The U.S. has just instituted a new round of even more devastating economic sanctions as part of its ongoing campaign to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from power. These sanctions, like past efforts, will not contribute to Venezuelan democracy. As explained in an earlier post, the roots of the Venezuelan crisis are complex. The international reaction to the Venezuelan case illustrates the extent to which the U.S. (and now Canada and Europe) fail to understand Latin America’s political struggles. Forcing a particular regime from power will not solve anything; it will not make Venezuela a more democratic or just society.
To many observers the Maduro regime has remained surprisingly resilient. His government withstood widespread opposition protests through the spring of 2019. It has survived the recognition by over 50 countries of opposition Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful ruler, a move that severely challenged the regime’s legitimacy. The mainstream media’s excited anticipation of Maduro’s fall from power reached its height with Guaidó’s attempt to instigate a military uprising. The uprising failed, however, and opposition protests have petered out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity. Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift.
Lack of employment opportunities has been a longstanding feature of most Latin American countries, including Mexico, and one of the key reasons for historically high levels of poverty, deprivation, corruption, crime, and political violence. Lack of sufficient decent employment is now a widely recognized problem in the United States—one of the crucial issues in the election of Donald Trump was the loss of jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
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.
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.
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.