U.S.-Guatemala: Are Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales Brothers in Arms?

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2018. / Executive Office of the President of the United States / Wikimedia

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ announcement last month that he would not reauthorize the joint Guatemala-United Nations anti-corruption commission to remain in the country apparently was made with confidence that President Trump would approve, or at least turn a blind eye.  Morales’ gambit followed months of public threats against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating and prosecuting high-profile organized crime and corruption cases for over a decade.

  • His attempt to revoke CICIG’s authority and refusal to allow CICIG’s highly respected lead prosecutor, Iván Velásquez, to re-enter Guatemala after a trip to the United States are widely understood as intended to halt investigations into Morales’ own alleged illegal campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. Even after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the nation’s highest judicial authority – ordered Morales to allow Velásquez entry, the president refused to budge.
  • Some U.S. politicians have joined in the international condemnation of Morales’ efforts – 23 members of the U.S. Senate and House wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asserting that he “must counter” the maneuver. But the Trump administration has remained largely silent; Pompeo in early September reiterated U.S. “support for Guatemalan sovereignty” – code for a hands-off policy – and, using words similar to those Morales has used in advocating dilution of CICIG’s mandate, announced his backing for a “reformed CICIG.”

Several explanations for Washington’s soft approach to Morales’ action have emerged.  Some pundits muse that the administration is repaying him for relocating the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when the United States did.  Others opine that Trump fears pushing Guatemala into China’s arms amid reports that it will follow El Salvador’s recent decision to break relations with Taiwan.  Yet another, less strategic and more personal explanation might illuminate the equivocation – that Trump simply empathizes with Morales because they have a lot in common.

  • Both first emerged in the public eye as TV personalities. While Trump was building his brand on “reality TV,” Morales hosted a popular daytime talk show, where he became known for lowbrow comedic antics that included blackface.  In their campaigns, they fed on simmering discontent about the corruption of the political establishment, and trumpeted their lack of political experience as a prime reason to vote for them.  They both defeated the former first ladies of left-leaning presidents considered by large swaths of their electorates as corrupt.
  • More importantly, both presidents face far-reaching criminal investigations that have cast long shadows over their first years in office. Despite Trump’s vociferous denials to the contrary, the Special Counsel investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election has been a constant thorn in his side.  CICIG, whose investigations into former President Pérez Molina were pivotal to his arrest and impeachment, has represented an existential threat to the Morales administration since the day he took office in 2015.  CICIG’s work put his son and brother behind bars for fraud.  (Trump’s son and son-in-law are reportedly under investigation too.)  CICIG has doggedly pursued investigations against Morales and his supporters in Congress for illegal campaign financing, among numerous other charges.

The two presidents’ efforts to resist and deride the investigations into their activities expose perhaps the most striking (and disturbing) of their shared affinities.  To protect themselves, they appear willing to tarnish and undermine public institutions integral to democracy and law and order.  Trump attacks the free press and the FBI as “deep state” conspirators.  Morales has aligned with members of the Guatemalan Congress to give immunity from prosecution to politicians in office accused of a laundry list of crimes, contravening a fight against powerful criminal organizations embedded in government.  By violating decrees by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Morales has placed his administration on a collision course with the nation’s constitutional order.

  •  The potential long-term damage to democratic institutions suggests that the “democratic wave” that swept across the Americas in the second half of the 20th century has crested. Under the Trump administration, the United States now risks becoming a beacon for anti-democratic politicians like Morales across the hemisphere, giving political cover and guidance to those who would hasten democracy’s demise for the sake of power.  The rule of law in liberal democracies is predicated on transparency and accountability – and is threatened by executive intimidation of institutional checks and balances.

October 2, 2018

*Anthony W. Fontes is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

Paraguay: Stormy First Month for New President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Mario Abdo Benítez

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez. / Marcos Corrêa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over a month into his five-year term, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez is already being challenged by corruption scandals – including allegations against himself – and internal party squabbling, but he is continuing efforts to build his image as an ambitious reformer.  While emphasizing continuity with the previous administration’s economic policies – focusing on export-fueled growth, low taxes, and domestic investment – Abdo Benítez’s push for certain reforms is ruffling feathers.

  • In the wake of protests against highly publicized corruption and influence-trafficking cases involving national legislators and top judges, Abdo Benítez based his campaign on a pledge to fight government and judicial corruption though deep reforms. In his inauguration speech, he called for immediate priority to be given to comprehensive reform of the national judicial system.  Three days after taking office, he called on all political parties – including those without representation in the National Congress – to join a national debate on constitutional reform.

The president, however, faces a number of challenges to his image and leadership.

  • During the campaign, he distanced himself from the legacy of his father, who was a top aide to Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), but a visit he made to his father’s grave after voting on election day and his use of Stroessner’s white Chevrolet on inauguration day fueled apprehensions about his commitment to democracy.
  • He is being buffeted by allegations that he has ties with drug traffickers. Social media have publicized a picture of the president in his home with his arm around drug kingpin Reinaldo Javier “Cucho” Cabaña, who was arrested earlier this month.  He has denied receiving money from Cabaña and said that he did not recognize the man – that he had taken “millions of photos” with sympathizers who came to his house to express support during the campaign.
  • One of his closest allies in the congress, Ulises Quintana, was also indicted this month for alleged involvement in “Cucho’s” international drug trafficking network. Another close ally facing corruption charges is Miguel Cuevas, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who stands accused of illicit enrichment while in office and who has become the new main target of the anti-corruption protest groups.
  • A faction within his party, the Cartistas —allies of former President Horacio Cartes – has been holding back on support Abdo Benítez’s reforms. They claim his call for inclusive debate, rather than negotiating directly with them before opening to other parties, was a sign of bad faith, and they have not agreed to join the talks.
  • The president also faces challenges from the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), whose leader says he supports reforming the constitution, even drafting a new one, but that it should be based on a “national agenda” – not only Abdo Benítez’s priorities. PLRA and other parties are concerned that a key purpose of the reforms is open the way to presidential reelection, which has long been a goal of the Cartistas.  They also claim the president is appointing cronies to positions that require technical expertise, such as management posts at the Itaipú power plant on the Brazil-Argentina border.

Abdo Benítez’s commitment to reforms may be mostly rhetorical – his bottom line seems mostly about continuity – but the political threats that they entail could get out of control and spark protests.  Six weeks into his presidency, he seems unlikely to rally the domestic support necessary to enact deep reforms to make the electoral, political, and judicial processes more open and transparent.  He may find some comfort in the fact that neighboring presidents – Michel Temer in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – all have their hands full too, and that, if anything, the region’s turn to the right during elections since 2015 means that he is not likely to be isolated politically.  As a new president, however, Abdo Benítez has to be wondering what the next five years hold.

September 27, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Mexico: Is Centralization the Way to Battle Corruption?

By Daniela Stevens*

A large group of people stand on a stage.

Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (center left) meets with current President Enrique Peña Nieto and members of his cabinet during the transitional government period. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Half way through Mexico’s five-month transition period, an effort by President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to increase central government oversight over states’ affairs suggests an agenda that may go beyond the “republican austerity” he frequently calls for.  His plans to lower the numbers and salaries of high-ranking bureaucrats have been well received, but he raised hackles when he announced plans to appoint a single federal representative – a delegado – to liaise with each of the 32 states, eliminating the 20 to 30 central government representatives that until now have been dispersed throughout each jurisdiction.  He claims the measure is to save on the bureaucracy payroll, but many observers are concerned it will concentrate more power in his own hands.

  • Criticism has already forced AMLO to repackage his plan somewhat. He uses mixed language to refer to the responsibilities of the delegados.  While he has strongly defended his legal ability to appoint a single delegado, he more recently reassured aggravated governors that his representatives would maintain “institutional relations” and respect local elected officials’ autonomy and authority.  Olga Sánchez Cordero, AMLO’s appointee as Secretary of the Interior, further clarified that the delegates would only be in charge of social development programs, constituting a “layer of proximity to citizens” currently or potentially enrolled in social programs.  Under AMLO’s proposal, delegados would take over all kinds of programs, including youth scholarships, conservation efforts, health care, and social security programs for special populations – a herculean portfolio for a single representative.
  • Critics argue that the appointment of single delegados reporting directly to AMLO will undermine federalism. Electoral and administrative decentralization were integral to Mexico’s long democratization process.  For decades, the president was not only the predominant force over the legislative and judicial powers; he also appointed governors from the hegemonic party to the states.  The delegados would potentially create a power structure that parallels and rivals that of the state governors.  Some governors argue that the constitution does not recognize intermediate authorities, and wonder whether persons with partisan agendas will get too deeply involved in local budgets and policies.  In addition, the position would be coveted for its discretionary power and direct link to the president – giving politicians from AMLO’s party, Morena, a leg up as potential candidates for governor.

If done right, however, the measure could alleviate the plague of corruption that permeates the states, and the governorships in particular, and which AMLO has repeatedly condemned.  Governors routinely abuse their powers and engage in serious acts of corruption and financial crime.  As Agustina Giraudy has documented, undemocratic governors have used their offices to perpetuate “subnational undemocratic regimes” in the wake of Mexico’s 2000 transition to electoral democracy at the national level.  Former Governor Javier Duarte, of Veracruz, stole hundreds of millions of dollars from the public budget, and others, like Humberto Moreira in Coahuila, left their state with large debts.  Oversight from an anti-corruption executive in Mexico City might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Ideally, state legislatures – rather than the president or his delegado – would constitute the brake on governors’ decisions, providing a real counterweight anchored in local political dynamics.  AMLO’s efforts to turn Mexico into an “authentic democracy” will miss the mark – and amount to a crass political move – if the transformation does not include an institutionalization of leadership.  His party, Morena, is extraordinarily dependent on his personal leadership; it is an amalgam of politicians who abandoned other parties or joined it because of personal ties to him.  AMLO, who plans to preach integrity by example, cannot alone be the foundation of the “fourth transformation” he purports to lead (the first being independence, the second the “Reforma,” wars, and the third the 1910 Revolution).  With institutionalization, AMLO and Morena could put appointees and delegados through a transparent, legal vetting process – based on merit – and give them clear, legal operational responsibilities.  Failing that, their reforms may prove to be a primarily partisan project.

September 14, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: Diving into Uncertainty

By Marcus Rocha*

Brazilian presidential candidates 2018

Brazilian presidential candidates, from left to right: Lula da Silva, Jair Bolsonaro, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva, and Ciro Gomes. / Wikimedia, edited

With voting just a little under four weeks off, Brazil faces the most confusing, unpredictable, and consequential election since democratization in the 1980s.  The two leading contenders – former President “Lula” da Silva and firebrand conservative Jair Bolsonaro – are in jail and the hospital recovering from a stabbing, respectively, but the former is being left behind, and the latter is likely to try to use his victimhood to overcome other weaknesses.  At a point that Brazil needs stability and leadership, it is lurching toward an election that appears unlikely to produce either.

  • Lula’s Workers Party (PT) hierarchy continues to push his candidacy, but yet another rejection last week of his appeal of his conviction on corruption charges is increasingly opening the way for Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, to assume the party mantle. Haddad has polled poorly, only 6 percent as recently last week, but a serious PT mobilization will be a big asset.  (Announcement of his candidacy is expected today.)
  • Prior to Bolsonaro’s stabbing, his weaknesses seemed likely to hold him back despite a good 22 percent in recent polls. His popularity may rise as he seeks sympathy for his injury, but his strong negatives – 44 percent of people polled say they will never vote for him – will be hard to erase.  His Social Liberal Party (PSL) has a very narrow base in Congress, and the former Army captain and lawmaker’s main tactic – divisive rhetoric attacking human rights advocates and praising the military dictatorship of 1964-85 – does not conceal his lack of a serious political agenda, according to many observers.

The proliferation of other parties is also deepening confusion.  Brazil has 35 parties, and for the first time faces the possibility that neither of the two Brazilian parties with a virtual monopoly on presidential succession – the PT and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – will make it into the runoff in Brazil’s two-round system.  The PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin has a strong Congressional base (which under the law determines his access to media time) but continues to poll poorly (9 percent).  Marina Silva, of the Rede Sustentabilidade, and Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) – both of whom currently have 12 percent – have a shot at a place in the second round.  Another eight candidates show much less promise.

The political chaos has not brought protesters out into the streets or threatened a broader social crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign, but it has thrust Brazil into uncharted territory.  Bolsonaro’s stabbing and his certain efforts to play the victim will almost certainly continue push his rhetoric beyond that traditionally acceptable in Brazil.  The political parties, however flawed, were sources of predictability and stability, but no longer are.  Investigations into corruption, also previously thought to strengthen the political system, have contributed to uncertainty.  The courts are accused of political bias.  As the PT and PSDB slip, none of the smaller parties appears poised to gain broad enough confidence to lead the country through its numerous challenges.  In the first- and second-round votes on October 7 and 28, Brazilians will choose between trying to revive the old – clinging to PT or PSDB – or continuing the search for something that is not yet visible on the horizon.

September 11, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Honduras: Would a Constituent Assembly Help?

By Hugo Noé Pino*

Several people raise their hands in the Honduran National Congress

A recent session in Honduras’ National Congress. / Congreso Nacional de Honduras / Creative Commons

The need for Honduras to convene a National Constituent Assembly appears increasingly compelling even though the country’s political elites continue to oppose one.  Proponents of an “ANC” argue that it would not only help the country overcome the fraud perpetrated in last November’s elections; it would give oxygen to the country’s failing democracy.  They note that the current constitution, promulgated in 1982, has been violated and modified so many times – such as when President Juan Orlando Hernández was allowed to run for reelection – that the document’s original meaning has been obscured if not lost.  ANC proponents cite other facts pointing to the need for an assembly:

  • The constitution calls for a “planned economic policy,” in which the state and law “shall regulate the system and process of planning with the participation of the Powers of State, and political, economic and social organizations shall be duly represented.” But that planning model, which has never been implemented in Honduras, has been overtaken by the neoliberal model, based on market freedoms, adopted in the 1990s.  Amendments passed in 2012 were intended to create special employment and development zones, but not a single one has emerged.
  • Since the 2009 coup, Honduran society has been polarized by violations of the law, the concentration of power, abuses, corruption, and other problems – all aggravated by the widely contested election of last November. Business, workers, farmers, trade unions, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors have been unable to find agreement on how to deal with the nation’s pressing problems.  ANC supporters say that true national reconciliation is going to require a new social pact that a new constitution can create.
  • Backers also argue that the ANC would breathe new life into the political parties – deeply discredited by the corruption and chaos engulfing them – and allow them to become a mechanism for intermediation between society and the state. An assembly, they say, would bring political leaders and the people together in pursuit of better alternatives to the current system.  A system of checks and balances, including a new judicial system, would help guarantee the separation of powers and enhance citizen participation in public policy.

Prospects for an ANC do not look good at this moment despite important endorsements, such as that of the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference in a public letter last December.  Most of the political elite, responsible for setting the country on its destructive course, stridently oppose the idea, but proponents feel the elites will eventually have to accept one.  The “national dialogue” launched after the November elections has made no progress or, worse, has aggravated tensions.  The black cloud over those elections and the surge in corruption cases under investigation – an important achievement of the Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) and its partners working under the Attorney General – have driven politicians to dig in their heels.  Their efforts to hold onto power, prevent transparency, and block accountability puts them directly against the sort of reforms an ANC would represent. 

  • Even when the political class eventually allows the ANC proposal to take off, many obstacles lay ahead. One of the first – and extremely difficult – steps would be selection of a truly independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee a referendum on the ANC and the election of assembly delegates.  The questions on the ballot would be simple, focused on support for the ANC and support for presidential reelection, but the task of making Honduras an inclusive society, with transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law would take the sort of vision and discipline that only a new constitution would provide.  While critics claim an ANC would be playing with fire, it’s certainly better than the current situation in which we are all threatened with being burned.

August 14, 2018

* Hugo Noé Pino is currently a professor and coordinator of a Ph.D. program at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (Unitec) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Peru: Wildlife Trafficking Poses Complex Challenges

By Ana Marrugo*

A large parrot shows its multi-colored wings

A red and green macaw takes flight in Manú National Park, Peru. / Bill Bouton / Wikimedia Commons

Peru – the fifth most “megadiverse” country in the world – is losing precious wildlife because of weak trafficking laws and even weaker enforcement of them.  Home to 10 percent of existing species of flora, Peru ranks between second and fifth worldwide in the number of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles within its borders.  The illegal trafficking of wildlife, however, is threatening Peru’s biodiversity.  It now places second in the hemisphere in volume of trafficked wildlife, trailing only Mexico.

  • Growing threats are pushing species into endangered status at a rapid rate. In 2004-14, according to Peruvian government estimates, the percentage of endangered species increased rapidly: from 14.1 to 24.5 percent of mammals; 9.2 to 35.2 percent of amphibians; and up by 50 percent of reptiles.
  • Trafficking is one source of pressure on dwindling wildlife populations. The most-trafficked species in Peru are birds, especially the white-winged parakeet and the red and green macaw, and some small primates sold as pets or to illegal zoos.  Bigger animals, such as the Andean bear, vicuñas, monkeys, and various cats, are sold for their meat.  Animal parts and reptiles and amphibians are sold for medicinal or reputedly magic uses, and reptile skins for the fashion and leather industries.  Cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, and infrastructure construction also put major pressures on animal life.
  • Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) estimates that three quarters of the country’s most frequently trafficked species are for domestic rather than international markets. Indigenous people and peasants in the Amazon region – seeking profits far above those that can be generated from agriculture – capture animals and sell them to middlemen who then sell them to retailers in local markets or to international collectors.

Investigations of traffickers are rare, and prosecutions almost nonexistent.  The director of Neotropical Primate Conservation told reporters that “few” of the 150 cases she reported to SERFOR, prosecutors, and regional authorities – including a trafficker caught carrying thousands of parakeets – have been investigated, and “almost all cases” are retired without ever reaching a judge.  The first conviction (and one of the few known), finalized in 2016, resulted when police caught two brothers red-handed driving a car carrying an ocelot to a local market.  Offenders are usually released after paying a minor fine.

  • Getting good information is a challenge. Most estimates come from seizures of exported animals, leaving unaccounted the large portion of illegal wildlife sold in local markets, and most research focuses only on particular species.  The flow to local markets of Titicaca frog juice (thought to have extraordinary health benefits), monkey meat (for traditional cuisine), and Andean bear parts (thought to have magical properties) has been impossible to track.  Internationally, owl monkeys are sent clandestinely to Colombia for malaria research, and Chinese markets sell dried seahorse powder and an array of other substances for medicine – without leaving a trace in Peru.
  • Corruption is a perennial problem. Low-paid officers take bribes to provide protection and forged documentation permitting the transport of illegally sourced animals.  Forestry and Wildlife Law 29763 delegates virtually all responsibility for environmental crimes to local governments with poor resources and serious conflicts of interest, including officials’ collusion in the trade and local inhabitants’ dependence on it for income.

International attention in wildlife trafficking has been limited.  Unlike the illegal timber trade, this trade does not involve hundreds of millions of dollars, nor does it harm the commercial interests of the nation or its trading partners.  Major industries have not been linked to this criminal enterprise as they have in the trafficking of narcotics and timber.  Thus, international support to tackle the demand side of the market appears likely to remain feeble.  At the local level authorities rely on educational programs to teach people about the environmental impacts of wildlife trafficking, ecosystem protection and the importance of denouncing environmental crimes.  Nevertheless, wildlife trade continues to be an important source of income for impoverished communities, as well as for traffickers who frequently count on ties to corrupt officials to ensure that they can evade prosecution.

  • The impact of wildlife trafficking is not as immediately obvious as logging, and it is therefore harder to marshal political pressure for comprehensive solutions. SERFOR is expanding port controls, but piecemeal efforts have had little impact.  Since most of the trafficked animals remain in Peru and neighboring countries, efforts to discourage local demand and increase cross border cooperation would seem to offer hope – if governments get serious about addressing the problem.

June 29, 2018

* Ana Marrugo is pursuing an M.A. in Public Anthropology at American University.  She is on the team dedicated to new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

A Summit in Search of the Americas

By Carlos Malamud*

A large round table encompasses a room with various heads of state from the Americas

Last week’s Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. / U.S. State Department / Public Domain

The Summit of the Americas in Lima last weekend has left its organizers and principal participants with a bittersweet feeling, leaning to the bitter.  The absence of Donald Trump, Raúl Castro, and Nicolás Maduro reflects only the existing difficulties.  The bigger problems relate to the impossibility of achieving general consensus about the big hemispheric issues, such as corruption or Venezuela, and – of even greater concern – the lack of clarity and substance of the Latin America policy of the United States.

  • The Summits initially were linked to Washington’s efforts to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but since that project’s failure they have represented the United States’ ongoing interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. That explains why, since the Summit process was created in 1994, no resident of the White House has missed a Summit – regardless of how complicated national and international situations have been.  That was until Donald Trump gave priority to the conflict in Syria over his relationship with Latin American counterparts.

The disturbing thing is not just Trump’s conflict with Mexico, or his hostility toward Cuba and Venezuela.  Neither is the deterioration of the image of the United States in Latin America since President Obama’s term ended.  The fundamental problem is the lack of clear indications from the Trump Administration about its intentions and objectives in the region.  This is the case even with the closest countries.  For example, several South American countries’ exports to the United States could be affected by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.  But no one has clear answers about the policies driving these events, and no one is taking steps to reduce the impact of them or of Washington’s lack of policy.

  • Even though the official theme of the Summit was “Democratic Governance against Corruption,” it was impossible for the participants to go beyond good words and advance any global solutions. Without a doubt, this is good evidence of the weakness of regional integration.  In their Final Declaration, the leaders were unable to include either a condemnation of Venezuela or a call to disregard its Presidential elections on May 20.  Instead, what we got was a statement by the Grupo de Lima plus the United States expressing extreme concern for the situation in Venezuela.  Despite the decline of the Bolivarian project and Maduro’s isolation, Bolivia, Cuba and some Caribbean states dependent for oil on Petrocaribe remain capable of blocking hemispheric consensus.

This probably will not be the last Summit of the Americas, but future of these hemispheric meetings depends in great part on the capacity of the governments in the hemisphere, beginning with the United Sates, to redefine continental relations and find anew the essence of the Americas.  This means more than just responding to the growing Chinese role; it means putting on the table the real problems that affect the continent and going beyond mere rhetoric about them.  For now, with hemispheric relations buffeted by the unpredictable slams issuing in the form of Trump’s tweets, it will be difficult to get there.

April 17, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Peru: Challenges to the Summit of the Americas

By Fulton Armstrong

Men and women standing in Peruvian congressional chamber

Martín Vizarra’s inauguration as President of Peru on March 23, 2018. / Twitter: @prensapalacio / Creative Commons

The resignation of Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) last weekend marks not only a deepening of the crisis of governance in that country; it also signals the greatest threat yet to the credibility of the Summit of the Americas process begun in 1994.

  • The 2016 election of PPK, a technocrat with international experience, business acumen, and a stated commitment to attacking corruption, appeared at the time to reaffirm Peru’s preference for competent, if unglamorous, government. Allegations of inappropriate dealings with the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, when he was a government minister in the 2000s and as a consultant prior to the last election – which he blamed on business partners – were his undoing.  He dodged charges, fought back, made deals (including releasing former President Fujimori from prison), and reportedly deployed his allies to buy votes to oppose his impeachment – all to no avail.  Vice President Martín Vizcarra, sworn in last Friday to succeed him, had been spirited off to Canada to be Peru’s ambassador last September when allegations of malfeasance as Transportation Minister led to calls for his impeachment.  But last week he pledged to make anticorruption and transparency top priorities.
  • PPK is not the only tainted politician, or even the worst, in this drama. Two of his predecessors – Alejandro Toledo (2001-06) and Ollanta Humala (2011-16) – have been indicted for offenses involving Odebrecht.  The Congress that hounded PPK out of office is itself reportedly riddled with corruption.  Odebrecht officials have testified that PPK’s congressional nemesis, Keiko Fujimori, took $1.2 million from them in the 2011 presidential race.  The respected GFK poll indicates that, at 82 percent, Congress has a worse disapproval rating (by 1 percent) than PPK did last week – with the body’s corruption being a major factor.

The crisis comes just weeks before the eighth Summit of the Americas scheduled to be held in Lima on April 13‑14, with the overarching theme of “Democratic Governance against Corruption.”  Vizcarra has directed the Peruvian foreign ministry to proceed with preparations.  The event’s anticorruption focus could produce deeply embarrassing moments for a number of hemispheric heads of state in addition to the Peruvian hosts.  Odebrecht and the Lava Jato investigations loom large over Brazilian President Michel Temer (who, despite support in the single digits, last week announced his intention to run for reelection in October).  U.S. President Trump is engaged in warfare against the Department of Justice, FBI, and special prosecutor looking into allegations that he or his campaign colluded with Russians suspected of intervening in U.S. elections.  Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has stumbled from scandal to scandal.  Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández remains under a cloud because of persistent questions about the vote count in his reelection in November.  Venezuelan President Maduro would be an obvious outcast – for both his corruption and poor governance – but his peers’ own baggage would force some restraint on their condemnations.

Other than newly inaugurated President Vizcarra’s anticorruption pledge, the conditions for a successful summit around the theme of corruption and democratic governance are obviously absent, and going ahead with it risks rendering the event a laughing stock.  Changing the theme would undermine its credibility and raise the troubling questions of what meaningful topics – trade, democracy, inequality, infrastructure investment, or counternarcotics – could replace it.  There are also tempting reasons to postpone the event, including the fact that several countries – Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia among them – will be electing new presidents this year and could bring fresh, validated ideas to a meeting next year or beyond.  Postponing the event, however, would risk braking what little momentum the Summit process has and would leave open when, if ever, the perfect summit could be held.  Crises driven by corruption (and, in the case of Venezuela, the collapse of decency) have a tendency to go on for years.  Either way, Summit organizers are going to have to scale back their expectations – with a protocolary event that sacrifices substance in April, or create a pretext for postponement and hope for a more propitious moment in the future.  The Ibero-American Summit, which includes Spain but excludes the United States and Canada, is scheduled to meet in Guatemala in November under the theme of “A Prosperous, Inclusive, and Sustainable Ibero-America.”  Perhaps that event’s timing and theme will help get regional discussions back on track.

March 26, 2018

Presidential Elections in Mexico: Tough Campaign, Tougher Challenges Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands at a microphone

Frontrunner candidate in Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, speaks to the press. / ANDES / Micaela Ayala V / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election officially begins next week, and no candidate appears to have an insurmountable advantage over the others.  Polls vary, but Andrés Manuel López Obrador (MORENA) appears to be the frontrunner, with 35 to 44 percent of support.  He is followed by PAN-PRD coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya, who has between 24 and 31 percent of the vote.  The PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, seems a third option, at about 20 to 26 percent, and Margarita Zavala, the only independent candidate who officially obtained registry, lags far behind.  It is too early to see if voters will base their decisions on party loyalty or on perceptions of the candidates.

  • López Obrador (widely known by his initials, “AMLO”) has broad name recognition – 84 percent of Mexicans are familiar with him for better or for worse – but Anaya, Meade, and Zavala have an important opportunity to build new images and attract voters. Indeed, AMLO sometimes seems to be in a race against himself; his rhetoric is often harsh, and his disregard for international free trade alienates a large sector of the business world and the media.  His mixed signals regarding a “review” of the contracts made in conjunction with energy reforms have fostered distrust and uncertainty.
  • Ricardo Anaya’s strategy appears likely to be open confrontation with PRI candidate Meade, aiming to attract PRI voters who see him as the candidate best positioned to prevent an AMLO victory. Anaya’s focus has been on winning the endorsement of key figures in states that constitute large electoral strongholds, such as Jalisco.  However, Anaya’s alleged involvement in a money laundering scandal stands to undermine his support.   PRI Secretary General Claudia Ruiz Massieu tried to tar him in an international context last week by giving the OAS a file with evidence she claimed substantiates the charges against him.  Anaya has cried foul.
  • José Antonio Meade, a highly skilled and seasoned technocrat associated with both PRI and PAN presidencies, is being held back by his association with the very unpopular incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto. He is trying to cast himself as a PRI “sympathizer,” rather than as a party “militant” responsible for recent years’ weak performance.  To distance himself from his party’s image of electoral fraud, corruption, and crony capitalism, he has emphasized his commitment to transform the PRI.  The party is cooperating, framing him as a “citizen candidate.”

While candidates are immersed in the customary personal attacks against each other, violence appears to be playing into electoral politics with renewed intensity.  The Second Report of Political Violence in Mexico, prepared by the risk assessment firm Etellekt, documents 141 attacks against politicians and public servants since the start of the pre-campaign period last September.  Over 50 of these attacks have been assassinations of officials, incumbents, and candidates at all levels of government.  Violence is worst in Guerrero, Veracruz, the State of México, and Puebla, all states with significant organized crime.

Public insecurity is certain to join organized crime, corruption, inequality, and redistribution of income as central in the Mexican landscape as elections approach, and each candidate will pledge to make those issues his or her top priority.  As in other Latin American countries, the election also appears likely to signal the deepening discredit and low representation of the traditional party system.  Voters could very well select a candidate who, while not an outsider, presents him- or herself as committed to attacking the corruption of the major parties.  While running on a law-and-order slate, the candidates will also likely promise new approaches on the “war on drugs” that, led by both PAN and PRI, has devastated the country – with little or no prospect of avoiding the same pitfalls as predecessors.  Winning the election on July 1 will not be easy for any of the declared candidates; governing once in office will be even harder.

March 23, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Summit of the Americas: Awkward Agenda, Dim Prospects

By Eric Hershberg

Large group of men and women stand awkwardly while waving to a crowd

Leaders from the hemisphere during the last Summit of the Americas in 2015. / Maria Patricia Leiva / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparations for the 8th Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 13-14 in Lima, face a number of challenges.  Trump Administration measures have upended longstanding assumptions throughout the hemisphere about Washington’s agenda in the region and beyond.  No less distracting is the wave of ongoing corruption scandals in Latin America and impending elections in numerous countries.

  • The three presidential summits attended by President Barack Obama (2009, 2012, and 2015) arguably were shaped by the standing of the United States in the region. Emphasizing “change we can believe in” at his first presidential summit, in Trinidad, Obama pledged that the United States would be a partner rather than an embodiment of hubris.  Leaders across the ideological spectrum applauded.  Yet the second, three years later in Cartagena, was a disaster for Washington, with even friendly heads of state lambasting the President for continuing an unacceptable Cold War line on Cuba and rigid drug control policies.  It was in the wake of this embarrassment that Obama finally moved to change policy toward Cuba.  This watershed, supplemented by advances in other areas overseen by Vice President Biden, made Obama’s third summit, in Panama in 2015 – attended by Cuban President Raúl Castro – a much more positive experience.

This year’s Summit seems unlikely to produce advances – substantive or symbolic – and indeed has the potential both to highlight conflicting agendas and even to provoke widespread ridicule.

  • Under normal circumstances, the partial but damaging reversal of Obama’s Cuba opening would elicit hostility from Latin American leaders, but tensions over Trump’s dramatic departure from traditional U.S. positions on trade and climate, and his caustic posturing on immigration policies that especially impact Mexico and Central America, may overshadow regional bewilderment at Washington’s renewed hostility towards Havana. Latin American countries that Trump jilted at the altar when he summarily withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have begun moving on – negotiating trade deals with China while uniting with Canada and seven Asian countries to form “TPP 2.0.”  That chauvinism and race, not security, are at the heart of Trump’s “Great Wall” proposal is widely understood and resented in Latin America.
  • Trump’s postures and policies are by no means the only strain on the summit agenda. Venezuela’s meltdown and impending elections are of grave concern to virtually all leaders who will attend, whether President Maduro does or not, yet there is no consensus on what to do about the problem and the humanitarian emergency it has spawned.  Questions about the legitimacy of Brazilian President Michel Temer diminish the standing of the hemisphere’s second largest democracy.  Tensions swirling around the Summit’s host – Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) – are also intense.  PPK is but one of numerous incumbent and recent Latin American presidents under siege by corruption allegations.  Strong evidence of corruption among presidents of Latin American countries big and small will hardly be news to anyone, but the scope of the problem – and the strength of public rejection of it – means many governments will come to the Summit wounded and distracted.

The irony that the theme of this year’s Summit is “Democratic Governance against Corruption” will be lost on no one, as the Lava Jato investigations and lesser inquiries reveal the venality of government after government.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a co-host of the Summit, has done his fair share to rescue the region from authoritarian and corrupt leaders – challenging both Maduro and the tainted reelection of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández – but few others in the hemisphere have lived up to the lofty rhetoric about democracy and anti-corruption at previous summits.  The Peruvian national host is hardly in a position to steer the Summit to take on Trump on matters such as TPP.  If he were not so badly tainted by recent events, he could have represented the globalists in the Americas who are convinced that a misguided America First posture issuing from Washington amounts to a U.S. abdication of leadership on trade, climate, and other pressing matters.  Yet it is now doubtful whether he will be able to say anything more than “Welcome to Peru.”  The smiling faces in the protocol photos will conceal the striking disjuncture between the Summit agenda and its protagonists.

 February 6, 2018