Over the last week, the extensive media coverage of the fires raging in the Amazon has caught the attention of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries. The G-7 meeting of western nations offered $20 million (U.S.) in aid and urged the Brazilian government of right populist president Jair Bolsonaro to take measures to contain the growing inferno in the Brazilian Amazon. What is happening in the Amazon is a disaster of horrific proportions is beyond doubt; the fires are destroying vegetation and wildlife and threatening the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous peoples who live there.
The term “populism” is used these days to refer to a vast array of leaders, movements, and parties—from Viktor Orbán’s far right anti-immigrant Fidesz party, to Evo Morales’ left radical anti-neoliberal Movement for Socialism, to recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, who has glorified Brazil’s period of military rule, promised to rid Brazil of socialism, and give the police free rein to kill suspected criminals. Does the term have any meaning if applied to such a disparate array of leaders, parties, and governments?
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.
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 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.
On May 24th, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Brazilian Congress demanding the resignation of President Michel Temer and an end to his austerity measures. He has recently taken power, having engineered the removal of Workers Party (PT) president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). The increasingly violent unrest was also fueled by revelations of corrupt practices on the part of Temer, videotaped paying off a witness in one of the country’s worst corruption scandals. There are now calls for Temer’s impeachment. The accusations against the president, however, are only the most recent manifestation of ongoing political upheaval over widespread corruption, involving most of the country’s political class and powerful business leaders.
The mainstream media has characterized Emmanuel Macron’s victory in yesterday’s French election as a resounding defeat of right wing authoritarian populism. Macron, heading up a new political party called En Marche! (Forward!), won 65 percent of the popular vote against right wing populist Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent. Despite the rise of populist authoritarian movements in an increasing number of countries, global elites continue to laud the unquestionable benefits of free trade and other features of the neoliberal policy prescription.
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.
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.
For much of the twentieth century, unaccountable governments, generally unresponsive to public demands, characterized most countries of Latin America. While from the mid-1980s, electoral democracies seemed to have put an end to the cycles of left populist authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships, authoritarian features (lack of accountability, the absence of the rule of law, etc.) have remained firmly entrenched.
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 introduced border security and illegal Mexican immigration as crucial national issues. The Republican candidate garnered substantial political support for his promises to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border, deport Mexicans in the U.S. on a massive scale, and slap tariffs on cheap imported manufactured goods believed responsible for the loss of American jobs. Most critics focus on the xenophobic, illiberal, nature of these policy pronouncements. However, Trump’s critics have said little about the role of the U.S., including powerful U.S. economic interests, in contributing to the very immigration problem that the incoming Trump claims it will solve. Blowback, often used to refer to the impact of various U.S. misadventures in foreign policy, refers to the unwanted/negative result of an action or series of actions. The massive Mexican immigration to the U.S. with its attendant political consequences, is a troubling case of blowback—in large part the consequence of past U.S. actions.
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.
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.
The rise of the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and the victory of the leave vote in Great Britain have given rise to growing concern about the rise of xenophobia among apparently large swaths of the public in both countries. There has also been considerable fear that such uncharitable attitudes may usher in a new age of inward protectionist policies that will hurt trade and general social welfare. While there is no doubt that anti-immigrant/anti-foreign sentiment is a reality in both cases, it is important to understand the conditions under which opposition politicians have been able to cultivate such sentiments.
On April 18, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on the drug trade. At this session, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos presented a plan for the complete and radical overhaul of global policy towards drug trafficking. Calling for an approach that is both more humane and comprehensive, he recommended an end to the victimization of drug users through abolishing the harsh penalties attached to drug related offenses. His views reflect growing support for a human rights approach to addressing the drug trade issue--one that recognizes that the punitive and repressive responses of states to drug production and trafficking have failed to reduce the trade while ratcheting up the level of drug related violence. The consequence has been that human rights violations related to drug offense are common throughout the region while Latin American prisons have become filled to overflowing with drug offenders, most of them consumers and low-level offenders. Altering the approach to the Latin American drug wars is essential to improving the human condition for millions who face both material deprivation and high levels of physical insecurity. In Mexico, for example, as many as 80,000 have perished in drug-related violence since 2006, while between 2012 and 2014, 2 million more fell into poverty. However, is taking a human rights approach to the drug issue, through decriminalizing lower level offenses, reducing sentences, and providing treatment for users, going to be enough to reduce the unfortunate social consequences that have arisen with drug production and trafficking?