With the third wave of democracy, which began in the 1970s, most countries instituted presidential term limits stipulating limits on the number of times presidents could be re-elected. Since then, an increasing number of countries have abandoned these limits, leading many observers to identify yet another piece of evidence that authoritarianism is on the rise. This phenomenon has been especially evident in Latin America where term limits have been a long-standing feature of constitutions; from the nineteenth century, reformers have sought to limit the hold on power of personalistic caudillo leaders. The link between authoritarian leadership and the removal of term limits was highlighted recently when President Trump was reported to have applauded Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of that country’s two-term presidential limit, remarking that “its great. . .[that] he was able to do that.” The obvious conclusion is that countries should strive to maintain or re-institute term limits in order to restrict unscrupulous authoritarian and increasingly populist leaders.
Inequality is not good for democracy and it is, as is widely known, on the rise everywhere. While wealth has always been instrumental in shaping political outcomes in electoral democracies, the concentrated wealth that has arisen with economic globalization has produced ever-more brazen forms of authoritarian behaviours on the part of political elites as they respond to the interests of their powerful economic allies. While details differ from country to country, there is an important common denominator: the role of economic power in giving greater leverage to political claims. In the worst cases, the economically powerful buy politicians, the media, and troublesome individuals. In all cases, the alliance between political leaders and economic elites has coincided with a notable distancing between political leaders and their publics.
During the past two decades, China’s rapid economic growth and pressing need for commodities has resulted in increased trade and investment in Latin America, along with expanded lending operations to fund important infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has largely neglected the region and at times shown outright disdain. Amid the current Chinese/American trade spat, President Donald Trump is visiting a South American country (Peru) for the first time this week where he is expected to warn Latin Americans against continued close trade ties with China. The question is: what does U.S. Chinese rivalry mean for Latin America? Under the current circumstances: perhaps some short-term gains for some countries, but in the longer-term, Latin America needs to find its own development path, one that is as independent as possible from both the ideologies and interests of these two powers.
Mexican, U.S., and Canadian negotiators are currently meeting in Mexico City for the seventh round of North American Free Trade (NAFTA) negotiations. This round will deal initially with the least contentious issues, thereby opening the way to tackling the most contentious one. With the Mexican presidential election on July 1 rapidly approaching, however, arriving at an agreement on a “modernized” NAFTA is looking increasingly problematic.
Much has been written on the fight of millions from Global South countries in recent years. The main drivers of this out-migration have been civil war and/or high levels of social deprivation. This flow of migrants has had profound political implications in the Global North where it has been linked to the rise of new populist movements and parties. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon has played on growing American xenophobia that has been deepened by economic instability, labor precariousness, and regional poverty--all of these features have characterized the current phase of U.S. capitalism.
In a country of modern office towers, luxury condos, gated communities, and stylish outdoor cafes, 41 million people live in extreme poverty. In one major city, the extremely poor cover fifty city blocks, either living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings, without electricity, sanitation, or clean water. They suffer from the diseases of poverty, particularly intestinal parasites. This underclass is ignored, if they are not scorned, by the country’s middle and upper classes. This not a country in Latin America; it is the United States and the fifty blocks of desperately poor are in Los Angeles, one of the richest cities in the world.
Democracy, in its liberal democratic manifestation of free and fair elections, the guarantee of civil liberties, and the protection of minorities is under threat in many parts of the world. The Trump phenomenon in the United States is only the most obvious manifestation of the fragility of liberal democracy. There are reports that human rights violations, corruption, racism, and discrimination persist across Europe. A recent report by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe raises concerns about the damage caused to democracies by new populist movements and parties given their predisposition to undermine human rights and the protection of minorities. Most Latin American countries, which were under authoritarian rule from the 1960s until the early to mid-1980s, have particularly fragile democracies. Once again, the Latin American experience offers some important insights into the world-wide erosion of democratic practices.
Venezuela’s increasing slide into brutal authoritarianism has continued unabated. The country’s recently elected constituent assembly, boycotted by the opposition, has now taken over the powers of the country’s opposition-controlled Congress. With an estimated 124 deaths in opposition protests, international pressure against the regime has intensified. Much of that pressure has come from the U.S. In addition to U.S. imposed sanctions on some two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, President Trump has declared that he will not rule out “a military option.” The Trump government is also contemplating the banning of oil shipments, a measure that would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan economy. All of this has supposedly come about in an effort to support the cause of Venezuelan democracy. Trump has characterized the country’s opposition anti-government protesters as engaging in a struggle ”for democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” and has declared that their just demands “continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator” (a reference to current President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro). The pot, I fear, is calling the kettle.
On July 17, the Trump administration released a document outlining its negotiating objectives for the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The first round of the renegotiations will begin on August 16. While the U.S. administration claims that it has no deadline for the completion of talks, the reality is that the 2018 Mexican presidential election could make the achievement of U.S. goals considerably more difficult. However, renegotiations are very likely to be fraught with difficulties even before the new Mexican administration takes office in late 2018.
President Donald Trump recently announced a partial reversal of Obama’s initiative to normalize United States’ relations with Cuba. President Obama’s detente in 2014 was an encouraging sign: the new policy involved the re-opening of the American embassy, lifted travel restrictions, and promised an eventual removal of the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Trump has reintroduced travel restrictions on cultural and educational visits by Americans, prohibited business dealings with Cuba’s military or intelligence services, and declared that the trade embargo will remain in place. In Trump’s words, his Cuba policy will alleviate the “tremendous repression” endured by Cubans. In an effort to bring about “a free Cuba,” the Trump administration has demanded that Cuban leaders put “an end to the abuse of dissidents, release the political prisoners, stop jailing innocent people, open [themselves] to political and economic freedoms, [and] return the fugitives from American justice”. Trump’s strategy to bring about change in Cuba, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Cuba’s history and social development since the Revolution.
With the French public about to vote in a run-off election for the country’s next president, commentators in the mainstream media are cautiously optimistic that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen’s right populist National Front. Thus, Europe will be saved not only from another movement to exist the EU but also from a racist inward thinking regime that represents a threat to liberal democracy, tolerance, and prosperity. Mainstream media has focussed largely on the National Front’s anti-Semitic and fascist past and on the party’s intolerance towards immigrants. This perspective underestimates the depth and nature of popular disillusionment. The reality is that the very emergence of populist authoritarianism is a symptom of the breakdown of the representative capabilities of liberal democracy. Regardless of who wins the French election, both liberal democracy and the global order will continue to be in trouble.
A number of commentators in the mainstream media have recently lamented that authoritarian populism has been on the rise in Europe and in the United States, while apparently declining in Latin America—a region with a long history of this phenomenon. According to this perspective, while emotionally charged appeals to popular base emotions have now become predominant in the North, Latin Americans have sensibly turned to the political right, electing right-leaning political leaders with solid pro market credentials. There are some basic misunderstandings in this observation. While there are some startling commonalities in the origins of most populisms, there are also some very important differences in their recent manifestations.
A growing number of U.S. observers are watching the impact of Donald Trump policy pronouncements on Mexican politics with considerable unease. Left populist leader, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO as he is widely known), currently the favoured candidate in the 2018 presidential election, has been variously characterized as a Mexican Donald Trump and as a Mexican Hugo Chavez. In some ways, these characterizations are apt. AMLO is a charismatic leader, who has regularly delivered tirades against free trade (including NAFTA), rigged elections, corruption in high places, and the country’s ruling elite, which he refers to as the “power mafia.” He voices strong opposition to U.S. Imperialism, a position that is proving particularly attractive given President Trump’s support for a wall along the Mexican U.S. border, his threat of a 20 percent tariff on goods coming from Mexico, and his promises to deport Mexicans working in the United States. President Trump’s recently leaked suggestion that the U.S. might send in its military to help the Mexican government round up its “bad hombres” is only the most recent offensive remark contributing to growing Mexican nationalist sentiment.
In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has made much of the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico, arguing that Mexico has been on the winning side of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to Trump, the U.S.’s 60 billion dollar a year trade deficit with Mexico demonstrates that most of the benefits of the agreement have flowed south. Indeed, given the apparent windfall accruing to Mexico, Trump has no qualms about demanding that Mexico pay for the wall he plans to build along the border. In a recent television interview (1), I suggested that a country like the U.S. could run a trade deficit for some considerable time without economic growth repercussions. Indeed, since the signing of NAFTA economic growth in the U.S. has been consistently better than Mexico’s. While it's important to acknowledge the fact that many workers in the U.S. have faced stagnant wages and job losses, Mexican workers have, on balance, fared even worse than their American counterparts. Hence, if workers in neither country have benefited, what does this trade imbalance between Mexico and the U.S. actually tell us? And, if workers in neither country have benefitted, who has?
As Donald Trump assumes office as the 45th president of the United States, widespread pessimism about the impact of his presidency abounds. The Donald has not backed off from (what appeared at the time) to be his most extravagant campaign promises. He has ramped up his rhetoric against China and Mexico as at the root of the decline of American manufacturing. He has announced that he will re-negotiate NAFTA and, if America does not get what it wants, will abandon it. The U.S. will not enter the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The era of pursing free trade agreements with the rest of the world is gone, at least for now. Instead, we can expect his administration to slap tariffs on products manufactured abroad by U.S. companies and re-exported to the U.S., particularly in those sectors where it appears that companies have changed production location for the sake of reducing the cost of labor. Many commentators recalling the prelude to the Great Depression of the early 1930s, have raised fears about a decent into the protectionist policies of the past, a sharp deterioration of economic growth, and the onset of a severe recession. Others have opined that companies will simply seek other ways of reducing costs (and maintaining profits) such as through the use of robot technology. In general, most political observers place a great deal of blame on Trump himself for stirring up anti-trade public sentiments. Others focus on the racist/anti-immigrant and misogynist predispositions of Trump supporters, arguing that he has fostered these attitudes and rendered them legitimate.
The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union have coincided with a growing chorus of concern about “fake news.” It is tempting to lay much of the blame on social media in general and on the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of teenagers in a small Macedonian town, who churned out pro Trump “news” to make money by increasing traffic to their sites. However, politicians and their supporters, particularly of the right centre populist variety, have also gotten into the act. One Donald Trump supporter, for example, claimed that Clinton and her senior staff were involved in underage sex rings while Trump himself made many false statements during his election campaign. He declared that global warming was a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” said that Barak Obama was not born in the U.S. and then lied again, by denying that he had made such a claim. Fake news, some believe, played a role in the American election and in the Brexit vote. There is also a growing consensus that this type of phenomenon is dangerous to liberal democratic institutions and it is on the rise.
There has been a fundamental change in U.S. politics. It emerged with the primaries and came to fruition with last night’s election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The basis of support for the country’s two traditional parties has changed in fundamental ways, with the Democratic Party becoming the party of big business and foreign policy hawks, while the working class (at least the white working class) has moved to the Republicans. The nastiness of the campaign was without precedent. Trump called Clinton a liar and demanded that she be jailed. His rhetoric has been particularly vitriolic—misogynist, racist, and widely regarded as irresponsible in its lack of respect for the institutional process.
Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, a new era in the U.S. approach to international trade agreements is about to emerge. Donald Trump has railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade agreement ever signed by the U.S. and promised to withdraw support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) if elected. Although not as strident, Clinton, in a reversal of her past pro free trade position, now says that she would renegotiate NAFTA and has come out in opposition to the TPP. Of course, rising opposition to economic globalization and trade integration is not confined to the U.S. as Brexit amply illustrates. We now face a critical moment in the history of global capitalism.
Mexico’s political and economic leaders are clearly terrified about the prospects of a Trump election victory. However, they should probably not be too sanguine about a Clinton victory either—although Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has rejected the idea of a wall along the Mexican/U.S. border, she has gone on record as supporting “a barrier to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in” (1). She, like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, also supports the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). To many observers it appears that Mexico has much to lose should the US abandon its enthusiasm for free trade agreements. It has, but the agreement has already been very costly for Mexico.
Admittedly, my close familiarity with Latin America’s turbulent political history shapes my view of recent developments in U.S. politics, in particular, popular support for candidates at what seems to be opposite ends of the political spectrum (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). Latin America, with its long history of high levels of socio-economic inequality, is rife with populist, demagogue-like political figures, and radical left politicians calling for profound structural changes.