Friday, November 6, 2015

The end of the Pink Tide? (Nov. 6, 2015)

Is Latin America's "pink tide" turning? The phrase refers to rise of populist leftwing leaders who took power in Latin America, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2002, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005 and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2006. Others also include more moderate left-wing leaders such as Chile's Michelle Bachelet. With local variations, they challenged U.S. diplomatic hegemony -- and the Washington Consensus -- and focused on poverty and inequality reduction. 

Is the pendulum swinging back now? Earlier this year, The Economist was already celebrating that pragmatism will start to get the better of ideology in the region. A piece in The Guardian after Argentina's presidential election -- in which the conservative candidate Mauricio Macri had an unexpectedly strong showing -- notes that left-wing governments around the region are in trouble as reduced Chinese commodities demand affects funding for welfare policies and corruption allegations have eroded popular support for these governments.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's woes are a media constant as she battles impeachment and struggles to impose a wildly unpopular austerity plan. Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro had violent anti-government protests last year and is facing a legislative election in December that will likely give the opposition majority in the National Assembly and potentially lead to a referendum on his leadership next year. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's term is up in December, and her designated presidential candidate is combatting a wave of voters seeking change. Chile's Bachelet is battling corruption scandals and low popularity of her own. Ecuador's Rafael Correa had street protests earlier this year when he attempted to raise inheritance taxes. Only Boliva's Morales appears to remain strong, comments The Guardian.

The potential swing to the right has conservative commentators gleeful. The Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer fantasizes about a conservative domino effect across the region. He outlines a future in which Macri wins in Argentina, and in which Rousseff might be linked to the Petrobras corruption scandal and that her eventual impeachment might usher in a more market-friendly government. He dreams that this would change the regional weight against the Venezuelan government and oppose any potential (though unlikely) attempts to rig election results there. 

In the Financial Times John Paul Rathbone notes that the anti-populist movements across the region share a disgust with the status quo. Ironically the willingness to challenge governments across the region might be a result of  Latin America's "new middle class," which has doubled to 200m people since 2001, he says. It won't be easy to maintain the social gains of the recent past while also balancing government books, he notes, predicting "volatile times" ahead.

Not so fast, counters Guillaume Long, the Ecuadorean Minister of Culture, in an Al Jazeera op-ed, in which he cautions that backlash against the region's left-wing governments is restricted to certain sectors whose interests have been affected and are fighting back. That governments around the region have been saying it for years doesn't remove the kernel of truth at the heart of the explanation. "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.
But it's not only left-wing governments that are under fire in the region. The indignados protests are affecting right-wing administrations even more -- look at Guatemala and Honduras. But experts are cautioning that the wave of popular outrage against corruption won't necessarily result in the renewal protesters might hope for.

Last month, writing in The Atlantic, Moisés Naím examined the potential political perils facing Latin America, where a generation of newly empowered middle classes -- a result of an unprecedented period of social spending and reductions in the region's entrenched inequality --  face a period of economic slowdown that threatens their recent gains.

"A larger, politically awoken middle class has far less tolerance for corruption these days, particularly as the deteriorating economy threatens to sabotage their newly attained standard of living, and they have access to new technologies that facilitate the spread of information and lower the costs of political coordination. These dynamics may produce positive outcomes like removing politicians and parties that have been in power for far too long, but they could also result in corrosive social conflict, government paralysis, and political instability."

And earlier this week Pedro Abramovay notes that the wave of citizen mobilization won't single handedly alter the political culture of corruption in the region. "Demonstrations fired by righteous indignation against corruption are essential for political change. But they are not sufficient. If there is not a determined effort to carry through a true transformation of the political culture, to radically change how campaigns are financed, and to create new forms of citizen engagement in politics, these mobilizations could be captured by profiteers who promise change, so that everything remains the same," he writes in Open Democracy (previously published in Asuntos del Sur).

Whether or not the "pink tide" is over is a matter of debate, writes Francesc Badia i Dalmases, one of the editors of Open Democracy. But what is true is citizens across the region are worried about insecurity and violence as much as (if not more than) poverty and inequality. He refers readers to the Alerta Democrática project, which aims to map out various future scenarios for democracy in the region. (See Sept. 25th's briefs.)

Though democracy predominates in the region, the project notes that it's far from irreversible, and explores four possible scenarios for its evolution, ranging from the optimistic to pessimistic.

"Democracy in Transformation" portrays a future in which institutional innovation strengthens democratic governments; "Democracy in Tension" shows a future where political and economic power is concentrated in a caudillo style democracy of appearances; while "Democracy in Mobilization" portrays a social movements that push for transformation and democratic renewal; and "Democracy in Agony" outlines a scenario in which corruption and illicit activity hijack democratic governance, violence creates failed states and the future is uncertain.

News Briefs

  • All that being said, the UNDP warned that the much lauded poverty reduction in the region has stalled and that half of Latin Americans population is poor or in danger of falling into poverty, reports Spain's El País.
  • Plus ça change: Less than two weeks after his election -- and with two months left to go before he actually assumes office -- Guatemalan president-elect Jimmy Morales is already running into trouble. Spain's El País reports on a host of hiccups that are leading critics to ask how much will really change in the "political outsiders'" administration The Universidad de San Carlos has announced that his advisor for financial matters, José Ramón Lam, was fired for plagiarizing essays by Spanish, Peruvian and Ecuadorean authors. But Morales has rejected the accusations and ratified Lam, In addition, a complaint before the Electoral Tribunal alleges that three of his party's 12 elected legislators are state contractors and are thus in conflict of interests. And another elected legislator is accused of crimes against humanity during the 1960-1996 Civil War, which could also cost him his seat. Finally, Morales' negotiating team has asked for the 2016 budget to be approved "without locks," which would permit the Executive spending discretion.
  • Guatemala is facing a case of "civil hangover," argues a piece in NACLA. After the wild success of the protest movement this year in forcing the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina after accusations of widespread corruption in his administration, citizens were faced with a slate of presidential candidates determined before their movement even took off. The result was a partial return to a quieter form of protest: abstaining or blank voting. Blank and null votes exceeded four percent of the total tally, and more eligible Guatemalans didn't vote at all than voted for Jimmy Morales. Only 55 percent of eligible citizens voted, writes Rachel Nola. The Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre posted a photo gallery of ballots with candidates X-ed out and the word “corrupt” written across their faces.
  • Pérez Molina will remain in jail for now, a Guatemalan court rejected a request to revoke his detention as he faces charges of involvement in "La Linea" customs corruption network, reportsEFE.
  • Meanwhile, over in Honduras, Guatemalan inspired anti-corruption protests turned violent on Wednesday when rock-hurling students clashed with riot police firing tear gas and water cannon in Tegucigalpa, reports AFP. Protesters are seeking an international corruption probe, similar to the CICIG in Guatemala.
  • A great piece by Robbert Muggah and Steven Dudley in Foreign Affairs delves into the horrifying violence statistics in El Salvador recently: the country’s homicide rate today is almost 100 murders per 100,000 people, or 15 times the global average. The new in violence surge is more uncontrolled and ruthless than before, they write. The country's main gangs - MS-13 and Barrio 18 -- are not only at war with each other and authorities, but they are also fighting internal civil wars within their groups. The issue is further complicated by the incorporation of the virtual world into the fights, with the migration of communications to cyberspace, and ensuing complications for ill-prepared authorities. "... The relentless proliferation of new mobile digital communication platforms means that criminals can find workarounds in real life and online, staying one step ahead of the authorities," explain Muggah and Dudley.
  • A program that was supposed to help Central American children a way to apply for refugee status in the U.S. without leaving their home countries -- enabling them to avoid a dangerous trek north to enter illicitly -- has not managed to get a single child to the U.S. since its implementation last December, reports the New York Times. The slow moving bureaucracy that has plagued the Central American Minor program has infuriated advocates for the children and their families. More than 5,400 children, most of them trying to escape street gangs, extortion and sexual assault in El Salvador, have applied to join their parents, who are already in the United States legally.
  • The government backed candidate Jovenel Moise and opposition candidate Jude Célestine are the leaders of the provisional results of Haiti's presidential elections. The two would head to a run-off vote in December if the results are confirmed, reports the Miami Herald. Moise obtained 32.8 percent of the votes and Célestine 25.2. Violence marring the first round of elections continues to plague the country. Hours before the results were announced yesterday a member of an Aristide supported opposition candidate's platform was shot to death near the group's headquarters.
  • More on a Colombian court decision allowing same-sex couples to adopt children (see yesterday's briefs): the Constitutional Court's six-two ruling said adoption agencies could not discriminate against gay, lesbian and transsexual couples during an adoption process, reports the Associated PressEl Tiempo emphasizes that the decision bases itself on the rights of children to have a family, not of gay couples to form a family. The court determined that a persons sexuality or gender is not an indicator of suitability to adopt. Colombia's Catholic church said the decision violates the rights of children and also goes against Colombian public opinion. Polls show citizens overwhelmingly reject giving same-sex couples equal rights to marriage and adoption. The Church is demanding a referendum to decide the issue, and says the court has overstepped it's boundaries, reports Publimetro. Some members of Congress are also supporting the idea of a referendum, which could limit the scope of the court's decision, reports El Tiempo. Yesterday the Attorney General, Alejandro Ordóñez said he'd request the annulment of the decision. But the supporters say the decision could help streamline the adoption of the 10,000 Colombian children under the protection of welfare agencies. Colombia joins Argentina and Uruguay as one of the few Latin American countries where gay couples can adopt children. Semana has background details on the judicial battle for gay rights in Colombia. El Tiempo republished a debate on the subject between Mauricio Albarracín, director of the NGO Colombia Diversa, and Victoria Eugenia Cabrera, scientific director of the Instituto de la Familia de la Universidad de La Sabana -- Cabrera argues that adoption by gay parents might not be in the child's best interests, while Albarrcín notes that the move protects the rights of already constituted families and permits couples to avoid using loopholes where only member legally adopts the child.
  • The cost of peace: the implementation of an eventual peace deal between Colombia's FARC rebel group and the government could cost the country over $100 billion, according toColombia Reports, based on El Tiempo.
  • Mexico's journalists have taken full advantage of a 2002 freedom of information law -- one of the most robust systems in the region, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Over the past year especially journalists have used government information obtained through freedom of information requests to shed light on human rights tragedies such as Ayotzinapa, inefficiencies in state-run oil firm PEMEX, the evolution of the country's drug cartels, and scandals regarding the president's family finances. 
  • Possible Ayotzinapa lead? In Mexico forensic experts are heading to the town of Carrizalillo, nearly 50 miles south of Iguala, to examine a number of mass graves discovered in the area. The location was disclosed by a member of a drug gang who was attacked by town residents, reports the BBC. Residents report unusually high gang activity on the evening the 43 teachers college students disappeared. 
  • High times for Mexico? Not so fast cautions El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope, after Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling which could potentially pave the way for decriminalized marijuana in the country (see yesterday's post). He is concerned that judicially led decriminalization will lead to an unregulated mess, but says it's likely as Congress won't want to pay the political costs of legislative decriminalization. Writing in today's column, he urges legislators to move quickly to avoid a judicially brought on scenario of a "fully unregulated marijuana market dominated by large for-profit companies." Yesterday, the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) announced that it will file 32 new injunction cases, similar to the case justices decided on Wednesday. They are aiming to set precedent so as to turn the decision into jurisprudence. Other members of that party presented a bill in the Senate, mostly about medical marijuana, he reports.
  • Panamanian authorities revealed a drug trafficking link between Colombia's rebel FARC group and Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, run by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. An 18 month investigation -- coordinated with Mexican and Colombian authorities -- led to more than 50 arrests in Panama, and the confiscation of about four tons of cocaine, more than $500,000, five speed boats and 38 vehicles, reports UPI.
  • A Chilean military drill near the northern border with Perú and Bolivia is raising tensions between the three countries, which have unresolved frontier issues, reports the Latin Post. Bolivian President Evo Morales complained the "Hurricane 2015" drill, taking place in the Atacama desert is designed to make an impression on Chile's neighbors. The Chilean government flatly rejected the accusation.
  • Morales and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to bilateral cooperation focused on the energy sector and the transfer of technology to the Latin American country, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Ecuador agreed to pay $1 billion to Occidental Petroleum Corp in compensation for seizing the company's assets, in compliance with a World Bank tribunal award. The country's finance minister said on Wednesday that Ecuador would seek financing to to pay that amount, a reduction of 40 percent from the original award announced in 2012, reports Reuters.
  • A collapsed dam in Brazil, owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, and ensuing mudslides left at least two dead and 30 missing, reports Reuters. The dam, belonging to the Samarco open-pit iron ore mining complex near the town of Mariana in Minas Gerais, south eastern Brazil, burst last night. Authorities say they are evacuating about 600 people to higher ground, reports Reutersin a separate story. Brazil relies heavily on dams to produce electricity and on mining to generate export revenue, reports the New York Times. "We need rigor in determining what happened," Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto, a prosecutor in Minas Gerais, told reporters on Thursday. "No dam bursts by chance."
  • The Associated Press has a feature on how the historic surge in Cuban migration to the U.S. over the past two years -- an estimated 100,000 Cubans -- is dividing families on two sides of the Florida Straights. (See Monday's post.) The surge began in 2013 after the communist government eliminated the need for exit permits, and increased when the two countries announced a diplomatic detenté after 50 years of hostility. Would-be-migrants fear the reconciliation will lead to the end of a favorable U.S. policy that accepts most Cubans who manage to reach U.S. soil.

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