Chile: Dim Prospects for New Constitutional Assembly Soon

By Carlos Cruz Infante and Miguel Zlosilo*

The Constitutional Convention, shown here during a moment of silence at its inauguration, started amid optimism that a new Constitution would help heal the country’s deep splits / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

Chile does not appear likely to restart efforts to write a new Constitution soon. The failure of the first draft – rejected by 62 percent of Chilean voters – has significantly weakened political leaders’ ability and resolve to try a second draft. Pollsters predicted that Rechazo (rejection) would win on September 4, and the result would fit within the left-right pendular swings of Chilean votes, but the devastating 16‑point advantage surprised all major observers.

Popular support for Constitutional reform has dissipated, even though many of the underlying issues that sparked the upheavals in 2019 and drove 78 percent of Chileans to vote for the Constituyente process remain formidable. Popular frustration with the political class and unhappiness with the first draft has bred apathy and probably disgust. 

  • The warning signs were clear before the referendum on September 4 rejected the draft. Its architects squandered their opportunity to craft a magna carta that transcended political agendas and instead they loaded the draft up with agenda items that would have best been resolved through normal political processes. Constituyente leaders’ efforts to expand people’s rights without a broader national debate turned out to be counterproductive – alienating even some crucial center-left players – and the lack of fiscal responsibility for some proposals gave right-leaning forces an issue with which to rally opposition. On top of that, investors feared that several regulatory changes would impact economic growth and unemployment.

Since the rejection, the nation’s political leaders have remained too wrapped up in their political agendas to develop a vision that could unify them and win popular support.

  • The center-left argues that a second (and successful attempt) is necessary to institutionalize Chile’s legacy since the end of the dictatorship in the 1990. Its narrative, however, is plagued with unrealistic expectations for them to provide leadership because they missed important opportunities to do so in the early 2000s.
  • President Gabriel Boric’s Frente Amplio and the left-leaning factions aligned with his government have so far failed to develop a political project. They admitted that a new Constitution is essential to their planned policies but did not inspire support. Boric has reached out to the center-left and, after the referendum failure, made a leader of the Partido por la Democracia (PPD), Carolina Tohá Morales, Minister of the Interior. But polls, including Plaza Pública by Cadem and Activa Research, indicate that Boric’s approval rating is steadily diminishing, and his disapproval is rising. Critics say that he has been overly focused on Chile’s international image, not the political crisis caused by the Constituyente’s failure, but his recent moves on pension reform may help on that.
  • The center-right, which led the Rechazo efforts against the draft, has not yet shown a compelling need for a new Constitution and simply does not see the citizens’ urgency to push for one. Indeed, center-right leaders are enjoying the failures of the left and center-left during and since the Constituyente. The hard right has never wanted to abandon the Pinochet-era Constitution that was to be replaced.

A centrist coalition comprising some elements of the center-left and center-right has expressed conditional interest in getting a second try off the ground, but fear of “convention disaster 2.0” has stymied any progress. The centrists have separately indicated that they would support another convention if the two hard factions (left and right) accepted conditions that, they say, would pave the way forward. Regarding the substance of a new assembly, they want it built on social issues that already enjoy support – not a long wish list of one political sector or other. They also want constitutional and policy experts to be incorporated into the process as referees and observers empowered to rein in ideologues and partisans on both sides.  Neither the left nor right has so far accepted the conditions.

No clear way to get the constitutional redraft back on track has emerged yet, but the problems that led to popular demands for one have not gone away and could put a fire under the political class. The Amarillos por Chile, a broad-based group of moderates with experience and expertise (at first non-partisan but now its own party), have offered ideas for breaking the impasse – even though, like the political centrists, they so far have not figured out how to hold a successful second convention will help. Moreover, they do not have any elected congress member for political influence. They are former politicians and current business leaders who first emerged during the Constituyente, calling for moderation and rejection of sweeping changes that they called “refoundational.” Their backgrounds and relative lack of political agendas may give them the steady hand Chile needs to launch a second try. Until popular demands for change force the political parties to get serious, however, the Amarillos and other supporters of a new, better modulated Constituyente are in a waiting game.

*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).

U.S. Immigration Debate Skewed by Bad Statistics

By Ernesto Castañeda*

Sign demarcating US and Mexico territory on the southern US border in El Paso, Texas / Ernesto Castañeda / Creative Commons License

Immigration figures have long driven heated political debate in U.S. politics – even worse in recent years – but the data often exaggerate the problem because the responsible government agencies are double-counting and media reports are analyzing the numbers incorrectly. Opponents of President Joe Biden claim that over 2 million undocumented immigrants have entered the United States each year since he became President. The numbers reported by relevant agencies should not drive headlines or be interpreted as stock tickers about whether immigration is up and down, but the data become political footballs serving generally anti-immigration political interests.

Border encounters involving people without immigration papers are just a small subset of all immigrants, emigrants, visitors, and border crossing commercial and tourist activity – almost 300 million over the past 12 months. Analysis of the numbers about border crossers reported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security requires clarification of what it considers “encounters.”

  • Because many people enter multiple times, the figures also reflect double-counting of many of the same individuals – sometimes more than five times each. Those of certain nationalities can be quickly removed and returned to Mexico for various reasons without adequate recording of their names and other details, making it impossible to know how many people are counted multiple times. Even those repatriated after a judge determines they do not qualify for asylum, humanitarian parole, or other special visa often try again and count as another “encounter.”
  • “Encounters” do not equal unique individuals but rather interactions between asylum-seekers or migrants and DHS personnel anywhere along the border. The U.S. Government reports, for example, that 1 million-1.3 million migrants were removed from the United States under Title 42 provisions intended to protect U.S. health in the context of the COVID pandemic – almost half of the total reported “encounters.” So “encounters” do not equal individuals entering the U.S. either.
  • The numbers include individuals whom the United States normally welcomes, including 140,000 unaccompanied minors looking to reunite with family members in the country, and over 20,000 Ukrainians. Russians and Afghans are in a similar situation. Cubans no longer are fast-tracked for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, but the U.S. government cannot deport them because neither Mexico nor Cuba will take them back. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Haitians, and others are fleeing situations that most U.S. observers consider intolerable.
  • Comparing year-on-year figures is also deceptive. During 2020, the acceptance of asylum-seekers came almost to a halt. The pandemic, Title 42, and the “Remain in Mexico” program (under which individuals who pass a “credible fear” screening are forced to stay in Mexico while awaiting a hearing) created a backlog and bottleneck for the normal mobility that had occurred in previous years. Shifts in DHS accounting between years have also exaggerated the impression of a surge.

Other observers have confirmed migration specialists’ concerns about the over-counting. Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which monitors the staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government, reported in September that detention data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “is, once again, riddled with errors.” TRAC found “egregious” mistakes in several data categories that led the agency to seriously misrepresent conditions in its public statements.

While the U.S. government’s bad information makes precise calculations of migrant flows impossible, what is sure is that the total number of distinct individuals entering the United States without documentation is much less than 2 million a year. More credible estimates are that –after accounting for thousands of deportations – probably less than half a million people have been allowed in.

  • Among them, some were granted asylum – a right under U.S. and international law. Many others are welcome refugees and asylum-seekers like those from Ukraine and Afghanistan. Many others are waiting their turn in immigration court. Therefore, most of those included in this estimated half-million are in the United States legally, and the government knows who they are and where they live. By definition, they are not “illegal” or hiding. Allegations by a Texas senator and others that “4.2 million illegal immigrants have streamed across the border” since Biden took office are simply not true.

* Ernesto Castañeda teaches in the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Latin America: Will WTO Agreement on Fishing Rein in China’s Illicit Practices?

by Mateus Ribeiro da Silva*

Chinese squid jiggers docked in Montevideo’s harbor / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons license

China’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet is the worst of various engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing along South American coasts, but Beijing may be shifting toward supporting a new World Trade Organization agreement that would limit such practices.

  • China has acknowledged having 3,000 ships in its DWF fleet, but studies by various experts, including the Stimson Center and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), estimate the number to be between 10,000 and 16,000. China’s fleet accounts for about 38 percent of all fishing on the high seas and in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Ships from Taiwan are responsible for another 21.5 percent, and Japan, South Korea, and Spain each represent about 10 percent of DWF efforts. DWF ships usually hover outside EEZs but frequently turn off location devices to enter them undetected.
  • Although China’s most egregious IUU practices are around Africa and Southeast Asia, experts say the impact in Latin America is significant – an estimated $2.3 billion a year (see July 21 AULABLOG). Hundreds of Chinese fishing ships operate off the coasts of Central America, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina practically year-round. DWF vessels fish for varieties of squid, tuna, shark, rays, and other species. Oceana, an ocean conservation NGO, says they fish along Argentina’s EEZ for the indigenous shortfin squid, a catch worth almost $600 million USD annually. In addition to turning off their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to operate clandestinely in EEZs, the vessels fish close to protected areas, such as near the Galapagos Islands, and capture – on purpose or in bycatch – endangered species, such as certain sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, and billfish. In 2020, a large Chinese fishing armada just off the Galapagos clocked a combined 70,000 hours of fishing in one month.

Because implementation of existing agreements has been chronically weak, the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiated an innovative trade-based agreement to reduce subsidies to DWF fleets that are causing such economic and environmental harm. Approved in June after 20 years of effort, the Agreement on Fisheries prohibits certain subsidies to IUU fishing, further depletion of current overfished stocks, and fishing outside a member’s regional fisheries organization jurisdiction.

  • Critics are concerned about loopholes that could allow developed nations (including China) to continue current practices, but environmental NGOs hailed the arrangement as a significant first step towards a more sustainable blue economy. It will enter into force when two-thirds of WTO members deposit their instruments of acceptance.
  • In addition to attacking subsidies, the agreement bars fishers from operating outside their own EEZ or in areas overseen by a Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO) in which their port state or flag state is not a member. For their vessels to operate in South American waters, for example, national governments would need either local-access agreements, in the case of national EEZs, or to be members of regional RFMOs. This may encourage countries to join more RFMOs and could, optimistically, contribute to more consensual, negotiated regulation of fishing on the high seas. Governments will have recourse to WTO dispute settlement procedures when harmed by IUU practices.

Chinese support for the WTO agreement and faithful implementation would be major steps toward reducing IUU fishing and providing relief to Latin American coastal countries. Beijing provides its DWF fleets with the greatest subsidies – estimated by Oceana in 2018 to reach $5.9 billion a year (amounting to 38 percent of subsidies provided by the “big ten” subsidizing countries).

  • After years of reservations with the agreement – insisting that it should enjoy the benefits available to developing countries – Beijing now seems to be supporting it. Shortly before WTO approval in June, Commerce Minister Wang Wentao said, “China has taken a constructive part in fisheries subsidies negotiations and supports an early agreement so as to implement the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”
  • If China does sign, confidence that it will comply with the agreement will be initially weak. Observers are concerned that the opaque web of relationships between government and business in China will make detecting subsidies difficult. Practices that China has relied on in the past, such as fuel tax supports, are still permissible under the agreement. Shedding its scofflaw image will take time. In early July, just weeks after the WTO agreement was announced, Uruguayan authorities seized a Chinese vessel carrying more than 11 tons of hidden squid, a clear indication of IUU fishing. Although probably not fished after the accord was announced, the squid illustrate that it is still an open question whether China will break old habits and curb the predatory practices of its voracious DWF fleet.

August 30, 2022

*Mateus Ribeiro da Silva recently completed his Master’s in Global Governance, Politics, and Security in the School of International Service. This article draws on research he performed as a Research Assistant for a CLALS project on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in nine Latin American and Caribbean countries.

OAS Continues to Dodge Accountability for Actions in the 2019 Bolivian Election

By Francisco Rodríguez and Jake Johnston*

A march in favor of Evo Morales / Santiago Sito / Flickr / Creative Commons license

The failure of the Organization of American States (OAS) to explain false claims of fraud it made during the Bolivian elections in 2019 – allegations that played a key role in the military ouster of President Evo Morales – continues to fuel doubts about its ability to monitor elections fairly and objectively.

  • Shortly after Bolivian electoral authorities announced preliminary first-round results showing that Morales had surpassed the 10 percentage point margin of victory necessary to avoid a runoff, an OAS electoral observation mission released a statement expressing “deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in trend.” It said the updated vote count “drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” An audit report later published by the OAS claimed to uncover evidence of “a massive and unexplainable surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count” without which Morales would not have crossed the 10 percent margin. 
  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro publicly supported the Bolivian Army’s decision, after three weeks of civil protests, to coerce Morales and much of his government into resigning, paving the way for a caretaker government of questionable legitimacy. Almagro stated that “Yes, there was a coup d’état in Bolivia; it occurred on the 20th of October when electoral fraud was committed.” He said, “The Army must act in accordance with its mandate. No one has exceeded their power so far.” 

The OAS has not responded to requests for information about its analysis. Academic and media studies, however, have shown that the OAS analysis was marred by incorrect methods, coding errors, and misrepresentation of results. In a peer-reviewed paper forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Nicolás Idrobo, Dorothy Kronick, and Francisco Rodríguez (a co-author of this post) show that, rather than “inexplicable” as the OAS alleged, the final results were predictable. They identified mistakes that, if corrected, would have erased the alleged “surge in the final 5 percent of the vote count.”

  • The “change in trend” the OAS claimed to have identified was essentially a matter of votes from certain geographic areas being processed and counted before votes from other areas that were more favorable to Morales. The OAS finding was due to a statistical method that misrepresents data at the “breakpoint” at which fraud is tested for. 
  • When it released its final audit a month after the election, the OAS claimed it confirmed evidence of fraud, but it did not reveal that its calculation excluded the last 4 percent of tallies. These votes were presumably the most likely to be tampered with, but they were among the less pro-Morales. If included, there is no “break in trend” as alleged.
  • Research by David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that a coding error caused the OAS to incorrectly sort time stamps by alphabetical instead of chronological order. An earlier CEPR study showed that the OAS audit withheld information from its comparison of physical vote tallies with those in the online database that did not support the allegations of fraud. 

These mistakes would have likely been identified rapidly by experts had the OAS followed basic standards of transparency. The OAS’s lead researcher has acknowledged at least some of these mistakes, but the flawed analysis remains on the OAS website, and the OAS has not issued a retraction nor amended the sections of the report that present the incorrect results. Mexico and Argentina have tried to discuss the issue within the organization, but Almagro’s office has refused to address the rebuttals. 

  • In March, the U.S. Congress, which provides the majority of the OAS’s budget, passed language in an omnibus spending package that requires the State Department to consult with independent experts and produce a report on the “legitimacy and transparency” of the 2019 Bolivian election within 120 days. The report, due last month, is expected to address the role of the OAS in that election.

OAS technical experts and political leaders’ role in what amounted to a military coup against a democratically elected president has raised questions about their competence and commitment to the democratic values the organization espouses. Errors in coding and calculations may have been merely technical, but political interference cannot be ruled out without a proper investigation. The Secretary General’s explicit support for the removal of Morales was clearly a political decision. 

  • With threats against democratic processes intensifying in many countries, the need for truly independent and neutral observer missions has never been greater. The lack of OAS accountability in Bolivia opens the door for others in the region to levy false allegations of electoral fraud in hopes of receiving international support.  

August 18, 2022

*Francisco Rodríguez is a visiting senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, and Professor at the Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. Jake Johnston is a Senior Research Associate at CEPR. 

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.