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

Costa Rica: Anything is Possible in Upcoming Elections

By Carlos Malamud*

Two boring men look out into space

The apparent front-runners in the Costa Rican presidential election, Juan Diego Castro (left) and Antonio Álvarez (right). / Wikimedia, edited / Luis Madrigal Mena (left) / MadriCR (right) / Creative Commons

In the run-up to Costa Rica’s presidential and legislative elections on February 4, the words “uncertain” and “uncertainty,” “volatility,” and “surprise” are crowding out all others.  Since current President Luis Guillermo Solís’s unexpected victory in 2014 marked the end of two-party domination – in which power was shared by Liberación Nacional (PLN) and the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) – fragmentation has deepened.  Today there are 13 candidates for President and a heightened number of undecided voters.  Alongside the many who don’t know who they want to vote for, there are others, including many liberacionistas, who do not want to reveal their support for other candidates.  The country is in a scenario in which anything can happen.

  • According to most polls, former Minister of Justice and Security Juan Diego Castro (of the minority Partido Integración Nacional, PIN) and Antonio Álvarez (of the PLN) are practically at a technical tie. Castro’s campaign has focused on combating corruption, an issue of steadily growing concern to Costa Ricans, and the threat posed by gangs.  Close behind are Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) and evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado (Restauración Nacional).  The latter’s support surged last week when he denounced a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court accepting same-sex marriage.  It’s unclear whether any of the candidates’ issues have lasting support or only an ephemeral presence on the electoral agenda.

Since these four top candidates each have about 15 percent of the vote so far, it will be difficult for any to reach the 40 percent necessary to avoid a runoff.  The two strongest – Álvarez and Castro –also have strong negatives.  If, as seems most likely, the undecided and the “hidden vote” do not give one candidate or other a clear victory, there will be a second round between the top two vote-getters on April 1 (Easter Sunday).  Polls also show that many voters see Piza as the best “second option.”  For that reason, the results of a second round of voting are also difficult to predict.

Insofar as Costa Rica was the exception in Central American or even Latin American politics in the past, things have changed very rapidly.  Its distinction in the 1960s and 1970s as one of only four countries without military dictatorships (along with Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela) has faded into different clichés.  The lauded former President Óscar Arias once made the specious argument that the constitutional prohibition on presidents running for consecutive terms was a violation of politicians’ human rights.  In addition, the conviction of two ex-presidents on corruption charges has laid bare the links between part of the political class and misgovernment.

  • Solís’s election in 2014 ended Costa Rican bipartisanship. It’s possible that the new President will be from the PLN or PUSC, but the two traditional parties’ hegemony is over.  That Costa Rica could become like its neighbors is no consolation.  To avoid that fate, it should strengthen its principal institutions, beginning with the Judiciary and the National Assembly, without forgetting the important role of the political parties, which are key to democratic regeneration.

January 25, 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: PPK Survives, But Political Crisis Deepens

By Carlos Monge*

Man holds up red and white flag

A protester in Lima holds a Peruvian flag with and image of Alberto Fujimori in prison garb with the phrase “Indulto Es Insulto… Asesino” (“The Pardon is an Insult… Murderer”). / Alan / Flickr / Creative Commons

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s commutation of former President Alberto Fujimori’s prison sentence – in exchange for some fujimorista support against his impeachment by Congress on corruption charges – has thrown the country’s politics into a tailspin and increased the prospects of prolonged national crisis.

  • PPK was accused of involvement in corrupt deals with Peruvian and Brazilian construction companies – part of the massive Brazil-based Lava Jato scandal – while he was Minister of Economy and Prime Minister under President Alejandro Toledo (2001-06). By ordering Fujimori’s release, he rewarded Kenji Fujimori and dissident Fuerza Popular MPs, who’d already split with party leader and sister Keiko over her wavering commitment to get their father out of jail at all cost, for their votes against the impeachment.  After emphatically denying he would do so, PPK granted Fujimori a humanitarian pardon on medical grounds, after which the former President experienced a recovery robust enough to resume political activism just days later.

The Fujimori indulto has aggravated deep and longstanding tensions within and among the country’s parties and civil society.  After the impeachment proceedings collapsed, three of PPK`s MPs and three of his ministers resigned in protest, and even the lawyer who defended him against impeachment has denounced his actions as a political scam.  PPK’s popular approval has sunk to 20 percent, and reliable polls show that more than half of the population rejects the indulto.  Protests are growing.  Some 30,000 to 40,000 people marched through Lima on January 11, condemning the collusion of corrupt elites to protect each other, and more demonstrations are planned.

  • Longtime observers in Lima say that the pro-Fujimori Fuerza Popular remains deeply divided as siblings Kenji and Keiko are at each other’s throats over the control of the party and relations with the PPK administration. Even if Alberto and Kenji Fujimori continue to support PPK for a while, open wounds from the close presidential race between PPK and Keiko in 2016 complicate cooperation and in fact may deepen the riff as Keiko’s close collaborators now accuse the PPK camp causing the Fuerza Popular crisis, even denouncing that fujimorista votes were paid for.  Informed speculation is that Keiko will fan the flames of scandal enveloping PPK (even though she reportedly has her own liabilities in Lava Jato) pushing for his fall in hopes of securing early elections rather than waiting until 2021.
  • The left, centrist sectors, and even some conservatives such as Nobel Prize novelist Mario Vargas Llosa have given up any pretense of coexisting with PPK. Human rights organizations and trade unions are demanding Alberto Fujimori be sent back to prison; denouncing the “corrupt alliance” between PPK, the Fujimoris, and the business elites; and insisting that ongoing investigations be pursued no matter who they bring down.  In some sectors, the leftist call for a new Constitution breaking the bond between the state and big business is gaining support.

PPK is a lame duck president with general elections still four years away.  In Congress, which is presided over by a forceful opponent – Luis Galarreta – his base has shrunk to 15 MPs, and he depends heavily on the support of fair-weather friends like Alberto and Kenji Fujimori.  The economy grew 2.7 percent last year, according to the Central Bank, but fell short of targets.  Lava Jato – which has already landed former President Ollanta Humala in jail and prompted extradition proceedings against former President Toledo (living in the United States) – is not going away, with new information expected soon from Brazil.  Popular rejection of the political class, which is seen as corrupt and cynical, will deepen.  Talk in Lima isn’t about if PPK will go, but when.  His fate at this moment appears to depend less on his own cunning and more on the political calculations and unstable relations between the two Fujimori factions and the rest of the parties in Congress and on the strength of street protests.

January 23, 2018

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Guatemala: Simmering Under the Surface

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Three people stand on a dias with Guatemalan flags in the background

New U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga is officially welcomed to the country by President Jimmy Morales. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has survived the backlash against his efforts in August to shut down corruption investigations by the Attorney General and the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), but tensions remain intense.  Two days after Attorney General Thelma Aldana filed papers to suspend the President’s immunity from prosecution on campaign finance corruption charges in late August, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” and ordered his expulsion from the country.  (The expulsion order was blocked by the Constitutional Court.)

  • On September 13th, more than two thirds of the Congress – driven by most of Morales’s party as well as opposition members accused of corruption – voted in favor of altering the Penal Code in ways that weakened accountability for all politicians (including Morales and themselves). Two days later, after massive protests akin La Plaza, the civic movement that achieved the removal of former President Pérez Molina and most of his administration in 2015, Congress backtracked.
  • The Morales Administration tried to curtail the CICIG’s activities again in October, when the Foreign Ministry renewed the Commissioner’s visa for one year with a stern warning to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs” of the country. The Constitutional Court again intervened, ordering the Ministry to revoke the warning.

Despite the attacks, Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana continue their efforts.  Last week Velásquez said publicly that illicit campaign finance is “the ‘original sin’ of the system of corruption that has captured the Guatemalan state … and the distortion of the democratic model.”  He and Aldana keep scoring points: former President Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, and two dozen others were sent to trial last week on corruption charges originally brought to light by CICIG – the now-famous Customs corruption scheme called La Línea. 

  • They’ve also presented a new corruption case, nicknamed Pandora’s Box, which links Guatemala City Mayor and former President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen with an illicit campaign financing network, speculation, misuse of public funds, and dirty business with former “King” of the Guatemalan prison system, Byron Lima Oliva. This news re-opened old wounds over issues such as the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in 1998, when Arzú was President and Lima a member of the Presidential General Staff.  Arzú has been one of Morales’s most fierce defenders, so his travails hurt the President – even if it is uncertain that the Guatemalan justice system will withstand Arzú’s counteroffensive against CICIG, the Attorney General and La Plaza.

The arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador may be contributing to a momentary drop in open political warfare between reformers and corrupt politicians.  Compared to former Ambassador Robinson, incoming Ambassador Luis Arreaga has kept a low profile on the issue.  During his confirmation hearing last July, he restated “a commitment by both governments to fight corruption and build upon the successful efforts by President Morales, CICIG, and the Attorney General to end impunity.”  Since presenting his credentials in Guatemala last month, he has held familiarization meetings with a broad array of Guatemalan leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, emphasizing the themes of friendship and partnership.  Meeting with Velásquez and Aldana together, he confirmed the “U.S. commitment to their efforts to fight corruption and impunity,” according to the Embassy’s website.  Arreaga’s honeymoon – during which he has the luxury of being friends to both reformers and their corrupt targets – will endure only until CICIG uncovers more blockbuster evidence of corruption or Morales, sensing his political support sinking with his credibility, tries to capture the hearts of other vulnerable politicians to further hem in the meddlesome reformers.

November 9, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

The Anticorruption Imperative for Latin America

By Matthew Taylor*

Bar graph showing accountability in Latin America

Graphic courtesy of author. For a larger version, please click here.

Latin America’s reactions to the massive transnational scandals involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and its subsidiary Braskem are an important sign of progress in anticorruption efforts.  But across the region, courts’ reluctance to challenge elites remains a major obstacle to deeper accountability.  Brazilian, Swiss, and U.S. authorities’ announcement in December 2016 of a multibillion dollar global corruption settlement with the Brazilian firms – valued at $3.5 to 4.5 billion – was remarkable for being the largest in history.  It was also shocking for its revelations: Odebrecht admitted using a variety of elaborate subterfuges to launder bribe payments and corrupt proceeds, including by setting up a bribe department and buying an offshore bank.  Graft allowed executives to rewrite laws in their own favor, and guaranteed that the right officials were in the right place when public contracts were up for bidding.  The firms netted $3.60 for every $1 they spent on bribes in Brazil, and admitted to paying $788 million in bribes across twelve countries, including ten in Latin America.

The political salience of the charges is roughly similar in all ten Latin countries, muddying the reputations of presidents or former presidents in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, Venezuela and, of course, Brazil.  Ministers and high-level officials have been implicated in the remaining countries: Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Nearly one year after the settlement, it is time to ask how well law enforcement and judicial processes are resolving the allegations against these high-powered public and private sector elites.

  • In a paper forthcoming in Daedalus, I argue that accountability can be thought of as the outcome of a basic equation – A = (T + O + S) * (E – D) – combining transparency (T), defined in its most essential sense as public access to information about the government’s work; oversight (O), meaning that government functions are susceptible to surveillance that gives public or private agents the right to intensively evaluate the government’s performance; and sanction (S), effectively punishing wrongdoing and establishing societal norms to their rightful place. These are tempered by institutional effectiveness (E) – understood as the outcome of state capacity, relevant laws and procedures, and citizen engagement – and political dominance (D), which diminishes the incentives for active oversight or energetic sanction.  The graph above uses a combination of data points from the World Justice Project to measure each of the five variables.
  • The comparison yields mixed findings. On average, the nations implicated in the Odebrecht settlement do quite well on transparency, effectiveness, and political dominance – the outcome of a generation of democratic rule (with Venezuela being the obvious outlier).  But all ten countries perform comparatively poorly when it comes to oversight, and abysmally when the criterion is sanction.  This does not bode well for accountability, especially if we consider that among the Odebrecht Latin Ten, the highest-scoring country on the sanction criteria is Argentina, whose score is still below the middle-income country average.  In Brazil, where trial courts have led the way in imposing sanctions on business elites, political leaders are nonetheless protected against meaningful sanctions by an arcane system of privileged standing in the high courts.

Latin American judicial systems – long rigged to protect local economic and political elites – remain the principal obstacle to accountability.  The Odebrecht settlement signaled that a new day has arrived: new international norms and law enforcement across multiple jurisdictions are likely to continue to upset the cozy arrangements that have protected the region’s elites from corruption revelations for decades.  But true accountability will only come when local courts and prosecutors are empowered to effectively punish corrupt elites.  That implies changes in legal procedure, new laws, and most importantly, political will.  Perhaps the Odebrecht case will galvanize domestic public opinion and mobilize policymakers about the need to improve local justice systems.  The enormous costs of corruption revealed by the Odebrecht settlement suggest that change cannot come soon enough.

November 6, 2017

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University.  His forthcoming article in Daedalus is entitled “Getting to Accountability: A Framework for Planning and Implementing Anticorruption Strategies.”

The Brazilian Roller Coaster … Still Heading Down

By Fábio Kerche*

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Rodrigo Maia (center), Speaker of the House of Representatives, gives an interview to the Brazilian press. If President Temer loses the House, Maia may replace him as President.

The political situation in Brazil is dramatic and shows no prospect of improving in the short term.  The Supreme Court has received an indictment against President Michel Temer on corruption charges.  A close adviser of his was caught on video receiving money in a suitcase.  The Chief Prosecutor, who had been playing a minor role in the anti-corruption Car Wash Operation, saw an opportunity to grab the limelight.  Rede Globo, Brazil’s most powerful media group, made Temer’s fall from power seem likely in a matter of days.

  • But Temer did not surrender. As Supreme Court action against a president must be authorized by the House of Representatives, the battle turned to Parliament.  Using means denounced as unethical, such as giving administration positions to people appointed by congressmen, the President won the first round in the committee with jurisdiction over the case.  The next step, in August, will be a full House vote, which could reverse the committee decision.

Regardless of the outcome of House proceedings, political turmoil appears certain to continue – and Temer’s conservative policies will continue to aggravate social divisions.  If Temer loses and the House gives a green light to a Supreme Court investigation, the Constitution foresees that he must be removed from the presidency during the trial (for up to 180 days) – with little chance of regaining the post, according to analysts.  In this scenario, his most likely successor would be Rodrigo Maia, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a member of a small right-wing party that supported the military dictatorship.  He has little experience in electoral terms; many attribute his victories in legislative elections to the reputation of his father, a former mayor of Rio de Janeiro.  His attempt to run for the executive branch in Rio de Janeiro, a more difficult kind of election than for the Congress, proved to be a huge failure.  He is signaling that he would keep Temer’s conservative economic team and continue an agenda that cuts workers’ rights – proposals that are music to the market’s ears but likely to further rile opponents.

  • An alternative pushed by social movements – a constitutional amendment calling for direct elections right now – would seem to offer a chance for Brazil to break its downward spiral. Protesters show little sign, however, of breaking the roadblocks that the mainstream press has created against the proposal.  The popular mobilizations involve thousands of people but are having little resonance on television, in newspapers, and on websites.  The government, press, and market do not wish to delegate to citizens the right to choose their president, at least not now.

By default, general elections scheduled for October 2018 still appear to be the country’s best hope for putting democracy on track again.  The chance that the elections will end the crisis will be undermined, however, if former President Lula da Silva is barred from running.  Convicted of corruption in a process that many observers claim lacked evidence, the matter is now in the court’s hands.  If the conviction is confirmed, the legitimacy of the elections will be in jeopardy.  Brazil’s political institutions will be further weakened as confidence in election results will plummet –more than in a healthy democracy – and the democratic game itself, as expression of popular rights and will, will be threatened.  There is no hope of improvement in the short term.  The impeachment without a crime of former President Dilma Rousseff continues to take its toll.

July 31, 2017

* Fábio Kerche is a Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Mexican Government Under Attack for Electronic Spying

By Fulton Armstrong

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Revelations of Mexico’s use of state-of-the-art software to spy on domestic critics and OAS human rights experts have dealt another devastating blow to the credibility of President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican government.  Targeted in the cyberattacks were dozens of individuals and nongovernmental groups from various backgrounds, including leaders of the opposition PAN party investigating corruption allegations; anti-obesity activists lobbying for a tax on sweet carbonated soft drinks that the government opposed; and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) sent by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala in 2014.

  • The software – known as Pegasus and estimated to cost between $32 million and $80 million – sent the targets personalized text messages with links that, when pressed, led to the total compromise of their smart phones. The messages falsely alerted victims to family emergencies, for example, and said further information was available at a link in the text.  Some purported to be from the U.S. Embassy, providing a link for updates on visa applications.  The link downloaded spyware that allowed the perpetrators full access to all voice and data communications and allowed remote control over the microphone and camera on the affected device.

Confronted with evidence developed by University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and corroborated by the New York Times, Peña Nieto admitted in late June that his government purchased Pegasus but denied that it was used to target opponents and investigators.  He said that all of the government’s efforts have been “to maintain the internal security of the nation, fight organized crime, to generate security for all Mexicans.”  The Israeli company NSO Group, producer of Pegasus, claims it sells the software only to governments and only for specific anti-terrorism, anti-crime purposes.  The President threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” – a statement his spokesman retracted several hours later – but he did acknowledge the need for an investigation.  The office of the Attorney General (PGR), which was involved in the Pegasus program, was charged with looking into the matter, drawing cries of foul from critics.

  • Officials at the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights have called on Mexico to allow a full investigation by independent experts. For the same agency that bought Pegasus to investigate its use, they said, was not credible.  An OAS official has stated publicly that the allegations “should be investigated.”

The internal spying scandal is yet another blow to the credibility of the Mexican government on human rights – whether the spying and harassment was approved by Peña Nieto or was the work of rogue agencies.  The President’s credibility has been battered by scandals involving his family and administration, and corruption by state governors from his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has deepened perceptions of impunity at all levels.  Violence is also creeping back to levels experienced during the term of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón.  Among his most corrosive failures, however, has been the lack any progress investigating the brutal killing of the Iguala students.  The government’s claims that it was unable to bring anyone to justice for Iguala – while spending tens of millions of dollars to spy on and harass international experts investigating the incident – has deepened popular cynicism about the President.  Even if he accedes to an independent inquiry, the damage has been done, and he seems likely to limp, at best, toward general elections scheduled for mid-2018.  InSight Crime (a CLALS-sponsored foundation) has also called the scandal “a massive self-inflicted wound in [Mexico’s] fight against organized crime” because it compromised anti-crime operations and undermined the government’s credibility.

July 24, 2017