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.

What do Latin Americans Make of the U.S. Election Campaign?

By Fulton Armstrong

Trump Wall Pope

Photo Credit: Daryl Lawson and Pingnews (modified) / YouTube and Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about Mexico and immigration by Donald Trump – leader in the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination contest – have drawn intense criticism from some Latin American leaders, but their underlying concern may be about the implications of the broad support for his populist rhetoric regardless of who wins the party’s nomination in July.  Media throughout the hemisphere are reporting highlights of the U.S. campaign, focusing mostly on immigration and its connotations for the region.  Some reports touch on the challenges to unity facing both major U.S. political parties, such as Democratic pre-candidate Bernie Sanders’s pressure on the previously unbeatable Hillary Clinton.

Most Latin American attention has gone to Trump and his statements.  His characterization of many Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists; his statement that Mexicans “bring tremendous infectious disease” into the United States; and his pledge to make Mexico pay billions of dollars for a new high wall on the border have drawn sharp rebukes from across Latin America.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto, who initially remained on the sidelines when Trump brought the immigration issue to the table in a cynical fashion, recently compared Trump with Hitler and Mussolini. Former President Calderón called him a “racist” and lamented that he is “sowing anti-American hatred around the world.”  And his predecessor, Vicente Fox, said on U.S. television that Mexico wouldn’t pay for “that f**king wall.”
  • Argentina-born Pope Francis also criticized Trump. “A man who thinks only of walls is not a Christian,” he said.  Former Colombian President and OAS Secretary General Gaviria told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer that Trump “has the typical style of a Latin American caudillo,” scaring people and putting himself up as “the solution to all their problems.”
  • Ecuadoran President Correa said, “Trump’s rhetoric is so clumsy, so vulgar, that it will stir reaction in Latin America” – which would be “very bad for the United States” but positive for Latin American “progressive tendencies.”
  • In Venezuela, President Maduro has condemned Trump’s “threats” against Latin America as “brutal” and termed him a “thief full of hate.” On the street, however, comparisons between Chávez and Trump are part of daily conversation.

Racial slurs and rhetoric about walling out immigrants are, naturally, hair-trigger issues not just for Latin Americans.  If the Trump juggernaut rolls on, however, anxieties about its implications are likely to sweep across the hemisphere – not necessarily because he will win the general election in November, but because the broad support for his rhetoric about walls and deportations suggests a widening gap between the United States and the region.  Moreover, doubts about the credibility of the U.S. political model – already battered by the contested presidential election of 2000 and the decade-long gridlock in Washington between the executive and legislative branches of government – could multiply, especially if campaign violence spreads beyond Trump rallies.  Trump’s pledge to resume “enhanced interrogation” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” of alleged Islamic extremists could further undercut U.S. moral authority.  Dismayed Republican leaders are privately floating the idea of rewriting the rules for their party convention this summer to overturn Trump’s primary victories and block his candidacy in the general election, but that too would be a spectacle that could undermine U.S. image in Latin America.  Moreover, other Republican candidates’ views may compound the problem.  Senator Ted Cruz is proud of having shut down the U.S. Government to make a political point during a skirmish with President Obama, and he and Senator Marco Rubio are fervent supporters of their party’s decision to refuse to meet with the President’s nominee to replace a recently deceased Supreme Court nominee, let alone give him or her a hearing and floor vote.  Ecuadoran President Correa’s remarks about the U.S. campaign empowering “progressive” forces is probably wishful thinking on his part, but Trump’s populism and his party’s questionable options could indeed appear contrary to some Latin American countries’ struggle to rid themselves of populist, authoritarian-style leaders.

March 14, 2016

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum Marks New Political Era

By Miguel Centellas*

Referendo Morales

Photo Credit: Organo Electoral Plurinacional de Bolivia and Alain Bachellier, respectively / Wikimedia and Flickr / Creative Commons

Bolivian voters’ rejection last week of a constitutional amendment to allow an incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term is a setback for President Evo Morales but a step forward for the country.  Both the government and opposition understood the national referendum as a plebiscite on Morales, who is now the longest serving head of state in Bolivian history.  Had the referendum passed, Morales would have been able to run for a fourth five-year term in 2019.  (Because Morales was first elected in 2005, before the new constitution was approved in 2009, the high court decided that he was eligible to run for reelection in 2014.)  During the months leading up to the referendum vote, polls showed a narrow gap between the votes in favor of the amendment and the No votes, with a large number of undecided.

As the final count began to crystalize (the official count is not yet available), it became clear that No won by a slim margin (51.3% to 48.7%).  At first, Morales and members of his government disputed the results, arguing that late-arriving rural ballots would vindicate him.  Later, they claimed opposition fraud and manipulation, including a “dirty” war waged by the opponents and the media.  Several scandals, however, appear to have been the real cause of Morales’s loss.

  • New developments in lingering accusations of fraud committed at the Fondo Indígena, an organization established to support economic, social, and political development of marginalized peoples. Government auditors last year uncovered more than a hundred incomplete or non-existent projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.  The case involved several ex-ministers in Morales’s government and leaders of his MAS party.
  • New allegations of corruption involving Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a romantic liaison of the President in 2006 who is now an executive for a Chinese-owned company (CAMC) that was awarded a large number of no-bid contracts for government development projects. Some sources claim millions of dollars have been misappropriated.  Zapata was arrested shortly after the vote.
  • Accusations that the MAS (and, implicitly, Morales) instigated angry protesters to attack the municipal building in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, killing seven people and injuring many others. The mayor, Soledad Chapetón, and La Paz provincial governor Felix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, were the first two opposition candidates to win those positions since MAS came to power.  The government dismissed the allegations and suggested that Chapetón orchestrated the violence to make herself a martyr.

The results of the referendum – and, more importantly, the frenzied reactions from Morales and other high-ranking members of his government – make the immediate future appear uncertain.  Morales accepted the results of the referendum but also ominously pointed out that there are other ways to amend the constitution.  He also dared opponents to initiate a recall referendum to remove him.  Nevertheless, some members of MAS – showing eagerness to carry the party’s wide support among Bolivians into the future – have begun publicly discussing possible successors.  Another positive sign is that Bolivia’s electoral court showed itself to be truly autonomous, bolstering opposition confidence in a key institution.  The question is whether Morales believes his party (and by extension his legacy) is worth preserving, or whether he wants to risk them for another dubious bid for reelection.  Claims that Morales’s setback is part of a “conservative tide” sweeping through Latin America may be premature, but this referendum may have repercussions elsewhere.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa’s public comments that he would not seek reelection in 2017 may now become firmer.  The day of the three- or four-term president seems over.

March 3, 2016

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

What Does Macri’s Victory Mean for Latin America’s Left Turns?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

South America right

Photo Credits: Douglas Fernandes and _Butte_ / Flickr / Creative Commons

Argentine President-elect Mauricio Macri’s actions since his historic victory last week indicate a rightward shift in domestic and foreign policy that some observers are tempted to proclaim as part of a broader Latin American trend.  He has reiterated promises of broad economic reforms and appointed a cabinet – including former JP Morgan executive and ex-Central Bank chief Alfonso Prat-Gay as his finance minister – to implement them.  He has further pledged to reverse outgoing President Fernández de Kirchner’s protectionist trade policies.  (During the campaign, advocates of unbound capitalism cheered when he named Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” as one of his favorite books.)  Macri has named Susana Malcorra, a senior aide to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with strong diplomatic credentials, to be his foreign minister and, for starters, directed her to reverse policies he judged to coddle Venezuela. The President-elect, who takes office on December 10, is speaking with the confidence of a President elected with more than a 3-point margin over Kirchnerista candidate Daniel Scioli and with control over more than the 91 seats (one third of the total 257 seats) that his Cambiemos coalition won in the lower house of Congress.  (His party is the first, however, to control simultaneously the Province of Buenos Aires, the City of Buenos Aires, and presidency.)

The temptation in some quarters to declare Macri’s victory as the beginning of the end for Latin America’s “Left Turns” is understandable but nonetheless premature.  To be sure, the Argentine electoral results coincide with other major setbacks for various currents of the Latin American left:  The Chavista project in Venezuela is crashing; Brazilian President Rousseff and her party are mired in a corruption morass and economic crisis whose combined effects may cut short her time in office; President Correa, facing a dire economic situation in Ecuador, is increasingly talking about abandoning efforts to run yet again in 2017.  Chilean President Bachelet’s low popularity and declining public support for the Vázquez government in Uruguay may be additional signs that the prospects for the “pink tide” are very much in doubt.

But in Argentina and beyond, the jury is still out.  Through no action of its own, the South American left enjoyed the multiple benefits of the decade-long commodity boom that began in 2003.  Just as its electoral successes did not indicate wholesale shifts to the left in the region – indeed political scientists have long questioned whether the evidence supports claims of a leftward shift in popular preferences – today’s parallel crises may reflect the end of of the boom rather than a rejection of left-leaning governments.  Many of the policies advanced by various currents of the “pink tide” may remain highly popular, even while they are no longer affordable.  Another tempting explanation is that Latin Americans are rejecting leaders who they perceive as corrupt, irrespective of their placement on the left-right spectrum.  In Argentina, notably, Macri hasn’t rejected the Kirchneristas’ redistributive agenda but has instead emphasized the confusing, corrupt way it has been pursued for the past 12 years.  (Never before has an Argentine rightist portrayed eliminating poverty as a core priority.)  It may well be that voters understand economic slowdowns and dysfunction as a product of corruption rather than the fallout from declines in historically high commodity prices.

Regardless of the underlying drivers of electoral change and public disillusion with incumbents, it’s fair to ask if the left’s current travails and the right’s resurgence will open the way toward more accountable political leadership, whatever its ideological proclivities, or just signal an alternation of power.  Like Macri in Argentina, a new cohort of Latin American leaders will have to prove that they are more than outsiders drawing on sentiment to throw out the incumbent rascals.  The question is whether they pursue policies that make democracy more transparent, expand meaningful political participation, and sustain the social gains that have been achieved by the pink tide governments that now appear to be on the ropes.

December 2, 2015

A Post-Correa Ecuador?

By Catherine Conaghan*

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

What seemed like a certainty less than a year ago – Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa as a shoo-in for reelection in 2017 – now has given way to competing scenarios as the country’s economic crisis deepens.  The game-changer has been the collapse in revenues from Ecuador’s principal export: petroleum.  With prices for Ecuadorian crude hovering 50 percent below their 2014 average, Correa has had little choice but to slash the abundant government spending that has been the hallmark of his presidency.  Ecuador’s use of the U.S. dollar greatly handicaps its capacity to adjust.  Further aggravating the recession is the economic downturn of Ecuador’s principal external lender, China.  Over $2 billion have been cut from the 2015 budget, and plans to shrink the size of the public bureaucracy are now under way.  His decision in April to suspend the central government’s obligatory payments to the national social security system stoked anxiety about the fund’s future, and an announcement in June of plans to hike taxes on inheritance and real estate transactions sparked street demonstrations around the country.  Indigenous and labor organizations mobilized in mid-August to protest these and other aspects of Correa’s style of governing.  An estimated crowd of 100,000 people marched in Quito.  Scores of protestors were detained and face charges related to the August mobilizations.

The months ahead will not be easy for a president accustomed to buoyant budgets and strong polls.  As one of Latin America’s left-turn leaders, he pushed a state-centric economic model under which poverty declined and the middle class grew.  His approval ratings since he took office in 2007 consistently scored among the highest of any Latin American president.  (They dipped below 50 percent – as low as 42 percent – for the first time in 2015.)  While Correa waxes and wanes on whether he really will pursue reelection, his party is pushing to amend the Constitution through legislation – without a referendum supported by over 80 percent of the public – to allow him a third term.  The opposition strenuously opposes the move.  The National Assembly appears headed toward a final vote on the matter in December.

From now until December, the reelection maneuvering and two possible outcomes will dominate conversations.  Under one scenario, Correa and Alianza País will push ahead with the amendment, ignoring negative public reaction and repressing protests if necessary, and Correa will decide on his candidacy depending on his view of the economy and the state of the opposition.  In a second and perhaps less likely scenario, Correa and his party may just abandon the reelection plan, concluding that the political costs are just too high.  This would set off power struggles within Alianza País over who would head the ticket.  Among the prospective frontrunners are former Vice President Lenín Moreno, current Vice President Jorge Glas, Production Minister (and former Ambassador to the United States) Nathalie Cely, and former Industry Minister-turned-critic Ramiro González.  In the process, Correa will be looking to anoint someone loyal and capable of governing the country until he can return as a candidate in 2021.  Under both of these scenarios, Ecuador is bracing for a volatile year ahead.  Natural disasters – a possible volcanic eruption of Mount Cotopaxi and El Niño – could also fuel uncertainty, giving Correa a chance to shine and rally, or to fail and deepen doubts about his leadership.  After eight years of relative political stability and economic good times, Ecuadorians are pondering whether a post-Correa era could be at hand and what it would mean.

September 8, 2015

* Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Canada’s Queen’s University and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

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

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

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

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

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

March 12, 2015

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

CELAC: Losing Relevance?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro of their intention to normalize diplomatic relations could leave a big hole in the agenda of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met January 28-29 for its third heads of state Summit in San José, Costa Rica.  Raúl Castro kicked off last year’s summit, in Havana, with a speech decrying the United States NSA spying scandal.  In San José, he moderated his tone, noting that “our America has entered a new era” since CELAC was founded (2010) while also calling on the U.S. to end the trade embargo – a point other member states echoed – and to return the naval station at Guantanamo Bay.  In concrete terms, the results of last week’s CELAC summit were modest.  The technocratic goals of quantifying progress on poverty and technology development announced by Ecuador, the group’s 2015-2016 President Pro-Tempore, suggest no major changes are imminent.

Since President Chávez’s death March 5, 2013, the former leader’s Bolivarian vision of Latin American and Caribbean integration and unity has shown signs of weakening.  CELAC now faces even tougher challenges defining and defending its identity and mission beyond the creation of a common political space for regional decision making insulated from the U.S. and Canada.  With Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, losing support amid economic crisis, the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) can no longer throw its weight around on the international scene.  Cuba’s inclusion in the Summit of the Americas – increasing the likelihood of its participation in the OAS – is a major achievement but represents the loss of a major rallying point. 

Going forward, three issues will determine the groups trajectory.  The Cuba issue wont go away suddenly, but rapid change in U.S.-Cuba ties could reset hemispheric relations and leave CELACs mission muddled and potentially irrelevant.  Disagreement among CELAC members over issues such as Puerto Ricos status may create tensions, as they did when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave the island a high profile during the presidential plenary underlining the risks inherent in the unity within diversity principle embraced by CELAC.  (Ecuadoran President Correa, another ALBA supporter, chided Ortega.)  But perhaps the biggest determinant of the groups future relevance lies in its emerging relationship with ChinaA CELAC-China foreign ministers forum met in Beijing last month, formalizing the Asian nations relationship with CELAC.  The forum announced the 2015-2019 China-CELAC cooperation plan calling for the doubling of two-way trade and the increasing of Chinese investment in the region to $250 billion.  Exclusion of the U.S. and Canada may remain a tenet of CELACs platform, but the groups leaders may judge that its long-term relevance can be rescued by reaching out to China instead.

February 2, 2015

*Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession

By Eric Hershberg

Embed from Getty Images

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is proof that being anointed successor by one’s patron on their deathbed isn’t adequate preparation for governing effectively or consolidating a revolutionary legacy.  Although being Hugo Chávez’s man got him into office, it obviously hasn’t been enough for Maduro to stem growing economic, political, and crime problems.  One element behind these protests is a widespread perception – including among some supporters of chavismo – that Maduro is a pale reflection of his benefactor and not up to the task of leading Venezuela.  Chávez hand-picked him in a hasty and half-hearted manner, and he didn’t bequeath to him a coherent set of policies, practices, or institutions that could ensure the continued advance of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Maduro inherited a state that was so weak institutionally and so dependent on Chávez personally that the jury remains out as to whether he has the capacity to keep all the pieces of Chávez’s legacy intact.

The Venezuelan president’s rocky road reflects the difficulty of the renovation of political leadership across ALBA nations.  Rather than nurture successors capable of carrying forward the transformations begun by founding leaders, one president after another has followed Chávez’s lead in dealing with the future by focusing primarily on extending their terms of office.  This past January Nicaragua’s national assembly cleared the way for Daniel Ortega, president since 2007, to run for a third term in 2016.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa likewise won a third consecutive term in 2013.  Last May Bolivia passed a law allowing Evo Morales to run for an unprecedented third term in 2014.  In none of these cases has the leadership sought to build the credentials of potential successors in the presidency, in stark contrast to what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did with Dilma Rousseff or what Ricardo Lagos did with Michelle Bachelet.  This phenomenon is not unique to left-leaning governments – Alvaro Uribe and Alberto Fujimori, for instance, suffered similar temptations –, but it seems endemic to the ALBA governments and is particularly troubling to the extent that these are instances where the leadership aims to effect wholesale, lasting societal transformations through its enduring control over the state apparatus.

There is a distinctive sort of hyper-presidentialism emerging throughout the ALBA nations.  Chávez, Correa, Morales, and Ortega’s concentration of power in their own personas makes it particularly hard for future leaders to emerge.  Their political projects embody aspirations for fundamental societal transformations.  In that sense, they can reasonably be categorized as what the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci would label as historic projects, and even revolutionary ones.  But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run.  Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on.  This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on.  The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency.  Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step.  Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.  While their frequent successes in displacing traditional elites and thwarting well-financed oppositions are impressive, it is striking that they fail to build political institutions and leaderships capable of carrying on their own visions and political projects after they pass.  The ALBA presidents may calculate that dismantling the ancien regime is legacy enough, but history may judge them harshly for delaying the emergence of more effective and enduring institutions, and of leaders who can push their projects forward for many administrations to come.

What does the New Year hold for Latin America?

We’ve invited AULABLOG’s contributors to share with us a prediction or two for the new year in their areas of expertise.  Here are their predictions.

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S.-Latin America relations will deteriorate further as there will be little movement in Washington on immigration reform, the pace of deportations, narcotics policy, weapons flows, or relations with Cuba.  Steady progress toward consolidating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, will catalyze a shared economic agenda with market-oriented governments in Chile, Mexico, Peru and possibly Colombia, depending on how election-year politics affects that country’s trade stance.

– Eric Hershberg

The energy sector will be at the core of the economic and political crises many countries in the Americas will confront in 2014.  Argentina kicked off the New Year with massive blackouts and riots.  Bolivia, the PetroCaribe nations, and potentially even poster child Chile are next.

– Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Unprecedented success of Mexico’s Peña Nieto passing structural reforms requiring constitutional amendments that eluded three previous administrations spanning 18 years, are encouraging for the country’s prospects of faster growth.  Key for 2014: quality and expediency of secondary implementing legislation and effectiveness in execution of the reforms.

– Manuel Suarez-Mier

Mexico may be leading the way, at least in the short term, with exciting energy sector reforms, which if fully executed, could help bring Mexico’s oil industry into the 21st Century, even if this means discarding, at least partly, some of the rhetorical nationalism which made Mexico’s inefficient and romanticized parastatal oil company – Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) – a symbol of Mexican national pride.  Let’s see if some of the proceeds from the reforms and resulting production boosts can fortify ideals of the Mexican Revolution by generating more social programs to diminish inequality, and getting rid of the bloat and corruption at PEMEX.

– Todd Eisenstadt

Brazil is without a doubt “the country of soccer,” as Brazilians like to say.  If Brazil wins the world cup in June, Dilma will also have an easy win in the presidential elections.  But if it loses, Dilma will have to deal with new protests and accusations of big spending to build soccer fields rather than improving education and health.

– Luciano Melo

Brazilian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo deep changes, although emphasis could shift in some areas.  Brazil will insist on multilateral solutions – accepting, for example, the invitation to participate at a “five-plus-one” meeting on Syria.  The WTO Doha Round will remain a priority.  Foreign policy does not appear likely to be a core issue in the October general elections.  If economic difficulties do not grow, Brazil will continue to upgrade its international role.

– Tullo Vigevani

In U.S.-Cuba relations, expect agreements on Coast Guard search and rescue, direct postal service, oil spill prevention, and – maybe – counternarcotics.  Warming relations could set the stage for releasing Alan Gross (and others?) in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five (soon to be three).  But normalizing relations is not in the cards until Washington exchanges its regime change policy for one of real coexistence.  A handshake does not make for a détente.

– William M. LeoGrande

A decline in the flow of Venezuelan resources to Cuba will impact the island’s economy, but the blow will be cushioned by continued expansion of Brazilian investment and trade and deepened economic ties with countries outside the Americas.

– Eric Hershberg

In a non-election year in Venezuela, President Maduro will begin to incrementally increase the cost of gasoline at the pump, currently the world’s lowest, and devalue the currency – but neither will solve deep economic troubles.  Dialogue with the opposition, a new trend, will endure but experience fits and starts.  The country will not experience a social explosion, and new faces will join Capriles to round out a more diverse opposition leadership.  Barring a crisis requiring cooperation, tensions with the United States will remain high but commerce will be unaffected.

– Michael McCarthy

Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC won’t be resolved by the May 2014 elections, which President Santos will win easily – most likely in the first round.  There will be more interesting things going on in the legislative races.  Former President Uribe will win a seat in the Senate.  Other candidates in his party will win as well – probably not as many as he would like but enough for him to continue being a big headache for the Santos administration.  Colombia’s economy will continue to improve, and the national football team will put up a good fight in the World Cup.

– Elyssa Pachico

Awareness of violence against women will keep increasing.  Unfortunately, the criminalization of abortion or, in other words, forcing pregnancy on women, will still be treated by many policy makers and judges as an issue unrelated to gender violence.

– Macarena Saez

In the North American partnership, NAFTA’s anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the trilateral relationship – leaving behind the campaign rhetoric and looking forward. The leaders will hold a long-delayed summit and offer some small, but positive, measures on education and infrastructure. North America will be at the center of global trade negotiations.

– Tom Long

The debate over immigration reform in Washington will take on the component parts of the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Both parties could pat themselves on the back heading into the mid-term elections by working out a deal, most likely trading enhanced security measures for a more reasonable but still-imposing pathway to citizenship.

– Aaron Bell

The new government in Honduras will try to deepen neoliberal policies, but new political parties, such as LIBRE and PAC, will make the new Congress more deliberative. Low economic growth and deterioration in social conditions will present challenges to governability.

– Hugo Noé Pino

In the northern tier of Central America, despite new incoming presidents in El Salvador and Honduras, impunity and corruption will remain unaddressed.  Guatemala’s timid reform will be the tiny window of hope in the region.  The United States will still appear clueless about the region’s growing governance crisis.

– Héctor Silva

Increased tension will continue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship.  The implementation of the ruling in 2014 through repatriation will be met with international pressure for the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

— Maribel Vásquez

In counternarcotics policy, eyes will turn to Uruguay to see how the experiment with marijuana plays out. Unfortunately, it is too small an experiment to tell us anything. Instead, the focus will become the growing problem of drug consumption in the region.

– Steven Dudley

Eyeing a late-year general election and possible third term, Bolivian President Evo Morales will be in campaign mode throughout 2014.  With no real challengers, Morales will win, but not in a landslide, as he fights with dissenting indigenous groups and trade unionists, a more divisive congress, the U.S., and Brazil.

– Robert Albro

In Ecuador, with stable economic numbers throughout 2014, President Rafael Correa will be on the offensive with his “citizen revolution,” looking to solidify his political movement in local elections, continuing his war on the press, while promoting big new investments in hydroelectric power.

– Robert Albro

Determined to expand Peru’s investment in extractive industries and maintain strong economic growth, President Ollanta Humalla will apply new pressure on opponents of proposed concessions, leading to fits and starts of violent conflict throughout 2014, with the president mostly getting his way.

– Robert Albro

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.