Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Brazil: Corruption of Anti-Corruption

By Fábio Kerche*

Moro, Bolsonaro, and Paraná governor Ratinho Júnior seated during a visit to the Integrated Center of Intelligence and Public Security of the Southern Region in May 2019.

Moro, Bolsonaro, and Paraná governor Ratinho Júnior during a visit to the Integrated Center of Intelligence and Public Security of the Southern Region in May 2019/ Marcus Correa/ Wikimedia Commons

New revelations about the political objectives and operational decisions of Brazil’s Lava Jato anti-corruption investigators have dealt a blow to their credibility and to the legitimacy of President Jair Bolsonaro’s election. The “Car Wash” Operation began in 2014, with prosecutors and Judge Sérgio Moro leading what was seen as a crusade against corruption and in the process becoming heroes for significant portions of society. It started with an investigation into Petrobras, the biggest state-owned company, and spread across several sectors of the economy. Although the activities of several political parties came under scrutiny, the left-wing Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) suffered the most. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office, and President Lula da Silva was arrested – opening the path for Bolsonaro, a far-right politician with an undistinguished political biography, to win the 2018 election.

  • Bolsonaro appointed Lava Jato judge Moro as his Minister of Justice – a move cited by some observers as evidence of the new President’s commitment to fight corruption. Others, however, were concerned that Moro’s acceptance of the job confirmed long-held suspicions, based on his own statements against Lula, that the lawsuit against the former president was a political farce to get him out of the race. Critics said the new job was Moro’s reward for putting Lula, who was leading in all polls during the campaign, behind bars. Some political analysts and journalists even speculated that Moro would run for President in 2022.

The Intercept, a news website co-founded by Pulitzer-winning U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, has published internal messages between Moro and Lava Jato prosecutors that confirm they had a political agenda. The communications confirm several violations of the law and ethics.

  • According to Brazilian law, prosecutors and judges cannot exchange information about cases outside of court, particularly in a secret way. Judges, according to the legislation, should listen to the prosecution and the defendant’s attorney in an equitable way. A judge exchanging messages by Telegram with a prosecutor about a lawsuit is illegal.
  • Moro took a firm hand in directing the prosecution team – another violation of LOMAN (Organic Law of the Judiciary). The Intercept has so far released only 1 percent of the conversations, but the information already shows that Moro criticized members of the team, gave others tips on how to proceed, asked for new police operations, recommended press strategies, steered investigators away from looking at possible wrongdoing by former President Cardoso, and undertook other initiatives. Lula’s defense did not have the same “opportunity”: the judicial balance weighed heavily on the prosecution side.

Moro has not been dismissed in the wake of these revelations, and the charges against Lula have not been cancelled – as would have happened in a less turbulent political environment. But there are clear signs that Moro has been losing support in Brazilian society. Even the news media who transformed him into a hero now criticize how he handled Lula’s case, and persons who supported Lula’s arrest now affirm that the former president should be released. The Brazilian Bar Association and some Judges Associations are openly criticizing Moro. Talk of Moro getting a seat in the Supreme Court or running for president in 2022 has evaporated.

Moro and his cohorts’ crusade against the alleged corruption of PT leaders whose politics or style they didn’t like amounts to use of the Judicial System to interfere in politics – if not criminalize what, in many ways, are normal political activities. The apparently illegal alliance between Moro and prosecutors seems to leave little doubt that Lula was convicted in an unfair trial based more on biased opinions rather than objective evidence. His supporters’ claim that he is a political prisoner increasingly makes sense. The Brazilian judicial system is supposed to give every citizen a fair and balanced trial. Although annulling Bolsonaro’s election seems impossible, the fact has been established that Moro was able to interfere in the electoral process by removing the leading candidate from the presidential race. The judicial fraud that marred the 2018 election has dealt yet another blow to Brazilian democracy.

June 28, 2019

* Fábio Kerche is a Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation and Professor at UNIRIO and IESP/UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Nicaragua: Can Ortega Circumvent the Talks?

By Fulton Armstrong

Presidente de El Salvador participa en Cumbre SICA-Nicaragua.

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega / https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotospresidencia_sv/30962278823 / Flickr / Creative Commons

While the Nicaraguan government continues to stonewall in negotiations with its broad-based opposition, it is taking a series of unilateral actions that seem intended to preempt the talks – and leave the opposition behind. President Daniel Ortega and his team have flatly rejected key opposition demands, including early elections to replace him (instead of waiting for general elections in 2021) and the immediate, unconditional release of hundreds of political prisoners. They have, however, issued declarations pledging several actions on their own terms.

  • Last week, the Foreign Minister said the government “is complying, and will continue to comply, with all of [its] commitments toward understanding and peace.” Calling itself the “Government of Reconciliation and National Unity,” Managua has issued a “work program” that includes the “definitive release” by June 18 of 100-plus more political prisoners and several hundred others under house arrest. It pledged to work toward a “culture of peace” and “cooperate” with the OAS on reforms of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to prepare for the 2021 elections. It promised legislation that supposedly will help victims of government violence during the April 2018 protests, although apparently with conditions that offend opposition leaders.

The opposition Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which left the negotiating table last week, continues to enjoy widespread support, but press reports suggest mobilization fatigue is undermining its effectiveness and unity. Sympathetic media judged a hastily called national strike last week – protesting government intransigence in the talks – as effective, but they hinted at reduced enthusiasm. The Superior Council of Private Business (COSEP), a leading opposition force, recently released its assessment that the economy is “in a free fall,” with plummeting domestic and foreign investment. COSEP analysts note that the loss of 100,000 private-sector jobs and a similar number of informal-sector jobs is taking a heavy toll on society. The Catholic Church, which remains consistently critical of the Ortega government, has had a lower political profile since Pope Francis reassigned Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, its most outspoken critic of the government, to a Vatican job.

  • The opposition has also been stung by criticism from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, who’s led diplomatic pressure on Ortega to loosen up. In April, Almagro accused both sides in the negotiations of “lying” but listed untruths he attributed specifically to the opposition, claiming that “lying is the most antidemocratic practice.” Although the OAS last week approved a resolution, drafted by Canada with Almagro’s support, calling for Ortega to take concrete steps on human rights and election preparations, some 14 small opposition groups the day after accused the Secretary General of a “double standard” – allegedly being lenient toward Ortega but tough of Venezuelan President Maduro.

Government repression and intransigence in the negotiations are the primary causes of the crisis, but the opposition is, once again, showing a lack of focus and discipline. Ortega’s unilateral moves on political prisoners and electoral reform, after the opposition left the negotiation, suggest an effort to render the opposition and negotiation process irrelevant. By making the release of political prisoners its top priority in recent rounds of talks, opponents have given Ortega an area in which concrete and relatively cost-free steps can give the government momentum. Last week’s strike may have done more to show opponents’ weakness than strength inside Nicaragua, and Almagro’s swipe at “liars” – while possibly a reflection of his own personality and personal beliefs – cannot be helping outside. Some of the “liars” that have irritated him may indeed be mere troublemakers or government shills, but any dilution of international interest will be a victory for the government. The Trump Administration, which has pledged regime change in Nicaragua as well as Venezuela and Cuba, has been relatively quiet. Diplomats at the OAS are working hard to muster the four additional votes to reach the 24 necessary to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua, but Ortega seems to think he can end-run a negotiated settlement and undermine his opponents at home and abroad.

May 29, 2019

Mexico: Gambling That Austerity Will Be Enough

By Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid*

Mexico City's Paseo de La Reforma

Mexico City’s Paseo de La Reforma / Flickr / Creative Commons

While continuing to emphasize his goal of reversing neoliberalism in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is pursuing a budgetary policy with austerity – not much-needed fiscal reform – as his top priority, at least for 2019-20. In his inauguration speech last December, AMLO repeated campaign themes deriding the neoliberal policies implemented in Mexico since the mid-1980s, blaming them, as well as rampant corruption, for the country’s slow growth, rising inequality, and widespread poverty. Since then, however, the President’s speeches on economic policy and his Secretary of Finance’s main policy documents have stated that all public-sector operations will be subject to strict austerity.

  • They have indicated that 1) there will be no fiscal reform in the first three years of the administration; 2) fiscal revenue will not increase this or next year as a proportion of GDP; and 3) in this period, the public sector will not incur additional debt. In other words, the implementation of AMLO’s proposed social and economic programs will depend on the availability of public revenues subject to the strict constraint of no additional resources through public borrowing or any tax reform. The government has made sharp cuts to government personnel and wages and eliminated various public entities, including ones created to attract foreign investment and tourism.

At the same time, AMLO plans to change the composition of public expenditures significantly to accommodate his top-priority projects, among them Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (a massive transfer of $180 per capita for an ambitious, and, in many ways, welcome apprentice program for up to 2.3 million youngsters); Sembrando Vida (planting a million trees); Adultos Mayores; and investment to put in place a Maya Train, building from scratch a new crude oil refinery in Dos Bocas, and revamping an airport in Santa Lucía.

More in line with AMLO’s stated intention of overturning neoliberalism, what Mexico really needs is a profound fiscal reform – strengthening public revenues, modernizing public investment strategies, and strengthening its development banks – to foster growth and equality with long-term debt sustainability and greater countercyclical capacity. It is a paradox that the new government chose to commit itself to a severely austere budget, reflected in cuts in public expenditures and an increased primary fiscal surplus.

  • The decision to refrain from tax reform, coupled with drastic austerity, imposes acute limits on the new administration’s ability to strengthen and modernize infrastructure, reduce income inequality through fiscal tools, or strengthen its capacity to act in a countercyclical way – not to mention alleviate major lags in the socioeconomic conditions of the poor population. The IMF, OECD, World Bank, ECLAC, the Centro de Investigación Económica y Presupuestaria (CIEP), Grupo Nuevo Curso de Desarrollo (UNAM), and many local think tanks have systematically underlined that Mexico’s tax revenues as a proportion of GDP are extremely low. According to the estimates of UNAM, CIEP, and others, those revenues are at least six percentage points short of what is needed to meet long-standing needs in infrastructure, health, pensions, education, and overall social security and protection concerns. By reducing the bureaucratic apparatus and public-sector wages virtually across the board, the administration runs the risk of further weakening the state’s technical capabilities in some key areas of public policy and thus undermining its ability to correct course.
  • The underlying reasons for the new government’s commitment to austerity seem to be more political than economic. It has stated that a significant amount of resources can be freed up by abating the rampant corruption, and it apparently believes that before implementing fiscal reform, the government must prove to the citizens that it can deliver efficiently, effectively, and with honesty. Whether there will be sufficient achievements in terms of economic growth and inclusion and in eliminating impunity to convince the middle and upper classes to accept a progressive fiscal reform three years from now is an open question, but the answer will determine Mexico’s economic growth path and progress in the reduction of inequality, poverty, and corruption, and perhaps too its social stability and the viability of its democracy in the future.

April 16, 2019

*Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid is a professor of economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Bolivia: The Exceptional Case of the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

MAS rally in Bolivia

A rally celebrating the nineteenth anniversary of the MAS in Bolivia. / Tercera Información / Wikimedia Commons

Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) is one of the most important and electorally successful new parties in Latin America because it has succeeded in achieving and maintaining high levels of internal grassroots participation and bottom-up influence, even after assuming national power.  Unlike the ad hoc electoral vehicles created to sustain the support of a single charismatic leader like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the MAS has maintained autonomous forms of social mobilization by popular constituencies that have contributed to keeping party vibrancy and served as a check on concentrated executive power.

  • A “party of movements,” the MAS began as a largely indigenous coca growers’ union, but after 20 years of existence and more than a decade in power, it still deviates from the conventional wisdom that such parties inevitably become oligarchic in their operation. Compared to most other movement-based parties, the MAS remains responsive to the interests, demands, and preferences of its social bases – propelling its leader, Evo Morales, to the presidency but also, at times, limiting his authoritarian tendencies.  My research, recently published in a book entitled When Movements Become Parties, reveals that Bolivia is a rare example in which a party’s social movement origin not only facilitated party-building but also enabled the party to preserve high levels of grassroots participation in the selection of candidates and the crafting of public policies, with “bottom-up” correctives to hierarchy and concentrated executive authority.
  • While institutional checks and balances can be (and have been) weakened by an ambitious leader like Morales, governing parties more open to bottom-up input preserve opportunities to establish checks on decisions and constrain strategic behavior and hierarchical control. Channels to exert “voice” provide incentives for the social bases to shape important decisions, as these bases become de facto veto actors within the organization.  At the broader regime level, when a governing party establishes and upholds well-developed opportunities for bottom-up grass-roots participation, instances of bait-and-switch policy-making are less likely – a condition conducive to policy stability and ensuring the “continued responsiveness” that is central to democratic representation in between election cycles.  Finally, when governing parties are more open, they may generate opportunities and incentives for the political empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups by boosting the input that those groups have in the political power game.

The MAS has avoided extreme forms of professionalism and “top-down” control.  While the party as a bureaucratic organization remains weak after 20 years, that reality has allowed the social bases to act autonomously and continue to influence, constrain, and hold the party’s leadership accountable.  This has enabled the party to maintain unusually strong ties with the country’s major popular movements, which still provide a formidable mass base and coalition of support.  Today, 12 years after it gained power for the first time, the MAS remains the only truly national party in Bolivia and is that country’s dominant party.  The ongoing strength and relative autonomy of social mobilization in Bolivia not only explains much of the MAS’s continued success but also sets the Bolivian case apart from the Brazilian PT, where social mobilization withered, and from Venezuela under Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, where mobilization is strong but largely controlled from above.

The system is far from perfect.  Poised to seek a fourth term in 2019 after a legally dubious maneuver, polls show that Morales may not be unbeatable.  The party lacks a viable successor, and another reelection can open the door to further abuses and greater personalization of power – all of which can undermine the development of the democratic regime.  This could also atrophy the links between the party and segments of its movement base, a process already under way.  Power is already concentrated in an executive administration that too often treats opponents and the press with raw hostility.  Institutions are inefficient, liberal rights are poorly safeguarded, and courts are feeble and politicized.  Even if checks and balances on presidential authority have weakened, however, autonomous grassroots participation, inclusion, and accountability are highly robust.  Inclusion has created a “new normal” in the Bolivian political arena, with larger numbers of Bolivians enjoying rights of citizenship and greater input into political decision-making and into determining who gets what, when, and how – with the MAS at the center.  Seen from the long arc of Bolivian history, this is an exceptional change in a society characterized by social and political exclusion.

November 14, 2018

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College.  His new book, When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, 2018), studies the internal politics of Latin America’s three most innovative leftist parties: Bolivia’s MAS, Brazil’s PT, and Uruguay’s FA.

Brazil: A Moment of Truth

By Barbara dos Santos*

Brazil elections 2018

A group of demonstrators gathered in São Paulo last week to protest Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and show their support for other candidates like Ciro Gomes. / Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Sunday’s election has brought out deep divisions in Brazilian society and set the stage for an even more divisive runoff later this month.  This week’s polls underscore that, although most voters arguably occupy the center, the right and the left have the strongest candidates.  Populist conservative Jair Bolsonaro (31 percent) has a 10-point lead over Workers Party (PT) latecomer Fernando Haddad (21 percent), who started campaigning only after party standard-bearer “Lula” da Silva definitively pulled out of the race three weeks ago.  But both candidates have high negatives, and the polls suggest that they would be tied in a second round (42 percent each).  Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), is still hovering around 11 percent, but polls also show that he would beat Bolsonaro (39 to 45 percent) if they face off on October 28.  Everyone else is polling in the single digits.

  • Hate politics has spiked during this campaign, powered by polarization, culture wars, and fake news on social media. Uncivil discourse and even physical violence have increased.  Although Federal Police have concluded that the man who stabbed Bolsonaro last month acted alone, the candidate and allied social media are hyping the incident as a political attack.  Other rumors circulating online are that Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila of the Partido Comunista do Brasil, ordered the stabbing (which prompted threats against her.)  A review by the national daily O Estado de São Paulo found that several of Bolsonaro’s campaign themes – defending the death penalty and vigilantism, the use of torture, and past racial cleansing – have fueled aggressive attacks by both opponents and supporters.  One of the leaders of the Facebook group Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro was assaulted by three men outside her home on September 24; their political views are clear, although their affiliation remains unconfirmed.
  • The emergence of Bolsonaro – who has publicly called women unequal, stupid, and even “too ugly to rape” – shows the stridency of the culture wars now occurring in Brazil. His campaign has also revealed greater tolerance among some sectors for misogyny going far beyond traditional machismo.  It reflects a rejection of the younger generation’s progressive and liberal values of equality and inclusion.  Bolsonaro’s proud refusal to apologize for his remarks suggests confidence that his base sympathizes with his views.

In terms of political institutions, the election is crucial to the future of the PT and the left in Brazil and beyond.  Over its 14 years in power, the party led the country on a path of decreasing inequality, a booming economy, and international prestige as a “global player.”  It all came tumbling down for external and internal reasons:  commodity prices crashed, economic recession set in, and massive corruption scandals led to deep, sustained political crises.  The PT’s opponents have cast the party as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Brazilian society and institutions, and Bolsonaro and others on the right are hoping to deal it a deathblow.  Haddad is running hard, but local observers believe he needs to distance himself more from his party’s past – such as by trying harder to avoid criticizing the judicial processes that landed Lula in jail, advocating a responsible government budget, and more aggressively criticizing Presidents Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua.

This round of elections is the most important since the re-democratization of Brazil in 1988.  While some democracies around the world are known for tumult and strident campaigning – and may even be able to weather periods of authoritarianism – those that are of more recent vintage and less institutionalized, including Brazil, can break.  A Bolsonaro victory would not necessarily lead the country to military dictatorship, but the acceptance of his authoritarian vision, including his praise for military rule in the past, poses a potentially serious threat to the continuing strengthening of Brazilian democratic institutions.  In an interview last week, he even implied that if he were not elected, he would reject the vote count and claim that PT committed fraud.  Similarly, Haddad would also pose a threat to democratic institutionalization if he does not allow the justice system to handle Lula according to the law.

 October 4, 2018

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

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

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2018

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

Brazil: Diving into Uncertainty

By Marcus Rocha*

Brazilian presidential candidates 2018

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2018

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

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.