Venezuela: A Test of U.S. Hegemony in Latin America

By Eric Hershberg

Lima Group members standing at a podium

Lima Group members in Torre Tagle in Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The showdown in Venezuela reflects an extraordinary attempt by the United States government to resurrect hegemonic power in Latin America.  From the mid-19th century to the dawn of the 21st, it was common for Washington to directly overthrow Latin American governments or to bolster clients seeking transitions to dictatorship or democracy.  But recent years had witnessed a clear decline in U.S. hegemony.  As Latin America appeared to have escaped Washington’s imperial reach, many of us were persuaded of the finality of the Obama administration’s recognition that the era of the Monroe Doctrine had ended.  We were dismissive, perhaps excessively, of the assertion of Trump administration officials and advisors that the infamous Doctrine could somehow be revived.

Yet the dynamics of the Venezuelan confrontation result from an unprecedented, Washington-forged hemispheric coalition – of the genuinely willing – trying to force a regime transition.  Traditionally, Washington conducted such interventions on its own, opposed by most of Latin America.  Yet today not only the 12 members of the Lima Group but also Canada and several EU governments are on board with the administration’s boldly assertive intervention in Venezuela’s political crisis.  Russia’s and China’s support for incumbent President Nicolás Maduro underscores that what is at stake is the enduring relevance of the Monroe Doctrine, which almost two hundred years ago unilaterally established an American veto over extra-regional engagement with nominally sovereign countries “in its own backyard.”

For champions of the Trump administration’s policy, asserting hegemony – after the Obama administration had declared it “dead” – is an end in itself.  Rejecting the Monroe Doctrine did not provoke a crescendo of acceptance from much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and abandoning that stance has been a core aspiration of right-wing foreign policy networks that have taken over the Executive Branch.  Countless statements over the years by the presumed architect of the present intervention – de facto Secretary of State for Latin America Senator Marco Rubio – reflect how an enduring hatred for the Cuban Revolution, and movements inspired by it such as Chavismo and the ALBA alliance, fuels antagonism toward intra- or extra-regional engagement that call into question U.S. authority.  Russian and Chinese interest in sustaining Chavismo thus reinforce Washington’s determination to eradicate it.

  • Venezuela today is an ideal target for a US-sponsored intervention to bring about regime change and reassert American hegemony in Latin America. The dictatorship is increasingly vicious, and Maduro’s claim to legitimacy is entirely fraudulent.  Moreover, Maduro’s government has so wrecked the economy that desperate millions are fleeing the country, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis that overwhelms neighboring countries already unable to provide for the basic needs of their own populations, making them more amenable to an interventionist exit.
  • Venezuela’s opposition has been long hindered by incompetence and racked by competing personal ambitions. With its most assertive leaders imprisoned, under house arrest, or in exile, it has proven incapable on its own of bringing about Maduro’s removal, either peacefully through his rigged institutions or through uprisings in the streets.  Absent an internal path toward regime transition, conditions were ripe for Washington to coax regional partners to back a daring strategy of intervention.  To have any prospects for success, the venture required that the domestic opposition finally unify – or at least acquiesce in –the anointment as Interim President of Juan Guaidó, a young political unknown whose ties with right-wing patrons are not as well known.  That unification, presumably, was made possible by recognition that only with external support could internal resistance succeed, and only with a unified or quiescent opposition would the international partners take the aggressive stance that they did.

Just as the opening to Cuba was the signature achievement of the Obama administration with regard to Latin America, the effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government appears destined to be the signature act of the Trump administration.  The support of almost all of Latin America for it will have consequences far beyond the fate of the incompetent dictator clinging to power in Caracas.  If their gambit succeeds, Senator Rubio and National Security Advisor John Bolton could move on next to Nicaragua and then perhaps to the king’s crown in Havana. 

  • Those tempted to attribute this to abhorrence of violators of democratic norms would do well to consider the administration’s supportive stance toward increasingly authoritarian regimes in Honduras and Guatemala. Those cases, and the recognition that much of the opposition leadership wants to restore Venezuela to “what it used to be” (i.e., before Chavez tried with considerable popular support to forever end what Venezuela used to be), underscore the ideological drivers of U.S. policy today.  While Washington may have embarked on a course that can finally extricate Venezuela from Chavista misrule, the history of American influence over the region does not bode well for what a return to U.S. hegemony in Latin America could bring.  Surely that point is not lost on leaders of countries such as Mexico and Uruguay.  If the coming weeks bring a continuing stalemate between the Venezuelan regime and opposition, perhaps their good offices could catalyze a negotiated path to free elections and to a resulting regime that would not be Made in USA.

 

January 31, 2019

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

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).

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

U.S.-Latin America: Return of Monroe Doctrine

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes* and Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Colombia during his Latin American tour last summer. / White House / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Trump administration’s revival of a vision of U.S.-Latin America relations akin to the Monroe Doctrine is advancing with little pushback from the region.  Since former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eight months ago proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” Washington has continued to revive it as a guiding principle that includes limiting the influence of other powers in the hemisphere as well as reserving for itself the right to intervene when it feels its interests are threatened.

  • Tillerson complained that China “is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit” and that Russia’s “growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.” In August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis renewed the attack on China’s investment of billions in Latin America, claiming that “there is more than one way to lose sovereignty. … It can be with countries that come offering presents and loans.”  Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence repeated his government’s complaint that Latin America is among the regions where China is offering large infrastructure loans that are “opaque at best, and the benefits flow overwhelmingly to Beijing.”
  • Washington has also resorted to cavalier rhetoric regarding its perceived right to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American countries to advance its interests. At the United Nations in late September, President Trump said, “Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintain[ing] our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers.”  President Trump argued for regime change in Venezuela and repeated that “all options are on the table, [including] the strong ones.”  In the new NAFTA agreement, Washington demanded, and achieved Mexican and Canadian concurrence on, a clause stipulating that the United States could terminate the agreement with six months’ notice if either negotiated a free trade agreement with a “non-market economy” – that is, with China.

Latin American governments’ voices have been thus far muted – perhaps because they are getting used to downplaying Trump’s rhetoric – even though the revival of the Monroe Doctrine is already shaping actual policies.  A hundred years ago, Latin American international lawyers, diplomats, and intellectuals worked hard to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a unilateral doctrine into a multilateral policy able to shape first Pan-American and later Inter-American relations.  Those efforts led to the adoption of hemispheric instruments such as the OAS Charter in 1948 and the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001, gradually defining a mutually acceptable approach that strikes a balance between shared hemispheric values and the principle of non-intervention.  After the Cold War, references to the Monroe Doctrine disappeared from public discourse – except to disparage it as the Obama administration did – until the Trump administration revived it.

Today, the forums and organizations that Latin America has used during the last decade to articulate concerns and political responses to U.S. policies are not working.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s recent declarations that military action to solve the crisis in Venezuela cannot be ruled out, rather than offering a riposte, echoes Trump’s stance.  The Lima Group – which gathers together a group of OAS member states committed to the defense of democracy in Venezuela – pushed back against Almagro’s statements but, importantly, not against the U.S. administration’s policy.  More formal organizations such as UNASUR are not only muted, but actually paralyzed by the inability of its members to reach consensus and solve fundamental discrepancies. 

  • To resist and speak up when confronted with rhetoric and policies with such profound implications as a revitalized Monroe Doctrine is not a matter of politics and economics, but rather a necessary condition for friendly and respectful international relations and the sort of partnership that Latin Americans of all political stripes claim to want with the United States. To articulate such a response, Latin America urgently needs its leaders to think in “regional” and not only “national” terms – to nurture a genuine Inter-American community, not just bilateral relations with Washington.  The odds for such leadership to emerge at this moment do not appear high.  The possible election of a nationalist, xenophobic, and illiberal leader in Brazil may become a further challenge for collective action in the region.

October 12, 2018

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

U.S.-Guatemala: Are Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales Brothers in Arms?

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2018. / Executive Office of the President of the United States / Wikimedia

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ announcement last month that he would not reauthorize the joint Guatemala-United Nations anti-corruption commission to remain in the country apparently was made with confidence that President Trump would approve, or at least turn a blind eye.  Morales’ gambit followed months of public threats against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating and prosecuting high-profile organized crime and corruption cases for over a decade.

  • His attempt to revoke CICIG’s authority and refusal to allow CICIG’s highly respected lead prosecutor, Iván Velásquez, to re-enter Guatemala after a trip to the United States are widely understood as intended to halt investigations into Morales’ own alleged illegal campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. Even after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the nation’s highest judicial authority – ordered Morales to allow Velásquez entry, the president refused to budge.
  • Some U.S. politicians have joined in the international condemnation of Morales’ efforts – 23 members of the U.S. Senate and House wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asserting that he “must counter” the maneuver. But the Trump administration has remained largely silent; Pompeo in early September reiterated U.S. “support for Guatemalan sovereignty” – code for a hands-off policy – and, using words similar to those Morales has used in advocating dilution of CICIG’s mandate, announced his backing for a “reformed CICIG.”

Several explanations for Washington’s soft approach to Morales’ action have emerged.  Some pundits muse that the administration is repaying him for relocating the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when the United States did.  Others opine that Trump fears pushing Guatemala into China’s arms amid reports that it will follow El Salvador’s recent decision to break relations with Taiwan.  Yet another, less strategic and more personal explanation might illuminate the equivocation – that Trump simply empathizes with Morales because they have a lot in common.

  • Both first emerged in the public eye as TV personalities. While Trump was building his brand on “reality TV,” Morales hosted a popular daytime talk show, where he became known for lowbrow comedic antics that included blackface.  In their campaigns, they fed on simmering discontent about the corruption of the political establishment, and trumpeted their lack of political experience as a prime reason to vote for them.  They both defeated the former first ladies of left-leaning presidents considered by large swaths of their electorates as corrupt.
  • More importantly, both presidents face far-reaching criminal investigations that have cast long shadows over their first years in office. Despite Trump’s vociferous denials to the contrary, the Special Counsel investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election has been a constant thorn in his side.  CICIG, whose investigations into former President Pérez Molina were pivotal to his arrest and impeachment, has represented an existential threat to the Morales administration since the day he took office in 2015.  CICIG’s work put his son and brother behind bars for fraud.  (Trump’s son and son-in-law are reportedly under investigation too.)  CICIG has doggedly pursued investigations against Morales and his supporters in Congress for illegal campaign financing, among numerous other charges.

The two presidents’ efforts to resist and deride the investigations into their activities expose perhaps the most striking (and disturbing) of their shared affinities.  To protect themselves, they appear willing to tarnish and undermine public institutions integral to democracy and law and order.  Trump attacks the free press and the FBI as “deep state” conspirators.  Morales has aligned with members of the Guatemalan Congress to give immunity from prosecution to politicians in office accused of a laundry list of crimes, contravening a fight against powerful criminal organizations embedded in government.  By violating decrees by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Morales has placed his administration on a collision course with the nation’s constitutional order.

  •  The potential long-term damage to democratic institutions suggests that the “democratic wave” that swept across the Americas in the second half of the 20th century has crested. Under the Trump administration, the United States now risks becoming a beacon for anti-democratic politicians like Morales across the hemisphere, giving political cover and guidance to those who would hasten democracy’s demise for the sake of power.  The rule of law in liberal democracies is predicated on transparency and accountability – and is threatened by executive intimidation of institutional checks and balances.

October 2, 2018

*Anthony W. Fontes is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

U.S. Politics: Ted Cruz’s Spanish Problem

By Chip Gerfen*

Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz

Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso (left), is challenging Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. / Marjorie Kamys Cotera: O’Rourke/ Bob Daemmrich: Cruz

In the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, a non-Latino challenger is gaining on an incumbent widely hailed as the Senate’s first Hispanic member by mischievously challenging his bond with Latino voters.  Last Friday evening in Dallas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Ted Cruz held the first of three planned face-to-face debates in what now appears to be a toss-up race for the Senate seat Cruz has held since 2013.  The Texas Republican Party misjudged O’Rourke’s appeal, ineptly miscalculating that his punk rock past, ability to skateboard, and occasional use of obscenities would swing sentiment away from rather than towards him.  O’Rourke is a three-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from his hometown of El Paso.

  • Extraordinarily, the race pits a fourth-generation Irish-American, Robert Francis O’Rourke, with the Spanish nickname “Beto,” against a first-generation Cuban-American, Rafael Edward Cruz, who goes by “Ted” – and it is impossible to miss the irony in the fact that the Irish-American has challenged the Cuban-American to hold two debates in Spanish.

Cruz’s Spanish language bona-fides have come up in an electoral context before.  As I wrote during the 2016 presidential primaries, Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American, sparred openly on national television, with Cruz accusing Rubio of using Spanish to send different messages to different constituencies.  Rubio ridiculed Cruz’s lack of fluency in the language, suggesting a major positive shift in attitudes towards the value of Spanish in the public, political sphere.

  • Cruz’s traditional homogenizing view of immigrant language and identity was already clearly visible in his prior description of English as the language of the people of Texas, while Spanish was foreign and appropriate for use in the public and political discourse of places such as Cuba or Mexico. Rubio, by contrast, viewed his fluency in Spanish as a useful tool for connecting with Hispanic voters without incurring costs with non-Hispanic voters.  By openly disparaging Cruz’s Spanish in a nationally broadcast debate, Rubio sought to undermine the man’s cultural and ethnic authenticity, especially when contrasted with his own demonstrable bilingualism and cultural pluralism.

The current race in Texas is more than an incumbent defending his seat in a statewide election.  It is one with national consequences being played out on a big stage – at a time when the tsunami of Trump’s political victory and subsequent discourse and policies may seem to have changed the political calculus regarding linguistic and ethnic identity away from Rubio’s embrace of linguistic pluralism in the public square.  Nevertheless, not only are Cruz’s Spanish bona-fides being called into question again; the challenge arises from a political competitor named O’Rourke who has no ethnic connection to the Latino communities of Texas.  O’Rourke and Cruz are, in fact, polar opposites.  Cruz, son of a Cuban immigrant father, is a paradigm of traditional assimilation.  Like the children of many immigrants, he lost the language of his father, embraced English as a marker of his American identity, and chose an English nickname, Ted, over his given name, Rafael.  O’Rourke, by contrast, was raised in the bilingual border city of El Paso, grew up with a Spanish nickname, and learned to speak fluently the Spanish language of the generally economically less privileged citizens of his home.

By challenging Cruz to debate in Spanish, O’Rourke is advancing a vision of political and societal inclusion that does not demand linguistic assimilation.  Like Rubio in 2016, he is leveraging his own knowledge of Spanish to connect with a specific constituency and espouse an inclusive vision.  At the same time, by forcing Cruz to admit his inability to speak Spanish, O’Rourke, like Rubio before him, implicitly identifies Cruz as an outsider to the linguistic community to which he should, by birthright, feel some affinity.  While language itself does not define the ethnicity of either candidate, O’Rourke is adeptly challenging Cruz’s authenticity as a Latino, while at the same time signaling his own solidarity with constituents who speak Spanish or are descended from Hispanic families in ways that Cruz cannot.  Simply put, by taking the Spanish out of Cruz, O’Rourke leaves Cruz with little choice but to continue betting on the political value of the traditional, and increasingly challenged, narrative of assimilation in a demographically changing political landscape.

September 25, 2018

* Chip Gerfen is Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at American University.

Trump on NAFTA: An Offer Canada Can’t Refuse?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in July 2018. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat last week to abrogate free trade with Canada while signing a new bilateral agreement with Mexico alone has led many to think that NAFTA – which will be 25 years old on January 1, 2019 – has no future.  But the likeliest outcome remains just a set of fairly modest changes to the agreement.  Much of Trump’s bluster on NAFTA does not reflect the facts in U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade, though Canadian officials will still have to take his threats seriously.  Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose government sat out the United States’ renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico this summer, rushed to Washington after the bilateral accord was announced, launching new talks with U.S. counterparts.  While Trump has said he will make no concessions, Freeland has continued seeking common ground, and looks ready to compromise on at least some issues.

  • The best econometric studies suggest that North American free trade has had disappointingly modest benefits – nowhere near advocates’ earlier projections. But the transition costs of moving to a world without free trade would still be enormously costly for Canada.  The economic and political risk of the highly unlikely, but not completely inconceivable, scenario of losing NAFTA entirely are just too great for the Canadian government to bear.

Canada, which in past negotiations stood up for Mexico on some key issues, now finds itself in the ironic position of looking to Mexico for support.  The two countries are often in a position to benefit from working together, but Trump’s wrath has tempted each to throw the other under the bus – a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

  • In the last few weeks, Mexico decided to give the U.S. what it wanted: most importantly, protectionist rules of origin for autos and textiles, and some enhanced intellectual property rights. Mexico calculated that, compared to Trump’s threats not long ago to kill NAFTA in its entirety, these concessions were a modest price to pay to keep the agreement alive.  Also importantly, Mexican leaders appear to have avoided a national humiliation of epic proportions – putting an end to Trump’s dream of getting Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border.
  • Looking for a much-needed “win,” Trump has now made an offer he thinks Canada can’t refuse. His wish list covers things Canada specifically fought hard for in the original free trade talks back in the 1980s and 90s, including protections for Canada’s cultural industries and agricultural supply management programs, and what Canada’s trade minister said in 1992 were “the vitally important dispute settlement provisions” of Chapter 19.  Now, just as Canadian opponents of free trade forewarned in the 1980s, Canada’s economy has become so enmeshed with that of its much larger neighbor that the government cannot say no to the demands of an aggressive administration in Washington.

Yet the situation does not spell disaster for U.S.-Canada trade or for Canada itself.  Trump’s claims notwithstanding, the U.S. Congress has final say over U.S. trade policy, and most of its members (with business lobbyists whispering in their ears) recognize that severing the many economic ties built up between Canada and the United States over the last quarter-century would be unnecessarily disruptive and costly.  Freeland and her negotiators will know that Trump’s threat to kill free trade is not really credible.

  •  Even caving on all of Trump’s demands would not be catastrophic for Canada. Contrary to Trump’s zero-sum perspective on trade (like on everything else) as an international battleground, most of the important conflicts with respect to trade are actually within countries.  Canada’s supply management system favors the country’s producers at the expense of consumers, for example, just as do strict rules of origin for U.S. textiles manufacturers.  So while the transition costs of dismantling free trade in North America would be substantial, the impacts of the changes Trump is proposing would be tolerable to all three countries – even if some make no sense (the sunset clause); are just giveaways to specific industries (stricter patents for pharmaceuticals); or favor some industries at the expense of others (U.S. lumber producers and U.S. home builders, respectively, as regards the possible elimination of Chapter 19).  For Canada’s government, the heaviest costs of compromise will be political: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will have to choose which bitter pill to swallow, as any concessions will lead to angry recriminations from one domestic constituency or another.

September 7, 2018

* Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor of Sociology at Umeå University and a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, both in Sweden.  He is originally from Vancouver, and has been a visiting researcher at multiple institutions in all three countries of North America. He has also participated in the Center’s North America Research Initiative.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018