Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Lobbying Washington: Does it Work?

By Aaron T. Bell*

LatAm Lobbying

Photo credits: Jack Says Relax & AlexR. L., respectively / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results.  Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents.  Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies.  In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.

  • Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
  • In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies.  From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.”  In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
  • Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
  • More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.

A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent.  Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure.  The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped.  Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort.  MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed.  In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.

January 22, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Cuba’s Limited Absorptive Capacity Will Slow Normalization*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the U.S. embargo – the main obstacle to expanding U.S.-Cuban economic ties – is relaxed by presidential regulatory action and eventually lifted by Congress, limits on Cuba’s own willingness and ability to conduct trade, absorb investment, utilize information technology, and even accommodate tourists risk putting a brake on the normalization of economic relations.  Five decades of embargo and failed socialist models have rendered key sectors in Cuba ill-equipped to take advantage of the surge in U.S. business interest in the island.  In some areas, the political will to open up and reform is crucial.  These problems do not translate into a rejection of normalization but rather into a slower timeline than many on and off the island would hope for.

The advantages of economic engagement are well known.  Foreign investment will help provide the $8.7 billion Cuba wants for its “Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities” – some 246 projects in energy, tourism, agriculture, and industry.  Havana also wants growth rates to rise to 4-5 percent per year (from an estimated 1.5 percent in 2014), fueled by at least $2 billion in annual foreign investment.  Trade, investment, and tourism are all potentially powerful engines for growth and employment in Cuba.  Private farmers have long out-produced their state competitors and many cooperatives, making them ideal for engagement under current U.S. regulations if the Cuban government facilitates it.  The small private sector, currently employing over a million people, could – with a more supportive infrastructure – provide many more vital goods, services, and employment that the Cuban government years ago admitted it could not provide.  Sectors utilizing Cuba’s specialized and skilled human capital, such as biotechnology, could also benefit quickly and generously from the new U.S. relationship.

Cuba has a lot going for it – such as its deep reserve of potential human capital – but it is also is held back by a variety of problems, many of which are prolonged by political caution.

  • Cuba is updating laws governing investments, property, and labor – a new foreign investment law in March 2014 and related regulations are steps in the new direction – but the multi-year, incremental process has been too slow to keep ahead of burgeoning opportunities. Regulations on how foreign firms select, pay and release Cuban employees are also antiquated.  Paperwork for approving foreign direct investment remains formidable and must pass through multiple levels.  The country lacks the basic institutions necessary to license import and export transactions for beneficiaries outside government ministries.  Much of the bureaucracy – chronically underpaid and, during periods of party dominance, neglected – has yet to grow into a new, more professional role.
  • Unifying Cuba’s two national currencies is absolutely essential but, despite the government’s repeated declarations of intent, it has still not been done. The existence of a different, lower exchange rate for state enterprises creates distortions that will worsen as demand for imports rises.  The financial system, moreover, is too over-burdened, secretive, and lacking in agility, and continued blocks to Cuba’s access to IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds deny it important breathing room to reform.
  • Cuba lacks an information and communications technology (ICT) framework capable of harnessing and nurturing its human capital and driving growth and efficiency – which will retard progress in a number of priority areas.
  • De-industrialization over the past 25 years has further reduced Cuba’s absorptive capacity. Many key sectors – including textiles, clothing, metals, machinery, transportation equipment, and more – have contracted between 50 and 100 percent.  Much of the infrastructure is dilapidated.  The transportation sector is in dire need of repair and modernization; and the construction industry is inefficient and poorly resourced.

Cuba’s challenges in taking advantage of new opportunities are not insurmountable – with political will and time.  The pace of reform and corresponding expansion of Cuba’s absorptive capacity may be maddeningly slow for many Cubans and Americans alike.  But insofar as the U.S.-Cuba normalization process is irreversible, so too is the conviction in Cuba on the need to “update” the system through reform in order to take advantage of the opportunities it brings.  Cuban national pride and the Communist Party’s fear of losing control could very well be assuaged as the island experiences the benefits of engagement.  Foreigners, especially the United States, who push too hard, too fast, and too haughtily could fail and even delay this aspect of normalization, just as Cubans who move too passively, too slowly, and too skeptically could stymie the process as well.

October 27, 2015

*This blog post is excerpted from the third in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  Read the full brief here.

Argentina Presidential Campaign: Harbinger of Deep Change?

By Federico Merke*

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Candidates, left to right: Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri, and Sergio Massa. Photo Credits: Cgazzo, Inés Tanoira, and Tigre Municipio, respectively / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

As the 2015 presidential race begins to take shape in Argentina, the leading candidates – Daniel Scioli (Frente para la Victoria, FPV), Mauricio Macri (Propuesta Republicana, PRO), and Sergio Massa (dissident Peronist faction Frente Renovador, FR ) – have already begun to outline their visions, but sweeping change doesn’t yet appear on the horizon.  According to early polls, Massa had a strong start in the runup to the August 5 presidential primary, but his popularity has faded, making Scioli and Macri appear to be the real contenders.  Originally considered an unexciting three-way race, it has now become a polarized contest.  It should come as no surprise if campaign speeches start to follow a continuity-versus-change line.

Several developments suggest the presidential race will be close:

  • The fact that Scioli has named Carlos Zannini, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s legal secretary, as his running mate has been a game-changer. The Scioli-Zannini effort to bridge two different factions of the FPV, namely the left-wing Kirchnerites with more business-friendly Peronists, will demand tons of rhetoric.  This ticket casts them as guarantors of continuity: el modelo with some modifications.  Yet in electoral politics, almost everything is about framing – explaining to core and potential supporters how new decisions, which for all their twists and turns, remain faithful to the flags of the party.  This is when Peronism gets real.
  • The Zannini gambit on the Peronist side prompted Macri to follow a pure PRO formula, naming Gabriela Michetti, a former deputy-major of Buenos Aires City, as his vice-presidential candidate. This ticket bets on the idea that most Argentine voters reject the government and want substantial change, while polls suggest that many just opt for moderate adjustments.  Macri’s record indicates that he would propel a more pro-business government than that of Fernández de Kirchner, but his victory would not portend a return to the neoliberal heyday of the Menem years during the 1990s.
  • Sergio Massa, on the other hand, is the plain-speaking candidate of the dissident Peronist faction who’s challenged by the FPV and PRO candidates to duke it out over the issues. Polls indicate that he will draw 15 percent of the votes in the election – making him an important powerbroker.

These early stages of the campaign reflect a recurrent pattern in Argentina’s political landscape: a tendency of ruling party candidates to move away from incumbents with lofty rhetoric but little specificity on the one hand, as opposition candidates issue harsh criticism while at the same time manifesting a reluctance to embrace radical change.  Scioli seems to be going all-out Kirchnerite, but it’s too soon to judge whether the electorate will follow, or whether once in office he would govern as if it were Cristina’s third term.  He and Macri both aspire to grab Massa’s 15 percent, as it could enable them to win the presidency in the first ballot rather than having to contest a second round of voting between the two top vote-getters.  But he hasn’t stated a credible price, and neither Scioli nor Macri seems ready yet to begin bargaining with him.   President Fernández may have avoided plunging the economy into crisis before she steps down, but her successor will definitely have to make tough choices because the country is mired in recession and cannot access foreign investment.  Macri might initially enjoy some leeway to introduce austerity measures that would clean up a good part of the macro-economic mess and reopen Argentina to international capital markets, but even he – like Scioli – is likely to be constrained by embedded Kirchnerism in Congress and in the ministries.  Those in Argentina and beyond who have dreamed that Kirchnerism’s days are numbered will have to wait to see.  Kirchnerism, Argentina’s latest “ism,” has profoundly altered the political and ideological landscape – and, at this early point in the campaign, it appears likely to continue to be part of the country’s political ethos into the future.  It could even turn out to be the dominant force in the administration that takes office in 2016.

July 2, 2015

*Federico Merke directs the Political Science and International Relations Programs at the Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires.

Why Is Madrid Not in the Game in Latin America?

By Fulton Armstrong

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y  Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Spain’s media, government ministries and academic specialists watch what they call Iberoamérica closely, but President Rajoy and other political leaders have adopted a lower policy profile in the region than in the past – and they appear unlikely to raise it soon.  Local observers stress that Spain’s interests in the region – preserving historic leadership and influence and building commercial relations – remain the same.  The Foreign Ministry’s website emphasizes the goal of achieving “relations based on equality and balance with all of the countries” in Latin America and to be the European Union’s “key agent” in relations with the region.  Spain also puts great stock in the annual Iberoamerican Summits, even though attendance can fall short of what it hopes for, such as in Veracruz, Mexico, last December.  Madrid rolled out the red carpet for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in February, during which both countries’ leaders spoke of their unstinting friendship and backing.  Spanish investment in Latin America has rebounded from the setbacks of the 2008 crisis and the bad odor left by Argentina’s nationalization of Repsol’s shares in the YPF oil corporation in 2012.  Trade has never been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship, but it too has been steady, according to local experts.

Neither of Spain’s two leading parties, however, has shown much interest in making relations as “special” as they like to say.  The frisson of excitement from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba – arguably a validation of longstanding Spanish policy that engagement is better – did not last long.  Observers in Madrid say the government is neither concerned about new U.S. competition on the island, such as in the hotel industry, nor excited that Spanish companies will win big when U.S. tourists flood in.  After former President Zapatero met with Cuban President Raúl Castro late last month, current Foreign Minister García-Margallo accused him of “extraordinary disloyalty and … inappropriateness,” apparently for violating several Spanish protocols for former heads of government.  But Margallo’s pique was consistent with the Partido Popular’s longstanding chilliness toward Cuba (particularly under former President Aznar) and almost certain was aggravated by the fact that Raúl had stood him up for a meeting in Havana in November.  The two parties use similar rhetoric to condemn Venezuelan President Maduro’s increasingly abusive policies, but neither has provided creative leadership in finding solutions to the country’s impasse.  Former President Felipe González, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has agreed to join the legal defense team of jailed oppositionists but apparently not counseled them on broader strategies.

Transient issues, such as frustration that investments might be nationalized, and widespread perceptions that Venezuela and other problem cases in Latin America are intractable probably lie at the heart of Spain’s preference to stay on the sidelines.  The shift probably also reflects Spanish leaders’ focus on internal priorities – an economy still reeling from the 2008 crisis and youth unemployment so high (over 40 percent in some regions) that there’s fear of a “lost generation.”  In important ways, Spain’s posture toward the region parallels Washington’s – showing fatigue or doubt at a crucial juncture in Latin America’s search for political and economic models as well as effective trading alliances.  Even though Latin American rhetoric tends to reject outside models for democratic transition and institution-building – including Spain’s – Madrid’s historical experience gives it potential advantages in dealing with the region’s political challenges.  Spain and the United States approach in Latin America are quite different – Washington tends to rely on programs to strengthen regime opponents as agents of change – but their strategic objectives in Latin America are complementary.  It would make sense for the two to team up in the region, cooperate in diplomatic strategies, and provide the sort of respectful partnership that many Latin Americans seem to yearn for.

March 31, 2015

Honduras: Charter Cities Lurch Forward

By Fulton Armstrong

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Choluteca, Honduras Photo Credit: Jonathan D. / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Honduran government expects to get the green light this month from a Korean consulting firm for a master plan to hand governance of several small communities over to private investors to develop them, but concerns about the plan run deep and appear unlikely to fade.  Called ZEDEs – the Spanish acronym for “Employment and Economic Development Zones,” the specially designated areas are also called by their proponents charter cities, model cities, and startup cities.  The first tranche of towns facing conversion are in the southern Honduran departments of Valle and Choluteca, with a new port built on the Gulf of Fonseca.  The government says that the affected communities will remain an “inalienable part of the Honduran state,” but amendments to the Constitution, laws, and regulations permit their governing body – which is unelected – to establish “policies and regulations” and their own police and other public services.  Called the “Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices,” the board is dominated by representatives of Honduran millionaires and an even greater number of non-Hondurans of predominantly libertarian ideology.  Among them are American anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; former President Reagan’s son Michael; and Michael Strong, chief executive of Radical Social Entrepreneurs.  The ZEDEs’ guiding principle is to liberate communities from government taxation, oversight, and corruption in order to attract investment and stimulate prosperity.

The ZEDEs initiative has been plagued by opposition since its inception, however.  Numerous reports underscore that the affected communities were never consulted, and demands for a referendum have repeatedly been rebuffed.  Honduran implementation of the model has been rejected by the U.S. economist who proposed it, Paul Romer (formerly of Stanford University; currently at New York University).  He withdrew because of the lack of Honduran transparency, including secret deals with interested U.S. parties.  The Honduran Supreme Court initially voted 4-to-1 against a Constitutional amendment allowing creation of ZEDEs in 2012, but the Congress impeached the four dissenters and replaced them with supporters who voted unanimously in favor.  There are numerous reports of intimidation of local civil society leaders, who deem them credible in view of clashes between wealthy businessmen and campesinos in other areas resulting in hundreds of deaths in recent years.

Honduras has a desperate need for economic growth – two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line – and its model of national governance, riddled with corruption and non-transparency, is indeed in crisis.  But there’s no evidence that fighting one form of corruption with another non-transparent system will help anyone but the big investors.  Indeed, Honduras has ranked among the most violent countries in the world for several years, with the term “failed state” looming darkly over it – making it perhaps the worst place to experiment with provocative new models of governance without popular consultation or support.  Critics seem to have a good case: real reform and economic stimulus would focus on cleaning up the government and holding accountable the elites that have brought the country to ruin and now are trying to impose this model on their fellow citizens, rather than usurping the affected communities’ sovereignty.

March 19, 2015

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.

Haiti: Another Crisis on the Anniversary of a Crisis

By Emma Fawcett*

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Haiti recently marked the five-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake and missed yet another deadline for reaching an agreement on the country’s long-overdue elections.  On January 12, the parliament was effectively dissolved as the terms of all but 10 senators expired.  Without quorum or a new electoral law, President Martelly now rules by decree.  Many in the opposition, whose protests in the last several months forced the resignation of Prime Minister Lamothe, now also seek Martelly’s resignation.  Martelly has asked protesters to be patient, but some claim the electoral impasse is part of the president’s larger strategy for consolidating his power.  The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has expressed commitment to continue working with him and “whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain,” and hopes that Martelly will use his “powers responsibly to organize inclusive, credible and transparent elections.”  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Martelly by phone, reiterating support for his administration and acknowledging his “efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues.”  On Sunday, the UN Security Council concluded its three-day visit by urging politicians to work together to ensure elections can proceed, and refrained from commenting on whether the planned cuts to UN peacekeeping forces would take place in June.

Although there is continued handwringing over how $13.5 billion pledged in earthquake relief has been spent, there are some signs of economic growth.  Capacity in the apparel and hospitality sectors has increased dramatically, priming the pump for further private-sector development, but the results to date are weak.  Caracol Industrial Park (in the northeast) and the Lafito Industrial Free Zone (outside Port-au-Prince) are moving forward, though Caracol has thus far generated just 5,000 of the 65,000 jobs it was expected to create.  Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin has pushed tourism hard to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).  Tourism was a natural outgrowth of earthquake recovery: hotels rooms were urgently needed first for relief workers, now for engineers and businesspeople, and eventually (Haitians hope) for tourists.  Pétionville, located in the hills above Port-au-Prince and home to much of the country’s elite, has received a remarkable facelift.  It now boasts several renovated or newly-constructed international class hotels, though guests remain elusive.  Some of the tent cities have been cleared.  In Jalousie, one of the slums above Pétionville, concrete homes were painted in bright tropical shades, designed to evoke the work of Haitian artist Préfète Duffau.  (Critics of the project pointed out the neighborhood has more pressing needs than cans of paint, and wryly noted that while Port-au-Prince’s hillsides are covered in slums, only those overlooking Pétionville’s wealthiest residents received cosmetic treatment.)

Despite the political uncertainties and stalled reconstruction efforts, there is a sense among Haitian and international private-sector actors that moving forward is “now or never.”  Many point to Martelly’s unprecedented focus on attracting FDI and willingness to create incentive frameworks.  In field interviews, investors in Haiti and neighboring countries speak of hope that the country’s natural, cultural, and historical resources will make it a viable destination – as well as hope that U.S. and other foreign backing continues to expand the apparel and tourism sectors.  There are enormous challenges ahead, to be sure, compounded by the political crisis and potential for instability.  The government-led strategic planning process has been described as “opaque” and “accelerated” without much room for consultation with either the private sector or local communities.  Carnival Cruise Lines’ plans to build a new port on Ǐle de la Tortue have become mired in land tenure issues.  And inclusive growth – strategically targeted and yet expansive enough to lift Haitians out of poverty – will be hard to come by without improved institutional capacity, made all the more difficult by the events of the last three weeks. 

January 29, 2015

* Emma Fawcett is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at American University.