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.

U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016

U.S.-Cuba Migration: The Powerful “Pull” Factors

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban women

Photo Credit: Guillaume Baviere / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama Administration’s repeatedly stated commitment to continue implementing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is driving a surge in Cuban emigrants through dangerous human trafficking routes in Central America and causing tensions in a region already tied in knots over illegal migration.  The flow of Cubans up the isthmus has been increasing steadily – reaching some 45,000 over the past year – but seemed a manageable issue until Costa Rica broke up a smuggling ring last month.  The publicity prompted Nicaragua to close its borders to the underground railroad, which is carrying thousands each month northbound.  The migrants have been starting their journey by air from Havana to Ecuador (which until last month didn’t require a visa) and are escorted by coyotes as they bribe their way across borders headed north.  A summit of Central American foreign ministers two weeks ago failed to reach agreement on a Costa Rican proposal to create a “humanitarian corridor” for the Cubans by issuing them safe passage.  Relations between San José and Managua, already on edge as they await an ICJ decision this month on a territorial dispute, have turned bitter.

The special treatment that Cubans receive upon setting foot in the United States – including automatic access to permanent residency in one year – is the main stimulus of the flow.  The Clinton Administration adjusted how it handled those intercepted at sea, establishing a distinction between intending migrants with “wet feet” and “dry feet,” which reduced the seaborne flow somewhat.  But Cuba’s decision in 2013 (long urged by the U.S. and international community) to stop requiring citizens to get exit permits; the flow of a billion-plus dollars into Cuba through remittances and small businesses (with which to pay coyotes and corrupt officials along the way); and the growing sophistication of smuggling networks in Central America have fueled a shift in the flow overland.  Despite the Administration’s no-change pledge, some intending migrants say the current rush is being driven by fear that U.S.-Cuba normalization will end the preferences granted to Cubans who reach U.S. soil.

The Adjustment Act authorizes – but does not require – the President, through the  attorney general, to grant parole to Cubans arriving into the United States illegally and grant them permanent residency one year later.  In the absence of any change in Washington’s approach, Cubans will certainly try to avail themselves of its generous provisions.  To move the thousands stuck in Central America off the front page there, Washington may issue them expedited visas and help them with transportation to the United States.  Such gestures, however, will have a high political cost throughout Central America, where the U.S. has asked governments to stanch the movement of their own citizens fleeing violence and dire poverty, and where even well-off, law-abiding citizens have to jump through hoops and pay hundreds of dollars for tourist visas.  As the impasse in Central America grew intense last month, the State Department tweeted a reminder that “There exist legal and safe options for Cubans who want to migrate to the United States.”  Reversing policies that encourage illegal and unsafe migration – while proposing that Congress support a doubling or tripling of the current 20,000 Immigrant Visas the Embassy in Havana issues each year – would make a lot of sense.

December 7, 2015

AULABLOG will examine the powerful “push” factors driving migration from Cuba in a subsequent article.

From Lima to Paris … and Beyond

By Evan Berry*

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Photo Credit: Ron Mader / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “COP 21” Climate Conference beginning in Paris this week appears likely to produce meaningful results yet fall short of policymakers and civil society leaders’ high hopes for an international accord.  Strong action on climate change is of particular significance in Latin America – because of its environmental vulnerability and the key role it plays in helping establish a post-carbon global economy.  The coastal communities of the greater Caribbean Basin, the intensely biodiverse forests of the Amazonian region, and the glaciated peaks of the Andes are acutely threatened by climate change.  Concern about climate change is higher in Latin America than in any other region of the world, according to the Pew Research Center.  Several nations from the region have played key roles in putting the international community on a path toward a substantive agreement at COP 21, especially Peru, host of last year’s UN climate talks.

The negotiations in Paris are designed to develop an architecture for international cooperation on carbon mitigation and climate adaption that, while essentially voluntary, will catalyze bolder action in the future.  In anticipation that COP 21 will conclude an agreement signed by all the negotiating parties, the international community finds itself again trying to strike the right balance between critical pressure for stronger action and acceptance of an imperfect, but necessary, policy apparatus.  Although observers expect that more mitigation will be necessary, Paris will provide several powerful tools for states afflicted by climate change.  Most especially, through the vehicle of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), financing for large-scale adaptation projects is now starting to flow.  Because the mandates of the GCF prioritize low-carbon agriculture, climate-compatible cities, resilience in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and financing for forests, the fund will have a special impact in Latin America, one of the world’s most urbanized and forested regions and home to more than 20 SIDS.  Indeed, the first round of CGF projects, announced this month, includes two in Latin America – an energy efficiency bond in eastern Mexico and an indigenous people’s forest management project in Peru.

While there is room to be optimistic that these talks will make important progress, many probably will be dissatisfied with the outcome.  According to independent evaluations, several Latin American countries have put forward robust plans to limit carbon emissions, including Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil.  But many stakeholders, particularly environmental NGOs and leftist governments like Bolivia and Ecuador, are likely to be skeptical about the outcome of the negotiations.  They will be right to point out that the sum total of emissions reductions being discussed at COP 21 is insufficient to keep warming below the consensus 2°C limit, and that the anticipated deal is almost certain not to be legally binding and may also have weak measures for verification.  The “Road to Paris” may not take interested countries as far as they’d like to go, but in Latin America as elsewhere, critics might be well advised temper their skepticism, embrace the incremental progress, and begin preparing for the next round of climate change politics. 

November 30, 2015

* Evan Berry is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Co-Director of the Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs master’s program at American University.

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.

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Uruguay: Another Center-Left Victory

By Aaron Bell

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Frente Amplio (FA) emerged from Sunday’s general elections in Uruguay looking stronger than observers had forecast – and signaling Latin Americans’ confidence in the center-left.  Despite a rough campaign season, which included polls showing the FA’s support stuck in the low 40s, and public sniping between the party’s leaders – candidate Tabaré Vázquez and current president José Mujica – just days before the election, the FA gained last-minute momentum in the polls and won 47.9 percent of the vote.  As expected, Vázquez received less than the outright majority needed to avoid a second round of voting on November 30 against the candidate of the Partido Nacional (PN), Luis Lacalle Pou, who won 31 percent of the vote.  But the FA preserved its majority in the lower chamber of parliament, and it can have the edge in the senate if Vázquez wins in November, as his vice president, Raúl Séndic, would hold the deciding vote.  The Partido Colorado (PC) candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, won only 12.9 percent of the vote and placed third in every department.

The elections revolved around Vázquez and Lacalle Pou’s leadership identity and policies; neither candidate argued for substantial structural changes.  In exit interviews, those who voted for the FA credited it with positive changes in its decade at the helm.  The 41-year-old Lacalle Pou has run as a youthful leadership alternative to the 74-year-old former president Vázquez, and he promised fresh ideas for taking on crime and education, considered leading concerns for Uruguayan voters.  While exit interviews suggest that this message appealed to his party’s voters, it did not translate into substantial youth support.  Polling by Factum prior to the election showed that 51 percent of voters aged 18-37 preferred the FA.  Public security has been the leading concern for Uruguayan voters, and both traditional center-right parties, the PN and PC, supported a referendum (also held on Sunday) that would have lowered the age of criminal responsibility for major crimes from 18 to 16.  But long-term polling trends have shown a decrease in the number of Uruguayans prioritizing security from its peak last year, and indeed the referendum failed with 47 percent of the vote; almost the entirety of undecided voters ultimately chose to oppose it.

The FA now has momentum and is well positioned to win the second round and enjoy the support of a parliamentary majority.  A likely PN-PC voting bloc in the second round once held a slight lead over the FA but now appears likely to fall short because of tensions between them.  The PC’s underwhelming performance at the polls has been compounded by Bordaberry’s decision on Sunday night to support Lacalle Pou without consulting PC officials, and his offensive off-the-cuff verbal attack on the Vázquez camp during a conversation with a PN official that same night, for which he has since apologized.  The left-leaning Partido Independiente, which came in fourth place with 3.1 percent of the vote, will make a decision on which candidate to support this week; their votes alone would be enough to push the FA over the top.  As a result, barring a major turn of events, it appears as though the incumbent pink tide will prevail in Uruguay – with implications, perhaps, beyond.  Indeed, a second-round FA victory will be the sixth this year for a left-leaning party, following the pattern set by Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil.  While the citizenry may be impatient with the pace of progress in Latin America following nearly a decade of left-leaning governance, voters seem to be eschewing the right and maintaining the modestly but consistently leftward tilt that has characterized the region’s politics for much of the 21st century.

October 30, 2014

 

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

Prison Reform in Latin America: Lessons from Costa Rica

By Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran*

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Steven and Darusha / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Prison overcrowding is a widespread problem in Latin America, primarily because of harsh drug-sentencing laws and inadequate budgets, but Costa Rica may be setting a useful example for dealing with it.  In most countries, guards control the perimeter, but groups of prisoners or criminal gangs organize and control life inside the prison compound.  Rehabilitation and re-integration programs are limited.  Not surprisingly, there is little political leadership for prison reform; the issue wins few points with the general public.  Even dramatic events – like prison riots in Venezuela or prison fires in which hundreds of young men die as in Honduras – don’t generate interest in prison reform.  A key component of the criminal justice system – as a deterrent, a punishment, and as a provider of rehabilitation and reintegration services that will reduce recidivism – the prisons are often neglected.

While Costa Rica faces growing drug-related problems, a multi-country analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America of persistent criminal justice and prison problems in Latin America – aimed at identifying strategic solutions – indicates that the country stands out as having undertaken at least modest reforms of its prisons to prevent them from becoming the breeding grounds for increasingly hardened criminals and gangs.  Prison conditions in Costa Rica have not been among the worst in Latin America, although the U.S. State Department said in its Human Rights Report for 2013 report that they were “harsh” and that “overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems.”  Until very recently, when new drug sentencing laws and tough anti-crime measures pushed the prison population up, the system generally did not exceed capacity.  Even today, the system is at 140 percent of capacity – far less than the 200-300 percent seen in other countries.  Prison conditions also seem less abusive than those seen in other countries.  An external oversight body was created to protect the rights of prisoners.  Moreover, the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is reaching out to local businesses to support vocational training programs for inmates.

This process has been driven by reformers inside the government and prison system, in contrast to most reforms elsewhere in the hemisphere driven by international donors.  This is a rare example of how reformers inside and outside the system worked to achieve institutional changes that increase citizen security while respecting human rights.  In this case, long-standing mid-level and senior staff of the penitentiary system, with the support of successive Ministers of Justice appointed by President Laura Chinchilla, played a key role in resisting pressures from legislators who want to toughen sentencing, which would increase prison populations.  They have advocated measures to ease overcrowding and ensure proportionality in sentencing.  At the same time, they have also used the IDB loan to both defend and expand the rehabilitation and re-insertion programs in the prison system.  Every country’s situation is unique, and Costa Rica has advantages — a relatively low crime rate, a relatively strong state structure, a relatively well-established respect for the rule of law – that others lack, but San José has shown that reform in this difficult, politically sensitive area is possible.

*Geoff Thale and Adriana Beltran, of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently led a small delegation to visit Costa Rican prisons.

Drug Dealing in Costa Rica: A Perverse Path toward Social Inclusion

By Rodolfo Calderón Umaña*

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Central America’s emergence as a principal transit route for illicit drugs from South America to the U.S. has given rise to local retail markets supplying users within the region.  A study of three Costa Rican communities – one in greater San José and two along the Caribbean coast – highlights several factors that determine the scale and consequences of these local markets.  Among the most important are the high levels of social exclusion experienced by households in these localities and residents’ motivation to become involved in the business because it offers resources (money, power and prestige) that cannot be achieved through the legitimate channels of education or quality employment.  Other factors include the proximity of the communities to drug trafficking routes and the extent of previously existing demand from local consumers.

One of the most significant characteristics of local drug markets in these communities, as elsewhere, is that they are socially and territorially bounded because trust is the key factor shaping relationships between suppliers, sellers and consumers.  Some local suppliers maintain direct ties to cartels, but they operate their businesses independently.  Youth are assigned the most vulnerable tasks and are thus disproportionately represented among those arrested and convicted of crimes.  Violence serves as the principal instrument for controlling and regulating the drug trade, and the result is that for youth in these settings violence becomes normalized as a routine form of behavior.  This spawns a generalized climate of fear and insecurity, and the typical response of community residents is to retreat from public space and to isolate themselves inside their homes.

These findings support calls for new responses to the drug trade at the community level.  Central American governments, encouraged to a significant degree by U.S. programs, have tended to emphasize repressing and “combatting” the scourge of drug trafficking, yet where this approach has been implemented – particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle — social problems have only gotten worse.  In Costa Rica, it’s not too late to undertake a comprehensive strategic review of policies in this domain and to bolster programs to stabilize affected areas.  Particularly if designed and implemented from the bottom up, programs can identify and reach out to vulnerable residents before they are drawn into drug micro-markets as vendors, consumers, or both.  Vocational training programs matched to real employment opportunities are absolutely fundamental – to reduce residents’ social exclusion.  Our research findings indicate that enhancement of public spaces where community residents can congregate and initiatives focused on building trust between communities at risk and representatives of the state can also be highly productive.  Costa Rica is at a critical juncture: it can either sustain and expand the participatory policy frameworks that buttress community cohesion and resilience or run the risk of falling into the devastating spiral of delinquency and violence that has plagued its neighbors in the Northern Triangle.

*Dr. Calderón Umaña is a researcher at FLACSO-Costa Rica.  The study is being conducted by FLACSO-Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre.