Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Brazil: Is Democracy Under Threat?

By Marcio Cunha Filho*

A large group of Brazilians wave the Brazilian flag

A rally supporting former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October 2017. / Eduardo Figueiredo / Midia NINJA / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil hit a new peak last weekend – resulting in former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to turn himself in to be imprisoned – and strongly suggests that the country’s democracy is in deeper trouble than previously thought.  Lula said he was a victim of political persecution by both prosecutors and the courts, including the six Supreme Court justices who ruled that he not be allowed the courtesy of remaining free during his appeals to Brazil’s higher courts on his conviction on corruption charges.

  • Lula’s Worker’s Party (PT) claims that the decision is part of a campaign against leftwing forces that has intensified since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in August 2016. Supporters say that Lula’s imprisonment at a time that he is leading in presidential polls is the culmination of a strategy aimed at making sure that the PT – the only party to have won the presidency in elections since 2002 – remains out of power.  Most mainstream media and some rightwing lawyers have argued that Lula’s arrest obeyed all legal procedures, but PT supporters are not alone in their allegation of impropriety.  José Afonso da Silva, one of the most prominent non-partisan constitutional law professors in Brazil, has written a legal opinion against Lula’s imprisonment.  Other experts claim that Lula’s imprisonment order was strangely rushed (jurist Celso Antônio Bandeira de Mello), while others have expressly criticized the Supreme Court for denying Lula Habeas Corpus (Prof. José Geraldo da Silva Júnior).
  • While proof remains elusive, strong circumstantial evidence of conspiracy persists. The lawsuit against Lula was tried much more rapidly by Judge Sérgio Moro than most cases, and the guilty verdict was reaffirmed by the regional court just in time to keep Lula out of the presidential election scheduled for October 7.  Moreover, the accusations against Lula are fragile:  Moro argues that the former president received a $1 million remodeled beach apartment as a bribe from a construction company in exchange for political favors, but there is no evidence that the apartment was Lula’s or that he used it in any way.  Neither is there evidence that the construction firm received any favors.

Other indications that Brazil is experiencing an “open season” against the left are emerging.  Civil society leaders have reported repressive practices against them, including violent protests at their public events.

  • The assassination of a Rio de Janeiro municipal legislator is widely thought to have been carried out by rightwing elements. At a recent political rally, unidentified gunmen shot at Lula’s vehicle.  A wealthy São Paulo night club owner is offering a reward for anyone willing to murder Lula in prison.  Radical and angry political movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre are gaining strength by angrily advocating and celebrating through social media the imprisonment of political opponents.  Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer who praises the military dictatorship, has become the new frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Another troubling sign was a tweet from the Armed Forces – issued the day before the Supreme Court’s judgment against Lula – that it will not tolerate impunity. It has been widely interpreted as the most direct threat to the Court since the end of military dictatorship.
  • Freedom of expression and academic freedom are under pressure as well, according to many observers. Local, state, and federal legislators are trying to ban the teaching of gender issues in public schools, claiming gender issues are a leftwing ideology should not be taught to young children.  At the university level, in Rio Grande do Sul a local congressman filed a complaint to the Public Prosecutor’s Office asking that a course entitled “The 2016 Coup d’état” – referring to the removal of Dilma Rousseff and inauguration of President Michel Temer – be disallowed.

Democracies rarely die as a result of the acts by one or even a small group of political leaders, but rather as the outcome of repressive actors’ manipulation of popular confusion and anxiety about the country’s direction.  Lula may not have been perfect – he was not – but he deserved fair treatment by the government and fair enforcement of the law.  Democracies cannot endure when one group or another uses government institutions, even with significant popular support, to impose its views on others, often violently.  We should not forget that, in its early stages, the military coup in Brazil was supported by the media (at least by the biggest TV network in the country, Rede Globo), by civil society institutions (such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil), as well as by much of the political leadership.  Radicalization, inability to dialogue, and unwillingness to make political compromises are the factors that made Brazil descend in 1964 into two decades of repression.  We might now be slipping down this same path, and witnessing the rebirth of institutionalized and popularly-supported repression and intolerance.

April 10, 2018

* Marcio Cunha Filho is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Brasília; federal auditor in Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General; and former CLALS Research Fellow.

Brazil: Lula’s Conviction and Electoral Reforms Stirring Up Presidential Race

By Paulo Castro*

Large room in with many people at desks

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies. Presidential candidates’ TV and radio time in the upcoming 2018 election will be proportionally determined by the number of seats they hold in the Chamber. / Edilson Rodrigues / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Already overshadowed by the Lava Jato corruption investigations, Brazil’s preparations for general elections in October are likely to take place amid rising tensions – and perhaps even some violent protests.  Early campaign maneuvering intensified last month when a regional federal court raised obstacles to former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s candidacy, and electoral reforms passed in 2015 promise to fuel further disruption as election day approaches.

  • Lula’s appeal to overturn his conviction on corruption and money laundering charges was rejected by the Regional Federal Court in Porto Alegre (TRF-4). The ruling does not automatically knock him out of the race, but it drastically decreases his chances of running in October.  His best hope at this point lies with the Federal Supreme Court (STF), which has the power to overturn the regional court’s ruling.  This is very unlikely, however, because (i) a recent change in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law allows a defendant to be arrested if the original conviction is confirmed ; (ii) STF Chief-Justice Carmen Lúcia, who unilaterally has the power to set the Court’s agenda, has stated clearly that “overturning the Federal Court’s ruling against Lula would undermine the Supreme Court”; and (iii) the Clean Record Act (Lei da Ficha Limpa) prevents candidates from running for public office for eight years if they have been convicted by a second instance court such as the TRF-4.
  • The campaign climate is also affected by changes brought about by the electoral reforms of 2015, which reduced the campaign period from 90 to 45 days (with TV/radio time reduced from 45 to 35 days) and barred corporate donations to campaigns. These changes are likely to shift the balance in favor of traditional political leaders who already have national name recognition and have more influence inside their parties to get the few resources available.

Lula’s likely disqualification and the reforms have thrown the parties, especially his Workers Party (PT), into uncharted territory.  After 30 years of internal deal-making with his “mystical” name at the center, the PT will have to produce new political leaders and policy platforms.  For all parties, reduced financial resources and less TV time will increase the role of “politics as usual.”

  • TV and radio time is allocated in proportion to the parties’ representation in the Lower House of Congress, so candidates will need a strong party’s support to build a competitive candidacy. This suggests that the rise in the polls of Jair Bolsonaro – an Army reservist and congressman with a penchant for populist, authoritarian rhetoric – doesn’t necessarily make him a strong candidate; the small party under whose banner he’s running controls only 3 of 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The center and center-right parties, such as PMDB and PSDB, will also have an advantage because in 2016 they elected the highest number of mayors, who can bring additional resources to bear.

 The final outcome of the Lula case and implementation of the reforms could ignite further political instability.  Lula’s arrest could very well spark a new wave of demonstrations, with possible violence.  Lacking resources, Bolsonaro – who has already advocated military intervention in civilian political affairs – will try to rally right-wing groups behind his candidacy.  Combined, these opposing movements create a dangerous political landscape that brings both sides of the spectrum to doubt the capacity of democratic institutions.  A recent survey by Latinobarometro already shows that only 13 percent of Brazilians are pleased with the current state of their democracy.  Perceptions that the Judiciary has been excessive in the Lula case and that election laws have only empowered traditional (and corrupt) forces are likely to feed into the sort of authoritarian rhetoric Bolsonaro espouses and cause turmoil that harms the overall confidence on Brazil’s democracy.

February 9, 2018

* Paulo Castro is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Brasilia, where he is focusing on the political actions of the Brazilian Supremo Tribunal Federal.  He has worked as an advisor and analyst in the Ministry of Justice and private sector organizations.  He is also a CLALS Research Fellow.

Lima Group: Committed to Democratic Principles?

By Nicolás Comini*

Group of men and women stand at a podium

Government officials from different Latin American countries met in August 2017 to sign the “Lima Declaration,” establishing the Lima Group. / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “Lima Group” – an informal alliance of 12 Latin American countries created to observe the sensitive situation in Venezuela – has shown that its defense of democracy in the hemisphere is inconsistent.  Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru have on at least a handful of occasions condemned Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for stoking political violence, holding political prisoners, committing electoral fraud, and engaging in other abuses, justifying their positions as based on ethics, morals, and good practices.

The reactions of the Lima Group and its leading members to the situation in Honduras since that country’s presidential election in November, however, suggests that the values they espouse do not have universal application.  After OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro declared that the election lacked credibility and called for new elections, some countries’ pro-democracy fervor faded.

  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s administration quickly recognized Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s victory and officially declared its “disposition to continue working for the development of closer ties of friendship and more cooperation between the two nations.” The Brazilian foreign ministry expressed its “commitment to maintain and strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation that traditionally have united both countries.”  In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government quickly recognized Hernández as well, calling on “Honduran society to support dialogue in order to preserve peace and democratic stability in that sister nation.”

The discrepancies between the group’s rhetoric and actions appear to be rooted in various reasons.

  • Political alignments take precedence over values. Honduran President Hernández has been active in the group’s (and indirectly the OAS’) efforts on Venezuela.  Honduras is a member of the Lima Group, and Hernández is perceived by conservative governments as an ally to contain the spread of the left.  The risk of massive Venezuelan population displacement, with profound potential consequences for neighboring countries, contrasts with the situation in Honduras.  With the region entering a new election cycle, moreover, incumbents’ lack of support for Almagro’s position signals that they do not want the OAS messing around in their own electoral processes.
  • These governments also see Hernández as a strategic United States ally in Central America in combating drug trafficking, transnational criminal networks, money laundering, and irregular migration. Many of the governments may also refrain from criticizing the belief that Tegucigalpa benefits from the presence of 1 million Hondurans in the United States (more than half of whom the State Department says “are believed to be undocumented”).  In addition, Honduras was one of the eight countries that supported President Donald Trump’s rejection of the UN General Assembly Resolution asking nations not to locate diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

The crises in Venezuela and Honduras are indeed different, and the international community’s interests in them are naturally different.  Maduro’s and Hernández’s failings affect other countries’ political and economic equities in different ways.  Maduro’s undemocratic actions increase unpredictability in the management of oil and other sectors of foreign interest, whereas Hernández’s represent predictability, if not stability, in areas that Washington cares about and Buenos Aires, Brasilia, and the rest of Latin America do not.  But the high-sounding values at stake – democracy, institutionality, and rule of law – are the same in both countries.  While Venezuela’s population is three times the size of Honduras’ and its political crisis arguably three times more advanced, the moral responsibility – and moral authority – of the Lima Group or its member nations is many times greater in a small, vulnerable, poor country like Honduras.  Security forces have gunned down some three dozen oppositionists and protestors since the November election, and allegations of human rights violations have soared, but Latin America’s major democracies have been silent.

  • The failure to support the OAS’ call for new elections was not just a stab in the back of Secretary General Almagro; it revealed that their rhetoric about the OAS Democracy Charter – embodiment of democratic values they demand be respected in Venezuela – are not as universal as they say. When the Lima Group last Tuesday (with considerable justification) rejected the Venezuelan National Assembly’s call for an early presidential election, the Hernández government’s signature was there alongside the others.  If universal democratic values and principles are not for universal application – if even an informal grouping will not criticize a small actor with whom they do not have major equities at stake – their value is much diminished.

January 30, 2018

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.  He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

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.

The OAS and the Honduran Election Crisis

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

One man stands at a podium while another sits at a table

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (left) and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro (right) at an OAS meeting last year. / Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro – consistent with his mandate and commitment to protect democracy throughout the hemisphere – has challenged the legitimacy of the Honduran presidential election, but member countries’ failure to embrace his call for new elections could undermine his leadership and the credibility of OAS democracy protection instruments.  Almagro so far stands out as the only international actor exerting pressure on the Honduran government to guarantee free and fair elections after the serious irregularities observed on November 26.

  • On December 4, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission’s preliminary report established that the electoral process was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with low technical quality, and lacking integrity. Two days later, Almagro issued a statement concluding no winner could be determined and calling for the lifting of Honduran government measures that suspended the civil and political rights of Hondurans.
  • On December 17 – the same day the Honduran Electoral Tribunal proclaimed President Juan Orlando Hernández the winner in the election – the Observation Mission issued a second report documenting concerns about the electoral process The Secretary General then called for new elections, and appointed special representatives to set out the new electoral process and the process of national reconciliation in Honduras.

The Honduran government’s rejection of the OAS actions has hardened, apparently emboldened by the fact that no other international actor has backed Almagro’s call for new elections.  In an official communique, Tegucigalpa rejected Almagro’s initiative to send a special representative; claimed the Secretary General had exceeded his authority; and accused him of jeopardizing the autonomy of the Electoral Mission and inciting the polarization of the Honduran population.  In this way, Hernández, initially a strong supporter of OAS democracy protection efforts in Venezuela, now fends off the organization with arguments that recall those employed by Maduro’s government.

  • President Hernández seems to expect that he will overcome all challenges. He apparently believes the internal discontent, which has included peaceful demonstrations involving thousands of protesters, will cool down, and the opposition and angry citizens will come to terms with his reelection.  He must be pleased, moreover, that Washington has endorsed his supposed victory, and that no other international actor has backed Almagro’s call for new elections.  The European Union electoral mission dropped its initial complaints about the election.  Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and others have congratulated Hernández on his reelection.

The burden now falls on the OAS Permanent Council and the OAS member states whether to support their Secretary General’s efforts to reestablish democratic order in Honduras.  After the failed attempts to come up with a collective response in Venezuela, the electoral crisis in Honduras represents a new test for the credibility of American states’ commitment to multilateral democracy protection.  If a majority of OAS member states do not support the call for new elections and accept the results of November 26, the signal would be that they trust neither the OAS electoral mission nor the Secretary General.  This would be a new erosion in OAS legitimacy as an international organization and could even prompt the Secretary General to resign.  As Latin America enters a “super electoral cycle” this year – with elections in Costa Rica, Paraguay, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and possibly Venezuela – the management of the crisis in Honduras will have crucial, demonstrative effects on how tolerant the hemispheric community will be with breaches to the quintessential democratic institution: fair and free elections.

January 16, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a former CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Honduras: Hernández Stealing the Election Too?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Two men sitting in chairs looking at each other.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. / Embassy of Honduras / Creative Commons

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and the military have declared a “state of emergency” – tantamount to martial law – to ensure that the President wins a second term, but irregularities in the vote-counting and the harsh suppression of the opposition probably will poison political discourse and hinder democratic progress for years to come.  The government declared the emergency, which will run for 10 days, on Friday night after days of growing tensions over mysterious actions by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) – heavily stacked in favor of Hernández – that erased opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla’s five-point lead earlier in the week and moved toward formalizing the incumbent’s victory by 1.5 percentage points.  Senior government officials themselves have characterized the action as a “suspension of constitutional guarantees.”  Hondurans are now living under a dusk-to-dawn curfew; radio and TV stations have been warned against publicizing opposition claims of fraud; and street confrontations are growing.  Media confirm several deaths, but opposition leaders say that more than a dozen demonstrators have been killed.  Opposition videos showing military and police violence, including chasing individual protestors and shooting them, have been removed from Facebook and other venues, although still photos of the victims can be found.

  •  The TSE has agreed to hand-count about a thousand ballot boxes with “irregularities” in three of 18 departments, representing about 6 percent of the votes, but the opposition claims that several thousand more boxes have been compromised and need to be reviewed.

International reaction has been mixed and generally muted.  The EU’s observers have held firm on demanding a full vote count and expressing, diplomatically, skepticism about TSE’s handling of it.  Observers for the “Grupo de Lima,” which has been active on the Venezuela issue, issued a “position” paper on election day (November 26) urging calm and patience with the vote count, but it has released no apparent updates since then.  OAS observers have taken a similar low-key position.

  • Although the Trump Administration may conceivably be working behind the scenes, neither the White House nor State Department has done publicly more than urge calm. Vice President Pence, who previously praised Hernández “for his leadership in addressing security and governance challenges,” has remained silent.  The U.S. chargé d’affaires has said Honduras is in “a new, unprecedented phase in the electoral process” but limited herself to calling for calm and a full vote count.

The audacity of this apparent election fraud and crackdown on Hernández’s opponents dwarfs the many other charges of corruption brought against the Hernández government, including some validated by the OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).  Although different in form from the coup in 2009, these events also threaten to undermine the nation’s political stability, economic wellbeing, and institutions necessary to building democracy.  The U.S. reaction suggests that Washington will acquiesce in the ongoing abuses and Hernández’s second term despite the obvious irregularities and rights violations.  The United States – convinced as in the past that political leaders who are “our SOBs” can make good partners – has often countenanced dubious elections.  Moreover, both the Obama and Trump Administrations were persuaded that Hernández has been their faithful, effective ally in combating the drug trade, despite evidence of official involvement in it, and the temptation to turn a blind eye to less-than-democratic political outcomes must be strong.

  •  The OAS, the “Lima Group,” and other intraregional groupings do not appear poised to weigh in despite their good intentions. Neither do Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador appear likely to condemn a neighbor for engaging in practices that are ongoing or fresh in their own near pasts.  The Inter-American Democratic Charter, a historic document laying out hemispheric values, is of little value in the absence of the political will and ability to enforce it.  Now is a crunch time both for the OAS and for those governments that advocate some teeth to the charter.  At this point, they appear likely to cave – to the detriment of democracy in Latin America.

 December 4, 2017

Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

Two politicians debate

Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.

The Brazilian Roller Coaster … Still Heading Down

By Fábio Kerche*

34976737542_8c2ede46de_k

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.