The Caravan of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S. border has led to the amassing of some 5000 U.S. troops along that border. This mass migration is driven by a confluence of factors that have a long-standing history in the region: most notably widespread poverty and violence. Central American countries, more than any other countries of the region, are, in the words of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “at war with the past.” They have a history of repressive dictatorships, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty. Part of that history, however, has involved the involvement of the United States in ways that have exacerbated the very problems that are causing the current massive out-migration.
Right wing populism, widely seen as a threat to liberal democracy, has been on the rise in the United States and Europe over the last decade. Latin America has a long history of both left and right populist movements, leaders, and governments. It also has had its share of programmatic political parties and leaders committed to social change and substantive democratization. Yet the region’s illiberal democratic features remain stubbornly persistent. There are lessons to be learned from the Latin American experience. Unfortunately, these lessons do not provide much reason for optimism.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election with a resounding majority of around 53 percent of votes cast—the highest since 1982 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was still able to manipulate electoral outcomes. Mexican public expectations are high and the problems that the country’s new president must deal with are enormous. Making his task more difficult is that fact that AMLO has a heterogeneous support base with the various groups having different interests and priorities.
In the wake of its most recent economic crisis, Argentina has just signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agreement will reinforce the austerity measures introduced by centre/right president, Mauricio Macri, since 2015. Most observers blame Argentine populism for the country’s current economic debacle and urge strict austerity, institutional reform, and an end to corruption as the solution. However, such measures are not likely to solve much because they do not address the root cause of populism. Understanding the enormous reliance of populism is key since the most pessimistic of observers suggest that the current Argentine crisis may be the harbinger of worsening economic and (political) troubles in the region and beyond.
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.
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.
Chile’s run-off presidential election, held on December 17, witnessed the victory of billionaire businessman, Sebastían Piñera over the left-wing candidate Alejandro Guillier. This will be Piñera’s second term in office; he served as president between 2010 and 2014. The victory was a substantial one, with Piñera winning 54.6 percent of the vote while Guiller, supported by outgoing left-centre President Michelle Bachelet, garnered 45.4 percent of the vote. Much of the press coverage of the election claims that the Chilean election is part of a general right-ward swing in Latin American politics. However, such an assessment papers over what is really going on—not just for Chile, but for other countries of the region as well.
NAFTA (North American Free Trade) re-negotiations are underway with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visiting Washington and Mexico over the last week in an apparent effort to manage U.S. President Trump’s growing protectionist proclivities. The Canadian Prime Minister has called for stronger labor rights and environmental standards. He has also advocated for chapters protecting the rights of women and indigenous peoples. Improved labor standards means not just improved working conditions for Mexican workers but also better wages—this latter aimed at reducing the imbalance between Mexico’s cheap labor market and those of its northern neighbours, a disparity held to be in part responsible for the flow of American and Canadian firms southward. Trudeau’s pronouncements indicate recognition that NAFTA has not adequately taken into the account the interests of those who have been the “losers” in the agreement.
NAFTA renegotiations are in full swing. The second round is currently underway in Mexico City with the main issue emerging as differential labor standards among the three countries. The main concern on the part of Canadian and U.S. negotiators and their respective trade union movements is the much lower wages and poorer working conditions in Mexico as compared to the other two countries. The argument of course is that lower pay and poor working conditions in Mexico are at the root of the flow of jobs southward, putting downward pressure on labor standards in the U.S. and Canada and swelling corporate profits. The argument that NAFTA has been a bad agreement for working people in all three countries is a compelling one. That being said, can a renegotiated NAFTA agreement do anything much to address workers’ plight in Mexico? Some observers are optimistic, even seeing Trump’s push for better wages and working conditions as potentially positive for Mexican workers. However, I have my doubts.
On May 28, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), selected María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, an indigenous women from the Nahua community of the state of Jalisco, to run as their presidential candidate in the 2018 election. As she readily admits, she has no chance of winning. In fact, just obtaining the opportunity to run for the presidency will be a struggle since electoral law requires that an independent candidate obtain some 850,000 signatures across 17 of the country’s 32 states.
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.
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.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has targeted Mexico as one of the main sources of job losses in the U.S., leaving many people with the mistaken impression that countries such as Mexico have been the winners in the global competitive game. However, today’s liberal trade and investment order, as I suggested in an earlier blog post, has not, on balance, benefitted Mexico. From 1996 to 2015, the Mexican economy has grown at the average annual growth rate of only 1.2 percent. With such lacklustre growth, the country’s poverty rate increased by 2.9 percent between 2008 and 2014. Inequality has also risen. While the top 10 percent saw their incomes rise, the bottom 50% of the population either failed to see their situation improve, or saw it deteriorate. In 2012, the total household income of the bottom 10 percent of the population was substantially lower than it was in 2008, despite some slight improvement in 2010.
Reactions to Fidel Castro’s demise have been strongly polarized. Denunciations from the Cuban American community have been particularly harsh. The first Cuban-American elected to Congress, said Castro was a “tyrant and thug” and hailed his death as an opportunity to “work for a Cuba that is free, democratic, and prosperous”. In Miami, Castro’s death sparked celebrations on the part of the Cuban American community. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement praising Castro has been widely criticized for its failure to mention the repressive nature of the regime and its human right violations. While the tributes of Latin American left leaders were generally effusive, leaders of the centre and centre right, did not focus on the negative aspects of Castro’s legacy. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised Castro for being “a friend of Mexico” and for “promoting bilateral relations based on respect, dialogue and solidarity”. Chile’s President, Michelle Bachelet, whose democratic credentials are impeccable who was herself imprisoned and tortured by another dictator said: “Fidel Castro fought for the ideals of dignity for his people and social justice, indelibly marking the history of America”. Brazilian’s new right wing President Michel Temer called Fidel Castro a "leader of convictions," who "marked the second half of the 20th century with the firm defense of the ideas in which he believed". Despite the recent failures of the regime, including severe restrictions on political freedoms and deprivations such as food shortages, many in Cuba, did mourn his death. Recent televised reports showed long lines of mourners in Havana, many tearful, paying their respects.
It is now apparent that neither democracy nor the neoliberal prescription of dismantling the state has been successful in mitigating widespread corruption in Latin America. In Brazil, Eduardo Cunha, the powerful politician and former leader of the lower house, who orchestrated the ouster of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has recently been arrested on corruption charges. Many more high-level Brazilian politicians and businessmen are currently under investigation, including the current president of Brazil, Michel Temer. Former President Lula has also been charged with corruption. Investigations of corruption in Argentina have reached top-level politicians and the businessmen closely allied with the Kirchner administrations. The Argentine federal prosecutor has indicted former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, who amassed a fortune during her tenure in office, on corruption charges. These charges have included, among other transgressions, intervention in a currency trade involving Argentina’s Central Bank that may have cost the country billions of dollars. Distressing for many observers, is the fact that these governments had come to power through the electoral process and were part of the “pink tide,” left leaning regimes that promised social justice in the wake of the persistence of poverty and high levels of inequality. The mainstream media (optimistically) characterized the widespread protests in Brazil against the Rousseff administration as indicating growing public anger against the mismanagement and greed of politicians who had promised improved distributive outcomes. Hence, there is the expectation that the next stage will involve important changes in policy and institutional arrangements that will finally put an end to, or at least mitigate, corrupt practices. This thinking will be convincing only to those with short memories.