Chile: Dim Prospects for New Constitutional Assembly Soon

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

The Constitutional Convention, shown here during a moment of silence at its inauguration, started amid optimism that a new Constitution would help heal the country’s deep splits / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

Chile does not appear likely to restart efforts to write a new Constitution soon. The failure of the first draft – rejected by 62 percent of Chilean voters – has significantly weakened political leaders’ ability and resolve to try a second draft. Pollsters predicted that Rechazo (rejection) would win on September 4, and the result would fit within the left-right pendular swings of Chilean votes, but the devastating 16‑point advantage surprised all major observers.

Popular support for Constitutional reform has dissipated, even though many of the underlying issues that sparked the upheavals in 2019 and drove 78 percent of Chileans to vote for the Constituyente process remain formidable. Popular frustration with the political class and unhappiness with the first draft has bred apathy and probably disgust. 

  • The warning signs were clear before the referendum on September 4 rejected the draft. Its architects squandered their opportunity to craft a magna carta that transcended political agendas and instead they loaded the draft up with agenda items that would have best been resolved through normal political processes. Constituyente leaders’ efforts to expand people’s rights without a broader national debate turned out to be counterproductive – alienating even some crucial center-left players – and the lack of fiscal responsibility for some proposals gave right-leaning forces an issue with which to rally opposition. On top of that, investors feared that several regulatory changes would impact economic growth and unemployment.

Since the rejection, the nation’s political leaders have remained too wrapped up in their political agendas to develop a vision that could unify them and win popular support.

  • The center-left argues that a second (and successful attempt) is necessary to institutionalize Chile’s legacy since the end of the dictatorship in the 1990. Its narrative, however, is plagued with unrealistic expectations for them to provide leadership because they missed important opportunities to do so in the early 2000s.
  • President Gabriel Boric’s Frente Amplio and the left-leaning factions aligned with his government have so far failed to develop a political project. They admitted that a new Constitution is essential to their planned policies but did not inspire support. Boric has reached out to the center-left and, after the referendum failure, made a leader of the Partido por la Democracia (PPD), Carolina Tohá Morales, Minister of the Interior. But polls, including Plaza Pública by Cadem and Activa Research, indicate that Boric’s approval rating is steadily diminishing, and his disapproval is rising. Critics say that he has been overly focused on Chile’s international image, not the political crisis caused by the Constituyente’s failure, but his recent moves on pension reform may help on that.
  • The center-right, which led the Rechazo efforts against the draft, has not yet shown a compelling need for a new Constitution and simply does not see the citizens’ urgency to push for one. Indeed, center-right leaders are enjoying the failures of the left and center-left during and since the Constituyente. The hard right has never wanted to abandon the Pinochet-era Constitution that was to be replaced.

A centrist coalition comprising some elements of the center-left and center-right has expressed conditional interest in getting a second try off the ground, but fear of “convention disaster 2.0” has stymied any progress. The centrists have separately indicated that they would support another convention if the two hard factions (left and right) accepted conditions that, they say, would pave the way forward. Regarding the substance of a new assembly, they want it built on social issues that already enjoy support – not a long wish list of one political sector or other. They also want constitutional and policy experts to be incorporated into the process as referees and observers empowered to rein in ideologues and partisans on both sides.  Neither the left nor right has so far accepted the conditions.

No clear way to get the constitutional redraft back on track has emerged yet, but the problems that led to popular demands for one have not gone away and could put a fire under the political class. The Amarillos por Chile, a broad-based group of moderates with experience and expertise (at first non-partisan but now its own party), have offered ideas for breaking the impasse – even though, like the political centrists, they so far have not figured out how to hold a successful second convention will help. Moreover, they do not have any elected congress member for political influence. They are former politicians and current business leaders who first emerged during the Constituyente, calling for moderation and rejection of sweeping changes that they called “refoundational.” Their backgrounds and relative lack of political agendas may give them the steady hand Chile needs to launch a second try. Until popular demands for change force the political parties to get serious, however, the Amarillos and other supporters of a new, better modulated Constituyente are in a waiting game.

*Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government. Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21).

U.S. Immigration Debate Skewed by Bad Statistics

By Ernesto Castañeda*

Sign demarcating US and Mexico territory on the southern US border in El Paso, Texas / Ernesto Castañeda / Creative Commons License

Immigration figures have long driven heated political debate in U.S. politics – even worse in recent years – but the data often exaggerate the problem because the responsible government agencies are double-counting and media reports are analyzing the numbers incorrectly. Opponents of President Joe Biden claim that over 2 million undocumented immigrants have entered the United States each year since he became President. The numbers reported by relevant agencies should not drive headlines or be interpreted as stock tickers about whether immigration is up and down, but the data become political footballs serving generally anti-immigration political interests.

Border encounters involving people without immigration papers are just a small subset of all immigrants, emigrants, visitors, and border crossing commercial and tourist activity – almost 300 million over the past 12 months. Analysis of the numbers about border crossers reported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires clarification of what it considers “encounters.”

  • Because many people enter multiple times, the figures also reflect double-counting of many of the same individuals – sometimes more than five times each. Those of certain nationalities can be quickly removed and returned to Mexico for various reasons without adequate recording of their names and other details, making it impossible to know how many people are counted multiple times. Even those repatriated after a judge determines they do not qualify for asylum, humanitarian parole, or other special visa often try again and count as another “encounter.”
  • “Encounters” do not equal unique individuals but rather interactions between asylum-seekers or migrants and DHS personnel anywhere along the border. The U.S. Government reports, for example, that 1 million-1.3 million migrants were removed from the United States under Title 42 provisions intended to protect U.S. health in the context of the COVID pandemic – almost half of the total reported “encounters.” So “encounters” do not equal individuals entering the U.S. either.
  • The numbers include individuals whom the United States normally welcomes, including 140,000 unaccompanied minors looking to reunite with family members in the country, and over 20,000 Ukrainians. Russians and Afghans are in a similar situation. Cubans no longer are fast-tracked for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, but the U.S. government cannot deport them because neither Mexico nor Cuba will take them back. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Haitians, and others are fleeing situations that most U.S. observers consider intolerable.
  • Comparing year-on-year figures is also deceptive. During 2020, the acceptance of asylum-seekers came almost to a halt. The pandemic, Title 42, and the “Remain in Mexico” program (under which individuals who pass a “credible fear” screening are forced to stay in Mexico while awaiting a hearing) created a backlog and bottleneck for the normal mobility that had occurred in previous years. Shifts in DHS accounting between years have also exaggerated the impression of a surge.

Other observers have confirmed migration specialists’ concerns about the over-counting. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which monitors the staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government, reported in September that detention data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “is, once again, riddled with errors.” TRAC found “egregious” mistakes in several data categories that led the agency to seriously misrepresent conditions in its public statements.

While the U.S. government’s bad information makes precise calculations of migrant flows impossible, what is sure is that the total number of distinct individuals entering the United States without documentation is much less than 2 million a year. More credible estimates are that –after accounting for thousands of deportations – probably less than half a million people have been allowed in.

  • Among them, some were granted asylum – a right under U.S. and international law. Many others are welcome refugees and asylum-seekers like those from Ukraine and Afghanistan. Many others are waiting their turn in immigration court. Therefore, most of those included in this estimated half-million are in the United States legally, and the government knows who they are and where they live. By definition, they are not “illegal” or hiding. Allegations by a Texas senator and others that “4.2 million illegal immigrants have streamed across the border” since Biden took office are simply not true.

* Ernesto Castañeda teaches in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Ecuador: Weak Government Faces Growing Challenges

By Pablo Andrade Andrade*

Ecuadorians rallying during the paro nacional / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has tried to overcome the economic mess and political divisions he inherited from predecessors with neoliberal policies that, along with other missteps, have fueled growing opposition to him and undermined his agenda during the final two years of his term. Even if, unlike most of his predecessors in the past 30 years, he serves out his term, his record will be marred by policies that had failed when first attempted in the 1980s. According to Perfiles de Opinión, a respected poll, 66 percent of the population say that Lasso’s performance is either “bad” or “very bad,” and only 2.06 percent evaluate his government as “very good.” 

  • Lasso’s immediate predecessors – Rafael Correa and Lenín Moreno – left a country shaken by corruption, debt, a bungled strategy for dealing with COVID, and paralyzed public health and education services. He did not have a working majority in the National Assembly, and his CREO Movement failed to win control of key municipal and provincial governments. 
  • From the beginning, Lasso’s approach to the economic crisis was orthodox, borrowing heavily from the neoliberal fixes attempted in Ecuador in the 1980-90s. Although his administration managed to tap into the relative openness of the IMF and other IFIs, and successfully negotiated its massive debt with China, the Ministry of Economy and Finance adopted a tight budget, cutting state investments. Recovery from the pandemic slowed. Public employment – staple of the middle class – shrank, and inflation rose. 

Opposition to Lasso’s policies started weak but has grown steadily. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas (CONAIE), which had flexed its muscles during the Moreno government, was slow to mobilize at first, creating a situation that looked very much like the early wave of neoliberal politics in the 1980s, when a center-right government was able to bypass legislative opposition and weak civil society organizations. Last June, however, a new coalition of the three major rural organizations – CONAIE, Federación de Indígenas Evangélicos (FEINE), and Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN) – held a national strike (paro nacional) that effectively paralyzed the country for 18 days.  

  • The government backpedaled on its decisions to keep domestic fuel prices at international levels; to maintain low state expenditures for health and education; and to deny indigenous organizations a significant role in decision-making. Lasso reshuffled his cabinet, replacing a half dozen ministers. He opened negotiations with the rural organizations on a range of issues – spanning economic matters (i.e., fuel and food staples prices) and political ones (i.e., the designation of a new Secretario de Pueblos y Nacionalidades to replace the founding secretary Luis Pachala, who resigned in the wake of the national strike).  
  • Although the negotiations relieved some of the stress on the government, the core issues remain highly contentious, and so far, no agreement has emerged. Indigenous leaders say they are not happy with the process, and the few things agreed upon remain provisional. The Catholic Church tried to mediate but failed to progress beyond peripheral issues. In what looks like a desperate move, the government initiated a referendum process that most observers believe is intended to wrestle back the initiative on its own terms. 

The road ahead for the Lasso government is a difficult one – having essentially lame-duck status in the face of steadily mounting woes and opposition. His opponents are as strong and angry now as in June. Despite an improved fiscal stance, the government does not have the will or the capacity to expand public expenditures, so economic growth seems likely to continue at a snail’s pace, and employment will stay depressed in both urban and rural areas. The government’s unwillingness to adopt price controls will continue to fuel popular grievances. 

  • The leadership of CONAIE and others have already threatened a new nationwide mobilization and declared their opposition to the referendum initiative. Whatever support the executive was able to extract from the legislature has faded. Additionally, local government elections in 2023 are stimulating the parties to concentrate their efforts on their political fortunes.  
  • The Ecuadorian military, which played a major role in the abrupt departures of several Presidents over the past three decades, has so far avoided joining the partisan factionalism and appears united in the view that Lasso should stay. The President’s health may be as reliable an indicator as any of his fate. He recently traveled to Houston for treatment of melanoma, specifically a lesion in his right eyelid. In Quito’s churning rumor mill, convincing the population that he has been fully cured is nearly impossible. His efforts to assert his credibility as President will continue to be similarly challenged. 

* Pablo Andrade Andrade is the Germánico Salgado Chair on Andean Integration and Professor at the Department of Global and Social Studies, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Sede Ecuador. He works on comparative political economy and Latin American politics. 

Chile: Constitutional Process Has Settled Little

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Demonstrators in Santiago, Chile call for a new constitution / www.jpereira.net / Creative Commons license

The Chilean Constitutional Convention handed its proposed draft to President Gabriel Boric on July 4 – in preparation for the “exit” referendum on September 4 that will approve or reject country’s new magna carta – but it hasn’t achieved the national unity, social cohesion, or popular support envisioned when 78 percent of Chileans voted for the convention in 2020.

Historical center-left leaders are publicly supporting the nay option, and opinion polls show support is declining.

  • Former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Talge (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat who played a key role after the Pinochet dictatorship, has urged rejection because he sees “insurmountable disagreements with contents [of the draft] that compromise peace, democracy and the prosperity of our country.” He said the proposed reduction in presidential power and creation of an omnipotent new Senate could lead to dangerous populism. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) has not rejected the draft, but he has pulled back from his expected endorsement of it – a blow to the Boric government strategy for approval.
  • Leading opponents of the Pinochet-era Constitution, including former senior government officials, have criticized the proposed replacement, writing that “the electoral system is distorted with reserved seats, which reminds us of the institutional [appointed] senators of Pinochet’s Constitution.” Like Frei, they believe that the proposed system would incite conflict rather than cooperation.
  • The eight most reliable polls in the country show likely yay votes for the draft are dropping – from around 50 percent in February to about 35 percent this month. Nay votes rose from a third to roughly 50 percent in the same period. Activa Research has found that 62 percent reject the draft, while 38 percent approve of it. The 30 percent who were “undecided” last month has dropped to 20 percent, with most now rejecting the draft.

Five major factors – not all of which are the Constitutional Convention’s fault – appear to be driving this shift.

  • The Convention majority rejected pleas for greater fiscal responsibility as it wrote in a series of expensive new entitlements and nationalizations. Sponsors’ reactions to the criticism also alienated voters by saying “you stand with us, or you stand with Pinochet’s dictatorship.”
  • Favoritism and strident ideological positions undermined consensus. Most of almost 80 percent of Chileans who voted for the constitutional process in 2020 believed the new Constitution would be, for good, a “casa de todos” in terms of the social contract. The tense and confrontational debate during the process and its outcomes establishing group rights rather than universal policies let them down. 
  • Economic uncertainty since the social upheaval of 2019 – aggravated by the COVID‑19 pandemic and war in Ukraine – has undermined popular support as well. Inflation has risen steadily, and the Chilean peso has plunged to a historical low.
  • People feel insecure. The government’s performance in managing crime, drug trafficking, and the armed conflict in the south of the country against Mapuche extremist factions has not been satisfactory. Boric’s emphasis on a negotiated settlement has failed and may have worsened the problem.
  • Approval for Boric, sworn in less than five months ago amid great expectations, dropped to 34 percent this month, the lowest of his mandate. Poor communications have pushed the First Lady (who serves as head of Sociocultural Coordination) and Minister of Interior Izkia Sichesto to have the lowest approval ratings of the cabinet. Although Boric has repeatedly denied that his administration backs the yay option, his General Secretary of the Presidency affirmed earlier this year that Boric’s program requires the new Constitution to be approved.

No matter how the plebiscite on September 4 turns out, the Constitutional process now appears far from ending – and threats to political stability seem likely. If Chileans approve the draft, both sides will seek significant changes. If they reject it, changing the 1980 Constitution will still be essential to avoid tumult in the streets like rocked the country in 2019. Boric recently suggested starting a new Constitutional process from scratch, fueling further uncertainty.

  • While frustrations appear likely to grow and the chance of instability is not negligible, the Constitutional Convention process has shown that – so far – Chilean institutions have been able to maintain Rule of Law. Compared to Venezuela (1999), Bolivia (2006), and Ecuador (2007-08), Chile has followed an open and relatively stable track. But if the plebiscite does not deliver a clear, workable verdict in September, the country will again be at a crossroads – either build on what it’s accomplished since 2019 or try to start anew.

July 27, 2022

*Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government. Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). This updates their recent AULABLOG articles (here and here) on the topic.

U.S.-Guatemala: What does Washington Really Want?

by Ricardo Barrientos*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras / Government of Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Central America’s ongoing political, economic, migration, and narcotics-trafficking crises would normally allow a potential ally like Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to wriggle his way into Washington’s good graces, but his repeated efforts to thwart scrutiny of his and his allies’ corruption have been so blatant that the United States can no longer keep turning a blind eye.

  • Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua is now clearly authoritarian – elected fraudulently, arresting opponents, and openly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is increasingly aggressive in his anti-democratic and authoritarian actions, and explicitly defiant of the United States. Honduran Juan Orlando Hernández is in jail, but Xiomara Castro faces the monumental task of rebuilding the state – in the face of doubts, if not opposition, from many in Washington concerned about her supposed leftist views. All this comes against a backdrop of surging migration, massive drug-trafficking, and a hemisphere-wide “great powers competition” with China and some Russian advances in the region. Until recently, Guatemala could have put itself forward as a partner that, while regional problems festered, could – even if not as a friend – help the U.S. pursue its interests.

Nevertheless, Guatemala is now far from the ideal U.S. partner in Central America. In an explicitly defiant action, Giammattei reappointed Consuelo Porras as Attorney General in spite of the U.S. State Department’s inclusion of her on the so-called Engel List, because of her involvement in significant corruption. She has been blocking investigations of corrupt acts and allowed impunity by several individuals, including Giammattei himself. 

  • Giammattei has been unable to give Washington even the minimum image as a credible and reliable ally as his two most recent corrupt predecessors managed to do. Weak from the start, his presidency has been wracked by mismanagement of the pandemic, persistent scandals, and anti-democratic actions. Lacking the popularity levels of Bukele or even Ortega, he has had to purchase political support from tainted sponsors including former military officers accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide during the civil war; businesspeople accused of tax fraud or illicit electoral campaign financing; and corrupt officials – in return for promises that he preserve the impunity mechanisms that have so effectively protected them in the past. (Neo-Pentecostal groups are also an important part of his base.) For Giammattei, keeping control of the Attorney General’s office was paramount to fulfill that promise.
  • Under Giammattei, moreover, the government is failing in areas of direct interest to Washington, particularly addressing the “root causes” of the migration that ranks high on the U.S. agenda. Men widely suspected of collaborating with the drug cartels occupy high-ranking positions in Congress and government, making Guatemala a highway for drugs heading north. Cartel allies stand to increase their power in elections scheduled for June 2023.

Washington’s frustration with Giammattei is understandable, even though inconsistencies and favoritism in its own Central America policies have contributed to the estrangement. Guatemala’s democracy appears to be in its death throes – full of desperate people eager to risk their lives at the hands of a human-trafficking coyotes. While it remains high season for corruption, the government gives scant attention to public health (with the lowest vaccination rate and highest child malnutrition rate in Central America), and education. For many Guatemalans, the only hope of finding a better life is trying to reach the United States or cooperate with the burgeoning drug cartels.

  • Washington’s pressure on Giammattei (or any Guatemalan president) is long overdue, but it’s unclear whether it is driven by U.S. hubris at his failure to dump a corrupt Attorney General, or whether it represents a strategic shift toward a policy based on democratic values, wisdom, and prudence. Whatever the reason, the Biden Administration doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the failed Alliance for Prosperity that he strongly supported as Obama’s Vice President, appealing to Central American leaders to clean up their acts. A passive, laissez faire stand on Guatemala is not the proper way to address complex issues like the cartels, corruption, poverty, violence, and the other “root causes” of migration that Vice President Kamala Harris pledged to combat.
  • The day after Giammattei announced that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles next month, Washington sent his formal invitation – adding to the confusion about U.S. intentions toward him. Many Guatemalans wonder if the Biden Administration puts issues like migration and drug trafficking before democracy and combatting impunity.

May 25, 2022

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

Peru: Castillo Surviving Against All Odds – So Far

By Cynthia McClintock*

Demonstrators clash with police officers during a protest against Peru’s President Pedro Castillo after he had issued a curfew mandate / Angela Ponce / Sunday Times / Creative Commons License

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has prevailed in two impeachment votes, but new impeachment threats are almost certain – and the President may continue to prevail but is unlikely to consolidate his administration. Castillo and the Congress have been at loggerheads since Castillo’s inauguration in July 2021. The reasons for the severe impeachment threat are manifold.

  • From the start, many Peruvians hoped for a “do-over” of the 2021 elections. In a field of 18 presidential candidates, Castillo won only 19 percent of the first-round vote, and many observers speculated that he would have lost the runoff to any of the other candidates except the actual runner-up, Keiko Fujimori, whose organized base was much smaller than in previous years due to corruption revelations. In the Congressional vote, Castillo’s party tallied only a tad less than one-third of the seats, with the rest split evenly between hard-right parties and non-programmatic, “centrist” parties.
  • While impeachment requires a two-thirds Congressional vote, the grounds for impeachment – in particular, “moral incapacity” – are vague. Since 2000, three Peruvian presidents have left office upon impeachment or imminent impeachment.

Castillo has steadily lost popular support; his approval rating has fallen to about 25 percent. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel have taken a toll. Last week, a strike led by truckers paralyzed much of Peru’s highlands. This week’s massive protests are another sure indicator. Although the government continues to claim leftist credentials, it has not spearheaded significant new initiatives for social justice.

  • A large number of Castillo’s cabinet ministers have been unqualified. For example, a recent health minister, Hernán Condori, promoted “micro-cluster” water as a remedy for COVID‑19 without scientific evidence; the Peruvian Medical Federation repeatedly asked for his resignation – and he was finally ousted. Castillo’s first set of hapless appointments was widely attributed to his inexperience, but when he appointed his fourth cabinet last month, it appeared that he prioritizes loyalty, not competence.
  • Evidence of government corruption is considerable. Against Peru’s rules, Castillo holds irregular meetings with VIPs outside the Presidential Palace. As part of an expected plea bargain in late March, lobbyist and one-time friend Karelim López gave prosecutors information supporting charges against Castillo’s former chief aide (Bruno Pacheco) and two of Castillo’s nephews for illegal gains from state contracts in the Transport and Communications Ministry.

The President has survived through wily tactics and through legislators’ self-interest.

  • A key figure in Castillo’s party is its founder, Vladimir Cerrón, who recruited him to be the party’s 2021 candidate. Cerrón has been dubbed “El Otro Vladi,” in reference to Vladimiro Montesinos, the spymaster behind the crimes of former President Alberto Fujimori. Through promises of projects in their home areas or government positions, the government has co-opted numerous legislators. The perceptions of government guile are such that, after Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal last month pardoned Fujimori’s corruption and human rights charges, a prevalent rumor was that the government had made a backroom deal with pro-Fujimori leaders for their Congressional votes.
  • For the most part, the government has retained the votes of Peru’s “modern left” – legislators concerned not only about poverty but also gender rights, indigenous rights, and climate change, and committed to democracy – who hold about 5 percent of Congressional seats. At the start, dismayed by the hard-right’s hasty calls for Castillo’s impeachment and assuming that he would appoint a broad-based cabinet, the modern left supported the President. Now they are worried about the President – and also about whether or not their fate is linked to the government’s.
  • Peru’s Congress is as unpopular as Castillo. In particular, the Speaker of the Congress (next in line for succession to the presidency after the Vice-President), María del Carmen Alva of Acción Popular, is unpopular; she is perceived as arrogant and rude. In opinion polls, 80 percent of Peruvians say that, if Castillo is impeached, they want new elections not only for President but also for Congress. However, Peruvian law does not allow re-election of legislators, meaning that all the current legislators would lose their jobs and would fight the move.

While Castillo seems likely to continue to stumble and face challenges, there is some chance that Peru’s political impasse can be broken and a semblance of stable, effective governance restored. One possibility is that, at the end of Alva’s term in July, she is succeeded by a more capable and palatable Congress Speaker, and Castillo could be replaced without a popular demand for new Congressional elections. In its second search for a successor to an impeached president in November 2020, the Congress identified Francisco Sagasti, who was excellent. A second possibility, proposed by Sagasti himself, is a citizens’ initiative for a Constitutional reform that would shorten the terms of the President and the Congress – an initiative that would require only a simple majority in a Congressional vote.

  • Peru’s 2021 elections were held despite a devastating pandemic that obstructed campaigns and opinion polls. Last week’s ferocious protests in Huancayo – hometown of Presidential mentor Cerrón – and this week’s in Lima indicate that Peruvians are frustrated and angry as the war in Ukraine drives up fuel costs and Castillo’s agenda stalls. New elections may be the only way ahead.

April 7, 2022

* Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Latin America: Is There a Constructive Side to U.S. Policy?

By Fulton Armstrong

President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez gathered at the President's desk in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden, joined by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, talks on the phone with Jeff Zients on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House / Adam Schultz / The White House / Flickr / Creative Commons License.

While many of the Biden Administration’s policies in Latin America – particularly toward Cuba, Venezuela, and China’s activities – remain largely the same as during the Trump era, some of its actions and statements suggest more nuanced approaches on other regional issues. 

  • National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan Gonzalez, has been the point person for maintaining the hard line on Venezuela and Cuba. In early March, he met in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro, who later said, “we’ve agreed to work on an agenda going forward,” but the Administration vehemently denied this and has continued to maintain that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is President of Venezuela. In Cuba, according to various sources, Gonzalez last year vetoed a promised plan for reversing a Trump halt to the flow of remittances to the island. He recently stated that new U.S. sanctions against Russia were also intended “by design” to put pressure on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

At Congressional hearings in February and March, other senior officials have laid out various Administration priorities.

  • Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified that the hemisphere is “under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland.” In addition to helping the region with COVID-19 and the “climate crisis,” she said U.S. policy is to counter China’s “relentless march” to expand its influence in the region and its “challenges [to] U.S. influence.” She also pledged to combat transnational criminal organizations, which “operate nearly uncontested and blaze a trail of corruption and violence that create conditions that allow the PRC and Russia to exploit, threaten citizen security, and undermine public confidence in government institutions.” She said her command is “putting integrated deterrence into action.” 
  • In testimony in February, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Brian Nichols, praised President Biden’s recent “Summit for Democracy” and acknowledged that “too many ordinary citizens have seen their governments fail to meet their aspirations for a better future.” He also said the Administration’s “Build Back Better World” initiative, including investments that respond to partners’ infrastructure needs, will counter China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and “will help demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people.” His counterpart in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stressed rule of law programs under the “Root Causes Strategy,” although he noted that “in some cases,” governments lack the political will to tackle the corruption that is a root cause of their nation’s problems.
  • USAID Assistant Administrator responsible for Latin America, Marcela Escobari, testified that her priority is mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 and climate change. While criticizing the state of democracy and human rights in “extreme cases” like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, she expressed concern about “democratic backsliding” elsewhere, noting that “even in more established democracies, authoritarian tendencies have emerged.” 

The Administration has not articulated how some of its steps diverge from the aggressive and transactional approaches that characterized the Trump Administration’s engagement with the region. The White House pressed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hard to reach an accommodation with Argentina, whose government Trump kept at arm’s length, and helped it avoid default on its 2018 stand-by loan. Vice President Harris has given strong support to Honduran President Xiomara Castro since her inauguration in January – and probably contributed to Washington’s decision to request the extradition on drug charges of her predecessor, Trump ally Juan Orlando Hernández. In their Congressional testimony, current officials have repeatedly made nuanced remarks about the perceptions and reality of homegrown challenges in Latin America. Their emphasis on corruption and lack of will to address those scourges suggests awareness that not all is well, even in those countries that Washington embraces as democracies. After a slow initial response, the Administration has been generous in providing support for vaccine availability and for the capacity of public health systems to effectively respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic.

  • These factors suggest that while tired regime-change policies on Cuba and Venezuela and “integrated deterrence” against China and drug cartels may remain central to Washington’s approach to hemispheric affairs, there is awareness as well of how deeper cooperation with the region could simultaneously promote both U.S. and Latin American interests. The upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles may be the Administration’s best chance to seek meaningful common ground around the imperative of strengthening democratic governance, a challenge which Washington’s leadership now perceives as one that it shares with virtually all of its Latin American counterparts. 

March 31, 2022

Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

*Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government.

The Interamerican Democratic Charter Turns 20: Is it Becoming Irrelevant?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, September 2011./ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the clear merits of its text, the Interamerican Democratic Charter (IADC) has been enforced inconsistently over the 20 years since its singing; its effectiveness in curbing democratic backsliding remains unclear; and, with little chance of being reformed, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant.

  • The Charter was speedily adopted in Lima on September 11, 2001, while the world was reacting to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It emerged from a proposal by the government of Peru after the resignation of authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori to reinforce existing multilateral instruments for democracy. It became the main multilateral framework to deal with breakdowns of democracy and backsliding in the hemisphere.
  • The IADC developed a shared and precise definition of representative democracy; expanded the scope of action of the OAS to address coups and violations perpetrated by the elected governments; and defined procedures for various enforcement actions ranging from the dispatch of missions to the imposition of sanctions and the suspension states from the OAS.

Limits on the IADC mandate have compromised its enforcement and effectiveness, however. The enforcement of measures is under the control of governments, which take decisions through consensus or qualified majority-voting (in the case of suspensions from the OAS). Even though the IADC is grounded on the principle that democracy is a “right of the people” (Art.1), non-state actors and state institutions other than the executive branches have limited capacity to activate the IADC, and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights does not play any role in its enforcement.

  • The IADC has not been invoked in cases in which member states have conflicting interests. For instance, it was not applied against Haiti in the wake of the forced removal of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004 or against Honduras after the electoral fraud of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017. In both cases, Washington obstructed enforcement of the Charter for reasons other than “the defense of the right to democracy” of Haitians and Hondurans. More recently, Mexico has obstructed enforcement against Nicaragua despite the serious violations of the opposition’s political rights by President Daniel Ortega. Similarly, the IADC has been altogether ignored when the attacks against democracy have taken place in powerful states, such as after the assault against the U.S. Capitol in January.
  • Against this backdrop, the activism of current Secretary General Luis Almagro – who has pressured member states to take a stance through social networks and moral shaming on various occasions – has sought to work around governments’ monopoly of enforcement and break gridlocks. But his actions often compromised the impartiality of his post as he has been perceived as taking sides in the conflicts at hand and overreaching his powers under the IADC.
  • Disappointment with the IADC and Almagro’s performance has led Mexico and other governments to advocate for reinforcing alternative regional forums such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). However, these announcements have little credibility if they are not accompanied with sustained political leadership – in the face of certain U.S. opposition – and commitment of resources to build strong regional institutions.

Ironically, the IADC came into existence precisely when the conditions that made it possible – a liberal consensus and an international agenda on democracy promotion – were fading away. These two decades have demonstrated that the democracies of the hemisphere, including Washington, are not always willing to put the defense of democracy in the neighborhood before other foreign-policy interests. Governments are also prone to bypass the OAS and the IADC and go unilateral if they feel that a crisis affects their interests, as the Lima Group and the U.S. unilateral sanctions against Venezuela have recently shown.

  • These two decades have also demonstrated that member states are not up to even discuss reforming the IADC. They are reluctant, for example, to create an enforcement authority, which would render the application of the Charter more impartial and possibly more effective. This is certainly disappointing news for those who believe in Inter-American relations based not only on Realpolitik but also on principles and norms. The IADC will continue being a roadmap for the states in the region and a reminder of the commitment to democracy, but it will be – paraphrasing the first OAS Secretary General Alberto Lleras Camargo – what the states want to make of it.

September 28, 2021

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

Demonstration in Support of Bolsonaro/ Editorial J/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s September 7 holiday brought supporters of President Bolsonaro out in droves to hear him – standing next to his Defense Minister and his vice president (a retired general) – threaten the country’s Supreme Court, which he accused of politicization and abuse, and Congress, which has angered him by failing to pass his pet electoral legislation replacing electronic polling with paper ballots. Although the day’s events did not lead to significant violence, they portend further tensions and perhaps major disruptions ahead.

Great trepidation preceded the Independence Day confrontations. Some observers even worried that the demonstrations might become a rehearsal for an “auto-golpe,” triggering violence that might provide the excuse for a military intervention. The fact that the demonstrations (and counter-protests) came off without significant violence was cause for a collective sigh of relief.

  • While the crowds in Brasília, São Paulo, and a few other cities were energetic, they were – with a few exceptions – peaceful. Although small skirmishes with the police broke out, the police did not escalate matters, join demonstrators, allow conflict to escalate between protestors and counter-protestors, or otherwise create conditions that might generate excuses for the re-imposition of “law and order.” Even though many of Bolsonaro’s supporters carried messages calling for an end to the high court and for military intervention, and a few uniformed officers wandered through the crowds, both state police forces and the military chose to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the fact that reasonable observers worry that September 7 could become a breaking point is itself a sign of how bad things have become. Indeed, the question now is less one of whether Bolsonaro will further ramp up tensions, but of how he will do so.

  • The weak president, whose net popularity rating has been in the negative double digits since March appears to be trying to seize back public attention after a series of embarrassing scandals enveloped his family and his administration. His recent statement, repeated to demonstrators on September 7, that he would only leave office “under arrest, dead, or victorious” suggests he is willing to heighten tensions to protect his self-interest.
  • Bolsonaro may have further isolated himself politically this week, alienating legislative allies from the transactional and fickle Centrão parties that back his administration. They are likely to melt away as the 2022 elections approach, looking to back a winner. Impeachment murmurings in Congress also picked up yesterday. His record shows that, as his hold on power evaporates, he will be increasingly willing to push matters to hold onto office.

The Independence Day crowds were impressive enough that Bolsonaro’s appetite for adulation may be sated for now, but his supporters remain an angry minority bent on defending their leader. The 13 months between Independence Day and the October 2022 elections will be marked by significant tension, exacerbated by the President himself, along with any of his allies in the military and police who are willing to be dragged along. 

  • An analytical survey by Wendy Hunter and Diego Vega points to a number of worrisome factors within the military, including a three-fold increase in the number of military personnel in appointed positions between 2014 and 2020; Bolsonaro’s decision to increase military salaries and budgets (against a general context of fiscal austerity); and his calls to deploy the military to “defend civil liberties” against those calling for a vaccine mandate. The military has “become more assertive in engaging in political debates” and “leverage[d] the relationship to advance their own interest.” Yet Hunter and Vega also note that the military high command has growing reservations about propping up an increasingly unpopular president, and they “do not anticipate a democratic breakdown through an institutional military intervention, a traditional coup or even an incumbent takeover.”
  • A possibly greater challenge to democracy may emerge from Brazil’s truculent state police forces. The run-up to September 7 suggested that Bolsonaro’s appeal among the police might be even more widespread than within the military, and high-ranking police officers in São Paulo state in particular have been worryingly active in national politics in recent weeks. A number of high-profile police officers who were elected to public office during the 2018 elections were present in the September 7 demonstrations. The increasing politicization of police forces is particularly perturbing because of their potential to disrupt street-level politics. But so far, police discipline has held, with only small groups of police, many of whom are retired, actively backing the President.
  • With the police and the military seemingly on the sidelines, one possibility is that Bolsonaro may encourage supporters to target the courts. It is no mistake that a weakened Bolsonaro has chosen the vulnerable Supreme Court as his foil, and one of his most frightening bits of bluster on September 7 was the threat not to comply with the Court’s decisions. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Court pushes Bolsonaro into a corner, ordering another ally to jail, for example – with the President and his allies responding with flagrant disobedience and heated rhetoric about the court’s alleged partisanship and illegitimacy.

September 8, 2021

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article updates one published on the Brazil Research Initiative blog.