Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (far right) meets with members of the National Assembly in October 2018. / Diego Cevallos / Asamblea Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno begins the post-honeymoon phase of his presidency, he appears firmly committed to positioning himself as a judicious voice and centrist in a region where ideological moderation and restrained oratory are the exception rather than the norm.  This might be unexpected given his political background and four years as vice president under leftist firebrand Rafael Correa (2007-17), but it makes sense given the country’s challenging economic situation and political constraints.  As previously noted, Moreno had two choices when taking office: remain loyal to his socialist roots, govern through his Alianza PAIS legislative bloc, and double down on Correa’s (fiscally unsustainable) “Citizens’ Revolution;” or move towards the political center, splinter his legislative majority, and abandon Correa and many of his policies.  He has decisively opted for the latter, attempting to navigate a middle ground between the left and the right.

  • No issue depicts the thin line Moreno walks more than Ecuador’s foreign policy, and no foreign policy issue reflects that tug-of-war better than his handling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assangeto whom Correa granted asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Londonis now a costly and increasingly undesirable houseguest.  He is a liability in Moreno’s quest for technical assistance, international loans, and greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States, which is still seeking justice for Wikileaks’s publication of U.S. classified material.  Although Moreno has called Assange “more than a nuisance” and “an inherited problem,” the president has been reluctant to push him out over concern for his human rights.  In July, Moreno suggested Ecuador was seeking guarantees that Assange would not face the death penalty.  Maintaining its delicate dance, however, in October, the government broke from its longstanding dialogue with British authorities over Assange’s situation and announced that it will no longer pay for his food and medical care.
  • Ecuador is also seeking closer relations with its right-of-center neighbors, beginning to distance itself from the region’s leftist governments, and attempting to rebuild ties with the United States. Since June, Moreno has attended the inauguration of Colombian President Iván Duque, met with Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, welcomed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Quito, and launched a security agreement with Washington.  Moreno has also changed his tone with regards to Venezuela.  Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, he spoke of the burden caused by arrival of more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day and called for a national dialogue in that country, provoking an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two capitals that culminated in the Ecuadorian government tweeting that “corrupt, murderous, and lying socialism of the 21st century is still alive in Venezuela and producing the most massive migration in the country’s history.”

Moreno’s strategy to confront the country’s fiscal deficit, which was 5.5 percent of GDP in 2017, is an even greater departure from his predecessor’s approach.  Whereas Correa pursued financing primarily through oil-for-loan deals from China after Ecuador’s selective default in 2008, Moreno has turned to other global lenders such as the World Bank and Japan.  He has also pursued new commercial relationships and market-friendly policies, including a free trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association, beginning accession talks with the pro-market Pacific Alliance, and continuing to encourage foreign investment in Ecuador’s hydrocarbon industry.  However, Moreno has not fully committed to Washington consensus-style reforms: the government announced measures in August to reduce its $60 billion debt, but it also authorized over $1.2 billion in loans to the housing sector, agriculture, and small and medium-sized business to reactivate the domestic economy.

Although not an ideological rightist like Chilean President Sebastián Piñera or Colombian President Iván Duque, Lenín Moreno has reoriented many of Rafael Correa’s domestic and foreign policies out of necessity as he confronts Ecuador’s difficult economic situation.  Given that the country’s fiscal deficit and outstanding debt are strategic challenges, it seems likely that he will continue to judiciously tread this middle path.  Although fiscal austerity measures have lowered Moreno’s approval rating and provoked protests from the Correista left, it would be a mistake to bet against him.  Moreno has not only upended expectations but also proven far more resourceful and politically sophisticated than his critics—and probably even his admirers—expected.  He may also send Julian Assange at some point an eviction notice.

November 6, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.  The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 7, 2018

Fake News: Threat to Democracy

By John Dinges*

Newspaper stand in Mexico City

A newspaper stand in Mexico City. As traditional news media faces growing competition from social media and emerging technologies, fake news poses a threat to legitimate news media and democracy itself. / Pablo Andrés Rivero / Flickr / Creative Commons

Fake news threatens to destroy the fundamental values of a free press throughout the hemisphere, and only a redoubling of efforts to build and protect investigative journalism would appear to offer hope in stemming its growing influence.  Journalism faces a number of challenges, including violence, authoritarian pressure, manipulation by commercial interests, and competition from “social media.”  But the combination of fake news and new technologies to spread it pose an asymmetric threat to legitimate news media and to democracy itself.

  • In its strict – and now largely unused – definition, fake news is fabricated information that’s designed to look like journalistic content but whose real purpose is to twist the truth and manipulate people’s behavior. Also called “black propaganda” and “disinformation,” it was engendered principally by intelligence agencies.  The CIA used it during the Cold War in Chile and other Latin American countries.  The Soviet Union’s KGB disseminated fabricated documents with authentic-looking formatting and signatures from Chile’s secret police.  Cuba’s Radio Havana promoted the false narrative that socialist president Salvador Allende was murdered in the 1973 military coup – he actually committed suicide.
  • The phenomenon now is broader and more threatening. Fake news has evolved to include attacks on the legitimacy of independent media, and its agile use of social media spread rapidly through personal electronic devices enhances its impact.  U.S. President Donald Trump has alleged (as recently as July 15) that the “media are the enemy of the American people.”  Latin American politicians have used accusations of fake news to attack legitimate media.  In Venezuela, the Chavista government invented the concept of “media terrorism.”  Fake news techniques are found most commonly in campaigns by authoritarian parties and governments.  Russia’s intelligence services, under President Vladimir Putin, have weaponized the techniques and are now systematically using them to intervene in European and U.S. elections, notably in supporting the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.

There is no consensus among journalists on a solution.  Tough experiences have shown, for example, that government regulatory actions tend to backfire against a free press; political leaders all too easily resort to actions that lead to the imposition of political hegemony and control.  Media laws in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina were hailed as progressive in some quarters – mandating fairer distribution of broadcast spectrum, for example.  But they were most effectively used to impose political control on opposition media.  Journalists, moreover, have been thrown off balance by the phenomenon of fake news.  They have struggled to respond to effective attacks on their credibility and so far have failed to develop the tools needed to mount an effective counterattack.

  • The double challenge is how to enable consumers of media information to distinguish between false and truthful information – especially because the fake news products are designed to resonate with their biases – and how to strengthen legitimate journalists’ ability to rebuild their beleaguered credibility. Talking Points Memo journalist Josh Marshall, speaking of politically motivated falsehoods in a memo published by the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence last February, said:  “Conventional news and commentary [are] incapable of handling willful lying in the public sphere.”  In the case of the committee’s misleading memo, most observers agree, the legitimate media published accurate fact checking, but apparently the accurate stories had little corrective impact on public perceptions of the memo – handing a victory to fake news.

The other serious threats that journalism faces – such as the murder of dozens of Mexican journalists with practically total impunity, and the consolidation of ownership of the media in the hands of very few owners in most countries – are not insignificant.  Fake news, however, presents a more serious, even existential, threat because it short-circuits all three of the main functions of journalism in the preservation and consolidation of democracy – as sources of information the public needs in voting, as forums for political debate, and as investigators to monitor and evaluate government and private power.  In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices.  Investigative journalists have the methodology, international base, and decades of experience needed to be the guard dogs against fake news – to investigate its purveyors, lay bare their agendas, and, over time, re-establish the truth upon which all democracies depend.

July 24, 2018

*John Dinges is an emeritus professor of journalism at Columbia University and lectures frequently in Latin America on media and democracy and investigative journalism.

Venezuela: Maduro’s Ploy Backfires

By Michael McCarthy*

Maduro and the Venezuelan flag

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. / President of Russia / Flickr / Creative Commons

Almost a month after Nicolás Maduro held a snap presidential vote to strengthen his political power, the ploy appears to have largely backfired and left him weaker.  The dynamics underlying the years-long crisis have not fundamentally shifted, but the deepening impact of the economic implosion on the oil industry poses a threat to vital state interests and regime stability.  Maduro’s crisis management will face another major stress test.

  • Even the government’s own dubious figures on voter turnout – 46 percent – were too low to give the election credibility, limiting Maduro’s ability to claim a strong mandate. Criticism of the government’s efforts to sway voters by distributing food, medications, and other necessities at polling places was intense.  All but a few loyal friends in the international community have been reluctant to congratulate Maduro.  China and Russia accepted the vote count, but Beijing appeared particularly cooler than in the past, while Ecuador and Uruguay issued statements aimed at depolarizing the situation.  The OAS General Assembly lacked the 24-vote threshold necessary to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Venezuela’s participation in the regional body, but the Dominican Republic’s shift away from its previous support for Maduro must have been a blow.
  • Maduro’s victory is further overshadowed by the fact that as much as 85 percent of the pro-government vote went to the party of Diosdado Cabello, who leads a competing faction under the flag of the Partido Socialista Unido (PSUV), while Maduro’s Movimiento Somos Venezuela got only 5 percent. Longtime observers argue that a battle between Maduro and Cabello, an original member of the Chávez 4F movement that staged a failed coup in 1992, is heating up.  The PSUV will hold a party congress on July 28 – Chávez’s birthday – that promises to serve as venue for Cabello to pursue his leadership ambitions.

Maduro’s weakness appears to have motivated several actions he’s taken since the election.  Most observers believe that he directed a raft of prisoner releases to improve his sagging image, pacify the situation, and set the stage for dialogue.  He reportedly wanted to reshuffle his cabinet to shore up unity, but internal political difficulties apparently have delayed it temporarily.

  • He also released a U.S. national, Joshua Holt, who had been under arrest since 2016 on trumped up charges of espionage and conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Maduro’s goal may have been to disarm U.S. criticism and open a line of communication, but the day after the election he also expelled the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires and his deputy.  The U.S. State Department wasted no time in reciprocating by expelling two Venezuelan diplomats, and later, in the wake of the Holt release, it underlined that policy toward Venezuela “remains unchanged.”

More U.S. sanctions may be imposed, but Maduro’s self-destructive rule is doing his government even more harm.  A combination of increasing hyperinflation and a potential record drop in month-to-month oil production from May-June suggest a rapidly worsening economy.  Press reports suggest state oil company PDVSA will soon announce that it cannot honor its monthly production obligations with a number of key partners – a major blow for a government dependent on oil for 95 percent of its income.  After calling for a boycott of the May 20 vote, the traditional opposition breathed a collective sigh of relief that a majority of voters stayed home, but this does not give them the win they need to regain public trust.  Continually bleak prognoses once again stir speculation that the military will step in.  Yet it is not so simple.  The military seems to operate more according to informal networks and personality-driven hierarchies, creating divisions that make it hard for groups to credibly act in the name of the armed forces.  So far, senior officials seem to have determined that loyalties to a dysfunctional regime do not yet sufficiently threaten business and institutional interests for them to take action.

 June 14, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Colombia: Is the Peace Process Failing?

By Christian Wlaschütz*

A man stands on the right side of the frame with a large rifle

Members of the FARC in Tumaco, Colombia waiting to be disarmed last January. / Andrés Gómez Tarazona / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Colombia prepares for its presidential elections, the peace process with the FARC is already seriously jeopardized by shortcomings in its implementation —and it stands to worsen considerably.

  • The strong showing in polls of Iván Duque – nominee of Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democrático (CD), which has consistently opposed the peace agreement – bodes poorly for implementation in the future. Former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras is polling poorly, but his Cambio Radical’s antagonism toward the peace agreement enjoys support.  Leftist candidate and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, second in the polls, supports the accord, but he faces a steep uphill battle.  Centrist candidates Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia, and Humberto de la Calle, chief negotiator with the FARC, have not been able to gain ground.  The polls do not enjoy much credibility but are influencing public perceptions on the peace process and other key policies.
  • The peace talks between the government and the country’s other main guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), have been in a limbo since Ecuador withdrew as host and guarantor of the negotiations two weeks ago. Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno made the announcement apparently in anger over the assassination of two Ecuadoran journalists by FARC “dissidents” (those rejecting the accords) and over the increasing criticism among locals of the worsening security situation in the border region with Colombia.  It was a big blow to Colombian President Santos’s hopes to conclude an agreement with the ELN during his mandate.  The peace talks have been suspended several times in the past due to bombings and kidnappings, but most observers believe it will be very difficult for talks to resume without Ecuador’s facilitation.

A serious challenge to political consensus to push ahead with the peace process is the dramatic decline in security in several Colombian regions, most notably Catatumbo (near the Venezuelan border) and Tumaco (on the Pacific Coast).  As experts had foreseen, the vacuum left by the FARC’s demobilization was quickly filled by the ELN and criminal organizations linked to the drug trade.  In Catatumbo, a hitherto irrelevant force, the “dissidents” of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (that is, those who did not demobilize with EPL in 1991), have taken advantage of the opportunity to conduct a deadly war against the ELN.  According to the weekly Semana, the dissidents may be supported by the Mexican Clan del Golfo cartel that wants control of strategic corridors for the drug trade.  Armed actors are sowing fear by declaring and suspending curfews at random; the state seems completely absent.  In Tumaco, bloody battles between FARC dissidents, other criminal groups, and state security forces are terrorizing the civilian population.  In these and other regions, threats against community leaders and assassinations are increasing.

  • Deficient implementation of reintegration programs for former FARC combatants is a major concern. Most former combatants are in a limbo regarding their judicial, economic, and social situation.  Lessons learned from the demobilization of paramilitary fighters some 14 years ago have not been applied, and lagging reintegration is tempting fighters to join other illegal actors.  The possible extradition of FARC leader Jesús Santrich to the United States on drug-related charges is also undermining demobilized combatants’ confidence that they’ll get a fair deal.  Santrich has started a hunger strike and claims to prefer dying than being extradited.

Most worrying in the long run is the polarization demonstrated by the inappropriate behavior of most of the presidential candidates.  Instead of offering programs to lead the country into a different future, personal attacks and the settling of accounts are at the core of the campaigns so far.  Colombian society’s contract to integrate into national life an unarmed FARC, free to pursue change through peaceful, democratic means, has never been strong.  But a surge in opposition to the peace process and the former guerrillas – led by politicians without a viable alternative policy – could easily translate into irreversible blows for peace and democratic inclusion.  Colombia is at a risky and decisive crossroad.  The possibility to relapse into former times is real.

May 4, 2018

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

A Summit in Search of the Americas

By Carlos Malamud*

A large round table encompasses a room with various heads of state from the Americas

Last week’s Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. / U.S. State Department / Public Domain

The Summit of the Americas in Lima last weekend has left its organizers and principal participants with a bittersweet feeling, leaning to the bitter.  The absence of Donald Trump, Raúl Castro, and Nicolás Maduro reflects only the existing difficulties.  The bigger problems relate to the impossibility of achieving general consensus about the big hemispheric issues, such as corruption or Venezuela, and – of even greater concern – the lack of clarity and substance of the Latin America policy of the United States.

  • The Summits initially were linked to Washington’s efforts to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but since that project’s failure they have represented the United States’ ongoing interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. That explains why, since the Summit process was created in 1994, no resident of the White House has missed a Summit – regardless of how complicated national and international situations have been.  That was until Donald Trump gave priority to the conflict in Syria over his relationship with Latin American counterparts.

The disturbing thing is not just Trump’s conflict with Mexico, or his hostility toward Cuba and Venezuela.  Neither is the deterioration of the image of the United States in Latin America since President Obama’s term ended.  The fundamental problem is the lack of clear indications from the Trump Administration about its intentions and objectives in the region.  This is the case even with the closest countries.  For example, several South American countries’ exports to the United States could be affected by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.  But no one has clear answers about the policies driving these events, and no one is taking steps to reduce the impact of them or of Washington’s lack of policy.

  • Even though the official theme of the Summit was “Democratic Governance against Corruption,” it was impossible for the participants to go beyond good words and advance any global solutions. Without a doubt, this is good evidence of the weakness of regional integration.  In their Final Declaration, the leaders were unable to include either a condemnation of Venezuela or a call to disregard its Presidential elections on May 20.  Instead, what we got was a statement by the Grupo de Lima plus the United States expressing extreme concern for the situation in Venezuela.  Despite the decline of the Bolivarian project and Maduro’s isolation, Bolivia, Cuba and some Caribbean states dependent for oil on Petrocaribe remain capable of blocking hemispheric consensus.

This probably will not be the last Summit of the Americas, but future of these hemispheric meetings depends in great part on the capacity of the governments in the hemisphere, beginning with the United Sates, to redefine continental relations and find anew the essence of the Americas.  This means more than just responding to the growing Chinese role; it means putting on the table the real problems that affect the continent and going beyond mere rhetoric about them.  For now, with hemispheric relations buffeted by the unpredictable slams issuing in the form of Trump’s tweets, it will be difficult to get there.

April 17, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.

Summit of the Americas: Awkward Agenda, Dim Prospects

By Eric Hershberg

Large group of men and women stand awkwardly while waving to a crowd

Leaders from the hemisphere during the last Summit of the Americas in 2015. / Maria Patricia Leiva / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparations for the 8th Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 13-14 in Lima, face a number of challenges.  Trump Administration measures have upended longstanding assumptions throughout the hemisphere about Washington’s agenda in the region and beyond.  No less distracting is the wave of ongoing corruption scandals in Latin America and impending elections in numerous countries.

  • The three presidential summits attended by President Barack Obama (2009, 2012, and 2015) arguably were shaped by the standing of the United States in the region. Emphasizing “change we can believe in” at his first presidential summit, in Trinidad, Obama pledged that the United States would be a partner rather than an embodiment of hubris.  Leaders across the ideological spectrum applauded.  Yet the second, three years later in Cartagena, was a disaster for Washington, with even friendly heads of state lambasting the President for continuing an unacceptable Cold War line on Cuba and rigid drug control policies.  It was in the wake of this embarrassment that Obama finally moved to change policy toward Cuba.  This watershed, supplemented by advances in other areas overseen by Vice President Biden, made Obama’s third summit, in Panama in 2015 – attended by Cuban President Raúl Castro – a much more positive experience.

This year’s Summit seems unlikely to produce advances – substantive or symbolic – and indeed has the potential both to highlight conflicting agendas and even to provoke widespread ridicule.

  • Under normal circumstances, the partial but damaging reversal of Obama’s Cuba opening would elicit hostility from Latin American leaders, but tensions over Trump’s dramatic departure from traditional U.S. positions on trade and climate, and his caustic posturing on immigration policies that especially impact Mexico and Central America, may overshadow regional bewilderment at Washington’s renewed hostility towards Havana. Latin American countries that Trump jilted at the altar when he summarily withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have begun moving on – negotiating trade deals with China while uniting with Canada and seven Asian countries to form “TPP 2.0.”  That chauvinism and race, not security, are at the heart of Trump’s “Great Wall” proposal is widely understood and resented in Latin America.
  • Trump’s postures and policies are by no means the only strain on the summit agenda. Venezuela’s meltdown and impending elections are of grave concern to virtually all leaders who will attend, whether President Maduro does or not, yet there is no consensus on what to do about the problem and the humanitarian emergency it has spawned.  Questions about the legitimacy of Brazilian President Michel Temer diminish the standing of the hemisphere’s second largest democracy.  Tensions swirling around the Summit’s host – Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) – are also intense.  PPK is but one of numerous incumbent and recent Latin American presidents under siege by corruption allegations.  Strong evidence of corruption among presidents of Latin American countries big and small will hardly be news to anyone, but the scope of the problem – and the strength of public rejection of it – means many governments will come to the Summit wounded and distracted.

The irony that the theme of this year’s Summit is “Democratic Governance against Corruption” will be lost on no one, as the Lava Jato investigations and lesser inquiries reveal the venality of government after government.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a co-host of the Summit, has done his fair share to rescue the region from authoritarian and corrupt leaders – challenging both Maduro and the tainted reelection of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández – but few others in the hemisphere have lived up to the lofty rhetoric about democracy and anti-corruption at previous summits.  The Peruvian national host is hardly in a position to steer the Summit to take on Trump on matters such as TPP.  If he were not so badly tainted by recent events, he could have represented the globalists in the Americas who are convinced that a misguided America First posture issuing from Washington amounts to a U.S. abdication of leadership on trade, climate, and other pressing matters.  Yet it is now doubtful whether he will be able to say anything more than “Welcome to Peru.”  The smiling faces in the protocol photos will conceal the striking disjuncture between the Summit agenda and its protagonists.

 February 6, 2018

Lima Group: Committed to Democratic Principles?

By Nicolás Comini*

Group of men and women stand at a podium

Government officials from different Latin American countries met in August 2017 to sign the “Lima Declaration,” establishing the Lima Group. / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “Lima Group” – an informal alliance of 12 Latin American countries created to observe the sensitive situation in Venezuela – has shown that its defense of democracy in the hemisphere is inconsistent.  Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru have on at least a handful of occasions condemned Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for stoking political violence, holding political prisoners, committing electoral fraud, and engaging in other abuses, justifying their positions as based on ethics, morals, and good practices.

The reactions of the Lima Group and its leading members to the situation in Honduras since that country’s presidential election in November, however, suggests that the values they espouse do not have universal application.  After OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro declared that the election lacked credibility and called for new elections, some countries’ pro-democracy fervor faded.

  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s administration quickly recognized Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s victory and officially declared its “disposition to continue working for the development of closer ties of friendship and more cooperation between the two nations.” The Brazilian foreign ministry expressed its “commitment to maintain and strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation that traditionally have united both countries.”  In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government quickly recognized Hernández as well, calling on “Honduran society to support dialogue in order to preserve peace and democratic stability in that sister nation.”

The discrepancies between the group’s rhetoric and actions appear to be rooted in various reasons.

  • Political alignments take precedence over values. Honduran President Hernández has been active in the group’s (and indirectly the OAS’) efforts on Venezuela.  Honduras is a member of the Lima Group, and Hernández is perceived by conservative governments as an ally to contain the spread of the left.  The risk of massive Venezuelan population displacement, with profound potential consequences for neighboring countries, contrasts with the situation in Honduras.  With the region entering a new election cycle, moreover, incumbents’ lack of support for Almagro’s position signals that they do not want the OAS messing around in their own electoral processes.
  • These governments also see Hernández as a strategic United States ally in Central America in combating drug trafficking, transnational criminal networks, money laundering, and irregular migration. Many of the governments may also refrain from criticizing the belief that Tegucigalpa benefits from the presence of 1 million Hondurans in the United States (more than half of whom the State Department says “are believed to be undocumented”).  In addition, Honduras was one of the eight countries that supported President Donald Trump’s rejection of the UN General Assembly Resolution asking nations not to locate diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

The crises in Venezuela and Honduras are indeed different, and the international community’s interests in them are naturally different.  Maduro’s and Hernández’s failings affect other countries’ political and economic equities in different ways.  Maduro’s undemocratic actions increase unpredictability in the management of oil and other sectors of foreign interest, whereas Hernández’s represent predictability, if not stability, in areas that Washington cares about and Buenos Aires, Brasilia, and the rest of Latin America do not.  But the high-sounding values at stake – democracy, institutionality, and rule of law – are the same in both countries.  While Venezuela’s population is three times the size of Honduras’ and its political crisis arguably three times more advanced, the moral responsibility – and moral authority – of the Lima Group or its member nations is many times greater in a small, vulnerable, poor country like Honduras.  Security forces have gunned down some three dozen oppositionists and protestors since the November election, and allegations of human rights violations have soared, but Latin America’s major democracies have been silent.

  • The failure to support the OAS’ call for new elections was not just a stab in the back of Secretary General Almagro; it revealed that their rhetoric about the OAS Democracy Charter – embodiment of democratic values they demand be respected in Venezuela – are not as universal as they say. When the Lima Group last Tuesday (with considerable justification) rejected the Venezuelan National Assembly’s call for an early presidential election, the Hernández government’s signature was there alongside the others.  If universal democratic values and principles are not for universal application – if even an informal grouping will not criticize a small actor with whom they do not have major equities at stake – their value is much diminished.

January 30, 2018

* 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.

Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.