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.

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.

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.

 

Peru: Final Showdown at the Congress Corral

By Carlos Monge*

President Vizcarra speaking to Foreign Press in meeting

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra meeting with Foreign Press/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2noHE1m

Peruvian President Vizcarra’s proposals to move up general elections from 2021 to 2020 and reform the election of new members of the highest court in the country – and Congress’s rejection of them – have sparked a crisis that has led him to dissolve Congress and call for new elections to replace it. The Congressional majority, led by the followers of Keiko Fujimori (in pre-trial “preventive prison” on corruption charges) and Alan García (who committed suicide in April to avoid arrest on similar charges), had rejected a series of reform proposals, although polls have consistently shown massive support for them and rejection of the Congress’s obstructionism. Events of the following 48 hours resemble a comedy script as the two sides faced off.

  • On September 30, the Congress rejected Vizcarra’s push for improvement of procedures for the election of new members of the Constitutional Tribunal – proceeding to elect a new member to its liking – and rejected his request for a Confidence Vote. In response, based on the constitutional prerogative the President has if a Confidence Vote is denied two times (his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, PPK, had also been denied one), Vizcarra dissolved the Congress and called for new elections to replace it. At the same exact time, Congress granted the Confidence Vote, but with new rules to be put in place afterwards. In the evening it “temporarily” removed Vizcarra from office, swearing in Vice President Mercedes Aráoz as “temporary” President.
  • On October 1, Aráoz – who the previous evening said she “accepted the [temporary presidency] with fortitude” – explained that she was not really President, said that her appointment was merely political symbolism, and declined the appointment. In the meantime, Vizcarra received the support of the Armed Forces and the associations of Regional Governors and Municipal Mayors, swore in a new Cabinet, and formally called for new elections in January 2020.

The confrontation is more than just a short-term political dispute between a President and opposition parties. It reflects the resistance of liberal and leftist politicians, journalists, church sectors, honest public officials, and social and citizen platforms to the total takeover of the state by a coalition of corrupt politicians, illegal economies, conservative religious groups, and corrupt businessmen. These latter groups have long had representatives in different parliamentary benches, ministries, and regional and local governments. But they did not have the direct total control that, according to many observers, they would have had if Keiko Fujimori, daughter of disgraced President Alberto Fujimori, won the 2016 elections.

  • Keiko lost the very tight race to PPK but never accepted her defeat. Her party devoted itself to bringing the PPK government down by compiling evidence of his involvement in corrupt practices in previous stints as minister and prime minister. But the same corruption scandal that helped them remove PPK in March 2018 became a threat for both Keiko and former President García – and emboldened Vizcarra to move away from initial conciliatory policies. The President embraced a strong anti-corruption agenda, confronted the Congress, and won enormous popular support.
  • The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Congressional attempt to capture the court through an internal election method in which parties presented their candidates in a 30-minute meeting and scheduled a vote for a few days later, with no public scrutiny of the candidates, no public hearings, or actions that could define the process as transparent and accountable.

Vizcarra has survived last week’s showdown, but the constitutional crisis and its underlying tensions are far from over. Leaders of the dissolved Congress insist that the new member of the court they elected last Monday be sworn in, so that a more conservative Constitutional Tribunal decides on the fate of Vizcarra´s move. But it could take months for the Tribunal to reach a decision. Until a new Congress is elected, Vizcarra will legislate via Urgency Decrees, without knowing the composition of the new Congress and his relationship with it.

  • The dispute over the narrative of events is raging. For some, paradoxically aligned with the Fujimori heirs leading the Congress, Vizcarra has staged a coup similar to that of Alberto Fujimori in 1992 and thus become a dictator. For others, he has proceeded according to the Constitution and in defense of democracy. The best hope now is that the country can deliver a new, democratically elected Congress that will collaborate in completing the pending judicial and political reforms and in supporting the ongoing anti-corruption investigations. If it succeeds, Peru will be a better country and have something to celebrate during the July 2021 Bicentenary of its Independence.

October 8, 2019

* Carlos Monge is an Advisor at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Bolivia: Ready to Elect a New President?

By Robert Albro

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking to students in Guarnes, Santa Cruz.

Bolivian President Evo Morales speaking in Guarnes, Santa Cruz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/30N5hOF

President of Bolivia since 2006, Evo Morales faces a number of challenges as elections approach later this month, but his strong record appears to set him up for a fourth term in office. When, in 2016, he lost a national referendum vote to suspend term limits so that he could run again this year, his presidency appeared likely to soon end. But in 2017 the country’s highest court threw out the result, which Morales’s detractors understandably viewed as political manipulation. He resolved to run again, a decision met with accusations of authoritarianism and street protests in the indigenous city of El Alto.

  • The President’s disregard for term limits remains contentious. His popularity has declined from the lofty poll numbers he enjoyed throughout the first half of his presidency. He has endured several personal scandals. His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), suffered some surprising setbacks in recent local elections. And his government has provoked political fights with indigenous groups – a bad sign for a candidate reliant on the support of indigenous voters. Most notorious of the confrontations was the so-called TIPNIS controversy, where the government sought to build a highway through a protected indigenous territory to benefit commerce with Brazil.
  • Last month Bolivia was beset by catastrophic wildfires in the lowlands of Santa Cruz, the worst in decades. The administration was criticized for being slow to act and for anti-environmental policies many insist intensified the fires, which provoked a protest march among lowland indigenous groups.

Normally such missteps might open the door for a rival candidate, but Morales is not a normal president. He is a historically transformative leader responsible for the political enfranchisement of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, and for the economic uplift of a large swath of previously impoverished citizens.

  • Morales’s administration is often glossed as leftist or socialist. But this misunderstands his adroit economic stewardship of Bolivia Inc. The country’s economic growth has averaged 5 percent since Morales entered office, with GDP increasing fourfold and export revenue sixfold, marking an impressive turnaround. Government debt has been reduced, inflation remains low, the minimum wage substantially increased, and – backed by a buildup of massive foreign exchange reserves – the currency kept stable. National control of the energy sector has enabled significant revenue reinvestment in popular social programs, including new infrastructure projects, pension benefits, agricultural subsidies, free universal health insurance, and improvements in education. During this period Bolivia ranks first regionally in reducing extreme poverty, while helping to move approximately 1 million largely indigenous Bolivians into the middle class.

Polls vary, but Morales appears to maintain a comfortable lead. The MAS, which came to power as a coalitional indigenous-popular social movement, has evolved into a well-organized and dominant political party, with greater resources and reach than its rivals, enabling it to consolidate or coopt control of key constituencies. The candidate polling second, Carlos Mesa, has been unable to unify a fractured opposition, and has run on a promise of stability, which Bolivians rightly perceive they already enjoy. Elected vice president in 2002, Mesa came to power a year later when popular protests forced then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country. Mesa represents a troubled era in Bolivian politics to which most Bolivians do not want to return.

Morales appears poised to win on October 20. But the next five years could be bumpy unless he and the MAS solve several urgent problems. As the region’s prolonged natural resource boom ebbs, Bolivia’s long-term economic stability remains vulnerable, given its lack of economic diversity, dependence on fossil fuels for capital growth, failure to develop new export industries such as lithium, and overreliance on neighboring Argentina and Brazil as commodity markets. Morales’s surprisingly poor environmental record, and extractives-dependent economic development model, are likely to lead to further conflicts with indigenous groups over control of territory and resources, and erode key sources of his and his party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the MAS has yet to offer any clues for how it plans to remain a dynamic national political force after its charismatic leader finally departs the scene.

October 4, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS. He has conducted ethnographic research and published widely on popular and indigenous politics along Bolivia’s urban periphery. Much of that work is presented in his book, Roosters at Midnight: Indigenous Signs and Stigma in Local Bolivian Politics (SAR Press, 2010).

 

 

 

 

Latin America: Which Election Rules Work Best?

By Cynthia McClintock*

President Nayib Bukele and his wife waving to the crowd on his inauguration day

Inauguration of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador / PresidenciaRD / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American countries’ shift in recent decades from presidential-election rules awarding victory to candidates winning a plurality (“first past the post”) to majority runoff (a second round between the top two candidates if no candidate reaches a majority) has been successful overall. By 2016, 12 of the region’s 18 countries classified as “electoral democracies” used runoff, compared to only one, Costa Rica, prior to 1978. (Click here for a full explanation of the classifications.) Adopted in part due to the traumatic military coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, elected in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote, runoff enhanced the legitimacy of incoming governments and enticed candidates towards the political center. The runoff reform also lowered barriers to entry into the electoral arena by the previously excluded political left – a major challenge to many Latin American democracies in the 1980s-2000s.

  • Under runoff, a new party is not a “spoiler” party. Runoff allows voters to vote more sincerely in the first round – for the candidate whom they prefer – rather than strategically, i.e., for the preferred candidate whom they think can win. Also, a party has a second opportunity – if it is the runner-up, to win, but otherwise to have its voice heard, usually through its power of endorsement. Under plurality, if a new party wants to have any chance to win, it usually must ally with another party with an established political base, but alliances are problematic and dilute the new party’s brand.
  • According to virtually all studies, including my study of Latin American elections between 1978 and 2012, the number of political parties was larger under runoff rules than under plurality rules. And, in my study, a “new party” became a “significant contender” considerably more often under runoff.

Because of the increase in the number of parties, many observers opposed runoff. Although five or 10 or, worse yet, 15 or 20 parties indeed pose challenges for governability, evidence shows that a larger number of parties was not in fact correlated with inferior scores for political and civil rights as measured by Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem). Under plurality, the hold of traditional “cartel” parties was not loosened and participation was not expanded.

  • Runoff also impeded the election of a president at an ideological extreme. By definition, a candidate cannot appeal only to the 30-40 percent of voters in a “base” that is outside mainstream opinion. Often, runoff has pulled presidential candidates towards the center – a process evolving over the span of several elections as the need to appeal to the center becomes clearer. Among the presidents in runoff systems shifting towards the center over one or more elections were Brazil’s Luiz Inácio (Lula) da Silva; El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes; Guatemala’s Álvaro Colom; Peru’s Ollanta Humala; and Uruguay’s Tabaré Vázquez. Latin American countries under runoff arguably enter a virtuous circle with lower barriers to entry, the requirement for majority support, and ideological moderation. By contrast, a vicious circle emerged in plurality countries such as Honduras, Paraguay, and Venezuela, where plurality was one factor blocking the emergence of new parties, and perceptions of exclusion abetted polarization.

To date in 2018-2019, elections were held in runoff countries (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador) and plurality countries (Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay). The election in Costa Rica showed the enduring importance of runoff: the evangelical candidate who had won the first round with only 25 percent was defeated by a center-left candidate in a landslide in the runoff. By contrast, legitimacy deficits, with presidents winning less than 50 percent, were likely in both Panama and Paraguay, and a legitimacy deficit was only narrowly avoided in Mexico. Further, in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, leading a new coalition, defeated the two long-standing parties. By contrast, in the plurality elections in Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay, new parties did not make significant headway.

  • Overall, in 2018-2019, the trend was towards the candidate, whether to the right or the left, who most effectively channeled voter anger against official corruption. Also, the trend was towards more severe political polarization and, as a result, the growing possibility that the candidate most able to defeat every other candidate in a pair-wise contest – the “Condorcet winner” – did not win. In two of the three runoff countries – Brazil and Colombia – it appears very likely that the Condorcet winner did not reach the runoff. It is not yet clear, however, what, if anything, should be done to counter this possibility.

 Although of course no electoral rule is a panacea, the greater openness of the electoral arena under runoff rules has facilitated the defeat of long-standing parties that had lost majority support but retained political bases. Presidents have been enticed towards the political center and, with majorities of the vote, not suffered legitimacy deficits. There is no ideal solution to the challenge of the emergence of too many parties, but more promising remedies include scheduling the legislative vote after the first presidential round, as in France, and establishing thresholds for parties’ entry into the legislature. A ranked-choice voting system – the “instant runoff” system in place in only a handful of countries – could conceivably work in the long run, but runoff rules have already helped Latin America expand inclusion and secure victors’ legitimacy.

June 14, 2019

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. This article is excerpted from her paper The Reform of Presidential-Election Rules in Latin America: Plurality, Runoff, and Ranked-Choice Voting, presented at LASA in May 2019.

 

Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez (left) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (right). / República / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his political allies – the group of government officials, congressmen, judges, mayors, and entrepreneurs whom opponents call the Pacto de Corruptos that support his efforts to shut down corruption investigations by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) – may be winning the current battle, but the war is not yet over.  Undoubtedly, the government has achieved some hits, trumpeted by Morales in speeches and in the victory celebrations of the newly elected Congress Directive Board that supports him.  CICIG’s opponents have:

  • Prevented CICIG Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country, even after the Constitutional Court and Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, explicitly stated that he is free to enter whenever he wants.
  • Lobbied in Washington to gain U.S. support for Morales, exploiting access and friendships with U.S. Vice President Pence and other officials close to President Trump such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. They have used the “Bidkov affair” – involving a prosecution instigated by CICIG and the Attorney General’s investigation into the purchase of false Guatemalan identity documents by a Russian family opposed to President Putin – to feed opposition to CICIG.  (Rubio accused CICIG of doing the Russian president’s dirty work.)  Morales and his backers have also used the decision to move the Guatemalan embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other unrelated actions to punch important buttons within the Trump administration.
  • Achieved some progress in swaying Guatemalan public opinion through an anti-CICIG social media campaign aimed at stimulating nationalistic feelings and fueling the view that CICIG Commissioner Velásquez, a foreigner, went too far. They have even raised old Cold War flags, saying that Velásquez is a Communist and that the fight against corruption is a question of “red ideology.”
  • Consolidated their control over the Guatemalan Congress, securing enough votes to reject initiatives that would remove Morales’s immunity and allow investigations against him to proceed.
  • Further strengthened opposition to CICIG among factions of the private sector.

A more careful analysis, however, reveals cracks in Morales’s victory chariot.  He and some of his ministers are not only in grave danger of being charged with disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling; the Attorney General and CICIG have continued their work, albeit with a much lower media profile, and are producing results.  U.S. support for Morales’s efforts to destroy CICIG may diminish after Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives and begin scrutinizing his “impressive” claims about deporting ISIS terrorists from Guatemala and seizing drug shipments.  The U.S. Congress may now uncover an ugly truth: drug trafficking and migrant flows are increasing.

  • More importantly, Morales and his Pacto do not yet appear ready for elections scheduled for June-August 2019. (The new government will take office in January 2020.)  They are floating proposals for a constitutional amendment to allow for a presidential reelection, which would ensure them continued immunity, and to dissolve the Constitutional Court, or to make it a crime to criticize members of Congress.  Measures like these take a lot of time and energy.

The ferocity of Morales’s attacks against CICIG may not be fueled by confidence of victory but rather by a deep and desperate fear of justice after January 2020 – a basic survival instinct of people who know they have crossed a line.  The final outcome of all this will be, as it should, in the hand of voters.  The real issue for Guatemala might not be the fight between Jimmy Morales and CICIG, but rather between the Pacto and the huge number of voters beyond their grasp who are sick and tired of the corruption and impunity.  U.S. policy toward Guatemala has shifted from supporting CICIG and its efforts to investigate corruption and build Guatemalan institutions committed to the rule of law, to turning a blind eye in thanks for an apparently compliant ally and for completely unrelated reasons, such as the location of the embassy in Israel.  While Washington applauds the government’s (still unfulfilled) promises to stanch the northbound flow of migrants, it allows one of the biggest causes of migration – corruption and impunity at all levels of society – to continue unabated.

November 21, 2018

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

Brazil: The WhatsApp President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Bolsonaro social medis

Graphics from Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s social media detailing his followers on Facebook (left) and Twitter (right). / Twitter: @jairbolsonaro / Creative Commons

If polls predicting a landslide victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff election are correct, Brazil on January 1 will inaugurate its first president to win by virtue of his superior social media prowess rather than the strong party bases that propelled his predecessors.  He gained strong support from different sectors of Brazilian society by delivering – legally and potentially illegally – the message his supporters wanted to hear directly to their personal electronic devices, without the validation and transparency of traditional media.  The receptivity of his young supporter base compensated for the low amount of TV time allotted to him under Brazilian law.

  • WhatsApp has around 120 million users in Brazil, around 60 percent of the population, for a wide array of personal and commercial communication needs. The polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp, and that of them a majority (61 percent) are Bolsonaro supporters likely to follow political news on the service – compared to 38 percent of the backers of his opponent, Fernando Haddad.
  • The platform is perfect for manipulation of information. Messages are encrypted and are therefore beyond the domain of electoral authorities, independent fact-checkers, or even WhatsApp managers.  Real and fake news spread like wildfire.  Agência Lupa, a fact-checker service, has found that only 50 of the most shared pictures in 347 WhatsApp groups were factually correct.  During the weekend of October 6-7, the company found that 12 of the fake news items it evaluated were shared 1.2 million times.  The Federal Electoral Court (TSE), which created a consultative council earlier this year to tackle online misinformation, has been slow to respond to the threat – perhaps out of fear it would be accused of limiting free speech.

Bolsonaro’s campaign also used Facebook effectively even after it twice shut down pages carrying content of his deemed to be fake – 197 pages and 87 accounts in July, and 68 pages and 43 accounts two weeks ago.  Many of the pages portrayed Haddad as a Communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba and convert children to homosexuality.  One attack – alleging that Haddad would distribute “gay kits” to expose schoolchildren to homosexuality – was so blatant that the TSE ordered Bolsonaro’s campaign to stop it.

  • Haddad’s presence on Facebook (1.5 million followers) is minuscule compared to Bolsonaro’s (7.8 million). Some of Haddad’s followers used social media to spread rumors that Bolsonaro staged his near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month; social media have not shut down any of Haddad’s pages or accounts.

Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has also allegedly been tainted by illegal funding.  Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, last week reported that wealthy businesspersons spent US$3.2 million on a WhatsApp fake news operation.  If true, they broke electoral laws barring undeclared corporate campaign donations and the purchase of contact lists from a third party.  Speaking on Facebook Live, Bolsonaro said Folha had no evidence, adding in an interview later that he has no control over the businesspersons anyway.

Fake news in elections – in the traditional or social media – is not a new phenomenon, but its wildfire impact has caught many in Brazil by surprise.  The mere speed that disinformation travels makes it nearly impossible for Brazilian authorities to curb its spread, and self-policing by social media platforms also seems an implausible solution given their benefit from the high traffic fake news drives.  Bolsonaro and his campaign team realized this earlier and embraced it more aggressively than Haddad, who did not enter the race until September 11, ever did.  Haddad was busy trying to simultaneously convince Lula’s supporters to vote for him and others that he was not Lula’s puppet, while Bolsonaro’s message was reaching tens of millions of Brazilians with smartphones.  The likely president’s expertise in using social media (legally or not) has clearly boosted his campaign, but governing by WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter remains an untested proposition.  It seems that Bolsonaro may also follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook into government.  Crushing his opposition under a barrage of half-truths and lies does not bode well for democratic governance.

October 26, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Paraguay: Stormy First Month for New President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Mario Abdo Benítez

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez. / Marcos Corrêa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over a month into his five-year term, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez is already being challenged by corruption scandals – including allegations against himself – and internal party squabbling, but he is continuing efforts to build his image as an ambitious reformer.  While emphasizing continuity with the previous administration’s economic policies – focusing on export-fueled growth, low taxes, and domestic investment – Abdo Benítez’s push for certain reforms is ruffling feathers.

  • In the wake of protests against highly publicized corruption and influence-trafficking cases involving national legislators and top judges, Abdo Benítez based his campaign on a pledge to fight government and judicial corruption though deep reforms. In his inauguration speech, he called for immediate priority to be given to comprehensive reform of the national judicial system.  Three days after taking office, he called on all political parties – including those without representation in the National Congress – to join a national debate on constitutional reform.

The president, however, faces a number of challenges to his image and leadership.

  • During the campaign, he distanced himself from the legacy of his father, who was a top aide to Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), but a visit he made to his father’s grave after voting on election day and his use of Stroessner’s white Chevrolet on inauguration day fueled apprehensions about his commitment to democracy.
  • He is being buffeted by allegations that he has ties with drug traffickers. Social media have publicized a picture of the president in his home with his arm around drug kingpin Reinaldo Javier “Cucho” Cabaña, who was arrested earlier this month.  He has denied receiving money from Cabaña and said that he did not recognize the man – that he had taken “millions of photos” with sympathizers who came to his house to express support during the campaign.
  • One of his closest allies in the congress, Ulises Quintana, was also indicted this month for alleged involvement in “Cucho’s” international drug trafficking network. Another close ally facing corruption charges is Miguel Cuevas, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, who stands accused of illicit enrichment while in office and who has become the new main target of the anti-corruption protest groups.
  • A faction within his party, the Cartistas —allies of former President Horacio Cartes – has been holding back on support Abdo Benítez’s reforms. They claim his call for inclusive debate, rather than negotiating directly with them before opening to other parties, was a sign of bad faith, and they have not agreed to join the talks.
  • The president also faces challenges from the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), whose leader says he supports reforming the constitution, even drafting a new one, but that it should be based on a “national agenda” – not only Abdo Benítez’s priorities. PLRA and other parties are concerned that a key purpose of the reforms is open the way to presidential reelection, which has long been a goal of the Cartistas.  They also claim the president is appointing cronies to positions that require technical expertise, such as management posts at the Itaipú power plant on the Brazil-Argentina border.

Abdo Benítez’s commitment to reforms may be mostly rhetorical – his bottom line seems mostly about continuity – but the political threats that they entail could get out of control and spark protests.  Six weeks into his presidency, he seems unlikely to rally the domestic support necessary to enact deep reforms to make the electoral, political, and judicial processes more open and transparent.  He may find some comfort in the fact that neighboring presidents – Michel Temer in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – all have their hands full too, and that, if anything, the region’s turn to the right during elections since 2015 means that he is not likely to be isolated politically.  As a new president, however, Abdo Benítez has to be wondering what the next five years hold.

September 27, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: Diving into Uncertainty

By Marcus Rocha*

Brazilian presidential candidates 2018

Brazilian presidential candidates, from left to right: Lula da Silva, Jair Bolsonaro, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva, and Ciro Gomes. / Wikimedia, edited

With voting just a little under four weeks off, Brazil faces the most confusing, unpredictable, and consequential election since democratization in the 1980s.  The two leading contenders – former President “Lula” da Silva and firebrand conservative Jair Bolsonaro – are in jail and the hospital recovering from a stabbing, respectively, but the former is being left behind, and the latter is likely to try to use his victimhood to overcome other weaknesses.  At a point that Brazil needs stability and leadership, it is lurching toward an election that appears unlikely to produce either.

  • Lula’s Workers Party (PT) hierarchy continues to push his candidacy, but yet another rejection last week of his appeal of his conviction on corruption charges is increasingly opening the way for Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, to assume the party mantle. Haddad has polled poorly, only 6 percent as recently last week, but a serious PT mobilization will be a big asset.  (Announcement of his candidacy is expected today.)
  • Prior to Bolsonaro’s stabbing, his weaknesses seemed likely to hold him back despite a good 22 percent in recent polls. His popularity may rise as he seeks sympathy for his injury, but his strong negatives – 44 percent of people polled say they will never vote for him – will be hard to erase.  His Social Liberal Party (PSL) has a very narrow base in Congress, and the former Army captain and lawmaker’s main tactic – divisive rhetoric attacking human rights advocates and praising the military dictatorship of 1964-85 – does not conceal his lack of a serious political agenda, according to many observers.

The proliferation of other parties is also deepening confusion.  Brazil has 35 parties, and for the first time faces the possibility that neither of the two Brazilian parties with a virtual monopoly on presidential succession – the PT and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) – will make it into the runoff in Brazil’s two-round system.  The PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin has a strong Congressional base (which under the law determines his access to media time) but continues to poll poorly (9 percent).  Marina Silva, of the Rede Sustentabilidade, and Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) – both of whom currently have 12 percent – have a shot at a place in the second round.  Another eight candidates show much less promise.

The political chaos has not brought protesters out into the streets or threatened a broader social crisis in the closing weeks of the campaign, but it has thrust Brazil into uncharted territory.  Bolsonaro’s stabbing and his certain efforts to play the victim will almost certainly continue push his rhetoric beyond that traditionally acceptable in Brazil.  The political parties, however flawed, were sources of predictability and stability, but no longer are.  Investigations into corruption, also previously thought to strengthen the political system, have contributed to uncertainty.  The courts are accused of political bias.  As the PT and PSDB slip, none of the smaller parties appears poised to gain broad enough confidence to lead the country through its numerous challenges.  In the first- and second-round votes on October 7 and 28, Brazilians will choose between trying to revive the old – clinging to PT or PSDB – or continuing the search for something that is not yet visible on the horizon.

September 11, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and a former CLALS Research Fellow.