Chile: Constitutional Process Has Settled Little

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

Demonstrators in Santiago, Chile call for a new constitution / www.jpereira.net / Creative Commons license

The Chilean Constitutional Convention handed its proposed draft to President Gabriel Boric on July 4 – in preparation for the “exit” referendum on September 4 that will approve or reject country’s new magna carta – but it hasn’t achieved the national unity, social cohesion, or popular support envisioned when 78 percent of Chileans voted for the convention in 2020.

Historical center-left leaders are publicly supporting the nay option, and opinion polls show support is declining.

  • Former President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Talge (1994-2000), a Christian Democrat who played a key role after the Pinochet dictatorship, has urged rejection because he sees “insurmountable disagreements with contents [of the draft] that compromise peace, democracy and the prosperity of our country.” He said the proposed reduction in presidential power and creation of an omnipotent new Senate could lead to dangerous populism. Former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-06) has not rejected the draft, but he has pulled back from his expected endorsement of it – a blow to the Boric government strategy for approval.
  • Leading opponents of the Pinochet-era Constitution, including former senior government officials, have criticized the proposed replacement, writing that “the electoral system is distorted with reserved seats, which reminds us of the institutional [appointed] senators of Pinochet’s Constitution.” Like Frei, they believe that the proposed system would incite conflict rather than cooperation.
  • The eight most reliable polls in the country show likely yay votes for the draft are dropping – from around 50 percent in February to about 35 percent this month. Nay votes rose from a third to roughly 50 percent in the same period. Activa Research has found that 62 percent reject the draft, while 38 percent approve of it. The 30 percent who were “undecided” last month has dropped to 20 percent, with most now rejecting the draft.

Five major factors – not all of which are the Constitutional Convention’s fault – appear to be driving this shift.

  • The Convention majority rejected pleas for greater fiscal responsibility as it wrote in a series of expensive new entitlements and nationalizations. Sponsors’ reactions to the criticism also alienated voters by saying “you stand with us, or you stand with Pinochet’s dictatorship.”
  • Favoritism and strident ideological positions undermined consensus. Most of almost 80 percent of Chileans who voted for the constitutional process in 2020 believed the new Constitution would be, for good, a “casa de todos” in terms of the social contract. The tense and confrontational debate during the process and its outcomes establishing group rights rather than universal policies let them down. 
  • Economic uncertainty since the social upheaval of 2019 – aggravated by the COVID‑19 pandemic and war in Ukraine – has undermined popular support as well. Inflation has risen steadily, and the Chilean peso has plunged to a historical low.
  • People feel insecure. The government’s performance in managing crime, drug trafficking, and the armed conflict in the south of the country against Mapuche extremist factions has not been satisfactory. Boric’s emphasis on a negotiated settlement has failed and may have worsened the problem.
  • Approval for Boric, sworn in less than five months ago amid great expectations, dropped to 34 percent this month, the lowest of his mandate. Poor communications have pushed the First Lady (who serves as head of Sociocultural Coordination) and Minister of Interior Izkia Sichesto to have the lowest approval ratings of the cabinet. Although Boric has repeatedly denied that his administration backs the yay option, his General Secretary of the Presidency affirmed earlier this year that Boric’s program requires the new Constitution to be approved.

No matter how the plebiscite on September 4 turns out, the Constitutional process now appears far from ending – and threats to political stability seem likely. If Chileans approve the draft, both sides will seek significant changes. If they reject it, changing the 1980 Constitution will still be essential to avoid tumult in the streets like rocked the country in 2019. Boric recently suggested starting a new Constitutional process from scratch, fueling further uncertainty.

  • While frustrations appear likely to grow and the chance of instability is not negligible, the Constitutional Convention process has shown that – so far – Chilean institutions have been able to maintain Rule of Law. Compared to Venezuela (1999), Bolivia (2006), and Ecuador (2007-08), Chile has followed an open and relatively stable track. But if the plebiscite does not deliver a clear, workable verdict in September, the country will again be at a crossroads – either build on what it’s accomplished since 2019 or try to start anew.

July 27, 2022

*Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government. Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). This updates their recent AULABLOG articles (here and here) on the topic.

Argentina: From Bad to Worse?

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Argentina’s new Economy Minister, Silvina Batakis / Government of Argentina / Creative Commons license

Argentina’s mismanagement of fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies – and its business-unfriendly, interventionist policies destructive of investor confidence – have delivered an increasingly unpopular mix of economic stagnation and accelerating inflation. While the government most likely will muddle through until the next national elections in October 2023, there is a non-negligible risk that remaining public confidence could collapse and lead to uncontrolled inflation, deepening recession, social unrest, and even the resignation of President Alberto Fernández.

  • By early 2021, the Argentine economy had already recovered from the 15 percent drop in real GDP caused by the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020. That was a relatively easy feat because the economy was already in a recession; real GDP in the first quarter of 2020 stood 11 percent below that in the fourth quarter of 2017. So far this year, the pace of economic activity has remained below that 2017 peak, and it has started to drop some more, with the latest consensus forecast projecting GDP declines in the second and third quarters, followed by stagnation in the fourth trimester.
  • Inflation has accelerated from a yearly average pace of under 50 percent in 2020 and 2021 to an annualized rate of 85 percent in the first half of this year. This month’s inflation rate may well have three digits once annualized. To slow down inflation, the government has resorted to price controls on staples sold by supermarkets; import and capital controls to prevent the currency from devaluing faster; export quotas on beef, corn, and wheat to keep domestic supplies higher and prices lower; and hefty subsidies to state-owned and private companies that supply electricity, gasoline, natural gas, mass transit, and water and sewer services to consumers. As a result, the headline inflation rate is underestimated by at least 10 percentage points, while the subsidies are keeping the fiscal deficit about 4 percent of GDP wider than otherwise.

By now Argentina wasn’t supposed to be in such lamentable economic shape. Barely four months ago, the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed negotiations on a $44 billion loan under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The country was granted an up-front disbursement of almost $10 billion, plus $4 billion more in late June.

  • The IMF program has three main targets for this year. The first is a modestly narrower fiscal deficit – 2.5 percent of GDP rather than last year’s 3 percent (measured excluding interest payments on the public debt). The second calls for a nearly $6 billion accumulation of central bank net international reserves, which would take the year-end total to over $8 billion. And the third requires a reduction in central bank financing of the government’s budget deficit, to the equivalent of 1 percent of GDP from 3.7 percent in 2021.
  • The program’s rather modest fiscal and monetary objectives are based on optimistic assumptions, however, and its structural reforms fall way short of what is required to spark confidence and a sustainable economic recovery. Populist economic measures – advocated mainly by the Peronist faction led by Vice President Cristina Kirchner – have greatly harmed the country’s business and investment climate.
  • It is an open secret in Argentina that the main purpose of the IMF loan is really to help the government avoid defaulting on the $44 billion the Fund previously loaned (in 2018-19) to President Mauricio Macri’s administration. That loan is scheduled for repayment in full between September 2021 and mid-2024, and the present government had made it plain to the IMF that it had no means to do so absent a reprofiling or a quid pro quo. Therefore, in Argentina, the new IMF loan is widely understood to be a fig leaf over what is an indirect debt rescheduling on an installment plan – and it is characterized as a debt refinancing by the government itself.

Even the mild conditionality attached to the new IMF loan has already proven difficult to meet and has claimed its first significant victim –Economy Minister and Fernández ally Martín Guzmán resigned on July 2. His replacement is Silvina Batakis, a heterodox Peronist economist handpicked by Cristina Kirchner.

  • All indications are that the government missed the IMF targets for end-June, especially once discounting any window dressing, and that, failing to take restrictive fiscal and monetary measures soon, it will miss the goals for the full year. Argentina’s financial markets have been reacting badly. The stock market index has been trailing far behind inflation; the government’s dollar-denominated bonds have plunged to distressed levels, mostly below 25 cents on the dollar; and the Argentine peso, whose value is set artificially by the central bank under a rationing system, trades in parallel (but legal) and black markets at less than half its official value.
  • Social and political tensions are on the rise, largely because wages and pensions are incapable of keeping up with inflation. On July 9, Independence Day celebrations were marred by nationwide protests against the government, though at least they were peaceful. On July 13, farmers staged a one-day strike to complain against punishing taxes, damaging currency controls, and a scarcity of diesel fuel that has hit them during the harvest season. New Economy Minister Batakis will need to walk a fine line between introducing unpopular corrective measures to break the inflation spiral – restrictive fiscal and monetary policies, in particular – and pleasing political masters who seem to be persuaded that a muddling-through scenario of tightening controls and ignoring market realities is still viable. A miscalculation could lead to triple-digit inflation, widespread social unrest, and the early exit of President Alberto Fernández.

July 14, 2022

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Costa Rica: The First Months of an Atypical President

By Ilka Treminio*

President Rodrigo Chaves Robles speaking before the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly / Julieth Méndez, Office of the President of Costa Rica / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Costa Rica’s new President, in office for less than 90 days, is struggling to establish his credibility and launch his agenda. A political neophyte, Rodrigo Chaves Robles presented himself as the candidate of the recently created Progreso Social Democrático (PSD) party. He had no political career beyond serving as Minister of Finance for six months. He studied economics and was a professional on the staff of the World Bank, where he held senior positions for 27 years.

  • The Costa Rican elections were characterized by several key factors, including the lowest voter participation (56.76 percent) since the country’s return to democracy in 1948; the highest number of political parties (25); and a campaign aggressively focused on allegations of abuse by candidates. Chaves was accused of sexual harassment during his time at the World Bank. His main opponent, José María Figueres of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), was alleged to have participated in various acts of corruption as President in the 1990s. Chaves’s PSD is accused of creating a parallel campaign finance tool that the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) is now investigating.  

Chaves assumed office in May with several immediate challenges. As happened in the 2014 and 2018 elections, the President — who won only 10 of the 57 seats — took office with a parliamentary minority. The strongest party, with 19 congressmen, remains the PLN, and another four parties have members of the Legislative Assembly as well. Of all of them, only the Frente Amplio (FA) is left-of-center; the others are in the center and on the right, which augurs a significant shift of the social and economic models of the country.

  • The Legislative Assembly in May held an historic vote to name Rodrigo Arias as its legislative director — a PLN operator who’d served twice as Minister of the Presidency to his brother, popular ex-President Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-90 and 2006-10). At the top of the new legislative director’s priorities is a state reform law drafted by a special commission headed by Eliécer Feingzaig, widely known for his anti-state agenda. The commission is expected to draft legislation that will reduce or close public institutions and advocate other policies to diminish government.

Chaves’s style suggests that he wants to even out the competing powers between the Executive and Legislative, although at the risk of showing a propensity for emitting decrees.  

  • His most important measures so far have dealt with economic matters, such as one that made the so-called regla fiscal— a complex budget rule that limits government spending to GDP growth and controls on national debt — more flexible, so that he can pursue programs he ran on. He has been criticized because such flexibility was why he resigned as Finance Minister in the past. Another measure was to double senior government officials’ salaries at a time of austerity and reduced spending.
  • Chaves hasn’t been very effective with the Judiciary either.  In an exchange with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice about a ruling on citizens’ rights to speak out against him, his words prompted the court to admonish him for failing to respect the separation of powers.

President Chaves in his first months has been different from his predecessors. His speeches and actions seem guided more by impulse than the deployment of government strategies, which is odd for a technical expert from the World Bank. That approach might appear attractive to certain sectors of the population, but it entails risks for the country’s institutions by appearing personalistic and critical of established institutional procedures. The leadership of Rodrigo Arias in the legislature can be key for the country’s more conservative and traditional sectors — and undermine Chaves’s agenda.

  • Chaves himself is a conservative, but he is more prone to talk with non-traditional sectors and to listen to them. His unusual Presidential style is provoking expectations that he will perform. He seems to be seen by many Costa Ricans as caring about institutional actors, human rights defenders, and some communications media. Over time, however, he will have to watch out that he does not get blamed by disgruntled sectors of society as the man responsible for their unhappiness. Even if his political opponents push the policies that undermine people’s livelihoods — slow government institutions, economic decline, ineffective pacts between political forces, slow progress for the rights of women, LGBTQI+, immigrants, and others — he is the one who would pay the biggest price.

July 6, 2022

Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.

Latin America: Lessons Learned from Abortion Rights Struggle

by Brenda Werth and Katherine Zien*

A protestor tying green scarves to a fence at a pro-abortion demonstration in Argentina / Fotomovimiento / Flickr / Creative Commons license

With the U.S. Supreme Court apparently poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, U.S. supporters of women’s reproductive rights could learn from the strategies of their Latin American counterparts, who have made important advances even if they still feel they must struggle for implementation. The decision will put the United States out of step with global progress being made in sexual and reproductive rights, according to the Secretary General of Amnesty International. In the last 25 years, around 50 countries have increased legal access to abortion. Latin America, a traditionally Catholic region, has been at the forefront of decriminalizing and legalizing abortion rights.

  • In 2012, Uruguay legalized abortion of fetuses up to 12 weeks. In January 2020, Argentina became the largest Latin American nation to legalize abortion, allowing pregnancies to be terminated up to 14 weeks. Mexico followed suit and decriminalized abortion in September 2021, and in February 2022, Colombia decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks. Chile, if its new Constitution is approved, will be the first country in the world to make abortion a constitutional right. While abortion rights are more limited in 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, these represent major strides forward.

The progress in Latin America comes on the heels of a revolution in gender and sexuality rights across the region catalyzed by feminist mobilization against gender violence and femicide in movements and street protests such as NiUnaMenos (Argentina), Un Violador en tu camino (Chile), and NiUnaMás (México). Abortion rights – framed as crucial to protecting reproductive health – were integrated into a preexisting human rights framework. Feminist groups have argued that the prohibition of access to legal and safe abortion is an act of gender violence.

  • The path toward legalization is clearest in Argentina, where a human rights culture created initially by groups like Madres de Plaza de Mayo during the last dictatorship (1976-83) led to feminist movements such as NiUnaMenos and the Marea verde (Green Tide), symbolized by the green handkerchiefs donned by supporters of the Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. The Campaign also used inclusive language to expand the definition of those entitled to abortion rights to include anyone capable of gestation, including gender non-conforming individuals. The struggle has also been intergenerational (Barbara Sutton, “Intergenerational Encounters”). Sometimes referred to as the “revolución de las hijas” or “las pibitas,” a young generation including high schoolers took to the streets and transformed public spaces and social perceptions of abortion rights in Argentina.
  • Abortion rights in Argentina thus intersected with progressive legislation on gender and sexuality rights. In 2020, President Alberto Fernández, who described abortion as “a matter of public health” during his campaign, introduced the bill in Congress legalizing abortion. His predecessor, conservative President Mauricio Macri (2015‑2019), had allowed the bill to be debated in Congress, and before him, left-wing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007‑2015) supported progressive legislation on sexual and gender rights even though she refused to support abortion reform because of personal views.

The “doble militancia” (Debora Lopreite, “The Long Road”) – the popular mobilizations and political coalition-building pushing for reproductive rights as issues of human rights, public health, and social justice – contributed to Argentina’s landmark law. Activists continue to be vigilant, however, as abortion access has been hindered by opponents and the high percentage of doctors, particularly in the northwest provinces, who declare themselves “conscientious objectors.”

  • Argentina’s path has been very different from that of the United States. The right to abortion in the United States was nested within the umbrella of privacy rights and became a federal policy via the judiciary rather than the legislature. U.S. activists have not strategically framed it as a human right firmly in the context of public health and social justice. To achieve lasting change, they could shift discourse away from abortion as a single issue, an anti-religious position, or an abstract philosophical debate, and situate it firmly in the context of public health and social justice. Grassroots social mobilization across generations, strategic coalition-building, and transversal relationships between activists and policymakers don’t guarantee irreversible change, but they are more reliable drivers of change than the shifting political winds affecting Supreme Court justices.

June 9, 2022

* Brenda Werth is an Associate Professor of Latin American Studies and Spanish at American University. Katherine Zien is an Associate Professor of Drama and Theater at McGill University

Argentina: Is China Nostalgic for the Macri Era?

by Patricio Giusto*

Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China / Casa Rosada / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Argentina’s return to Peronism with the victory of President Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner in 2019 has not led to a rapprochement between Argentina and China as widely predicted. After the first half of the Fernández’s presidency, relations with China are riddled with unfulfilled promises, political and bureaucratic obstacles, detrimental economic measures, and other challenges. To some extent, paradoxically, Beijing might be missing center-right President Mauricio Macri’s times (2015-2019).

Fernández and other key figures of the Argentinean government frequently refer to the country’s “deep friendship” and “strategic relationship” with China. Under Fernández, Argentina has just joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, according to the official line, bilateral links are very strong. Of China’s top priorities for the relationship, however, almost nothing has been accomplished with Fernández. Fierce political struggles within the Fernández coalition have contributed to an erratic foreign policy that lacks of a comprehensive strategy on China. Mounting U.S. pressure on certain critical issues has also been a factor.

  • When Fernández traveled to Beijing to sign the BRI agreement three months ago, the two governments announced more than $13 billion in infrastructure investments, but they have released no details on projects or their financing.

The energy sector has been particularly messy for China with Fernández in charge.

  • An $8 billion nuclear power project with Hualong One technology has stalled as Argentina tries to renegotiate the financial conditions during a severe economic crisis – and faces tough diplomatic pressure from Washington to abandon the project. The Santa Cruz hydroelectric dams, the largest Chinese investment project in Argentina, have suffered constant economic restraints and union strikes for two years. An Argentinian financial default has provoked the total interruption of Chinese finance. PowerChina filed an official complaint about handling of its bid to build a Chihuidos hydroelectric dam in Neuquén province. The Belgrano II thermal power plant project with China’s CNTIC – financed by the U.S. EXIM Bank – has mysteriously never started. The oil company Sinopec, weary of economic volatility and strikes, sold its assets in Argentina in early 2020, affecting its operations.

The Argentinian government has slowed other forms of cooperation, apparently for security reasons, as well.

  • Buenos Aires announced, for example, that it alone would fund the Antarctic Logistics Pole project in Tierra del Fuego province that it had discussed with China. It has not acted on the long-awaited purchase of Chinese J-17 fighter jets and wheeled armored vehicles because of financial constraints and U.S. pressure, according to Ministry of Defense sources.
  • On another flagship project, management the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, the country’s most strategic fluvial corridor, Fernández decided to nationalize part of the operation and determined that only a Belgian company was a qualified partner.
  • In the agricultural sector, Fernández has also dismissed a Chinese investment project estimated to be worth $3.7 billion to develop the pork industry through the installation of mega-factories in different parts of the country.

Some Fernández policies have hurt Argentina’s interests directly as well. He suspended beef exports to China last year – supposedly to curb domestic inflation – but inflation continued to rise while Argentina lost hundreds of millions of dollars from exports and hurt Chinese buyers’ confidence. The country’s bilateral trade deficit with China reached a record $7.3 billion in 2021, after having decreased to $2 billion a year in Macri’s times.

The repeated friendly rhetoric and gestures between Argentinian and Chinese counterparts do not conceal the fact that the relationship under Fernández has been full of obstacles and frustrations for Beijing. President Macri’s international approach was openly pro-West and he had clear ideological differences with China, but there is no doubt that relations then were much more fluent and fruitful for both Argentina and China.

  • The second half of Alberto Fernández’s term is likely to be similarly plagued, with the critical issues blocking progress unlikely to be resolved. Argentina’s economic situation will almost certainly continue to worsen, depriving it of resources to hold up its side of any deal with China. U.S. pressure will continue being a key factor, aimed at restricting cooperation with China in critical issues for Washington’s agenda, such as telecommunications and defense. On the other hand, the two countries’ desire to find ways to cooperate will remain strong no matter who wins the Argentinian presidency in 2023, and China – if patient enough with the ups and downs of the relationship – will continue to be an irreplaceable partner for Argentina.

June 1, 2022

* Patricio Giusto is executive director of the Sino-Argentinian Observatory, an advisor to the Argentinian National Senate, and a visiting professor at Zhejiang University. He is also a researcher and associate professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

U.S.-Cuba: Putting the “Sonic Attacks” Myth behind Us?

by Fulton Armstrong and Philip Brenner*

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba / Ajay Suresh / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

The Biden Administration’s recent announcement that it is resuming “limited” consular functions at the U.S. Embassy in Havana suggests that it’s prepared to put the “sonic attacks” meme – President Donald Trump’s stated rationale for closing the Consulate in 2017 – behind it, but Washington still appears unlikely to restart the normalization process. U.S. and Cuban officials met last month for the first time in four years to discuss implementation of a migration accord signed in 1995. Orderly migration is only one among several interests the United States could advance if it were willing to resume discussions with Cuba. But the Biden administration has placed electoral politics ahead of U.S. interests and appears unlikely to do more.

  • A State Department official told reporters that consular officers will process applications from only the Cuban parents of U.S. citizens, and that persons in all other non-emergency categories will still have to go to Guyana or another third country to apply. A few of the vice-consuls reportedly will fill previously permanent slots, but others will be assigned to the Embassy on a temporary basis.
  • When it ceased consular services in 2017, the State Department unilaterally abrogated a bilateral agreement, which enjoyed bipartisan support for two and a half decades, to process visas in a manner that would keep migration legal and safe. Renewing limited services, officials cited the surge in “irregular Cuban migrants” to the United States “via land and maritime routes.” Cubans are the second largest group arriving on the Southwest border – 16,531 in February alone, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 1,000 Cubans in the Florida Strait since October.

The State Department has not publicly reconciled its consular decision with its repeated allegations of a Cuban role in, or at least failure to prevent, the “sonic attacks” that the Trump Administration cited, after months of inaction, as reason for reducing the Embassy. Now referred to as “Havana Syndrome” and “unexplained health incidents” by the Biden Administration, those allegations have never been substantiated.

  • Various reports have seriously challenged the official claims, but the U.S. Government has continued efforts to find scientists who will corroborate them. As early as November 2018, scientists of the prestigious JASON advisory group concluded that the reported sounds “most likely” were caused by Caribbean short-tailed crickets; it found they were “highly unlikely” from ultrasound or microwave equipment as alleged. A half-dozen investigations later, CIA officials last January said that all but two dozen of the 1,000 reported cases could be explained by environmental conditions, undiagnosed medical conditions, or stress rather than a global campaign by a foreign power. (Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns soon came forward to stress that “while we have reached some significant interim findings, we are not done.”)

The “sonic attacks” in Havana initially took place in late 2016, but the Trump Administration did not mention them in announcing its first round of measures in June 2017 to slow and eventually reverse President Obama’s normalization policies – perhaps because it too didn’t take the allegations seriously. Public complaints by self-identified victims in August 2017 found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, however, and legislators pressed the Trump Administration to use it as pretext to reduce the U.S. Embassy in Havana (and to force Cuba to cut back its Embassy staff in Washington). The Biden Administration embraced the same rationale three and a half years later, despite overwhelming evidence that the blame on Cuba was misplaced, with literally hundreds of victims from around the world (even in Washington, DC) coming forward with similar claims of unexplained head injuries. The Biden Administration seems now to seek a quiet way back to addressing a migration crisis for which it, like the Trump Administration, has been complicit.

  • The Administration seems to think its policies will help it win hearts and minds in Florida, but its failure to provide leadership on issues like “sonic attacks” is further narrowing its political space. Now it faces challenges not only from the usual characters in Congress who oppose normalization, but also moderates such as Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Mark Warner (Virginia), who cosponsored the “HAVANA Act.” In addition to permanently linking the issue to Havana, the legislation, which Biden signed into law last October, has contributed to a surge in alleged cases of anomalous symptoms by offering compensation to “victims.”
  • Neither does the Administration seem concerned about the implications of its Cuba policies for U.S. interests throughout Latin America – one of the main drivers of President Obama’s pivot on the island in 2014. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s statement this week that he will not attend the Summit of the Americas that Biden is hosting in Los Angeles next month if Cuba is not invited is a blow. Similarly, Ambassador Ronald Sanders of Antigua & Barbuda, widely seen as “dean” of the Caribbean diplomatic corps, declared that Biden’s continued embrace of Trump policies on Cuba and Venezuela “has continued to haunt US‑Caribbean relations.”

May 13, 2022

* Fulton Armstrong directs AULABLOG. Philip Brenner is Emeritus Professor of International Relations and History at American University. His latest books are Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence and Cuba at the Crossroads.

Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

Chile’s Constitutional Convention | Photo: Twitter/@ChileTodayNews

Chile’s Constitutional Convention appears headed toward a messy run to the goal line and, even if – as appears likely to be the default outcome – it is approved in the “exit” referendum, could produce a charter that fails to unify the country.

  • Born of a compromise to decompress tensions generated by social upheaval in October 2019, the proposal to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution was ratified by 78 percent of Chileans in a referendum in 2020. In May 2021 the citizenry elected the Convention members charged with writing the new Carta Magna, favoring left-wing, independent, and reformist candidates. The center-right got only 24 percent of seats. Consequently, the Convention’s first general committee – elected by the representatives – had a clear desde cero (“from scratch”) character.
  • The results of Congressional elections last November, however, influenced convention members and some traditional center-left figures, such as socialist former President Ricardo Lagos Escobar, to address the centrist voter. In those elections, unlike in the May election for the Convention, the Senate went 50/50 for the left and right – demonstrating that the desde cero character of the Convention was no longer politically viable. Convention members then turned to more moderate and diligent persons to lead the general committee in recognition that regaining public support was crucial to keep the Convention going.

When the Convention started the voting sessions on provisions for the new Constitution in January, however, what appeared to be an adequate rudder change to the center ended when members initiated debate on the first proposals of the new Bill of Rights. Some proposed dissolving the current branches of Chile’s government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial – and replacing them with a Plurinational Assembly, resembling the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan constitutional processes. The former Vice President of the Convention, Jaime Bassa, and President-elect Gabriel Boric discarded the idea. They both framed it as a non-democratic way to reach social consensus. As a result, the motion was defeated. 

  • Despite that moment of moderation, polarization has deepened. The most controversial recent proposal would establish a parallel legal standard to judges to treat Indigenous Peoples separately from the other civilians. Another would create a new federal-like regional state structure that its proponents say ’would end the Chilean Republic as unitary, dividing the country into smaller or even local-autonomous units.
  • These proposals have further split Convention members.  Some right-wing members now question their continuity in the constitutional process and are considering a campaign for the nay in the exit plebiscite on the document, scheduled for the third quarter of this year. Moderates, including former leftists, who rejected the regional states motion have been criticized by their former allies as too soft and as continuistas of the existing Chilean model. 

The Convention’s dysfunction is taking its toll on its image and, ultimately, its potential effectiveness as critics have proliferated. Last month public support for the body had fallen to 50 percent, and citizens intending to approve the Carta Magna dropped from 56 to 47 percent. Accordingly, influential members of Chilean society – including politicians, intellectuals, and scientists – have gathered to call for moderation and understanding.  Moreover, some emblematic personalities of the left have even campaigned to reject the constitutional proposal in the plebiscite later this year – a position that was unthinkable at the beginning of the process.

  • Approval of any article of the new Constitution requires a two-thirds vote, so moderation and negotiation by both sides are key if the Convention is to complete its process. The conservatives will need to cede their defense of the status quo, meaning the current Constitution, and refrain from taking extreme positions such as threatening to leave the process. Conversely, the leftists should lessen their reforming desde-cero character. Time is running out, as they must not only finish the constitutional draft but convince voters to approve it.
  • The process is likely to take more twists and turns, but ratification of the new Constitution still appears more likely than failure because of a broad-based desire to end the chaos the country has been experiencing. Even so, the support for and legitimacy of the new Bill of Rights will be weak, and politicians could very well propose to discuss it again as a relief valve, diverting attention rather than finding solutions. On the other hand, moderation could prevail, for at least a while, because the right and the center agree on the new Constitution’s proposed provisions on better healthcare, public education, and pension system. The exit plebiscite will take place under compulsory voting, so around half of the population will be unable to dodge the likely difficult decisions ahead.

March,07,2022

*Miguel Zlosilo is a sociologist and former chief of research of the Secretary of Communications in the second Sebastián Piñera government (2018-21). Carlos Cruz Infante is a sociologist and has served in several senior strategic planning positions in the Chilean government.

Brazil: Hoping for Better Times

By Fábio Kerche*

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with a crowd of supporters/ Palácio do Planato/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazilian former President Lula da Silva begins his campaign for the October 2022 elections seeking to broaden his support beyond the left-wing – not just to win the election but to rebuild democracy and create a stronger base for a future administration. Cleared of the lawsuits that kept him out of the 2018 elections (which brought President Jair Bolsonaro to power), Lula leads all polls by a wide margin and could even win the 50 percent of votes necessary for a first-round victory.

  • In second place, albeit with a high level of voter rejection in surveys, appears Bolsonaro. Polls show that he has very faithful supporters – enough to survive the first round of voting – but that he will have problems attracting others in a second round. Much lower in the polls are Sergio Moro, the former judge who arrested Lula in conjunction with the Lava Jato case and prevented him from running in 2018, and Ciro Gomes, a former Lula ally who today variously presents himself as a left-wing or right-wing candidate.
  • The situation is so favorable for Lula that some political analysts speculate that Bolsonaro, Moro, and Gomes, unless their ratings turn around soon, could withdraw their candidacies and run for Congress instead. In Brazil, being a congressperson ensures protection from the Judiciary; members cannot be tried by lower court judges. Being out of office can be dangerous, especially for Bolsonaro, who faces an avalanche of corruption allegations (along with his sons) and possible charges related to policies stemming from the government’s handling of the COVID pandemic.

Lula’s ambitions include building political support in a Congress traditionally fragmented among multiple political parties. His strategy is to dialogue with all, from the moderate right-wing to those who supported his imprisonment for more than 500 days and the impeachment of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff.

  • He has surprised supporters by signaling that he will offer the vice presidency to former São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, positioned on the center-right in Brazilian politics. Alckmin, who was a member of the PDSB, a party historically opposed to the PT, ran for president against Lula in 2006. Observers believe an alliance with him does not give Lula a significant boost – historically vice-presidential candidates don’t bring in a substantial number of votes – but its symbolism is strong, signaling that a priority is to protect the democracy threatened by Bolsonaro. What is at stake in this perspective are not public policies, as in a normal political campaign, but rather ensuring democracy itself.

Lula’s outreach and emphasis on building a moderate unity government seem intended both to win the election and set a new tone in Brazilian politics – leaving speechless those who accused him of being radical. There is little cost in terms of policies; the platform is not very different from what he did in his past administration: social policies with moderation in the economy. The market is already responding positively and lessening its aversion to the former president. Lula is trying to remind them that in his administration the poor improved their lives, but the economy was in very good shape as well.

  • If Lula should become the new president in 2023, as appears likely, he will still face many arduous tasks. The Bolsonaro government has dismantled many public policies without presenting alternatives. Cuts in the budgets for health, education, science, technology, and more have significantly reduced capabilities. In addition, Bolsonaro appointed unqualified heads in important agencies, disorganizing public services. The economy is bad; inflation is back (10 percent last year); and unemployment is high (11‑13 percent). The International Monetary Fund has forecast a 0.3 percent GPD increase in 2022. Lula is remembered as a great president – he left with 87 percent approval ratings – but he can’t work miracles. In any case, Lula seems to be the hope of better times for more and more Brazilians.

February 17, 2022

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.

Five Questions About Nicaragua’s Predicament

By A Long-time Observer*

Students protesting against President Ortega/ Jorge Mejía Peralta/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As the people of Nicaragua prepare for presidential elections on November 7, they are a nation that sought to overcome dictatorship, revolution, and civil war by accepting and practicing democracy – just to find itself back at square one. The following questions address the recent past for an understanding of Nicaragua’s current predicament.

  1. How to explain President Daniel Ortega’s presence on the front lines of Nicaraguan politics for the last 40 years? Ortega has been head of government or head of the opposition in Nicaragua since 1979, when he led a coalition government of Sandinista guerrillas and independent civilians and then became President in his own right after elections in 1984. During the 1980s, the other main Sandinista leaders were busy running ministries and representing the country abroad, while Ortega started building a party structure loyal to himself. After losing the next election in 1990, his grip on the party increased as dissident Sandinistas left in protest over the transfer of public assets (mostly confiscated from Somoza and his cronies in 1979) as private property to the party leadership that remained loyal to Ortega.
  2. What is the Sandinista party (FSLN) today in terms of numbers, structure, and historical significance? The importance of the party structure has dwindled as the government relies more on alliances with non-Sandinista economic groups and Ortega becomes the great decider assisted by a small circle of confidants and family members. The party with a mass following is no more. Less able to mobilize people to counter or cower opposition as it might have done during, for example, the critical months of the 2018 uprising, it has resorted to outright repression (killings, imprisonments, exile).
  3. What was/is the role played by Venezuelan assistance during the latest Ortega governments? When Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, Nicaragua was still recovering from the Contra War of the 1980s, which had drained the country of productive resources, and three neoliberal administrations, which cut social spending and sought to attract private investment. The 2008 worldwide economic downturn was an early challenge. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela immediately stepped in to assist by providing Nicaragua with oil on credit and by purchasing foodstuffs for his own country. From 2010 to 2014, Venezuela provided more than $500 million yearly in petroleum. Venezuelan aid also altered the composition of the Nicaraguan business class by allowing Sandinista entrepreneurs to access credit and subsidies from semi-private companies set up to handle Venezuelan oil imports, as well as supporting social programs for their base in the countryside and urban barrios.
  4. What role does the private sector play in Ortega’s Nicaragua? Outside of the new Sandinista-owned businesses, the principal beneficiary of Venezuelan assistance was the traditional private sector headed by the country’s large agribusiness and banking concerns. Ortega mostly abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric and embarked on a new national development policy defined as “socialist, Christian, and caring,” while Nicaraguan companies exported meat and cereals to Venezuela at market prices. COSEP, the largest private-sector interest group, gave legitimacy to the alliance of convenience between Ortega and his public-private hybrid model. The economy grew at respectable annual rates of 4.5 percent to 6.0 percent from 2010 to 2017, but Venezuelan assistance declined after 2015, as did the Nicaraguan economy shortly afterwards. The last three years have witnessed negative economic activity, compounded by COVID‑19 and political unrest.
  5. What is the nature of the opposition to Ortega and how does it resemble opposition to the Somoza regime of decades past? It is difficult to estimate what proportion of the electorate would still support Ortega in an open election. There are no recent trustworthy polls, nor has the opposition been allowed to mobilize in public gatherings or participate in open political debate. However, the manner in which the regime has declared most, if not all, opposition candidates ineligible to run, and arrested many others, would suggest that it fears even the most timid of rivals. Nor does it have the economic resources to fund a large-scale campaign with even token opposition candidates akin to the “loyal” opposition that the Somoza dictatorship cobbled together to provide a veneer of legitimacy.

Ortega finds himself bereft of strong international support – even from a Latin American left that historically sided with the Sandinistas in their struggle against imperialism and interventionism – and must rely increasingly on the police and the army as a line of last defense. The army chief since 2010, General Julio César Avilés Castillo, has presided over a noticeable increase in the strength of the Nicaraguan Army, including the purchase of T-72 tanks and armored personnel carriers – cementing its political loyalties. The police, too, are now equipped with late-model pickups purchased from a dealership owned by a close business apologist of the regime.

  • Nicaragua’s current political landscape has a lot more to do with power – political, economic, military – than with the wishes of the electorate or the respect for human rights. No one doubts that Ortega will win his fourth consecutive election – by hook or by crook – come November 7, and Nicaragua’s predicament will not be over until at least one of the legs of the Ortega alliance gives way.

October 20, 2021

Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

Demonstration in Support of Bolsonaro/ Editorial J/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s September 7 holiday brought supporters of President Bolsonaro out in droves to hear him – standing next to his Defense Minister and his vice president (a retired general) – threaten the country’s Supreme Court, which he accused of politicization and abuse, and Congress, which has angered him by failing to pass his pet electoral legislation replacing electronic polling with paper ballots. Although the day’s events did not lead to significant violence, they portend further tensions and perhaps major disruptions ahead.

Great trepidation preceded the Independence Day confrontations. Some observers even worried that the demonstrations might become a rehearsal for an “auto-golpe,” triggering violence that might provide the excuse for a military intervention. The fact that the demonstrations (and counter-protests) came off without significant violence was cause for a collective sigh of relief.

  • While the crowds in Brasília, São Paulo, and a few other cities were energetic, they were – with a few exceptions – peaceful. Although small skirmishes with the police broke out, the police did not escalate matters, join demonstrators, allow conflict to escalate between protestors and counter-protestors, or otherwise create conditions that might generate excuses for the re-imposition of “law and order.” Even though many of Bolsonaro’s supporters carried messages calling for an end to the high court and for military intervention, and a few uniformed officers wandered through the crowds, both state police forces and the military chose to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the fact that reasonable observers worry that September 7 could become a breaking point is itself a sign of how bad things have become. Indeed, the question now is less one of whether Bolsonaro will further ramp up tensions, but of how he will do so.

  • The weak president, whose net popularity rating has been in the negative double digits since March appears to be trying to seize back public attention after a series of embarrassing scandals enveloped his family and his administration. His recent statement, repeated to demonstrators on September 7, that he would only leave office “under arrest, dead, or victorious” suggests he is willing to heighten tensions to protect his self-interest.
  • Bolsonaro may have further isolated himself politically this week, alienating legislative allies from the transactional and fickle Centrão parties that back his administration. They are likely to melt away as the 2022 elections approach, looking to back a winner. Impeachment murmurings in Congress also picked up yesterday. His record shows that, as his hold on power evaporates, he will be increasingly willing to push matters to hold onto office.

The Independence Day crowds were impressive enough that Bolsonaro’s appetite for adulation may be sated for now, but his supporters remain an angry minority bent on defending their leader. The 13 months between Independence Day and the October 2022 elections will be marked by significant tension, exacerbated by the President himself, along with any of his allies in the military and police who are willing to be dragged along. 

  • An analytical survey by Wendy Hunter and Diego Vega points to a number of worrisome factors within the military, including a three-fold increase in the number of military personnel in appointed positions between 2014 and 2020; Bolsonaro’s decision to increase military salaries and budgets (against a general context of fiscal austerity); and his calls to deploy the military to “defend civil liberties” against those calling for a vaccine mandate. The military has “become more assertive in engaging in political debates” and “leverage[d] the relationship to advance their own interest.” Yet Hunter and Vega also note that the military high command has growing reservations about propping up an increasingly unpopular president, and they “do not anticipate a democratic breakdown through an institutional military intervention, a traditional coup or even an incumbent takeover.”
  • A possibly greater challenge to democracy may emerge from Brazil’s truculent state police forces. The run-up to September 7 suggested that Bolsonaro’s appeal among the police might be even more widespread than within the military, and high-ranking police officers in São Paulo state in particular have been worryingly active in national politics in recent weeks. A number of high-profile police officers who were elected to public office during the 2018 elections were present in the September 7 demonstrations. The increasing politicization of police forces is particularly perturbing because of their potential to disrupt street-level politics. But so far, police discipline has held, with only small groups of police, many of whom are retired, actively backing the President.
  • With the police and the military seemingly on the sidelines, one possibility is that Bolsonaro may encourage supporters to target the courts. It is no mistake that a weakened Bolsonaro has chosen the vulnerable Supreme Court as his foil, and one of his most frightening bits of bluster on September 7 was the threat not to comply with the Court’s decisions. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Court pushes Bolsonaro into a corner, ordering another ally to jail, for example – with the President and his allies responding with flagrant disobedience and heated rhetoric about the court’s alleged partisanship and illegitimacy.

September 8, 2021

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article updates one published on the Brazil Research Initiative blog.