South America: Mounting Tensions, Few Solutions

By Christopher Kambhu*

Protest in Colombia/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

Across South America, calls for structural change have re-emerged on the streets and at the ballot box, but governments face many obstacles to constructively address them. These calls are a continuation of region-wide protests in 2019, when citizens demanded reforms or rewrites of the existing social contract to address various political, economic, and social inequities. While government pandemic measures pushed protestors off the streets throughout 2020, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities that prompted protests.

  • Inequities in Colombia have sparked nationwide social conflict. Protests against a proposed tax reform have broadened into demands for a basic income and accountability for security forces accused of killing dozens of protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, but radical groups have created “autonomous zones” free of police presence and established roadblocks, causing goods shortages in major cities. Negotiations between the government and protest leaders have yet to gain traction. President Ivan Duque’s approval rating has plummeted to historic lows as he appears unable to meet the moment. Backlash against demonstrators is emerging, with some wealthier residents violently repelling protestors from their neighborhoods.
  • In Ecuador and Peru, citizens have used the ballot box to voice their frustrations, leading to surprising electoral outcomes. Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s new center-right president, has formed a governing coalition with indigenous and social-democratic parties that are the second and third largest in the national legislature (Lasso’s party is the fifth largest). In Peru, provincial teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo has narrowly won June’s presidential runoff over Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a controversial former president convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. Castillo’s far-left party, which began contesting national elections only last year, is now the largest in Peru’s legislature, but needs to forge complex alliances to govern effectively.
  • Chile took a different path. Under intense pressure, the government acceded to popular demands for a constitutional rewrite. A national plebiscite last October assented to the rewrite by a wide margin, and elections for the Constituent Assembly in May demonstrated widespread rejection of the current elites. Most members are political independents or newcomers; a sizable number rose to prominence during the initial wave of protests in late 2019. The membership has gender parity, a first for such a body, with 11 percent of seats reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

Efforts to forge new social contracts are difficult at best and each path faces obstacles to success. Colombia’s current political leadership appears unable to calm tensions, and voters must wait until national elections next year to elect new leaders. While demands for change in Ecuador and Peru have elevated some candidates and parties to unprecedented success, sharp ideological divisions and partisan fragmentation in both legislatures appear likely to limit potential reforms. Castillo’s mandate is tenuous and weakened by Fujimori’s rather Trumpian allegations of fraud and attempts to throw out ballots. In Chile, the ideological diversity of the Constituent Assembly could very well preclude it from reaching the required two-thirds majority needed for any proposal to enter the new Constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in 2022.

  • The inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and a busy electoral schedule will keep reform issues at the forefront of political discourse; these debates will likely intensify with 11 countries across Latin America holding national elections over the next 18 months. While upcoming elections offer a timely opportunity for citizens to push their countries in new directions, governments will face political, fiscal, and social challenges which threaten implementation of any proposed reforms. At this early stage in the region’s electoral supercycle, political leaders have yet to capably address their citizens’ demands.

July 7, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

Peru: Approaching Ungovernability?

Voting in Peru during the presidential election/ Presidencia Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Disputes over the final vote count in Peru’s June 6 presidential runoff are likely to drag on, but those promoting fear and mistrust in the political system already appear to be the clear winners, with grave consequences for the future of the country’s democracy. The two leading candidates – leftist Pedro Castillo and rightist Keiko Fujimori – both represent significant threats to liberal democracy, and the country’s elites and media are complicitous in moving the country closer to ungovernability.

  • Castillo and his Perú Libre party ran on an unapologetically non-democratic platform, promising a Leninist government and suggesting an end to the democratic alternation of power. Fujimori defended the corrupt dictatorship of her father, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and as leader of Fuerza Popular has fought a constant battle against the rule of law.
  • First-round voting in April showed that neither of them won many hearts and minds – 18.9 percent voted for Castillo and 13.4 percent for Fujimori – but they advanced because the other 17 candidates were even worse, deeply divided, and weak. Preparing for the second round, rather than reach out to the 70 percent of voters who rejected them, they showed the arrogance of immoderation and left citizens wondering which would be less likely to tyrannize them.

Other political leaders and the country’s elites, instead of demanding that the two candidates commit to democracy, made things worse. Unlike the elites in other countries, Peru’s do not seek to take over the levers of political power; rather, they are most comfortable maintaining a mediocre status quo. The left showed unconditional enthusiasm for Castillo, and conservatives like author Mario Vargas Llosa embraced Fujimori – while the two candidates proceeded to tear the country apart with fear-mongering, scare tactics, and empty promises.

  • Fujimorismo based its campaign on causing panic by feeding people’s fear of communism and terrorism, and linking Castillo to them. By mid-May, politicians who had said they’d hold their nose while voting for Keiko began casting her as a national savior. Her allies filled the streets with posters warning of the “Communist invasion.” Business leaders said they would fire employees if Castillo won. Castillo resorted to similar tactics to stir panic about a return of a Fujimori to the Palacio de Gobierno.
  • The media shed all pretense of independence and hyped these warnings as if truth, exhuming stories of terror from the past to drive home the point. Polls and vote results show, however, that the media’s gross bias prompted many voters who had intended to cast empty or unmarked ballots to vote for Castillo.

Peru may well be entering a period of ungovernability. Five years of political turmoil, corruption scandals, and institutional decay, under four different Presidents, had already wounded the country before this election, but fear – which, as Martha Nussbaum said, is the feeling that controls people, not liberate them – now runs even deeper and stronger. Well-founded questions about both Fujimori and Castillo’s commitment to democracy will keep tensions high, and the political, business, and media elites have created a climate in which allegations of fraud will persist despite international observers’ conclusions that the elections were clean. The forceful rejection of Fujimori by half of the population, and the Castillo’s utter lack of even basic governing skills are real risks. Arbitrary manipulations of the Constitution will be attempted to strengthen or weaken whichever government takes office. Calls for military intervention are certain. Political opposition will radicalize. The historic split between mestizo-dominated Lima and the rest of the country, vulgarly called la Indiada, is worsening.

  • But this is not Peru’s inescapable fate. Its democracy still gives the people the weapons with which to impede an authoritarian project. They do not have to believe that Fujimori’s backers are all corrupt anti-patriots, nor that all of Castillo’s are anti-Peruvian Communists. It’s true that the country has been wracked by the pandemic like no other, and that it is hindered by debt and other challenges. While neither of the candidates and their forces have demonstrated the greatness and humility needed to lead through these crises, rescuing Peruvian democracy requires accepting that the one with the most votes will be President, even if purely by chance, and deserves an opportunity to govern without calls for a coup to remove them. A country decimated by the pandemic needs the hope of being able to move into the future together.

June 18, 2021

*  This article is a synthesis and translation of commentaries and interviews by Alberto Vergara, who teaches at la Universidad del Pacífico in Lima and was co-editor of Politics after Violence: Legacies of the Shining Path Conflict in Peru.

Chile: Will the Constitutional Assembly Move Democracy Forward?

By Patricio Navia*

Polling place in Chile/ Atina Chile Elecciones 2005/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chileans go to the polls this weekend to elect members of a constitutional assembly – empowered to write a new Constitution by a plebiscite last October – but unrealistic popular expectations in a highly political year appear likely to complicate its work and could result in a flawed document.

  • Almost 80 percent of the Chileans who voted last October (i.e., 80 percent of half of the country’s eligible voters) supported a rewrite of the Pinochet-era Constitution, promulgated in 1980. Voters also chose to elect a new 155-member assembly for the task, rather than form one from among prominent political and social leaders. The assembly will have nine months to draft the document (with an option for one three-month extension), which will be voted on in mid-2022.
  • Chile’s busy election calendar is likely to complicate the assembly’s work. Saturday and Sunday’s voting will also choose governors, mayors, and city councilors, and there are elections in November for Congress and a new President – threatening to create tensions and a perfect political storm that undermine the quality of the new magna carta. Some parties have already held internal primaries for their presidential candidates, and coalition primaries are scheduled for July 18. If no candidate receives at least 50 percent plus one of the votes in the first round of voting on November 21, the two leading candidates will compete in a runoff on December 19.

The flaws of the constitutional process itself are clear. One is that the guaranteed gender-parity condition (50 percent representation for men and 50 percent for women) risks a situation in which higher vote-getters are not seated. The assembly’s mandate also includes guaranteed representation for the indigenous – a noble goal that nonetheless could lead to distracting recriminations in a convention that, per the plebiscite, will require approval by two-thirds of delegates for every element of the new Constitution. The objective is to achieve what Chilean authorities have called “a high degree of consensus” but could actually put agreement out of reach.

  • In addition, the assembly will begin deliberations in late June, when the Presidential and Legislative campaigns will be underway. The new government will take office in March 2022, but the new Constitution will not be ready until the second half of 2022 – and ratified by an exit plebiscite even later. The new government will have to wait for over six months after its inauguration for the new Constitution to be finalized before it can begin to govern, and, even worse, the offices of those elected might not exist.
  • Another major challenge is disunity and, in some cases, a lack of vision in the traditional political parties. Parties of the right, which finally got out from under the shadows of the Pinochet dictatorship and problematic market reforms, now appear ill-prepared to lead as Chile enters a transition period. Despite two terms in office (2010‑14 and 2018‑22), President Piñera has not constructed a new model for the right in Chile and now, having lost much momentum, is unable to lead rightist parties sorely lacking leadership.
  • Polls indicate, however, that Chileans do not embrace the more state-oriented options espoused by the left. Citizens want robust social rights and a reliable social safety net – which the assembly will find easy to give them without having to identify funding sources – but studies show they strongly prefer a society based on competitive markets with the protections they get as consumers, preventing abuses and guaranteeing individual rights. The right has been unable to capitalize on these views and, ironically, has never been in such a position of weakness as it is now. When Chileans realize that the many promises of the Constitution cannot be materialized, they will feel cheated.

The plebiscite creating the constitutional assembly increasingly appears to have been an effort to exorcise the Pinochet government that wrote the 1980 Constitution – rather than a mandate for a new left-leaning model of governance. Neither will the new magna carta be a magic pill that will solve all of Chile’s problems, including inequality and deficient public health and private pension systems, as many voters undoubtedly wish. These unfulfillable expectations will weigh heavily on the assembly throughout this political year.

  • Failure of the assembly is not a foregone conclusion, of course. Even after we analyze the results of this weekend’s votes, we cannot rule out that the political parties and civil society might rise to the occasion of making the debate and drafting into a healing process. If President Piñera commits all his energy to leading his government and party until he steps down 10 months from now – a historic but difficult task for a lame duck with a checkered legacy – one challenge will be the balancing act between promoting his base’s agenda and reassuring others that their interests will be respected and included. For now, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Chileans underestimated the complexities that writing a new Constitution would entail, especially producing one that meets the high expectations of a people hungry for solutions.

May 14, 2021

* Patricio Navia is a sociologist and political scientist at New York University and professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago.

United States: How did Latinos Vote?

By Eric Hershberg*

Latino youth in Milwaukee participate in GOTV/ Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA)/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Amid considerable discussion of how the Latino vote in the U.S. Presidential election impacted the outcome, evidence already shows that Latino voters played an important role in Joe Biden’s razor-thin majority in key states and will be a crucial, if diverse, electorate in the future. A frequent trope is that there is no such thing as the Latino vote, given the heterogeneity of the population that identifies as Latino (or Hispanic, Latina, or Latinx). Latino voters are of diverse national origin, geographic location, educational achievement, income, language preference, and religiosity. Some trace their roots in the United States back many generations, while others are immigrants. These factors conditioned voter behavior on November 3.

  • Exit polls, which are not entirely reliable, indicate that the 13 percent of the electorate that self-identified as Latino voted 65-32 percent for Biden over Trump. This was roughly in line with forecasts. Although the respected polling firm Latino Decisions announced on the eve of the election that at no point in its surveys did Trump exceed 30 percent of voter intentions, the eventual outcome was within the margin of error. The more notable polling miss was with the broader electorate: nationwide polling anticipated a gap of 5-12 percent between Biden and Trump in the popular vote, which in fact turned out to be around 4 percent.
  • As with the white electorate, there was a notable gender gap among Latinos: The margin in favor of the Biden-Harris ticket was 69-30 percent among Latina women versus 59-36 percent among Latino men, totals that replicated almost perfectly the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Age was a factor as well. Biden came out ahead by 69-28 percent among Latinos under 30, contrasted with 58-40 percent among those over 60 years of age. This is not remarkable, since young white voters also trended similarly toward the Democrats. Evidence suggests that Trump made inroads among non-college educated males, mirroring his strong performance among white males with lower educational levels.

Several factors may account for what some observers deemed a surprising level of Latino support for a president whose explicit racism had not disgraced the presidency since the days of Woodrow Wilson more than a century ago.

  • Cuban-Americans and migrants from Latin American countries who frame their life experiences as resisting or escaping socialism tilted strongly to Trump, whose campaign spent months branding Biden and Democrats more generally as “socialists.” Painting the Democrats as a red menace was critical in Florida, as the Latino vote helped to deliver the state to Trump and unseated Democratic House incumbents from Miami-Dade County.
  • Evangelical Latinos, like evangelical whites, disproportionately cast their votes for Republicans. Just as socially conservative evangelicals have been a powerful force in Latin American elections, they are and will remain so in the United States. Trump’s success in appointing judges opposed to abortion rights and same sex marriage helps to explain his strong performance with this segment of the electorate, some of which identifies as Latino.
  • Law and order was another theme pushed in Trump advertisements and actions. The specter of leftists defunding the police weighed heavily in some sub-sets of the Latino electorate. Images of children in cages that were promulgated by Democratic Party advocates did little to sway voters in Texas, where jobs in policing and border enforcement involve placing migrants in those very cages. This may in part account for Trump’s surprising strength among Latinos in sparsely populated Texas counties in the Rio Grande Valley. While this has attracted the attention of many pundits, this small swath of voters was more than outweighed by unprecedented turnout for the Democratic ticket among urban Latinos in Texas.

A number of factors operated in Biden’s favor. Most important was the government’s grossly inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected Latinos disproportionately. That a Biden administration would consolidate Obamacare became all the more relevant in the context of the pandemic. The Administration’s assault on immigrant rights mattered as well for many Latino voters.

The impressive margins that Biden racked up among Latinos contributed to his victory in the key battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and it almost secured the electoral votes of North Carolina. If Latinos – the most rapidly expanding segment of the electorate – continue to favor Democrats, they will prove central to a coalition that might advance the Democrats’ standing in the 2022 mid-term elections and dictate the outcome of the presidential contest in 2024.

  • More immediately, the Latino vote could prove crucial in the January run-off elections for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, which will determine whether the Biden Administration has a working majority or faces a wall of resistance from Mitch McConnell’s GOP. More than a quarter million Latinos are registered to vote in Georgia, which Biden won by less than 15,000 votes. According to exit polls, Biden won support from Latinos in that state at a rate of 62-39 percent. That is not an overwhelming margin, but in a cliffhanger election that mere 5 percent of the electorate could be critical to determining the relationship between the White House and Senate for the next couple of years.

November 17, 2020

*Eric Hershberg is the Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government, American University.

Bolivia: Impressive Victory, Huge Challenges

By Valery Valdez Pinto*

Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba.
Polling place in Quillacollo, Cochabamba./ Valery Valdez Pinto

The Movimiento al Socialismo’s (MAS) first-round electoral victory last weekend surprised even some masistas – and antimasista claims of fraud are not gaining traction – but President-elect Luis Arce Catacora will take office on November 8 amid daunting political, social, economic, and public health challenges.

  • Winning 55.1 percent of the vote, Arce and his running mate, former Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, surpassed what even the most optimistic polls predicted. Despite initial distrust in election-day exit polls – sole measure of the contests after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) cancelled the official quick-counts out of fear they would destabilize the process – outgoing interim President Jeanine Áñez, who dropped out of the race in September, and Comunidad Ciudadana candidate Carlos Mesa congratulated Arce early in the process. Creemos candidate Luis Fernando Camacho made his tearful concession speech later. MAS supporters peacefully took to the streets and celebrated with firecrackers, indigenous music, wiphalas (flags celebrating Bolivian multiculturalism), and a boisterous rhetoric of a return to democracy.
  • Some in the antimasista camp (apparently without Mesa’s support) have alleged fraud but failed to present evidence. The defeat of Arce’s opponents at the polls, moreover, seems to have aggravated splits among them. The new President’s inauguration is expected to be a relatively calm transfer of power in, as many MAS supporters would say, a restoration of democratic continuity. Analysts credit the MAS’s efforts to clean up its image since the tumultuous elections of October 2019.

Opposition leaders’ statements promise continued challenges to the new government, but they have serious internal problems to overcome. Mesa and Camacho, running on centrist and rightist platforms respectively, offered little to undecided voters, including most importantly voters in rural areas – where they hardly campaigned – as well as voters disillusioned by the conduct of the MAS and former President Evo Morales in last year’s tumultuous elections. Camacho’s unwillingness to drop out of the race also split the anti-MAS ranks, depriving Mesa of valuable votes in the important Santa Cruz area.

  • Mesa (runner-up in the election) and Camacho (a distant third) both tried to persuade voters that they represented the voto útil – that a vote for them would not be wasted – but neither succeeded. Mesa’s campaign weakened as the election got closer, reviving long-standing criticism of his “tibio” personality, and Camacho was running on a regionalist platform that only resonated with the communities in Santa Cruz. Neither seemed to recognize the diversity of Bolivia’s 11.5 million people, leaving an important number of indigenous to again find a political home in the MAS.
  • Bolivian political analysts also assert that Mesa and Camacho were hurt by the Áñez’s government’s extensions in power and her widely criticized handling of the COVID 19 pandemic and its economic impact. Local observers say the pandemic turned a transitional government into one that felt like a complete term. The antimasistas were originally hopeful that her administration would pave the way for their victory, but allegations of corruption and widespread disillusionment due to her administration’s repression of Morales’s supporters and indigenous interests in general, the pandemic, and the economy all undermined the credibility of anti-MAS politicians.

Although antimasistas in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are planning protests, most prominent oppositionists appear aware that challenging the elections is unlikely to be a winning strategy. Reports from media across the political spectrum indicate that Bolivians’ main focus is to navigate through the broken economy and the continuous threat posed by the pandemic. Moving forward with a return of MAS to power will nonetheless be difficult for some in the opposition. Hardliners are already condemning allegedly clandestine negotiations between some opposition leaders, including Áñez and Mesa, and Arce and his team. Suspicions that anti-MAS objectives will be sold out for personal advantage will aggravate divisions among rightists.

  • Even if political pressures subside, Arce faces massive challenges. He is Evo Morales’s hand-picked successor but has to keep him at a distance and make good on promises to continue reforming MAS, learning from mistakes made during the former President’s 14 years in power. Arce has pledged to “govern for all Bolivians” and “bring unity to our country” – monumental tasks in a nation unaccustomed to inclusion and compromise, especially during profound health and economic crises. As former Minister of Economy and Public Finance, he built a reputation for pragmatism – such as measures to strengthen the internal market and to industrialize natural resources – but fear and distrust at all levels of society are formidable obstacles. Arce has to rebuild and reform the MAS, and the opposition has to rebuild itself around a strategy that includes traditionally non-Bolivian values of positive engagement with a party and large segments of society that they, under Jeanine Áñez, tried hard to put in a box.

October 29, 2020

* Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a Graduate Assistant at CLALS.

U.S.-Latin America: Who Can Learn from Whom about Elections?

By Todd A. Eisenstadt*

Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas.
Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas./ Dr. Todd Eisenstadt

The irony of an increasingly probable electoral crisis in the United States this year is not lost on observers in Latin America, who have endured multiple challenges to the legitimacy of elections for decades – nor is the irony that the United States could learn from the region’s hard, if still incomplete, lessons in democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to raise doubts about the fairness of the November 3 elections have been reported widely in Latin America. Citing unknown sources and unconfirmed events, he has alleged massive voter fraud and predicted court challenges so serious that, he said, it’s especially urgent that his nominee to the Supreme Court be seated immediately.

Such ominous-sounding challenges to elections are not new to most of Latin America. Mexico is not unique in this regard, but I saw its whimsical and exotic election frauds closeup in the 1980s and ‘90s as an international elections observer.

  • In the razor-close 1988 election, the lights went out during the vote count, and by the time they came back on the renegade outsider leftist had lost his lead against the PRI’s candidate. Political operatives called mapaches (“racoons” because they worked only in the dark), breakfast bribes (called Tamale Operations), and voters who made the rounds all day long to cast ballots in different precincts (carruseles or “carrousels”) were common. Crazy Mouse, named after the board game, was a scheme in which opponents of the PRI were sent from precinct to precinct only to be told they were to vote across town. Similar tricks, as well as intimidation, have been common in many other countries. Latin Americans are accustomed to wondering whether the military will have to escort a president who loses an election out the door, but it’s a totally new point of speculation for the U.S. population.

Although still far from perfect, Mexico and other Latin American countries have improved their elections. The unwritten code among political bosses in Mexico has long been to not ruin national institutions (like the postal system) or invite foreign interference (like Russian manipulation of public opinion). But other steps signal a shift away from zero-sum political games.

  • Since the 1990s, post-electoral negotiations to mollify the victors’ opponents – “keep them in the game” rather than make them a destabilizing force – gave them perches from which to eventually mount legal challenges, including rightist Vicente Fox (an interim governor who later became President) and current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in Citizens United reduced regulation of campaign donations, but Mexico has limited campaign finance and TV advertising. It has encouraged the independence of electoral institutions and set federal standards in all 32 states, which have one voter list matched against one voter ID per citizen – rather than 50 states and 3,000 counties with different criteria. Electoral observers are trained about citizens’ rights and responsibilities, not mobilized out of distrust for the system or to intimidate voters.
  • Since the turn of the century, most Latin American countries have put greater emphasis on the rule of law and tried, albeit inconsistently, to address economic inequality and other threats to democracy and stability. They have also learned the hard lesson that sometimes “dirty elections” must be cleaned through broad citizen mobilization with the support of national and international leaders. Some observers wonder whether the Black Lives Matter movement will expand and evolve into a mobilization akin to the cacerolazos in Chile and elsewhere in the 1980s that helped galvanize opposition to the dictatorships of the era.

The chaos, isolation, and economic pain caused by COVID‑19 make Latin America’s democracy lessons even more pressing for the United States. Voters fear going to the polls and are anxious about trusting balloting systems, such as mail-in voting, that President Trump is trying to delegitimize. The U.S. military, wittingly or not, mobilized troops to support the President’s suppression of civil protests. U.S. voters are in unfamiliar territory.

  • The hemisphere is watching closely if – and how – El Norte figures out how to exorcise the fears and the doubt that are undermining its democracy. Bringing in a slew of smart and seasoned international election observers from Mexico and elsewhere would be a start. So would learning from the Mexican opposition parties how to subvert expediency, especially in the time of COVID, in favor of longer-term discipline for democratization.

October 6, 2020

* Todd A. Eisenstadt teaches political science at American University and is author of several books on democratization, including Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions, for which he observed over a dozen local and national elections there.

COVID-19 Presents Challenges for Latinos in U.S. Election

By Stephen Nuño-Pérez*

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish./ GPA Photo Archive/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic – in addition to having a deep impact on U.S. Latinos’ economic wellbeing and health– is aggravating the community’s anxieties about whether their votes will be counted in the November 3 elections. A recent poll by Latino Decisions shows deep concern that Latinos’ impact on vote counts, already depressed by their traditionally anemic turnout rates, will be even more severely reduced by a lack of confidence in mail-in voting.

  • Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – have all-mail voting systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and California is adjusting its system in response to the pandemic to mail ballots to every voter automatically. Other states have more strict requirements to request a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot.
  • There has been a widely disseminated argument that VBM gives the Democratic Party an advantage, but much of the research shows that neither party gains an advantage. Utah and Oregon, for example, are two very different states that are roughly 90 percent non-Hispanic white, yet Republicans control the legislature, the Senate, and the Governorship in the former, and Democrats control all three levels of government in the latter.

Latinos have traditionally preferred to vote in-person on election day, and Latino Decision’s latest poll shows that the conventional wisdom that VBM will significantly increase their participation during the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated. While states with VBM systems tend to have higher turnout rates, the research pinpointing the causal relationship between VBM and turnout is somewhat mixed. Indeed, VBM raises concerns for Latinos. Researchers in Florida have been ringing the alarm on its inequities. Dr. Daniel Smith at the University of Florida has shown that VBM in Florida has disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters and young voters.

  • Latino Decisions’s latest poll surveyed 1,842 registered Latino voters on their concerns about voting during COVID‑19. Overall, 74 percent said they had health concerns about voting in person. (Ironically, the older respondents were slightly less concerned than the younger.) Eighty-one percent of those who identify as Democrats expressed worries, compared to just 60 percent of those who identify as Republicans.
  • While 53 percent of Latinos across demographic groups in the survey overall said they prefer to vote in-person, there was some variation in preference by state. For instance, 66 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they prefer VBM (compared to 80 percent of non-Latinos), and just 43 percent of Latinos in Texas said so. When asked if they had confidence that their mail-in ballot would be counted, just 47 percent of those who prefer to vote in person said they had confidence in the system. By comparison, 85 percent of those who prefer VBM said they had confidence in the system. Here again we see partisan differences in confidence, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they had confidence in the VBM system and 64 percent of Latino Republicans saying they had confidence their mail-in ballot would be counted.
  • A majority of Latino voters from both parties in the survey said they were confident they could navigate their states’ systems for switching from in-person to mail-in ballot. First-generation Latinos, those who were not born in the United States, were slightly less confident, at 48 percent, that they could navigate the system to request a VBM ballot.

The survey results suggest a strong need for efforts to improve VBM systems and build confidence among Latinos to vote by mail. Rejection rates of Latino mail-in voters in states like Florida are too high, and it is up to state elections officials to implement a multi-layered approach to fixing elements of the system that are seen as broken. Shoring up education on the VBM process will also build confidence in it. COVID‑19 makes this difficult, but addressing the VBM system’s flaws will help build credibility and improve participation in the November election – for Latinos as well as non-Latinos.

September 4, 2020

* Stephen Nuño-Pérez is Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions.

Guyana’s “New Decade” Begins in March

By Wazim Mowla*

President David Granger speaking at a UN Women's Meeting

Guyana President David Granger Speaking at a Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in 2015 / Flickr / Creative Commons License

Guyana’s national and regional elections on March 2 will be its most consequential in 30 years as a huge increase in oil revenues and international interest puts the country in a brighter spotlight, but the country’s new leadership – while having greater resources and opportunities – will still face vexing challenges that oil dollars won’t solve. Guyana continues to discover more oil and has produced its first commercial crude shipment in December 2019. ExxonMobil anticipates that the country will reach a capacity of 120,000 barrels per day this year, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates an 86 percent increase in GDP. This growth has energized the election campaigns.

  • Eleven political parties are campaigning, with the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition and the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) at the clear head of the pack. Reliable poll data is scarce, but incumbent President David A. Granger (APNU+AFC) appears confident in his reelection. He is proposing a new “contract with the people” under which he will use oil revenues to increase conditional cash transfers for food, housing, and transportation to residents in the populous coastal areas as well as invest in projects benefiting the 10 percent of Guyanese who live inland .
  • Representing the PPP/C is presidential candidate Dr. Irfan Ali, whose party narrative is that it helped build Guyana without oil and gas and will continue this progress by expanding social programs with the additional revenue. Specifically, Ali wants to reopen sugar estates that Granger closed, sparking protests by the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU). To demonstrate its intention to tackle crime, the party has selected Brigadier (retired) Mark Phillips as its Prime Ministerial candidate.

Within the context of Guyana’s highly publicized racial divisions, both political parties are calling for national unity. APNU+AFC has traditionally drawn most of its support from the Afro-Guyanese population (about 30 percent of the population), while the PPP/C leans on the support of Indo-Guyanese citizens (about 40 percent) – while the mixed races (20 percent) and indigenous (10 percent) usually the swing voters who determine the election. The historic racial divisions within the domestic political elite have remained unnaturally suppressed during this election season – perhaps because, for the time being at least, oil is dominating the national dialogue. All political parties understand that Guyanese citizens care more about benefits than the party in power.

While projecting an optimistic vision of Guyana’s future, both major political parties certainly know that oil revenues will not resolve all of country’s problems when it enter what Granger has called its “Decade of Development.” Ethnopolitical divisions are certain to reemerge after the election, and managing suspicions about the use of oil revenues will pose a significant challenge to the victors, especially because the country’s current institutions do not afford the transparency and checks and balances necessary for calming anxieties. The new government is going to have to devise difficult policies on dealing with climate change, the damage to Guyana’s human capital, and the security risks threatening the country’s development.

  • Guyana’s sea level is rising faster than the global average. Large parts of the population live in areas 20 to 40 inches below sea level where groundwater extraction and wetland drainage worsen flooding. Inconsistent weather patterns are disrupting agricultural production, and the country’s sea walls do little to prevent the devastation of crops.
  • Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates in the world – an average of 44 per 100,000 people each year – and gender-based violence is also an increasingly serious problem. A recent survey by the Guyana Bureau of Statistics found that about half of all Guyanese women has experienced or will experience intimate-partner violence.
  • The country also needs to find solutions to threats from outside. The crises in Venezuela and Haiti have already triggered a costly refugee flow, and officials fear the country will become a hotspot for drug and human trafficking and organized crime. Experts expect the oil industry to attract illegal immigration from other Caribbean countries, Venezuela, and South America in search of job opportunities. Once the elections are over, political leaders will have to turn their attention to these troubling realities.

February 21, 2020

* Wazim Mowla is a graduate student at American University, specializing in Caribbean Studies.

Argentina: End of the “Right Turn”?

By Santiago Anria and Gabriel Vommaro*

From right to left, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez, and other ministers

From right to left, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Alberto Fernández, and other ministers / Wikipedia / Creative Commons / https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Ministros_de_Cristina.jpg

The inauguration of Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last week confirms that the pronouncements of the death of Latin America’s “left turn” were premature — and that, rather than turning in any clear direction, political winds in the region appear to be blowing in all sorts of directions, with the only discernible underlying pattern being anti-incumbent votes following periods of economic crisis or economic downturns.

  • Obituaries for the “left turn,” which started in 1998 with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, have been appearing for years, particularly since the election of former President Mauricio Macri in 2015 and other right-leaning politicians in the region. Macri was widely seen as a bellwether of a broader “right turn” in the region — a turn that spread to Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. For the very first time since the country’s democratic transition, a right-wing political party, in alliance with other parties, gained national power via democratic elections. To avoid the fate of other non-Peronist presidents, none of whom were able to finish their terms of office, Macri built a national coalition with broad societal bases of support.
  • The victory of left-Peronism in October, however, was formidable. The team of Fernández and Fernández obtained 48.1 percent of the votes, well above the 40.3 percent of the incumbent Macri. With two antagonistic camps capturing almost 90 percent of the vote, the elections were probably the most polarized since Argentina entered its democratic transition in 1983.

Rather than represent systemic shifts to either the right or left, the Fernández-Fernández victory is further evidence that Latin American electoral politics follow a routine alternation-of-power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting driven by broad societal discontent — a sharp repudiation of incumbents that couldn’t deliver growth, adequate social services, and security. The left-right axis in Argentina is marked by high levels of polarization, with two major rival coalitions — Peronists and non-Peronists — structuring the electoral supply and disputing the center.

  • The defeat of Macri and his Cambiemos coalition revealed the center-right’s failure to carry out its desired free-market reforms aimed at dismantling the statist economic model based on the domestic market, wide social protections, and state intervention in the economy. Macri’s coalition lacked the unity to achieve pension reform and other difficult measures. Instead, Macri resorted to a “gradualism” that did not work in policy terms or politically. Similarly, his conciliatory approach to foreign creditors did not result in the expected capital inflows and economic growth. That fiscal gradualism was financed with a high rate of external indebtedness that made the Argentine economy even more fragile and ended in a massive financial crisis, after which the Macri government changed its approach towards greater economic orthodoxy.
  • The legacies of the previous Kirchnerist governments, including constraints on the government’s ability to cut spending, were also severe obstacles. Trade unions and social movements retained a high mobilization capacity and blocked attempts to remove state protections, effectively blocking labor reform and other Macri priorities. Once the government lost access to international credit and asked the IMF for a bailout — the largest in IMF history — it began to lose the support of social sectors that had been important to its rise, including business and large segments of the middle-class.

Center-left Peronism may also be unable to escape the left-right alternation. Widely discredited a few years ago and seen as a retreating force, especially due to corruption allegations and mismanagement, it kept strong connections with its societal core not only through the memory of the good old days of redistributive policies associated with the commodity boom, but also because there was no major shift in the political orientation of its main leader, Cristina Fernández. She broke with the conventional wisdom of Peronism that would have anticipated more leadership pragmatism and ideological eclecticism. As in the past, it has made promises that may eventually undermine its popular support.

  • The Fernández-Fernández formula will look and govern differently than it did during the Kirchnerist governments. It will be a broader center-left coalition formed by the Peronists and backed by a wide array of progressive parties and movements. But in addition to facing a hostile regional and global environment, Fernández will face many domestic challenges in a society that accumulated so many pressing demands during the ongoing Argentine economic crisis. Fernández inherits extraordinarily high levels of debt, soaring inflation, and rapidly rising unemployment and poverty levels. The “honeymoon” period, as some of his allies openly say, will be short, and Macri’s Cambiemos is likely going to provide strong opposition. The new government will unlikely escape the routine alternation-of-power dynamics explained by anti-incumbency voting in contexts of deep economic crises after the end of the “commodity boom,” strong inflationary pressures, and broad societal discontent. Polarization and mood swings are likely to remain persistent features of Argentine politics.

 December 17, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College. He is the author of When Movements Become Parties: The Bolivian MAS in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Gabriel Vommaro is Full Professor of Political Sociology at the National University of San Martín and Researcher at CONICET. His most recent book is La Larga Marcha de Cambiemos (Siglo XXI Editores, 2017).

Brazil: Will Lula Shake Things Up?

By Fábio Kerche*

lula

Former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2TxyFJ7

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva — out of prison but not acquitted of his alleged crimes — is stirring up the country’s political debate, but he faces tough challenges reestablishing his leadership and revitalizing his party, the Workers’ Party (PT).

  • After serving 580 days of a 12-year sentence, Lula was released from prison earlier this month when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Brazilian Constitution, one can be imprisoned only after judicial appeals have been completed. The court did not explicitly say that prosecutors rushed Lula to prison in order to remove him from the presidential race that led to President Bolsonaro’s election in October 2018, but a number of Brazilian legal experts believe that to be the case. The good news for Lula is that the majority of the Brazilians support his release — 54 percent, according to Datafolha, Brazil’s most important survey center.
  • Even though he is out of prison, Lula will not be able to run for office again unless his previous convictions in lower courts are annulled or overturned by higher courts — which could take a long time. (The electoral law specifies that someone convicted at two different levels of the judiciary cannot run for office.) The former president is apparently hoping that leaks published last June by The Intercept revealing allegedly inappropriate contacts between prosecutors and the judge on Lula’s case, Sérgio Moro, are reason to overturn his convictions. Prospects of such a reversal appear poor, however, because Moro, currently Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, has a clear incentive to put Lula back behind bars, and observers say he retains considerable influence in the Judiciary.

In the short and medium term, Lula’s strategy appears to be to erode the Bolsonaro Administration’s support and lay the groundwork for his own party’s next campaign, in next year’s municipal elections. His freedom allows him to travel around the country, make political talks, and build alliances.

  • His most ardent supporters remain loyal; he still has strong backing at a popular level; and still projects formidable charisma, according to many observers. While some of his speeches since his release have been more aggressive, his current political drive signals that he will seek to broaden alliances beyond the left.
  • But Lula faces huge political challenges. There are signs that his influence has diminished in recent years thanks to his legal baggage and economic mistakes made by the administration of his successor, former President Dilma Rousseff. Some is also due to unrelenting attacks on him and the PT by the media —portraying him as a radical. Splits in the left, including the lack of an identifiable candidate to replace Lula in the 2022 elections, are also a vulnerability.

Brazil has changed since Lula was arrested: Temer was president; the PT led in the polls; the economic elite’s candidate was from the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), and Bolsonaro was not widely considered a viable candidate. Lula’s challenges as he tries to rebuild his image and his party are huge. An immediate one is an effort by some members of Congress to modify the law that protects defendants from prison until all appeals have been heard, except if the defendant poses a threat to society or investigations. The goal is put Lula in prison again, to reduce his influence in the political game. For a number of jurists, however, this modification would be considered unconstitutional.

  • Next year’s local elections will be the first big test of Lula’s ability to negotiate widely and reorganize opposition to Bolsonaro, win control over the government in major cities, and prepare a PT alternative in the 2022 presidential election.
  • Bolsonaro is not without problems. His popularity is suffering due to the economy — high unemployment, low quality of jobs offered, and very low growth — and some unpopular policies, such as tougher rules for retirement. The president and his sons retain a major edge in social media, but Datafolha this week reported that 36 percent of respondents classified Bolsonaro’s government as “terrible.”

Lula’s best hope seems to convince the Brazilians that the corruption charges were political constructions by his adversaries — a tough task — and that PT and its allies can restore the pace of economic growth obtained during his administrations. Next year’s local elections are key for this project.

December 12, 2019

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.