1. Union leader Hugo Moyano organized a large protest against the government of President Macri and his proposed economic reforms. Moyano, who also faces a number of corruption allegations, wants these protests to become a new political opposition movement.

    Macri’s response to the protests was to have his government offer technical solutions and compromises to the union’s claimed grievances. Obviously, Macri doesn’t expect Moyano to suddenly start negotiating in good faith. Instead, Macri wants Argentina’s voters to see the contrast between the union leaders blocking the streets and the president who is attempting to find solutions.

    While Macri’s economic reforms aren’t popular, neither are the protests. Most people understand Moyano to be corrupt and self-interested. Argentina’s voters showed in the midterms that they are willing to give the government some room to work. For those reasons, Macri’s response to Moyano's protest works for now. However, there is a limit to the time and patience that voters will give the president. Economic results matter and eventually a more credible opponent will surface.
  2. As bad as the refugee crisis looks today, Venezuela has still not hit bottom. It is likely that this refugee crisis gets worse in the coming months.

    On top of monitoring the human suffering (WSJ, NYT, NPR), analysts need to consider how the math of the refugee crisis impacts their analysis of the upcoming elections and of stability in Venezuela in general. I have been running calculations related to food distribution among the military (because hungry soldiers will rebel). However, if a significant portion of the thousands of soldiers and national guardsmen who have deserted their posts in the past three months flee to Colombia instead of remain in country, that changes the analysis.

    Similarly, citizens who would vote against the government if the elections were fair are instead voting with their feet to leave the crisis behind. That changes the strategy for how the government plans to win and/or steal the election.

    One big controversy in the past week has been the presence of Venezuelans in the ELN and the presence of the ELN in Venezuela. The ELN appear to be recruiting Venezuelans including members of the military and national guard to commit acts of violence inside of Colombia. The group has also expanded its presence inside of Venezuela’s borders and is operating criminal networks related to food distribution and weapons trafficking.

    The Trump administration’s proposal to cut aid to Colombia is horrific. This is a country that is recovering from decades of conflict and dealing with the effects of a failing state on its border. Congress needs to reverse the cuts and add assistance to Colombia.

    Beyond the US, the international community should provide additional financial aid and technical assistance to Colombia to handle the refugee crisis from Venezuela along with its own large population of internally displaced people. 
  3. Brazil’s government announced a federal intervention into Rio, with the military taking over the lead on security. A wave of high-profile violence in recent weeks highlighted the decline in the city’s security. The government says the intervention may be used as a model for security in other cities. Opposition members of Congress say the Temer government failed to follow correct protocol and are calling on courts to overturn the intervention.

    The federal intervention means that the Congress is not allowed to vote on constitutional issues including the proposed pension reform. But that pension reform is widely unpopular and lacked the votes in Congress anyway. It’s possible that the federal intervention is just an excuse for the government to skip the losing vote.
  4. One of the common refrains in response to charges of Russian interference has been to talk about how the US also interferes in foreign elections. This article does a good job acknowledging the US election meddling of the past while also placing the modern US democracy promotion efforts on different footing with Russia’s election meddling. In its most idealized form (perhaps still not quite reality), the US is no longer trying to pick winners or topple popularly elected democratic leaders, but it is trying to disrupt authoritarians who won’t allow voters to make free and fair choices. US efforts to back civil society groups and promote free media that challenge authoritarian leaders are certainly much more positive forms of interfering than how the US acted during the Cold War or the modern efforts by Russia.

    Not mentioned in the article, however, is the modern US tendency to selectively promote democracy when convenient. Corrupt or authoritarian leaders who claim to be pro-US get a much weaker version of democracy promotion efforts. The US backing of the recent election in Honduras is the current shining example of this hypocrisy. That selective democracy promotion undermines the US pro-democracy position in places like Venezuela and Cuba.

    Authoritarian leaders around the world use the darker moments of US history along with the modern charges of US hypocrisy to then call for a complete US withdrawal from all efforts to promote democracy. Promoting a US withdrawal from the world is a convenient argument for US antagonists. I’d rather see the US engage actively and stand up for its values more consistently, even when it means calling out the abuses of friends and allies.

  5. This article about the decline of traditional parties in Europe rang very familiar as someone who has watched a similar decline across Latin America over the past decade plus. Anyone interested in Latin America should take time to read it.

    Latin America has certainly faced the threat of populists at the extremes who have taken advantage of the decline of traditional parties. One possible next step that has occurred in Latin America has been for its centrists to take up the non-traditional party banner. PPK in Peru is great example of the problems that centrists face when they embrace the inchoate and personalized party system model.

    This year's round of elections has already broken the traditional two parties in Costa Rica and appears ready to further hit the traditional parties in Colombia and Brazil.
  6. Venezuela’s government announced it will hold a presidential election on 22 April. This announcement occurred without an agreement between the government and opposition over the conditions of the election.

    As I wrote previously, voters and political leaders in Venezuela should participate, even if the conditions are undemocratic and fraud is likely. Maduro and those around him are hoping for a boycott that keeps his opposition from the polls and makes stealing the election easier. Stealing an election in which the opposition participates is more difficult and places much greater pressure on the government. The government knows that even if they successfully steal the election, the resource use and tensions created by stealing that election could lead to their downfall.
  7. My comments on the Costa Rica election were published in the Latin America Advisor yesterday morning. Here is a copy:
    Four weeks ago, both of these candidates were in the single digits of support, running fifth place or lower in the polls. A combination of social conservatism and nationalism, particularly by rural voters, propelled Fabricio Alvarado into first place in the polls following the IACHR’s ruling on gay marriage. In contrast, Carlos Alvarado managed to rise to second place by taking a risky strategy of running on the agenda of President Solís. Even in an anti-incumbent environment, enough people supported Solís and his more liberal stances on social issues to give Carlos Alvarado the lead over the traditional PLN.

    Though the PRN will try to keep social issues in the spotlight, Fabricio cannot win on his opposition to gay marriage alone. The second round is likely to return to traditional issues, including the economy and corruption. Both candidates will need to engage in creative political dealmaking to build coalitions with smaller parties that can bring them over the 50 percent mark. Only 65 percent of voters turned out in the first round. Given the indecisiveness of first-round voters, it’s possible that even more voters will stay home in the second round, as happened in 2014. That would make political turnout machines much more important.

    Of note in this matchup, the PLN of former Presidents Oscar Arias and Laura Chinchilla came in third place in the presidential race, but will have a plurality of the legislative seats (17 out of 57) in the next Legislative Assembly. The PLN’s national support and party machinery make it a potential kingmaker in the second round and a critical legislative ally or opponent of whichever candidate wins."
  8. In Ecuador, all seven referendum questions passed with over 60% of the vote. That includes a question to limit presidential terms that prevents former President Correa from running for office again. It’s a big victory for President Moreno and will give a temporary boost to his other agenda items in Congress.

    To add to Correa’s defeat at the polls, Ecuador’s Attorney General is calling Correa in to testify today in the Petrochina corruption case. The former president is forced to testify because he returned to Ecuador from Europe to campaign against President Moreno’s referendum. Correa denies any corruption in the seven contracts with Petrochina. Investigators have collected over 2,500 documents that they say prove Ecuador received a bad deal from the Chinese.

    Correa argues that the referendum was illegal and the corruption case is proof the government is politically persecuting the former president. Not many people feel sorry for the former president given how he treated his political opponents including the media and indigenous groups while he was in office. Correa’s treatment is fully within the norms he set when he was president.

    Still, it’s worth considering Correa’s point. Moreno’s populism, even if it is more centrist than his predecessor, is not necessarily better for the country’s institutions. Reestablishing presidential term limits is positive for the country’s democracy, but doing so via popular referendum to get around the Congress is not. There was plenty of corruption during the Correa administration, but it’s also quite plausible that the Moreno administration is finding corruption investigations to be an incredibly useful weapon against the president’s political opponents.
  9. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to America’s backyard, Texas, to give a speech prior to leaving on an extended trip to our neighbors in Latin America. Tillerson offered extended remarks on his Latin America policy, with this being the organizing statement:
    “So today I want to focus on three pillars of engagement to further the cause of freedom throughout our region in 2018 and beyond: economic growth, security, and democratic governance.”
    That’s not very far off from former Vice President Biden’s regularly statement formulation of building “an Americas that is solidly middle-class, secure and democratic.” The framework has not changed much, even if the details have.

    The three most controversial things Tillerson said involved: 1) praising the Monroe Doctrine, 2) stating that militaries have led peaceful transitions in Latin America’s past (and might in Venezuela today) and 3) saying Honduras’s election was free and fair. Most of the media coverage will focus on those comments, all made during Q&A time, but the rest of the speech and comments were important and just as reflective of his approach. I think the focus on a few controversial remarks shouldn’t take away from what was overall a decent speech providing a roadmap to understand how the US is currently conducting policy in the hemisphere.

    A few other comments:

    Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba. Those are the four countries that dominated the speech and the comments. There were certainly other comments about Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean and anti-corruption issues. His opening personal comments about Peru were a great touch. But it's clear from the remarks which four countries dominate the time and attention of the secretary when he thinks about the hemisphere.

    Serious confusion over the “war on drugs” remains. Tillerson’s explanation of US policy implies that because people in the US are dying of synthetic opioids from China, we need to eradicate coca from Colombia to stop the business model of the violent cartels in Mexico. Trying to lump all these problems together causes serious issues in developing, implementing and measuring the impact of policy. This isn’t a new problem for US policy under the current administration, but worth noting that the problem continues.

    Tillerson’s very positive comments about NAFTA showed him to be on the pro-trade side of the administration. While he would never say this publicly, the secretary’s take on NAFTA renegotiations resembles the Obama administration’s TPP agenda far more than the Trump administration’s protectionist agenda.

    Tillerson remains an oil executive. He spent paragraphs discussing energy in the hemisphere but it was all a lot of talk about oil and natural gas without a single mention of solar, wind or other renewable energy. That said, Tillerson did acknowledge the effects of climate change in his brief comments about science and health diplomacy.
  10. The Washington Post builds on a WSJ story from last month reporting that the CDC is cutting back its global health security initiative. The only country in Latin America that will remain covered is Guatemala. While the full list of cuts is not available publicly, it appears from their website the CDC will be cutting back current operations in Haiti, Colombia and Peru.

    The Obama administration policy was intended to improve global health by identifying and responding to disease outbreaks more swiftly. Cutting back on pandemic preparedness is a poor decision. Other countries in the hemisphere plus the OAS and PAHO should work to keep the programs up if possible.