Structural Reforms in Chile: Moving Forward in Midst of Political Crisis

By Claudia Heiss*

Bachelet Chile

Photo Credit: Chile Ayuda a Chile / Flickr / Creative Commons

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has done well pushing her reform agenda despite a series of scandals regarding the illegal financing of political campaigns and abuse of power by her daughter-in-law.  Bachelet started with 58 percent support and the highest electoral margin of victory since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990.  Her New Majority coalition incorporated the Communist Party and replaced the Concertación, the center-left coalition defeated in 2010 at the end of her first period, and after 20 years in power.  Bachelet’s current program reflected a left-turn and an intention to correct perceived flaws of a transition criticized for assuming too many features of the model imposed by the dictatorship.  The program included a tax plan to finance education reform introducing free university in a commoditized market of superior education.  This project was the offspring of massive student protests in 2011.  Another proposal was to replace the dictatorship-era 1980 Constitution through an “institutional, democratic, and participatory” process.

The scandals have hurt Bachelet’s popularity – she ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent support and is now at historical lows below 30 percent – undermined the legitimacy of the political parties and Congress, and prompted a surge of social mobilizations.  (Slower economic growth, owing to the low price of copper, has contributed to the government’s unpopularity.)  But the President has scored some big wins.  In addition to the tax and education reforms she sought, the government has achieved important advances in the direction of its political program:

  • In 2015, a proportional system replaced the Binomial electoral system, which severely distorted popular will in the election of representatives and granted veto power in Congress to the political heirs of the dictatorship.
  • The campaign finance scandals led to the recent approval of a “Probity Agenda,” including higher transparency, forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns, and establishing a new law to regulate political parties.
  • A bill to make the main regional authority, the Intendente, elective rather than appointed by the President – a major step toward decentralization – has passed the Senate.
  • The decriminalization of therapeutic abortion, currently punished in only five countries, was approved by the Chamber of Deputies.
  • Congress is in the final steps of approving a labor reform meant to increase the negotiating power of workers towards their employers.
  • A complex constitutional reform process was launched last year, and this month the government selected 216 “facilitators” to assist the process and initiated a series of local meetings to discuss constitutional principles, rights, duties, and institutions. The process, the first of its kind ever in Chile, will lead to a presidential proposal to be presented to Congress.

The road ahead will not be easy for President Bachelet and her allies.  The political climate is pessimistic, and China’s economic troubles suggest the commodity bubble is over – to the detriment of the Chilean economy.  While rejected by conservatives, the changes appear as insufficient to those who want more radical reforms.  The labor bill has been criticized by union leaders as not allowing enough collective bargaining, and the proposal for constitutional change falls short of a binding participatory process like a Constituent Assembly or a referendum would be.  Bachelet, however, has deftly channeled anger about the scandals into the constructive reforms of the Probity Agenda, and she changed the perception of what is achievable in Chile in terms of progressive political and social transformations.  While public opinion is currently harsh with the government and with political elites, her second term, which ends in 2018, could in the long run consolidate her legacy as an effective reformer even in the face of adversity.

April 14, 2016

*Claudia Heiss is Assistant Professor at Universidad de Chile’s Instituto de Asuntos Públicos and researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies, COES.

Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during one of his weekly broadcasts Enlace Ciudadano / Mauricio Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

Taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s playbook, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is intimidating and steadily increasing controls on his opponents.  He regularly uses his Saturday morning broadcasts to name and shame them.  Actors from all walks of Ecuador’s civil society – journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, bloggers, union and social movement leaders – have been the target of his insults and thinly veiled threats on the weekly program, Enlace Ciudadano.  In February, Correa’s show was skewered by HBO comedian John Oliver – and, to Oliver’s delight, Correa fired back by tweeting insults (click here and here).  Journalists and civil society leaders applauded Oliver for drawing attention to the continuing deterioration of civil liberties in Ecuador.  Correa’s virulent rhetoric and intimidating use of media is part of a larger matrix of policies endangering freedom of expression and association in Ecuador.  Over the last two years, the Correa administration has worked methodically to mount a legal framework allowing for greater government control over the media and civil society organizations.

  • The 2013 Law of Communication and a new oversight agency, the Superintendence of Information and Communication, are intended to ensure that all print and broadcast media provide “truthful information” that is “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized.”  Superintendent Carlos Ochoa was selected from a short-list of nominees provided by Correa.  Among alleged violations recently singled out for sanctions are items in the leading newspaper El Universo and its accomplished political cartoonist, Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla.
  • Issued in 2013, Executive Decree 16 also has civil society – from neighborhood associations to think tanks, business chambers, unions, and advocacy groups – under pressure. In addition to elaborate regulations for the legal registration of organizations, the decree stipulates conditions allowing the government to “dissolve” them.  These include group involvement in “partisan activity” and “interfering in public policies.”  To date, only one organization – the Fundación Pachamama involved in environmental activism – has been dissolved, but civic leaders fear that the decree will induce ”self-censorship” and stifle participation.

The new laws amount to a project – unprecedented for Ecuador – of surveillance and regulation.  They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential re-election.  After years of pledging that he would not seek a third term in office, Correa reversed course and has tasked his legislative super-majority with finding a swift route to amending the constitution.  Most public opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Ecuadorians would prefer a referendum to decide whether or not yet another consecutive re-election should be allowed.  The road to re-election may be more difficult than Correa and his advisors imagine, but they enter the fray with the weight of the law on their side.  With powers to control the media and limit the activity of civil society, the Correa administration enjoys the upper hand as 2017 approaches.

March 12, 2015

*Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  She specializes in Andean politics.  She is the author of an article, “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador,” in the April issue of the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Climate Change: Creating Spaces for Action

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background.  Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background. Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Organization of American States (OAS) has resolved to strengthen its role in addressing climate change, but it has yet to demonstrate that it can convene Latin American countries around this urgent issue.  Participants at a recent OAS roundtable agreed that Latin American leaders have moved beyond debating the existence of climate change and are now focused on mitigating its immediate and future effects.  Of primary concern are the potentially devastating economic consequences of climate change for the region, which the Inter-American Development Bank estimates will reach $100 billion per year by 2050 – severely jeopardizing national economies that are currently growing at a healthy rate.  Based on recent climate change reports and initiatives, the potential of a looming transnational cataclysm is driving a sense of urgency for action within an effective regional framework.

Within the consensus for action, there will be competing priorities.  Climate change presents different challenges to different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.  In Peru, for example, a major concern is glacier melt in the Andes, which affects fresh water resources, agricultural irrigation, and sustainable urban development.  This has created a need not only for new dams and reservoirs to redirect water, but also for managing internal social conflicts generated by an increasing scarcity of basic resources.  In the Caribbean, where tourism revenue represents the greatest proportion of the regional economy (14 percent of GDP), the top priority is managing the triple threat of rising sea levels, the loss of coastal livelihoods, and intensifying weather conditions.  And in Brazil, as Evan Berry highlighted here recently, deforestation, carbon markets and land use, among other concerns, need to be addressed.

The OAS would appear to be the logical forum to address these issues and provide a negotiating framework regarding climate change.  On recent non-environmental issues, however, the OAS has struggled to coordinate actions and lost prestige among many in Latin America.  The OAS response toward Honduras following the 2009 presidential coup was divisive and ultimately was end-run when the United States cut a deal with the coup regime.  The 2012 OAS assembly in Bolivia was plagued by persistent absenteeism of member states.  Washington has repeatedly pressed the OAS toward a more political agenda, especially pressing for condemnation of Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro, and has even threatened to suspend its contributions to the organization’s budget.  Insofar as the OAS is perceived as a U.S. proxy, its effectiveness on difficult issues with a north-south spin, like climate change, is undermined.  At the same time, the OAS is competing with other regional bodies, such as UNASUR and CELAC, and the region has raised its profile in international venues such as the 2010 alternative climate summit held in Bolivia after UN negotiations in Copenhagen failed.  With the UN’s 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) taking place in Lima in December 2014, Latin America will again be center stage during conversations on ways to strengthen and replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  Should the OAS overcome its problems of effectiveness and image, and participate successfully in the current dialogue around climate change, this issue could redefine its existing agenda and give it relevance for years to come.

Private Security Filling a Void in the Dominican Republic

By Maribel Vásquez

Photo credit: Harry Pujols / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Harry Pujols / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Criminality and violence often translate into fear and institutional distrust in Latin American contexts – and give rise to private security companies (PSCs) that play an increasingly important role in public security with little or no civilian oversight.  In the Dominican Republic, for example, PSCs are proliferating as surveys indicate a widespread perception that the Ministry of Interior and Police (MIP) is woefully inadequate in scale and capabilities.  According to a study by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and the UNDP in 2012, over 50 percent of Dominicans said that they believed that the National Police was involved in criminal or illicit activity. More troublesome, of all countries surveyed*, the Dominican Republic, with 64.8 percent, reported the highest percentage of people who believe that security is deteriorating in the country.

With such levels of public disorder and perceived police ineffectiveness, the Dominican Republic has experienced a boom in PSCs.  The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in 2011 reported that PSCs employed 30,000 people in the Dominican Republic – and the number has surely grown since then.  The country has 29,357 formally registered police officers, yielding a ratio of 1.02 private security agents for each police officer.  Often, PSCs are better equipped in the country than security forces.  In the Dominican Republic, PSCs are under the jurisdiction of the Superintendence of Private Security (SPS), a branch of the armed forces – a fact that causes tension with the civilian companies and the police in whose jurisdiction they operate.  This absence of the MIP – the state institution directly responsible for citizen security – from the oversight process has inhibited coordination between the PSCs and the police, and diminished the government’s ability to provide public security.

The traditional definition of national defense in the Dominican Republic and other Latin America countries has included citizen security and entailed deep military involvement – and often abuses – in matters now considered best handled by civilians.  The continuing shadow of the Dominican military in security affairs has weakened the National Police.  President Danilo Medina last year deployed soldiers to patrol the streets alongside the police to combat crime.  Such practices make the police less legitimate in the eyes of the public – and further drive popular demand for PSCs.  Reforming the public security landscape in the Dominican Republic will require great political will.  More effective civilian participation in security affairs, through oversight and professionalization of the National Police, must take place to ultimately strengthen democratic accountability.  The PSCs should be brought under civilian control.  

*LAPOP-PNUD (2012). Countries surveyed: Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Nicaragua, Panamá, Paraguay, Perú, República Dominicana, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Venezuela: Vicious Cycle Continues

By CLALS Staff

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

UNASUR has shown energy and flexibility as a facilitator during the Venezuela crisis, but neither the government, nor its opponents, nor the opposition’s allies in Washington have matched it – prolonging the vicious cycle that’s been plaguing the country for years.  Speaking as UNASUR, the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador reflected the continent’s frustration when they threw up their hands this week and left Caracas after another failed attempt to get a national dialogue on track.  Their statements represented a balance between the UNASUR members that are generally perceived as tolerant of the Venezuelan government’s “Bolivarian” revolution and those perceived as opposing it.  They reiterated calls, issued officially in Suriname on 16 May, for both sides to “achieve a broad dialogue that permits Venezuelans, without interference, to reach an accord that guarantees peaceful coexistence and stability in the country.”

The government, opposition and Washington have not heeded the appeal by UNASUR and the Vatican’s nuncio to be constructive and patient.  The government’s attack on opposition and student camps in early May and subsequent arrest of more than 200 protestors highlighted the authoritarian tendencies that have given momentum to the demonstrations.  The Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), representing important sectors of the opposition, gave the foreign ministers yet another list of demands – including a Truth Commission investigating rights violations (and not headed by the pro-government president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello) and the selection of an entirely new National Elections Council.  The MUD’s executive secretary declared that he has no interest in participating in a peña or chit-chat session, and said, “The ball is in the government’s court.”  Although U.S. Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said during a hearing that sanctions were premature (a statement that she attributed to “confusion”), the foreign affairs committees in both house of the U.S. Congress – without objection from the Obama Administration – have passed bills authorizing an array of punitive measures against Venezuelan officials.  The legislation also authorizes an additional $15 million dollars in aid to the government’s opponents.

The less overtly political agenda that first sparked the protests in February – soaring crime rates, rocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods and services – has been overshadowed by the shouts of opposition leaders eager to force President Maduro from office and by Maduro’s defenses from the plotting against him.  Demands that Maduro negotiate with a foreign-funded opposition that has as its clear goal his removal as constitutionally legitimate president – something no head of state in the hemisphere would accept – naturally keep his bases on edge.  Political leaders on both sides manipulate popular opinion and claim el pueblo as supporting them.  Another of each side’s real strengths is its ability to portray itself as a victim of the unfairness of the other – because their victimhood rationalizes whatever actions they wish to take.  In that regard, the U.S. sanctions against the government and subsidies to the opposition play into Maduro’s hand.  Washington’s extra $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the well-funded opposition, but the U.S. support is as clear a signal as any of its desired outcome.  With both the United States and important segments of the opposition appearing to aim for nothing short of regime change, UNASUR is wise to step aside and see if anyone decides to get serious about ending the crisis.  Should the situation on the ground deteriorate further, however, UNASUR will probably ramp up its engagement and press both sides to make concessions in exchange for regional support.

Mujica’s Liberal Experiment: Model for the Latin American Left?

By Robert Albro

President José Mujica on stage with SIS Dean James Goldgeier

President José Mujica on stage with SIS Dean James Goldgeier

Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, whose recent trip to Washington included a stop at American University, is doubtless Latin America’s most unconventional president.  A former leftist guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison, Mujica gives away 90 percent of his salary, refuses to live in the presidential mansion, grows chrysanthemums, and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was elected in 2009 as candidate of the center-left Frente Amplio, and his accomplishments have transformed him into an international figure – and turned Uruguay into an intriguing experiment in social liberalism.  He has avoided the populist tendencies and overt anti-Americanism of other Latin American leftists, while promoting programs of social inclusion alongside a pro-business economic agenda.  Under Mujica, Uruguay has enacted an affirmative action law, legalized abortion in the first trimester, and legalized gay marriage. Most discussed has been his administration’s controversial launch this year of a legal government-licensed and -regulated marijuana market.

Mujica is notably less popular at home than abroad, however.  After plunging to 36 percent in late 2012, his approval rating has since hovered around 47 percent.  With national elections (in which he cannot run) looming in October, a poll last month showed the Frente Amplio losing significant ground to the opposition.  Mujica has consistently dismissed the polls.  He went ahead with legalizing pot, for example, despite a September 2013 poll indicating that 63 percent of Uruguayans still did not support the measure.  His asylum offer for up to six Guantanamo detainees, based on humanitarian concerns, has also not been popular, with only 23 percent of Uruguayans approving.  Uruguay ranks among the safest countries in the Americas, with 5.9 homicides per 100,000 people, and yet the perception of insecurity is widespread.  In a 2012 poll 56 percent of Uruguayans still reported crime and violence to be the country’s most pressing problem.  If celebrated by advocates of social liberalism, Mujica’s policy measures often appear out of kilter with popular perceptions and priorities.

Mujica is often cited as offering a potential alternative to the Bolivarian brand of “21st century socialism.”  But, in what is arguably Latin America’s most socially liberal country, the former Marxist has governed as a pragmatist.  Uruguay has a lot going for it, including: a stable banking system, free and secular education, low levels of corruption and social inequality, robust press freedoms, and stable governance with functional political parties.  It is second in South America behind Argentina on International Living’s quality of life index.  It has the third highest GDP per capita – triple that of Ecuador and Bolivia – and under Mujica has sustained stable economic and wage growth, and increased foreign investment in farming, forestry and pulp mills.  However, while he gets points for his international celebrity, austere lifestyle, and colorful persona, Mujica risks alienating the many citizens who care more about unemployment, inflation, crime and insecurity than about the environment, cannabis and gay marriage.  It is not clear whether over time Uruguayans will support Mujica’s particular left-liberal pragmatic brand of governance and whether his is a model embraced by other Latin American leaders. 

Colombian President Santos’s Challenges Now … and Later

By Fulton Armstrong


Colombian polls continue to give President Santos a comfortable margin in a second-round re-election victory, but the gap is closing – and an array of issues plaguing his campaign suggest serious challenges ahead for a second term.  The economy grew 4.3 percent last year, and optimism about future growth is so strong that the central bank is implementing measures to keep inflation under control.  The peace process with the FARC has been tedious – yielding agreements on only two of five main agenda items over 17 months of talks – but the fundamental drivers of the talks, including fatigue on both sides, remain strong.  But a number of political messes are swirling around the President:

  • The Army was caught red-handed spying on Santos’s top advisors in the FARC negotiations, suggesting disloyalty to him as Commander in Chief.  (The intercept center that police last week [6 May] raided was not the Army’s.  It was staffed by contractors reporting to the Centro Democrático, the party of former President Uribe and Santo’s leading rival in the election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.)
  • Uribe, who in March won a seat in the Colombian Senate, has been a relentless critic and drawn Santos into public spats.  Santos recently called on the former President to “stop causing the country harm” and to stop politicizing the Armed Forces.
  • An agricultural strike launched in late April has revived memories of a nasty confrontation last year and threatens food supplies in the run-up to the election.  Santos has mobilized police and military assets to keep highways open, but a political solution has eluded him.
  • In late April, the courts forced Santos to reinstate Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, whom he had removed a month earlier because the nation’s inspector general, an Uribe partisan, found that the mayor’s decision to cancel private garbage-collection contracts did not follow proper procedure.  Santos had gone ahead with the firing over the objections of a unanimous Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • Santos’s political message has been off target.  He has made the peace talks his top priority and proclaimed that “the second term will be about peace,” but polls indicate that only 5 percent of voters say the peace process is their top concern.

If the polls are correct, Colombians voting in the first round on May 25 and second round on June 15 feel little enthusiasm for Santos, but even less for Zuluaga and Uribe’s party.  A recent surge in support for former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa suggests, on the other hand, that voters could turn on both candidates.  Behind the numbers is a country eager to consolidate its democracy, maintain stability and – probably – end the 50-year insurgency.  But the red flags – such as the security service’s continued penchant for spying on government officials – are not inconsequential.  Santos, who was Defense Minister during Uribe’s presidency, should have earned the military’s confidence, will have to decide how far to push the military to respect democratically elected civilian leadership.  The farmers’ demands, including relief from low-priced, low-quality imports facilitated by Colombia’s free trade agreements, will also be difficult to satisfy.  A peace deal with the FARC will be an historic achievement, but the political reality is probably that any assistance to demobilized combatants will be minuscule compared to that given to the former paramilitaries – increasing the likelihood that ex-insurgents, like the paramilitaries, will join the bandas criminales (BACRIM) who continue to maraud throughout large swaths of the country.  Santos’s second term, should he win one, will not be easy.

Latin America Skeptical of U.S. Immigration Debate

By Aaron Bell

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Latin America’s subdued response to the immigration reform debate in the United States reflects a region-wide skepticism buttressed by the recent history of unfulfilled expectations.  Mexican media and a handful of Central American counterparts across the board have identified the Republican Party as the primary impediment to progress.  Conservative editorialists in the region, many of whom denounce President Obama and the Democrats as political opportunists rather than legitimate advocates for immigration reform, have also expressed frustration with the Republicans for not coming up with a better approach.  In particular, they think the party’s digging its own political grave by failing to rein in members and supporters who smear Hispanic immigrants as a threat to the ethnic identity of the United States.  Some have fond memories of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which balanced security and enforcement with compassion and amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Mexico’s El Universal has been one of the most frequent contributors to the discussion of immigration reform, particularly with editorials giving greater attention to the human rights aspect of the debate.  They’ve called for reforms so that undocumented workers can “come out of the shadows,” so that families can stay together without fear of deportation, and so that harsh punishment meted out to undocumented workers caught crossing the border can come to an end.  The Mexican government has been relatively quiet on the issue of immigration reform in the previous decade, with the exception of a complaint lodged against Alabama’s HB 56, which requires police to take certain actions if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an immigrant is in the United States unlawfully.  But last summer Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade took to the pages of El Universal to complain that proposed enhanced border security measures were a detriment to regional development – and not a solution to immigration problems.

Public opinion data on Latin American views of the reform debate is limited, though circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between reforms and overall views of the United States.  Pew Research found that public opinion of the United States among Mexicans dipped sharply following the passage of Arizona SB 1070 in 2010, which laid the groundwork for HB 56.  Those numbers have since rebounded, with 66 percent of those polled holding favorable views of the United States in 2013, when many perceived that the Obama administration would achieve a positive outcome in the reform debate.  Although critical of Republican approaches, commentators who support reforms are not inherently in favor of the Democratic Party.  Only half of those Mexicans polled held a favorable view of the Obama administration, and some commentators have noted the high number of deportations on Obama’s watch.  For Latin American observers, humane and fair treatment for migrant workers and immigrants is the primary concern – and neither party appears poised to deliver.  The region’s skepticism that this round of debate over immigration reform will produce anything new appears at the moment to be warranted. 

Argentina: Yet another political cycle ends in crisis?

By Inés M. Pousadela

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner / Photo credit: Expectativa Online / Foter / CC BY

Another ismo born of peronismokirchnerismo, more recently reshaped as cristinismo – is coming to an end in Argentina.  President Cristina Kirchner and her government – reelected in 2011 with 54 percent of the vote – have lost support and burned political capital at an alarming pace. For most of the decade that she and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner, have occupied the Casa Rosada, economic growth and favorable external conditions fueled both public expenditures and private consumption. The Kirchners’ administrations (Nestor’s in 2003-2007 and Cristina’s since 2007) renewed state intervention in the economy after the failure of the “neoliberal” experiment led by Carlos Menem (menemismo, another variant of peronismo), and implemented social policies that elicited widespread support from a population that was sympathetic to redistributive initiatives after the economic crisis in the early 2000s. Yet little progress was made in reducing inequality or increasing social cohesion, as was evident when inhabitants of poor suburban areas looted their own neighbors’ small businesses last Christmas. As the economy has weakened, corruption and the absence of efficient and transparent institutions have once again riled the middle class, as shown by both opinion polls and street protests.

The quick social fixes and improvised economics that have long characterized Argentine politics invariably have an expiration date – which in this case seems to be arriving soon.  High inflation – 5 percent in January alone despite repeated attempts at price controls – is eroding wages as the government keeps trying to fund expenditures by printing currency. Amidst inadequate investment and widespread corruption, commuter train crashes have killed dozens of people; massive electricity cuts have taken place over the summer, and gas supplies are expected to fall short as soon as the weather chills. Government denials of any intention to devalue the currency rang increasingly hollow as the official value of the peso dropped 19 percent in January – the biggest devaluation in 12 years. Leaders’ portrayal of the tendency of the population to hoard dollars as an ideological deviation, rather than a rational economic decision, rankled.

As the quality of life of Argentines declines, popular discontent mounts. The prevailing sentiment is one of uncertainty not just about the value of the currency, or even about the durability of policies that are typically announced one day and contradicted, modified or ignored the next. The deeper trepidation in popular feeling is that the future itself has yet again become uncertain.  No one doubts that a cycle is ending; the question – candidly posed even by some of the government’s allies – is how this will all end.  Will conditions become as bad as those that cut short the governments of Raúl Alfonsín in 1989 and Fernando De la Rúa in 2001?  And what comes next?  Unlike those two relatively recent debacles, this time it is the Peronistas who risk association with economic collapse.  With the president increasingly relying on her loyal inner circle, anxious peronista governors, mayors and labor leaders are trying to distance themselves from the Kirchnerista experiment.  Peronista candidates jockeying for position in the 2015 presidential race are as apprehensive as the broader population, while opposition forces lack incentives to cooperate towards developing a credible alternative. Across the spectrum, political leaders appear as clueless as the government regarding how to get out of this most recent mess. Judging from Argentina’s experience, mounting popular frustration is likely to find some expression in the streets as well as at the polls. It is still to be seen which combination of electoral politics and street protest eventually prevails.

Turning the Tide on Deportations?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Photo courtesy of ICE

Photo courtesy of ICE

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) recently released statistics showing that deportations in fiscal year 2013 hit an all-time low since Obama took office in 2009, but the drop is apparently not yet a harbinger of a policy shift.  Removals fell slightly from a record high of 410,000 in 2012 to just under 370,000.  News of the first decline during Obama’s tenure comes as he has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to use his executive powers to bring removals to a halt.  But the slight decline can be attributed to several factors:

  • First, the administration has encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which is the agency’s authority to enforce the law against a particular individual as it wishes, and has prioritized the deportation of violent criminal offenders and others deemed to be “national security threats.”  The removal of convicted criminals – a category that conflates those convicted of aggravated felonies and misdemeanor crimes – is more time- and resource-intensive, thus reducing the overall total of deportees.
  • A demographic shift in recent border crossers has contributed to the decline.  In fiscal year 2012, 71,527 of the recent border crossers removed by ICE were from countries other than Mexico (i.e., Central America).  In fiscal year 2013, this number rose by 27 percent to 90,461.  According to ICE, this triggered an increase in the use of ICE’s detention and removal resources because the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, responsible for many deportations, is only able to return individuals to Mexico.  (In 2010, Guatemalans represented 9 percent (or 29,378) of deportees; in 2013, they made up 13 percent (or 47,769) of all removals. Much the same can be said for Honduras and El Salvador.)
  • The president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has also reduced deportation figures by granting reprieves to more than 450,000 of the “Dreamers.”

Though positive, the relatively small decrease does little to offset the Obama administration’s staggering deportation totals – 1.8 million since February 2009.  Nor does it signal an attempt to reverse course in light of the rapidly approaching 2 million mark.  The Obama administration is undoubtedly walking a political tightrope on the issue.  It is pressured by the right not to appear lax on enforcement, while many on the left want the president to sidestep a deadlocked Congress and loosen up on removals – a move Obama himself has characterized as executive overreach.  As the deportation rate remains steady, Obama risks eroding the support of Latinos, an increasingly powerful segment of the electorate.  So pervasive is the fear of deportation that, in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Latinos said protection from deportation was more important than a pathway to citizenship.  This would suggest that lawmakers might eventually be open to allowing undocumented immigrants to attain legal status even without a chance to naturalize.  Some 205,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent because of deportations between July 2010 and September 2012 alone, and a growing number of them face the prospect of having to accompany a deported parent back to Central America, potentially increasing the political urgency for a fix to the country’s broken immigration system.