Argentina: Excessive Optimism?

By Nicolás Comini*

Man delivers a speech on an airfield.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Argentine President Macri’s Cambiemos coalition won an overwhelming victory in last month’s legislative elections – a step toward fulfilling his 2015 promise of a “revolution of joy” – but it’s not clear yet whether the administration’s optimism translates into national hope.  The coalition won in 15 of the 24 provinces of the country, including the five largest jurisdictions – the City of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Mendoza, and Santa Fe.  Government officials and Macri’s supporters have expressed optimism that the economy will turn around and political confrontation will be overcome.  Macri won the presidency in 2015 with an alliance that made optimism – and the appearance of optimism – a central theme for overcoming what he called the polarization generated by his predecessor, former President Cristina Fernández.  His discourse was rooted in the ideas of change, happiness, efficiency, and meritocracy.

  • Even critics acknowledge that the government has generated innovation in terms of political discourse and representation, rooted in a greater horizontality of leadership and greater citizen access to public officials. News of some officials’ questionable business practices as revealed in the “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers” has caused little or no backlash.  Second, the idea of “normalization” of the country, supported by the media, has had a positive impact on part of society.  GDP growth at almost 3 percent this year and the lifting of exchange controls and imports have also buttressed this theme.  The unfavorable trade balance, with a deficit of US$765 million in 2017, has not been a factor.  Third, the government is still able to blame the country’s problems – including high levels of inflation and indebtedness – on the “received inheritance” from his predecessors, whose rule implied corruption, social polarization, and isolation from the world.
  • Rejection of the legacy of Cristina Fernández and her husband/predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, also seems to be one of the Macri government’s greatest assets. Even though Cristina is the most popular candidate in the opposition, her rejection among the broader population is greater; many of the votes that the government’s allies garnered were “anti-Kirchner” votes.  Cristina won a seat in the Senate, but in national politics, there’s a growing sentiment of “anyone but Cristina,” while a civil war simmers within the ranks of her Peronista base.  The political rise of Macri ally María Eugenia Vidal as governor of the Province of Buenos Aires – historic bastion of Peronismo and the country’s main electoral district – attests to these troubles.

Macri’s gains indicate a significant strengthening of the government, which is key to the reform package that the administration launched almost immediately after the election.  Proposals include aggressive changes in tax and labor matters.  While the tax reform has triggered battles with some large corporations, such as Coca-Cola, that will pay higher taxes, the labor reform has broad support from employers.  The latter faces strong resistance from a large part of society and, above all, of the union and opposition sectors, who fear that it, similar to one already carried out in Brazil, will contribute to job insecurity.  Macri’s increasingly forceful discourse on reducing public employment has also raised concerns despite his assurances that reducing state structures will help create private-sector jobs.

British theorist Terry Eagleton has said that an optimist is someone who thinks that things will improve even if there are no reasons for it.  The optimism of the government and its supporters is as easy to understand – there are some clear reasons for it – as it is palpable.  Macri has a strong government in a Latin America plagued by weak governments.  He not only has power in parliament; the country’s large corporations, mass media, security forces and, of course, an important part of the people are also behind him.  But Argentina is accustomed to living in cycles.  Expecting that in Argentina one or two or even three electoral victories will produce a durable revolution and fundamentally change those cycles, as the current government’s rhetoric suggests, may not be warranted by the facts.  Each administration usually assumes that the previous one did things absolutely wrong, and they will do better this time.  But this kind of impulse has an expiration date.  Joy and good vibes can have a positive impact on a society’s feelings about itself, but a real lasting solution will require addressing the underlying causes of the country’s polarization, poverty, and exclusion.  This implies, above all, state policies and continuity through different administrations.

November 15, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires. He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

Brazil: Surge in Divisive Politics

By Marcus Vinicius Rossi da Rocha*

Two politicians debate

Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro disparages fellow politician Maria do Rosário during a debate on violence against women. / Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Political tumult, constant corruption scandals, and widespread popular loss of confidence in political institutions have given rise to divisive right-wing movements that, although not poised to win office in the 2018 elections, are laying the groundwork to have an impact on Brazilian politics in coming years.  Brazil will elect a president and both houses of Congress in October 2018, after five years of economic crisis (3.6 percent contraction in 2016); corruption scandals (President Michel Temer is still under investigation in the Lava Jato probe); low confidence in government (Temer has 3 percent approval); and political instability.  Many observers believe Brazilian democracy could be in peril.

Two factors in particular – the economic decline and the odor of taint surrounding Temer and the political class – are fueling a surge in right-wing and populist politics.  Conservative and market-oriented agendas are, unsurprisingly, gaining momentum, but also are challenges to the country’s three decades of democracy, including the defense of torture and military dictatorship.  The surge is seen in three main areas:

  • The Free Brazil Movement (Movimento Brasil Livre, MBL) is a youth libertarian movement born in early 2014 following the mass street protests of 2013, which its leaders helped organize. While promoting free speech, less government, individual liberty, and market-oriented reforms, its agenda emphasizes moral issues as an electoral strategy.  It mobilizes protesters against left-leaning politicians and gay art exhibits and succeeded in shutting one event down on spurious grounds.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain turned lawmaker, is famous for his defense of torture and the death penalty, his opposition to human rights protections, and his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in 1964-85. Proud of his lack of political correctness, he compares himself to U.S. President Donald Trump, and he casts himself as engaged in a moral struggle to save the nation.  He promises to withdraw Brazil from international human rights agreements; opposes gay marriage; and wants to adopt the death penalty and loosen gun laws.  In a speech on the House floor one time, he told a female legislator and human rights defender, “I do not rape you because you are not worth it.” He was reprimanded by the courts for this and other statements, but a leading public opinion institute Datafolha shows him with almost 20 percent of popular support.
  • A handful of senior active-duty and reservist military officers also seem to be crossing the line with greater frequency, openly speaking about “constitutional military intervention.” These officers espouse a highly disputed interpretation of Article 142 of the Constitution – which states that the “Armed Forces aims … to defend the homeland, to assure the constitutional powers, and, by initiative of any of these powers, to assure law and order” – to argue that the Constitution gives the Armed Forces authorization to intervene in politics.  At an event a few weeks ago, General Antonio Hamilton Mourão said that if the judiciary does not fix the government’s corruption problem, the Armed Forces could.  The high command remained silent.

Few analysts believe that the 2018 elections will be obstructed in any way, but the years of crisis, compounded by the polarizing rhetoric and activities of frustrated conservatives, will put checks and balances to test.  A military coup is highly unlikely – the Army is not eager to run the state again – but the apparent politicization of institutions sworn to defend the rule of law could cause others to flout the Constitution.  Congressman Bolsonaro does not appear likely to score big in 2018.  His party is small, but his popularity could very well give a boost to similarly minded groups poised to gain ground in Congress. This could lead to more than a continued shift toward the interests of construction firms, financial system, and agriculture sector that support them; it could portend a dismantling of decades of work to build democratic institutions; end torture and police brutality; and protect citizens’ rights to choice, freedom from discrimination based on sex or sexual orientation; pro-choice laws, gay rights, and indigenous rights.  Three decades of democracy won’t be reversed easily, but the next several years call for healing, not a new politics of division.

 October 5, 2017

* Marcus Rocha is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and a CLALS Research Fellow specializing in the Brazilian executive branch and corruption in municipalities.

Migrants Make Family Back Home Critical of Government

By Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz and David Crow*

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A mural depicting the transnational migrant experience. / Max Herman / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American citizens who discuss politics and belong to a transnational household – a household in which at least one member lives abroad – are more critical of their democracy than those who discuss politics but have no household members abroad.  In our recently published report, we use data from 2006-08 Americas Barometer surveys in 20 Latin American countries to demonstrate that among transnational household members (THMs) with an emigrant living in the United States, assessments of how democratic their country is, satisfaction with their country’s currently existing democracy, and pride in their democratic system all decline as discussions about politics become more frequent.

THMs talk about politics with their emigrant household members across international borders.  When they hear about the political and social system in the U.S., they become more aware that they have reason to be critical of their system’s performance, and judge their own democracy more harshly.  Skeptics counter that migrants and their children – particularly ethnoracial minorities – are marginalized, second-class members of receiving societies, which would logically alter the impact of their communications with THMs.  Public opinion polls show, however, that immigrants embrace and adopt their host country’s political beliefs and behaviors within as little as two years and that their social, political, and religious organizations give them a feeling of civic engagement they did not have back home.  Furthermore, even when conditions abroad are difficult, civil liberty protections in the U.S. enable immigrants to mobilize politically and to demonstrate a greater sense of personal efficacy – two traits that THMs respect.

  • Even absent cross-border political discussions, having a household member abroad shifts THMs’ sense of political community to include co-nationals living both at home and abroad. In turn, THMs expect their government to deliver the goods of democracy to its citizens wherever they live.  Data from the Mexico, the Americas, and the World survey in 2014 provide initial support for this claim.  Among Mexican THMs, 65 percent described “protecting nationals abroad” as a very important foreign policy objective, compared to 52.8 percent of non-THMs.  Furthermore, this policy emphasis indirectly influenced negatively their feelings toward President Enrique Peña Nieto, giving him a slightly lower “thermometer score.”
  • To the extent that THMs’ everyday talk (with other THMs or non-THMs living in Latin America) about politics revolves around this transnational sense of community (in contrast to the narrower national identity of non-THMs) THMs become aware that they have even more reasons to be critical of their government’s performance than do fellow citizens without migrant connections. Our analysis of this rests entirely on the case of Mexico, but we believe it holds elsewhere in Latin America since, of all the countries in the region, Mexico provides the most extensive range of services to its citizens abroad.

The 2006-08 Americas Barometer data that we used predates major shifts in U.S. immigration policy during President Obama’s term and, in particular, the hard shift in rhetoric, roundups of undocumented migrants, and deportations during these first months of the Trump Administration.  The sense of political efficacy that democratic rights to mobilize and protest produces among immigrants may decline in impact if, as reported, migrants are keeping a low profile out of fear of capture or harassment.

July 5, 2017

 *Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz is an Assistant Professor at Santa Clara University. Her research, which focuses on how immigrants influence politics in their origin countries, has appeared in Comparative Political Studies and Studies in Comparative International Development.  She is also a participant in the Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative.

*David Crow is an Associate Professor of International Studies at CIDE (Mexico City). He is co-PI (and past director) of the Americas and the World survey on international relations and the Human Rights Perceptions Polls, and formerly Associate Director of the Survey Research Center at UC Riverside.  His research has appeared in Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Political Psychology, Human Rights Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

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Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

Argentina: The (Un)Fulfilled Promises of an Election Year

By Ernesto Calvo*

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Palace of the Argentine National Congress / Andresumida / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

As the 2017 mid-term election approaches, both Argentine voters and party elites see a gloomy present and a bright future. With only seven months until the October 22 election, the economy still shows few signs of recovery. Patience is running thin in Congress, among governors, and with organized labor – but it seems to be never-ending among voters.

  • For over a year, surveys have shown that a majority of voters perceive their personal economic situation as dire. In survey parlance, each month voters perceive that they are worse off than in the previous month. Yet, to the surprise of specialists, a majority of voters also expect the economy to improve in the next month. Indeed, voters seem as willing to credit the current administration of President Mauricio Macri for its policy choices as they are unhappy with the economy.
  • The opposition is betting its future success on the dismal economic outlook: high inflation, stagnating wages, and lack of growth. The government expects voters’ optimism, the raw expectation of future growth, to carry the day. The increasing gap between current perceptions and future expectations has baffled specialists. The only possible result, many confide, is either a rude awakening for the administration or a real change in the pace of economic growth.

Both parties suffer from divisions. Former President Cristina Fernández’s Front for Victory still carries most support among Peronists, although many fear that a Senate victory by their leader in the Province of Buenos Aires will ensure a divided party in the election of 2019. Peronist dissident Sergio Massa is still running outside the party, and few anticipate any grand-coalition before 2019. The other traditional party, the UCR, remains on life support after a decade of mishaps, and is only a minor partner of President Macri’s party, Republican Proposal (PRO), in the government coalition. Meanwhile, the incumbent PRO has yet to decide their strategy to form Provincial alliances and nominate its candidates.

As the election nears, it is unclear whether voters will hold the government responsible for their current economic malaise or will still believe in PRO’s capacity to deliver a better economy. Voters have one leg in a bad economy and another leg in the promise of a better tomorrow. They are, in the words of the Herald Editor J.G. Bennet, “Like a stork by a frog pond, they are as yet undecided which to rest upon.” Eventually, one of the two legs will have to go up, for either the government or the opposition – but not both – to celebrate on Election Day. Regardless, the mid-term election may provide little information as to who the real winner is. With no presidential candidates on the ballot, no important gubernatorial races to publicize, and only one important Senator on the line (that of the Province of Buenos Aires), the signal will be unclear. If the government does extremely well, it may gather a third of the House vote, all provinces considered together. If the government performs badly, it may get a quarter of the House seats. As the election approaches, it would seem that the only measure of success or failure would be whether the government coalition, Cambiemos, wins first, second, or third place in races for the National Senators of the Province of Buenos Aires. More troubling yet, it is unlikely that the result of the election, whichever it may be, will clarify the choices faced by voters, the future of the Peronists, or the likelihood of a steady government coalition after 2017.

March 9, 2017

*Ernesto Calvo is a Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

The Open Veins of Latin America: Disowned?

By Núria Vilanova

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

tintincai / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Forty-three years after its publication, the emblematic and widely read Latin American anti-colonialist bestseller The Open Veins of Latin America has been disowned by its creator, 74-year-old Eduardo Galeano – but its literary message remains vital.  Interviewed last May about the book often called the “Bible of the Latin American Left,” Galeano said, “I don’t regret having written it, but it belongs to a time that to me has been overcome.”  His words left a sense of abandonment and deceit among many, who asked:  What had happened to the bleeding veins of Latin America drained by European and U.S. colonial powers?  Hadn’t the region been sacrificed since Columbus to profit diabolic foreign interests?  When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of the book in 2009, was he clinging to an interpretation of Latin American history no longer embraced by the region’s leading thinkers?  Others asked, however well-deserved a denunciation of the exploitation and oppression laid out in the book was, were they to be blamed for all of the damage inflicted in the region?

Galeano’s interview signaled a refocussing of his analysis rather than wholesale rejection of it.  He said Open Veins was too boring and written in a tedious style and with the doctrinal tone of the traditional left.  He added that in those early days of his career he did not know enough politics and economics to write a book of such reach.  What Galeano has demonstrated by this unassuming recognition is that he has evolved through the years and, like many others, realizes that the dependentista paradigm, with its rejection of western capitalism, that fueled his book had important shortcomings, and overlooked other key problems.  He underestimated the impact of weak institutions – anticipated by Bolívar in the early 19th Century – and internal political and economic issues such as government corruption and the unwillingness of the ruling classes to contribute to the development of more democratic and egalitarian societies, as Marx himself would argue when writing about Southern countries.

The real – and not insignificant – value of Open Veins today lies in its literary character.  Its capacity to capture the spirit, the hope and the rage of those turbulent times in the region lives on.  Filled with metaphors and symbolism, it is an essay, whose literary dimension makes it current and ageless.  Stemming from a deep Latin American tradition, the book crosses the blurred borders between literature and history, sociology, politics and other disciplines alike.  Like José Martí, Ricardo Palma and Octavio Paz, Galeano attempted to transgress the boundaries between literature – subjectivity, imagination and hyperbole – and disciplines based on empiricism and factuality.  This practice can lead to challenges over facts, but the messages remain compelling.  Elizabeth Burgos’s testimonial account of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú in I Rigoberta Menchú (1984) was criticized for alleged inaccuracies, yet it is difficult for anyone to deny that the suffering of the Mayan Quiché community in the 70s and 80s was at least as cruel as Rigoberta depicted in the book.  Carlos Fuentes once said that reality will always overpower fiction, no matter how hard writers tried.  The intellectual evolution that Galeano has displayed is welcome, and it is also an inspiration to reread Open Veins and Latin America with much-needed fresh eyes.

December 2, 2014