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Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

On Copper’s Importance to Chile

April 25, 2013 Comments off

I’m a bit late in getting to this, but last week, JF String had a great piece that reveals just how vital to the Chilean economy copper continues to be. Among other data:

The labor of every Chilean miner is today, on average, responsible for producing ~ $60 million (chilean pesos) in mineral wealth per year. That’s four times greater than a Chilean working in the banking sector ($15 million/year) and six times greater than someone working in the country’s retail sector ($10 million/year). [...]

In terms of the total percentage of federal budget revenues, the industry’s contribution represented 20.7% in 2011 compared to 10.5% in 1991. However, the 2011 figure is down from its peak in 2006 when the copper industry represented 34.1% of federal budget revenues. [...]

The wealth generated by copper in Chile has not been distributed equally across the nation. According to Meller’s study, per capita GDP in Chile’s copper regions is around 163% greater than in non-mining regions. The money that does leave, says Meller, is unsurprisingly concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Santiago.

Sting also has some interesting observations on the ways in which copper in Chile and oil in Venezuela compare and contrast with regards to their respective national economies. The whole piece is not too long and definitely worth checking out..

Post-Election Paraguay – Is a Return to Mercosur Next?

April 24, 2013 Comments off

After the institutional coup against Fernando Lugo last June, politico-economic trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership. The response was swift, and Horacio Cartes, who at the time was a potential candidate for president, called on Paraguay to maintain faith in Mercosur and to work towards having the suspension lifted. Now that Cartes has won the election, it appears that he was sincere in his comments and that he is now taking steps towards restoring Paraguay’s full participation in Mercosur. Perhaps more importantly, Mercosur members seem willing to restore relations with Paraguay. Both Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina congratulated Cartes on his victory, with Kirchner tweeting “We wait for you in Mercosur” and that Paraguay’s “place is with us in Mercosur always,” while Mujica invited Paraguay to Mercosur’s June summit in Uruguay. Of course, Brazil also has a say in the matter; Dilma Rousseff’s foreign ministry proclaimed that it would be glad to welcome back Paraguay, but only on the condition that Paraguay’s Congress approve Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur (the Paraguayan Senate’s holdup had been what initially kept Venezuela from gaining full membership). Cartes seems willing to take this step, having already spoken with legislators to try to pressure them into accepting Venezuela’s admission. And in another good sign for Paraguay, none other than Nicolás Maduro himself, Venezuela’s recently elected president, called Cartes to congratulate him and to express a desire to improve bilateral relations between Venezuela and Paraguay.  Thus, it seems that, as Greg Weeks suggested, South America is willing to allow the resumption of democracy in Paraguay to heal the relations that were strained with Lugo’s removal last summer, and it appears that, barring any sudden rupture, Paraguay is well on the path to returning to normalized political and economic relations with its neighbors.

In other Cartes news, he has also finally apologized for blatantly homophobic and hateful remarks he made regarding homosexuality. While that does not mean he is any more open-minded regarding diversity, at least he had the wherewithal to acknowledge what he publicly said was offensive, hateful, and contributing to a climate of sexual discrimination and fear.

Early Thoughts on Venezuela’s Election

April 15, 2013 Comments off

As many probably know by now, presidential elections took place in Venezuela yesterday, as Venezuelans went to select either Nicolás Maduro or Henrique Capriles as the next president; Maduro was Chávez’s latest vice president, while Capriles ran against Chávez last fall. While many predicted a comfortable win for Maduro early in the brief campaign, Capriles ultimately picked up significant ground, and Maduro ended up winning the vote, 50.66%-49.07%, a margin of of about 235,000 votes. Unsurprisingly, Capriles refuses to acknowledge defeat until a full recount is completed, a not-unreasonable demand for such a close election.

Last night, Capriles’ supporters took to Twitter to repeatedly proclaim how “the people” suffered with this election (there were too many to link; just look at the tweets under the hashtag “CaprilesganoTibisaymintiu” or, literally, “Capriles won, Tibisay [the head of the National Electoral Commission] lied”). Framed in terms of betrayal, deceit, or just depression or tragedy, the motif was that the election of Maduro ran counter to everything that “the people” wanted or that “the people” deserved. Suffice to say, such rhetoric is a bit out of touch with reality, since a majority of “the people” voted for Maduro; yes, it was a close majority, but it was still a majority. Yet this rhetoric is not just a case of refusing to acknowledge the actual data; I think it is reflective of a broader worldview. Capriles’ supporters are by and large from the middle and upper classes; when they refer to “the people,” they are referring to themselves. Such claims of ignoring “the people” in turn is a telling sign, demonstrating that, even after nearly 14 years of social reforms designed to address inequalities under Chávez, there is still the mindset that poor Venezuelans, who are a significant portion of the Venezuelan population, are not “the people.” That such a mindset, which was characteristic of politics and society for much of Venezuela’s post-independence history, is still visible for all to see may have had some small part in “the people” ultimately turning to Maduro in spite of very real questions on economics, crime, and energy policy, among other things. For, if nothing else, Maduro made clear that he would continue to address “the people” whom Chávez had incorporated and aided after generations of being disregarded for elite interests; Capriles failed to make the case that he would represent their interests, and in defeat, his supporters’ divisive language and political framing revealed the ways some sectors and political groups refuse to acknowledge the role the poor and marginalized play in twenty-first century politics.

The outcome also speaks as closely to how much of the movement was bound in the figure of Chavez. Without him in the election, the outcome was far closer, and I think that speaks to just how personalist and non-institutional his program, rhetoric, and vision for Venezuela were. At the risk of returning to the same well too many times, I’ve repeatedly commented that, regardless of what one thinks of Chávez’s reforms and his vision for Venezuela, one of his biggest failures was to move beyond personalist politics and to institutionalize those reforms and visions. This closeness of this election seems to further reinforce the perils of that type of personalist politics.

At the same time, I’ve also suggested that Chávez’s death means that any efforts to make the reforms more long-lasting will fall to his successor(s) and to the Venezuelan people who support it. Maduro’s victory means that they will at least get a chance to continue to shape Venezuela in the post-Chávez context. What they do with that opportunity, or what they are able to do in the current social, political, and economic context, remains to be seen.

And to be clear, the challenges facing Maduro are significant. A narrative has already emerged that he will pay the political price for Chávez’s shortcomings in areas like monetary policy, energy policy, and crime, and he very well may. But politics and history are both funny things, and Maduro may prove to be a capable leader in his own right, putting his own stamp on years of Chávez’s reforms. Could his term end before his six years are up, as unrest or opposition mount or problems worsen? Sure. But could he also conceivably be quite politically able – we have not really had a chance to see yet, given the short nature of the his time as acting president in unusual circumstances and the unique conditions of a sudden and brief presidential campaign. And even if he should fail, that does not mean the opposition that Capriles represented will fill the void; with Chávez gone, there will be others who disagree with Maduro’s vision of Chavismo who might try to challenge him and arrive in the presidency themselves. After all, as with any political movement, Chavismo is far from unified, and where it goes in its the wake of its namesake’s death can now become a matter of political dispute.

Going forward, one thing is certain – things will continue to be interesting and worth watching.

Capriles Goes After Maduro for Failing to Live up to…Chávez?

March 21, 2013 Comments off

My, how have times have changed. I give you Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on the campaign trail:

Nicolas [Maduro] in a hundred days you are destroying what in the 14 years the President of the Republic achieved. Can you imagine another six years of this? They are not managing Venezuela, they are destroying Venezuela”, emphasized [Capriles,] the governor of Miranda the second most populated of the country.

Of course, just last fall, Capriles was running against Chávez, who he criticized for failing to improve Venezuela in his 14 years as president. Now, campaigning against Maduro, he’s critical of Maduro for…undoing all that Chávez had accomplished for Venezuela in his 14 years as president.

This rhetorical dissonance between last fall’s election cycle in Venezuela and this spring’s cycle taps into a broader problem for the opposition, which is that it still doesn’t have a solid program to attract voters. First Chávez, and now Maduro, can point to a political platform and specific programs and plans that already have improved the lives of many Venezuelans (or will improve them going forward), while Capriles and the opposition are simply running against Maduro without offering solutions. Thus, Capriles now is criticizing Maduro for undoing programs that, just last fall, he was critical of as he went after Chávez. Though not impossible, it’s difficult to see how Capriles will win the election with this type of platform against Maduro’s platform of continuing the “revolution” that Chávez began.

Around Latin America

March 18, 2013 Comments off

-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.

-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.

- José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.

-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.

-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.

-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).

-Speaking of Truth Commissions, last week marked the 20th anniversary of El Salvador’s Truth Commission; Tim has a nice summary of its findings.

-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”

-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”

-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.

-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.

-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.

On Populist Appeals & the Failures and Successes of Institutionalization in Venezuela

March 15, 2013 1 comment

Over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have a piece up on the “Paradoxes of Chavismo.” In it, they do an excellent job concisely explaining why the rhetoric of Chávez (and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales) has resonated so strongly among their respective electorates.

Chávez, like Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, gained support because his proposed political platform stroke a chord with the average voter. These politicians’ diagnosis of the problems on Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia is that the economic ills their countries face stem from the fact that society has been captured by an elite.

How to change this situation? They argued that measures needed to be taken to break the grip on power of elites. The approach of Chávez, and of Correa and Morales, is to strengthen the president and the removal of checks and balances which in the past have been tools for the elites to block reformist agendas, for example that of Carlos Andrés Perez. It is almost as if one needs “fire to fight fire”: institutions have been captured by elites, so we need to break down these institutions in order to build a different society.

Drawing equivalencies between Latin American leaders just because they are from “the” (not always clearly-defined) left is often problematic, but I think this comparison is legitimate. While the national contexts for each vary, historically, elites have maintained control over institutional power through both the colonial and national eras. This control played no small part in perpetuating socioeconomic differences even while hiding behind of thin veneer of so-called “democracy,” a veneer through which the population saw and with which it grew increasingly disillusioned. While the policies, goals, and contexts of Morales, Correa, and Chávez (to say nothing of their individual responses) have important distinctions between nation-states, this shared history of abuses of power and elite domination is a useful comparison, and helps explain while all three men have (or had) resonated with a majority of their populations as they campaigned. Put simply, they spoke not so much to a populism defined by personalism (though there are certainly elements of that as well, particularly in the figure of Chávez); rather, they spoke to a populism that sought to finally incorporate those who had effectively been marginalized from political processes or from the benefits that the state can provide to its citizens. In that regard, Chávez, Correa, and Morales are not so original, as their rhetoric echoes that of populists who came to power by incorporating previously-marginalized groups, including urban and rural workers and women, between the 1930s-1950s, be it in the APRA in Peru, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, or Juan Perón in Argentina.

Speaking of Perón, Acemoglu and Robinson close with the following:

An interesting comparison here is to Argentina. The attack in the 1940s by Perón on the traditional elites created a political machine, and an associated band of political elites, which have dominated politics and run the country ever since, with far more disastrous economic consequences than the previous regime in Argentina. Chavismo, by its un-institutionalized nature, seems not to have created such a machine, which is possibly his greatest legacy and the only cause for hope for the future of Venezuelan democracy.

This is a fascinating point. I’ve commented before that Chávez’s slowness to institutionalize his reforms in state institutions rather than in himself could be an obstacle in ensuring that the reforms are stronger and more enduring than an individual leader (in this case, Chávez himself). By contrast, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the lack of institutionalization of chavismo as a political movement may help maintain peace and democracy in Venezuela by precluding machine politics bound in the cult of personality of the party’s leader, a la Peronism in Argentina. Certainly, there are some important differences between the two cases; in particular, regarding party politics, Perón was alive until 1974, more than 25 years after arriving in the presidency in 1946. From 1955 to 1973, he was in exile, meaning his metaphysical presence/physical absence created a far more ambivalent and uncertain path for Peronism, with more radical and more conservative forces fighting over the party’s legacy even while it’s founder was still alive. This obviously would not be  the case for Chávez, even had he created a party bound in his own leadership before his death.  Nonetheless, the suggestion that Chávez’s failure to institutionalize his ideology in a party is a fascinating one that sees the failure to institutionalize Chavismo in one regard as a success.

To be clear, I don’t think those two views on institutionalization as a shortcoming or as a success are in direct conflict; Acemoglu and Robinson are discussing party politics, whereas I was focused more on institutional reform. Thus, it’s not so much a matter of conflicting views as it is a question of differing institutions. I think the reforms need to be embodied in Venezuela’s juridical and legal institutions, while Acemoglu and Robinson are arguing the lack of political institutions [i.e., parties] with Chávez may be central in sowing an even stronger democratic system in Venezuela going forward. In that regard, they may be right.

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