Latin America: Total Chaos?

By Carlos Malamud*

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South American Presidents waving to the cameras in Santiago, Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Democracy and democratic values are in crisis throughout South and Central America, but the causes – and solutions – vary across the region, with rays of hope that at least some countries will find their way forward. The Bolivian elections, plagued by suspicions of fraud, reflect some of the problems that affect all of Latin America. The previously unbeaten President Evo Morales, in government since 2006, has now shown his limits and, even if his election is confirmed, will govern without the parliamentary majorities he enjoyed in the past.

  • Latin America witnessed violent protests almost simultaneously in Ecuador and Chile; Mexico blinked during a confrontation with the son of narcotics kingpin Chapo Guzmán; the Congress was dissolved in Peru; an ex-President in the Dominican Republic denounced as fraudulent the primary election he lost and joined another party to be its candidate; and a massive exodus continued pouring out of Venezuela, whose crisis is terminal but without an expiration date.
  • The Argentine and Uruguayan elections on October 27 marked the end of a three-year cycle of elections during which 14 countries voted to elect or re-elect their presidents. Speculation was originally that a swing to the right would counteract the Bolivarianism of the previous swing to the left. That shift never happened. In its place, a more heterogeneous and divided Latin America emerged, reflected in the outcome of the Argentine and Uruguayan elections, and in the not-insignificant fact that Mexico is governed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador while Brazil, the other regional power, has Jair Bolsonaro.

The causes of this wave of divisiveness are the subject of different theories. Many observers speak of a Castro-Chavista conspiracy, orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the leftist São Paulo Forum. Others think it’s a popular reaction to the drastic adjustment programs of the IMF. Yet others argue about a contagion factor and the impact of social networks, which enable real-time communication and the transfer of vivid images of events. Nonetheless, any theory that tries to harness all of these theories will be flawed because each national reality is responding to different logic and dynamics.

  • All of the countries of the region are experiencing inequality, poverty, corruption, violence and narco-trafficking, unhappiness with democracy and its institutions, rejection of politicians, and the impact of the “new politics” of social media and fake news. But they are not present to the same proportions.
  • Neoliberal, Bolivarian, and populist governments are all suffering from rebellions. The Chilean protests over transportation fees under neoliberal President Piñera were preceded by protests in Brazil in 2013 under progressive President Dilma Rousseff. If Piñera resorts to military force to stop the protests, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did something similar in 2018, killing more than 300. The IMF might have been behind the reduction of fuel subsidies in Ecuador, but it had no role in Chile. While elections went as normal in Argentina and Uruguay, in Bolivia, like in Venezuela, the allegations of fraud have been constant.

The solutions to each country’s challenges will have to be as different as their causes. While one country needs deeper economic adjustment, another needs to fix its political institutions. Each is going to have to find its way through the crises. Latin America will find little solace, moreover, in the fact that this high level of conflict is not exclusive to its region. From Hong Kong to Cataluña, or in Libya and Lebanon, similar challenges are disrupting national life.

  • Amid the many indications that representative or liberal democracy is under direct attack – that we may be facing the end of an era with potentially dire implications – some positive notes are visible in Latin America. In addition to the orderly contests in Argentina and Uruguay, the local and regional elections in Colombia in late October were an effective exercise in democracy – won by the center and lost by the extremes. Uribismo on the right and Gustavo Petro on the left were the big losers. The emerging symbol was Claudia López, the first woman elected mayor of Bogotá, who is also a lesbian, environmentalist, and leader against corruption. The path ahead is certainly not going to be easy for Latin America, but there is evidence that, with a big dose of tolerance and respect for each other’s reality, Latin Americans can do a lot better.

November 5, 2019

* Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid. A version of this article originally was published as Turbulencias latinoamericanas in El Clarín of Buenos Aires.

 

Latin America: Freelance Journalists are Essential but Vulnerable

By Bill Gentile*

Bill on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the northern mountains of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Gentile on patrol with the Sandinista Army in the 1980s/ Backpack journalism – copyright Bill Gentile

Freelance journalists are at the center of covering many of the most important news stories in Latin America but face increasing threats to their security and well-being. Tough economic realities and competition from the internet have forced most traditional U.S. and European media to close their bureaus across the region since the 1980s. Whereas maintaining a bureau may have cost $250,000 a year (and double that for a TV production team), these companies can now get reporting from freelancers for a small fraction of that cost. Consumers of news in and outside Latin America have become steadily more dependent on unaffiliated journalists for information on key developments.

  • Prize-winning journalist Jason Motlagh, for example, is a freelancer who has done groundbreaking stories on gang activities in El Salvador, even accompanying specialists exhuming the bodies of murder victims whose families yearn to give them proper burial. Independent reporter Frank Smyth has covered violence in Central America, and in Colombia he uncovered that U.S. counter-narcotics aid was being diverted to death squads run by Colombian military intelligence. Ioan Grillo has explored tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border through which drugs and humans are smuggled. Stories such as these are rarely, if ever, reported by the “legacy media” that used to have full-time staffers in the region.

Although news consumers outside Latin America depend on them for ground truth, the freelancers lack the infrastructure and protections of their brethren in staff media positions. They hire local “fixers” to navigate complex places and gain situational awareness, but they depend mostly on their wits – and luck – to survive. Many report feeling exploited.

  • Security is their top concern. Criminal groups target any reporter looking into their activities, and freelancers – who often have the depth, language, and ideals to cover them aggressively – pose a particular threat. When journalists working as staff for traditional media have been kidnapped, their companies have helped get them released – something that freelancers can only dream of. Protection from governments is important too. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that 75 of the 251 journalists arrested for their work in 2018 were freelancers.
  • Some companies’ tendency to pay late, or never, is another problem. Even journalists with strong track records report having been assigned stories, submitting them on time, and then waiting months for payment. Overdue fees of up to $60,000 are not unheard of. Because of declining budgets, even excellent reporters working for serious news outlets have been forced to change careers.

Despite these trying conditions, freelancers still do solid journalism that supports the interests of the countries in which they work and the international community. But fairness dictates that the media who use them and the consumers of their news, including Latin America watchers like us, support ways to better protect them and their jobs. Some organizations, such as the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, provide assistance to reporters. The London-based organization ACOS Alliance is trying to “embed a culture of safety” throughout the industry. Its “Freelance Journalists Safety Principles” have been endorsed by nearly 100 news organizations, but the code lacks an enforcement mechanism. Some freelancers have proposed forming a trade union, but the mechanisms for binding media to contracts will be difficult to establish. The elements of a solution are not beyond reach, however. The staff foreign correspondent, representing a powerful media organization in North America or Europe, may be a dying breed, but the truth that they seek to report is not.

October 29, 2019

*Bill Gentile, a veteran news reporter, teaches journalism at American University. His video series, FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, is available on multiple platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Video On Demand and Google Play.

AMLO’s Foreign Policy: A Blast from the Past, or Abandoned Dream?

By Laura Macdonald*

AMLO Cabinet

López Obrador stands with members of his cabinet for an official photo in December 2018/ Prensa AMLO/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andres_Manuel_Lopez_Obrador_2.jpg

 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office last January with a pledge to focus almost exclusively on his country’s many internal challenges, but international affairs have intruded upon his wish to downplay foreign policy, forcing him to make difficult compromises.

  • AMLO rode into office with the slogan “la mejor política exterior es la política interior” (the best foreign policy is domestic policy). Mexico’s high levels of corruption, impunity, entrenched poverty, widespread violence, and human rights violations were his top priorities. He was elected with a mandate to clean up the political system and crack down on the “mafia of power,” which he and millions of Mexicans perceived as the source of most of their country’s problems. The unpopular foreign policy of his predecessor, PRI president Peña Nieto – who tried to curry favor with President Trump and his family despite the U.S. President’s repeated insults to Mexico and Mexicans – encouraged a more nationalist response as well.
  • In his inaugural speech in the Mexico City zócalo, he laid out an approach to foreign policy based on themes of self-determination, non-intervention, peaceful solution to disputes, development cooperation, defense of human rights, and the rights of migrants. This position is reminiscent of the deeply rooted policy of non-intervention known as the Estrada Doctrine adopted by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the long-time Mexican dominant party, in the 1930s. AMLO’s political roots are in that party and reflect that heritage – he has said he won’t travel outside of the country except to sign international agreements and he skipped the June G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

Nevertheless, the world has intruded upon AMLO. Trump’s statements and actions have forced him to act and react, and Central America’s crises have thrust him into an overwhelmingly hostile regional context. He has had mixed results:

  • Despite his previous opposition to free trade, AMLO made a strategic decision to renegotiate NAFTA and to refrain from direct confrontation with the Trump administration. Mexico was forced to accept various measures that may harm its interests in the long term, including the rules for domestic origin and intellectual property rights.
  • He has continued Mexico’s traditional principles of non-intervention and self-determination – the Estrada Doctrine – and advocated for the recognition of existing regimes instead of meddling in their internal affairs. This position has led to a break with the position of the Lima Group, of which it is still a member, regarding Mexico’s position so far has been vindicated by the failure to date of the Lima Group’s advocacy of regime change and the bellicose position of the Trump administration, but Mexico has not been seen to be playing a leading role in orchestrating negotiations in response to the Venezuelan crisis, and is isolated from the position of the U.S., Canada, and most Latin American states.
  • Despite early statements in which the AMLO administration cast migration as not inherently problematic and called for policies to address the causes of Central American migration, it subsequently shifted its position under intense U.S. pressure and agreed to policies that would limit the numbers of migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico and create a growing humanitarian challenge within Mexico itself.
  • As part of AMLO’s law of “republican austerity,” he has closed trade and agricultural offices in embassiesand consulates around the world, and has eliminated the offices of ProMéxico, which promoted international trade and investment into Mexico. Diplomatic staff, untrained in commercial issues, are supposed to take over their responsibilities. This decision, framed as scaling back the swollen ranks of highly paid public officials, will affect the government’s ability to diversify trade and investment away from the U.S. market and reduce its ability to defend the country’s interests in ongoing trade negotiations.

The AMLO government faces the daunting prospect of trying to respond to Trump without risking economic disaster or losing all shreds of national dignity. In the context of an already globalized economy, Mexico cannot achieve its domestic priorities without a recognition of the importance of foreign policy and active international engagement, in tandem with progressive allies – other governments as well as domestic and international civil society. So far, he has been able to navigate these shoals and retains high levels of popularity at home, but his economic policies focused on re-activation of the domestic market and have not yet born fruit. A more active and progressive foreign policy could help shore up his domestic and international legitimacy as the economy lags.

September 5, 2019

* Laura Macdonald is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Does Mexico’s “3×1 Program for Migrants” Encourage Autodefensas?

By Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz and Lauren Duquette-Rury*

Autodefensas

Autodefensa in Michoacan / Esther Vargas / Creative Commons

Mexico’s armed vigilante groups, or autodefensas, are more likely to exist in those municipalities where migrant organizations – called hometown associations (HTAs) – help fund projects back home in collaboration with local authorities. HTAs are voluntary civic associations or clubs located in migrants’ destination countries – the United States for Mexicans – comprised of individuals with a shared attachment to a common place of origin. HTAs raise funds that they send home to fund public goods such as roads, health clinics, potable water, electricity, drainage and sanitation, and schools, often in partnership with government authorities. Since 2002, the Mexican government has run a “3×1 Program for Migrants” that matches the remittances that HTAs send back to their origin community at the local, state, and federal levels of government

  • In a recent article, we analyze data from 2,352 Mexican municipalities in 2002-13 that show that vigilante groups were more likely to emerge in 2013 in municipalities where HTAs participated frequently (six or more times during a 10-year period). The vigilante groups are parochial organizations comprised of private citizens who, acting outside of the formal mechanisms or institutions sanctioned by the state, take up arms to provide security for their communities.

The repeated cooperation between migrants and state and local actors appears to enable community members to act collectively in security and justice matters as well as public good projects. Notably, the depth and frequency of contact are more important factors than the amount of investment and the presence of drug-related violence or activities. Mexico’s vigilante groups apparently are not merely a response to contemporary security crisis, state incapacity, or unequal access to security. Rather, they are a function of citizen capacity enhanced by transnational linkages, strengthened by 3×1, to mobilize collectively to provide security for their communities.

  • In contrast to research indicating that migrant-state transnational co-production partnerships contribute to strengthening democracy by enhancing collective organizational capacity through preexisting levels of social capital, resources, and knowledge, we find that HTAs and their communities can marshal their new capacity to form organizations that carry out informal, non-state, extra-legal armed actions. Autodefensas can threaten state capacity and the rule of law. While they tend to be community-based organizations and have contributed to reducing violent crime, the mechanisms for citizens to hold these groups accountable are limited and human rights violations and extrajudicial killings are common.

The 3×1 Program rules prohibit the funding of private security in municipalities. Program funds could conceivably be misallocated strategically, but doing so to fund nonstate armed groups would entail significant risks and costs. It would be easier for HTAs to simply reallocate their collective remittances toward projects – including public security –  outside of the 3×1 program.

  • The HTA’s motives merit further inquiry. While evidence is lacking to demonstrate that HTAs’ desire to protect their investments is a key factor in encouraging vigilante group formation, they and their local co-sponsors are indeed targets of extortion by criminal gangs. They may be seeking to protect their current and future public goods investments by adapting the successful transnational coproduction model for public good provision to specifically enable vigilante group formation in Mexico. The emergence of return migrants from the United States as key leaders of vigilante groups in 2013 –  including José Manuel Mireles and Luis Antonio Torres (“El Americano”) – makes the question of social and political remittances all the more compelling.

July 23, 2019

* Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz  teaches Politics and Latin American Studies at Bates College and is guest editor with Ana Isabel López García (GIGA-Hamburg) of a Special Issue in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on how Mexican emigrants respond to and influence political violence in Mexico.  Lauren Duquette-Rury teaches sociology at Wayne State University and is the author of Exit and Voice: The Paradox of Cross-Border Politics in Mexico (University of California Press, 2019).

Mexico: Has AMLO Compromised on Human Dignity?

By Alexandra Délano*

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a meeting in 2018, during which U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo was present

Mexican Foreign Secretary- designate Marcelo Ebrard participates in a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo in Mexico City on October 19, 2018. State Department photo/ Wikimedia Commons

Mexico has always negotiated with the United States from a position of weakness – it depends on its northern neighbor economically and politically more than the other way around – but the recent negotiations, compromising its commitment to human dignity in exchange for avoiding tariffs, may be among the worst outcomes. Tariffs on Mexican products would surely be costly for Washington, as business leaders and Republican legislators have stated recently, but the much greater economic threat is to Mexico. As a result, Mexico has consistently sought to keep the issue of migration separate from trade and other priorities – a delinking that both countries have accepted for the sake of advancing economic integration.

  • Trump has destabilized that tacit agreement by asserting that maintaining the status quo in commercial relations will depend on new steps by Mexico to support expansion of barriers on its northern border, to better control its southern border, and to stop the flow of migrants from Central America. In addition to imposing the tariffs, Trump threatened to abandon the newly negotiated North American Trade Agreement (“USMCA”) and even to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has opted for a strategy of minimizing confrontation with Trump. This has implied concessions such as accepting the return of persons awaiting asylum hearings in U.S. courts. Even though this policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocols (or Quédate en México), is not in an official agreement, and even though it does not go to the extreme of establishing Mexico as a “safe third country” – which would obligate migrants to claim asylum in Mexico instead of having the option of continuing their journey to the United States – it is an attempt to appease Trump and maintain the fragile balance in the relationship.
  • AMLO has taken other steps to placate Trump. For example, Mexico and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL) recently announced a development plan for Central America that, although limited in scope and without apparent funding, is an important step towards addressing root causes of migration in the region.

AMLO’s government negotiated to increase its control of the southern border and to continue to host asylum-seekers awaiting a court hearing in the United States. It did so in the absence of an integrated migration strategy, and without a commitment to invest resources, at a time when the budget of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) was just cut 20 percent. The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is also ill-positioned to assume a greater role without addressing its need for the resources and measures necessary to root out corruption and reduce its over-reliance on detention and deportation. Officials from these organizations were not even included in the negotiations – further reflecting the lack of vision and interagency coordination on the migration challenges. Not surprisingly, the INM Commissioner resigned days after the agreement was announced.

  • Mexico’s policies also appear to neglect the need to strengthen multilateral mechanisms to compensate for its weakness in the face of U.S. pressure. Mexico has traditionally been one of the most active promoters of multilateral agreements on cooperation on migration issues, including the Global Compact on Migration approved last year, but it appears unable to build on these accomplishments to either counterbalance Trump’s pressures or guide an internal policy on what to do. It has also failed to build support among G20 allies, including Canada – its second most important trading partner and a player in the extractive activities implicated in driving emigration and internal displacement in Central America and Mexico.

Mexico’s migration policy at this point is very far from the ideals laid out by López Obrador. His primary concern has been to pursue the impossible goal of containing Trump without harming other interests. Above nationalist posturing – claims that Mexico will never negotiate away its dignity – is the need to protect the dignity of persons. A migration policy that prioritizes migration control and that is based on the mood swings of the United States’ government does not meet this basic criterion. It leaves Mexico in the same weak, isolated position from which it cannot negotiate agreements on labor mobility, humanitarian protection, and economic development. Mexico seems to have made a strategic error in response to Trump’s most recent tantrum – one likely to reoccur under even more challenging conditions as the 2020 election nears.

June 25, 2019

* Alexandra Délano is chair of the Global Studies Department at the New School in New York City. This article is adapted from her essay in El País on June 5, Lo que está en juego en las negociaciones con Estados Unidos: la dignidad humana.

U.S.-Mexico: Tariffs, Threats, and Trade Agreements

By Ken Shadlen*

Cargo ships

Cargo ships off shore of Galveston Island, TX / Jocelyn Augustino / Creative Commons / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_38860_-_Cargo_ships_off_shore_of_Galveston_Island,_TX.jpg

The United States’ threat last week to apply tariffs on imports from Mexico, unless Mexico revamped its approach to Central American migrants passing through the country, underscores the power asymmetries in the global economy – and undermines the credibility of U.S. trade agreements elsewhere. President Trump threatened to abrogate U.S. commitments under NAFTA (and the WTO) unless Mexico introduced measures in an area that is not addressed by NAFTA. While the tariffs won’t be applied, at least not now, and there is debate about just how much Mexico changed its migration policies as a result of Washington’s maneuver, the linkage between trade and “non-trade” issues such as immigration, especially within preferential trade agreements such as NAFTA, have deep implications for the political economy of international trade.

  • Many critics of Trump’s threats claim that immigration policy and trade policy are distinct, and that it makes no sense for the administration to link the two. But this misses the point: what is and is not “trade” is determined politically. Since the 1980s, the United States has conditioned market access on the introduction and enforcement of a wide range of “trade-related” policies, including investment, intellectual property, government procurement practices, and so on. Market size confers to the importing country the power to define what constitutes “trade,” and the definition of “trade” thus has changed according to Washington’s preferences. In that sense, Trump’s linkage maneuver is not at all new.
  • On the one hand, NAFTA is the outcome of massive linkage of this sort, as Mexico was required to introduce extensive changes to policies and practices in a range of trade-related policy areas in order to qualify for the agreement. On the other hand, NAFTA was meant to protect against further “ad hoc linkage,” with new conditions attached at the whim of the United States.
  • Prior to NAFTA, Mexico’s exports largely entered the U.S. market under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which offers preferential market access to exports from developing countries under a wide range of conditions. But GSP preferences can be withdrawn unilaterally, and, as the importing country, the United States changed GSP preferences in response to its changing sentiments. Beneficiary countries always ran the risk of having the U.S. Congress and Executive attach additional conditions to the program, like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
  • NAFTA and other NAFTA-like trade agreements that have followed promised to deliver substantially more predictability and stability than the GSP.

Recent events question these premises. In 2017-18, Trump warned that Washington would withdraw entirely from NAFTA unless it was renegotiated on terms more to his liking. Last week’s threat to remove preferential market access unless Mexico changed its immigration policies and practices is precisely the sort of behavior that NAFTA was meant to protect against. The agreement supposedly replaced the unstable preferences of GSP, which were always vulnerable to the whims of U.S. politicians, with a new set of preferences that were clearly defined, had fixed conditions, and were less prone to being unilaterally withdrawn. But evidently it didn’t.

Washington’s actions are similar to if the Mexican government announced it would stop enforcing copyrights and patents of U.S. firms, unless the United States were to substantially increase science and technology assistance to help upgrade the stock of biologists, chemists, and engineers in Mexico. The reaction to such an announcement would be ridicule, and Washington would claim NAFTA (and the WTO) binds Mexico to protect intellectual property. The United States would assert, moreover, that its science and technology assistance is not covered by NAFTA; Mexico’s threat would elicit no change of behavior on the part of the US. 

  • Beyond NAFTA per se, these events make one wonder why any country would sign a trade agreement with the United States. After all, if countries already have preferential market access under the GSP, then one of the main benefits of reciprocal trade agreements is to lock-in and stabilize those preferences – even with the need to make substantial concessions on “trade-related” policy areas. If, in reality, only half of the bargain is locked in, if the benefits can be made to disappear at the whim of the U.S. President, then for many trading partners the benefits of such agreements will be unlikely to compensate for the costs.

June 11, 2019

*Ken Shadlen is Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Mexico: Gambling That Austerity Will Be Enough

By Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid*

Mexico City's Paseo de La Reforma

Mexico City’s Paseo de La Reforma / Flickr / Creative Commons

While continuing to emphasize his goal of reversing neoliberalism in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is pursuing a budgetary policy with austerity – not much-needed fiscal reform – as his top priority, at least for 2019-20. In his inauguration speech last December, AMLO repeated campaign themes deriding the neoliberal policies implemented in Mexico since the mid-1980s, blaming them, as well as rampant corruption, for the country’s slow growth, rising inequality, and widespread poverty. Since then, however, the President’s speeches on economic policy and his Secretary of Finance’s main policy documents have stated that all public-sector operations will be subject to strict austerity.

  • They have indicated that 1) there will be no fiscal reform in the first three years of the administration; 2) fiscal revenue will not increase this or next year as a proportion of GDP; and 3) in this period, the public sector will not incur additional debt. In other words, the implementation of AMLO’s proposed social and economic programs will depend on the availability of public revenues subject to the strict constraint of no additional resources through public borrowing or any tax reform. The government has made sharp cuts to government personnel and wages and eliminated various public entities, including ones created to attract foreign investment and tourism.

At the same time, AMLO plans to change the composition of public expenditures significantly to accommodate his top-priority projects, among them Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (a massive transfer of $180 per capita for an ambitious, and, in many ways, welcome apprentice program for up to 2.3 million youngsters); Sembrando Vida (planting a million trees); Adultos Mayores; and investment to put in place a Maya Train, building from scratch a new crude oil refinery in Dos Bocas, and revamping an airport in Santa Lucía.

More in line with AMLO’s stated intention of overturning neoliberalism, what Mexico really needs is a profound fiscal reform – strengthening public revenues, modernizing public investment strategies, and strengthening its development banks – to foster growth and equality with long-term debt sustainability and greater countercyclical capacity. It is a paradox that the new government chose to commit itself to a severely austere budget, reflected in cuts in public expenditures and an increased primary fiscal surplus.

  • The decision to refrain from tax reform, coupled with drastic austerity, imposes acute limits on the new administration’s ability to strengthen and modernize infrastructure, reduce income inequality through fiscal tools, or strengthen its capacity to act in a countercyclical way – not to mention alleviate major lags in the socioeconomic conditions of the poor population. The IMF, OECD, World Bank, ECLAC, the Centro de Investigación Económica y Presupuestaria (CIEP), Grupo Nuevo Curso de Desarrollo (UNAM), and many local think tanks have systematically underlined that Mexico’s tax revenues as a proportion of GDP are extremely low. According to the estimates of UNAM, CIEP, and others, those revenues are at least six percentage points short of what is needed to meet long-standing needs in infrastructure, health, pensions, education, and overall social security and protection concerns. By reducing the bureaucratic apparatus and public-sector wages virtually across the board, the administration runs the risk of further weakening the state’s technical capabilities in some key areas of public policy and thus undermining its ability to correct course.
  • The underlying reasons for the new government’s commitment to austerity seem to be more political than economic. It has stated that a significant amount of resources can be freed up by abating the rampant corruption, and it apparently believes that before implementing fiscal reform, the government must prove to the citizens that it can deliver efficiently, effectively, and with honesty. Whether there will be sufficient achievements in terms of economic growth and inclusion and in eliminating impunity to convince the middle and upper classes to accept a progressive fiscal reform three years from now is an open question, but the answer will determine Mexico’s economic growth path and progress in the reduction of inequality, poverty, and corruption, and perhaps too its social stability and the viability of its democracy in the future.

April 16, 2019

*Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid is a professor of economics at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018