Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

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South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Democracy and democratic values are in crisis throughout South and Central America, but the causes – and solutions – vary across the region, with rays of hope that at least some countries will find their way forward. The Bolivian elections, plagued by suspicions of fraud, reflect some of the problems that affect all of Latin America. The previously unbeaten President Evo Morales, in government since 2006, has now shown his limits and, even if his election is confirmed, will govern without the parliamentary majorities he enjoyed in the past.

  • Latin America witnessed violent protests almost simultaneously in Ecuador and Chile; Mexico blinked during a confrontation with the son of narcotics kingpin Chapo Guzmán; the Congress was dissolved in Peru; an ex-President in the Dominican Republic denounced as fraudulent the primary election he lost and joined another party to be its candidate; and a massive exodus continued pouring out of Venezuela, whose crisis is terminal but without an expiration date.
  • The Argentine and Uruguayan elections on October 27 marked the end of a three-year cycle of elections during which 14 countries voted to elect or re-elect their presidents. Speculation was originally that a swing to the right would counteract the Bolivarianism of the previous swing to the left. That shift never happened. In its place, a more heterogeneous and divided Latin America emerged, reflected in the outcome of the Argentine and Uruguayan elections, and in the not-insignificant fact that Mexico is governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador while Brazil, the other regional power, has Jair Bolsonaro.

The causes of this wave of divisiveness are the subject of different theories. Many observers speak of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the leftist São Paulo Forum. Others think it’s a popular reaction to the drastic adjustment programs of the IMF. Yet others argue about a contagion factor and the impact of social networks, which enable real-time communication and the transfer of vivid images of events. Nonetheless, any theory that tries to harness all of these theories will be flawed because each national reality is responding to different logic and dynamics.

  • All of the countries of the region are experiencing inequality, poverty, corruption, violence and narco-trafficking, unhappiness with democracy and its institutions, rejection of politicians, and the impact of the “new politics” of social media and fake news. But they are not present to the same proportions.
  • Neoliberal, Bolivarian, and populist governments are all suffering from rebellions. The Chilean protests over transportation fees under neoliberal President Piñera were preceded by protests in Brazil in 2013 under progressive President Dilma Rousseff. If Piñera resorts to military force to stop the protests, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did something similar in 2018, killing more than 300. The IMF might have been behind the reduction of fuel subsidies in Ecuador, but it had no role in Chile. While elections went as normal in Argentina and Uruguay, in Bolivia, like in Venezuela, the allegations of fraud have been constant.

The solutions to each country’s challenges will have to be as different as their causes. While one country needs deeper economic adjustment, another needs to fix its political institutions. Each is going to have to find its way through the crises. Latin America will find little solace, moreover, in the fact that this high level of conflict is not exclusive to its region. From Hong Kong to Cataluña, or in Libya and Lebanon, similar challenges are disrupting national life.

  • Amid the many indications that representative or liberal democracy is under direct attack – that we may be facing the end of an era with potentially dire implications – some positive notes are visible in Latin America. In addition to the orderly contests in Argentina and Uruguay, the local and regional elections in Colombia in late October were an effective exercise in democracy – won by the center and lost by the extremes. Uribismo on the right and Gustavo Petro on the left were the big losers. The emerging symbol was Claudia López, the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, who is also a lesbian, environmentalist, and leader against corruption. The path ahead is certainly not going to be easy for Latin America, but there is evidence that, with a big dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s reality, Latin Americans can do a lot better.

November 5, 2019

* Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

 

Ecuador: President Moreno’s Pyrrhic Victory

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019.

President Lenín Moreno greets an indigenous leader on September 12, 2019/ Asemblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno’s agreement with opponents to rescind the austerity measures that sparked the recent crisis has restored calm but leaves his government irreparably weakened. The immediate trigger of the crisis was the president’s announcement on October 1 of a package of austerity measures aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit as part of his government’s $4.2 billion credit agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The key measure was elimination of a $1.3 billion gasoline subsidy expected to result in a 25-75 percent increase in the price of gasoline. Transport unions, student groups, and thousands of members of the country’s largest indigenous organization, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), took to the streets, paralyzing roads around the country and demanding Moreno step down.

  • Moreno declared a 60-day state of siege, temporarily suspended the right to freedom of association; and on October 7, flanked by the military high command, said he would not back down against what he called a “destabilization plan” orchestrated by his predecessor, Rafael Correa, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Perhaps cognizant that a combination of social pressure and legislative and military action removed all three of Ecuador’s democratically elected presidents from 1996 to 2006, Moreno temporarily moved the seat of government from Quito to Guayaquil and imposed a curfew in Quito.
  • CONAIE President Jaime Vargas and other indigenous leaders, encouraged by the United Nations and the Catholic Church, agreed to direct negotiations on October 12. Two days later, the president signed a decree rescinding the austerity measures and reinstating fuel subsidies, and CONAIE decamped. Moreno removed the head of the military Joint Command and the commander of the army, and on October 15 returned to Quito. (He has so far resisted calls to replace Interior Minister María Paula Romo, a possible 2021 presidential aspirant, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín.)

The crisis has deeply altered prospects for the Moreno presidency.

  • Moreno survived a degree of social protest and political resistance that toppled previous presidents, but he failed to anticipate the popular reaction to lifting energy subsidies, employed a heavy-handed response to protestors, and ultimately backed away from one of the few significant political decisions his government has made. As a result, Moreno lost an opportunity to make structural economic changes and suffered irreparable damage to his political capital and credibility.
  • Indigenous groups and a resurgent CONAIE – after largely disappearing from national political decision-making under Correa – are once again a key national political actor and informal public policy veto player. They not only forced Moreno and the government to reverse course on energy subsidies, but also literally and figuratively earned a seat at the negotiating table. CONAIE appears more unified than it has been at any moment since the early 2000s and may be emboldened to seek further concessions from the government.
  • Correísmo may well be the biggest political loser. Moreno remains in power despite calls from ex-President Correa and his Revolución Ciudadana party to debate the possibility of impeachment and early elections. Correístas were excluded from discussions over the executive decree that restored the gas subsidies. Moreover, CONAIE tweeted a stinging rebuke of Correa, accusing him of opportunism and holding him responsible for the deaths of three indigenous leaders under his government.

Moreno is a lame duck just a little over halfway through his presidency. It is difficult to imagine any policymaking of consequence in his remaining 18 months in office. The government is severely handicapped politically and economically, and the political space for negotiation until elections is almost nonexistent. Moreno’s government is likely to resemble the interim governments of Fabián Alarcón (1997-1998) or Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007), which essentially served as placeholder administrations without ambitious policy agendas. Against all odds, Moreno – with a legislative minority – neutralized Correa and shifted government policy to the right during his first two-plus years in office, which throws his failure to remove the subsidy into sharper relief.

  • Economically, the picture is not much different. The protests forced Moreno to kick the can down the road on energy subsidies, while making it more difficult for the government to close its fiscal deficit. The weight of these necessary reforms will therefore fall to whoever wins the 2021 elections. The failed implementation of this economic reform and subsequent reversal of policy show the limits of Moreno’s political acumen while laying bare the country’s governability challenges.

October 17, 2019

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article 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.

 

Ecuador: Moreno Reverses Another Correa Policy

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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President Lenín Moreno / Flickr / Archivo Medios Públicos EP / Creative Commons

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno’s announcement last week that he had withdrawn diplomatic immunity for Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was long in coming and consistent with his efforts to reverse the excesses of his predecessor, ex-President Rafael Correa. In a three-minute-fifteen-second speech via Twitter, Moreno listed the reasons for his decision: Assange’s disrespectful and aggressive conduct, Wikileaks statements against Ecuador and, above all, Assange’s transgression of “international conventions.” Predictably, Correa, who originally offered the asylum protection, accused Moreno of being “the greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history” who had committed a crime “that humanity will never forget.” Wikileaks accused Moreno of trading Assange to the United States for debt relief. Rhetoric and accusations aside, Assange had long been on shaky ground with the Moreno administration, and recent leaks of the president’s personal information made the decision seemingly inevitable.

  • Correa offered Assange asylum in 2012 to thumb his nose at the United States and contest claims that he did not protect freedom of the press. After Wikileaks leaked hundreds of Democratic Party campaign emails in 2016, he restricted Assange’s internet access at the embassy in London but, for ideological consistency, continued to support his infamous houseguest. Moreno possessed no such ties when he took office in May 2017 and called Assange “an inherited problem.” Assange’s asylum impeded Moreno’s ability to seek greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States.
  • The Wikileaks founder did not seem to understand the significance of this change. Not only was he messy, demanding, and abusive toward embassy staff; he reportedly violated his asylum conditions and, according to Moreno, tried to use the embassy as a “center for spying” – prompting Ecuador last October to impose a protocol regulating his visits, communications, and other matters. The tipping point for the Ecuadorian government was in February, when an anonymous source sent a trove of emails, phone communications, and expense receipts to Ecuadorian journalists, supposedly linking the president and his family to a series of corrupt and criminal dealings, including money laundering and offshore accounts, leading to a corruption investigation by Ecuador’s attorney general. A website also published leaked personal material unrelated to corruption, including photos of Moreno and his family lifted directly from his phone.

Moreno’s decision is unlikely to significantly affect his political capital. Although polls show his approval rating continues to decline as he pursues fiscal austerity policies, public opinion on this issue is likely to split along existing pro-Correa and anti-Correa lines. Further, given that personal information was already leaked, Moreno does not seem to fear potential reprisals from Wikileaks or others for his action. Nor does he appear to harbor additional political ambitions: he has all but ruled out running in the 2021 elections, and his once-dominant Alianza País (AP) party performed poorly in the March 24 regional elections, managing to win a paltry two of 23 governorships and only 28 of the 221 mayoralties. If anything, Moreno should be more worried about the attorney general’s investigation than the fallout from booting Assange.

Little by little in his two years in office Moreno has neutralized Correa’s political power and reversed his predecessor’s policies – often provoking the ex-president (see previous posts here and here). In the last six weeks alone, Moreno announced he would launch an international anti-corruption commission; hosted and expressed his support for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, saying that Venezuela and Ecuador “are both on the way out of the abyss in which we were placed: this poorly named 21st century socialism”; and signed a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF – all actions that would have been unthinkable from 2007 to 2017. Ultimately, giving Julian Assange asylum was politically costly and brought no benefits to a government that’s too weak to waste political capital on an international troublemaker. Recent events may have triggered his ouster from the embassy, but the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

* John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article 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.

South America: Regional Integration or Presidential Posturing?

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Seven South American presidents’ launch of brand-new regional grouping called PROSUR last week was intended to give a boost to their personal agendas rather than take a serious step toward regional integration. The announcement was made on March 22 at a summit organized by Chilean President Piñera and attended by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. The declared goal of the summit was to overcome what Piñera called the “paralysis” of the decade-old UNASUR.  Its final declaration emphasized the need “more than ever to work together to update and strengthen the South American countries’ process of integration” in the face of current and future challenges, including “inserting ourselves in an efficient way into the fourth industrial revolution and society based on knowledge and information.”

  • The creation of the Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR), however, delivered very little in terms of regional integration. The Santiago Declaration does not tackle the obstacles that hampered UNASUR, such as its decision-making procedure based on consensus. On the contrary, the declaration envisions PROSUR as a forum exclusively based on presidential diplomacy, in which all decisions by definition must be taken by consensus.
  • The Presidents said the new organization will focus on infrastructure, energy, health, defense, and dealing with natural disasters – the same areas where UNASUR had shown some progress. The declaration did not mention any particular ongoing crisis, such as Venezuela, but it made clear that it would work for full respect for democracy, constitutional order, and human rights. Again, this is not a departure from UNASUR, which also had a democracy clause adopted and ratified by the national parliaments.

The summit promised political gains for several participants. For President Piñera, it was an opportunity to project himself as a regional leader able to convene and coordinate South American heads of states, at a time that his domestic popularity is decreasing. Ecuadorean President Moreno – the only central-left president attending the summit – had yet a new opportunity to signal his willingness to coexist with pro-market governments in the region. For Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a well-known skeptic of South American integration, the summit was a platform to show a more palatable image closer to his liberal peers.

President Piñera and his guests blamed UNASUR’s bureaucracy for its lack of effectiveness, opting instead for a lean mechanism based on presidential diplomacy. Most long-time observers believe, however, that UNASUR’s effectiveness was undermined by its very weak organizational capacity, with a powerless Secretary General and personnel made up of low-ranking national diplomats instead of qualified international civil servants. Presidential diplomacy, unburdened by a bureaucracy of specialists who analyze problems and possible solutions, works well when Presidents get along in ideological terms, but precedent shows it is vulnerable to collapse when governments have divergent preferences or when states must agree on complex transnational issues such as migration, drug-trafficking, or deep economic integration.

  • PROSUR will work exclusively as a forum (not as a regional organization) and its decisions and initiatives will have to be executed and monitored by the national bureaucracies of the member states, which by definition look after national interests rather than regional interests. The Santiago Summit has demonstrated that when it comes to regional integration, leftist and right-wing heads of government look and act alike. No matter which ideology they claim, South American presidents fear collective institutions, cherish presidential diplomacy, and prefer to create new initiatives with pompous names from scratch, rather than make necessary reforms to existing ones. As Uruguayan President Vázquez – who did not attend the summit – put it, South America has a long history of integration initiatives that have not brought about integration. The region would be better served by reinforcing and overhauling existing mechanisms such as MERCOSUR, the Andean Community, or the Pacific Alliance, and try to make them convergent in any possible way, rather than adding yet another acronym.

March 29, 2019

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

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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.

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 24, 2018

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

Colombia: Is the Peace Process Failing?

By Christian Wlaschütz*

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Members of the FARC in Tumaco, Colombia waiting to be disarmed last January. / Andrés Gómez Tarazona / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Colombia prepares for its presidential elections, the peace process with the FARC is already seriously jeopardized by shortcomings in its implementation —and it stands to worsen considerably.

  • The strong showing in polls of Iván Duque – nominee of Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democrático (CD), which has consistently opposed the peace agreement – bodes poorly for implementation in the future. Former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras is polling poorly, but his Cambio Radical’s antagonism toward the peace agreement enjoys support.  Leftist candidate and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, second in the polls, supports the accord, but he faces a steep uphill battle.  Centrist candidates Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia, and Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator with the FARC, have not been able to gain ground.  The polls do not enjoy much credibility but are influencing public perceptions on the peace process and other key policies.
  • The peace talks between the government and the country’s other main guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), have been in a limbo since Ecuador withdrew as host and guarantor of the negotiations two weeks ago. Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno made the announcement apparently in anger over the assassination of two Ecuadoran journalists by FARC “dissidents” (those rejecting the accords) and over the increasing criticism among locals of the worsening security situation in the border region with Colombia.  It was a big blow to Colombian President Santos’s hopes to conclude an agreement with the ELN during his mandate.  The peace talks have been suspended several times in the past due to bombings and kidnappings, but most observers believe it will be very difficult for talks to resume without Ecuador’s facilitation.

A serious challenge to political consensus to push ahead with the peace process is the dramatic decline in security in several Colombian regions, most notably Catatumbo (near the Venezuelan border) and Tumaco (on the Pacific Coast).  As experts had foreseen, the vacuum left by the FARC’s demobilization was quickly filled by the ELN and criminal organizations linked to the drug trade.  In Catatumbo, a hitherto irrelevant force, the “dissidents” of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (that is, those who did not demobilize with EPL in 1991), have taken advantage of the opportunity to conduct a deadly war against the ELN.  According to the weekly Semana, the dissidents may be supported by the Mexican Clan del Golfo cartel that wants control of strategic corridors for the drug trade.  Armed actors are sowing fear by declaring and suspending curfews at random; the state seems completely absent.  In Tumaco, bloody battles between FARC dissidents, other criminal groups, and state security forces are terrorizing the civilian population.  In these and other regions, threats against community leaders and assassinations are increasing.

  • Deficient implementation of reintegration programs for former FARC combatants is a major concern. Most former combatants are in a limbo regarding their judicial, economic, and social situation.  Lessons learned from the demobilization of paramilitary fighters some 14 years ago have not been applied, and lagging reintegration is tempting fighters to join other illegal actors.  The possible extradition of FARC leader Jesús Santrich to the United States on drug-related charges is also undermining demobilized combatants’ confidence that they’ll get a fair deal.  Santrich has started a hunger strike and claims to prefer dying than being extradited.

Most worrying in the long run is the polarization demonstrated by the inappropriate behavior of most of the presidential candidates.  Instead of offering programs to lead the country into a different future, personal attacks and the settling of accounts are at the core of the campaigns so far.  Colombian society’s contract to integrate into national life an unarmed FARC, free to pursue change through peaceful, democratic means, has never been strong.  But a surge in opposition to the peace process and the former guerrillas – led by politicians without a viable alternative policy – could easily translate into irreversible blows for peace and democratic inclusion.  Colombia is at a risky and decisive crossroad.  The possibility to relapse into former times is real.

May 4, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Ecuador: Referendum Marks Critical Juncture for Moreno and Correa

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Two men sit at a table with a yellow background

Current President of Ecuador Lenín Moreno (left) and ex-President Rafael Correa (right) during the presidential transition last spring. / Micaela Ayala V / ANDES / Flickr / Creative Commons

A national referendum in Ecuador this Sunday appears likely to give a boost to President Lenín Moreno in his political struggle against his predecessor, Rafael Correa (2007-2017).  The central item on the seven-question ballot will be whether or not presidential term limits should be reinstated into the Constitution – an initiative that Correa, who would like to run for a fourth term in 2021, is campaigning against.  The country appears poised to move on from the thrice-elected yet polarizing Correa to the more conciliatory Moreno; at the time of writing, citizens resoundingly endorse all seven referendum questions, with no question polling lower than 66 percent approval.  A “yes” vote on term limits would end Correa’s future presidential aspirations and position Moreno – Correa’s hand-picked successor – as the standard bearer of the political left in Ecuador.

  • The feud between Moreno and Correa – and within their ruling Alianza PAIS (AP) party – has been building for nearly a year and a half. Last November, one of Moreno’s closest advisors, Eduardo Mangas, alleged in a leaked recording that Correa hoped Moreno would lose the election.  Correa purportedly provided no logistical or financial support for his chosen successor while saddling him with the deeply unpopular Jorge Glas as running mate.  According to Mangas, Correa preferred that AP lose the presidential election and instead govern through its control of the vast state bureaucracy and National Assembly – with Correa returning to the presidency in 2021.  Eking out a narrow victory (51.6 percent against Guillermo Lasso’s 48.8 percent), Moreno upended this plan.
  • The morenista and correista factions have divided the AP since Moreno took office in May 2017. Vice President Glas, a Correa ally accused of taking $13.5 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, was sentenced to six years in prison and impeached as part of Moreno’s campaign against corruption.  The AP Secretary, a correista assemblywoman, tried to remove Moreno as party head after he alleged the party put a hidden camera in his office.  Correa and 28 legislative deputies have left the party and formed what they are calling the “Citizen’s Revolution Party.”

Moreno took office facing a polarized political environment and daunting fiscal deficit and weak GDP, but his sound policies and astute political strategy have given him the highest approval ratings in Latin America.  His focus on the popular valence issues of corruption and re-election – about which citizens will usually share a common preference regardless of ideology – has also helped distract voters from the tepid economy.  The referendum is a particularly smart gambit.  It proposes seven different changes that would reverse actions taken during Correa’s rule – and that happen to enjoy broad popular support.  Instead of trying to push them through established institutional channels staffed with correistas, like the National Assembly or the courts, the President is turning directly to the public to give the measures legality.

Absent any bombshell announcements or drastic changes in public opinion, Moreno looks set to coast to victory in the referendum, quite remarkably establishing him as the country’s most powerful politician.  However, he faces a number of challenges to governance over the remainder of his four-year term.  The defection of Correa and his faction from Alianza PAIS left him with only 46 seats in the 137-member National Assembly.  This means Moreno’s bloc will continue to depend on ephemeral voting alliances with the center-right to govern – exactly like much of the 1979-2006 period when no popularly elected president finished his term.  Moreover, after 2.7 percent GDP growth in 2017, the IMF predicts that Ecuador’s economy – vulnerable because of its dependence on oil exports – will grow by only 2.2 percent in 2018 and 1.7 percent in 2019.  Moreno should enjoy his victory on Sunday, but he will soon face challenges greater than Rafael Correa: long-term governance in a country that has long proven averse it.  Whether he is up to the challenge remains to be seen, although he has so far proven resourceful.

February 2, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the US Naval Academy.  The views expressed in this article 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 US government.

Prospects for Reproductive Rights Dim with End of “Left-Turn”

By Merike Blofield and Christina Ewig*

A large group of women and men gather in front of statue in a plaza.

A demonstration against abortion in Córdoba, Argentina, shortly after President Mauricio Macri’s election. / Marco Camejo / Flickr / Creative Commons

The end of Latin America’s “pink tide” suggests the region will make little progress in protecting reproductive rights in coming years and may even face some policy reversals.  With five Latin American governments slated to elect new leaders in 2018, and with recent elections of right-leaning governments in Chile and Argentina, Latin America may well be concluding the left-turn that has characterized the region’s politics since the early 2000s.

  • The past two decades of pink tide governments coincided with a flurry of legislative activity on abortion policy – in sharp contrast to previous decades of policy stasis, when high rates of clandestine abortions coexisted with restrictive laws. Since the turn of the millennium, abortion laws have been revised by Latin American legislatures and courts on 11 separate occasions in eight different countries.  Even in countries where legal reforms did not go through, legislatures debated bills at a prevalence not seen before.
  • Several left governments have carried through liberalization in response to public opinion and social mobilization. Last August, for example, the Chilean Supreme Court upheld its Congress’ liberalization of abortion law – to allow for abortion under three circumstances (threat to life; fatal fetal defect; rape) – overturning the absolute prohibition that had been in effect since the last days of the Pinochet military regime in 1989.  Some left governments went even further:  Uruguay legalized abortion in 2012, and Mexico City did so even earlier, in 2007.

Yet left governments have not been unequivocally liberal; some have actively upheld or enacted conservative laws, even absolute prohibitions.  In 2006, the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua reversed course from allowing therapeutic abortion to supporting absolute prohibition, while Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa in 2013 rejected a provision allowing abortion in the case of rape.  The FMLN in El Salvador has doggedly, even brutally, enforced a total prohibition, to the detriment of many (primarily poor) women’s lives.  In a recent study (published in Social Politics), we show this split in policy roughly follows the “institutionalized” vs. “populist” typology of lefts.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

Although we systematically analyzed only abortion politics, we found that sex education, contraceptive access, and other reproductive health policies more broadly have followed similar dynamics in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Uruguay.  For example, the Uruguayan left government expanded sex education after assuming power in 2006, while in Ecuador, leaders appointed in health bureaucracies sought to reduce access to publically provided reproductive health services.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies outside sub-Saharan Africa.

As Latin America’s left shift appears to be coming to a close, reproductive health policies promise to remain contentions – and abortion continues to be a public health crisis across most of Latin America even with the limited liberalizations of the past decade.  The Alan Guttmacher Institute recently estimated that 6.5 million abortions are annually performed in the region.  The vast majority are still done in clandestinity, resulting in high maternal mortality and tens of thousands of annual hospitalizations, which affect low-income women the most.  While it is unlikely that recent changes will be reversed in the more institutionalized settings, the rightward shift that is occurring among especially these countries does not bode well for further liberalization and resolution to the abortion crisis.

 January 18, 2018

 * Merike Blofield is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.  Christina Ewig is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.