United States: How did Latinos Vote?

By Eric Hershberg*

Latino youth in Milwaukee participate in GOTV/ Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA)/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Amid considerable discussion of how the Latino vote in the U.S. Presidential election impacted the outcome, evidence already shows that Latino voters played an important role in Joe Biden’s razor-thin majority in key states and will be a crucial, if diverse, electorate in the future. A frequent trope is that there is no such thing as the Latino vote, given the heterogeneity of the population that identifies as Latino (or Hispanic, Latina, or Latinx). Latino voters are of diverse national origin, geographic location, educational achievement, income, language preference, and religiosity. Some trace their roots in the United States back many generations, while others are immigrants. These factors conditioned voter behavior on November 3.

  • Exit polls, which are not entirely reliable, indicate that the 13 percent of the electorate that self-identified as Latino voted 65-32 percent for Biden over Trump. This was roughly in line with forecasts. Although the respected polling firm Latino Decisions announced on the eve of the election that at no point in its surveys did Trump exceed 30 percent of voter intentions, the eventual outcome was within the margin of error. The more notable polling miss was with the broader electorate: nationwide polling anticipated a gap of 5-12 percent between Biden and Trump in the popular vote, which in fact turned out to be around 4 percent.
  • As with the white electorate, there was a notable gender gap among Latinos: The margin in favor of the Biden-Harris ticket was 69-30 percent among Latina women versus 59-36 percent among Latino men, totals that replicated almost perfectly the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Age was a factor as well. Biden came out ahead by 69-28 percent among Latinos under 30, contrasted with 58-40 percent among those over 60 years of age. This is not remarkable, since young white voters also trended similarly toward the Democrats. Evidence suggests that Trump made inroads among non-college educated males, mirroring his strong performance among white males with lower educational levels.

Several factors may account for what some observers deemed a surprising level of Latino support for a president whose explicit racism had not disgraced the presidency since the days of Woodrow Wilson more than a century ago.

  • Cuban-Americans and migrants from Latin American countries who frame their life experiences as resisting or escaping socialism tilted strongly to Trump, whose campaign spent months branding Biden and Democrats more generally as “socialists.” Painting the Democrats as a red menace was critical in Florida, as the Latino vote helped to deliver the state to Trump and unseated Democratic House incumbents from Miami-Dade County.
  • Evangelical Latinos, like evangelical whites, disproportionately cast their votes for Republicans. Just as socially conservative evangelicals have been a powerful force in Latin American elections, they are and will remain so in the United States. Trump’s success in appointing judges opposed to abortion rights and same sex marriage helps to explain his strong performance with this segment of the electorate, some of which identifies as Latino.
  • Law and order was another theme pushed in Trump advertisements and actions. The specter of leftists defunding the police weighed heavily in some sub-sets of the Latino electorate. Images of children in cages that were promulgated by Democratic Party advocates did little to sway voters in Texas, where jobs in policing and border enforcement involve placing migrants in those very cages. This may in part account for Trump’s surprising strength among Latinos in sparsely populated Texas counties in the Rio Grande Valley. While this has attracted the attention of many pundits, this small swath of voters was more than outweighed by unprecedented turnout for the Democratic ticket among urban Latinos in Texas.

A number of factors operated in Biden’s favor. Most important was the government’s grossly inadequate response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected Latinos disproportionately. That a Biden administration would consolidate Obamacare became all the more relevant in the context of the pandemic. The Administration’s assault on immigrant rights mattered as well for many Latino voters.

The impressive margins that Biden racked up among Latinos contributed to his victory in the key battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and it almost secured the electoral votes of North Carolina. If Latinos – the most rapidly expanding segment of the electorate – continue to favor Democrats, they will prove central to a coalition that might advance the Democrats’ standing in the 2022 mid-term elections and dictate the outcome of the presidential contest in 2024.

  • More immediately, the Latino vote could prove crucial in the January run-off elections for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, which will determine whether the Biden Administration has a working majority or faces a wall of resistance from Mitch McConnell’s GOP. More than a quarter million Latinos are registered to vote in Georgia, which Biden won by less than 15,000 votes. According to exit polls, Biden won support from Latinos in that state at a rate of 62-39 percent. That is not an overwhelming margin, but in a cliffhanger election that mere 5 percent of the electorate could be critical to determining the relationship between the White House and Senate for the next couple of years.

November 17, 2020

*Eric Hershberg is the Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and Professor of Government, American University.

United States: Biden Versus the Arc of Immigration Policy

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Jayesh Rathod*

Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald D. Vitiello visits the Border Wall Construction Site near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry/ Photo Courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Yesica Uvina/ whitehouse.gov/issues/immigration/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged more than just a return to the Obama-era status quo on immigration, but the historical arc of immigration policy, the pandemic, entrenched agency cultures, and the limitations of executive lawmaking point to modest progress by a would-be Biden Administration. Absent from the Biden-Harris immigration platform are many of the more progressive proposals of Biden’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, including commitments to decriminalize border crossings, abolish or restructure Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), eliminate expedited removal proceedings, and temporarily halt deportations in hopes of compelling Congressional action. Even so, the Biden-Harris plan promises urgent action within their first 100 days to reverse President Trump’s sweeping changes to the immigration system, followed by novel reforms.

But the challenges faced by a Biden Administration would extend far beyond the mountain of executive formalities (and potential defensive litigation) needed to “undo Trump’s damage.” Since 1986 – the last time Congress passed comprehensive immigration legislation – two dominant trends embraced by administrations from both parties have constrained the potential for pro-immigration advances, leading to a one step forward, two steps backward dynamic from which a Biden Administration would have to break free.

  • Criminalization. In the runup to his 1996 re-election, President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which laid the groundwork for the aggressive immigration enforcement regime of the Trump Administration. IIRIRA subjected legal immigrants to deportation for a range of non-violent offenses, limited the due-process rights of certain categories of immigrants facing deportation, and facilitated the recruitment of local law enforcement agencies to carry out immigration directives. Today, a remarkably broad swath of criminal activity triggers immigration consequences, and migration-related conduct (including unlawful entry) is increasingly subject to criminal sanction.
  • Securitization. The Bush Administration’s framing of immigration as a security issue after 9/11 and the reorganization of the Immigration and Naturalization Service within a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put additional pressure on migrants. Intensive vetting of would-be migrants, including extra scrutiny of nationals from certain countries, often dovetail with the “criminal alien” narratives, particularly when migrant streams are portrayed as vectors for drug trafficking and organized crime.

President Obama gradually realigned enforcement priorities and promoted a culture of prosecutorial discretion, but the deeply entrenched notions of immigrants as lawbreakers with suspect intentions limited and undermined his pro-immigration policies. When faced with record numbers of arrivals at the southern border, the Obama Administration could not escape the enforcement paradigm, choosing to dramatically expand the practice of family detention and deport millions of noncitizens without criminal records.

  • This enforcement dragnet reinforced an agency culture within ICE and other components of DHS that equated increased apprehensions and removals with success. Obama’s timid reform policies and aggressive enforcement left enshrined criminalization and securitization as hallmarks that made it easy for Trump to implement unprecedented restrictionism. The President has infused his rhetoric with repeated references to immigrants as “bad hombres” and as threats, not just to public safety, but to American culture and identity.

If Mr. Biden takes office, we can expect a deluge of executive orders undoing many of the 400-plus actions taken by the Trump Administration that dramatically curtailed legal immigration, cut off temporary protections, and dismantled the asylum system. But an immigration counterrevolution is unlikely. Biden has acknowledged the missteps of the Obama-Biden Administration, but his middle-of-the-road approach – compared to the proposals advanced by other Democrats – fails to recognize that the ills of the immigration system predate President Trump.

  • Far-reaching reforms that break the decades-long trend to criminalize immigrants and view them through a security lens will require more than regulatory tinkering. Another wave of White House-mandated programs that grant temporary relief while subjecting immigrants to perpetual uncertainty is unlikely to satisfy immigrant communities and their advocates. The public health crisis caused by COVID-19, moreover, has provided renewed impetus for the securitization of immigration and may prove one of the greatest obstacles to Biden’s immigration agenda, which is silent on the pandemic.
  • Hope for groundbreaking reforms may only come in the form a Democratic-controlled Senate, where a legislative overhaul might embrace the decarceration and other less punitive approaches gaining traction in the criminal justice context. But even then, a Biden Administration would have to contend with thousands of existing DHS employees with a fundamentally different vision for migration management. These conditions, which align with the broader arc of immigration policy, forecast only incremental progress.

October 13, 2020

* Dennis Stinchcomb is the CLALS Assistant Director for Research, and Jayesh Rathod is Professor of Law and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law.

U.S.-IADB: A Last-Ditch Effort at Securing U.S. Hegemony?

By Christy Thornton*

The Inter-American Development Bank building in Washington, DC
The Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC./ Wally Gobetz/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The election this month of Cuban-American hardliner and Trump National Security Council staffer Mauricio Claver-Carone to head the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) signals a significant shift in Washington’s approach toward the multilateral institution, but Trump’s attempt to reassert U.S. strength through the bank may, paradoxically, be a sign of weakness. Claver-Carone was the first U.S. candidate put forward to head the Bank in its 60-year history, overturning an unwritten rule that the president of the Bank should be a Latin American. After a long summer of procedural maneuvering failed to delay or block the contest, other potential candidates from Argentina and Costa Rica withdrew.

  • Mexico’s decision in August to go along with the election cleared the way for the quorum necessary to hold the vote, and Claver-Carone won election despite fully one-third of member countries abstaining.

As I show in my forthcoming book, Revolution in Development, U.S. administrations since FDR have often responded to Latin American demands for representation in and redistribution through multilateral organizations by ceding procedural power to Latin Americans.  

  • In earlier eras – during the negotiations over the first Inter-American Bank in 1939‑40, the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944, and then the founding of the IABD in 1959 – Latin Americans demanded a seat at the table and decision-making power. U.S. leaders acquiesced, preferring to lead through consent rather than coercion. When the IADB was created, the United States agreed to a minority-share position and a concessional lending program, allowing it to both meet Latin American demands for development and also counter accusations of commercial and financial domination.
  • While the bank’s tenure has not been without controversy, the major congruence in economic policy prescriptions that emerged with the Washington Consensus in the 1990s meant that, even without its representative in the top spot, the United States could be assured that its interests in the region were furthered by bank activities.

The election of Claver-Carone represents an about-face in this strategy of securing consent and reinforces three aspects of Trump’s approach to the region: isolating left-wing governments like Venezuela; countering China’s growing influence; and reiterating the primacy of private enterprise and investment over public multilateral lending.

  • The very public dispute over who should represent Venezuela at the 2019 IADB meeting in Chengdu – which was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bank’s founding and the 10th anniversary of China’s membership – challenged U.S. influence over the institution. The Venezuelan opposition under Juan Guaidó wanted to send Ricardo Hausmann, a longtime IADB official, as its representative, but the Chinese government suggested instead that no Venezuelan representative be seated, leading to the meeting’s sudden cancelation. China’s action seems to have convinced Trump that the IADB was slipping from the U.S. orbit.
  • Seeing China as a competitor in Latin America, Claver-Carone will seek to use the IADB to counter Chinese influence. The most important way that he seeks to do that, made explicit during his campaign for the bank presidency, is through further capitalization of IDB Invest, the bank’s private-sector lending arm. This emphasis on private-sector development comes despite the fact that governments throughout the region are struggling through the worst economic downturn in decades due to the ravages of the coronavirus, with insufficient public health infrastructure and little in the way of safety nets for working people. While the bank has announced more than $3 billion in additional funding for governments to mitigate the crisis, Claver-Carone has stressed that his emphasis will be, above all, on strengthening private enterprise.

Earlier administrations demonstrated their faith in the strength of U.S. influence in the region through ceding some procedural control in the IADB, thereby securing multilateral legitimacy – but the Trump Administration’s successful push for Claver-Carone is instead an attempt to assert U.S. dominance. While Trump’s “America First” approach to the bank might seem like an attempt to bolster U.S. strength, it may instead actually reveal a fundamental weakness in U.S. legitimacy in the hemisphere. If the U.S. hegemony has to be imposed from the top down through domination rather than consent, it is sure to engender resistance.

September 30, 2020

* Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of sociology and core faculty member for the Latin America in a Globalizing World Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 Presents Challenges for Latinos in U.S. Election

By Stephen Nuño-Pérez*

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish./ GPA Photo Archive/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic – in addition to having a deep impact on U.S. Latinos’ economic wellbeing and health– is aggravating the community’s anxieties about whether their votes will be counted in the November 3 elections. A recent poll by Latino Decisions shows deep concern that Latinos’ impact on vote counts, already depressed by their traditionally anemic turnout rates, will be even more severely reduced by a lack of confidence in mail-in voting.

  • Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – have all-mail voting systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and California is adjusting its system in response to the pandemic to mail ballots to every voter automatically. Other states have more strict requirements to request a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot.
  • There has been a widely disseminated argument that VBM gives the Democratic Party an advantage, but much of the research shows that neither party gains an advantage. Utah and Oregon, for example, are two very different states that are roughly 90 percent non-Hispanic white, yet Republicans control the legislature, the Senate, and the Governorship in the former, and Democrats control all three levels of government in the latter.

Latinos have traditionally preferred to vote in-person on election day, and Latino Decision’s latest poll shows that the conventional wisdom that VBM will significantly increase their participation during the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated. While states with VBM systems tend to have higher turnout rates, the research pinpointing the causal relationship between VBM and turnout is somewhat mixed. Indeed, VBM raises concerns for Latinos. Researchers in Florida have been ringing the alarm on its inequities. Dr. Daniel Smith at the University of Florida has shown that VBM in Florida has disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters and young voters.

  • Latino Decisions’s latest poll surveyed 1,842 registered Latino voters on their concerns about voting during COVID‑19. Overall, 74 percent said they had health concerns about voting in person. (Ironically, the older respondents were slightly less concerned than the younger.) Eighty-one percent of those who identify as Democrats expressed worries, compared to just 60 percent of those who identify as Republicans.
  • While 53 percent of Latinos across demographic groups in the survey overall said they prefer to vote in-person, there was some variation in preference by state. For instance, 66 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they prefer VBM (compared to 80 percent of non-Latinos), and just 43 percent of Latinos in Texas said so. When asked if they had confidence that their mail-in ballot would be counted, just 47 percent of those who prefer to vote in person said they had confidence in the system. By comparison, 85 percent of those who prefer VBM said they had confidence in the system. Here again we see partisan differences in confidence, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they had confidence in the VBM system and 64 percent of Latino Republicans saying they had confidence their mail-in ballot would be counted.
  • A majority of Latino voters from both parties in the survey said they were confident they could navigate their states’ systems for switching from in-person to mail-in ballot. First-generation Latinos, those who were not born in the United States, were slightly less confident, at 48 percent, that they could navigate the system to request a VBM ballot.

The survey results suggest a strong need for efforts to improve VBM systems and build confidence among Latinos to vote by mail. Rejection rates of Latino mail-in voters in states like Florida are too high, and it is up to state elections officials to implement a multi-layered approach to fixing elements of the system that are seen as broken. Shoring up education on the VBM process will also build confidence in it. COVID‑19 makes this difficult, but addressing the VBM system’s flaws will help build credibility and improve participation in the November election – for Latinos as well as non-Latinos.

September 4, 2020

* Stephen Nuño-Pérez is Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions.

The Bolsonaro-Trump Relationship: Costs for Brazilian Values and Interests

By Laís Forti Thomaz and Tullo Vigevani*

Bolsonaro and Trump

Jair Bolsonaro (L) shakes hands with Donald Trump (R) at the White House in 2019/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

New priorities in Brazil-U.S. bilateral relations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 have shifted the country away from its longstanding diplomatic values. In his eagerness to demonstrate a strong capacity to reach international deals, Bolsonaro has made concessions in talks that haven’t produced concrete benefits for Brazil.

  • Talks on a proposed merger of Boeing and Embraer ended when the U.S. company walked away from the table. Negotiations with the United States on the use of U.S. technology in space launches from the Alcântara Launch Center have been inconclusive – even after reaching the Alcântara Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) and the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RDT&E). Brazil granted a visa waiver to U.S. travelers without any reciprocity for Brazilian citizens visiting the United States. Even the government’s interest in joining the OECD has been controversial: its candidacy required Brazil to abandon its developing-country status at the WTO, and the Trump Administration then gave priority for OECD accession to Argentina.
  • In trade, for years Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world that has maintained a steady deficit with the United States. The expansion of quotas on ethanol and wheat from Brazil in favor of the U.S. (without opening the market for Brazilian agricultural commodities like sugar) and steel and aluminum tariffs are examples of unbalanced trade issues. The Brazil-U.S. Commission on Economic and Trade Relations has been negotiating various rules, but tariffs are not on the table. USTR Robert Lighthizer has stated, moreover, that the Administration doesn’t have “any plans right now for an FTA with Brazil.” A new “mini” trade deal supported by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil may be forthcoming, but there is no evidence that it will better distribute the benefits of trade between the two countries.
  • When Trump mentions countries with the worst performance in combating COVID-19, he highlights Brazil and supports measures to prevent Brazilians from entering the United States.

The Bolsonaro Administration does not appear troubled by these failures, despite Brazil’s unilateral concessions, because they parallel the President’s worldview. Bolsonaro’s philosophical approach to foreign affairs is not far from the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and the realist theories that prevailed during the Cold War, but this time against China. The inclusion of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally can be seen in this logic. His team considers a close relationship with the Trump Administration as essential to Brazil in order to achieve its economic, strategic, and political objectives.

  • Bolsonaro and his advisors may also believe their responsibility is diluted by the fact that most of the recent agreements emerge from negotiations that started in previous Administrations, especially during Michel Temer’s 28 months in office preceding Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019. But the way that Bolsonaro concluded these agreements reversed key elements of traditional Brazilian diplomacy. Among them are the prominence of the advocacy of multilateralism, opposition to any kind of unilateralism, and respect for international law and sovereignty. Former Brazilian foreign ministers serving presidents of all major political parties since 1990 have issued a statement regretting this shift away from Brazilian allegiance to international institutions.

As with his embrace of chloroquine as a COVID‑19 treatment, Bolsonaro seems to believe that Trump’s solutions to bi-national problems are in Brazil’s interest. The resulting alignment with Washington borders on subservience – harming Brazil’s other strategic partnerships and strong foreign policy principles. Brazil is drifting away from Latin America, especially Argentina, as well as from the BRICS countries. The government is also neglecting Mercosur, despite the collective’s recent agreement with the European Union. Some European countries, concerned about Brazilian government policies on the environment and Amazon rainforest preservation, have been questioning Bolsonaro’s attitudes and cooling on the deal. While the Brazilian Constitution gives priority to peaceful relations with all countries, members of the Bolsonaro cabinet have suggested supporting a possible invasion of Venezuela.

  • The lack of concrete benefits for Brazil from the U.S. relationship does not appear likely to drive a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s approach. Similarly, the government’s Trump-like confrontations with a large part of the international community, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), show no sign of diminishing despite their high costs. Brazil and the United States have been strategic partners – as Presidents Lula da Silva and George W. Bush reaffirmed in 2005 when establishing a new strategic dialogue – yet the two countries’ current presidents have disrupted the terms of this relationship in ways that will take years, if not decades, to mend.

July 13, 2020

*Laís F. Thomaz is Professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Tullo Vigevani is Professor at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp) and researcher of the Center of Contemporary Culture Studies (CEDEC). Both are researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

U.S.-Latin America Policy According to John Bolton

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

John Bolton

John Bolton/ Gage Skidmore/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir highlights his differences with President Trump and several government agencies over tactics for achieving regime change in Venezuela. It confirms, however, that they share an embrace of the Monroe Doctrine that has survived his departure from government. The book, published this week, is Bolton’s version of his 17 months in the Trump Administration. The chapter on Venezuela is 34 pages long and, while confirming much about the Administration’s disdain for the law and longstanding practices in U.S. foreign policy, provides new insights.

  • Bolton’s pledge in November 2018 to rid the hemisphere of the “Troika of Tyranny” – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – reflected a consensus in the Administration, and he attributes the alliterative trope to a Trump speechwriter. But as the policy gained momentum, the Treasury Department and State Department wanted to go slow on some of the more draconian sanctions against Venezuela that he pushed.
  • Bolton puts the best face possible on Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his claim to the national presidency in January 2019. He credits the Venezuelan opposition entirely for conceiving and initiating the maneuver, even though circumstantial evidence, including the advanced U.S. efforts to build international support for it, suggests otherwise.
  • Tellingly, he says his initial reaction to the country’s repeated waves of electricity outages was that it was the opposition’s work, although he then posits that they resulted from government incompetence and underinvestment, leaving open the possibility that they resulted from an intelligence operation. (Bolton would be violating his secrecy commitments if he admitted as much.)
  • Bolton reports that President Trump consistently argued that Guaidó – whom he called “this kid” – was a lightweight incapable of wrestling control from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
  • Trump was the strongest proponent of military intervention to remove the Venezuelan from office. But Trump also felt he could deal with Maduro as he did with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. He flip-flopped again last weekend. On Friday he told Axios that he “would maybe think about [meeting Maduro],” suggesting openness to dialogue, but on Monday he tweeted that he “would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Bolton barely registers the contributions of Latin American and European governments in support of the American position on the Venezuela issue or the advancement of a negotiated solution.

  • The position of the “Lima Group” on Venezuela gets only a passing mention, although the group’s support was arguably a historic signal of Latin American acquiescence in Washington intervention in the region. The OAS got a backhanded compliment: “Even the Organization of American States, one of the most moribund international organizations (and that’s saying something), was roused to help Guaidó.”
  • Although Norway had been arranging negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó representatives for eight months by the time Bolton resigned as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the book makes little mention of the effort. Nor does it mention U.S. actions that – by design or not – obstructed the talks. The work of Elliott Abrams, the Administration’s special envoy for Venezuela, also gets no serious treatment.

Bolton is gone, but his vision for U.S.-Latin America relations, including revival of the Monroe Doctrine as rationale for Washington’s actions, remains robust. The Administration has nominated the senior director that Bolton brought to the NSC to work on the region, a protégé of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to be President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a perch from which he can exercise influence for five years even if Trump leaves office in January 2021. If the aide is elected, it would break with the tradition of having non-U.S. presidents at the Bank. A half dozen retired Latin American presidents have expressed opposition to that, but Ecuador’s government has labeled the nomination as “very positive,” and Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who took office with U.S. approval after the military forced out President Evo Morales last November, has welcomed it enthusiastically.

  • The Pentagon will not be enthusiastic about military action to remove President Maduro. But some officials have referred to the two paramilitary contractors captured seven weeks ago during the ill-fated “invasion” of Venezuela and six dual-national CITGO employees arrested in 2017 for alleged corruption as “hostages” – a possible pretext for some sort of action that, as Bolton so fervently hoped during his tenure, would prompt the Venezuelan military to finally switch sides.

June 23, 2020

The Other Pandemic

By Alan M. Kraut*

Donald Trump speaking to supporters

Donald Trump speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. / Flickr / Creative Commons License

The coronavirus has sparked a virulent wave of racism and intolerance in the United States – as seen in past pandemics – but strong leadership can blunt or even stop it. The current wave echoes a contemporary ethnocentric nationalism that has infected many societies and political leaders around the world.

  • U.S. President Donald Trump denounced the anti-Asian prejudices – including epithets and, at times, spit and punishing blows against Chinese-Americans – that were stirred by his own use of the terms “foreign virus” and “Chinese virus,” but the damage was done. A community was put on notice, “You are the ‘other’ and you endanger us all by your presence.”

Throughout human history, groups defined by race or religion have been persecuted because of their association with disease. The Black Death of the Middle Ages was blamed on Jews, triggering ferocious physical persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, often by torture. Sociologist Erving Goffman observed that the most essential version of stigma was the abomination of the body – because the disease-causing contagion cannot be detected with the naked eye or easily avoided.

  • Throughout American history, epidemics have often been blamed on a specific immigrant or ethnic group and triggered anti-migrant policies. A cholera epidemic in 1832 was blamed on Irish Catholic newcomers who were poor and lived in congested conditions. The anti-Catholic passions of Protestant evangelicals were a factor.
  • Before the Quarantine Act of 1878 quarantine powers shifted from the states to the federal government. Each state had its own laws and immigration depots, such as Castle Garden in New York, which opened in 1855. Later, at federal depots, physicians used increasingly sophisticated medical instrumentation and diagnostic techniques to admit the healthy and those sufficiently robust to support themselves, but their expertise did not curb xenophobic hysteria or the association of immigrant groups and their behaviors with specific diseases. Chinese laborers were blamed for bubonic plague in the San Francisco area in the 1880s, and Italians were blamed for a polio epidemic that swept through the east coast of the United States in 1916. Anti-Semitic xenophobes dubbed tuberculosis the “Tailor’s Disease” or the “Jewish Disease” despite the lower rates of the disease in Jewish communities than in many non-Jewish communities in the United States.

Xenophobia and racism have not always surged in the United States during pandemics – thanks to greater public awareness of immigrants’ contributions and to strong political leadership.

  • There were fewer incidents of xenophobia during the 1918 influenza pandemic because immigration declined dramatically (from 1,218,480 a year in 1914 to 110,618 in 1918), and critics found it awkward to blame newcomers because over half a million foreign-born soldiers of 46 different nationalities were serving in the U.S. military.
  • Many Presidents of both parties since then have not hesitated to encourage Americans to call upon the better angels of their nature with respect to the foreign-born. Sitting in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed an immigration act in 1965 that abandoned the most restrictive immigration policy in American history and replaced it with a more welcoming policy. Years later, former Republican President George W. Bush echoed those sentiments, noting that “America’s immigrant history made us who we are.”
  • Xenophobia during an epidemic may be a “social ritual” that reaffirms a hypernationalism in the native-born, but when the drama concludes and the curtain descends, the prejudice and acts of discrimination can either transfer to a different stage or leaders can lead us away from them.

Little such leadership has come from the current occupants of the White House. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller and his allies claim that stopping new arrivals crossing the country’s southern border is necessary to preserve public health from illnesses borne by migrants. In 2018, the surge of migrants toward the border led to inquiries that Miller hoped would reveal – but did not – the spread of highly contagious diseases that endangered residents of states where they settled. More recently, Miller has encouraged the President to use his public health powers to seal the borders. One such federal law, the Public Health Service Act of 1944, allows the Surgeon General and the President to exclude from the U.S. individuals who might pose a danger because they could bring in “communicable diseases.” Ironically, while it has been Miller’s intention to target Latinos, many of them are doing the “essential work” that has kept the nation going during the crisis – in meat processing plants, grocery stores, and hospitals, where they are involved directly in the care of Covid-19 patients. Many thousands of those providing patient care are Latino “Dreamers” protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that the White House wants to end.

May 12, 2020

* Alan M. Kraut teaches history at American University.

United States: Putting the Hammer to Venezuela

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Trump press conference

Trump at a briefing on April 4th, 2020/ The White House/ Flickr/ Public Domain

The Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive actions to drive regime change in Venezuela – at a time that the already-desperate country, weakened by its incompetent government and U.S. sanctions, faces a potentially massive COVID-19 crisis – reflect Washington’s favoring of ends over means, with little concern for corollary damage. Regardless of whether President Nicolás Maduro survives the challenge, the country’s massive humanitarian and social disaster is likely to grow worse during the weeks and months ahead. At this point, there is no plausible scenario in which Washington can achieve what it claims is its desired outcome – a stable, democratic government – without a negotiated settlement.

  • The March 26 indictment of Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials on charges of narcotics-trafficking and support for terrorism against the United States underscored the administration’s commitment to removing a government it calls a “threat to the hemisphere.” The U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Maduro “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.” The indictment forced an end to preliminary talks between Maduro and his opponents over a partial truce that would allow them to make a joint appeal for international aid to deal with COVID‑19.
  • On March 31, the administration announced a “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela. The plan called for Maduro to step down immediately and yield to a “Council of State” to govern until new elections. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other countries recognize as Acting President, would surrender his claim as well, but American officials made clear he had their full support in any upcoming campaign. Coming on the heels of the indictments, the framework was quickly rejected by the government.
  • The announcement on April 1 that the United States and 22 allies were launching “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the Caribbean near Venezuela – with large-scale military assets rarely seen in such missions – was another prong of what U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien called “our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities.” Maduro cited these threats and indications of mysterious arms movements in Colombia – reported by a former Venezuelan general who some observers say turned collaborator with the U.S. DEA – as reasons for putting the country on military alert last weekend.

The U.S. actions appear to reflect a calculation that the Venezuelan government is so vulnerable that Maduro’s “former regime” will collapse and, somehow, a more sympathetic successor will emerge. U.S. sanctions over the past year-plus have effectively starved the economy, and the recent crash in oil prices has reduced revenues to a trickle. Observers in Caracas report that fear of COVID-19, in a country without medical supplies or even clean water in many parts, is intense.

  • The administration insists it desires a negotiated settlement, but these enhanced pressures, particularly the indictments, greatly complicate any effort to revive talks as Norway had configured them. Similar to last year’s efforts to provoke a coup against Maduro, this year’s “maximum pressure” seems premised on creating a collapse on a scale that forces the military’s hand. But the task of overthrowing Maduro would fall to an exhausted citizenry and field-grade officers not indicted or otherwise targeted by the United States government.

Whether Washington has a comprehensive strategy, is just taking ad hoc steps to force regime change, or is merely looking to wreak havoc at a time that its handling of the COVID‑19 crisis at home is falling under intense criticism, there is precious little historical evidence that its tactics will work in Venezuela. The movement of warships to the Venezuelan coast may only be a publicity stunt, with the support of some countries in the region, but it entails diplomatic and operational risks. It also is not beyond the pale to suppose that the administration, long frustrated in its regime-change efforts, will begin to believe its hyperbole about Maduro as a narco-terrorist poisoning drug-consuming U.S. youth, and be tempted to deploy measures even more drastic than those taken to date.

  • Negotiations, although difficult, are not impossible. When U.S. opposition to diplomatic efforts to resolve the wars in Central America reached a certain point, regional governments met behind Washington’s back and produced a historic plan – the “Esquipulas Accord” – that led to peace processes in each affected country. This situation is, of course, different, but Esquipulas showed that moving the U.S. to the side can work.
  • The indictments are reminiscent of U.S. tactics to overthrow General Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1988-89 – resulting in a massive invasion to arrest that one man. Venezuela is different in many ways, and all parties should heed the adage of former U.S. military commander and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said, “You break it, you own it.”

April 7, 2020

Cuba: Facing a Tough New Year

By Eric Hershberg, William M. LeoGrande, and Max Paul Friedman*

Intensified U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Venezuela are forcing renewed belt-tightening in Cuba and hindering the government’s ability to undertake even its modest economic reform agenda, but the country is not entering a new “special period” and significant instability does not appear likely in 2020 despite some increased social tensions. The big losers from U.S. sanctions are the small private-sector businesses — B&Bs, restaurants, and entrepreneurs — providing services to U.S. visitors, an estimated 638,000 a year before the Trump Administration clamped down over the course of 2019. But the government has also been forced to make major cutbacks.

  • To cope with fuel shortages caused by U.S. sanctions against oil companies shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba, the government reduced production in many factories to maintain energy supplies to consumers and avoid overly straining the power grid. Public transportation also faced drastic cuts, largely because of a lack of diesel fuel needed to distribute gasoline. Only some of the affected bus routes have since been restored.
  • Shortages of an array of necessities — from bread, coffee, meat, and many basic medicines to all energy products — have been severe and show no sign of abating as the economy sputters. Domestic demand for products that Cuba can produce, including electric bicycles and appliances, is strong, but financing is too tight. The government is phasing out the convertible peso (CUC) that it artificially pegged to the dollar and is establishing new hard-currency stores to capture dollars now flowing abroad as Cubans buy both consumer goods and inputs for domestic private enterprises in Panama and elsewhere at the rate of $25 million per month — hard currency the government desperately needs. Those dollars the government captures will supposedly be made available for domestic producers to import essential inputs. Cubans expect the CUC to become worthless paper sooner as some vendors now accept only foreign currency, and the street value of a dollar is now more than 1.15 CUC (compared to the official rate of 0.87 CUC).

One leading economist deemed 2019 to have been the worst year since 1993 — with growth essentially flat — and said the forecast for 2020 looks no better. State-owned enterprises are failing to perform efficiently despite years of rhetoric about rationalization and improvements. Foreign purchases, long hindered by a lack of hard currency, have been made even harder by the U.S. sanctions, as suppliers increasingly fear Washington’s scrutiny. The government has not responded to growing pressures by accelerating the sorts of meaningful reforms that have long been needed to increase production and efficiency.

  • Its strategy focuses on import substitution, according to a senior economic official, to reduce the need for hard currency by producing more consumer goods and inputs domestically. The tourism sector has boomed over the past decade, but more than half the hard currency revenue it generates goes to imported inputs. Cuba spends some $2 billion importing food while more than half its arable land lies fallow.
  • Financing investment needed to make import substitution a viable strategy is difficult. Cuban government officials speak of doubling domestic investment, now only 11-12 percent of GDP, but without increasing indebtedness — a huge task for such an inefficient economy. In addition to encouraging tourism enterprises to substitute local for imported inputs, the government hopes to improve conditions during 2020 by implementing a decades-old proposal to establish a closed dollar-based system in which companies retain a portion of revenues to finance investment and imports.
  • Foreign direct investment is the other potential but a largely elusive source for capital. Government fact sheets continue to emphasize the importance of the Mariel Special Export Zone, which has some 50 promised users, $2.5 billion in promised activity, and 7,000 promised jobs. Actual activity in the Zone, however, falls far short of that. The Trump administration’s activation of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (“Helms-Burton”), which allows the previous owners of property expropriated after the 1959 revolution to sue anyone benefiting from it, has made new investors hesitant.

While the economic outlook looks difficult indeed, there are few signs that the government is anxious about social frustrations and tensions becoming a serious challenge, much less an existential threat. The government continues to resist obvious (and relatively easy) reforms, such as allowing cuentapropistas licenses for multiple lines of business. Allowing the CUC to disappear gradually may be a precursor to addressing the years-old distortions caused by the country’s multiple currencies and exchange rates, but there’s still no sign that the government is ready to implement a unified peso. Havana apparently calculates that the country is hardly the pressure-cooker that U.S. policy aims to create by, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly told EU diplomats recently, “starving” the population so as to bring about a regime collapse.

  • Young independent journalists say that public organizing via social media is at times successfully pressing the government, which they deem largely ignorant of popular concerns, to revoke unpopular measures. Yet growing access to the internet may also serve to distract youth from more threatening forms of organizing. Giving people a sense of input on issues like the arts, animal rights, and sexual identity that do not threaten core government policies and processes is probably taking an edge off discontent.
  • The new year is likely to be difficult, particularly as the Venezuela crisis drags on, but, as observers say, “Cuba does ‘bad’ pretty well.” Hope is never a plan, but virtually everyone in Havana expresses hope that U.S. elections in November might bring back a pro-engagement U.S. policy that helps grow Cuba’s private sector and relieving pressure on sources of financing for Cuba to move ahead with its modest reform strategy.

January 7, 2020

*AU Professors Hershberg, LeoGrande, and Friedman traveled to Cuba in December.

Haiti: Is Anyone Listening?

By Fulton Armstrong

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government's misuse of funds from PetroCaribe.

Protesters take to the streets in 2018 over the government’s misuse of funds from PetroCaribe– once again the subject of public anger/ Rony D’Haiti/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manifestation_Haiti.jpg

As Haiti enters a fifth week of protests, President Jovenel Moïse’s support for U.S. policies on Venezuela and Taiwan appears to have secured him Washington’s backing, but his government is in tatters and his opponents don’t look likely to fold soon. For weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have held targeted marches in Port-au-Prince and provincial cities across the country demanding Moïse’s resignation. Violence by demonstrators and police has caused 17 deaths and hundreds of injuries, including the shooting of several journalists, according to human rights monitors. School closures have left up to 2 million children without class and the food supplements they receive there.

  • Protesters originally took to the streets to protest fuel shortages caused by government insolvency, but corruption – including the misappropriation of an estimated $2 billion dollars in profits from the sale of fuel under Venezuela’s previous PetroCaribe program – has become the overwhelming issue. Opposition leaders cite Superior Court audits implicating Moïse and other government officials past and present in schemes to personally profit from PetroCaribe security forces’ use of clubs and tear gas (and unconfirmed use of live ammunition) against demonstrators has further fueled anger in the streets. Haiti’s Catholic Bishops have blamed Moïse for the showdown, and their “Justice and Peace Commission” has publicly called for his resignation.
  • Moïse’s leadership has been unsteady throughout the crisis. He was out of public view entirely for one week, returning only in a pre-recorded radio address broadcast at 2:00 am on September 25 that called for calm and dangled the prospect of a “government of national unity.” Since his inauguration in January 2017, he has lived under the shadow of suspicious vote counts and has either failed to get Prime Ministers confirmed by Parliament or to build a good working relationship with them. The country hasn’t had a budget for two years, and a projected 20 percent inflation during 2019 and mere 1.5 percent growth further drive popular fury.

Moïse is clearly winning the competition for international support. However, he has gained U.S. silence about the evidence of his and senior allies’ involvement in PetroCaribe under Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro. During the UN General Assembly two weeks ago, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Moïse’s Foreign Minister, Bocchit Edmond, with whom he “reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Haiti partnership and shared hope that Haiti’s political stakeholders would soon identify a path to forming a government that remains firmly rooted in democracy and the rule of law.”

  • The opposition’s calls for support have been much less successful. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican widely seen as President Trump’s top advisor on hemispheric affairs, said it was not the “proper job of the United States to call on a democratically elected President [Moïse] to step down.” (Rubio had praised Moïse for supporting U.S. sanctions to remove Maduro and for preserving diplomatic relations with Taiwan.) The senior Democrat in the U.S. Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, last week also cited Moïse’s position on Maduro as important.
  • UN officials last week issued a “statement of concern,” noting that the protests were hindering aid deliveries and could lead to a humanitarian crisis. The UN remained neutral, however, and called on “everyone” to refrain from the use of violence. An unofficial OAS delegation to Haiti organized by individuals close to Senator Rubio in June told the opposition to “back off,” according to press reports, and reportedly told Moïse that he should “start governing” but it was “not going to ask him to resign.” Overall, however, the OAS has kept a very low profile, especially during the current crisis.

Haitian politicians have often turned to foreign friends and multilateral organizations to rescue them from crises – which they surely stir up themselves – but the international community, rather than addressing fundamental problems, often tries to paper over highly contested elections (like Moïse’s) and institutional weaknesses. The billions in PetroCaribe revenues that have vanished during the past two presidencies – including that of Moïse’s mentor, Michel Martelly – is strong circumstantial evidence that the opposition’s calls for investigation of the current administration have merit. But Moïse seems to be betting – correctly so far – that support for Washington’s priorities, such as condemning alleged corruption and undemocratic practices in other countries, buys him space to snub opponents’ demands. The UN and OAS just don’t seem to want to get more deeply involved, but the opposition, which has surprised many with the length and level of protests, doesn’t seem ready to give up.

October 11, 2019