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.

China in Latin America: Influential But Not Liked

By Andrei Serbin and Luiza Duarte*

President Michelle Bachelet participates in a document-signing ceremony with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping./ Government of Chile/ FlickrCreative Commons License

An on-line survey of Latin American international relations experts reveals that China is viewed as having great influence in regional commerce, surpassing the United States and Europe, but that its engagement with the region is perceived as relatively negative. Although Chinese media have been increasing efforts to enter the information landscape in Latin America, they are not perceived to be a significant source of news for Latin American opinion leaders and do not appear to have significant influence on public opinion.

The questionnaire was administered by CLALS and CRIES last May and June as part of a broader project to assess the role of China and its communication strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It targeted academics and other thought leaders throughout Latin America. Some 379 experts responded.

Key findings:

  • China was perceived by 80 percent of the experts to have a “high” level of influence in Latin America, and only 5 percent said it was low. According to respondents, China’s influence was surpassed only by that of the United States. Madrid and Moscow scored slightly lower than Beijing.
  • The specific areas of Chinese influence were not homogeneous across the region. Asked about Beijing’s role in culture, the economy, health care, and technology, about 90 percent of respondents cited the economy as top area, followed by technology and medicine. (In each of these three categories, it was surpassed only by the United States.) Fewer than 5 percent named culture – higher than Russia and India but lower than six other countries on the list.
  • On the positive or negative impact of that influence, fewer than 10 percent said they had a “very good” opinion of the Asian power, while a little more than a quarter said they had a “good” opinion. About one-third said they had an “intermediate” opinion of Beijing, and the final third had a “bad” or “very bad” estimation. When asked to compare China with other world or regional powers, respondents ranked it among the lowest. A little more than one third view it negatively, 32 percent as neutral, and a little more than 25 percent positively. Germany, Japan, and Spain scored highest as “very good” and “good,” even if they’re ranked as having a lower level of influence. The United States scored somewhat lower, but China and Russia had stronger negatives and weaker positives. Only Russia’s influence is perceived more negatively than China’s.
  • Most of the experts felt the principal priority for having relations with China should be commercial, followed by foreign direct investment and other financial ties. International security ranked as their lowest priority – even lower than multilateral cooperation and human rights. Importantly, this order of priorities is the same as with U.S. relations – with the only statistically significant difference being a preference for cooperation on international security with Washington.

Important among the findings of the survey is that China is failing in its efforts to use media tools to create a positive image for the country and its government. Beijing has made significant investments in establishing a media presence, principally through its China Global Television Network (CGTN).

China’s state broadcaster launched CGTN Español in 2007, and it has significatively expanded operations worldwide in the past decade, multiplying platforms, newsrooms and crew. CGTN doesn’t have a Portuguese-language TV channel, but content in that language is produced by other Chinese media outlets, such as Xinhua, Radio China International, and People’s Daily.

  • Despite these efforts, fewer than 4 percent of those interviewed say Beijing’s influence was “high” or “very high,” while 38.8 percent say it was “low,” and 30 percent say it was “very low.” U.S. media influence, on the other hand, is high. More than 70 percent of the experts said CNN, for example, has “high” or “very high” impact. China’s CGTN international television network also ranked lower than the United Kingdom’s BBC, Venezuela’s Telesur, Russia’s RT, and France24.
  • According to most of the experts consulted, CGTN’s influence is principally “neutral,” but 33 percent of them said they didn’t know how to characterize it. That said, a greater percentage of them say its effect on China’s image is “positive” (about 20 percent) than “negative” (about 12 percent). In this regard, CGTN’s impact is similar to that of CNN (which is not a government entity tasked with burnishing the United States’ image) and RT, and much better than Telesur. But BBC and France24 reflect more positively on the British and French governments.
  • Even if findings indicate that Chinese media have “low” influence among Latin American leaders, a growing number of media-sharing agreements are facilitating the distribution of Chinese content through local media in Latin America. The influence of this indirect consumption has yet to be measured.

September 17, 2021

Luiza Duarte is a journalist, has a PhD in Political Science, and is a Research Fellow at CLALS, the Brazil Institute, and the Wilson Center. Andrei Serbin Pont is the Director of CRIES and an International Relations PhD candidate at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. The survey is part of a CLALS project on China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State

El Salvador: Exploiting Superpower Competition

By Jeffrey Hallock and Christopher Kambhu*

Government of El Salvador / Creative Commons License

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is taking advantage of superpower competition between the United States and China to get vaccines for his country and boost his domestic image as a strong, independent national leader. Hours after the United States announced a donation of 1.5 million Moderna doses to El Salvador in early July, China announced its own 1.5 million dose donation – and Bukele touted his successes on Twitter. In securing and administering vaccines for millions of Salvadorans, Bukele has achieved a domestic political victory; 44 percent of adults have received one vaccine dose as of last month, well above the regional average.

  • China’s relations with El Salvador center on its longstanding policy goal to weaken international support for Taiwan. China has expanded its influence in El Salvador since the country switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, moreover, Beijing has donated a wide variety of medical supplies to El Salvador, and sold it 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine last spring. For Beijing, vaccine diplomacy is a short-term soft-power and public relations victory that lays the groundwork for future economic deals.
  • Policymakers in Washington primarily view El Salvador through the lens of domestic migration politics. Fleeing gang violence and seeking better economic opportunities, Salvadorans form part of successive waves of migration to the United States from the Northern Triangle (which also includes Guatemala and Honduras). President Joe Biden seeks to address the root causes of migration through anticorruption and good governance initiatives, including denying visas to several senior officials in the Bukele government accused of corruption. This focus has increased tensions with Bukele.

Bukele’s superpower manipulation coincides with increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home since his inauguration in June 2019. With an approval rating well over 80 percent, he is among the most popular leaders in the world. His Nuevas Ideas party and its allies secured a legislative supermajority in February’s elections. Recently, Bukele and his legislative allies have acted aggressively to consolidate power, replacing the Attorney General and all five Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court magistrates with loyalists and preventing oversight of pandemic spending. Bukele also shuttered the OAS-backed anticorruption commission CICIES, which his campaign had supported. Numerous observers believe Bukele’s iron grip on the three branches of government will undermine El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

When Biden first took office, Bukele appeared likely to mimic the delicate dance choreographed by other Northern Triangle presidents: pledge to reduce migration flows to the United States in exchange for leeway on domestic affairs. However, the Biden Administration has not looked the other way as Bukele has violated democratic norms and lashed out at critics, including a Twitter spat with U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres of California. When the Biden Administration recently released a list of corrupt politicians that included several Bukele allies, he strongly criticized the list while publicly praising additional Chinese aid and vaccines.

  • The recent U.S. vaccine donation reflects Washington’s concern about China’s regional influence and acknowledges that the lofty goals of good governance can be overshadowed by other geopolitical considerations. The U.S. retains strong economic leverage over El Salvador through remittances from Salvadoran migrants (some 200,000 of whom are dependent on continued U.S. Temporary Protected Status), but the Biden administration is wary of pushing El Salvador too close to China.
  • While Bukele’s maneuvering has provided him a domestic political victory, diplomatic challenges remain. China’s foreign policy is transactional in nature, and Beijing will likely ask something of Bukele in exchange for its pandemic diplomacy. It is difficult to see what El Salvador can offer China since it already dropped recognition of Taiwan. Perhaps Bukele is betting he can avoid the difficult concessions which plague other nations’ Chinese relations. El Salvador’s strong economic and cultural ties with the U.S. will endure, but for the moment, Bukele is reaping the benefits of instigating great power rivalry.

*Jeffrey Hallock is a doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service. Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

August 5, 2021

U.S.-Southern Cone: Looking at Relations Through a Different Optic

By Noah Rosen*

Top: Display of bottles of Chilean wine/ David Almeida/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Bottom: Notebooks from the Plan Ceibal/ Jorge Gobbi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

While headlines track the highs and the lows in the United States’ relations with Latin America, a closer look at the broad range of interaction shows that, at least in some sectors in some countries, long-term economic relationships and knowledge exchanges have encouraged mutual benefits that rarely get mentioned in public discourse.

Chile’s wine industry, for example, is a powerhouse that has benefited from U.S. investment, open markets, and research and development work. Chilean wine underwent a sea change beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as liberalization and democratization in the country opened opportunities for massive upgrades in quality and opportunities for export to new markets. Global recognition of the quality of Chilean wine grew throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and today bottled wine is Chile’s third most valuable export after copper and salmon. Exports to the United States in 2019 totaled $238 million, reflecting the vital importance of wine to Chile’s economy.

  • Though Chilean exporters were eventually able to diversify their export markets to include Europe and Asia, the exploding U.S. market in the 1990s and 2000s was key to the industry’s upgrading and expansion. Wines of Chile, a public-private partnership that markets Chilean wines, maintains a permanent U.S. office, runs events throughout the country, and organizes visits by U.S. sommeliers to provide feedback to Chilean producers. Knowledge exchange and technology transfer between experts in California, including the University of California at Davis, and Chilean counterparts has helped Chile’s wine industry stay on the cutting edge of production technologies, spurring advances in genetic identification and sequencing of key Chilean varietals.
  • U.S. foreign direct investment and joint ventures have also promoted innovation, technological advances, and access to international markets. For example, an early partnership allowed Concha y Toro to gain a foothold in the U.S. market and opened the door for other Chilean exporters. California winemakers Robert Mondavi, Kendall Jackson, and Canandaigua have established operations in Chile, bringing with them advanced trellis systems, drip irrigation, and other technology that have led to a marked increase in quality across the sector.

The remarkable success of Uruguay’s technology sector has also been aided by U.S. markets and tech exchanges. Visionary domestic programs such as “Plan Ceibal” in 2007, which promoted nationwide digital literacy and provided a laptop to every public-school student in the country, and investments in some of the fastest internet in the Americas, have helped Uruguay become the largest software exporter per capita in the region and third largest per-capita exporter in the world. However, the importance of the U.S. model and the depth of relationships between the U.S. and Uruguayan sectors have earned it the nickname “Silicon Valley of South America.”

  • The United States accounts for 65 percent of Uruguay’s tech revenue (as of 2019) – the result in part of the marketing and relationship-building by Uruguay XXI, the country’s investment, export, and country brand promotion agency. The agency annually sets up a country pavilion at TechCrunch Disrupt, one of Silicon Valley’s most important tech conferences. U.S. ventures in Uruguay have also played an important role in building the local tech market and providing capital and opportunities for local software developers. Major U.S. software and IT companies, including IBM, Microsoft, Cognizant, New Context, NetSuite, and VeriFone, have established bases in Uruguay and hire Uruguayan developers. In 2017, the Agencia Nacional de Innovación e Investigación (ANII) arranged for the highly recognized U.S. tech incubator 500 Startups to run a six-week accelerator program to build skills for 20 Uruguayan startups focusing on growth, product design, fundraising, and building connections.
  • The opening in 2019 of a Uruguayan Consulate in San Francisco reflects the importance of the relationship with Silicon Valley. The incoming Consul emphasized his mission as “opening doors for Uruguayan businesspeople” and pledged to facilitate connections and provide “softlanding support.” The office will also facilitate two-way knowledge and skills exchanges between Californian and Uruguayan universities and institutions. Last month, Amazon announced that Uruguayan vendors would be eligible to sell products on their platform, thanks to the efforts of the Uruguayan Embassy in the U.S.

These positive relationships — facilitated by governments but driven by private-sector partners — don’t erase all adverse twists and turns in U.S. relations with the region. But relatively quiet successes like U.S. cooperation with Chile’s wine industry and Uruguay’s technology sector provide important ballast. They are lucrative for both sides and provide valued jobs: wine in Chile employs over 100,000 people in direct work and represents 0.5 percent of GDP; the tech sector in Uruguay employs 17,000 people, representing 2 percent of the country’s GDP.

June 25, 2021

* Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on the impacts of U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State

Haiti: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Police get in position as the protesters escalate their chants/ Ben Piven/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Despite the Haitian government’s postponement of a referendum on a Constitution drafted by a committee hand-picked by President Jovenel Moïse, the President’s power grab looks likely to persist, almost certainly prolonging and deepening the country’s current crisis. Moïse has ruled by decree since January 2020 because – in part owing to his own obstructionism – legislative elections in 2019 were postponed and a new legislature could not be seated. He has also insisted that delays in his inauguration in 2017 entitle him to a one-year extension of his term, until February 2022. Political tensions have triggered large, violent protests and catalyzed a surge in murders, kidnappings (up 200 percent over 2020), and other crimes – a deterioration that the Catholic Church calls “a descent into hell.” Gangs, often acting as surrogates for political factions, have been terrorizing neighborhoods and have attacked nine police stations in the past week, according to the Miami Herald.

  • Most controversial among Moïse’s actions has been a new Constitution drafted by a closed group of his allies and a referendum on it originally planned for June 27. The new Constitution would give him significantly greater powers by, for example, eliminating the post of Prime Minister and making the Legislature a unicameral body easier for the President to control. Many observers view it as mostly a tool to consolidate his one-man rule and increase impunity. Although Moïse has denied he intends to seek a second turn, his Constitution would allow him one.
  • Criticism of the Constitution and referendum has been widespread. The entire political opposition has condemned it, as has the Catholic Church. Even the head of Moïse’s Parti Tèt Kale has publicly opposed it. Thousands of demonstrators have spontaneously taken to the streets in generally peaceful protests, while massacres by pro-government forces have escalated in slums generally supportive of the opposition.  

The international community, which has been permissive of Moïse as he’s pursued most of his plans over the past year-plus, criticized his efforts to ram through the Constitution – lamenting the lack of transparency and the narrow participation in its drafting – and finally pressed him to suspend the referendum. But it is also quietly facilitating some of the steps required to lead up to such a vote.

  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in February criticized Moïse’s human rights record, but the OAS has embraced his claim to an extended term and, while expressing concern about process issues, was not forceful against the Constitution gambit. Indeed, an OAS mission visiting Port-au-Prince this week will focus on the surge in violence and preparations for future elections, not stopping his Constitution.
  • The Biden Administration has been slow to take a stance on Moïse’s machinations – not announcing opposition to the referendum until this week. It has criticized his inability to quell the violence without linking it to his policies or agenda. Announcing last week that the United States was extending Temporary Protective Status for 100,000 Haitians, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas noted that Haiti is “currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

Haitian crises have been so deep and long in recent decades that this one is difficult to distinguish from others, but it is a perfect storm of a sustained political power grab amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its massive economic hit. Moïse is almost certain to push for his new Constitution as a condition for holding elections. Haitian elites have never heeded lofty appeals for them to build democracy and make compromises. They expertly exploit the international community’s reluctance to punish them because of the harm it will cause the Haitian people. (UNICEF reports that severe acute malnutrition among young children has doubled over the past year.) Cooperation between government opponents in Haiti and the Diaspora has introduced an element of protest and resistance not seen since the mid-1980, but the international community still heeds primarily local political and economic elites.

  • Washington’s hesitance to become more forceful probably reflects the view that it has no better alternative than tolerating Moïse. If so, it would suggest the Biden Administration has not learned the lessons – such as that the elites are unreliable partners – of the failed U.S. pledge during Barack Obama’s presidency to help Haiti “Build Back Better” after the 2010 earthquake and the Trump Administration’s coddling of Moïse in return for his opposition to Venezuela at the OAS. The State Department’s belated opposition to Moïse’s referendum, however, may be a sign that it is listening to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and Haiti Caucus’s urging that the Administration get out of its “source bubble” and reach out to constructive opposition voices.

June 10, 2021

Venezuela: Lessons Learned from Failed Negotiations

By Nancy Haugh*

Protest in Venezuela/ MARQUINAM/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As both sides to the Venezuela crisis express willingness to return to the negotiating table, a review of the shortcomings in previous talks – particularly their overly ambitious agenda and excessively narrow participation – should improve the odds of success in future rounds. Four dialogues between Chavistas and the opposition preceded the collapsed 2019 talks. In each case, both sides were willing to negotiate with the presence of a neutral, trusted third-party mediator and met several times, but other requisite conditions outlined in negotiation literature, such as including potential spoilers at the table, were missing.

  • The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution worked hard to create a negotiating structure that did not aggravate the fears of both sides by, for example, not inviting the United States or the Venezuelan military to participate. It also declined a request from the International Contact Group (ICG), a coalition of Latin American and European countries, to a merge its negotiation process with one the ICG had already launched over concerns that the ICG’s goal was regime change through electoral reform, not a negotiated agreement.
  • Talks stumbled, however, because of a tactic used by self-declared President Juan Guaidó that negotiation specialists call “Type C coercive diplomacy” – his penchant for making maximalist demands and threats while borrowing power from the U.S. and other external sources – and because of problems with his “boundary role.” He was trying to represent constituencies that were not at the table, particularly his U.S. benefactors and Venezuela’s moderate opposition, to gain leverage over the government. But he could not credibly offer relief from Washington’s sanctions, which combined with the threat of military intervention were intended to effect the immediate removal of President Nicolás Maduro and hold new Presidential elections. Talks broke down in August 2019 when the U.S. imposed new sanctions, including freezing all Venezuelan government assets under U.S. jurisdiction, without consulting with Guaidó.

The government took advantage of the opposition’s “boundary roles” problem. Maduro’s team had no incentive to negotiate with a person who could not alter the U.S. sanctions. Government negotiators had previously said they were open to modifying the electoral calendar and engaging in legislative and electoral power-sharing if U.S. sanctions were lifted at least one year before the polling day. That offer fell off the table, but another – “inviting the opposition to seek a recall referendum against Maduro in two to three years’ time” – apparently still stands.

  • September 16, 2019, the day after a weakened opposition declared that negotiations had been “exhausted,” Maduro reached an agreement with an offshoot of the opposition movement, the moderate National Dialogue, and the opposition split was formalized. Under this deal, Maduro would neither need to resign nor be barred from running in future elections. Ultimately, the agreement was only partially implemented, with 29 of 58 promised political prisoners actually released from prison. Additionally, instead of fulfilling its commitment to “dialogue and reconciliation,” the government formed a commission to investigate alleged corruption on the part of Guaidó and his team.

Despite the efforts of the Norwegian team, the 2019 talks neither fully addressed the needs and fears of both sides nor defused the influence of external stakeholders. In March, Norwegian mediators began to quietly explore re-initiating talks between representatives of Guaidó and Maduro. Though previous rounds failed to meet their main objective, they demonstrated that progress is indeed possible with a modified strategy.

  • The literature on international negotiations suggests that increasing the number of parties at the table makes cooperation more difficult, increases information costs, and makes defection more likely, but the previous talks suffered from having too few at the table. By not including a wide array of opposition voices, a secondary channel opened for the government to reach an agreement and walk away from the process when the United States announced sanctions.
  • Negotiating partial agreements, instead of a comprehensive one, appears more promising as a means of solving problems and creating momentum. The country’s historic economic and humanitarian crises offer the best chance of finding agreement and building trust between the parties and, even if not resolving the parties’ biggest needs, will benefit the people they claim to care about.
  • Involving a balanced mix of regional actors as guarantors would comfort each side while pressuring them to be accountable. The members of the anti-Maduro “Lima Group” could help, as could Cuba, which has supported Maduro and has a strong record of supporting successful negotiations.

Four months into the Biden Administration, the position of the most important external actor has yet to go beyond broad statements about continuing “to work with international partners to increase pressure in a multilateral fashion toward [the] goal of free and fair elections.” In mid-May, Guaidó proposed a progressive lifting of U.S. sanctions in return for steps by Maduro toward free and fair elections overseen by a third party – suggesting a shift away from his maximalist stance – but Washington has remained publicly silent.

June 4, 2021

* Nancy Haugh completed their Master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, with a focus on dialogue, human rights, and foreign policy in Latin America.

Will U.S. Aid Address the “Root Causes” of the Crisis in the Northern Triangle?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Women carry home their monthly food aid rations through a USAID-funded program in Guatemala/ USAID/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s statements this month on the need to address the “root causes” – including government corruption – of the ongoing surge of migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle of Central America reflects the strong agreement among analysts that lasting solutions will require deep reform within the region, but the Administration’s kid-gloves treatment of those governments risks repeating the errors of the past. Harris and Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. envoy coordinating policy toward the area, have emphasized the difficult task of real reform while also addressing the immediate challenge of the humanitarian crises contributing to migrants’ desperation.

  • While recommitting to a campaign promise to spend $4 billion in the Northern Triangle, the Administration last week announced an additional $310 million in emergency assistance to mitigate suffering from recurrent droughts, food shortages, COVID‑19, and back-to-back hurricanes last November. Even before those calamities, 60 percent of Hondurans lived in extreme poverty, and malnourishment stunted the growth of 23 percent of children nationwide. The World Food Program in June 2020 reported that 2.3 million Guatemalans (14 percent) were suffering from food insecurity, and another 800,000 would soon follow. Malnutrition among Guatemalan children under five has skyrocketed.

Addressing “root causes” will be much tougher than sending aid. Zúñiga argues that success will depend on drastically reducing the corruption that robs citizens of state resources and fuels other crime and violence, particularly senior political and military officials’ cooperation with narcotraffickers. Harris has supposedly mentioned this in several virtual meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and will stress it during a visit to the region in June. The Administration is also creating an “anti-corruption task force” to enforce the policy, and Zúñiga offered $2 million to El Salvador if it pursues a hybrid anti-corruption effort called CICIES. Corruption is an endemic problem in all three countries, but the Harris initiative seems most sorely tested in Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández has emerged as the poster child of what a U.S. District Judge last month called “state-sponsored” trafficking.

  • The U.S. drug convictions of Hernández’s brother, Tony, in 2019 and of trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez last month both featured apparently credible testimony about the President’s personal role in protecting the flow of narcotics through Honduras to the United States. These allegations come on the heels of waves of evidence of other corruption, human rights violations, and electoral fraud he has engaged in.
  • Nonetheless, the White House has publicly stated that “we are going to work with [Hernández’s] government and … seek areas of common interest.” While U.S. officials have severely criticized Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – whose migrant flow is a fraction of Honduras’s – for anti-democratic digressions, they have been relatively silent on Hernández. His efforts to portray himself as an indispensable ally appear to have earned him that latitude. Last year, after U.S. concern about trafficking rose, he won brownie points for supporting legislation deterring private jets from entering the country. Recently, he has mobilized the military several times to stop migrant caravans from leaving the country.

This is not the first U.S. Administration to try to cajole corrupt Central American incumbents to become allies in eliminating their own corruption. The humanitarian crisis requires the Harris team to send aid quickly and to collaborate with the same governments that have aggravated, and sometimes caused, people’s suffering. But the Biden Administration hasn’t given an indication yet that it can avoid being taken to the cleaners as previous administrations have, including President Obama and Vice President Biden when they teamed up with the Inter-American Development Bank for the Alianza para la Prosperidad. That initiative cost hundreds of millions but, as the current migration surge indicates, the “push” factors behind it continue to grow. Obama/Biden also made significant efforts – for example, helping CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras begin important processes – but local officials and their elite allies managed to get out from under both.

  • It’s a long shot that, without threats of sanctions similar to those levied against leaders who are not U.S. “allies,” Washington can get these governments to undertake major reforms that would threaten leaders’ wealth and power. But if the United States and others can break the vicious cycle of corruption, bad governance, poverty, and flight in the Northern Triangle, they will be laying the groundwork for breakthroughs far beyond the migration crisis on the U.S. border.

April 30, 2021

COVID-19: Vaccine Diplomacy Drives Hard Bargain

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

Sinopharm Vaccine Supplies Arriving in Peru/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Cancillería del Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China, Russia, and the United States are offering millions of desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines to Latin American governments in exchange for policy changes that suit the supplying governments, and – with limited supply and fierce global demand for vaccines – regional governments are playing along.

  • China’s strategy builds on its promotion of medical supplies from its state-owned and private firms to become Latin America’s COVID-19 partner of choice. It has signed deals for vaccines produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm totaling nearly 200 million doses regionally, including with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The government has offered $1 billion in loans to facilitate vaccine purchases.
  • Russia, in turn, has secured deals for nearly 125 million doses of its state-developed Sputnik vaccine with Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. It is also negotiating with Brazil and Venezuela to host vaccine trials in exchange for more favorable supply deals. Moscow aims to build upon these connections to forge stronger commercial ties.
  • While the United States has made fewer deals, the administration of President Joe Biden announced in mid-March that it would give 2.5 million surplus AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mexico. The deal occurred the same day as Mexico announced further travel restrictions limiting Central American migration to the U.S. border, suggesting that Washington, like Beijing and Moscow, is linking vaccine deals with favorable policies in the region.

The three vaccine suppliers’ actions are already influencing relations between them and Latin American countries. Before Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had his first phone call with President Biden, he had already finalized a deal for 24 million Sputnik doses and extended a state visit invitation to Vladimir Putin. In Brazil, regulators reversed their earlier position, adopted after aggressive lobbying from Washington, and allowed Chinese telecom Huawei to bid on 5G network construction contracts shortly after reaching a deal for tens of millions of Sinovac doses. In the long term, closer regional ties with Russia and China could influence Latin American governments to tilt more favorably toward the preferences of Moscow and Beijing in bilateral relations, at the United Nations, and in regional bodies such as CELAC.

In addition to offering deals to Latin American partners, the three governments promote their own efforts by critiquing their rivals. Chinese officials describe their objective as equitable vaccine access, contrasting it to Western nations stockpiling many more doses than their populations require. Their U.S. counterparts are no less circumspect; a senior Biden official accused China and Russia of “vaccine mercantilism” while promoting Washington’s collaboration.

  • Claims from Beijing, Moscow, and Washington that they merely wish to advance global vaccine cooperation fail to obscure the hard bargains on offer. All three governments are leveraging the desperation of Latin American officials to extract policy concessions that suit their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paraguay – the only South American nation that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan – which is struggling to access Chinese vaccines. Press reports indicate that China is linking a vaccine deal with Asunción breaking those relations; the Paraguayan foreign minister’s recent call for closer economic and cultural ties with China suggests this pressure is working. Latin American governments face a stark choice: reorient their foreign policies in exchange for vaccines or remain mired in the pandemic’s mounting health and economic costs.

April 16, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

Cuba: Trump Actions Strengthening Hardliners

By Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande

Two buildings in a composite photo

On the left, the U.S. Embassy in Havana; on the right, the Cuban Embassy in D.C. / U.S. Government Accountability Office / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the end of Raúl Castro’s presidency approaches, Trump Administration actions halting, if not reversing, the process of normalizing relations with Cuba have tilted debate in Havana in favor of hardliners trying to keep the brakes on economic reform and on constructive relations with Washington.

  • In retaliation for alleged “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats in Havana, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ordered departure of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the closure of the U.S. consulate, and the expulsion of Cuban consular and commercial staff in Washington –has put a chill on bilateral relations that ratifies Havana hardliners’ contention that Washington cannot be trusted. By halting the issuance of visas to Cubans in Havana, the Trump Administration will almost certainly violate the 1994 migration accord committing the United States to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.  That would rupture the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington that bilateral cooperation on migration serves an important U.S. interest in safe and orderly migration.
  • The State Department’s unwillingness to share meaningful information on the U.S. diplomats’ mysterious symptoms – underscored by the Embassy’s refusal to use a hotline established for Cuba to investigate alleged attacks real-time – has frustrated pro-normalization Cubans, who face conservatives’ claims that Washington is cynically exploiting the incident to embarrass Cuba and return to a policy of hostility and regime change.
  • Other Trump measures reinforce Cuban conservatives’ efforts to limit the growth of the country’s nascent private sector, particularly entrepreneurs who profit from U.S. visitors and need easy travel to import inputs from the United States. A travel warning issued in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats is causing a sharp drop in U.S. travelers, and new regulations abolishing individual people-to-people educational travel are channeling people into large hotels, away from private bed and breakfast rentals.  A prohibition on doing business with companies and hotels allegedly linked to the Cuban military is not pushing new clients to cuentapropistas’ businesses but instead is discouraging travel and commerce in general.  Cuban reformers are further dispirited by the perception that Washington is shifting back to the erroneous view that it can promote regime collapse by tightening the economic screws on the government, thereby reinforcing a siege mentality among senior leaders and discouraging needed economic reforms as too risky in the current environment.
  • Trump’s actions have so closely dovetailed with the agenda of Cuban hardliners that some people speculate it was opponents of reform inside the Cuban government who perpetrated the mysterious “sonic attacks” to provoke a confrontation with Washington. But there is no evidence whatsoever in support of that theory, and for anyone to sabotage Raúl Castro’s opening to Washington – one of the signal achievements of his presidency – would be to commit political (if not literal) suicide.

Implementation of Raúl Castro’s road map for economic change, embodied in the 311 lineamientos approved in 2011 and the Conceptualización of Cuba’s socialist model approved by the Communist Party congress last year, had already slowed before Trump’s sanctions due to Cuban concerns about growing income inequality during a period of poor economic performance, uncertainty about energy imports, and perhaps the 86-year-old president’s own level of energy and state of mind after the passing of his two brothers (Ramón and Fidel both died in 2016).  Widely discussed political reforms, such as the Electoral Law and the Law on Associations, that were expected months ago have yet to be unveiled.  The Trump Administration’s efforts to expedite regime change by curtailing financial flows to the government and by promoting private sector growth at the expense of state enterprises make it easy for Cuban hardliners to rally support for slowing reforms.  Ever since he launched the reform process in 2011, Castro has insisted it would move ahead, “Without haste, but without pause.”  Lately, in part because of the Trump Administration’s actions, there’s a lot more “pause” than “haste.”

The election of First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl as president seems to be a foregone conclusion of the ongoing multi-tiered election process that culminates in February, but no one outside the two men’s inner circle seems to know how or when next steps on reforms will be sequenced.  Raúl’s focus has been on creating processes and institutions for governing after he steps down, rather than achieving particular results between now and the formalities confirming Díaz-Canel.  One thing that is near-certain, however, is that the successor’s legitimacy will be determined by performance, not his surname or soaring oratory.  Tackling the really big reforms that loom ahead, such as currency and exchange rate unification, will require political will from a relatively unified leadership.  Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries.

 December 18, 2017

U.S.-Cuba: New Challenge to Normalization

By Fulton Armstrong

Tillerson US embassy in Cuba

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses State Department employees. / U.S. Embassy in Cuba / Creative Commons

The Trump Administration’s decision to sharply reduce staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana and to warn U.S. travelers to avoid travel to Cuba is a major blow to U.S.-Cuba normalization – and a sign that Washington’s policy is once again dictated by politics rather than reality.  Announcing the measures, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Friday admitted that “investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks,” but he still said that more than half of U.S. diplomats will be withdrawn “until the Government of Cuba can ensure [their] safety.”  Washington is also suspending the processing of tens of thousands of visas for Cubans seeking to visit or migrate to the United States.  Most travel to the island by U.S. officials will also cease; bilateral meetings will continue only in U.S. territory.

  • As the State Department itself has admitted, the “sonic attacks” – which have not been proven to be either sonic or attacks – remain a total mystery. No agency of the U.S. or Cuban governments is aware of a technology that fits the victims’ description of what they experienced, and non-government scientists have been equally puzzled.  Doctors analyzing the victims’ symptoms (headaches, hearing loss, memory loss, confusion) do not see a common cause.  Moreover, no one has been able to ascertain that the incidents amount to deliberate, premeditated attacks.  No one has produced any evidence to support speculation that “rogue” elements of the Cuban government or a third country even possess, let alone have used these unknown technologies.  President Trump said on Friday, “Some very bad things happened in Cuba.  They did some bad things” – without saying who “they” are.
  • Leaks over the weekend that the diplomats suffering the worst symptoms have been U.S. intelligence officers seem intended to rationalize allegations of targeted attacks. But the Associated Press, which reported the leaks and other key aspects of the story, noted with irony: “Almost nothing about what has transpired in Havana is perfectly clear.  But this is Cuba.”

Even though none of the more than 600,000 U.S. travelers to the island each year has reported any of the symptoms experienced by the U.S. diplomats, Washington also issued a statement that “warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Cuba.”  The State Department has provided no evidence that visitors are in danger.  Travel warnings are a powerful political signal of low confidence in host governments and can have a huge impact on local businesses – including many thousands in Cuba’s nascent private sector.

The Administration deserves credit for resisting the temptation to blame the Cubans for the attacks, but it fell prey to its own mindset about “sonic attacks” and – under political pressure –got stuck reacting to an incredible scenario with a counterproductive set of measures.  While the State Department was right to admit its ignorance, a handful of legislators in Washington – a small group that had forcefully opposed normalization all along – filled the information void and corralled Tillerson into a policy prescription that undoes mainstays of the bilateral relationship, including visas, reciprocal meetings in each capital, and other cooperation that requires a robust presence in Havana.  By trying to scare away travelers, moreover, Tillerson threatens to take crucial business away from private entrepreneurs.

  •  The scope of the Administration’s measures – including discouraging non-governmental travel – contradict the leaks suggesting that the incidents are part of a spy war between the two countries. A full epidemiological study about everything the victims had in common – food, drink, habits, and workspaces within the embassy building itself – conducted months ago, when evidence and memories were fresh, would have helped inform these decisions.  To accuse Cuba now, almost a year after the first incident, of failing to meet Vienna Convention obligations to protect diplomats rings hollow since the United States has accepted the sincerity of Havana’s efforts – from President Raúl Castro down to the working-level experts – to resolve the mystery and address its causes.  Having achieved the practical shutdown of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, opponents of normalization are now demanding total closure of Cuba’s embassy in Washington.  Politics is once again in danger of becoming the main driver of U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations.

October 2, 2017