Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez (left) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (right). / República / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his political allies – the group of government officials, congressmen, judges, mayors, and entrepreneurs whom opponents call the Pacto de Corruptos that support his efforts to shut down corruption investigations by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) – may be winning the current battle, but the war is not yet over.  Undoubtedly, the government has achieved some hits, trumpeted by Morales in speeches and in the victory celebrations of the newly elected Congress Directive Board that supports him.  CICIG’s opponents have:

  • Prevented CICIG Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country, even after the Constitutional Court and Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, explicitly stated that he is free to enter whenever he wants.
  • Lobbied in Washington to gain U.S. support for Morales, exploiting access and friendships with U.S. Vice President Pence and other officials close to President Trump such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. They have used the “Bidkov affair” – involving a prosecution instigated by CICIG and the Attorney General’s investigation into the purchase of false Guatemalan identity documents by a Russian family opposed to President Putin – to feed opposition to CICIG.  (Rubio accused CICIG of doing the Russian president’s dirty work.)  Morales and his backers have also used the decision to move the Guatemalan embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other unrelated actions to punch important buttons within the Trump administration.
  • Achieved some progress in swaying Guatemalan public opinion through an anti-CICIG social media campaign aimed at stimulating nationalistic feelings and fueling the view that CICIG Commissioner Velásquez, a foreigner, went too far. They have even raised old Cold War flags, saying that Velásquez is a Communist and that the fight against corruption is a question of “red ideology.”
  • Consolidated their control over the Guatemalan Congress, securing enough votes to reject initiatives that would remove Morales’s immunity and allow investigations against him to proceed.
  • Further strengthened opposition to CICIG among factions of the private sector.

A more careful analysis, however, reveals cracks in Morales’s victory chariot.  He and some of his ministers are not only in grave danger of being charged with disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling; the Attorney General and CICIG have continued their work, albeit with a much lower media profile, and are producing results.  U.S. support for Morales’s efforts to destroy CICIG may diminish after Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives and begin scrutinizing his “impressive” claims about deporting ISIS terrorists from Guatemala and seizing drug shipments.  The U.S. Congress may now uncover an ugly truth: drug trafficking and migrant flows are increasing.

  • More importantly, Morales and his Pacto do not yet appear ready for elections scheduled for June-August 2019. (The new government will take office in January 2020.)  They are floating proposals for a constitutional amendment to allow for a presidential reelection, which would ensure them continued immunity, and to dissolve the Constitutional Court, or to make it a crime to criticize members of Congress.  Measures like these take a lot of time and energy.

The ferocity of Morales’s attacks against CICIG may not be fueled by confidence of victory but rather by a deep and desperate fear of justice after January 2020 – a basic survival instinct of people who know they have crossed a line.  The final outcome of all this will be, as it should, in the hand of voters.  The real issue for Guatemala might not be the fight between Jimmy Morales and CICIG, but rather between the Pacto and the huge number of voters beyond their grasp who are sick and tired of the corruption and impunity.  U.S. policy toward Guatemala has shifted from supporting CICIG and its efforts to investigate corruption and build Guatemalan institutions committed to the rule of law, to turning a blind eye in thanks for an apparently compliant ally and for completely unrelated reasons, such as the location of the embassy in Israel.  While Washington applauds the government’s (still unfulfilled) promises to stanch the northbound flow of migrants, it allows one of the biggest causes of migration – corruption and impunity at all levels of society – to continue unabated.

November 21, 2018

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Brazil: The WhatsApp President

By Barbara dos Santos*

Bolsonaro social medis

Graphics from Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s social media detailing his followers on Facebook (left) and Twitter (right). / Twitter: @jairbolsonaro / Creative Commons

If polls predicting a landslide victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff election are correct, Brazil on January 1 will inaugurate its first president to win by virtue of his superior social media prowess rather than the strong party bases that propelled his predecessors.  He gained strong support from different sectors of Brazilian society by delivering – legally and potentially illegally – the message his supporters wanted to hear directly to their personal electronic devices, without the validation and transparency of traditional media.  The receptivity of his young supporter base compensated for the low amount of TV time allotted to him under Brazilian law.

  • WhatsApp has around 120 million users in Brazil, around 60 percent of the population, for a wide array of personal and commercial communication needs. The polling firm Datafolha found that two-thirds of Brazilian voters use WhatsApp, and that of them a majority (61 percent) are Bolsonaro supporters likely to follow political news on the service – compared to 38 percent of the backers of his opponent, Fernando Haddad.
  • The platform is perfect for manipulation of information. Messages are encrypted and are therefore beyond the domain of electoral authorities, independent fact-checkers, or even WhatsApp managers.  Real and fake news spread like wildfire.  Agência Lupa, a fact-checker service, has found that only 50 of the most shared pictures in 347 WhatsApp groups were factually correct.  During the weekend of October 6-7, the company found that 12 of the fake news items it evaluated were shared 1.2 million times.  The Federal Electoral Court (TSE), which created a consultative council earlier this year to tackle online misinformation, has been slow to respond to the threat – perhaps out of fear it would be accused of limiting free speech.

Bolsonaro’s campaign also used Facebook effectively even after it twice shut down pages carrying content of his deemed to be fake – 197 pages and 87 accounts in July, and 68 pages and 43 accounts two weeks ago.  Many of the pages portrayed Haddad as a Communist whose Workers Party would turn Brazil into another Cuba and convert children to homosexuality.  One attack – alleging that Haddad would distribute “gay kits” to expose schoolchildren to homosexuality – was so blatant that the TSE ordered Bolsonaro’s campaign to stop it.

  • Haddad’s presence on Facebook (1.5 million followers) is minuscule compared to Bolsonaro’s (7.8 million). Some of Haddad’s followers used social media to spread rumors that Bolsonaro staged his near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month; social media have not shut down any of Haddad’s pages or accounts.

Bolsonaro’s social media campaign has also allegedly been tainted by illegal funding.  Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers, last week reported that wealthy businesspersons spent US$3.2 million on a WhatsApp fake news operation.  If true, they broke electoral laws barring undeclared corporate campaign donations and the purchase of contact lists from a third party.  Speaking on Facebook Live, Bolsonaro said Folha had no evidence, adding in an interview later that he has no control over the businesspersons anyway.

Fake news in elections – in the traditional or social media – is not a new phenomenon, but its wildfire impact has caught many in Brazil by surprise.  The mere speed that disinformation travels makes it nearly impossible for Brazilian authorities to curb its spread, and self-policing by social media platforms also seems an implausible solution given their benefit from the high traffic fake news drives.  Bolsonaro and his campaign team realized this earlier and embraced it more aggressively than Haddad, who did not enter the race until September 11, ever did.  Haddad was busy trying to simultaneously convince Lula’s supporters to vote for him and others that he was not Lula’s puppet, while Bolsonaro’s message was reaching tens of millions of Brazilians with smartphones.  The likely president’s expertise in using social media (legally or not) has clearly boosted his campaign, but governing by WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter remains an untested proposition.  It seems that Bolsonaro may also follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook into government.  Crushing his opposition under a barrage of half-truths and lies does not bode well for democratic governance.

October 26, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: A Moment of Truth

By Barbara dos Santos*

Brazil elections 2018

A group of demonstrators gathered in São Paulo last week to protest Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and show their support for other candidates like Ciro Gomes. / Mark Hillary / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Sunday’s election has brought out deep divisions in Brazilian society and set the stage for an even more divisive runoff later this month.  This week’s polls underscore that, although most voters arguably occupy the center, the right and the left have the strongest candidates.  Populist conservative Jair Bolsonaro (31 percent) has a 10-point lead over Workers Party (PT) latecomer Fernando Haddad (21 percent), who started campaigning only after party standard-bearer “Lula” da Silva definitively pulled out of the race three weeks ago.  But both candidates have high negatives, and the polls suggest that they would be tied in a second round (42 percent each).  Ciro Gomes, of the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), is still hovering around 11 percent, but polls also show that he would beat Bolsonaro (39 to 45 percent) if they face off on October 28.  Everyone else is polling in the single digits.

  • Hate politics has spiked during this campaign, powered by polarization, culture wars, and fake news on social media. Uncivil discourse and even physical violence have increased.  Although Federal Police have concluded that the man who stabbed Bolsonaro last month acted alone, the candidate and allied social media are hyping the incident as a political attack.  Other rumors circulating online are that Haddad’s running mate, Manuela d’Ávila of the Partido Comunista do Brasil, ordered the stabbing (which prompted threats against her.)  A review by the national daily O Estado de São Paulo found that several of Bolsonaro’s campaign themes – defending the death penalty and vigilantism, the use of torture, and past racial cleansing – have fueled aggressive attacks by both opponents and supporters.  One of the leaders of the Facebook group Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro was assaulted by three men outside her home on September 24; their political views are clear, although their affiliation remains unconfirmed.
  • The emergence of Bolsonaro – who has publicly called women unequal, stupid, and even “too ugly to rape” – shows the stridency of the culture wars now occurring in Brazil. His campaign has also revealed greater tolerance among some sectors for misogyny going far beyond traditional machismo.  It reflects a rejection of the younger generation’s progressive and liberal values of equality and inclusion.  Bolsonaro’s proud refusal to apologize for his remarks suggests confidence that his base sympathizes with his views.

In terms of political institutions, the election is crucial to the future of the PT and the left in Brazil and beyond.  Over its 14 years in power, the party led the country on a path of decreasing inequality, a booming economy, and international prestige as a “global player.”  It all came tumbling down for external and internal reasons:  commodity prices crashed, economic recession set in, and massive corruption scandals led to deep, sustained political crises.  The PT’s opponents have cast the party as the embodiment of all that is wrong with Brazilian society and institutions, and Bolsonaro and others on the right are hoping to deal it a deathblow.  Haddad is running hard, but local observers believe he needs to distance himself more from his party’s past – such as by trying harder to avoid criticizing the judicial processes that landed Lula in jail, advocating a responsible government budget, and more aggressively criticizing Presidents Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua.

This round of elections is the most important since the re-democratization of Brazil in 1988.  While some democracies around the world are known for tumult and strident campaigning – and may even be able to weather periods of authoritarianism – those that are of more recent vintage and less institutionalized, including Brazil, can break.  A Bolsonaro victory would not necessarily lead the country to military dictatorship, but the acceptance of his authoritarian vision, including his praise for military rule in the past, poses a potentially serious threat to the continuing strengthening of Brazilian democratic institutions.  In an interview last week, he even implied that if he were not elected, he would reject the vote count and claim that PT committed fraud.  Similarly, Haddad would also pose a threat to democratic institutionalization if he does not allow the justice system to handle Lula according to the law.

 October 4, 2018

*Barbara dos Santos is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

The TecnoLatinas: A Start-Up Revolution

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Foro de Ahorro de Energía Eléctrica, México | Photo credit: Alejandro Castro | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Latin America is experiencing a full-fledged start-up movement amid rapid growth of an innovation and information economy.  Over the last several years the region’s online population has grown faster than in any other part of the world – with approximately 255 million internet users as of last year.  Half of the top 10 markets worldwide, ranked by time spent on Facebook and other social media, are in Latin America.  Clusters of innovation start-ups, such as those around Monterrey, Mexico, are springing up with astonishing speed.  In 2012 Mexico was among the largest exporters of information technology services in the world.  Google is currently building a data center in Chile, while Amazon Web Services opened a data center in Sao Paolo last December.  But these are not information-era maquiladoras. Instead, Latin American entrepreneurs are combining the availability of open-source innovation tools and the emergence of cloud computing with effective bridge building in Silicon Valley to bring collaboration, expertise, and capital to their home markets.

  • Latin America offers multiple advantages for tech start-ups: a low cost of development, an educated and growing talent pool with the necessary technical and entrepreneurial skills, and increasingly available and affordable broadband and internet access.
  • In particular, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, along with metropolitan areas across the region, are incentivizing the development of a competitive start-up ecosystem – an advantage attracting a growing number of “angel investors.”
  • Start-Up Chile, a national program begun in 2010 with 22 start-ups from 14 countries, offers seed capital, grants, tax protection, space, mentoring, and networking to “accelerate” promising ventures.  Its most recent competition drew 1421 applicants from 60 countries, including from Singapore, London, and San Francisco.

The lack of tech innovation and incentives for start-ups has been an Achilles’ heel of Latin American economies for decades.  If the start-up trend continues, the region could make significant, lasting progress toward narrowing the sizable gap between itself and the most dynamic developing countries, mostly in Asia.  Latin America’s start-up movement is both top-down and bottom-up, with a tech-savvy generation of entrepreneurs not afraid to take risks and to leverage government support, as part of a collaborative business model built on multiple ties to Silicon Valley.  A core challenge will be whether these initiatives are scalable, and whether governments can move away from stale policy debates rooted in antiquated paradigms to move their economies toward the frontiers of innovation of the information age.  Old elites with a lock on traditional industries are poorly positioned to obstruct the phenomenon, but if these emerging innovation hubs are to succeed, at some point they are likely to confront  the entrenched and oligopolistic business practices still prevalent in the region’s energy, telecom, and other sectors.