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

by Fulton Armstrong and Philip Brenner*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 13, 2022

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

Chile: Whither the Constitutional Process?

By Miguel Zlosilo and Carlos Cruz Infante*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March,07,2022

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

Brazil: Hoping for Better Times

By Fábio Kerche*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 17, 2022

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

Five Questions About Nicaragua’s Predicament

By A Long-time Observer*

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

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

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

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

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

October 20, 2021

Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 8, 2021

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

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.