Colombia’s Duque: The End of the Road for Empty Politics?

By a Colombia Watcher*

Iván Duque

Colombian President Iván Duque. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombian President Iván Duque’s first 100 days in office have left three important baskets empty: the basket of public policy, the basket of new ideas, and the basket of trust in government.  His problem is not so much that he is a puppet of his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe; it is that they have failed to jettison their recent past and articulate a credible vision for Duque’s four-year term.

  • Duque’s economic development plan was hurriedly prepared with little policy guidance from the president’s office. It consists of a long list of sector-by-sector aspirations that bear no connection with either the current budget or realistic medium-term fiscal planning.  The underlying assumption appears to be that the government will somehow – on its own – abandon a longstanding tendency toward clientelism based upon contractual power for a results-driven technocracy.
  • Duque’s financial strategy appears to be stumbling. Congressional opponents say his nominee to be Finance Minister, Alberto Carrasquilla, is guilty of corruption in a previous job.  Instability in global prices torpedoed Duque’s plan to rely primarily on proceeds from a new oil boom, so the government has wagered on a highly unpopular and inequitable tax reform.  Reducing federal expenditures is out of the question — key constituencies depend on the government’s purchasing power – and a serious review of fiscal decentralization also appears beyond Duque’s political will and expertise.  Going back to debt financing would face legal, fiscal, and political challenges.
  • Achieving his promises to reduce corruption also appears difficult. The lack of accountability in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which supporters of Uribe (as well as former President Santos) reportedly were involved, has fueled cynicism.  Unlike in other Latin American countries, no high-level economic or political Colombian is in jail on Odebrecht corruption charges.  Moreover, leaks of irrefutable recordings and documents demonstrate efforts by the country’s attorney general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, to cover up irregularities.  (The auditor who leaked the evidence was subsequently killed, as was his son when he returned from Spain to attend the funeral.)

The new administration faces other challenges.  Polls taken immediately after the economic plan was announced showed that public support for the government continued its free fall after reaching the lowest level recorded during a president’s first 100 days in office.  The government appears to be looking for legal ways to abandon the already fragile peace process with the former FARC guerrillas – already undermined by the fact that killings and disappearances of local civic leaders continue unabated.  Dissident FARC members are returning to the jungle or joining the growing number of criminal bands that operate in both the cities and the countryside.  Protests joining students and workers from various sectors, including healthcare and transportation, continue to affect essential services in a way not seen in Colombia in recent years.

Restoring public trust in Colombian institutions will be a monumental task for which Duque does not appear to have a credible path forward.  He will probably struggle to distance himself from some of his scandal-plagued financial and political backers, but they will demand unconditional support and loyalty amid public outcry and pressure.  The coalition that ensured Duque’s second-round victory in June was temporary – united only to stop his leftist opponent – and is already showing signs of abandoning him.

  •  Duque may try to make international support a pillar of his presidency, as Uribe and Santos did, but even that is not going to be easy. He cannot expect the same enthusiastic endorsement Santos received from the European Union, Canada, or UN agencies, who applauded his focus on the peace process and building democracy from the bottom up.  There are already voices in the Duque government opposing efforts begun under Santos to meet the conditions for Colombia’s admission into the OECD club.  Duque may be optimistic of gaining U.S. support – heartened by the Trump administration’s reduced emphasis on human rights and democracy in the bilateral relationship – but the most Duque has gotten so far is some continuation of support for anti-drug efforts.  His desperate efforts to develop a strong direct relationship with President Trump have not yet borne fruit.

Duque appears burdened by the bonds that brought him to power – with members of his coalition, with former president Uribe, and with political and financial backers – that have either weakened or are now embroiled in scandal.  Delivering results and inspiring public trust and support may be beyond his skills, raising the prospect – still unlikely – that he might someday be tempted to resort to repressive tools.

November 29, 2018

* The author is a long-time Latin America specialist with particularly deep expertise on Colombia.

Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (far right) meets with members of the National Assembly in October 2018. / Diego Cevallos / Asamblea Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno begins the post-honeymoon phase of his presidency, he appears firmly committed to positioning himself as a judicious voice and centrist in a region where ideological moderation and restrained oratory are the exception rather than the norm.  This might be unexpected given his political background and four years as vice president under leftist firebrand Rafael Correa (2007-17), but it makes sense given the country’s challenging economic situation and political constraints.  As previously noted, Moreno had two choices when taking office: remain loyal to his socialist roots, govern through his Alianza PAIS legislative bloc, and double down on Correa’s (fiscally unsustainable) “Citizens’ Revolution;” or move towards the political center, splinter his legislative majority, and abandon Correa and many of his policies.  He has decisively opted for the latter, attempting to navigate a middle ground between the left and the right.

  • No issue depicts the thin line Moreno walks more than Ecuador’s foreign policy, and no foreign policy issue reflects that tug-of-war better than his handling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assangeto whom Correa granted asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Londonis now a costly and increasingly undesirable houseguest.  He is a liability in Moreno’s quest for technical assistance, international loans, and greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States, which is still seeking justice for Wikileaks’s publication of U.S. classified material.  Although Moreno has called Assange “more than a nuisance” and “an inherited problem,” the president has been reluctant to push him out over concern for his human rights.  In July, Moreno suggested Ecuador was seeking guarantees that Assange would not face the death penalty.  Maintaining its delicate dance, however, in October, the government broke from its longstanding dialogue with British authorities over Assange’s situation and announced that it will no longer pay for his food and medical care.
  • Ecuador is also seeking closer relations with its right-of-center neighbors, beginning to distance itself from the region’s leftist governments, and attempting to rebuild ties with the United States. Since June, Moreno has attended the inauguration of Colombian President Iván Duque, met with Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, welcomed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Quito, and launched a security agreement with Washington.  Moreno has also changed his tone with regards to Venezuela.  Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, he spoke of the burden caused by arrival of more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day and called for a national dialogue in that country, provoking an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two capitals that culminated in the Ecuadorian government tweeting that “corrupt, murderous, and lying socialism of the 21st century is still alive in Venezuela and producing the most massive migration in the country’s history.”

Moreno’s strategy to confront the country’s fiscal deficit, which was 5.5 percent of GDP in 2017, is an even greater departure from his predecessor’s approach.  Whereas Correa pursued financing primarily through oil-for-loan deals from China after Ecuador’s selective default in 2008, Moreno has turned to other global lenders such as the World Bank and Japan.  He has also pursued new commercial relationships and market-friendly policies, including a free trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association, beginning accession talks with the pro-market Pacific Alliance, and continuing to encourage foreign investment in Ecuador’s hydrocarbon industry.  However, Moreno has not fully committed to Washington consensus-style reforms: the government announced measures in August to reduce its $60 billion debt, but it also authorized over $1.2 billion in loans to the housing sector, agriculture, and small and medium-sized business to reactivate the domestic economy.

Although not an ideological rightist like Chilean President Sebastián Piñera or Colombian President Iván Duque, Lenín Moreno has reoriented many of Rafael Correa’s domestic and foreign policies out of necessity as he confronts Ecuador’s difficult economic situation.  Given that the country’s fiscal deficit and outstanding debt are strategic challenges, it seems likely that he will continue to judiciously tread this middle path.  Although fiscal austerity measures have lowered Moreno’s approval rating and provoked protests from the Correista left, it would be a mistake to bet against him.  Moreno has not only upended expectations but also proven far more resourceful and politically sophisticated than his critics—and probably even his admirers—expected.  He may also send Julian Assange at some point an eviction notice.

November 6, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.  The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Argentina: From Gradualism to Shock Therapy

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The austerity measures that President Mauricio Macri announced yesterday to deal with the sharp depreciation of the Argentine peso and acceleration of inflation in the past couple of months are a belated but entirely appropriate effort to stem the country’s massive capital flight.  His administration intends to lower government spending and reimpose taxes on exports to reduce the fiscal deficit faster than envisioned in May, when a three-year economic program was agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  This is in addition to a previously announced government hiring freeze and cuts to subsidies for electricity and other services.

  • Specifically, the goal now is to minimize the public sector’s financing requirement for 2019, limiting it to rolling over debt maturities coming due plus borrowing $15 billion mostly from the IMF, World Bank, and Latin America’s development banks (CAF and IADB), to cover the interest payments coming due next year. All told, the fiscal deficit contraction that would be achieved between 2017 and 2019 is equivalent to about four percentage points of GDP, compared to the previously pledged 2¾ percent of GDP in savings embodied in the IMF program.
  • In return, Macri’s government has requested the IMF to speed up disbursements under the $50 billion loan facility, which had envisioned a $15 billion up-front payment in June, made on schedule, plus installments of about $3 billion per quarter through June 2021, depending on performance and need. The Fund’s Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has instructed IMF staff to work with the Argentines to reach a rapid conclusion of discussions to present to the Executive Board for approval.

Macri’s announcement was an admission that what had been advertised in May as a strictly “precautionary” loan must now be amended to provide emergency financing full-throttle.  While a number of emerging-market currencies have come under downward pressure in recent months, the sell-off in Argentina is only comparable to that in Turkey: both the Argentine peso and the Turkish lira currently buy about half as many U.S. dollars as they did at the start of the year (now 100 pesos = $2.60 vs. $5.40 then).  The currency downdraft has dragged Argentine stocks and bonds down when measured in dollar terms; the probability of a debt default in Argentina, as deduced from bond yields, currently ranks highest of all in the emerging markets but for Venezuela, in default since late 2017.

  • Last December, the central bank of Argentina (BCRA) committed itself to achieving an inflation rate of 15 percent during 2018, but prices rose more than that just in the first six months of the year. Given the cost-push pressures unleashed by the peso’s sharp depreciation since May, Argentina would be lucky to end the year with inflation cumulating less than 40 percent.  The patent failure of monetary policy to stabilize the currency and curb inflation thus far will probably be hotly discussed during the government’s negotiations with the IMF.  Last week the BCRA hiked its target interest rate to 60 percent from 40 percent in early August, which is more than double the level that prevailed through May.  Chances are that the IMF will pressure the central bank to keep interest rates significantly above expected inflation until the fever breaks.

We wrote in mid-May that we were witnessing in Argentina the demise of President Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism in tackling the poisoned inheritance left after 12 years of populism under presidents Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.  Now we are beholding the embrace of “shock therapy” in fiscal and monetary policies by the Macri administration.

  • Macri and his economic team keep blaming adverse circumstances, such as the worst drought in 30 years, which has delivered the poorest harvest since 2009; risk aversion among investors because of the tightening of U.S. monetary policy; and uncertainty generated by the “corruption copybooks” scandal involving Kirchner government officials and construction industry businesspersons. Their diagnosis is patently wrong.  Despite the poor harvest, Argentine export earnings through July have increased in the best performance in several years.  The tightening of U.S. monetary policy has been very gradual and well telegraphed in advance; it has not caused problems in prudently managed countries.  And the recent scandal is tarnishing Macri’s opposition in the legislature and has not reached the scope of the “carwash” scandal in Brazil.
  • Macri and his team are reaping what they sowed. In 2016-17 they claimed that they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose precious seats in midterm congressional elections and end up as lame ducks.  And then, after Macri’s party Cambiemos did well in the October 2017 contest, they claimed that in 2018-19 they could do little to address the inherited fiscal and monetary problems because otherwise they would lose the presidential elections in October of next year.  Up until February, local and foreign investors were willing to give the Macri administration the benefit of the doubt, but then they got impatient, started to pare their positions especially in short-term government bonds, and subsequently decided to exit on a large scale when the central bank failed to tighten monetary conditions sufficiently to keep the peso from depreciating rapidly.

September 4, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and a member of the faculty of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Argentina: The Downside of Gradualism

By Arturo C.  Porzecanski*

Tortoise heads down a dirt path surrounded by greenery

Towards Turtle Path / Maxpixel / Creative Commons

President Mauricio Macri made a surprise announcement on May 8 that his government would seek financial support from the IMF to enable the country to “avoid a crisis like the ones we have faced before in our history” – essentially, an admission that time may be up for his policy of gradualism in dealing with the legacy of populism.  Sources in his administration expressed confidence that Argentina could obtain some $30 billion in “precautionary” loans at low interest rates and with few strings attached as an alternative to more borrowing in the international capital markets at higher and rising rates.  His finance minister, Nicolás Dujovne, and other members of the economic team departed Buenos Aires for Washington, DC, that same evening to formalize the request at IMF headquarters and to meet with a top Trump administration official at the U.S. Treasury.  After an initial round of friendly conversations, the parties agreed to meet again starting on May 14 to initiate a negotiation process that they acknowledged would take several weeks.

  • Macri blamed downward pressure on the Argentine peso (despite drastic hikes in short-term interest rates and the sale of one-tenth of hard-currency official reserves), on tighter monetary conditions and on volatility abroad at a time when the government must still raise money internationally to finance its large fiscal deficit.  “The problem that we have today is that we are one of the countries in the world that most depends on external finance, as a result of the enormous public spending that we inherited and are restoring order to,” the President stated.
  • The decision to turn to the IMF surprised observers because it came at an unusually early point in the country’s financial cycle.  Argentina’s central bank still has about $55 billion in international reserves, the equivalent of some 10 months of imports, or three times the amount of foreign-currency government debt maturing in 2018.  Also, foreign investors by no means have slammed the door on Argentina’s face, though admittedly the government probably could not sell another 100-year dollar bond like it did last June, raising $2.75 billion from die-hard optimists.  Argentina in the past, like most other countries, has generally turned to the IMF only in desperation once they were unwelcomed by Wall Street and their vaults were almost bare.
  • The onus placed by Macri on deteriorating financial conditions abroad was also surprising.  After all, the U.S. Federal Reserve has barely begun its monetary tightening process: the overnight fed funds rate, currently around 1.7 percent per annum, is still below U.S. inflation of 2.1 percent, so it has yet to enter positive territory.  Moreover, U.S. bond yields now in the vicinity of 3 percent for 10-year Treasuries, are up from 2.3 percent a year ago but have merely bounced back to a level they were at as of end-2013.  And the financial markets’ “fear” index VIX, a measure of expectations implied by options on the S&P 500 index, has fluctuated in the teens, which while higher than last year’s mostly single digits, remains very far from the range of 30 to 80 seen during prior episodes of extreme risk aversion in the financial markets.

 President Macri’s announcement did not have the favorable intended effect on confidence and market behavior, as evidenced by the peso remaining under downward pressure in the three business days that followed.  Despite renewed central bank intervention to boost the currency, it now takes almost 24 pesos to buy a U.S. dollar when it took fewer than 16 pesos to do so a year ago – a loss of about one-third in the currency’s purchasing power.  One reason is that Macri’s blaming adverse developments abroad for his currency’s woes rings hollow with investors, given how very slowly his administration has moved to reduce a fiscal deficit running above 6 percent of GDP since 2015; how much debt (around $100 billion) he has taken on in just a couple of years; and how timid his central bank has been in its attempt to bring down inflation running at about 2 percent per month.  And the other reason is that it quickly became apparent that any loan from the IMF will come with strict conditionality attached, because Argentina’s request was routed to the Fund’s regular, “stand-by” window – and not to its easier-access, precautionary lending window for highly creditworthy borrowers.  The Fund spelled out its economic policy advice for Argentina in its December 2017 “Staff Report for the 2017 Article IV Consultation,” and it calls for a more assertive reduction in the fiscal deficit, especially by cutting government spending, and for supply-side reforms it called “indispensable” to support economic growth, raise labor productivity, attract private investment, and enhance the country’s competitiveness.  These are all recommendations that fly in the face of President Macri’s gradualist approach to defusing the economic minefield left behind by his populist predecessor, Cristina Fernández Kirchner, and will therefore paint his government into a politically fragile corner.  We are witnessing the demise of Macri’s cherished – and popular – gradualism.

 May 14, 2018

*Dr.  Arturo C.  Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

 

Brazil in 1999: The Impact of Rigid Labor Regulations

By Jennifer P. Poole and Rita Almeida*

The outside of a building in Brasilia, Brazil

Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment in Brasília. / Grupo Vestcon / Creative Commons

During Brazil’s currency crisis and devaluation in 1999, stringent implementation of labor regulations hindered, rather than enhanced, manufacturing plants’ recovery and workers’ wellbeing – an important lesson to keep in mind in current debates in many countries.  In an article published in the May 2017 Journal of Development Economics (JDE), we examine the implications of global economic integration through international trade on local labor markets during that critical period in 1999.

  • Many economic policymakers agree that reforms in the latter half of the 20th century, such as liberalizing trade relations and encouraging foreign investment, have been powerful drivers of efficiency gains, income growth, and consumer choice around the globe. At the same time, however, there is agreement that – as firms adapt to a more competitive global environment – the gains are often accompanied by short-term costs for workers in terms of unemployment and income risk.  Policymakers have to weigh the broad economic benefits from globalization and technological change, on the one hand, against workers’ opportunities and security on the other.

A micro-econometric estimation analysis of detailed, confidential, and proprietary micro-data sets – collected in part while visiting the Brazilian Labor Ministry – reveals a causal impact of trade reform on employment.  Brazil’s policy environment of strict labor market regulations (e.g., hiring and firing costs), coupled with its dramatic trade liberalization and currency devaluation, make it a particularly appropriate setting to study the implications of globalization on employment opportunities in a middle-income country.  As in many countries, much of the de jure labor market framework was established on a national basis in Brazil (in the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988), but de facto labor regulations – the varying levels of implementation through labor inspections, fines, and other processes in different locales – are heterogeneous.

  • Administrative data on the enforcement of labor regulations during the 1999 currency crisis, a shock to trade openness, show that the way trade affects employment largely depends on the stringency of de facto labor regulations that companies face. The impact of the currency devaluation – widely predicted to expand employment by facilitating access to foreign markets and weakening import competition – was less significant in plants facing strong labor enforcement than in those facing more lax enforcement.  The findings suggest that stringent labor regulations limit job creation and lower productivity gains.
  • Not only was the efficient reallocation of labor in response to shocks inhibited by strict de facto labor market regulations; rigid enforcement also restricted the within-plant potential for productivity gains. The data reveal that regulations, for example, may limit plants’ ability to introduce new goods or investment in more complex production technologies that might have higher value-added.  The burden of having to retain unproductive workers, making plants less able to compete, is another possible explanation for weak productivity gains.

Previous research – arguing that weak enforcement leaves regulations ineffective – ruled out the possibility of labor regulations as an explanation for slow labor adjustment to trade reform.  But our research shows that flexible regulations maximize the gains of reforms such as trade liberalization.  As middle-income countries continue to face a globalizing and technologically advancing world economy, their strict labor market policies, limiting adjustment and reallocation, may have potentially distortive, unintended consequences.  The trade-off between job security, on the one hand, and productivity and growth is already one of the most prominent public policy debates worldwide.  Regulations designed to protect workers may actually further reduce employment as costs increase.  Countries must show flexibility, while enhancing education and training programs, to benefit fully from changes driven by the global economy.  As populist, protectionist policies gain influence in the world, policymakers should know that increasing the flexibility of de jure regulations will allow for increased job creation and thus offer broader access to productivity gains.

March 7, 2018

*Jennifer Poole is Assistant Professor of Economics, School of International Service, and Research Fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics and the CESifo Research Network.  Rita Almeida is a Research Fellow at the World Bank and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.  Their article is titled “Trade and Labor Reallocation with Heterogeneous Enforcement of Labor Regulations.”

Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Latin America: End of “Supercycle” Threatens Reversal of Institutional Reforms

By Carlos Monge*

Monge graphic

By Eduardo Ballón and Raúl Molina (consultores) and Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge (National Resource Governance Institute, América Latina), from Minería y marcos institucionales en la región andina. El superciclo y su legado, o las difíciles relaciones entre políticas de promoción de la inversión minero-hidrocarburífera y las reformas institucionales, Reporte de Investigación preparado por NRGI con colaboración de la GIZ, Lima, Marzo del 2017. See blog text for high-resolution graphic

Policies adopted in response to the end of the “supercycle” have slowed and, in some cases, reversed the reforms that moved the region toward greater decentralization, citizen participation, and environmental protection over the past decade.  Latin American governments of the left and right used the commodities supercycle to drive growth and poverty reduction at an unprecedented pace.  They also undertook institutional reforms aimed at improving governance at large.

  • Even before demand and prices for Latin American energy and minerals began to rise in the early 2000s, some Latin American countries launched processes of decentralization (Colombia and Bolivia); started to institutionalize mechanisms for citizens’ participation in decision making (Colombia and Bolivia); and built progressively stronger environmental management frameworks (Colombia and Ecuador). Peru pressed ahead with decentralization and participation at the start of the supercycle, and when it was in full swing, created a Ministry of the Environment.
  • Implementation of the reforms was subordinated by governments’ overarching goal of fostering investments in the extractive sector. Indigenous consultation rights in Peru, for example, were approved in the second half of 2011, but implementation was delayed a year and limited only to indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.  President Ollanta Humala, giving in to the mining lobby, claimed there were no indigenous peoples in the Andes and that no consultations were needed around mining projects.  Local pressure forced a reversal, and by early 2015 four consultation projects on mid-size mining projects were launched.

These reformist policies have suffered setbacks since the decrease in Asia’s and particularly China’s appetite for Latin American energy and minerals has caused prices to fall – and the value of exports, taxes, and royalties, and public incomes along with them.  The latest ECLAC data show a decline in economic growth and a rebound of poverty both in absolute and relative figures.  The gradual fall in the price of minerals starting in 2013 and the abrupt collapse in oil prices by the end of 2015 reversed this generally favorable trend.

The response of the governments of resource-dependent countries has been “race to the bottom” policies, which included steps backward in fiscal, social, and environmental policies.  Governments’ bigger concern has been to foster investments in the new and more adverse circumstances.  In this new scenario, the processes of decentralization, participation, and environmental management have been negatively impacted as local authorities and citizens’ participation – as well as environmental standards and protocols – are perceived by companies and rent-seeking public officials as obstacles to investments.

  • Peru’s Law 30230 in 2014, for example, reduced income tax rates, weakened the oversight capacity of the Ministry of the Environment, and weakened indigenous peoples’ claim public lands.

The correlation between the supercycle years and the progress and regressions in reforms is clear. (click here for high-resolution graphic).  During the supercycle – when huge amounts of money were to be made – companies and government were willing to incorporate the cost of citizen participation, decentralization and environmental standards and protocols.  But now, governments are desperate for new investments to overcome the fall in economic growth and extractive rents, and extractive companies are not willing any more to assume these additional costs.  Those who oppose the “race to the bottom strategy” are fighting hard to restore the reforms and to move ahead with decentralization, increased participation, and enhanced environmental management, to achieve a new democratic governance of the territories and the natural resources they contain.

April 7, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

31077401152_b9af7fb247_b

Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

Argentina: The (Un)Fulfilled Promises of an Election Year

By Ernesto Calvo*

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Palace of the Argentine National Congress / Andresumida / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

As the 2017 mid-term election approaches, both Argentine voters and party elites see a gloomy present and a bright future. With only seven months until the October 22 election, the economy still shows few signs of recovery. Patience is running thin in Congress, among governors, and with organized labor – but it seems to be never-ending among voters.

  • For over a year, surveys have shown that a majority of voters perceive their personal economic situation as dire. In survey parlance, each month voters perceive that they are worse off than in the previous month. Yet, to the surprise of specialists, a majority of voters also expect the economy to improve in the next month. Indeed, voters seem as willing to credit the current administration of President Mauricio Macri for its policy choices as they are unhappy with the economy.
  • The opposition is betting its future success on the dismal economic outlook: high inflation, stagnating wages, and lack of growth. The government expects voters’ optimism, the raw expectation of future growth, to carry the day. The increasing gap between current perceptions and future expectations has baffled specialists. The only possible result, many confide, is either a rude awakening for the administration or a real change in the pace of economic growth.

Both parties suffer from divisions. Former President Cristina Fernández’s Front for Victory still carries most support among Peronists, although many fear that a Senate victory by their leader in the Province of Buenos Aires will ensure a divided party in the election of 2019. Peronist dissident Sergio Massa is still running outside the party, and few anticipate any grand-coalition before 2019. The other traditional party, the UCR, remains on life support after a decade of mishaps, and is only a minor partner of President Macri’s party, Republican Proposal (PRO), in the government coalition. Meanwhile, the incumbent PRO has yet to decide their strategy to form Provincial alliances and nominate its candidates.

As the election nears, it is unclear whether voters will hold the government responsible for their current economic malaise or will still believe in PRO’s capacity to deliver a better economy. Voters have one leg in a bad economy and another leg in the promise of a better tomorrow. They are, in the words of the Herald Editor J.G. Bennet, “Like a stork by a frog pond, they are as yet undecided which to rest upon.” Eventually, one of the two legs will have to go up, for either the government or the opposition – but not both – to celebrate on Election Day. Regardless, the mid-term election may provide little information as to who the real winner is. With no presidential candidates on the ballot, no important gubernatorial races to publicize, and only one important Senator on the line (that of the Province of Buenos Aires), the signal will be unclear. If the government does extremely well, it may gather a third of the House vote, all provinces considered together. If the government performs badly, it may get a quarter of the House seats. As the election approaches, it would seem that the only measure of success or failure would be whether the government coalition, Cambiemos, wins first, second, or third place in races for the National Senators of the Province of Buenos Aires. More troubling yet, it is unlikely that the result of the election, whichever it may be, will clarify the choices faced by voters, the future of the Peronists, or the likelihood of a steady government coalition after 2017.

March 9, 2017

*Ernesto Calvo is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.