Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

KODAK Digital Still Camera

As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016

Latin America: Wait-and-See Reaction to Trump – For Now

By Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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An effigy of Donald Trump in Mexico City. / Sequence News Media / Daniel Becerril / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Most Latin American leaders publicly reacted with caution to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s U.S. elections, but reactions will sharpen quickly if Trump tries to make his campaign rhetoric about the region and Latino immigrants into policy.  Mexico and Central America showed clear anxiety over the implications for their economies and regional migration pressures.  Some South American presidents expressed mild enthusiasm and voiced hope for a positive relationship with the new administration, although Trump’s avowed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord – under discussion at the APEC summit in Lima this week – has fueled concerns about the future of free trade.  Fear that the new U.S. President, who takes office on January 20, will deport millions of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America and force U.S. firms to shut factories in those countries has seized the media there.

  • Mexican newspapers headlines screamed “Be afraid!” and warned of a “Global shakedown.” Reports recited the many promises Trump had made against Mexico, including his proposal to build a border wall (and make Mexico pay for it); revising NAFTA and raising taxes on Mexican imports, putting conditions on remittances, and charging more for visas. The peso suffered three consecutive days of losses before recovering slightly following interviews by Trump and his team suggesting a softer stand on the wall and free trade.  President Peña Nieto phoned Trump with congratulations and agreed to meet soon to discuss bilateral issues, including presumably the wall.
  • Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported businessmen are worried Trump’s rejection of free trade could have a direct impact on the economy and described the possible mass deportations as a “social bomb” for the country. In Nicaragua, newspapers speculated that Trump’s victory will give a boost to U.S. legislation, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which calls for economic sanctions if President Daniel Ortega doesn’t take “effective steps” to hold free and fair elections.  In El Salvador, the main concern is the deep economic stresses of mass deportations of Salvadorans in the United States.  Honduras shares those concerns but apparently was more wrapped up in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s announcement confirming his intention to make a controversial bid for reelection.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, often given to bombastic rhetoric, has focused on working with Washington in the closing months of the Obama Administration. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, he stressed the need to establish an agenda with the next administration that favors bilateral relationships, but he specifically called on Obama to “leave office with a message of peace for Venezuela” and rescind a determination that Venezuela is a “threat to the United States.” Obama himself last April said the designation was exaggerated.
  • Media in Colombia speculated that Trump will be less committed to aid and support for finalizing and implementing a peace accord with the FARC. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile offered calm reactions to the news.  For Buenos Aires and Santiago, the biggest concern was potentially strained commercial relationships and free trade agreements with the United States, according to press reports.  Brazil offered little reaction to the news, but Trump’s win brought four consecutive days of losses for the real – weakening 7.6 percent since the election.

The political leaders’ cautious reactions conceal a broad and deep rejection for President-elect Trump’s values and intentions as he stated them during the campaign.  Former Mexican President Vicente Fox once again tweeted his disapproval for Trump, while José Mujica, former President of Uruguay, expressed dismay on Twitter, summing up the situation in one word: “Help!”  Press reports and anecdotal information indicate, moreover, that large segments of Latin American society have shown a widespread distaste for Trump’s win.  Their general wait-and-see attitude will end when and if Trump proves himself the unpredictable and reactionary he seemed on the campaign trail.  Latin American leaders have a lot of work ahead as they navigate a new relationship with the United States.

November 15, 2016

* Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga are CLALS Graduate Assistants.

Brexit: Limited Implications for Latin America

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

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Photo Credit: Elionas2 / Pixabay / Creative Commons

The June 23rd British referendum result – a 52-to-48 percent vote to leave the European Union (EU) – has roiled the world’s leading financial markets, but contrary to many opinions issued in the referendum’s wake, the economic and financial implications of Brexit for Latin America have been either mild or favorable.  Hard line Brexit statements made earlier this month by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and various rebukes from policymakers on the Continent, have had financial-market repercussions for the pound.  Most notably, sterling has fallen sharply, and it is now down more than 15 percent from its high on the day of the fateful vote, plummeting to three-decade lows against the dollar.

  • The market reaction initially led to a mostly regional (UK and Europe) correction in stock prices. Even this was short-lived: for example, the FTSE 250, an index of domestically focused UK firms, at first dropped by 14 percent but recovered fully by early August – and has since been trading above the pre-referendum level.  Moreover, the UK recession many feared did not materialize, at least not during 3Q16.
  • Financial markets priced in fairly quickly the conclusion that the Brexit shock would lead to greater dovishness among the world’s major central banks. Most relevant to Latin America and the emerging markets (EM) generally, the Brexit helped to persuade the U.S. Federal Reserve to delay its tightening until at least the end of 2016.  While Latin America’s trade and investment ties to Europe are not insignificant, the region’s major economies are far more dependent on the health of the U.S. economy and on the mood in the U.S. financial markets, and secondarily on trends in China.
  • If the UK and the Eurozone had stumbled and were headed for a recession, however, one likely casualty of Brexit would have been a noticeable drop in world commodity prices, with strong implications for the major economies of Latin America. While commodity prices have softened somewhat (non-oil commodities have averaged 2¼ percent lower since the Brexit vote, and oil has traded 7½ percent below), confirmed expectations of loose monetary conditions in the U.S. and Europe during 3Q16 have more than compensated.  This is why most EM stocks, bonds and currencies have rallied, with the parade led by the Brazilian Real (BRL), so far the best-performing of 24 EM currencies tracked by Bloomberg (up about 20 percent year-to-date).

The medium-term implications of Brexit for Latin America will depend on how much “noise” emanates from London, Brussels and other European capitals during the negotiation process (likely, 2Q17-2Q19).  Prime Minister May has now made three statements that define her bargaining position: Article 50 (exit) negotiations will begin by next March; the imposition of migration controls on EU citizens coming to the UK is non-negotiable; and the UK will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  The latter two points mean that Britain cannot remain a member of the single market, and is therefore committed to forging a customized free-trade agreement with the EU, which could sow uncertainty and thus depress economic growth in Europe and beyond.

The most probable scenario – slow and halting Brexit negotiations, with progress hard to achieve until close to the end (in 2019) – will encourage uncertainty and speculation among economic agents and thus will be a drag on economic growth especially in the UK, and much less so in the rest of the EU.  However, it need not generate the kinds of waves that will reach, never mind derail, Latin America’s economic trajectory.  It is much more likely that what does or does not happen in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Caracas or Mexico City, and above all in Washington, DC – courtesy of the Fed, the White House, and the U.S. Congress, in that order – will overshadow just about any headlines generated by the Brexit negotiations in Europe.  There is room for Latin America to clock higher GDP growth numbers in the years ahead when compared to the disappointing regional averages of 1 percent growth in 2014, zero growth in 2015, and a contraction of about -0.6 percent in the current year (as per IMF estimates).  This assumes that the Fed’s tightening is gradual (namely, no more than 0.25 percent increases in the Fed’s target rate per trimester) and that the UK’s divorce proceedings are not overly hostile.  This scenario foresees that creditworthy governments, banks and corporations in Latin America will retain access to the international capital markets on reasonable terms, despite some initial retraction in investor interest ahead of, and right after, the resumption of the Fed tightening cycle.

 October 17, 2016

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