Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

posse_de_michel_temer_3

Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Venezuela: Running Out the Clock in 2016

By Michael McCarthy*

venezuela-military

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. The Venezuelan military remains tolerant, if not actively supportive, of President Nicolás Maduro’s government. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Despite continuing high tensions in Venezuela, neither President Nicolás Maduro nor the opposition appears likely to gain an upper hand in their years-long confrontation over the next couple months.  Venebarómetro polls buttress press reports and observers’ impressions that the opposition is slowly making gains, but support for the government – while extremely low – has stabilized.  A plan to reschedule 2017 debt owed by the national oil company will probably give the administration some breathing room, especially if oil prices continue to recover – a more likely scenario thanks to OPEC’s announced production cut agreement.
  • The very high turnout for the opposition’s Toma de Caracas demonstration on September 1, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, showed the depth of support for the anti-Maduro platform. The Electoral Tribunal’s announcement last week of onerous requirements on the opposition to schedule a referendum to recall Maduro (requiring, for example, the signatures of 20 percent of residents of all states, rather than nationally) rekindled opposition anger and unity.  A Venebarómetro poll earlier this month showed that 90 percent of Venezuelans view their overall situation negatively, and 71 percent support Maduro’s immediate resignation, but that only roughly 50 percent identify with the opposition.  The Mesa de Unidad opposition coalition is under great pressure to satisfy different constituencies – promoting street mobilization and pursuing dialogue at the same time – even when these initiatives seem at counter purposes.  Hamstrung by coalitional politics, anti-Maduro forces have not shown the cunning needed to force a course reversal from the Electoral Tribunal.
  • While Maduro’s popular support remains extremely low (22 percent), an internal party revolt against him appears unlikely. The government’s big push for a deal under which PDVSA creditors would swap debt coming due in 2017 for generous new 2020 bonds is making headway, according to the press.  Enhanced short-term liquidity may result in increased imports, a development which cannot come soon enough for a government that faces a restive population that has seen quality of life deteriorate dramatically during the crisis.

The common wisdom that the military is at least tolerant, if not actively supportive, of Maduro still stands.  Armed Forces chief Vladimir Padrino López showed an independent streak during last December’s Parliamentary election but this has not translated into a public rivalry with Maduro.  He moved into the spotlight when Maduro tasked the military with taking charge of food distribution, but he has since kept a lower profile.  Other senior commanders’ political leanings are even more difficult to discern.  Appealing to the military is a key element of the opposition’s current strategy, but there are still no signs of an increase in the institution’s willingness to press Maduro to step down or even change policies.

Maduro’s time-buying strategy looks likely to prevail for now.  His repressive tactics toward the opposition – keeping pressure on while occasionally offering negotiations, prisoner releases, and other gestures – are gaining the government time but failing to address any of the underlying causes of the ongoing crisis.  The debt swap is also a palliative that only delays the implementation of major reforms.  Popular unrest, political instability, and even violence are the factors that might conceivably persuade the military that its support and patience are misplaced.  However, with the world watching, most of the opposition leadership wants to play by constitutional rules.  Those who consider the chances of success justify the human price of further ramping up protests may see their hand strengthened if government obstructionism kills the referendum this year.  Few Venezuelans, moreover, view possible talks with the Vatican and the United States as likely to produce a breakthrough.  Even if the government alleviates the pain a bit to generate some Christmas cheer, the country will wake up with a terrible national hangover in 2017.

September 30, 2016

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

UNASUR and the Venezuelan Hot Potato

By Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont*

Ernesto Samper UNASUR

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Venezuelan crisis, which the hemisphere has turned to UNASUR to resolve, could break the South American organization and overshadow its past successes in regional mediation.  UNASUR was created in 2008, amid the proliferation of regional organizations such as ALBA that excluded the United States and Canada, as an inter-governmental mechanism to promote regional autonomy, conflict prevention and resolution, and the coordination of public policies, particularly regarding social issues, security, infrastructure, and energy.  It has been driven by individual presidents’ leadership and managed by high-ranking officials and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, has not shown deep commitment to greater civil society participation.  Among its important successes have been defusing internal conflicts in Bolivia and Ecuador, as well helping reduce tensions between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Colombia and Venezuela.  In years past, the group’s effectiveness raised questions about the OAS’s comparative ability to deal with regional conflicts.

In recent years, however, UNASUR has suffered decline.  As the commodities boom ended, regional economies were hit hard, and internal political factors started to change the political map, undermining leftist governments and enabling the election of center-right governments less committed to the UNASUR vision.  This coincided with the profound decline of Venezuela as it fell into the abyss of hyperinflation, debt, scarcity, criminality, and debilitating political instability.  The Venezuelan opposition’s achievement of a parliamentary majority last December, after 17 years of Chavista hegemony, brought no relief as the government reacted with an all-out effort to block it.  UNASUR, which first sought to foster a dialogue between the government and the opposition in 2013, has repeatedly failed to broker a solution.  In May 2016 the organization turned to three former heads of state – Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Dominican Lionel Fernández, and Panamanian Martín Torrijos – to attempt mediation again, to no avail so far.  The government continues to resist change, and the opposition, in addition to remaining firm in its demands of a recall vote to remove Maduro and the unconditional release of political prisoners, has shown persistent mistrust of UNASUR and its representatives, whom they perceive as allies of the government. Such suspicions may not be unfounded, considering Zapatero’s objections regarding the participation of some relevant opposition leaders in the dialogue process.

For the first time in its almost 10 years of existence, UNASUR faces potential failure in its attempt to solve a strategically important political crisis in the region.  To hold off an initiative by OAS Secretary General Almagro to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, the OAS Assembly called on UNASUR and the former presidents to renew mediation efforts yet again last month, but neither Maduro nor the opposition has budged from their fundamental positions.  The situation is, again, stalled.  Indeed, in the context of declarations, extraordinary sessions, initiatives and trips, the commitment to end the crisis in Venezuela still appears quite limited among OAS members, including UNASUR.  Governments supporting dialogue seem most eager to avoid risking valuable political capital both in the domestic and the international spheres.  Neither UNASUR nor the OAS is prepared to handle the Venezuelan hot potato, and both stand to lose credibility for this failure.  But UNASUR’s general lack of leadership and direction in recent years suggests that failure in this crisis, with implications beyond Venezuela’s borders, would be potentially fatal to the organization.  UNASUR, with previous achievements in social, political and regional matters, must now prove that it is still a viable regional mechanism, able to deal collectively with the political turbulence of a changing regional landscape.

July 6, 2016

* Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont are members of the analysis team of the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (CRIES), a Latin-American think tank.

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

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

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Almagro’s Freshman Year: Bold Actions or Unnecessary Risk?

By Maria Carrasquillo*

Luisito

Photo Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera (OAS)/Flickr/Creative Commons

Secretary General Luis Almagro’s quest to revitalize the Organization of American States (OAS) seems premised on being an “activist” Secretary General in what could be a make-or-break gambit to assert the organization’s hemispheric leadership.  Only 13 months in office, Almagro has taken an approach that is a clear departure from the low-key, consensus-building ways of former Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.  In his 2015 inaugural address, Almagro laid out his plans for the rejuvenation of the OAS, including internal changes to “adapt it to the realities of the 21st century” and “insert [it] into a world different from the one in which it was developed and has grown and operated.”  Almagro underscored the need for the OAS to promote transparent and inclusive elections throughout Latin America and, in regard to democratic governance, “lend a hand to countries that are going through moments of tension and conflict.”

Almagro has taken a number of positions that confirm his desire to redefine the OAS’s role in the region.

  • In 2015, Almagro took the lead in developing a plan to fight corruption in Honduras, resulting in the formation of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH) – a watered-down version of the successful UN-backed CICIG in Guatemala. The jury is still out on whether MACCIH will have a serious impact, but Almagro has staked his reputation on its credibility.
  • He has claimed that the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff lacked sufficient justification and that accusations against her were politically driven. Almagro also called for anticorruption investigations under Operação Lava Jato to continue as essential for the rule of law.
  • Prior to the Peruvian elections, Almagro warned that the disqualification of two candidates reflected unequal application of the law and raised concerns that the contests would be “semi-democratic.” Following a meeting with disqualified frontrunner Julio Gómez, Almagro called for the reinstatement of both candidates’ right to participate in the elections.
  • Perhaps Almagro’s most controversial action has been his attempt to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter against the government of Venezuela, without a finding by the Permanent Council, as required under Article 20 of the Charter, that the situation there amounts to “an unconstitutional alteration of a constitutional regime.” The Permanent Council implicitly rejected his appeal by urging more dialogue between the OAS and Venezuela.  Almagro then sent a strongly worded letter to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accusing him of lying and “betraying his people,” and calling for the release of political prisoners, restoration of legitimate powers to the National Assembly, and a referendum to recall Maduro in 2016. (The Permanent Council is set to discuss the situation in Venezuela again on June 21.)

Almagro has taken on some very difficult issues, and explanations for his motivations are varied but not mutually exclusive.  Some observers perceive a personal embrace of OAS principles, others detect a desire to avoid the sort of U.S. criticism that plagued Insulza and constrained U.S. support and funding, and still others speculate about his future political ambitions as a reformist on the non-radical left of Latin America.  The democratic principles he is defending are clearly enshrined in OAS documents, but his activism has so far not reversed adverse situations: Rousseff was impeached, the Peruvian candidates were forced to sit out the election, and Maduro has yet to soften.  Being an “activist” Secretary General in the case of Venezuela entails great risks; his predecessors were criticized both for getting too directly involved in the country’s internal affairs and for remaining passive in the face of growing authoritarianism in Caracas.  It seems, moreover, as though Almagro has often acted alone, and the tone of his letter to Maduro was uniquely strident.  A great deal is on the line for the OAS.  If Almagro’s activism works, it will enhance the organization’s leadership on a range of issues confronting the hemisphere, but it may also put the OAS in the middle of future conflicts in which failure would bring a loss of institutional credibility. 

June 16, 2016

* Maria Carrasquillo is a recent graduate of the M.A. Program in American University’s School of International Service and a research assistant at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

MarchaVenezuela

Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016

What do Latin Americans Make of the U.S. Election Campaign?

By Fulton Armstrong

Trump Wall Pope

Photo Credit: Daryl Lawson and Pingnews (modified) / YouTube and Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about Mexico and immigration by Donald Trump – leader in the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination contest – have drawn intense criticism from some Latin American leaders, but their underlying concern may be about the implications of the broad support for his populist rhetoric regardless of who wins the party’s nomination in July.  Media throughout the hemisphere are reporting highlights of the U.S. campaign, focusing mostly on immigration and its connotations for the region.  Some reports touch on the challenges to unity facing both major U.S. political parties, such as Democratic pre-candidate Bernie Sanders’s pressure on the previously unbeatable Hillary Clinton.

Most Latin American attention has gone to Trump and his statements.  His characterization of many Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists; his statement that Mexicans “bring tremendous infectious disease” into the United States; and his pledge to make Mexico pay billions of dollars for a new high wall on the border have drawn sharp rebukes from across Latin America.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto, who initially remained on the sidelines when Trump brought the immigration issue to the table in a cynical fashion, recently compared Trump with Hitler and Mussolini. Former President Calderón called him a “racist” and lamented that he is “sowing anti-American hatred around the world.”  And his predecessor, Vicente Fox, said on U.S. television that Mexico wouldn’t pay for “that f**king wall.”
  • Argentina-born Pope Francis also criticized Trump. “A man who thinks only of walls is not a Christian,” he said.  Former Colombian President and OAS Secretary General Gaviria told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer that Trump “has the typical style of a Latin American caudillo,” scaring people and putting himself up as “the solution to all their problems.”
  • Ecuadoran President Correa said, “Trump’s rhetoric is so clumsy, so vulgar, that it will stir reaction in Latin America” – which would be “very bad for the United States” but positive for Latin American “progressive tendencies.”
  • In Venezuela, President Maduro has condemned Trump’s “threats” against Latin America as “brutal” and termed him a “thief full of hate.” On the street, however, comparisons between Chávez and Trump are part of daily conversation.

Racial slurs and rhetoric about walling out immigrants are, naturally, hair-trigger issues not just for Latin Americans.  If the Trump juggernaut rolls on, however, anxieties about its implications are likely to sweep across the hemisphere – not necessarily because he will win the general election in November, but because the broad support for his rhetoric about walls and deportations suggests a widening gap between the United States and the region.  Moreover, doubts about the credibility of the U.S. political model – already battered by the contested presidential election of 2000 and the decade-long gridlock in Washington between the executive and legislative branches of government – could multiply, especially if campaign violence spreads beyond Trump rallies.  Trump’s pledge to resume “enhanced interrogation” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” of alleged Islamic extremists could further undercut U.S. moral authority.  Dismayed Republican leaders are privately floating the idea of rewriting the rules for their party convention this summer to overturn Trump’s primary victories and block his candidacy in the general election, but that too would be a spectacle that could undermine U.S. image in Latin America.  Moreover, other Republican candidates’ views may compound the problem.  Senator Ted Cruz is proud of having shut down the U.S. Government to make a political point during a skirmish with President Obama, and he and Senator Marco Rubio are fervent supporters of their party’s decision to refuse to meet with the President’s nominee to replace a recently deceased Supreme Court nominee, let alone give him or her a hearing and floor vote.  Ecuadoran President Correa’s remarks about the U.S. campaign empowering “progressive” forces is probably wishful thinking on his part, but Trump’s populism and his party’s questionable options could indeed appear contrary to some Latin American countries’ struggle to rid themselves of populist, authoritarian-style leaders.

March 14, 2016

Venezuela: Trying to Stay Afloat

By Michael McCarthy* and Fulton Armstrong

Venezuela Oil Maduro

Photo Credit: Democracy Chronicles and Charles Henry (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro continues to receive increasingly bleak economic news, and his modestly positive policy responses seem unlikely to help.  Oil revenues dropped 293 percent from 2014 (US$37 billion) to 2015 (US$12.5 billion).  The value of oil exports, which account for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, has dropped to a 30-year low ($30 a barrel), accelerating a recession, paralyzing shortages, and soaring inflation.  The Central Bank reported that inflation reached 180.9 percent in 2015, and that the GDP contracted for the second consecutive year (5.7 percent).  Maduro blamed an “imperialist strategy in a petroleum war” aimed at destroying OPEC.  He also asserted that Venezuela suffered from an “international financial blockade” that – by obstructing the country’s efforts to refinance its debt – was intended to force it “to its knees” and to “take over” its wealth.

Several days after celebrating a Supreme Court decision reaffirming his authority to declare an “economic emergency,” which the opposition challenged last month, Maduro this week announced several modest economic measures aimed at stemming the slide.

  • He ordered a 60-fold increase in gasoline prices – dramatic-sounding but preserving Venezuelan gas (about US$0.23 per gallon at the black-market exchange rate) as one of the cheapest in the world – but the decision is significant as the first increase in about 20 years. An increase in 1989 triggered riots – the famous Caracazo that most analysts cite as the beginning of the end of the old order that Hugo Chavez toppled definitively when elected President in 1998.  In allusion to this past, Maduro said he “hoped people on the streets would understand.”  (Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica estimates that the existing fuel subsidy costs the Venezuelan government US$12 billion a year.)
  • Maduro also announced a 37 percent devaluation of the bolívar – from 6.3 to 10 to the U.S. dollar – for official exchange rates used for the essential goods like food and medicine. The bolívar trades at about 1,000 to one on the black market, but the decreased subsidy implicit of the official rate for necessities is nonetheless significant.
  • Venezuela’s proposal for an OPEC freeze in oil production, in hopes of driving oil prices back up, drew supportive remarks from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran, but the scheme has lacked traction. Industry observers said one reason is that Tehran is eager to increase exports to regain market share as sanctions against it are lifted.
  • Maduro replaced economic czar Luis Salas – known as a hardline leftist – just five weeks after appointing him, and appointed in his place a more business-friendly economist, Miguel Pérez Abad, who had been serving as Minister of Commerce. Pérez Abad, whose appointment the President of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce described as a “friendly sign,” has publicly (and accurately) said that Venezuela must simplify its byzantine exchange rate system.
  • These changes come amid Maduro’s increasingly frank self-criticism about state corruption. He recently described a government food distribution company as “rotten” while calling for a restructuring of state-run food import and distribution outlets.

In a four-hour speech replete with foul language and insults against opposition leaders, the President argued that the measures are “a necessary action to balance things,” and he said, “I take responsibility for it.”  But his measures are piecemeal at best.  As opposition leaders have pointed out, he has not explained how he is going to pay Venezuela’s debt, obtain the foreign exchange to import sufficient amounts of basic goods, and guarantee food for the people.  With US$10 billion in bond payments coming due this year, the country has no clear path for avoiding default.  However painful for the population and politically costly for the government, measures such as gasoline price increases will have little impact.  The government wanted the opposition to share some of the costs for economic policy changes, but opposition politicians say that the gas price increase and devaluation are too little, too late. Most believe economic revival depends on dismantling the entire chavista system.  They are once again talking about removing Maduro through a referendum or other means – with one leader, Henrique Capriles, openly calling for a presidential recall, and another, Henry Ramos, the President of the National Assembly, calling for a constitutional amendment to cut the presidential term from six to four years.  The government’s measures suggest a welcome change from Maduro’s previous strategy of buying time through diversionary tactics.  However, the economic measures are likely to fail and, moreover, they increase the chances political temperatures will surge once again.

February 19, 2016

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

The Politics of the Refugee Crisis in Latin America

By Luciano Melo*

Syrian refugees Uruguay

Syrian refugees arriving in Uruguay. Photo Credit: International Organization for Migration / Flickr / Creative Commons

Several Latin American governments have pledged to accept Syrian refugees – part of one of the largest refugee movements in history – but support for robust resettlement programs appears likely to fall short.  According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 6 million Syrians have been displaced within their country and 4 million more have fled abroad, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.  One million have entered Europe, putting a heavy burden on the EU, and the United States has agreed to settle 10 thousand (although the refusal by 31 U.S. governors to accept them raises questions about follow-up).  Public support for receiving migrants dropped in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November, but France has announced that it will admit 30,000 new refugees in the next two years, a measure that President Hollande characterized as the country’s “humanitarian duty.”

Several Latin American governments also have agreed to absorb refugees.

  • Brazil, with ties to Syrian immigrants since the 19th century and one of the largest communities outside Syria, has promised to accept 20,000 refugees from the current conflict. More than 8,000 have already settled in Brazil.
  • Venezuela also set a goal with the UNHCR of receiving 20,000 Syrians, but President Nicolás Maduro’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “the only leader with authority in Syria” suggests low enthusiasm for implementation.
  • Chile and Argentina have had modest programs to settle Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war. Chilean President Bachelet has agreed to settle 100 Syrian families, whereas Argentina’s “Syria Program” agreed to offer permanent residence to 300 Syrians after three years.
  • Uruguay, which resettled Syrian families from Jordanian camps in 2004, recently suffered a setback when refugees in September protested in front of a government building complaining about the cost of living and lack of jobs. Observers estimate that almost 100 Syrians will actually leave the country.

The cost of settling families and individual refugees can be high, and each country will face challenges in meeting their commitments.  Brazil is in a deep crisis – with negative GDP growth expected next year, impeachment processes initiating against President Dilma, and gigantic corruption scandals rocking the political system.  The Venezuelan economy is in shambles, with skyrocketing inflation, and the country appears to be in permanent political crisis.  Chile has experienced an economic slowdown since the price of copper fell, and Argentina has been trying to recover from recession and double-digit inflation rates in the first months of the newly elected President Macri.  Even Uruguay expects lower growth – down to 2 percent from the previously estimated 2.5 percent – and a fiscal deficit of 3.6 percent of GDP.  The good news is that accepting refugees does not necessarily affect the economy negatively.  Turkey and Lebanon, which have resettled 2.2 million and 1.8 million since the war started, are expected to have 4 percent and 3 percent growth in the coming year, confirming that the issue is mostly political rather than economic.  In Latin America, in contrast with the U.S., the crisis has not been used by leaders to polarize public opinion.  In fact, the topic is barely on the radar of common citizens, and the media rarely cover it.  The Syrian war and ISIS terrorism are remote concerns, and more pressing local matters – recessions, corruption scandals, and impeachments – take precedence.

January 4, 2016

* Luciano Melo is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in comparative politics.