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.

Mexico: Changing the Narrative on Immigrants

By Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed deported citizens at Mexico City’s airport two weeks ago, a first for the president. / Gobierno de México / Creative Commons

President Donald Trump’s decision to put Mexican immigrants at the top of his enemies list has prompted Mexico to become more active – and more creative – in reaching out to compatriots in the United States to help them remain there or to cushion the shock of deportation.  Largely because unauthorized Mexican immigration had been in decline for many years, it rarely made front-page news in Mexico, but since Trump’s rhetoric during last year’s campaign and since winning the presidency there has been no topic more popular in Mexico.  The 5.8 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants living in the United States, according to Pew Research Center estimates, have their home country worried about the economic impact their deportation could cause.  As Washington’s threat to deport millions looms ever larger, the Mexican government and other institutions are preparing for such a scenario.  Their game plan includes both helping Mexicans fight deportation and easing their transition if deported.

  • Mexican consulates in the United States are actively offering legal advice to any migrant facing deportation. President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the country would send $50 million to hire lawyers and set up outreach programs.  The consulates also set up a 24-hour hotline for immediate help and are actively sharing infographics on social media indicating how undocumented immigrants should react if they are detained.
  • Two weeks ago, President Peña Nieto personally received 135 deported Mexicans at Mexico City’s airport – the first time ever. Throughout the encounter he shared an upbeat and welcoming message.  He described Mexico as a “land of opportunities” and said, “The doors are always open.”  Dressed casually in a shirt without a tie, it was an image reminiscent of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm welcome of refugees.
  • Mexican political leaders have launched Operación Monarca, a multi-party movement to form alliances that benefit deported immigrants. A group of Mexican senators involved in the initiative participated in a forum last week in Phoenix, Arizona, entitled “Agenda Migrante,”at which dozens of undocumented immigrants shared anecdotes of their current situation, expressed their worries, and demanded Mexican officials and advocacy groups fight U.S. policy harder.
  • Universities in the country are also embracing the returning Mexicans. Universidad Iberoamericana, a private institution with various campuses around the country, offered 1,500 full-ride scholarships to incoming deported youths.  The public Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, also announced it’s starting to work with some U.S. colleges to assure that their students who are deported can continue their studies in Mexico.
  • Since Trump threatened to overhaul the tech-favored H1B visa work program, cities like Guadalajara have declared interest in becoming a technology hub. Mexicans hold a little more than one percent of the approximately 300,000 H1B visas (India has more than half), but the number of returning workers with technical qualifications could be significant.

President Trump’s border wall and its cost remain major irritants in the relationship, and there is great uncertainty over how the “renegotiation” of NAFTA will proceed, but Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and President Peña Nieto continue to say Mexico is willing to cooperate with the United States wherever they can.  They are hopeful to keep a strong relationship, while staying firm in their conviction that Mexico will not pay for the wall.  Their shift on the undocumented in the United States reflects that commitment.  No longer are unauthorized immigrants considered a long-term and one-sided issue in U.S.-Mexico relations, but rather an immediate and mutual problem.  Mexico’s welcoming and warm message is probably small comfort to those being deported, and it is unclear if any of these actions could mitigate the economic and social impact for them, but the Peña Nieto government appears to be giving priority to avoiding a major train wreck with Trump over immigrants for now, and leaving the details for the future.

February 20, 2017

* Carlos Diaz Barriga is a CLALS Graduate Fellow.

Return of the Monroe Doctrine: Making Latin America Irate Again

By Max Paul Friedman*

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Uncle Sam stakes his claim in the Western Hemisphere in a political cartoon outlining the basic tenants of the Monroe Doctrine (1912). / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

A vigorous resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine may well be at hand under U.S. President Donald Trump, even though history shows us that it will contradict another favored policy – “America First” – which signals a desire to return to the most notorious isolationist organization in U.S. history.  The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 as a means of blocking external interference in the Western Hemisphere, was the central pillar of U.S. policy toward Latin America until Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, told a roomful of Latin American diplomats in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  The statement was part of an effort to rehabilitate the U.S. image in a region long accustomed to seeing the United States as seeking to control it through persuasion when possible, and force when necessary.  In a policy paper published last December, Craig Deare, a dean at the U.S. National Defense University and now Trump’s top Latin America advisor on the National Security Council staff, denounced Kerry’s statement “as a clear invitation to those extra-regional actors looking for opportunities to increase their influence.”  He specifically mentioned China.

A revitalized Monroe Doctrine, however, contradicts the Administration’s other strong impulse, present in its statements far beyond Latin America, toward isolationism.  Trump is promising to build a literal wall between Latin America and the United States, but the Monroe Doctrine was decisively unilateral and interventionist.  It stated that the United States would not intervene in European affairs if European powers did not intervene in the Americas, but Monroe carefully did not state that the United States would not intervene in the region.  Indeed, Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and other U.S. leaders desired and expected the future annexation of parts of what was then Spanish or Latin American territory in Cuba, northern Mexico (later Texas), and beyond.  Later, even in the “isolationist” early decades of the 20th century, the United States was vigorously engaged in military intervention and outright occupation of several countries in Latin America.  The Marines were in Nicaragua (1912-33), Haiti (1915-34), and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

  • Latin American resistance prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which supplanted the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism with respect for national sovereignty, but during World War II, FDR threatened Latin American governments with economic embargoes and other measures if they didn’t round up and intern thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese. After the tide in the war turned in 1943, the Latin American deportation and internment program was continued by U.S. officials seeking to turn the program to economic advantage by crushing commercial rivals.

Even Obama had difficulty reversing the United States’ longstanding desire to guide political and economic developments in Latin America – continuing, for example, Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba and elsewhere – but steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and other initiatives made important strides toward assuaging Latin American irritation with U.S. imperiousness.  Obama went further than any president since FDR in restoring good relations, and ended the Cold War in Latin America.  Donald Trump’s competing impulses – the interventionism of Monroe and the isolationism of “America First” – will keep U.S.-Latin America relations on edge.  His unilateralist style has already hit its first victim, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, and is likely to claim more soon.  If Trump revives the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism more broadly in response to a perceived threat from China throughout the region, he is likely to succeed only in making Latin America irate again.

February 2, 2017

* Max Paul Friedman is a Professor in the History Department at American University and author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.

U.S.-Mexico Tensions: Harbinger for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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The U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and San Diego. / Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral actions on Mexico last week have precipitated the most serious crisis in bilateral relations in decades and threaten to further undermine U.S. image and interests throughout Latin America.  During last year’s campaign, in the face of Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as rapists and drug-traffickers and repeated pledges that he’d make Mexico “pay for the Great Wall,” President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a strategy of patience and positive engagement.  He paid dearly in political terms for meeting with Trump in August – a misjudgment that worsened his already declining popular approval – but he continued to try to stay on the high road after the election.

  • Peña Nieto resurrected former Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, the architect of the Trump meeting last August, as Foreign Minister, and he replaced his ambassador in Washington with one having deep experience with NAFTA and a reputation for calm negotiation, in response to Trump’s repeated demand for a renegotiation of the 1994 accord. As opponents across the political spectrum egged him on to reciprocate Trump’s belligerent tone and strident U.S. nationalism, Peña Nieto – like all Mexican presidents for the past 25 years – tried hard to suppress the anti-Americanism that has lingered beneath the surface of Mexican politics even while the two neighbors have become increasingly integrated economically, demographically, and in governance.  Even after Trump’s first barbs following inauguration on January 20, Peña Nieto emphasized his preference for calm dialogue – “neither confrontation, nor submission.”  He declared that Mexico doesn’t want walls but bridges, and accepted the American’s demand to renegotiate NAFTA, although with a “constructive vision” that enables both sides to “win,” with “creativity and new, pragmatic solutions.”

Preparations for the summit meeting, scheduled for this week, crashed when Trump – without coordinating with his Mexican counterpart or the appropriate U.S. government agencies – issued executive orders putatively aimed at tightening control of the border.  One directed an immediate increase in efforts to deport undocumented Mexicans, and the other launched the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.”  Trump initially abided by an informal agreement with the Mexicans not to repeat his harangue that he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall, but on January 26 he tweeted that “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.”  His press spokesman followed up with a suggestion that Washington could impose a 20 percent tariff on imports from Mexico to cover the costs of construction, after which Peña Nieto, facing a firestorm at home, postponed the meeting.  The two presidents talked on the phone for an hour the following day and reportedly agreed to let things calm down, although the two sides presented different versions of the chat.

The speed of the trainwreck – in Trump’s first week in office – and the depth of the damage his unilateralism has done to bilateral relations have alarmed many in Mexico and the United States, including Republicans who worked hard to build the relationship.  (Only the Administration’s stunning decrees regarding immigration from other parts of the world have overshadowed the mess.)  Mexico is, of course, not without leverage and, as Trump stirs up long-repressed Mexican nationalism, Peña Nieto – whose popular support was recently in the garbage bin – is going to have to talk tough (at least) and could have to retaliate.  He could impose tariffs on the billions of dollars of Mexican exports that Americans have grown accustomed to having at low prices.  Mexico could also opt to diminish cooperation in counternarcotics and other law enforcement efforts, or to cease blocking Central American migrants seeking to reach the U.S. border – interests that the impulsive Trump policy team doesn’t seem to have considered.

Coming on the heels of Trump’s executive order totally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the new president is presenting the image of a U.S. leader whose harsh policies and arrogant style serve neither the United States nor Latin America’s interests.  Having appointed as White House National Security Council Senior Director for Latin America a political scientist whose writings draw bizarrely on analytic approaches that have been rejected in the discipline for more than 30 years, and whose recent articles lament the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Monroe Doctrine, the region’s leaders will rightly conclude that Washington is voluntarily abdicating any plausible case for leading multilateral cooperation around common interests.  The United States and Latin America are inextricably linked, however, and a policy based on stale assumptions of big power unilateralism ultimately will run into insurmountable obstacles: however ignorant Trump and his team are proving themselves to be, we live in the real world of the 21st century, in which imperialist, mercantilist fantasy will be treated with the disdain that it deserves.

January 31, 2017

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

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Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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.

Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

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As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016

What Comes After TPP?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

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President Barack Obama and President Pedro Pablo Kuczynsky at the APEC 2016 summit / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores – Peru / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama administration’s failure to win U.S. approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disappointment for Latin American countries on the Pacific Rim – and such a big opportunity for China to expand its influence that President-elect Donald Trump, despite his theatrical pledge to withdraw from it, might eventually consider rescuing the accord. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima last weekend was the last chance for Latin American leaders to say goodbye in person to President Obama and to mourn the passing – for at least the short term – of his TPP-centered vision for trans-Pacific trade.  In a meeting with leaders of the 11 other TPP countries, Obama tried hard to convince them of “the United States’ continued strong support for trade” despite growing evidence to the contrary.  Both U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who was Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, firmly and repeatedly stated opposition to TPP.  The White House continued efforts all the way up to election day (November 8) to persuade the U.S. Senate to approve the deal in a lame-duck session, but the Republican leaders – like Clinton champions of free trade until it became a 2016 campaign issue — slammed the door on it.

With the collapse of TPP, several Asian countries have already signaled a willingness to sign on with China’s own free trade initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which Latin America is not yet part of. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, angry with the United States over trade and other issues, threw his lot with China during a visit to Beijing last month.  (The Philippines, which has also moved aggressively to ally itself with China in recent months, is not in TPP.)  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Trump last week and said his country “could have great confidence” in the President-elect, but he has nonetheless warned his parliament that RCEP will prevail.

  • Latin Americans are also slowly but surely gravitating toward China as trans-Pacific leader in trade. Just days before the Lima summit, Peruvian Foreign Minister Eduardo Ferreyros announced that, while Lima still hoped TPP would become reality, his government has begun talks with China over accession to RCEP. His Chilean counterpart, Heraldo Muñoz, last Friday also expressed preference for TPP but told the Wall Street Journal that his country was leaning toward joining RCEP. Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Lima for the summit, was also making stops in Ecuador and Chile. (He’s visited Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela on previous trips.) In an op-ed in Peru’s El Comercio just before the summit, Xi said, “United by the same dream, there isn’t a more timely moment for the deepening of our multidimensional cooperation.”

The APEC forum may have been trying to counter Trump and others’ criticism of the lopsided impact of global trade by issuing a statement – titled “Quality Growth and Human Development” – emphasizing the benefit of global trade to all citizens in all countries. It was certainly in this spirit that the host of summit, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, warned that proponents of trade barriers would do well to revisit the history of the 1930s, singling out for unusually sharp criticism the stance taken by the U.S. President-elect.  On its face, Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggests TPP is totally dead; he’s many times called it a “disaster” being “pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”  Free-traders found a glimmer of hope in an organizational chart reportedly leaked by the Trump transition team last week that listed a former lobbyist from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has strongly supported TPP, as head of his “trade reform” team.   Yet if the new U.S. Administration is going to reengage on TPP, the primary reason would probably be to undercut China’s RCEP initiative.  Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment of both parties believes fervently that the impact of U.S. disengagement with the Pacific Rim would be harmful to U.S. global and hemispheric leadership.  Should those concerns sway the incoming President, he could opt to set aside his caustic rhetoric on TPP, negotiate face-saving adjustments to the accord, and instead focus his tough talk on China. TPP’s flaws may ultimately appear minor and manageable compared to the competing scenario of Latin American governments seeking commercial prosperity through a Chinese-led Pacific economic bloc. That is certainly the hope of most Pacific Rim governments across Latin America, whose alarm at developments in the U.S. already has them eying alternatives across the pond.

November 22, 2016

Guatemala: Cheers for Trump?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

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Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez and his team face a difficult task of bolstering Guatemalan anti-corruption efforts. / US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have suffered serious setbacks in recent months, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president appears likely to hurt them further.  A number of media reports have already documented that efforts by right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war, politicians, and campaign financiers are seriously threatening anti-corruption efforts started in 2015, which swept former President Pérez Molina from office.  President Jimmy Morales, who campaigned that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” has failed to fulfill voters’ mandate to fight corruption, and instead has allowed Army friends to dominate his administration.  Called la juntita, Morales’s closest advisors are former military officers who operate in the shadows, are widely suspected of crimes against humanity during the war, and are alleged to be using their influence for personal enrichment.

  • The Supreme Court and Congress are also under pressure. Numerous media reports point to members of the Supreme Court, including its President, being tainted.  One magistrate, whose son has already been convicted of illicit use of public funds, is widely suspected as well.  In the legislature, the election of a new Directive Board increased the power of members long suspected of links with the mafias.  (Some local observers speculate that the internal voting was conducted on the U.S. Election Day because U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an advocate of anti-corruption initiatives, and his staff would be too busy to care about what was going on in the Guatemalan Congress.)

With the Central Square in Guatemala City empty and only memories remaining of the citizen mass demonstrations of 2015, the last line of defense against the “re-capture” of the Guatemalan State are Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana.  They have already started investigations and are prosecuting corrupt members of Congress, including members of the new Directive Board.  U.S. government support has been crucial.  Ambassador Robinson may have crossed the thin line between active diplomacy and intervention at times, but many observers note that – quite unusual in Latin America for a U.S. ambassador – he enjoys strong support and sympathy from Guatemalans, and he is disliked by the Army veterans and others who are part of what in Guatemala is known as the “old politics.”

Corrupt Guatemalans appear to believe that their first hope – to neutralize the U.S. Embassy – moved one step closer to reality with the election of Donald Trump last week.  Politicians and commentators opposed to U.S. support for CICIG celebrated.  One proclaimed that “Democrats shriek; Republicans vote,” while another interpreted the message of Trump’s victory for Ambassador Robinson: “You’re fired!”  The mafias would not expect a Trump Administration to support them, but rather – interpreting the President-elect’s campaign statements – simply adopt a policy of indifference toward Guatemala and its internal affairs.  The corruption networks of the “old politics” in Guatemala hope that Trump will stay focused on nothing in Latin America except stopping migration.  Analysts who say that everyone in Latin America is regretting Trump’s victory are wrong.  Trump’s election may help the corrupt win a battle or two, but the war against corruption in Guatemala is far from over.

November 18, 2016

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