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.

Ecuador’s Return to the Past

By John Polga-Hecimovich and Francisco Sánchez*

Inauguration of the President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso/ Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Ecuador’s underlying political and economic pathologies bode ill for its governability and democratic stability as President Guillermo Lasso, inaugurated in May, attempts a return to the neoliberalism, fiscal austerity, and minority government that marked the contentious politics of the 1990s and 2000s.

  • This “return to the past” is the result of successive governments’ inability to resolve longstanding structural deficiencies. The Revolución Ciudadana of President Rafael Correa (2007‑17) reflected an illusory stability that depended on favorable political-economic conditions. Correa promised political, economic, and social transformation; promulgated a new Constitution to achieve it; and touted a national plan of buen vivir. He survived 10 years in office, more than double any other president in Ecuador’s history, but his change was not fundamental or durable – a consequence of the inefficiency, centralization, and personalization of decision-making under one man.
  • Under the Lenín Moreno government (2017‑21), Ecuador’s pathologies reemerged salient as ever. Correa’s acolyte in the recent presidential election, Andrés Arauz, lost in the runoff against Lasso, who campaigned on a platform of fiscal austerity that was hardly an attractive proposition for an electorate battered by the COVID‑19 pandemic and years of slow economic growth.

While breaking with one version of its past – correísmo – the electorate seems to have resigned itself to another. Ecuador’s longstanding political dysfunction, driven by multiple factors, looms large.

  • Ever-changing rules of play. Since independence from Spain in 1820, Ecuador has had 20 constitutions and myriad electoral rules. In moments of crisis, especially since Ecuador’s democratic transition (1978‑79), elites have generally sought to alter the formal rules of the game – as a kind of restart button. Although Correa proclaimed that the Constitution he pushed through would endure for 300 years, it was modified 23 times in nine years to correct errors and alter citizens’ rights.
  • Weak rule of law and persistent corruption. “Extractive elites” siphon resources from the people and often support institutions and policies inimical to sustained economic growth. Stories abound of the cultivation of party adherents and votes through clientelism, and corruption has politicized the judiciary. Correa created a breeding ground for scandal. In 2017, the court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison and banned him from politics for 25 years, whereby he fled to exile in Belgium.
  • Fragmented parties. Ecuador’s party system is one of the most fragmented and weakly institutionalized in the world. Since returning to civilian rule, the parties have proven unable to sustain electoral support – most last only a handful of elections before they disappear. Despite high party turnover in the legislature, voters lack clear institutional channels of representation.
  • Slow growth and surging debt. Since the mid-2010s, economic, political, and social crises have reversed many of the gains made during the greatest economic boom in the country’s history. Correa’s large investments in infrastructure, such as roads, hydroelectric plants, schools, and health facilities, reduced political pressures. But the average annual deficit jumped to 3.5 percent of GDP between 2007 and 2017, and total foreign debt jumped from $10.5 billion to $31.5 billion, and reached $40 billion by 2020, while domestic debt grew fourfold. President Moreno’s efforts to change course provoked outrage and social unrest.
  • Significant interbranch conflict. Ecuadorian executives have been politically weak despite an institutional structure that strengthens the presidency relative to the legislature. They have to build coalitions through the distribution of pork and other perks, leading to weak and corrupt governance.

These factors drastically reduce Lasso’s policy options. In legislative elections held last February, moreover, his Creando Oportunidades (CREO) party won only 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. His 4.8-point margin of victory in the second presidential round gives a false sense of a popular mandate. It was a case of “outcome inversion” – when the first-round winner is defeated in the runoff – in a context of low party-system institutionalization.

  • Another challenge is that the country’s long-standing pathologies and the turmoil they cause have undermined Ecuadorians’ support for democracy, which fell from 66.7 percent in 2014 to 54.4 percent in 2019, a trend that is mirrored in several other Latin American states. Satisfaction with how democracy works in Ecuador, peaking at 68.8 percent in 2014, has once again become a minority position.

After the promises of reformist leaders, stability, and favorable economic conditions, Ecuador – like much of Latin America – seems to have returned to, or to never have actually escaped from, the volatility of its past. Its social, political, and economic weaknesses are mutually reinforcing. Economic hardship exacerbates the highly transactional and patrimonial nature of the political system and weakens the party system as lawmakers switch allegiances and votes based on whichever political broker can offer more.

  • Limited political and economic resources handicap Lasso’s efforts to address urgent problems, including the pandemic, that would sorely challenge even an experienced leader. Without a team with public-sector know-how, inexperienced politicians often end up absorbed by the pathologies of a political system that make their weaknesses more acute. From a historical perspective, there is no evidence to suggest that Lasso will succeed where previous presidents have failed.

July 27, 2021

* John Polga-Hecimovich is associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Francisco Sánchez is professor of political science and administration and director of the Iberoamérica Institute at the University of Salamanca. This article is adapted from their recent essay in the July issue of Journal of Democracy.

South America: Mounting Tensions, Few Solutions

By Christopher Kambhu*

Protest in Colombia/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

Across South America, calls for structural change have re-emerged on the streets and at the ballot box, but governments face many obstacles to constructively address them. These calls are a continuation of region-wide protests in 2019, when citizens demanded reforms or rewrites of the existing social contract to address various political, economic, and social inequities. While government pandemic measures pushed protestors off the streets throughout 2020, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities that prompted protests.

  • Inequities in Colombia have sparked nationwide social conflict. Protests against a proposed tax reform have broadened into demands for a basic income and accountability for security forces accused of killing dozens of protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, but radical groups have created “autonomous zones” free of police presence and established roadblocks, causing goods shortages in major cities. Negotiations between the government and protest leaders have yet to gain traction. President Ivan Duque’s approval rating has plummeted to historic lows as he appears unable to meet the moment. Backlash against demonstrators is emerging, with some wealthier residents violently repelling protestors from their neighborhoods.
  • In Ecuador and Peru, citizens have used the ballot box to voice their frustrations, leading to surprising electoral outcomes. Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s new center-right president, has formed a governing coalition with indigenous and social-democratic parties that are the second and third largest in the national legislature (Lasso’s party is the fifth largest). In Peru, provincial teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo has narrowly won June’s presidential runoff over Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a controversial former president convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. Castillo’s far-left party, which began contesting national elections only last year, is now the largest in Peru’s legislature, but needs to forge complex alliances to govern effectively.
  • Chile took a different path. Under intense pressure, the government acceded to popular demands for a constitutional rewrite. A national plebiscite last October assented to the rewrite by a wide margin, and elections for the Constituent Assembly in May demonstrated widespread rejection of the current elites. Most members are political independents or newcomers; a sizable number rose to prominence during the initial wave of protests in late 2019. The membership has gender parity, a first for such a body, with 11 percent of seats reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

Efforts to forge new social contracts are difficult at best and each path faces obstacles to success. Colombia’s current political leadership appears unable to calm tensions, and voters must wait until national elections next year to elect new leaders. While demands for change in Ecuador and Peru have elevated some candidates and parties to unprecedented success, sharp ideological divisions and partisan fragmentation in both legislatures appear likely to limit potential reforms. Castillo’s mandate is tenuous and weakened by Fujimori’s rather Trumpian allegations of fraud and attempts to throw out ballots. In Chile, the ideological diversity of the Constituent Assembly could very well preclude it from reaching the required two-thirds majority needed for any proposal to enter the new Constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in 2022.

  • The inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and a busy electoral schedule will keep reform issues at the forefront of political discourse; these debates will likely intensify with 11 countries across Latin America holding national elections over the next 18 months. While upcoming elections offer a timely opportunity for citizens to push their countries in new directions, governments will face political, fiscal, and social challenges which threaten implementation of any proposed reforms. At this early stage in the region’s electoral supercycle, political leaders have yet to capably address their citizens’ demands.

July 7, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

Peru: Approaching Ungovernability?

Voting in Peru during the presidential election/ Presidencia Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Disputes over the final vote count in Peru’s June 6 presidential runoff are likely to drag on, but those promoting fear and mistrust in the political system already appear to be the clear winners, with grave consequences for the future of the country’s democracy. The two leading candidates – leftist Pedro Castillo and rightist Keiko Fujimori – both represent significant threats to liberal democracy, and the country’s elites and media are complicitous in moving the country closer to ungovernability.

  • Castillo and his Perú Libre party ran on an unapologetically non-democratic platform, promising a Leninist government and suggesting an end to the democratic alternation of power. Fujimori defended the corrupt dictatorship of her father, Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), and as leader of Fuerza Popular has fought a constant battle against the rule of law.
  • First-round voting in April showed that neither of them won many hearts and minds – 18.9 percent voted for Castillo and 13.4 percent for Fujimori – but they advanced because the other 17 candidates were even worse, deeply divided, and weak. Preparing for the second round, rather than reach out to the 70 percent of voters who rejected them, they showed the arrogance of immoderation and left citizens wondering which would be less likely to tyrannize them.

Other political leaders and the country’s elites, instead of demanding that the two candidates commit to democracy, made things worse. Unlike the elites in other countries, Peru’s do not seek to take over the levers of political power; rather, they are most comfortable maintaining a mediocre status quo. The left showed unconditional enthusiasm for Castillo, and conservatives like author Mario Vargas Llosa embraced Fujimori – while the two candidates proceeded to tear the country apart with fear-mongering, scare tactics, and empty promises.

  • Fujimorismo based its campaign on causing panic by feeding people’s fear of communism and terrorism, and linking Castillo to them. By mid-May, politicians who had said they’d hold their nose while voting for Keiko began casting her as a national savior. Her allies filled the streets with posters warning of the “Communist invasion.” Business leaders said they would fire employees if Castillo won. Castillo resorted to similar tactics to stir panic about a return of a Fujimori to the Palacio de Gobierno.
  • The media shed all pretense of independence and hyped these warnings as if truth, exhuming stories of terror from the past to drive home the point. Polls and vote results show, however, that the media’s gross bias prompted many voters who had intended to cast empty or unmarked ballots to vote for Castillo.

Peru may well be entering a period of ungovernability. Five years of political turmoil, corruption scandals, and institutional decay, under four different Presidents, had already wounded the country before this election, but fear – which, as Martha Nussbaum said, is the feeling that controls people, not liberate them – now runs even deeper and stronger. Well-founded questions about both Fujimori and Castillo’s commitment to democracy will keep tensions high, and the political, business, and media elites have created a climate in which allegations of fraud will persist despite international observers’ conclusions that the elections were clean. The forceful rejection of Fujimori by half of the population, and the Castillo’s utter lack of even basic governing skills are real risks. Arbitrary manipulations of the Constitution will be attempted to strengthen or weaken whichever government takes office. Calls for military intervention are certain. Political opposition will radicalize. The historic split between mestizo-dominated Lima and the rest of the country, vulgarly called la Indiada, is worsening.

  • But this is not Peru’s inescapable fate. Its democracy still gives the people the weapons with which to impede an authoritarian project. They do not have to believe that Fujimori’s backers are all corrupt anti-patriots, nor that all of Castillo’s are anti-Peruvian Communists. It’s true that the country has been wracked by the pandemic like no other, and that it is hindered by debt and other challenges. While neither of the candidates and their forces have demonstrated the greatness and humility needed to lead through these crises, rescuing Peruvian democracy requires accepting that the one with the most votes will be President, even if purely by chance, and deserves an opportunity to govern without calls for a coup to remove them. A country decimated by the pandemic needs the hope of being able to move into the future together.

June 18, 2021

*  This article is a synthesis and translation of commentaries and interviews by Alberto Vergara, who teaches at la Universidad del Pacífico in Lima and was co-editor of Politics after Violence: Legacies of the Shining Path Conflict in Peru.

Ecuador: Beyond the Presidential Contenders

By Christopher Kambhu*

Andrés Arauz Galarza / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License (Modified) | Profile photo of Guillermo Lasso / Mabel Velástegui / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License (Modified)

When Ecuadoreans head to the polls this Sunday to vote in the presidential election runoff, the two candidates on the ballot represent the country’s dominant political movements, but February’s first-round and legislative votes demonstrate a changing political context that will constrain the next president.

  • Andrés Arauz, a little-known economist until he launched his campaign, won the first round with 33 percent and is favored by analysts to win the runoff. His support lies in his ties to former President Rafael Correa, who anointed him to lead his leftist political movement. Correa intended to be Arauz’s running mate but was barred from seeking office due to corruption convictions from his time as president. Arauz’s policies are largely a continuation of Correa’s in substance and style; he has pledged to provide cash payments to a million families during his first week in office and vowed to scrap an austerity plan put in place by outgoing President Lenín Moreno as part of a loan package with the International Monetary Fund.
  • Guillermo Lasso, a major shareholder in one of Ecuador’s biggest banks and former economy minister, has reached the runoff for the third time in as many attempts, with just under 20 percent of the vote. He has the support of the business community, especially in Quito and the coastal commercial hub of Guayaquil. His name recognition and significant finances put him in a strong position heading into the second round, but his role as minister during the country’s 1999 financial crisis and long career in the banking sector remain liabilities. His campaign is working to unite rivals who lost the first round.

This is the third consecutive election in which a rightwing challenger is taking on the leftist politics of Correa, but an environmental lawyer and the third-place finisher in the first round, Yaku Pérez, is poised to play a decisive role in the outcome. Positioning himself as a leftist alternative to the establishment politics that Arauz and Lasso represent, Pérez calls for stronger environmental protections and support for renewable energy – positions that have been adopted, at least rhetorically, by both runoff campaigns.

  • While analysts predict Arauz and Correismo will triumph, the polls are close. Further uncertainty stems from how Pérez’s supporters will vote; for them, deciding between a Correista and a banker is to choose the lesser of two evils. So far, Pérez is not endorsing either candidate and has told his supporters to spoil their ballots. (Voting is mandatory.) Voters are apparently listening; polls show up to 20 percent of respondents will not vote for either candidate.

Whoever wins, they will face several immediate challenges. Cases of COVID-19 are nearing the record levels set a year ago, when scenes of bodies lying in the streets of Guayaquil made international headlines. The outgoing Moreno administration has struggled to obtain vaccines and changed health minsters three times due to poor results and various scandals. Engineering economic recovery from the pandemic will also be a huge test. Both candidates support expansion of extractive industries, which were key drivers of Ecuador’s economic growth during Latin America’s commodities boom in the 2000s. However, this tactic will face resistance from the growing environmental movement energized by Pérez’s campaign.

  • The runoff victor must also contend with the National Assembly, which saw a significant electoral shakeup in February. The Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, the indigenous party which Pérez represented in the presidential campaign, had the best results in its history and will be the second largest party in the legislature after Arauz’s Unión por la Esperanza. Pachakutik generally played a minor role on the national stage until it and other indigenous groups lead nationwide 2019 protests against the Moreno administration’s attempt to end fossil fuel subsidies as part the IMF loan deal. Pachakutik parlayed its new national profile into electoral success and is in a strong position to influence most legislation, regardless of who wins the presidency.

April 8, 2021

*Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

Cuba: Communists Convene

By William M. LeoGrande*

(From left to right) Miguel Díaz-Canel, Homero Acosta, Salvador Valdés, Ramiro Valdés, and Roberto Morales Ojeda/ Cubadebate/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) will convene its Eighth Congress on April 16‑19 to choose new leadership and assess policies intended to address longstanding economic and political challenges – with no indication of bold new departures. After all, Raúl Castro’s heir apparent as party leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has adopted as his favorite hashtag #SomosContinuidad. The meeting will have three major agenda items: selection of a new First Secretary to replace 89-year-old Raúl Castro and – perhaps – the replacement of other elderly party leaders; an assessment of progress implementing economic policies adopted at the Sixth Congress in 2011; and a review of the party’s political work, as mandated by the First National Party Conference in January 2012.

  • The Cuban leadership is undergoing a generational transition from “los históricos,” who founded the revolutionary regime, to a new generation born after 1959. Castro has affirmed his intention to step down as First Secretary in favor of Díaz-Canel, who succeeded him as President in 2018. However, Castro has not publicly ruled out remaining a member of the Political Bureau, and neither have the four other veterans of the struggle against Batista on the 17-member body – including reputed conservatives Second Secretary José Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdés. The generational transition will not be complete until they depart; it’s hard to imagine Díaz-Canel would truly be in charge if he is still surrounded by these powerful old-timers.

Pummeled by President Trump’s tightened sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic that closed the tourist industry, Cuba is suffering the worst economic crisis since the “Special Period” of the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed. The central theme of the Party Congress will be an exhortation to the party faithful to go full speed ahead on economic reforms, overcoming the bureaucratic resistance that has impeded them until recently.

  • When Raúl Castro introduced the reforms in 2011, he said it would take a decade to put them in place. Ten years later, they are far from finished, although the pace of reform has accelerated over the past nine months. The number of permitted private-sector occupations has increased from just over a hundred to more than 2,000. The dual currency and exchange rate system that created crippling distortions in the economy has been scrapped. And state enterprises have been put on notice that they have 12 months to become profitable or close their doors. In the short term, however, the economy remains hobbled by inefficiencies and unable to satisfy many basic needs.

The Congress will also review the party’s “political work” the task of building public support for the government. In 2012, Raúl Castro criticized the party’s poor performance. Endless meetings degenerated into “formalism,” in which no real criticism was ever voiced and little was accomplished, thereby “spreading dissatisfaction and apathy” among the membership. These failings weakened the party’s ties to the broader public, for whom it seemed remote and inaccessible. Another indicator of the party’s tenuous standing was an 18 percent decline in membership from 2011 to 2016 – the first decline since the party was founded in 1965.

Cuba’s party congresses always convene on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion – 60 years ago this April –  to commemorate Cuba’s successful defeat of Washington’s imperial designs. The focus of the upcoming Congress, however, will be on how the party can steer its way past the shoals of Cuba’s internal challenges and “update” its economic model of socialism through reforms that it nominally embraced years ago but has failed to fully carry out. With popular discontent at a peak because of the desperate economic situation and with critics mobilizing through social media to challenge state policy, the party has its work cut out for it.

April 5, 2021

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University. 

Biden’s North American Reset?

By Tom Long and Eric Hershberg*

Map of North America/ Public Domain/ Creative Commons License

A North American approach to regional cooperation could make a comeback under the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Though promoted with little enthusiasm by President Obama and derided by the Trump administration, the utility of North American cooperation is suggested by a combination of factors: the desire to turn the page on Trump’s transactional approach to neighbors, interest in “near-shoring” as a result of the pandemic and frictions with China, and the growing salience of shared transnational challenges.

  • Trump played on anti-NAFTA and anti-Mexican sentiments in his rise to power. He followed his divisive campaign with dramatic standoffs over the border wall, tariffs on Canada and Mexico, and nativist immigration and asylum policies. Policy statements from the Biden campaign, Democratic Party platform, and transition team suggest the new president will be eager to signal his rejection of such policies, making a pro-North American stance attractive in the broader context of a return to multilateralism. To be sure, elements of the Democratic Party long harbored skeptical views of North American cooperation (especially NAFTA), but the anti-North American stance is now thoroughly associated with Trump, and Democrats have found themselves defending the concept during the last four years.
  • The pandemic and rising tensions with China have raised questions about the desirability of far-flung supply chains, at least for sensitive products like medical and telecommunications equipment. Revelations about forced-labor practices in China have also put human rights back on the trade agenda. This is an issue for Canada, too, given its tensions with China over electronics giant Huawei. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for Mexico.
  • Transnational challenges including public health, migration, and security have long provided a rationale for greater policy coordination in North America. Many of these issues have grown from irritants to major problems given the neglect and perverse U.S. policies of the last four years.

Under President Biden, these factors may give North American cooperation a new lease on life. As a regional policy framework, “North America” could give renewed stimulus to North American economic integration, which had stagnated due to China’s rise, increased border controls after September 11, 2001, limited investment in coordination or infrastructure, and various migration and security crises along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s rhetorical and policy barrage has awakened powerful interests to defend economic integration at the same time that it has motivated civil society organizations to defend North America’s integrated transnational communities.

Progress is likely even if the phrase “North America” is slow to return. NAFTA was officially replaced in July 2020 by a new pact that preserved most of its features but stripped “North America” from its name. (The three signatories have named the deal differently – USMCA in the U.S., TMEC in Mexico, and CUSMA/ACEUM in Canada – but none includes “North America.”) The separation of “North America” from the pact creates, counterintuitively, an opportunity to expand the understanding of the region and related policy frameworks.

  • Politically, “North America” could provide a useful space for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has shown little interest in Biden’s initiatives for bilateral cooperation and has provoked tensions with Washington through his handling of the Cienfuegos case, to provide leadership.
  • Practically, many deeply “North American” issues, particularly migration, suggest a wider understanding of the region to include parts of Central America and the Caribbean. Tensions about Central American migration will be high on the new administration’s agenda, but addressing these challenges through a North American lens offers a constructive contrast to Trump’s narrow nationalism.
  • Economically, given the contrast between countries of South America that have been more deeply reliant on exports to China versus those that are still most closely linked to the U.S. market, a broadened North America could provide a forum – larger and more diverse than NAFTA but smaller and more focused than the Summit of the Americas – to address regional policy challenges.

President Biden inherits an old trilateral region that seemingly has no name and a badly damaged economic partnership, but the gravitational pull of the U.S. market, new rhetoric and policies from Washington, and other underlying drivers should restore the economic and political importance of the region, offering an opportunity to rethink the boundaries and purpose of North America.

January 21, 2021

* Tom Long is Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Chair of the Robert A. Pastor North American Research Initiative at American University. Eric Hershberg is Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government at American University.

Why Are Chile’s Protests Continuing?

By Pablo Rubio Apiolaza*

protests in chile

Protests began in Chile October 2019/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Chile’s political agreement in November to hold a referendum on the country’s Constitution in April reduced protests for a while, but the underlying causes of discontent – deep-seated frustration among many Chilean citizens – continue to fester and drive an array of peaceful and violent protests. Since November, President Sebastián Piñera has promoted an aggressive social agenda, including raising the minimum wage and improving the pension system. A survey by the Center for Public Studies (CEP) in Santiago in early January, however, found that Piñera’s approval rating was around 6 percent – the lowest of any president since Chile’s return to democracy. By almost all accounts, distrust in the government and anger at the corruption of politicians and corporations remains deep. People want solutions “here and now” to many of their demands. Both peaceful and violent protests have continued through the traditionally quiet summer break.

The mobilizations are not as spontaneous as they were in October and November, according to many observers, but there’s little evidence of a conspiracy to disrupt the referendum agreement.

  • Trade unions and traditional social movements organized under the banner of the Mesa de Unidad Social have become important actors, but new activists have also emerged. The loosely organized “Primera Línea” (front line) has engaged in violent clashes with the Carabineros, mainly in Santiago. Anthropologist Magdalena Claude observed and interviewed some members of Primera Línea in January and called them the “ACAB clan,” borrowing an acronym popularized by British punk rockers proclaiming that All Cops Are Bastards. According to Claude’s research, the group is composed of young workers of the service sector, not members of political parties. They do not have a recognized leadership and organize in horizontal networks.
  • Some conservative Chileans are denouncing the protests as the result of “foreign intervention” and a “coup d’état” provoked by the “extreme left.” They cite as evidence a New York Times report on January 19 that the U.S. State Department estimated that nearly 10 percent of all tweets supporting the October protests originated with Twitter accounts that appeared to have links to Russia. Allegations of foreign intervention by Venezuela and other countries have been endorsed by Chilean Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera and President Piñera. Neither the U.S. nor Chilean government has provided evidence to support any of these claims.

Damage to the government’s credibility and reputation since October seems likely to continue to embolden opponents in the runup to the referendum. Carabinero abuses have been verified and condemned by a host of observers, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and various Chilean organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has detailed “multiple allegations of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence by the police against people held in detention.” More than 30 people have died in protests and, although the great majority of the tens of thousands of protestors detained have been released, anger over their arrest is fresh. The government has convened 15 experts to develop recommendations to reform the Carabineros – to enable them to move “forward with urgency the recovery of the public security with absolute respect for human rights” – but challenge of building public trust will be monumental.

  • A prestigious Chilean polling firm, Cadem, reported two weeks ago that 63 percent of the Chilean population approved of the protests and – importantly – 80 percent believe that Chile will be a better country after this critical situation. In any case, the plebiscite in April will take a place in an unstable context, with an uncertain outcome. For the Piñera administration, the challenges seem unlikely to abate, and pressures may surge when the school holidays end in March.

February 19, 2020

* Pablo Rubio Apiolaza is a historian, visiting researcher in the Department of History at Georgetown University, and researcher at the Library of Chilean Congress.

Brazil: Will Lula Shake Things Up?

By Fábio Kerche*

lula

Former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2TxyFJ7

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva — out of prison but not acquitted of his alleged crimes — is stirring up the country’s political debate, but he faces tough challenges reestablishing his leadership and revitalizing his party, the Workers’ Party (PT).

  • After serving 580 days of a 12-year sentence, Lula was released from prison earlier this month when the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Brazilian Constitution, one can be imprisoned only after judicial appeals have been completed. The court did not explicitly say that prosecutors rushed Lula to prison in order to remove him from the presidential race that led to President Bolsonaro’s election in October 2018, but a number of Brazilian legal experts believe that to be the case. The good news for Lula is that the majority of the Brazilians support his release — 54 percent, according to Datafolha, Brazil’s most important survey center.
  • Even though he is out of prison, Lula will not be able to run for office again unless his previous convictions in lower courts are annulled or overturned by higher courts — which could take a long time. (The electoral law specifies that someone convicted at two different levels of the judiciary cannot run for office.) The former president is apparently hoping that leaks published last June by The Intercept revealing allegedly inappropriate contacts between prosecutors and the judge on Lula’s case, Sérgio Moro, are reason to overturn his convictions. Prospects of such a reversal appear poor, however, because Moro, currently Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, has a clear incentive to put Lula back behind bars, and observers say he retains considerable influence in the Judiciary.

In the short and medium term, Lula’s strategy appears to be to erode the Bolsonaro Administration’s support and lay the groundwork for his own party’s next campaign, in next year’s municipal elections. His freedom allows him to travel around the country, make political talks, and build alliances.

  • His most ardent supporters remain loyal; he still has strong backing at a popular level; and still projects formidable charisma, according to many observers. While some of his speeches since his release have been more aggressive, his current political drive signals that he will seek to broaden alliances beyond the left.
  • But Lula faces huge political challenges. There are signs that his influence has diminished in recent years thanks to his legal baggage and economic mistakes made by the administration of his successor, former President Dilma Rousseff. Some is also due to unrelenting attacks on him and the PT by the media —portraying him as a radical. Splits in the left, including the lack of an identifiable candidate to replace Lula in the 2022 elections, are also a vulnerability.

Brazil has changed since Lula was arrested: Temer was president; the PT led in the polls; the economic elite’s candidate was from the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), and Bolsonaro was not widely considered a viable candidate. Lula’s challenges as he tries to rebuild his image and his party are huge. An immediate one is an effort by some members of Congress to modify the law that protects defendants from prison until all appeals have been heard, except if the defendant poses a threat to society or investigations. The goal is put Lula in prison again, to reduce his influence in the political game. For a number of jurists, however, this modification would be considered unconstitutional.

  • Next year’s local elections will be the first big test of Lula’s ability to negotiate widely and reorganize opposition to Bolsonaro, win control over the government in major cities, and prepare a PT alternative in the 2022 presidential election.
  • Bolsonaro is not without problems. His popularity is suffering due to the economy — high unemployment, low quality of jobs offered, and very low growth — and some unpopular policies, such as tougher rules for retirement. The president and his sons retain a major edge in social media, but Datafolha this week reported that 36 percent of respondents classified Bolsonaro’s government as “terrible.”

Lula’s best hope seems to convince the Brazilians that the corruption charges were political constructions by his adversaries — a tough task — and that PT and its allies can restore the pace of economic growth obtained during his administrations. Next year’s local elections are key for this project.

December 12, 2019

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

 

Bolivia: Prospects for Post-Evo Transition

By Robert Albro*

Crowd march with boy holding the pan-indigenous flag

March in favor of Evo Morales /Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/santiagosuburbano/49098960458/

Bolivia’s streets have been calmer in recent days, but actions by self-proclaimed President Jeanine Áñez have raised legitimate concerns about what sort of transition Bolivians face after the almost 14-year presidency of Evo Morales. The protests, marches, and violence that have characterized the aftermath of the disputed presidential election on October 20 have left at least 33 people dead – including 30 since Áñez took office and soon thereafter issued a presidential decree (since rescinded) giving security forces immunity from prosecution when engaged in restoring “order.” While Áñez has claimed she is a caretaker whose only charge is to organize new elections within 90 days, she has not behaved like one.

  • Previously an obscure backbencher and opposition senator from an inconsequential political party representing remote Beni, Áñez had planned to retire from politics at the end of her term. Her position as second vice-president of the Senate was largely ceremonial, with little control over budgets. Down the list of constitutional succession, she became acting president only after multiple Morales administration officials resigned.
  • Although unelected and lacking a mandate, Áñez has taken a series of decisive steps to undo Morales’s legacy. A conservative Christian and Morales critic, she has proclaimed Bolivia a “Catholic country” and disparaged its Indigenous majority as “irrational.” She has surrounded herself with a cabinet composed of like-minded critics from Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. This region includes the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando and Beni, together often called the Media Luna (Half Moon), and is the heartland of economic elites whose political power was substantially diminished by Morales’s rise. In 2008 the Media Luna was for months in open revolt against Morales and his government, contending for control of the country’s considerable natural gas revenues. Often cast in racist terms, these elites consistently and categorically rejected Morales’s presidency.

As interim president, Áñez has replaced the military’s leadership, cabinet ministers, and heads of major state-owned companies with her own appointees. She reestablished ties with Washington, severed relations with Venezuela, kicked out Cuban doctors working in the country, and is considering Bolivia’s withdrawal from the largely-defunct UNASUR. Áñez has not sought conciliation with lawmakers from Morales’s MAS party, who still command a legislative majority. Instead, seeming to turn to the playbook of the country’s and the region’s dictatorial past, her administration has accused Venezuela and Cuba of supporting subversive groups in Bolivia, threatening to prosecute former government officials now in hiding and to charge MAS lawmakers and journalists critical of her policies with “sedition.”

These moves do not bode well for an orderly electoral do-over. Luis Fernando Camacho, the Santa Cruz civic committee leader who has emerged as Áñez’s vocal and controversial far-right supporter, already seems to be in campaign mode, despite his scant political credentials. Political moderate and second-place finisher in last month’s election, Carlos Mesa, appears to be largely sidelined. Morales himself has been legally barred from participating, and MAS, while still a political force in Bolivia, lacks an obvious figure to replace him. Meanwhile, Áñez and the far-right cabal gathering around her appear to be gearing up for hardball politics, although they lack legitimacy among Morales’s supporters and the many citizens who might have grown tired of Morales but view with alarm the actions and tone of the new caretaker government. The election may be technically wide open, but Bolivia’s far-right appears intent on seizing this opportunity to restore its influence.

  • By alienating the country’s Indigenous majority and exacerbating latent ethnic and class tensions, while signaling a commitment to reverse the gains made during the Morales years, Áñez is setting up conditions for a period of intense social conflict. If present trends continue, it is hard to imagine that in 90 days, and perhaps for a lengthy period thereafter, Bolivia won’t again experience more paroxysms comparable to what it has endured since October’s contested election.

December 6, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.