And the Winner is… Trump in Latin America

By Nicolás Comini*

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U.S. President Trump and Argentine President Macri meet in the Oval Office. / Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies toward Latin America ranges from mild to furious in the region and among many U.S. Latin America watchers, but that anger is not likely to drive greater regional unity and demands for a more balanced relationship.  Trump’s rhetoric – emphasizing sovereignty, nationalism, and protectionism – have long been popular concepts in many countries of the region.  During Latin America’s recent “turn to the left,” for example, political leaders embraced a developmentalist emphasis on using tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers to give domestic industries an advantage in national economic expansion strategies.  But the U.S. President’s statements have generally infuriated not only the left as reflecting bias on an array of issues, such as immigration, but also the right.

  • Trump’s policies contradict the prescriptions that Washington has been advocating – and most conservative politicians have embraced – for Latin America for many years. Those prescriptions have emphasized free trade but touched on other issues as well, such as the shift (symbolic and material) of resources from traditional national defense to the “war on drugs.”  Trump’s “America First” approach undercuts his natural allies in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere.  It has also given their leftist opponents a sense of legitimization of their anti-Americanism speeches, something that is surging also because of Washington’s new policies toward Cuba.
  • The U.S. summary abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), conservatives’ last great hope for deeper trade integration with the United States, left them angry. According to the ECLAC, 73 percent of all FDI in Latin America in 2016 came from the United States (20 percent) and the European Union (53 percent).  Individuals with strong anti-Communist credentials in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are all flirting with joining China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Regional organizations show no sign of providing leadership in how to respond to U.S. policy.  UNASUR is fading rapidly, in part, because it was labeled by the new conservative governments as too Bolivarian and anti-American.  Something similar is happening with the CELAC.  MERCOSUR is struggling, in part, because of the political tumult in Brazil.  Indeed, most governments are trying to remain friends with Washington, prioritizing bilateral agendas in detriment of regional (multilateral) institutions and mechanisms.

The surge in resentment toward Washington – within and among Latin American countries – is unlikely to lead to increased regional unity.  Internally, the left and right may agree that Trump is harming their interests, but their reasons are different and prescriptions for dealing with it are far apart.  On a regional basis as well, the current context accelerates the atomization of the region – and threatens to expand the bargaining power of the great powers of the United States, China, Germany, or Israel.  Although China is making inroads, in the end the United States has, and will retain, the greatest influence in Latin America – and the lack of efficient regional decision-making will prolong that situation.  Latin American fragmentation will create an image of acquiescence – and President Trump will think he is not doing so badly in the region.

October 18, 2017

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.  He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

Guatemala: Anti-Corruption Still Losing Momentum

By Ricardo Barrientos*

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala looks upward

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala. / OECD / Andrew Wheeler / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), Attorney General, and civil society remain bulwarks in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala – and occasionally score big hits – the Administration of President Jimmy Morales is slowly grinding them down and generating opposition to much-needed reforms.  In a speech at the signing of the National Development Agenda last month, the President attacked provisions in the law requiring transparency in public procurement and budgeting as counterproductive, while also lashing out at the judges, congressmen, general comptroller, and civil society leaders who support such measures.  He claimed on that occasion and others that anti-corruption measures have hindered his ability to govern.

  • The Morales Administration has not just complained; it has tried to remove anti-corruption controls. On July 14, CICIG and the Ministerio Público (MP) made the first of dozens arrests of persons involved in a corruption network run by former Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister (CIV) and potential presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, Alejandro Sinibaldi.  Three days later, the government responded to the case, known as “Corruption and Construction,” with a Presidential Decree declaring a “State of Emergency” on conditions of the nation’s roadways.  The order would allow the government for 30 days to sign new contracts and modify existing ones with companies involved in the scandal, including Brazilian contractor Odebrecht, free of all anti-corruption controls.  Congress not only rejected the Decree, but also impeached current CIV Minister, Aldo García, and forced him to take the blame for decrepit road conditions.

Despite such high-profile cases, Guatemalan anti-corruption advocates are concerned the MP and CICIG could still lose the war against corruption.  In addition, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has publicly lamented that structural reform – the Commission’s other mandate – has been too slow.  Last month, he said that “with current [circumstances] it is very difficult to defeat corruption and impunity.”  Some local observers believe that Velásquez’s focus on constitutional reforms to enhance the Attorney General’s powers is overly ambitions, and that other important initiatives are more attainable, but they acknowledge the generally hostile political environment he faces.  Advocates also believe that the Morales Administration is waiting out the term of fiscal general (attorney general) and head of the MP Thelma Aldana, who steps down next year.  The President even excluded her from his delegation attending a summit in June with U.S. Vice President Pence and Central American counterparts.

The strident complaints of some Guatemalans about U.S. support to CICIG and other anti-corruption initiatives has fueled perceptions that external support for clean government is more important than local demands for good governance – and coincided with a decline in the civic engagement that helped bring down the corrupt government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  Much attention in Guatemala City has focused on outgoing U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and is now naturally shifting to the man confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3 to replace him:  Luis Arreaga – most recently a deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement – is a Guatemala-born naturalized U.S. citizen who, nominated to the post by President Trump in June, is expected to distance himself from the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to anti-corruption programs.  Even though Attorney General Aldana was bumped from President Morales’s delegation at the June summit, Pence publicly praised Morales’s “personal dedication” to fighting corruption.

August 21, 2017

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

Cuba: Attacks Against U.S. Diplomats?

By William M. LeoGrande*

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The U.S. Embassy in Havana. / Melanie K. Reed / Flickr / Creative Commons

The details about alleged sonic attacks against U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana in fall 2016 remain shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, but the incidents – whatever they were – could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization.  The State Department has admitted that after more than eight months of investigation, it “can’t blame any one individual or country” for the reported impairment of U.S. diplomats’ health.  Although press reports indicate the victims suffered hearing loss and headaches from exposure to something in or near their residences, the State Department has provided few details about their symptoms, the number of officers involved, their positions, or their prognoses.  The department’s spokesperson said last week that “we still are trying to … determine the actual cause of their situation … The investigation is ongoing.”  Nonetheless, in May the Trump Administration expelled two diplomats working at the Cuban Embassy in Washington because, according to the spokesperson, Havana is “responsible for the safety and security of our diplomats,” – a responsibility it failed to meet.

  • Speculation about what happened is rampant, but lacks evidence. The State Department’s reference to “any one individual or country” and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s unequivocal statement that it “has never, nor would it ever, allow that the Cuban territory be used for any action against accredited diplomatic agents or their families, without exception” have fueled speculation that a third country may have staged the attacks.  Russia is a favorite suspect, with China a distant second, but conspiracy theorists cannot explain how a third country could conduct such sensitive operations in an environment like Havana where foreign diplomats – especially U.S. diplomats – are under constant surveillance.
  • Speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm.  Moreover, the incidents happened at a time when U.S.-Cuban relations were improving and most people expected normalization to continue under President Hillary Clinton.  Neither is it clear why Canadians would be a target.  The U.S. and other militaries have developed low- and high-frequency weapons that cause hearing loss, headaches, and even incapacitation on the battlefield and in crowd-control situations.  But if such a weapon was the cause of the symptoms U.S. diplomats experienced, presumably it would be immediately recognizable.

A popular explanation is that the injuries were an unintended side-effect of a surveillance operation gone wrong.  Without information about symptoms and operating conditions, however, the technology is difficult to fathom.  Lasers, microwaves, and sound waves have long been used for stand-off eavesdropping operations, but primarily against targets in locations to which the attacker has no access, which is not the case with diplomatic residences in Havana.  Moreover, U.S. Embassy regulations strictly forbid having sensitive conversations outside the chancery, so Cuban security services would have little motivation to invest in the expensive equipment and real-time monitoring necessary to target residences.  In short, none of the extant explanations fit very well with the few facts known at this point.

The impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand.  President Trump’s June 16 announcement tightening regulations on U.S. trade and travel to the island gave no hint of a crisis over an issue as fundamental as diplomats’ safety, and left the door open to continuing dialogue on issues of mutual interest.  President Raúl Castro has criticized Trump’s new policies but, as recently as mid-July, repeated his willingness to work with Washington on a host of issues within the context of respect and mutual benefit.  However, until all the facts are known and responsibility for the incidents is definitively established, the Cuban-American right will continue to stoke speculation about Cuban villainy in hopes of derailing the bilateral cooperation still underway.

August 14, 2017

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

Mexico: Racing Against Trump’s Immigration Crackdown

By Carlos Díaz Barriga*

Border crossing Mex-US

Southwest border crossing. / U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s failure in his first 100 days to fulfill his most aggressive campaign promises affecting bilateral relations may have calmed nerves in Mexico, but the Peña Nieto Administration is moving ahead with efforts to mitigate the impact of thousands of returning immigrants.  Trump apparently has given up on making Mexico pay for his proposed border wall, and the U.S. Congress doesn’t want to foot the bill either.  He has also toned down his threats to pull out of NAFTA – “the worst trade deal ever” – and seems to be edging toward a more modest renegotiation.  But one pledge the Administration seems eager to meet is ramping up deportations of undocumented immigrants from Mexico.  Trump is not immediately deporting the millions of “bad hombres,” as he initially promised, but he is steadily deporting thousands, including many who do not have criminal records in the U.S.  There are even stories of Trump supporters shocked at the deportation of law-abiding and tax-paying business owners.  Moreover, while he assured Dreamers – youths brought to the United States as children – to “rest easy,” there are reports of U.S. immigration detaining some of these working and tax-paying youth.

The threat of mass deportations involving millions still looms large, and Trump’s unpredictability to settle on a course of action is increasing pressure on Mexican officials to act fast to mitigate the impact of the returning immigrants.

  • At its consulates in the United States, the government is actively helping those at risk of being deported, providing legal services to ensure due process in locales as far-ranging as Indianapolis and New Orleans. Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray continues to confidently declare that Mexico will fight for immigrants and stand up to U.S. immigration authorities.  (He has also cast it as a human rights issue, spurring accusations of hypocrisy from critics concerned about Mexico’s treatment of Central American migrants.)
  • President Peña Nieto has enacted a reform to the General Law of Public Education facilitating Dreamers’ entry into Mexico’s education system, accrediting their U.S. education and helping those without proper Mexican documentation. Critics have called his public appearance with deportees opportunistic, a ploy to get much-needed positive media coverage, but the measures like those in education have real benefit for returnees.
  • Specific industries in Mexico are looking for specialized workers in the returning immigrants. The Mexican Association of Armored Vehicles (AMBA) estimated the availability of 50,000 thousand jobs for deportees in the areas of private security, armored car manufacturing, and transportation of valuables.  As violent crimes have risen again in Mexico, this industry is in need of workers.  Call centers are also actively recruiting.  Their only requisite is fluency in English; no other experience is necessary.

Many Mexicans’ perception of Trump as unpredictable and erratic tempers any optimism about bilateral relations even though Foreign Minister Videgaray seems to have established a viable dialogue with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.  The return of the deported immigrants is an area in which the government is being given a second opportunity to show compassion for citizens.  The migrants left Mexico for concrete reasons, however, and some are questioning whether Peña Nieto’s administration will be able to address them.  Providing legal assistance to those at risk of deportation and facilitating education for Dreamers are important gestures, but they do not offer a viable long-term strategy.  The bigger picture is still suddenly having millions of Mexicans back in the country with no job prospects.  Trump’s delays on the border wall and mass deportations give the Mexican government time to come up with effective solutions, but such a massive disruption, especially coupled with the uncertainty over the future of NAFTA and the Mexican economy, is probably too much for any government to handle.

May 12, 2017

* Carlos Díaz Barriga is a CLALS Graduate Fellow.

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.

Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Mexico: Deepening Credibility Crisis

By Fulton Armstrong

Buitrago GIEI

Expert Angela Buitrago during the presentation of the initial GIEI report last October. Photo Credit: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last week’s report on the disappearance of 43 Mexican students from the tiny village of Ayotzinapa left many questions unanswered about events on the bloody night of September 26-27, 2014, but it left no doubts about the depth of the corruption at the local and national level swirling around the youths’ tragic deaths.  The Mexican government – recipient of more than $2 billion in U.S. security assistance in the last eight years – not only produced a bogus report last year, based on tortured and otherwise impugnable sources, to divert attention from the tragedy; it also actively impeded the work of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), operating under the aegis of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that produced the new report.  GIEI members documented the witness-tampering, obstructionism, and overall lack of cooperation of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.  As the public presentation of the report wrapped up, the massacre victims’ families and supporters – some holding signs demanding to know ¿Dónde están?” – made clear their fear that the government will again sweep the case under the carpet and chanted to the experts, ¡No se vayan!”

Many details of the kidnapping, torture, and execution of the 43 youths, who were studying to be teachers, probably will never be known because much of the evidence has been tainted or destroyed.  The GIEI, however, pieced together a largely verifiable explanation of events in which local police, Federal Police, and the Army went on a bloody rampage after the students commandeered buses, as they had on other occasions with the tolerance of their owners, to transport classmates to a protest the following day.  The authorities tracked the students’ movements, set up roadblocks, systematically terrorized them, and summarily executed those who escaped and tried to tell of the atrocities.  The cover-up started immediately, culminating four months later in a report by the Office of the Attorney General (PGR) – one of Washington’s closest partners in curbing narcotics-related crime and violence – falsely claiming the students were mixed up in struggles among narcotraffickers.  The GIEI demonstrates that there is no way a serious PGR investigation did not know otherwise.

  • International and domestic reaction to the report has been strong, but Peña Nieto’s reaction has been low-key. (He also made headlines last week in proposing the decriminalization of marijuana.)  In several Tweets, the President thanked the GIEI; promised that the PGR will “analyze the complete report to improve its investigation of the tragic events”; and pledged that the PGR “will continue working so that there is justice.”  The U.S. Department of State issued a statement saying that “we trust the Mexican authorities will carefully consider the report’s recommendations.”

Peña Nieto cannot escape personal responsibility for the scandalous cover-up and obstructionism – he promised a full accounting long ago – but the GIEI report indicts much more than the presidency.  From the rural police and Army officers on the scene to the highest levels of law enforcement and the military command in Mexico City, the violence against the students has been neither admitted, condemned, nor punished, reinforcing Mexico’s longstanding culture of impunity.  The PGR’s report was tainted by deliberate falsehoods as well as the vicious forms of torture employed to exact false testimony from “witnesses.”  (Other torture stories, including an incident in which the Minister of Defense apologized for Army and Police torture of a woman in prison, are increasing in frequency.)  The U.S. Department of State’s human rights report, released two weeks ago, criticizes Mexico for its “impunity for human rights abuses,” but Washington also needs to ask whether the $2.1 billion of “Mérida Initiative” assistance it has provided to “help Mexico train and equip its law enforcement agencies, promote a culture of lawfulness, [and] implement key justice reforms” has been a good investment.  The U.S. Senate has finally confirmed the new U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, one of the architects of State Department’s implementation of the Mérida Initiative, and it stands to reason that she will demand some accountability.

May 2, 2016

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Ties: Beyond Symbolism

By William M. LeoGrande*

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

The reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana is symbolic of the change in U.S. policy that President Obama announced last December 17—replacing the hostility and subversion dating back to the break in diplomatic relations 54 years ago with engagement and cooperation.  As he declared on July 1, “This is what change looks like.”  Beyond symbolism, reopening the embassies has important practical benefits.

  • Cuba and the United States have had diplomatic representation in each other’s capitals since 1977, but those “Interests Sections” were restricted in their operations. Having full embassies will create better channels of communication between the two governments, facilitating negotiations on other issues that must be resolved before bilateral relations are fully normal.
  • Diplomats will have greater freedom to travel and speak with citizens of the host country.  Diplomats’ travel has been restricted to the capital regions of both countries since 2003, when the George W. Bush administration imposed controls on Cuban diplomats, and Cuba reciprocated.  Negotiations on opening the embassies were delayed by Cuban concerns that U.S. diplomats would travel around the island promoting opposition to the government—a common practice during the Bush administration.  The restoration of diplomatic relations returns to the pre-2003 status quo, when diplomats could travel freely upon simply notifying the host government.
  • For Washington, the move will have benefits beyond Cuba ties.  The policy of hostility persisted through ten U.S. presidential administrations, gradually isolating the United States from allies in Latin America and seriously endangering U.S. relations with the entire region.  It was no coincidence that President Obama noted that the new approach to Cuba would also “begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”

Congressional opponents of the opening to Cuba can do nothing to stop the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, but they can slow down broader normalization processes.  The Constitution vests the power to recognize foreign countries with the president alone.  But whoever the president nominates as the new U.S. ambassador to Cuba will face tough sledding in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have declared unwavering opposition to normalizing relations.  In the House of Representatives, Republicans have introduced legislation to deny funds to upgrade the Interests Section to a full embassy—a move that only punishes U.S. diplomats in Havana, prospective Cuban immigrants, and visiting and U.S. citizens who need consular services.  Moreover, opponents will not allow any legislation in the next 18 months that would make Obama’s Cuba policy look like a success.  That means U.S. economic sanctions—the embargo and ban on tourist travel—will remain in place at least through the next presidential election since lifting them entirely requires changing the law.

Although full normalization—with robust trade, social, cultural, and political ties—will take a long time, there is more that can be done to expand government ties.  Washington and Havana have a half-dozen working groups on a wide range of topics, and we could soon see bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest like law enforcement cooperation, counter-narcotics cooperation, environmental protection in the Caribbean, the restoration of postal service, and more.  President Obama also could use his licensing authority to further expand commerce with Cuba, in particular, licensing U.S. banks to clear dollar-denominated international banking transactions involving Cuba, a prohibition that is today one of the major impediments to Cuba’s international commerce with the West.  The president could restructure democracy promotion programs so that they support authentic exchanges in education, the arts, and culture, rather than promoting opposition to the Cuban government.  The issues between the United States and Cuba are complex and multi-faceted.  Resolving them will require overcoming half century of mutual distrust.  But the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations constitutes the first necessary—symbolic and practical—step toward the future.

July 14, 2015

*William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This blog is adapted from his op-ed on Fox News Latino.