be potentially fatal to the organization.  UNASUR, with previous achievements in social, political and regional matters, must now prove that it is still a viable regional mechanism, able to deal collectively with the political turbulence of a changing regional landscape.

July 6, 2016

* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont are members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.

Colombia’s Last Day of War?

By Aaron T. Bell and Fulton Armstrong

Peace Signing Colombia

Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia’s half-century-old war entered its final stages yesterday as President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana, but the successful implementation of a comprehensive peace accord still faces several uphill battles.  The five key agenda items of peace talks that began in 2012 have now been agreed upon, and the final details are expected to be hashed out by the time Colombia celebrates its independence day on July 20.  The FARC has pledged that its 7,000 soldiers will enter “Temporary Hamlet Zones of Normalization” once a final accord is signed and finish turning over their weapons to a United Nations mission within 180 days.  After signing the ceasefire, a teary-eyed “Timochenko” – the FARC’s top commander – proclaimed, “May this be the last day of war,” while President Santos celebrated that “We worked for peace in Colombia, a dream that is now becoming reality.”

One major hurdle that remains to a final peace accord is the fulfillment of President Santos’s pledge to subject it to a plebiscite.  In an interview last week, the president cautioned against any notion that a “no” vote will produce a better deal and instead warned that such an outcome would mean a return to war.  Recent polls show that 60 percent of the population says that they’ll vote yes in support of a peace accord, but the Centro Nacional de Consultoría reports that Colombians’ worst fear, which could sink approval, is that one or both sides will fail to meet its commitments.  Another poll suggests that 77 percent of Colombians do not want the FARC to participate in politics, a suggestion that Timochenko has rejected.  Former President Álvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party have led the charge against peace talks under the slogan “Yes to peace but not like this,” and they are unlikely to stop now despite Uribe’s pledge yesterday “not to react to the impulse of first impressions.”  Uribe and his supporters have accused Santos in the past of “handing over the country to the FARC,” and 37 percent of Colombians have reported feeling that the government is conceding too much.  They are not entirely alone in this estimate, as even generally neutral observers like Human Rights Watch have suggested that the transitional justice provisions – which will provide reduced sentences to those guerrillas who confess their crimes – let the FARC off the hook.

The signing of a peace agreement between the two sides is indeed historic, but Santos and Timochencko affixing their signatures to the document is just the beginning of another arduous process.  Winning the referendum will require Santos to show vigorous political leadership and enforce greater discipline on his own cabinet team, some of whom have been less than enthusiastic in support of an accord.  Even approval in the plebiscite will of course not immediately resolve the many security challenges facing Colombia.  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia, has noted that the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament could create a power vacuum in rural areas.  Turf wars over coca cultivation, cocaine processing, and the drug trade in which the FARC has been deeply involved since the 1990s are likely to continue, while neo-paramilitaries will likely to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.  In addition, government negotiations with the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) have been slow to start.  The international community can help with some of these issues, as it has in supporting the years-long peace process, but the real work will need to be done by Santos and his supporters.  Santos’s presidency and the long-term success of any accords rest on his ability to ensure public support, not only now but in the future, as he enters the final years in office.

June 24, 2016

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

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Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.