Perspectives on U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump

Trump and Cuban Americans

President Trump announces his administration’s policy toward Cuba. / YouTube / Livestream TV News / Creative Commons

Reversing Obama’s Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande*

In the two years after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to normalize relations, Obama tried to make his policy of engagement “irreversible” by opening up travel and trade that would create constituencies with a self-interest in defending engagement. He half-way succeeded. Despite the incendiary rhetoric in which Donald Trump cloaked his new policy when he rolled it out at a rally of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami, the sanctions he announced were limited.

Obama granted general licenses for all 12 categories of legal travel and relaxed other restrictions on who could visit Cuba. Trump rolled back only individualized people-to-people educational travel, so people-to-people visitors must once again travel on organized tours. But they can still go, and bring back rum and cigars.

Obama opened the Cuban market to U.S. businesses by licensing contracts with state enterprises in the travel, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture, and consumer goods sectors. Trump prohibited only contracts with Cuban enterprises managed by the military, and even then he exempted all existing contracts, and future contracts involving ports, airports, and telecomm – the sectors in which all but a handful of current U.S. businesses operate.

Trump did not impose any restrictions on Cuban–American family travel and remittances. He did not break diplomatic relations or put Cuba back on the State Department’s terrorism list. He did not restore the wet foot/dry foot policy that gave Cuban immigrants preferential treatment after reaching the United States. He did not abrogate the bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest negotiated by the Obama administration.

Why such a flaccid set of sanctions from a president who stood on the stage in Little Havana and demonized the Cuban regime as brutal, criminal, depraved, oppressive, murderous, and guilty of “supporting human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation all around the globe”?

Because Obama’s strategy of creating constituencies in favor of engagement worked. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s announcement, he was deluged with appeals not to retreat from engagement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in favor of expanding business opportunities, not constricting them. Farmers argued for expanding agricultural sales. Travel providers argued for expanding travel. Fifty-five U.S. Senators cosponsored a bill to lift all travel restrictions. Seven Republican members of Congress and 16 retired senior military officers argued that disengagement would damage national security by boosting Russian and Chinese influence on the island. Polling data showed that large majorities of the public, of Republicans, and even of Cuban Americans support engagement.

Even the executive bureaucracy was won over by the successes scored by the policy of engagement. During the last two years of Obama’s presidency, Cuba and the United States signed 23 bilateral agreements. When Trump ordered an inter-agency review of Cuba policy, the consensus of the agencies involved was that engagement was working and ought to be continued. Trump rejected that conclusion because it did not fit with his political strategy of currying favor with the Cuban-American right, but the agencies fought back successfully against more extreme proposals to roll back Obama’s policies entirely.

Trump’s vicious rhetoric and his open embrace of the goal of regime change – through sanctions, support for dissidents, and “democracy promotion” – risks destroying the atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith that made the gains of Obama’s policy possible. Already, hardliners in Havana who saw engagement as a Trojan Horse for subversion are saying, “We told you so!” Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who Trump’s policy purportedly aims to help, will be hurt the most by the prohibition on individual people-to-people travel. However, the overall economic impact of his sanctions will be limited, both on U.S. businesses and in Cuba.

Cuba’s official response has been pragmatic but firm. A statement released shortly after Trump’s Miami speech declared, “The Government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to continue respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the United States Government…. But it should not be expected that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence, nor will it accept any kind of conditionality.”

In all likelihood, political pressures from the constituencies Obama’s policy created will continue to constrain Trump’s impulse to beat up on Cuba, but his loyalty to the exile right and his penchant for bullying will make it impossible to realize further progress toward normalizing relations. That will have to wait until the White House has a new occupant motivated by the national interest rather than by a political IOU given to Miami’s most recalcitrant Cuban-American minority.

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Cuba: Trump’s “New Policy”

 

By Ricardo Torres*

The “new policy” toward Cuba that President Trump announced to great fanfare in Miami last Friday features little that is new while seeking to restore oxygen to a failed approach advocated by extreme sectors of the Cuban-American community. While adopting language reflecting the worst traditions of American foreign policy, Trump’s declaration implicitly blessed much of the rapprochement between the two countries introduced by President Obama – diplomatic relations will remain intact, for example. But the new measures he announced have symbolic and practical implications. His Cuban-American backers expended great political capital to change the policy in hope of accelerating regime change on the island, but the Trump approach will instead retard change – while increasing the pain of the Cuban people. Moreover, it will undermine the activities of legitimate U.S. citizens, companies, and groups interested in contact with the island and compromise U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. They have acted against Trump’s campaign promise to create jobs (threatening thousands of workers who depend on U.S.-Cuba interaction) and increase national security (putting U.S.-Cuba cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and illegal migration at risk). The new approach also runs counter to Secretary of State Tillerson’s repeated assertion that U.S. policy is not to impose its values and standards on others.

U.S. national interests seem to have taken a back seat to internal U.S. political factors, particularly the opposition to Obama’s policies among certain groups of the Cuban Americans that had seen their political influence decline over the past decade.

In addition to its symbolic weight, the Trump approach is likely to be felt most strongly in several principal areas. Despite continuing differences between the two countries, both governments had decided to move ahead together. It is difficult to overstate the sense of hope created during the Obama era, with immediate and tangible benefits for both.

Cuba’s internal situation has been changing recently, due to a gradual opening internally and to other nations. A steady increase in visits by foreign businessmen and Cuban travel overseas are evidence of this change. Trump’s rhetoric and actions will only strengthen those sectors inside Cuba that exaggerate the external threat and want to reduce the space for debate in the country.

The economic impact that Trump and his backers want – to hurt the Cuban government – cannot be separated from the harm it will cause the Cuban people. The new measures will probably reduce tourism, which provides a significant flow of revenue to vast sectors of the Cuban population that, in formal or informal jobs, benefit from that industry. Indeed, the much bandied-about private sector has been one of the principal beneficiaries of tourism development.

The Cuban government will assess its options in relations with the United States as well as in domestic policies. It will naturally have to let the U.S. government know that cooperation has yielded mutual benefits to both countries and that this step backward will not be limited to areas that Washington prefers. Havana might look for more ambitious ties with alternative partners, including both allies and competitors of the United States. Internally, rather than slow down, Cuba’s transformation should accelerate. The legitimate needs of the Cuban people should not be postponed in the face of this new adversity. The pace of Cuban reform should never be tied to external threats. As for the Cuban people, they will once again tell all who will listen that they themselves – not those on the other side of the Florida Strait – represent their interests. President Trump has empowered a small group of Cuban Americans to speak for people in Cuba whom they do not know, at the cost of sacrificing U.S. prestige and an array of its national interests. The absurd has become the accepted norm in American politics.

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

U.S.-Mexico Trade: The Numbers and the Real Issues

By Robert A. Blecker*

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Two maquiladoras in Tijuana, Mexico. The low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA. / Anthony Albright / Flickr / Creative Commons

Officials in the Trump administration are proposing a new way of measuring the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit that, by making the deficit look larger than it currently appears, will likely be spun to support efforts to impose high tariffs or dismantle NAFTA.  According to press reports, the President’s senior advisors, including the head of his new trade council, Peter Navarro, are proposing to include only “domestic exports” (exports of U.S.-produced goods) in calculating bilateral trade balances with Mexico and other countries.  This would exclude “re-exports” – goods that are imported into the United States from other countries (such as Canada or China) and transshipped into Mexico – which are currently counted in total U.S. exports.

  • In spite of its political motivation, the proposed new accounting would render a more accurate measure of U.S. exports. In fact, it would make the U.S. deficit with Mexico look closer to what Mexico reports as its surplus with the U.S.  For 2016, the U.S. reports a deficit of $63.2 billion with Mexico, while Mexico reports almost twice as big a surplus of $123.1 billion with the U.S.  If the U.S. excluded re-exports, its trade deficit with Mexico for 2016 would be $115.4 billion, which is much closer to the Mexican number.

Nonetheless, this recalculation fails to correct for another bias, which makes the U.S. deficit with Mexico look artificially large.  Imports are measured by the total value of the goods when they enter the country, from the immediate country of origin.  But in today’s global supply chains only part of the value-added in imported goods comes from any one country.  A television, for example, can be assembled in Mexico with components imported from Korea and other East Asian nations.  As a result, the reported U.S. imports from Mexico (especially of manufactured goods) greatly exaggerate the Mexican content of those goods.  Although data limitations do not permit an exact calculation of the Mexican content of U.S. imports from Mexico, it is likely relatively low.  (My own estimates suggest it is on the order of about 30-40 percent for manufactured goods).  Indeed, the low percentage of Mexican value-added in Mexico’s exports is a key reason why the country has not gotten nearly as much employment growth as it hoped for when it joined NAFTA.

The Trump Administration’s aggressive rhetoric and action on other issues related to Mexico, including immigration and the wall, suggest a political motivation for the proposal to adopt a new measure of exports, regardless of its merits.  But the real problem is not the “correct” number for the U.S.-Mexican trade deficit; it is why NAFTA has not lived up to its promise of supporting high-value added exports and high-wage job creation in both countries.  This promise was based on the idea that the United States would export capital and intermediate goods to Mexico for assembly into consumer goods, which would then be exported back to the United States.  But especially since China joined the WTO in 2001, Mexico has increasingly become a platform for assembling mostly Asian inputs into goods for export to the United States (and secondarily Canada).  Even if “re-exports” are excluded, Mexico remains the second largest export market for the United States (after Canada) – and U.S. exports to Mexico are 65 percent greater than U.S. exports to China.  Focusing too much on measuring the U.S.-Mexico trade imbalance only distracts attention from the need to reform NAFTA so as to encourage more of the “links” in global supply chains to be produced in North America generally.  If the Trump administration is serious about making the U.S. more competitive vis-à-vis China, it should think about viewing Mexico as a partner instead of as an enemy.  In the larger context of Trump’s many objectionable policies on migration and in other areas, a long-overdue correction of U.S. export statistics is not worth getting upset over.  The real issue is whether Trump’s trade policies – with Mexico and beyond – will bring the promised gains to U.S. workers, or will further enrich corporate billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.

February 23, 2017

* Robert A. Blecker is a Professor of Economics at American University.

What Will Trump Do About NAFTA?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and the flag of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). / Flickr and Wikimedia / Creative Commons / Modified

Despite his campaign rhetoric repeatedly attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump probably won’t touch it, except in superficial ways.  He has called NAFTA the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agree to renegotiate it.  Last week, he suggested renegotiation of NAFTA will include provisions for Mexico to repay the U.S. government for the wall he wants to build along the border.

Dismantling or even significantly rewriting the accord is unlikely for a couple reasons:

  • First, the billionaires, chief executives, and friends he is choosing for his cabinet are hardly people inclined to dismantle an agreement whose contents largely reflect what American business wanted from the U.S.-Mexico relationship when NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s. Corporate preferences weighed heavily against any big deviation from the status quo after the last political transition in Washington, in 2008.  Barack Obama too said that “NAFTA was a mistake,” though his criticisms were a little different.  He railed against lobbyists’ disproportionate influence over trade policy, and promised big changes to international trade agreements, including better protections for workers and the environment.  Even so, he didn’t touch NAFTA, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) he negotiated included – like NAFTA – shady provisions for investor-state dispute settlement.
  • It would be near-impossible, or least massively expensive, to get what Trump seems to want most: a big drop in imports from Mexico. In his eyes this would make NAFTA a better deal for America, though of course serious economists disagree.  Realistically, reopening the agreement would be very messy, and if he tried to throw up massive new trade barriers business leaders would strongly object.  NAFTA could include some additional measures to make it easier for goods and/or people to get around among the NAFTA countries, but that’s not what Trump has promised.

His economic nationalism makes the Republican Party establishment squirm, but it’s clear it also helped Trump win several Midwestern states, tipping the electoral college in his favor.  Insofar as agreements like NAFTA entrench rules friendly to business, and generate market efficiencies and economies whose benefits accumulate in the hands of the few, voter hostility is no mystery.  But economics is only part of the reason.  The bigger issue is what the backlash against globalization – embodied also by Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist parties in Europe – means more broadly.  The average Democratic voter has a lower income than the average Republican voter, but Democrats are more supportive of trade agreements because they are more internationalist, more open to other cultures, younger, more educated, and more urban.  Throughout his presidency, Trump will therefore be squeezed between his working class rhetoric – appealing to the distrustful – and his business class milieu.  He is an extreme case of the politicians’ mercantilist thinking on trade, wherein exports are good and imports are bad, and “trade deals” like NAFTA are somehow like deals in the business world, where it’s possible to out-negotiate someone.  The reality is that this thinking – which flies in the face of basic economics – doesn’t point to any clear course of action.  This is why Trump won’t actually do much about NAFTA.

January 10, 2017

* Malcolm Fairbrother is social science researcher and teacher/mentor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK).  This article is adapted from a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association.

Does Trade Incentivize Educational Achievement?

By Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, and Nora Lustig*

Female student walking by building

A student walks around Preparatoria Vasconcelos Tecate. / Gabriel Flores Romero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico’s experience with free trade has challenged one of the tenets of faith economists know well from reading early in their careers David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation: that “the pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole” and that “[trade] distributes labor most effectively and most economically.”  Under this principle, “wine shall be made in France and Portugal; corn shall be grown in America and Poland; and hardware and other goods shall be manufactured in England.”  Mexico reminds us that while these benefits exist in the abstract, there are trade-offs to be faced—that there are, potentially, social and individual costs induced by trade liberalization.

In a recently published paper entitled “Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico,” MIT economics professor David Atkin shows the ways in which individual people experience trade and how it affects their decision-making – sometimes in ways that may not necessarily be socially desirable.  It analyzes a time period (1986-2000) during which Mexico underwent major economic transformations, including a rapid process of trade liberalization after 1989 and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.  Analyzing data for more than 2,300 municipalities in the country, the paper tells us that young Mexicans at the time faced a very basic decision: to stay in school and continue studying or to drop out and look for a job (among the many being created in the export-oriented manufacturing sector), most of which did not require more than a high school education.  Atkin found that, on average, for every 25 new jobs created in the manufacturing sector, one student would drop out after 9th grade.  (The World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development had raised the question about “missing” individuals in this age group, but in relation to migration.)

  • While trade brought positive effects including a higher demand for low skilled workers and an eventual increase in their wages – consistent with David Ricardo’s basic notion – Atkin concluded that in Mexico it had the socially undesirable effect of preventing, or slowing down, the accumulation of human capital. The reduction in human capital investment is a trade-off which can have negative effects on the economy as a whole.
  • Factors other than free trade might explain this effect. First, young students may drop out if the returns to schooling are not high enough to compensate for the additional investment.  Second, a lack of access to credit and insurance for relatively poorer households might make it impossible for aspiring students to finance their investment and obtain higher returns by continuing to tertiary education or to cope with shocks and avoid abandoning school.  Finally, the result could be driven by a lack of availability of information about actual returns to investment in education, which could lead to myopic decision-making.

The movement of capital toward locations with lower labor costs is an expected, and intended, result of an agreement such as NAFTA, pursuing higher export competitiveness at the regional level.  David Ricardo would have said that TVs and automobiles shall be made in Mexico, while software shall be made in Silicon Valley.  What completes the story, however, is that because of distortions like the ones mentioned above – low educational quality, under-developed credit markets, or weak information that skews decision-making – free trade might lead to socially undesirable consequences.  And it did in the case of Mexico, as Atkin convincingly shows in his paper.  It seems that when Ricardo gets to the tropics, the world gets more complex.

November 7, 2016

* Raymundo Miguel Campos Vázquez teaches at the Centro de Estudios Económicos at el Colegio de México, and is currently conducting research at the University of California, Berkeley.  Luis-Felipe López-Calva is Lead Economist and Co-Director of the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law.  Nora Lustig is Professor of Latin American Economics at Tulane University.

What does “Canada is back” mean in the Americas?

By Stephen Baranyi*

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the “Tres Amigos Summit” in Ottawa, June 2016. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers’ statements following their election in October 2015 that “Canada is back” reflect a global strategy that is likely to give a boost to Canada-Latin America relations.  Canada never “left” the Americas during the decade of Conservative governments led by Prime Minister Harper, but the new administration is patching up its predecessors’ mixed record.  Building on the Americas Strategy launched in 2007, Ottawa signed new bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and others; broadened its engagement in regional security affairs; and greatly increased its whole-of-government engagement in Haiti.  Canada played a major role at the Summit of the Americas in Panama (April 2015) and hosted the Pan American Games (July 2015).  Yet the revelation of Canada’s espionage in Brazil, visa restrictions on Mexicans, the poor reputation of some Canadian mining firms in the region, and its inability to reach a trade agreement with the Caribbean Community fed a growing desencanto in Canada’s relations with the region.

Through mandate letters issued to ministers in late 2015, the Trudeau government made clear that the Americas would remain an important priority, despite renewed emphasis on Asia and Africa, and that inclusive growth, the responsible governance of Canadian extractive activities abroad, and women’s and indigenous peoples’ rights would get emphasis in the region.  In June, Canada hosted the “Tres Amigos Summit” with NAFTA partners United States and Mexico.  Ottawa also announced that by December, Mexican citizens would no longer need visas to enter Canada, removing a big irritant in Canada-Mexico relations.  The government reaffirmed its partnership with Colombia by indicating its desire to make bilateral free trade more inclusive and announcing projects to support the implementation of peace accords.

  • Ottawa has opportunities for deeper involvement in these countries. In Mexico, Canadian interests will be served through a better balance between pursuing economic opportunities in sectors like petroleum and supporting Mexicans struggling to strengthen rule of law in a system compromised by corruption.  Colombia also requires a sophisticated whole-of-Canada engagement strategy, particularly since the failure of its referendum on the peace accords on Sunday.  Ottawa has signaled interest in continuing to support the rule of law and broader development in Haiti, but Trudeau’s ability to justify large expenditures there will depend on the completion of legitimate elections by February 2017.

Ottawa’s appointment of a new Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and commitment to revitalizing it as “the premier multilateral organization of the Americas” points to broader engagement on a regional level.  The Trudeau administration could join the Latin American and Caribbean trend on drug policy by decriminalizing the sale of marijuana at home and supporting reforms to OAS and UN counterdrug programs.  Assisting the implementation of the UN Small Arms Treaty, which Ottawa is poised to ratify, could also contribute to rule of law and security in the Americas.  Canada will also find many partners (from Chile to Costa Rica) to promote gender equality.  With regard to First Nations, Ottawa may be tempted to focus on funding new aid projects; yet Canada’s credibility will remain suspect until it ratifies the American Convention on Human Rights and ensures that all Canadian mining firms respect the rights of indigenous communities to free and prior informed consent in large-scale extractive activities.  The Trudeau government will probably monitor the multi-dimensional crisis in Venezuela, the situation in Brazil, and other challenges in the region – over which it probably lacks the leverage to make a significant difference but can lend moral authority to solutions.  Given its clear commitment to a global, rather than regional, strategy, the current administration is wise to carefully select entry points on which its thematic priorities align with opportunities in particular countries.

October 5, 2016

* Stephen Baranyi is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies.  He also chairs the Latin America and Caribbean Group (LACG) of the Canadian International Council.  The author acknowledges his LACG colleagues’ input into this blog, while taking responsibility for its limitations.

Increasing the Benefits of Trade Agreements

By Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres*

Trade 1993-2016

Source: IDB (Full-sized images at bottom of page)

Latin American and Caribbean countries were major players in global trade liberalization in the 1990s but have since been held back by complex rules, infrastructural obstacles, and the poor flow of information.  The successful conclusion in 1994 of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) fueled growth and optimism in the region, but the slow progress of the Doha Round drove the region into the silent tide of regional trade agreements (RTAs), which now govern about half of world trade.  Latin American and Caribbean countries have concluded some 70 RTAs – a far cry from the handful of sub-regional customs unions and free trade areas in place in 1994.  As a result, tariffs applied by Latin American countries have dropped from an average of 40 percent to 10 percent during this period.

Despite these policy advances, Latin America and the Caribbean’s participation in international trade is still limited.  Whereas the region and the developing nations of Asia had a similar share of world trade in 1962 (around 6 percent), Latin America’s global trade share has remained relatively unchanged – and that of Developing Asia has grown to nearly three times its previous size.  Latin America registers lower levels of intra-regional trade – 18 percent – compared to 37% in Developing Asia and 61% in the European Union.  Our research indicates that Latin America and the Caribbean could close this gap through a series of measures:

  • Harmonizing the different rules of origin in the RTAs and the wide array of sanitary, phytosanitary, and technical standards that qualify market access.
  • Improving infrastructure and reducing inefficiencies at border crossings to reduce transportation and logistics costs, which amount to three times more than existing tariffs.
  • Harnessing the power of information and communications technology to reduce costs through one-stop shops and process automatization, such as the trade single windows being introduced in several countries in the region. The cost of information about consumer preferences, market demand, and foreign regulations is the first barrier that potential exporters face.
  • Simplifying and reducing administrative burdens through expedited and secure customs and other trade facilitation measures. Some experts estimate that, worldwide, some 75 percent of delays are due to inefficient processes (compared to 25 percent due to inadequate infrastructure).

The main lesson for Latin America and the Caribbean is that trade agreements are a necessary – but not sufficient – condition to achieve economic development potential.  Increasing companies’ participation in international value chains is key to unleashing trade as an engine for economic growth and poverty reduction.  Trade-driven growth in the region, much of it from South American commodities, enabled a reduction of poverty from 22 percent in 2002 to 12 percent by creating new employment opportunities and the fiscal capacity to fund poverty reduction initiatives such as conditional cash transfers (Mexico’s Programa Oportunidades, for example).  By our calculation, trade facilitation measures such as customs and border simplifications can increase Latin American and Caribbean exports by as much as 15 percent, translating into a 5 percent increase in export-supported jobs that pay almost 20 percent more than jobs at non-exporting firms.  It is within policymakers’ grasp to create the enabling environment for firms to export, especially for the small and medium-sized enterprises that may represent the next generation of exporters.

May 9, 2016

*Antoni Estevadeordal and Joaquim Tres are, respectively, the manager and principal specialist of the Integration and Trade Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank.  Click here to access the IDB’s new course on trade agreements, and here and here for related studies.

Trade 1993-2016 v2

Source: IDB

Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016

Venezuela: Trying to Stay Afloat

By Michael McCarthy* and Fulton Armstrong

Venezuela Oil Maduro

Photo Credit: Democracy Chronicles and Charles Henry (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro continues to receive increasingly bleak economic news, and his modestly positive policy responses seem unlikely to help.  Oil revenues dropped 293 percent from 2014 (US$37 billion) to 2015 (US$12.5 billion).  The value of oil exports, which account for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, has dropped to a 30-year low ($30 a barrel), accelerating a recession, paralyzing shortages, and soaring inflation.  The Central Bank reported that inflation reached 180.9 percent in 2015, and that the GDP contracted for the second consecutive year (5.7 percent).  Maduro blamed an “imperialist strategy in a petroleum war” aimed at destroying OPEC.  He also asserted that Venezuela suffered from an “international financial blockade” that – by obstructing the country’s efforts to refinance its debt – was intended to force it “to its knees” and to “take over” its wealth.

Several days after celebrating a Supreme Court decision reaffirming his authority to declare an “economic emergency,” which the opposition challenged last month, Maduro this week announced several modest economic measures aimed at stemming the slide.

  • He ordered a 60-fold increase in gasoline prices – dramatic-sounding but preserving Venezuelan gas (about US$0.23 per gallon at the black-market exchange rate) as one of the cheapest in the world – but the decision is significant as the first increase in about 20 years. An increase in 1989 triggered riots – the famous Caracazo that most analysts cite as the beginning of the end of the old order that Hugo Chavez toppled definitively when elected President in 1998.  In allusion to this past, Maduro said he “hoped people on the streets would understand.”  (Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica estimates that the existing fuel subsidy costs the Venezuelan government US$12 billion a year.)
  • Maduro also announced a 37 percent devaluation of the bolívar – from 6.3 to 10 to the U.S. dollar – for official exchange rates used for the essential goods like food and medicine. The bolívar trades at about 1,000 to one on the black market, but the decreased subsidy implicit of the official rate for necessities is nonetheless significant.
  • Venezuela’s proposal for an OPEC freeze in oil production, in hopes of driving oil prices back up, drew supportive remarks from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran, but the scheme has lacked traction. Industry observers said one reason is that Tehran is eager to increase exports to regain market share as sanctions against it are lifted.
  • Maduro replaced economic czar Luis Salas – known as a hardline leftist – just five weeks after appointing him, and appointed in his place a more business-friendly economist, Miguel Pérez Abad, who had been serving as Minister of Commerce. Pérez Abad, whose appointment the President of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce described as a “friendly sign,” has publicly (and accurately) said that Venezuela must simplify its byzantine exchange rate system.
  • These changes come amid Maduro’s increasingly frank self-criticism about state corruption. He recently described a government food distribution company as “rotten” while calling for a restructuring of state-run food import and distribution outlets.

In a four-hour speech replete with foul language and insults against opposition leaders, the President argued that the measures are “a necessary action to balance things,” and he said, “I take responsibility for it.”  But his measures are piecemeal at best.  As opposition leaders have pointed out, he has not explained how he is going to pay Venezuela’s debt, obtain the foreign exchange to import sufficient amounts of basic goods, and guarantee food for the people.  With US$10 billion in bond payments coming due this year, the country has no clear path for avoiding default.  However painful for the population and politically costly for the government, measures such as gasoline price increases will have little impact.  The government wanted the opposition to share some of the costs for economic policy changes, but opposition politicians say that the gas price increase and devaluation are too little, too late. Most believe economic revival depends on dismantling the entire chavista system.  They are once again talking about removing Maduro through a referendum or other means – with one leader, Henrique Capriles, openly calling for a presidential recall, and another, Henry Ramos, the President of the National Assembly, calling for a constitutional amendment to cut the presidential term from six to four years.  The government’s measures suggest a welcome change from Maduro’s previous strategy of buying time through diversionary tactics.  However, the economic measures are likely to fail and, moreover, they increase the chances political temperatures will surge once again.

February 19, 2016

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

Ignoring MERCOSUR and UNASUR at Your Peril

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Mercosur map

Participating countries in MERCOSUR. Image Credit: Immanuel Giel (modified) / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Pundits who dismiss MERCOSUR and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) as failed attempts at Latin American economic integration should look again.  MERCOSUR has presided over an explosion in intra-regional trade among its four original member states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) from just over US$ 5 billion at its launch in 1991 to US$ 43 billion by 2014.  UNASUR, for its part, is credited with thwarting a coup attempt against Evo Morales in 2008 and putting a damper on continental arms races.

  • MERCOSUR and UNASUR member countries have taken additional important steps toward convergence since 2014, when MERCOSUR’s highest governing body adopted “CMC Decision 32,” which allows initiatives pursued by either collective to be binding on both if they arise from a set of goals and objectives common to both. The document reaffirms the UNASUR founding treaty stipulation that “South American integration shall be achieved through an innovative process that includes all of the achievements and advances by the processes of MERCOSUR and CAN [Andean Community].”  Chile has spearheaded this effort as a means of reducing duplication of efforts, and is also attempting to bridge ideological differences between the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) and MERCOSUR to further build Latin American unity.

Given the relentless negative assessment of both integration projects, multinational pharmaceutical companies were caught off guard when MERCOSUR and UNASUR forced them late last year to make substantial price cuts for public-sector purchases of Darunavir, an antiretroviral to combat HIV-AIDS, as well as Sofosbuvir, used with other medications to treat Hepatitis C.  Both drugs are on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.  As a result of CMC Decision 32/14, the Ministers of Health of all the South American nations met in Montevideo on September 11, 2015, and launched a joint MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee to negotiate with multinational pharmaceutical companies on the prices for bulk purchases of certain high-priced drugs.  The committee, made up of representatives from each government’s agency responsible for purchasing medicines, won major price cuts last November – a steep reduction for Darunavir from Hetero Labs as well as lower prices with Gilead for Sofosbuvir.  The new costs were premised on the lowest amount charged to any one of the member governments, and enabled Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir.  The South American governments as a whole are expected to save US$ 20 million in 2016 on purchases of this anti-retroviral.  A proposed 14 percent reduction in the cost of the combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C – if accepted by the MERCOSUR/UNASUR committee – would enable further savings.

The South American governments have their eyes set on several additional high-priced medications, with a particular focus on drugs used to treat cancer.  In order to aid the committee’s work, UNASUR is creating a data bank of the prices charged by the multinationals for specified medicines purchased by the public health sector in each member state.  The fact that the purchases are made jointly through the Pan American Health Organization’s already existing Strategic Fund opens the possibility that countries in Central America and the Caribbean can benefit as well.  It also means that all these countries can access the Fund’s capital account and do not need to have the cash in hand to acquire medications required to address public health emergencies.  MERCOSUR and UNASUR – often dismissed as ineffective – are demonstrating that integration produces tangible results.

February 11, 2016

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and is former chair of Western Hemisphere Area Studies at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (2011-15).

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that “a 14 percent reduction in the cost of its combination Sofosbuvir-Ledispaver drug for Hepatitis C will enable Chile’s Ministry of Health to pay 90 percent less than what it previously paid for Darunavir.”  The outcomes of the cost negotiations for the two medications are unconnected.

Lobbying Washington: Does it Work?

By Aaron T. Bell*

LatAm Lobbying

Photo credits: Jack Says Relax & AlexR. L., respectively / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results.  Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents.  Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies.  In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.

  • Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
  • In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies.  From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.”  In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
  • Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
  • More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.

A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent.  Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure.  The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped.  Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort.  MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed.  In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.

January 22, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.