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Foreign Policy, Latin America, etc.



Updated: 2018-01-17T06:15:55.105-05:00

 



Dirty Gold in South America and the US

2018-01-17T06:15:55.423-05:00

The Miami Herald has published an important series of investigative articles on “dirty gold,” illegally mined in South America and illicitly transported to the US. The illegal gold mining industry is a major profit driver for criminal groups as well as an easy tool for money laundering. It creates violence and environmental destruction in Latin America. Much of this has been reported on before, but it’s good to see more in-depth reporting on the shifting illegal gold industry.

There are some parallels with illegal drugs and many criminal groups are working both products, but there are also some key differences including the fact the end product of the illegal gold industry is not addictive or destructive and is fully legal. Governments and NGOs that have spent decades fighting policy battles over illegal drugs are now facing a big new twist in this illegal gold industry. Policies of prohibition, source eradication and demand reduction that are considered for illegal drugs don’t work for gold. Gold mining is a legalized and regulated (at least on paper) industry that overlaps with the illegal drug problem and contributes to the violence in Latin America. The problem has grown over the past decade and governments including the US have been slow to respond.




Honduras response damaging the region

2018-01-15T10:16:17.955-05:00

A Washington Post editorial criticizes the Trump administration's response to Honduras’s elections by pointing out that it undermines other efforts by both the US and OAS to promote democracy and fair elections elsewhere in the hemisphere.
The badly flawed process could deepen instability in the country; if so, more Honduran migrants will head for the United States. Meanwhile, the chances that independent monitors from the OAS will be able to check abuses in the 18 elections scheduled in the Western Hemisphere this year have been damaged. If an anti-American candidate is proclaimed the winner in some other Latin nation, and other governments refuse to respect evidence of irregularities, the Trump administration will have only itself to blame.
Restoring and increasing the influence and authority of the OAS election monitoring system will be on the list of challenges facing the next US administration.



ELN attacks resume as ceasefire ends 2

2018-01-15T09:02:26.602-05:00

The ELN continued their attacks over the weekend including kidnapping an oil contractor for Ecopetrol.

There are two main theories right now as to why the ELN have resumed attacks. One says the ELN is largely unified and using the attacks to regain some advantage in the negotiations with the government. The second says the ELN are divided among factions that want peace via negotiations or a return to violence.

Split or not, the ELN generally present a unified front publicly and insist they want a new ceasefire. However, they aren’t acting like it. The government, as has been its position for years, is refusing to negotiate under threat and demanding the ELN stop their attacks.

The kidnapping took place as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was in the country to urge greater efforts to implement the peace deal with the FARC. He called on both sides to return to ceasefire and negotiations.




Los Nuevos Balseros

2018-01-12T06:39:25.589-05:00

At least four people are dead after a boat with 30 Venezuelans sank off the coast of Curacao. The term “los nuevos balseros” has come up in Latin American media over the past 18 months including in this incident. It refers to the increasing number of Venezuelans leaving the country by boat. As more leave, the quality of the boats declines, leading to worse conditions. That makes it more likely the boats will crash or sink or fail to have enough equipment in case of an emergency.

The numbers leaving Venezuela by boat are still fewer than those who left Cuba at the country’s worst moments or those who left Syria and Northern Africa in recent years to cross the Mediterranean by boat. Part of that is due to the land options that many Venezuelans have to enter Colombia, Brazil or Guyana. However, if the conditions continue to decline, boat accidents like the one that took place this week will become more common.




The pension reform challenge

2018-01-11T09:59:16.153-05:00

Mac Margolis has a smart op-ed on pensions in South America that highlights the contradictory nature of the two biggest things wrong with many countries’ pension systems:

  1. The systems are fiscally unsustainable.
  2. The systems fail to cover many of the poor and lower middle class.

This paragraph was a key point:
The big winners of the current pension system are higher-earning, better-educated employees, especially males, who are more likely to hold steady jobs under contract, and serve long enough to secure a decent retirement.
Of course, attempting to solve both of the two problems above also creates a tough contradiction. How can governments provide a better social safety net to more poor and informal sector workers without ruining their long term budgets? It’s easy for politicians to run in favor of solving one of the two problems at the expense of making the other worse, but not enough are trying to find reforms that manage both.




ELN attacks resume as ceasefire ends

2018-01-10T16:20:13.435-05:00

The ceasefire between the Colombian government and ELN ended and the ELN wasted no time resuming hostilities. They attacked soldiers in Arauca and bombed an oil pipeline in Casanare. Though peace talks continue and President Santos is pushing for the ELN leadership to return to the table with a commitment to peace, the quick and violent nature of the ELN’s attacks is not going to create goodwill. Bloomberg reports on how the attacks on people as well as the infrastructure bombings will hurt Santos’s efforts to increase foreign investment.

UPDATE: Santos has recalled the lead peace negotiator from Quito after the recent attacks.



Congress should protect TPS recipients and their families 2

2018-01-09T04:07:58.948-05:00

The Trump administration announced it will end TPS for Salvadoran migrants. The decision will impact approximately 200,000 people who arrived prior to 2001 and have called the US their home for over 17 years. Many have US-born children as well as homes and jobs here.

What I wrote in November regarding the TPS cancellation for Haiti and Nicaragua continues to apply:
The US Congress should work on a comprehensive immigration reform package that provides a long term legal status to the DACA and TPS recipients as well as other migrants who are currently at risk of deportation but should be allowed to remain. Members of Congress who are angry at the executive branch for these actions should be putting forward and prioritizing legislation to fix the problem. That legislation should be the top item on the agenda as there is a deadline that could upend the lives of thousands of families. 




Ongoing pre-inauguration protests in Honduras

2018-01-08T07:36:13.276-05:00

Thousands of people protested in San Pedro Sula this weekend against the reelection of President Hernandez. JOH’s opposition has announced several more protests including next Friday in the capital and a weeklong general strike prior to the inauguration at the end of the month.

The opposition has divided and unified several times in recent weeks. While Nasralla and Zelaya remain divided on certain issues, they have managed to coordinate protests and maintain a somewhat united front in agreement that the reelection of the president is both fraudulent and unconstitutional. They also both agree that Nasralla is the legitimately elected president.

These are significant protests rejecting the legitimacy of the government. The government’s repression of the protests since the election has led to over 30 deaths. The protests do not appear large enough to threaten JOH’s current presidency or next term, but they are also not small enough to be ignored. Whether or not the international community agrees with the protesters end goals, the right to non-violent protest must be protected and those who abuse protesters should be punished or sanctioned.

Beyond the protests and presidential inauguration, RAJ writes about the party dynamics in the Congress, which may serve to provide some check on Hernandez’s next term in office. Even if the protests are unsuccessful in changing the government, they may help support efforts to check the powers of the president institutionally.

Barring an unexpected change on the ground, JOH is almost certainly going to start a new term in office at the end of this month. Whether or not his reelection is legitimate, that is the de facto reality that both the domestic opposition and the international community face. As with Nicaragua, Venezuela and other places where the democratic legitimacy of the government is in question, there is an important balance among the symbolic rejection of anti-democratic power grabs, efforts to improve the conditions of democracy and human rights, and the reality that these governments are in power and must be worked with on some level.



OAS Secretary General supports oil embargo on Venezuela

2018-01-08T06:04:52.849-05:00

Jackson Diehl:
At the same time, a senior statesman voiced his support for a less radical and more feasible measure — a U.S. ban on trade in oil and other petroleum products with Venezuela. Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, told me in an interview last Thursday that an oil embargo was necessary to force the Maduro government to negotiate seriously with the Venezuela opposition about a democratic transition. “At the end of the day, the ultimate sanction and the strongest is going to be needed,” he said. “And so yes, I am in favor of an oil embargo.”...

...Opponents of a U.S. embargo have typically argued that it would make one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises even worse. But Almagro dismissed that case. “The worst sanction that could happen to the population would be to have 10 more years of the dictatorship of Maduro,” he said. “There is nothing worse than this. Any sanction that generates the prospect of a political change generates real hope.”
Almagro’s support for an oil embargo should be seen as significant news. It’s not clear that he can convince the US. It’s also unlikely that many other Latin American countries would go along with the plan. Still, it is a shift in rhetoric that signals high-level policymakers are considering much more serious options than have currently been used to pressure Maduro.

Details matter with these sorts of proposals. There is a lightweight version of oil embargo that would be a painful annoyance to Venezuela’s economy but survivable for Maduro. There are stronger embargo options that could stop a vast amount of foreign currency entering the country but would require significant resources to enforce.

It’s also important that Almagro says the embargo’s goal is to promote new elections that are fair with international oversight. That is different than saying that he hopes the embargo leads to massive protests or violent regime change, which some others have said in the past while promoting the option. He simply wants to force the government to concede on fair elections.

Almagro’s statement coincides with rumors that the Venezuelan government and opposition negotiations may be making some limited progress because the Maduro government feels pressure over the current financial sanctions imposed by the US. It could be that Almagro believes the threat of more sanctions or the actual implementation of more sanctions may be what keeps the government at the negotiation table and moving towards the goal of free and fair elections.

This statement is yet another example of Almagro using his position as OAS Secretary General to support bold initiatives to solve regional problems. Up until now, his record has been mixed and his two boldest moves - supporting the implementation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter on Venezuela and the call for new elections in Honduras - have both failed. Still, it's clear Almagro sees the role of the OAS Secretary General role as a leader on policy issues, even if it is diplomatically uncomfortable or not supported by a majority of the organization's members. He has risked failure and in some ways the long-term cohesion of the organization in order to speak out for what he views as the correct policy for the hemisphere.



When would the military option be acceptable in Venezuela?

2018-01-03T21:47:51.343-05:00

I have some questions for those who have criticized Ricardo Hausmann this week starting with this one: How bad does Venezuela have to get before foreign military intervention is at least an option to consider?

I agree with many of the critiques of Hausmann because his argument has plenty of flaws and it’s really easy to find many reasons that a military intervention is a terrible idea. Everyone should be cautioned by the mistakes the US has made in Latin America in decades past and in Iraq and elsewhere more recently. There is no bloodless military option. Military intervention will cause suffering and death. The military option does not lead to an easy solution or a quickly redemocratized Venezuela. There are plenty of secondary and tertiary effects, some that we know and some we don’t, that we’ll certainly regret.

But the military option shouldn’t be argued in a vacuum, as so many people have done in recent days. It’s not fair to contrast the effects of military intervention against some imaginary wonderful political solution to Venezuela’s problems that hasn't materialized in recent years.

How many Venezuelans should starve to death before a military intervention is at least an option? One thousand? 100,000? Don’t tell me that it isn’t possible or it would never come to that. You didn’t think the current situation would be possible five years ago.

How many Venezuelan children must live their entire lives with the effects of malnutrition today because you refused to consider an option that used military force to deliver food and medical aid?

How many civilians need to be tortured or killed or disappeared by Venezuelan security forces before the negative repercussions of a military intervention are fewer than the negative repercussions of the status quo?

Obviously a political solution is better than a military one, but how many years or decades of being a failing undemocratic state should Venezuelans be willing to wait for that political solution before the international community intervenes?

How many more millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country is an acceptable number? Five million? Ten million?

Those questions should make you at least a little uncomfortable, but if you’re a serious policy analyst then you should be willing to attempt to answer them. Military options are not ideal; neither is the status quo. The costs of those options need to be measured against each other. And every month that passes, the status quo in Venezuela becomes worse, more children starve and more civilians die. So where is your red line? And if a full military intervention isn’t currently the right move, what international actions today are warranted that aren’t being done?

It’s amazing how many people this week were eager to argue against Hausmann's case for military intervention without offering their own bold ideas for helping ease the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Arguing against a strawman of military intervention is easy. However, if your only arguments are against bold action in Venezuela and not for some change to the current policies of the international community, you’re complicit in maintaining the status quo.



Will 2018 be the fall of Latin America’s centrists?

2018-01-03T06:39:50.030-05:00

There are a lot of elections in Latin America this year and therefore a lot of analysis trying to place it all into some grand framework. Many media narratives about Latin America discuss either a “shift to the right” or fears of renewed populism. Both of those narratives are too simple, but they also contain hints of truth. However, for them both to be true, another narrative must also exist: the fall of the center.

Latin American politics is often portrayed as a pendulum swinging left to right and back, but that isn’t a complete representation. There are centrists, those centrists have governed over the past few years, and those centrists have become very unpopular.

For much of the 2010's most of the region’s largest countries have been governed by centrists both in terms of their policy positions and in the sense that they have serious political opponents to both the left and the right. The Dialogue’s Michael Shifter described the region as experiencing a “shift to the center” in an article in 2010. In a post in December 2015, I described the Pacific Alliance as a largely centrist organization. Outside of a few glaring and attention-grabbing counter-examples, most of the region’s presidents in the 2010’s have been pragmatic, not extreme ideologues.

The big problem in recent years is that those centrists have not had the support of their populations and have barely held on politically. Public opinion polls show presidential approval ratings below 30% in nearly every country that has been governed by a “centrist” leader. In Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil there are competitive presidential candidates (meaning they have a legitimate shot of winning) from political parties to both the left and right of the current president. As I wrote in 2015, “countries are posed to to tip one way or the other in the coming elections. Remaining in the center will be tough when the current centrist incumbents aren't popular.”

As with the ideological extremes, defenders of the political center make excuses rather than engage in self-criticism. Blaming low economic growth caused by external forces is convenient, but takes away any responsibility from the presidents in charge. Blaming the anti-corruption wave is plausible, but once again, how and why did centrist leaders as a group fail to deal with that problem?

It’s also possible that the fall of the current group of centrists may just lead to more centrists. Chile is going from center-left to center-right, not really a fall of centrism. Many of Colombia’s leading candidates are more centrist than extreme. AMLO’s campaign is moving to the center, not playing the populist edge, to win more votes in Mexico. Additionally, at least one country, Ecuador, has seen a move to the center in the past year under President Moreno. Even as current leaders leave office, the fall of the center may not be happening.

But if there is a dramatic ideological shift in this year’s elections, analysts shouldn’t just ask why the region moved left or right. They should ask why the pragmatic center failed when they had their chance.



Venezuela's end of year pork revolution is a preview of 2018

2017-12-29T08:00:29.869-05:00

The “pork revolution” going on in Venezuela is a small protest, far from an actual revolution. However, it symbolizes some of the challenges the Maduro government is likely to face in 2018.

The government’s excuse about economic warfare was easily disproved. Unlike big scale shortages, this shipment was an easily explainable single item that they failed to acquire. The fact the Maduro government failed to pay their 2016 debt to the Portuguese company that supplies the pernil meant no 2017 delivery. Everyone can understand that and the government’s excuses are even less credible than usual.

The people protesting are largely Chavistas who had been expecting their promised rations that the government failed to deliver. These are people who voted for the PSUV in governor and mayoral elections in 2017 and are needed for 2018 elections if they occur. The protesters managed to organize and receive international coverage without significant opposition participation or management. The government must consider how to meet protests because the overwhelming force that quelled the opposition protests may have different repercussions if used against the base.

The government does not have the resources to meet the basic needs of food and medicine of  their base of voters and there is little reason to believe that the resources will increase in the coming year. The government is already planning to cut imports further. For that reason, versions of this week’s pork revolution will likely be repeated again and in larger numbers in the coming year.



PPK pardons Fujimori

2017-12-27T06:34:39.142-05:00

President Kuczynski pardoned former President Fujimori.

Many people feel betrayed and took to the streets to protest. After all, many voted for Kuczynski over Keiko Fujimori in 2016 out of rejection of the former president and fear that a return of Fujimorismo would harm the country. For PPK to now cut a deal with Keiko’s brother to protect her father makes many of his voters wonder why they bothered. International human rights groups attacked the decision. Several members of Congress have left the president’s party, weakening his already low support in the legislature. Even some of his own cabinet members criticized the move.

Perhaps the most jarring part of the pardon was the president’s statement accompanying the act. Rather than portray his pardon as an act of political survival, he tried to claim he was doing the correct thing. He downplayed the abuses of the Fujimori era, saying the president committed “excesses” instead of crimes against humanity that led to the deaths of thousands. He stressed that waiting for the former president to die in prison would be an act of vengeance rather than justice.

In spite of the very public outcry by opponents, polls suggest that a large number of Peruvians believe that a humanitarian pardon for former President Fujimori is acceptable. However, whether they support or oppose the pardon, almost nobody believes the president’s action was motivated on humanitarian grounds. This pardon obviously relates to the narrowly survived impeachment attempt this month and not any humanitarian issue.

As with the questions about the Odebrecht money, the president’s biggest problem is that he is lying about his own actions. He has a serious credibility problem. Peru’s politicians and citizens have little reason to believe anything the president says moving forward. Voters will also question whether the president has any fixed beliefs or if he will say anything to maintain power. That view is enormously damaging to any agenda items he hopes to pass.

In the background, Kenji has won another battle of the Fujimori siblings. Keiko’s attempt to impeach the president failed after Kenji convinced a group of congress members to abstain from voting. Now it appears Kenji secured their father’s release as part of his deal with the president. For those citizens who still support the former president, this is a move that matters and will impact the next election. Additionally, with a weakening coalition, PPK must now increasingly rely on Kenji if he hopes to remain in office in the coming months, giving him immediate influence in the administration.



Undermining the Summit?

2017-12-26T17:29:34.903-05:00

In two recent columns Andres Oppenheimer has suggested that his sources have told him Donald Trump will not attend the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 2018 in Lima, Peru. Showing up to key events should be the bare minimum standard. Oppenheimer is correct that China and others will take advantage of the lack of US leadership.

Additionally in the past month , the failure to support OAS Secretary General Almagro in Honduras during the past month will harm the US ability to point to multilateral solutions for problems such as Venezuela.

While I never had high expectations for Trump’s Latin America policy, there is a growing sense the Trump administration is actively working to undermine multilateral institutions and US leadership in the hemisphere.



PPK survives impeachment attempt

2017-12-22T07:02:38.772-05:00

Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski survived an impeachment vote: 79 members of Congress voted to impeach while 19 voted against and 21 abstained. The abstentions worked in Kuczynski’s favor as impeachment required 87 votes to succeed.

Late Wednesday night, Kuczynski went on television to claim that this vote was a “coup attempt” disguised as an impeachment. It’s similar language to that used by Presidents Lugo and Rousseff prior to their impeachments. It’s not clear whether his statements had any impact, but he clearly hoped to move public opinion.

PPK’s team also threatened to force new elections by having the vice president and prime minister resign.  It is unclear how voters would lean in a new election. While Congress was happy to impeach the president, they were far less eager to place their own jobs at risk.

The difference between impeachment and the president’s political survival was Kenji Fujimori, who led a group of nine lawmakers from Fuerza Popular abstaining from the vote. Former President Alberto Fujimori may soon receive a limited pardon that will release him from prison and many think Kenji’s decision to abstain may be linked to that pardon..

Kenji’s decision to abstain from voting went against his sister, Keiko, who was supporting impeachment and encouraging her supporters in Congress to toss out the president. The ongoing disagreements between the two Fujimori siblings continues to drive the political situation in Peru.

PPK’s political stature has been weakened by this whole process. There will still be an investigation of the money his companies received from Odebrecht. The Congress actively opposes him. According to Ipsos, Kuczynski’s approval rating has dropped to 18% and 57% believe he should leave office before his term ends.



Venezuela's security forces executing civilians

2017-12-21T10:43:23.073-05:00

This WSJ article on abuses by Venezuela's state security forces is a must-read. Here are two paragraphs offering statistics:
Her [Attorney General Luisa Ortega’s] office recorded the slayings of 8,292 people by the police, the National Guard, the army and Venezuela’s version of the FBI, from 2015 through the first six months of this year, she said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal….

...An independent Caracas human-rights group, Families of Victims Committee, or Cofavic, tallied 6,385 extrajudicial executions from 2012 through the first three months of this year, in what it calls legally unwarranted social cleansing operations by state forces.
Sometimes statistics are harder to describe than individual narratives. However, it is important to realize that as bad as security force abuses are in places like Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, these numbers in Venezuela are far, far worse. The WSJ notes that the numbers killed in Venezuela are higher than the numbers killed in the Philippines anti-drug campaign by President Duterte.

Let me offer a few other comparisons.

While there is rightful outrage at the missing 43 students in Mexico or the over two dozen protesters killed by security forces in Honduras since the election, both of those extreme examples are just an average week in Venezuela. Even on the low end of the statistics, approximately 40 people are extra-judicially assassinated by state security forces in Venezuela each week.

The number of people executed by state security forces in Venezuela in the past three years is greater than the number of people executed and disappeared during the entire 17 year Pinochet military dictatorship.

The number of civilians killed by Venezuelan security forces in the past three years is higher than the number of civilians believed to be killed in the six years of the Colombian military’s false positives scandal.

It is important to make these comparisons so people realize that this isn’t some small issue. When the numbers of dead are finally counted and their stories told, Venezuela’s current government under Nicolas Maduro will almost certainly rank as one of the most deadly governments in the past century in Latin America.

And these statistics that are being cited do not even include those killed by paramilitary “Bolivarian militia” groups and other government-backed criminal groups in the country. Nor does it include those killed by common crime, which is among the worst in the world. It’s not including the numbers of children who are starving to death or dying of tropical diseases that once claimed few. The scale of human misery is off the charts awful and significantly worse than any other country in this hemisphere.



PPK faces impeachment vote in Peru

2017-12-20T07:29:44.203-05:00

Peru President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski faces an impeachment vote in Congress over payments made by Odebrecht to his companies prior to his becoming president. There are four issues driving case.

First, any Odebrecht payments are bad in the current environment. The Brazilian construction company has admitted to bribing Latin American politicians to obtain contracts. It’s not clear what work Kuczynski in exchange for the nearly five million in consulting fees he and his companies received, making it look like the company paid him hoping to reap a different benefit.

Second, some of the Odebrecht payments to Kuczynski’s companies came while he had a government position in the Toledo administration. Odebrecht won several contracts during that time. That strengthens the perception of a quid pro quo, though does not prove it.

Third, Kuczynski lied about not having ties to Odebrecht. This case may prove the political rule that it isn’t the crime but the coverup. Had PPK been honest about receiving Odebrecht payments months ago, he would probably not be facing the urgent controversy that threatens his government today. Denying payments only to have documents leaked to the media and the Congress made the situation much worse for him.

Fourth, Kuczynski’s opponents in Congress, especially the Fujimori family, have been looking for an issue on which to nail the president and this one was better than they could have hoped. Impeachment is always political.




Paraguay presidential election becomes a two-way race

2017-12-19T07:00:09.843-05:00

Two important developments in Paraguay’s presidential election next year.

1) Senator Mario Abdo Benitez defeated Santiago Peña in the Colorado party primary. Though Abdo was favored in the polls and won a solid victory, Peña was supported by most of the party leadership including President Cartes. The party views Abdo as too extreme and tied to the old dictatorship. The party must now rally around an insurgent candidate who has been critical of the president if it wants to hold on to power.

2) The opposition to the Colorado Party has formed an alliance and chosen Efrain Alegre as its candidate. That alliance has the backing of the Liberals (PLRA), former President Lugo’s Frente Guasu and Asuncion Mayor Mario Ferreiro, who was leading in the national polls earlier this year.

While the race is still up in the air, a divided Colorado Party and a united opposition is about the best scenario the opposition could hope for.




Five points on Piñera in Chile

2017-12-18T07:27:44.076-05:00

Decisive second round win. After a weak showing in the first round, Sebastian Piñera won 54.6% in the second round over Alejandro Guillier. Piñera quickly secured his rightwing supporters and spent the second round moving towards the center with his policies, winning over the moderate voters in Chile. In contrast, Guillier spent most of the second round trying to win over voters for Beatriz Sanchez and other further left candidates, hoping they would turn out in large numbers to defeat a right-wing candidate. While overall turnout increased between the first and second round, those voters were fairly representative of the population and gave Piñera a mandate. The victory was bigger than his first win in 2009 and needed given his previously low approval.

Pro-business. Most media coverage describes Piñera as “pro-business” and that is an accurate description of his ideology for both good and ill. He will spend the early part of his term promoting legislation that lowers corporate taxes, eases labor regulations, increases infrastructure spending, and promotes foreign direct investment. Though he lacks a majority coalition in Congress, he is likely to find enough support to pass these bills if he tackles them in his opening months.

The economy. Voters are going to judge Piñera on his economic record. He benefits from initial low expectations. His first term came after the global financial crisis and his second term comes in large part due to the weak economic growth during the current Bachelet administration. Piñera is banking on his economic reforms boosting the economy quickly to keep his political capital high. Continued low growth will quickly erode his approval and leave him without political capital, similar to how Bachelet spent most of her term in office.

Conflicts ahead on education and pensions. Piñera’s promises to reform the education and pension systems are going to be far less popular with the Congress and general public. Even watered down proposals intended to get a bare majority in Congress are going likely to face protests and, barring an economic boom, harm his image. Further, a divided government without a majority coalition in Congress will be a new situation for Piñera to navigate and could lead to some institutional fights.

Corruption. Chile is not immune to the anti-corruption wave rolling through Latin America. Both sides of Chile’s political spectrum have faced corruption allegations during recent years and Piñera’s coalition has not yet faced a full reckoning on the contracts and scandals left over from his first term in office. Bachelet was weakened during her current term due to corruption allegations and I expect Chile’s left to attempt to go after every weakness they can find in Piñera’s history to harm his overall agenda.



Post-election challenges for Nasralla and Zelaya

2017-12-13T11:25:11.908-05:00

Two weeks ago I thought Salvador Nasralla had a smart strategy to demonstrate the election fraud that occurred in Honduras. In the weeks since, Nasralla and the Alianza appear to have lost their way.

They claimed after the election to have data that proved systemic fraud. To date they have only publicly produced a few anecdotes of manipulated tally sheets, not the full data set that would overturn the vote count. It increasingly looks as if they bluffed about having the data they claimed to have. Journalists have produced far more evidence of fraud than the Alianza has itself. The Alizanza leadership have failed to focus on many of the appropriate legal and technical arguments that might change the situation (there are legal rules to get the election recounted or annulled that they have failed to even consider). They have moved the goalposts of what they demanded from the TSE and international community on multiple occasions.

The problems appear linked to former President Mel Zelaya, who chairs the Nasralla campaign. As I wrote after the coup in 2009, Mel Zelaya is an awful strategist who often makes poor decisions that harm his own cause. Though my sources on the current internal deliberations are limited, many of the Alianza’s worst decisions and statements since the November election feel like they are directed by Zelaya. Their unwillingness to cooperate at all with the TSE and their focus on anti-US sentiment has held back their ability to find a solution that makes Nasralla the legal and legitimate president, which ultimately should be their goal.

Nasralla is in a bind. Zelaya’s Libre was a critical part of his coalition that turned out votes in the election. He needs their continued organization to mobilize on the street while he fights to legally overturn the current results. If he becomes president, he needs Libre at least at the start to get his political agenda moving. At the same time, Zelaya is personally acting as a negative weight on Nasralla’s efforts today to become president. Several days ago there were rumors that Nasralla was considering removing Zelaya from the campaign leadership, but that plan appears to have been knocked down.

None of what I write above is to argue that election fraud didn’t occur. On the contrary, I absolutely believe that there were significant problems and it’s quite likely that the system was rigged to favor the incumbent president. But JOH has a plan to consolidate his victory (one that increasingly looks like it will be successful) and Nasralla’s efforts to fight back against fraud have significantly stumbled. Nasralla needs a strategy to fight back and prove he is the legitimate president of Honduras. That strategy is not going to come from the narcissistic and corrupt former president who currently manages his coalition.



Venezuela's municipal elections go as expected

2017-12-11T06:00:09.027-05:00

With the main opposition parties boycotting the elections, Venezuela’s PSUV took about 90% of the country’s mayoral spots in municipal elections yesterday. The government lost a few mayoral spots where anti-PSUV candidates competed as independents.

The mayoral elections are a consolidation of power by the PSUV. Non-PSUV politicians now have even fewer formal government spaces in which to interact with the public. These mayoral posts had already been stripped of most of their budget and authority, but now even the symbolism is gone. Lower level public offices that used to be critical political and resource spaces worth fighting for and stepping stones for politicians who wanted to rise up have become virtually worthless. The PSUV candidates who won the mayoral posts did so under the expectation that they will centralize the national government’s power, not run any sort of decentralized power base that could pose a future challenge. 

Turnout was low, around 47% by official figures and estimated as lower unofficially by people who watch the various polling locations. In an election where one side isn’t running, low turnout is to be expected. The government used its usual tricks to force people to the polls including tracking government workers to make sure they voted and insisting people register their cards post vote if they wanted to continue receiving any subsidized food from government programs.

Maduro announced that parties boycotting the municipal vote would be banned from running in next year’s presidential election. This appeared to be more of a trial balloon than an official pronouncement. It suggests the government is thinking hard about how exactly to balance the need for the image of legitimacy with the need for a win at all costs in the big contest that might be held next year.



POLL NUMBERS!!! Polling error in Chile

2017-12-08T13:26:28.465-05:00

Reviewing the recent polls in Chile, one number really stuck out. When Cadem asked if they voted in the first round, 72% of those polled said they voted. Of course, the first round only had 49% turnout. This establishes that either the sampling model is way off, there is a bias in the people who respond, or 20% of respondents are lying on one of the easiest questions in the poll.

I like Cadem's polling model and found their data useful for understanding the first round. Still, when considering the the accuracy of the poll keep that first round question in mind. Polling errors go well beyond the technical margin of error to potentially include citizens lying or misremembering events that happened only a few weeks before.



Kirchner charged with treason

2017-12-08T04:41:47.023-05:00

Former President Cristina Kirchner and several of her allies including activist Luis D’Elia were charged with treason yesterday for making a deal with Iran intended to cover up the 1994 AMIA bombing.

  • Kirchner has immunity due to her recent election to Argentina’s Senate. It is up to the Senate or the Supreme Court whether to overturn her immunity.
  • Kirchner and her allies claim this is a case of political persecution by the Macri government.
  • Much of the evidence for this case comes from Alberto Nisman, who investigated and wrote hundreds of pages on it prior to his death in 2015. The government has now ruled Nisman’s death a murder rather than a suicide and his murder and its coverup may still become a part of the charges.
  • The judge in this case also has corruption charges pending against him. Some believe he decided to go big with these charges so he can claim he is being politically attacked if and when the corruption cases come against him.
  • There are still plenty of corruption cases against Kirchner that are completely unrelated to this one, have fewer political implications, and probably have stronger evidence to convict.



Honduras considers new elections

2017-12-07T08:08:18.505-05:00

In the past 24 hours there has been a shift in Honduras and there is a growing consensus that a new election might be needed. Why not just recount the votes? I get the sense that neither Nasralla nor Hernandez feel confident that if the votes are recounted, they will win. Nasralla believes Hernandez and the TSE have cheated and do not know the extent of the fraud. Hernandez isn’t sure if his margin among the actual ballots will match the tally sheets that give him a 1.5% lead.

Hernandez would prefer the election is simply decided in his favor at this point. But if that appears unlikely, he may choose a new election over a full recount. Nasralla’s people are already signalling that they are leaning towards a new election as well. In a statement yesterday, the OAS suggested a new election may be necessary if the differences between the two sides cannot be overcome.

Added into this is Luis Zelaya of the Liberal Party. The candidate who came in third called for a new election yesterday and he would hold a critical voice in any new election whether he ran as a candidate or not.

A new election isn’t a certainty. Honduras’s institutions could decide that the current result stands, giving the president his reelection and causing continued protests by those who think the elections were unfair. Nasralla’s people could still be convinced that a recount is the right way to go as well under very carefully monitored conditions.

Re-run and/or unscheduled elections are uncommon, but Haiti re-ran their most recent election and Venezuela held new elections following the death of Hugo Chavez. Additionally, the potential for annulling Brazil’s 2014 election and holding new elections has been a topic of debate in that country, with a majority of the population suggesting in polls that they could support new early elections. If new elections are held in Honduras with the backing of the OAS, it will not only influence that country’s politics for years to come but it will also further raise the possibility that other elections in this hemisphere may not be final even after the ballots are cast.




Chinese backlash against bad LatAm deals

2017-12-07T05:38:22.521-05:00

At the China-LAC summit in Uruguay last week, China unofficially suggested that Latin America is part of the Belt and Road project. Speakers praised the benefits that Chinese investment can bring, but there are also complications.

QZ highlights that some of China’s neighbors are reconsidering the money offered in the Belt and Road initiative. Among the reasons that Asia’s countries are getting nervous is China’s request for a US$600 million payment due to Mexico’s cancellation of a train line contracts. It seems odd to think that Pakistan is concerned about China’s behavior in Mexico, but it’s part of everyone trying to figure out the new rules to the game.

Today’s FT reports another aspect to those new rules. Sinopec is suing PDVSA in a US court over a small unpaid contract. While the case is minor, the symbolism is important. Chinese companies are going to protect their own business interests and they are willing to bring the US legal system into the process if it helps them do so.

China wants to promote investments in the Western Hemisphere, but its actions on contracts in Mexico and Venezuela show that the country doesn't want its aid to be considered "no strings attached." China expects Latin American countries to hold up their end of agreements and there will be repercussions if they do not.