What do Latin Americans Make of the U.S. Election Campaign?

By Fulton Armstrong

Trump Wall Pope

Photo Credit: Daryl Lawson and Pingnews (modified) / YouTube and Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about Mexico and immigration by Donald Trump – leader in the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential nomination contest – have drawn intense criticism from some Latin American leaders, but their underlying concern may be about the implications of the broad support for his populist rhetoric regardless of who wins the party’s nomination in July.  Media throughout the hemisphere are reporting highlights of the U.S. campaign, focusing mostly on immigration and its connotations for the region.  Some reports touch on the challenges to unity facing both major U.S. political parties, such as Democratic pre-candidate Bernie Sanders’s pressure on the previously unbeatable Hillary Clinton.

Most Latin American attention has gone to Trump and his statements.  His characterization of many Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists; his statement that Mexicans “bring tremendous infectious disease” into the United States; and his pledge to make Mexico pay billions of dollars for a new high wall on the border have drawn sharp rebukes from across Latin America.

  • Mexican President Peña Nieto, who initially remained on the sidelines when Trump brought the immigration issue to the table in a cynical fashion, recently compared Trump with Hitler and Mussolini. Former President Calderón called him a “racist” and lamented that he is “sowing anti-American hatred around the world.”  And his predecessor, Vicente Fox, said on U.S. television that Mexico wouldn’t pay for “that f**king wall.”
  • Argentina-born Pope Francis also criticized Trump. “A man who thinks only of walls is not a Christian,” he said.  Former Colombian President and OAS Secretary General Gaviria told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer that Trump “has the typical style of a Latin American caudillo,” scaring people and putting himself up as “the solution to all their problems.”
  • Ecuadoran President Correa said, “Trump’s rhetoric is so clumsy, so vulgar, that it will stir reaction in Latin America” – which would be “very bad for the United States” but positive for Latin American “progressive tendencies.”
  • In Venezuela, President Maduro has condemned Trump’s “threats” against Latin America as “brutal” and termed him a “thief full of hate.” On the street, however, comparisons between Chávez and Trump are part of daily conversation.

Racial slurs and rhetoric about walling out immigrants are, naturally, hair-trigger issues not just for Latin Americans.  If the Trump juggernaut rolls on, however, anxieties about its implications are likely to sweep across the hemisphere – not necessarily because he will win the general election in November, but because the broad support for his rhetoric about walls and deportations suggests a widening gap between the United States and the region.  Moreover, doubts about the credibility of the U.S. political model – already battered by the contested presidential election of 2000 and the decade-long gridlock in Washington between the executive and legislative branches of government – could multiply, especially if campaign violence spreads beyond Trump rallies.  Trump’s pledge to resume “enhanced interrogation” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” of alleged Islamic extremists could further undercut U.S. moral authority.  Dismayed Republican leaders are privately floating the idea of rewriting the rules for their party convention this summer to overturn Trump’s primary victories and block his candidacy in the general election, but that too would be a spectacle that could undermine U.S. image in Latin America.  Moreover, other Republican candidates’ views may compound the problem.  Senator Ted Cruz is proud of having shut down the U.S. Government to make a political point during a skirmish with President Obama, and he and Senator Marco Rubio are fervent supporters of their party’s decision to refuse to meet with the President’s nominee to replace a recently deceased Supreme Court nominee, let alone give him or her a hearing and floor vote.  Ecuadoran President Correa’s remarks about the U.S. campaign empowering “progressive” forces is probably wishful thinking on his part, but Trump’s populism and his party’s questionable options could indeed appear contrary to some Latin American countries’ struggle to rid themselves of populist, authoritarian-style leaders.

March 14, 2016

Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014

Is Affirmative Action in the U.S. Dead?

By Lázaro Lima*

Photo credit: commonwealth.club / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: commonwealth.club / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago to uphold a law that prohibits colleges from considering applicants’ race in the admissions process underscored U.S. conservatives’ power on the issue – but also the forceful vision of Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  In the decision of “Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action,” six out of the nine Justices supported Michigan’s “Proposal 2”; Sotomayor and one other opposed it, and Justice Kagan, who had worked on the case as President Obama’s Solicitor General, recused herself.  Ironically named “Michigan Civil Rights Initiative,” MCRI was passed in a state referendum with the support of 58 percent of Michigan’s voters in 2006.  It outlawed the use of all race considerations in public college admissions, resulting in a decline of 25-30 percent of the minority population at universities and colleges in the state.  The majority argued that “there is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”  They cited it as a case of respecting states’ rights and claimed that “it is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds.”

In a 58-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the case against the law, arguing that Michigan schools were within their rights and responsibilities to society to take reasonable steps to encourage minority presence on state university and college campuses.  She plaintively stated the obvious: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of racial discrimination.”  She wrote: “Yet to know the history of our Nation is to understand its long and lamentable record of stymieing the right of racial minorities to participate in the political process. […] And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away.”

The U.S. debate on affirmative action has deep roots and will surely continue.  The Supreme Court decision – and Sotomayor’s candid and necessary assessment of race relations – came over 35 years after the Court in 1978 ordered a University of California medical school to admit a white man who claimed that affirmative action unfairly led to the rejection of his application.  The “Bakke Decision” outlawed racial and gender quotas and delimited “race” to the managerial interests of academic institutions and employers.  Historical accounts of affirmative action policies often trace back to President John F.  Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 of 1961, which required government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”  President Lyndon Johnson extended these mandates through the Civil Rights Act and with his own executive order.  But it was Sotomayor, decades later, who shined in her statement last month.  When she read her dissent from the bench, for the first time in her five years, her colleagues – who already had made up their minds – were not her intended audience.  Her audience was the democratic commons.

*Lázaro Lima is a professor of Latin American literature and Latino Studies at the University of Richmond, and a CLALS research fellow.