Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

April 4, 2016

U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016

U.S.-Cuba Migration: The Powerful “Pull” Factors

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban women

Photo Credit: Guillaume Baviere / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama Administration’s repeatedly stated commitment to continue implementing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is driving a surge in Cuban emigrants through dangerous human trafficking routes in Central America and causing tensions in a region already tied in knots over illegal migration.  The flow of Cubans up the isthmus has been increasing steadily – reaching some 45,000 over the past year – but seemed a manageable issue until Costa Rica broke up a smuggling ring last month.  The publicity prompted Nicaragua to close its borders to the underground railroad, which is carrying thousands each month northbound.  The migrants have been starting their journey by air from Havana to Ecuador (which until last month didn’t require a visa) and are escorted by coyotes as they bribe their way across borders headed north.  A summit of Central American foreign ministers two weeks ago failed to reach agreement on a Costa Rican proposal to create a “humanitarian corridor” for the Cubans by issuing them safe passage.  Relations between San José and Managua, already on edge as they await an ICJ decision this month on a territorial dispute, have turned bitter.

The special treatment that Cubans receive upon setting foot in the United States – including automatic access to permanent residency in one year – is the main stimulus of the flow.  The Clinton Administration adjusted how it handled those intercepted at sea, establishing a distinction between intending migrants with “wet feet” and “dry feet,” which reduced the seaborne flow somewhat.  But Cuba’s decision in 2013 (long urged by the U.S. and international community) to stop requiring citizens to get exit permits; the flow of a billion-plus dollars into Cuba through remittances and small businesses (with which to pay coyotes and corrupt officials along the way); and the growing sophistication of smuggling networks in Central America have fueled a shift in the flow overland.  Despite the Administration’s no-change pledge, some intending migrants say the current rush is being driven by fear that U.S.-Cuba normalization will end the preferences granted to Cubans who reach U.S. soil.

The Adjustment Act authorizes – but does not require – the President, through the  attorney general, to grant parole to Cubans arriving into the United States illegally and grant them permanent residency one year later.  In the absence of any change in Washington’s approach, Cubans will certainly try to avail themselves of its generous provisions.  To move the thousands stuck in Central America off the front page there, Washington may issue them expedited visas and help them with transportation to the United States.  Such gestures, however, will have a high political cost throughout Central America, where the U.S. has asked governments to stanch the movement of their own citizens fleeing violence and dire poverty, and where even well-off, law-abiding citizens have to jump through hoops and pay hundreds of dollars for tourist visas.  As the impasse in Central America grew intense last month, the State Department tweeted a reminder that “There exist legal and safe options for Cubans who want to migrate to the United States.”  Reversing policies that encourage illegal and unsafe migration – while proposing that Congress support a doubling or tripling of the current 20,000 Immigrant Visas the Embassy in Havana issues each year – would make a lot of sense.

December 7, 2015

AULABLOG will examine the powerful “push” factors driving migration from Cuba in a subsequent article.

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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

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

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

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

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

July 19th Anniversary and the New Nicaragua

By Rose Spalding*

Photo credit: Globovisión / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo credit: Globovisión / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daniel Ortega’s political rebirth has produced a remarkable partnership with the Nicaraguan business sector.  Thirty-five years ago, when he and the Nicaraguan revolutionaries ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza, a U.S. ally known for corruption and human rights abuses, they clashed with the business sector, the Catholic Church leadership, and a heterogeneous band of counterrevolutionaries armed and financed by the Reagan administration.  Ortega lost elections in 1990 but made a remarkable return to power in 2007, ushering in the “second phase of the Sandinista revolution.”  Unlike during his first term, he undertook to collaborate with COSEP, the Nicaraguan association of business chambers, and gave its members, perhaps more than any other group, regular access to high-level officials and a palpable voice in shaping legislation.  According to José Adán Aguerri, the current president of COSEP, 77 out of 81 of the Ortega government’s economic laws have been produced in dialogue with the business association.  These involve wide-ranging negotiations on minimum wage increases, tax reform, housing development, social security expansion, investment incentives, and other issues.

This partnership has contributed to economic growth and direct foreign investment.  The World Bank reports Nicaragua’s economic growth was 5 percent in 2012 and 4.6 percent in 2013, compared to 2.6 percent and 2.4 percent for the Latin American region as a whole.  According to CEPAL, foreign investment in Nicaragua reached $849 million in 2013, a level that was second only to the $968 million reported for 2011.  Nicaragua’s investment promotion agency, ProNicaragua, documents strong investment in tourism, agribusiness, textiles and outsourcing services.  The extractive sector is also growing rapidly.  Responding to strong commodity prices and a cordial reception in Nicaragua, Canadian gold mining company B2Gold recently announced a planned investment of $289 million to expand its operations in La Libertad.  Nicaraguan investors have developed new initiatives, including a major tourism project orchestrated by Carlos Pellas, the country’s richest man.  The relationship has benefited from the ALBA agreement Ortega signed with Venezuela President Hugo Chávez in 2007.  Venezuela assistance has totaled $3.4 billion in loans, donations and investments in the 2008-2013 period.  These funds regularized Nicaragua’s precarious energy supply and subsidized transportation, housing, microcredit and public sector wages, providing a general economic stimulus from which elites also benefitted.  Announcements of a projected $40 billion investment in an interoceanic canal reinforce the image of a new development era in Nicaragua.

The business-government relationship reflects mutual accommodation by Ortega and business leaders.  Nicaragua lost several decades of economic growth during the 1980s and the “contra” war, so upon his return to power Ortega put a premium on promoting growth, tread lightly on issues of tax reform, and eagerly pursued foreign investment.  He met repeatedly in closed sessions with business leaders and called for a “grand alliance” of government, business and workers to combat poverty, promote investment and create jobs.  A formal consultation mechanism brought together leaders from COSEP and the government, such as Bayardo Arce and Paul Oquist, for regular policy discussions.  Offering a stable economic environment and generous investment incentives, a non-conflictual labor force with the lowest wages in the region, a relatively low crime rate, and receptivity to business initiatives, Ortega won over business allies.  The business interests of current and former Sandinista leaders, some affiliated with COSEP, reinforced the collaboration and helped convince a new generation of business leaders to put aside traditional hostility and preoccupation with injuries of the revolutionary 80s.  They accepted the government’s legitimacy and bolstered its domestic and international credibility.  Enthusiastic about the growth of the Nicaraguan economy, economic elites also downplayed lingering questions about deficits in democratic institutionality and accountability.  But the heightened concentration of political power under Ortega and the weakness of other state institutions mean that economic rules are vulnerable to shifting political winds, and questions remain whether this development approach will resolve the problem of widespread poverty.  Even as the government-business relationship warms and the economy grows, these social and political concerns continue to bedevil the country.   

*Dr. Spalding is a professor of political science at DePaul University.

Nicaragua’s Canal: Great Leap (of Faith) Forward?

By CLALS Staff

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Mike and Karen / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The Nicaraguan government and a Chinese telecom tycoon took a big step on Monday toward the country’s long-held dream of having its own canal, but their prediction of supertanker traffic starting as soon as 2020 seems a bit far-fetched.  The project will cost $40 billion and, according to government officials, will create 50,000 jobs immediately, 1 million jobs over the life of the project, and will help lift another 400,000 people out of poverty.  President Daniel Ortega’s supporters claim the economy – currently projected to grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020 without the project – will grow as much as 15 percent a year with it. The Chinese company, HKND, will enjoy a 100-year lease on the canal, with 1 percent of it reverting back to Nicaragua each year.  The proposed route for the canal is 278 kilometers long – about three times longer than the Panama Canal – and will be deep and wide enough to handle ships much larger than the “New Panamax” vessels.  Officials say the canal would “complement” the Panama waterway, which they say will be overcapacity even after its current expansion, and will save shippers some 800 miles on their way to the U.S. east coast.

Opposition from some politicians and environmentalists has been strong.  According to media reports, Nicaragua’s Supreme Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and other business organizations are generally positive but skeptical, with one leader calling Monday’s press conference “just an initial flow of information.”  Congressman Eliseo Núñez of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), however, has been widely quoted as calling Monday’s announcement a “propaganda game” and blamed the media for generating “false hopes for the Nicaraguan people.”  Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez says that handing over national territory for development is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and other critics claim the project violates 32 provisions of the Constitution.  Concerns about damage to Lake Nicaragua, an important source of fresh water that is already polluted, remain. Chinese investor Wang Jing told the press that avoiding environmentally sensitive areas was a major factor in determining the route, and he has promised that a full environmental impact study will be conducted before construction starts.  Opponents of the project doubt he will make the report public.

Ortega’s statement last year that a Nicaraguan canal “will bring wellbeing, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people” may well be right – if the project gets off the ground and so many jobs are created.  However romantic that vision is, construction is still far from certain to begin this December, as claimed, or even within the next year or so.  Wang says that he has lined up “first-class investors,” but none has been identified yet.  In addition, criticism of his business record – opponents say his telecom company is poorly run – has hurt his credibility. And accusations that he’s a stalking horse for the Chinese government, which he says has had “no involvement,” will be difficult to dispel in view of Beijing’s other interests in the region and in shipping.  Equally troubling, as the ongoing expansion in Panama has shown, the shadow that corruption and inefficiency cast over any major project tempers optimism and argues against premature celebration.

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

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A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.

Central American Governments Face Tough Challenges

by Benedicte Bull*

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CLALS last week convened a panel in San Salvador to discuss the findings of its multi-year project on “Elites, States and Reconfigurations of Power in Central America.”  Attended by over 120 people, the event analyzed how the evolving role of elites will affect the new administrations in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras.  The following day featured a daylong event to launch the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigación sobre el Desarrollo e Inclusión Social (INCIDE), a new think tank that aims to foster fresh thinking about the difficult challenges facing the region.  Here are some key conclusions:

The leftist FMLN in El Salvador and the centrist Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) in Costa Rica have won crucial elections, but their ideological labels don’t fully capture how they will relate to three decisive actors: legal capital (the private sector), illicit capital (organized crime) and the United States.  The elections of Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Luis Guillermo Solís do not signal a strong turn to the left in Central America, but rather show that the population in both countries increasingly questions the political elites and institutions.  Solís capitalized on the corrupt image of Costa Rica’s two traditional parties, and what tipped the elections in El Salvador were all those who feared the return of a corrupt and elitist right, whose dirty laundry was made public in feuding between ARENA and the breakaway party GANA.

The new governments’ ability to restore confidence will depend firstly on how they relate to business and private capital.  All the countries of Central America are included in the free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA-DR) and have been generally pursuing market-oriented development strategies since the late 1980s, but economic elites are still dependent on the state for survival.  Many build their business primarily on contracts with the state; all depend on the state involvement in infrastructure and services; but few are willing to pay sufficient taxes to allow their governments to face important challenges.  Honduras, which has accommodated elites the most, may establish a free zone fully exempt not only from taxes but all government regulations.  Nicaragua’s approach, under Daniel Ortega, is to build an alliance between the presidency and business, facilitated by Venezuelan assistance and growing integration into ALBA trade networks.

Institutional weaknesses throughout the region make it difficult to bring organized criminal groups under control.  In Guatemala, where congressmen frequently jump between political parties, organized crime easily buys political control and influence.  Weak parties, weakened ideologies, and leaders’ unwillingness and inability to build a state capable of implementing policies for the common good also allow organized crime a strong grip over politics.  In both Honduras and Guatemala, criminalization of politics has blurred distinctions between legal and illegal elites.

Central America’s relations with the United States also tend to hold it back.  While South America has come a long way towards independence from the United States, many Central Americans believe the old hegemon does not intend to let go of their region.  U.S. policy has in many ways become more sophisticated, but former members of governments speak freely of various methods the U.S. uses – often with the support of Washington lobbyists representing Central American rightwing elites – to restrict Central America’s room for maneuver.  This overshadows debate in Central America over China’s influence and Brazil’s growing leadership.

Taken together, these factors contribute to the conclusion that, even with winds blowing slightly to the left in Central America, the new presidents will have little space to make new policies.  For former guerrilla Sánchez Cerén and former history professor Solís, their experience and wisdom may be their best assets to move forward their agendas.

*Dr. Bull is Associate Professor at the Center for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo.

ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession

By Eric Hershberg

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is proof that being anointed successor by one’s patron on their deathbed isn’t adequate preparation for governing effectively or consolidating a revolutionary legacy.  Although being Hugo Chávez’s man got him into office, it obviously hasn’t been enough for Maduro to stem growing economic, political, and crime problems.  One element behind these protests is a widespread perception – including among some supporters of chavismo – that Maduro is a pale reflection of his benefactor and not up to the task of leading Venezuela.  Chávez hand-picked him in a hasty and half-hearted manner, and he didn’t bequeath to him a coherent set of policies, practices, or institutions that could ensure the continued advance of the Bolivarian Revolution.  Maduro inherited a state that was so weak institutionally and so dependent on Chávez personally that the jury remains out as to whether he has the capacity to keep all the pieces of Chávez’s legacy intact.

The Venezuelan president’s rocky road reflects the difficulty of the renovation of political leadership across ALBA nations.  Rather than nurture successors capable of carrying forward the transformations begun by founding leaders, one president after another has followed Chávez’s lead in dealing with the future by focusing primarily on extending their terms of office.  This past January Nicaragua’s national assembly cleared the way for Daniel Ortega, president since 2007, to run for a third term in 2016.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa likewise won a third consecutive term in 2013.  Last May Bolivia passed a law allowing Evo Morales to run for an unprecedented third term in 2014.  In none of these cases has the leadership sought to build the credentials of potential successors in the presidency, in stark contrast to what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did with Dilma Rousseff or what Ricardo Lagos did with Michelle Bachelet.  This phenomenon is not unique to left-leaning governments – Alvaro Uribe and Alberto Fujimori, for instance, suffered similar temptations –, but it seems endemic to the ALBA governments and is particularly troubling to the extent that these are instances where the leadership aims to effect wholesale, lasting societal transformations through its enduring control over the state apparatus.

There is a distinctive sort of hyper-presidentialism emerging throughout the ALBA nations.  Chávez, Correa, Morales, and Ortega’s concentration of power in their own personas makes it particularly hard for future leaders to emerge.  Their political projects embody aspirations for fundamental societal transformations.  In that sense, they can reasonably be categorized as what the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci would label as historic projects, and even revolutionary ones.  But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run.  Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on.  This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on.  The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency.  Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step.  Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.  While their frequent successes in displacing traditional elites and thwarting well-financed oppositions are impressive, it is striking that they fail to build political institutions and leaderships capable of carrying on their own visions and political projects after they pass.  The ALBA presidents may calculate that dismantling the ancien regime is legacy enough, but history may judge them harshly for delaying the emergence of more effective and enduring institutions, and of leaders who can push their projects forward for many administrations to come.