Friday, May 15, 2015

Ayotzinapa in Houston

There is a wonderful program in Houston called Writers in the Schools, and on Wednesday night I had the privilege of attending a WITS student reading at the Menil. A few dozen students proudly presented their poems and stories, touching on their impressions of the idea of infinity, reactions to colors, and even stories about duck hunting (accompanied by camouflage and duck call whistles).  A few students read poems in Spanish, including one young girl who wrote of her dreams and wishes -- which touched on her sueno that the 43 students from Ayotzinapa who went missing in the state of Guerrero be found. (For information on the story of the missing students, the Latin Times has an excellent recap here).

The story of the Ayotzinapa students and the fact that they went missing, or even the fact that people went missing at the hands of the local authorities is not novel in Mexico. (Read the horrifying and numbing Part 4 of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes"). Indeed, during a conversation a few months ago in Mexico City, one contact revealed that when his organization was aiding the Mexican authorities in their search for the students, they uncovered multiple mass graves, likely of Central American immigrants who never made it in their quest to reach the United States. Such stories are rarely told. Occasionally, however, as in the case of the students from Ayotzinapa, the local and international media latches on to the narrative. Ayotzinapa is not new, but it has become symbolic of state corruption, widespread impunity, and the violence that eats away at the social fabric of communities in Mexico.

The most unfortunate aspect of Ayotzinapa -- apart from the fact that the 43 students are unlikely to ever resurface -- is the inability of the government to do much about it.  Governments across Latin America frequently promise to tackle notoriously difficult police and judicial reforms and unroll one security strategy after another, frequently to no avail (Colombia may be one exception, with some caveats). Local police forces are corrupt, underpaid, and poorly regarded, and the police are as likely to be the perpetrators as much as the victims of violence. The relatively more competent Mexican federal forces, such as the marines, are overstretched. Local politicians are bought off, extorted, and threatened into accepting the demands of organized criminal groups. As they say in Mexico, plata o plomo. Take the silver, or take the lead.

President Enrique Peña Nieto should be riding high now. Early in his term he managed to craft a broad political coalition to push forward a number of ambitious reforms, such as to open Mexico's telecom and energy sectors. Through the middle of 2014 he was relatively popular and analysts pointed to Mexico as being one of the few countries in the hemisphere that was undertaking important structural reforms. But last September the positive narrative shifted, and the government's security policies have come under fire. Critics complain that the president has tried to sweep Mexico's security problems under la manta in an attempt to shift attention to the economic reform agenda and attract investment; that the policy of targeting and eliminating top cartel leaders results in power vacuums and generates even more violence as the underlings wrest for control; that statistics on homicide rates published by the state institutions are "pure crap", as one contact complained.

As the families of the missing students continue to convene protests, as young students in Houston weave the stories of the disappeared into their poetry, as the international media attention slowly fades away, not much will be done. Polls from the 2015 midterm election cycle show that Peña Nieto's PRI party isn't taking much of a hit from public dissatisfaction with the state of security -- while EPN is unpopular, the party trudges on (though the PRD party, which controls Guerrero state where the students went missing, appears likely to lose its control over the state to the PRI gubernatorial candidate). Promises will be made, contracts will be signed, companies will write security costs into their business plans. But as long as the fear of lead, and the lure of silver prevails in remote towns with little appetite for rule of law, little will change. The story of Ayotzinapa will repeat itself again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Gallup-ing away from reelection?

Gallup Colombia published its latest public opinion poll today and the results are pretty dismal for President Juan Manuel Santos. According to the poll (which you can find here), his approval ratings plummeted from around 50% to a historic low (for his presidency) of 25%: 

Looking at the numbers, it's the lowest approval rating that Gallup has recorded since the Andres Pastrana administration in the early 2000's  -- at which point  Colombians were bracing against an ongoing FARC onslaught and public security concerns were at an all-time high.  Santos had been cruising along in recent months with relatively average ratings, but a barrage of public protests in recent weeks of informal miners and farmers made their way into the major cities (where the Gallup polls are conducted). Santos and his ministers made a number of missteps throughout the process -- clearly, managing public protests hasn't been their forte -- and the combination of lackluster government response, sentiments that Santos is detached and has trouble empathizing with protestors, and bouts of violence have soured public opinion against the beleaguered president.  It doesn't help that the poll was taken in the midst of the protests in Bogota. 

It will become quite fashionable in the Colombian press, and perhaps the international media, over the next few days to declare that Santos's likely 2014 presidential reelection aspirations are fading fast and that he may as well throw in the towel. Indeed, there are probably a few advisors in the Casa del Narino who might be preparing to send their c.v.'s to new potential employers. But, at this point I'd keep my money on Juan Manuel. Despite the best efforts of the left-of-center and right-of-center political parties and movements, none of the likely opposition candidates have shown much strength in  recent poll simulations. It will be interesting to see if and how the protests change these numbers. I suspect that in most cases the focus on rural and agricultural issues probably won't help the conservative candidates (such as Pure Democratic Center aspirant Francisco Santos) but could boost the Green Party or Polo candidates, if they play their cards right. 

Finally, it's worth comparing the situation in Colombia to what President Dilma Rousseff experienced in Brazil a few months ago. While they are similar cases in which protests sparked a decline in support for a fumbling (and overly technocratic) government, the parallels end there. The protests in Brazil stemmed from growing dissatisfaction of the middle class with the high cost of living, concerns about corruption within government and heavy expenditures on massive projects (to prepare for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics) instead on things like health care and education. In Colombia, the protests are due to decades of neglect of sectors that are increasingly isolated and less competitive in the face of greater economic liberalization and international competition.  I've seen quite a few articles and editorials noting how Colombia is importing a greater number of food products, to the dismay of local farmers. Columnist for Semana Daniel Samper Ospina ejected some humor into the situation to reflect Santos's disconnect with the Colombian people and his insistence on free trade policies: 

- Mire: ahora los campesinos botan la leche como protesta. (Santos's driver)- Sí, pero no lloremos sobre la leche derramada. (Santos)
- ¡Y sacan cacerolas!
- No importa: desde hace rato importamos huevos para que tengan qué freír.
 - ¡Y pancartas diciendo que a usted no le importa el campo!
- ¡Cómo pueden decir que no me importa el campo si justamente estamos logrando que todo lo del campo sea importado!

In the next months, Santos's approval numbers will probably bounce back to somewhere near where they were before. He and his team will have to convince a dubious Colombian electorate that talks with the FARC are going well, that infrastructure plans are progressing, and that Santos understands the needs of the Colombian people. This will be difficult -- but his reelection still is more likely than the election of someone else. That being said, a real break up of the National Unity coalition (or rather, the Conservatives finally break off, and even the Liberals or Cambio Radical, though unlikely, break away too) could mean that stronger candidates enter the race. Then, we'd have a much tighter election campaign in the works. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Strike 3... but he's probably not out

Oh Mr. Santos, here we go again: another unhappy sector of Colombia's stumbling economy is out in the streets demanding your attention and your government's help. Earlier this summer there were protests in Catatumbo where local peasants wanted an end to the government's coca eradication policy; then the artisanal miners went on strike; and now farmers are upset over the high costs of fertilizers and other agricultural inputs and fierce competition from international markets following Colombia's slate of Free Trade Agreements. El Espectador has a pretty good summary of the protests' origin and the government's reaction here: La Rebelion de las Ruanas.

Frankly, understanding the outbreak of protests is as simple as Santos himself put it: the sector has been ignored for decades.  To put it into context, the president even admitted that the government hasn't undertaken an agricultural census since the 1970s. While Santos and his predecessors signed FTAs, the government hasn't paired economic liberalization with adequate programs to help those adjust to a new competitive environment. Additionally, despite government promises of massive investments to improve infrastructure, Colombia still lags behind on many projects, meaning that poor road conditions hike up the prices of things like fertilizers in harder-to-reach areas.

So begins the typical dance between government and protestors: road blocks and negative media attention force the government to send some ministers and maybe some legislators to meet with the protestors;  Santos promises increased government attention to the area or sector; and Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas (who probably has his own future political aspirations) wrings his hands and allocates some new subsidies/tariff decreases/tax breaks that will supposedly alleviate decades of absentee governance. This worked with the coffee strikers last year, it calmed tensions with the peasants in Catatumbo, and it will probably work again with the farmers.

Of course, what makes all of this much more delicate is the fact that Santos is up for reelection in less than a year. He hasn't officially declared whether or not he will run, but he is widely expected to formally announce his reelection campaign this November. As of now, there aren't any opposition candidates who look strong enough to defeat him and his latest approval ratings by Gallup and Ipsos Napoleon show him with about 50% support.  But, these types of protests -- especially when they escalate into violence, and particularly when videos emerge of the local police stealing food and supplies from farmers (see below) -- have the ability to sap his political strength, potentially making it easier for a challenger to give him a tough time in 2014.

Indeed, with such calculations in mind, one has to chuckle at how quickly the Conservative Party -- which has its own internal struggles broiling as the party decides whether to back Santos, its own candidate, or merge with former President Alvaro Uribe's Pure Democratic Center -- has backed away from any responsibility for the strikes ... despite the fact that the last two Ministers of Agriculture have been Conservatives.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2013 Election Edition

The reality of January 2013 is in full force -- no more dreaming of sleepy beaches in Baja California Sur and longing for salted margaritas. Time to get to work!
2013 will usher in a round of election cycles across the region. And what political junkie doesn't love a hotly contested and fervently debated election? (Really, it's so much better than the fiscal cliff, especially when it doesn't affect your own tax rate). Elections in Latin America can be colorful, passionate (and unfortunately sometimes violent) affairs. Lucky for us, not only do we have 2013 elections in Ecuador (February) and Honduras (November), but pre-election politicking is already rampant in El Salvador (with elections slated for February 2014). In Colombia, the main newspapers are full of "will Santos run?" coverage.

Here are a few thoughts of what to look forward to in a select few election cycles. Now, Honduras and Ecuador are the only countries I'm mentioning that actually have elections in 2013, but expect El Salvador and Colombia to be consumed with election news this year:

Xiomara throws her (cowboy) hat into the ring
** Honduras: November 2013 **
Oh, Honduras. Three years after the coup, I'm reading the news from Tegucigalpa and the headlines are either focused on how bad the security situation is or how prostitutes raided and stole computers from the Honduran embassy in Bogota when a staffer threw an overzealous Christmas bash.  Amid these stories, who needs an election campaign for entertaining news? In all seriousness, I'm most looking forward to seeing Xiomara Castro's campaign. The new left-of-center Libre party candidate is former President Manuel Zelaya's wife (remember, Mel Zelaya, who was overthrown in the middle of the night and flown to neighboring Costa Rica, all the while in his pyjamas?). Since the 1980s, the Liberal Party and National Party have held a fierce grip on the presidency. I am skeptical that Castro can convince enough voters to win, but she'll probably take a fair share away from some left-leaning factions of the Liberal Party. In the interim, stay tuned for Honduras's (I believe first-ever) sovereign bond issuance.

Correa in campaign mode
** Ecuador: February 2013 **
President Rafael Correa is in full campaign mode right now and most analysts predict that he'll easily win a third term (one poll published by Perfiles shows him with 60% support). It looks like his campaign will be successful, despite no shortage of drama over the past few years: most recently he's warned supporters of an alleged "CIA attack" against him, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Despite that fun buzz, I'll elect his presidential campaign song as the Most Boring Campaign Slogan of 2013:  "We already have a President. We have Rafael!" Really, Correa? That's all you got?

Correa is pretty amped about it though:
Yawn. I guess Correa has enough drama within his presidency  that he doesn't need a catchy slogan to catch anyone's attention.

I'm skeptical Sanchez Ceren can win the presidency
** El Salvador: February 2014 **
2014 couldn't come soon enough for the FMLN and Arena parties, both of which had their candidates selected last fall. Current President Mauricio Funes is ineligible to run and I suspect he will happily sit on the sidelines while his VP and FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren fails to drum up enough popular support to win the presidency. Meanwhile, conservative Arena party candidate and mayor of San Salvador Norman Quijano may have a slight edge in some recent polls, but it's hard to imagine the troubled Arena party easily gliding to victory at this point.

The big question for 2013: is former President Tony Saca going to throw his hat into the ring? A Saca candidacy will probably split the right-of-center vote and force a run-off. I've heard that the FMLN and Saca could be scheming up a plan to prevent Quijano from winning office.

Vargas Lleras (left) could be contemplating a run
 ** Colombia: June 2014 **
Clearly, Colombia's election is 18 months away, but there is no shortage of speculation right now over whether President Juan Manuel Santos will decide to run for reelection. (He says he'll announce his decision mid-year). I'd be shocked if he didn't run, given his decent approval ratings and the power of incumbency. But Santos has a lot on his plate, most notably the ongoing negotiations with the FARC and the risk that a failed attempt at securing peace could derail his reelection plans. 

In the meantime, it looks like many eyes are trained on current Minister of Housing German Vargas Lleras. Vargas Lleras ran against Santos in the 2010 election with the Cambio Radical party, and there is ample speculation that he could resign his post (looks like March would be an important cut-off date) to run again. Furthermore, don't expect former President Alvaro Uribe to keep quiet... he's likely to present a list of candidates for senate with his blessing, which could shake up the balance of power in congress in 2014.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

For a quick, needed laugh today

The lovely graphic designer at my office forwarded this little gem to me today (courtesy of Reuters), noting:

Look how funny the president of Uruguay looks.
He is like, “We are waving… Seriously?”

I couldn't resist sharing this photo:

Monday, December 17, 2012

What Latin America can teach the U.S. about security

It is still gut-wrenching to process and to try to make sense of what happened in Newtown last Friday. On a very personal level, I am hoping that President Obama has the courage to stand up to the pro-gun lobby and move to ban assault weapons. Frankly, if I had my way we'd overturn the Second Amendment and get rid of all guns in the U.S., though I know that will unfortunately never happen. 

What I find most mind-boggling is the argument of many gun owners that having more guns would make us all safer. I could not disagree more, and found an article written by Firmin DeBrabander in today's NYT particularly compelling, especially when we think of how guns change our perception of and ability to interact with each other. Guns separate us, fragment us, and increase suspicion and fear.  They reduce our freedoms and inhibit the ease of interacting with one another. As DeBrabander notes: 
"As ever more people are armed in public, however — even brandishing weapons on the street — this is no longer recognizable as a civil society. Freedom is vanished at that point.... Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech."
On an intense episode of Meet the Press yesterday, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett argued that a possible solution to better protect our society from mentally unstable, gun wielding attackers would be to increase our security:
"And I’m not so sure -- and I’m sure I’ll get mail for this -- I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing.  The principal lunged at this guy.  The school psychologist lunged at the guy.  Has to be someone who’s trained.  Has to be someone who’s responsible.  But, my God, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think-- I think-- I think we ought to…"
A common sight in Latin America: private armed guards
More armed security at businesses, guns in the hands of elementary school principals and high school teachers? Upon hearing this -- which would require a massive increase in private security all across our country -- I immediately thought of the many violence-stricken countries to which I frequently travel. I often travel to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia -- countries with widespread insecurity fostered by previous civil wars, growing gang membership, and guerrilla groups that kidnap, attack and frighten citizens. There are private security guards everywhere. Armed guards pace in front of virtually every business, patrolling government buildings with rifles and body armor. Bomb-sniffing dogs are led around tourist areas and business centers. 

In Colombia there seems to be no end to security procedures. Visitors are greeted with metal detectors, guards searching your purse (multiple times), police escorts, armed military personnel everywhere. It is frustrating, annoying, time-consuming, and tiresome. Is this the future of the U.S.? As California Senator Dianne Feinstein asked, "is this the way we want America to go?"

The cases of militarized societies are not reassuring. In Guatemala, private security guards outnumber military troops by 6 to 1. In 2008 there were an estimated 218 private security companies (many of them owned by former military officers, and many of them illegal) who oversee approximately 120,000 bodyguards and private policemen. Guatemala's privatization of security has, according to many experts, weakened the government's own control over the use of force.

The thought of expanded private security across the U.S. is not comforting, and granted, police forces in Central America are much more corrupt, inefficient, underfunded and less respected than their U.S. counterparts. But perhaps El Salvador offers us a more compelling idea. The country has suffered from gang crime over the past decade that has driven up murder rates to some of the highest in the world. In the capital city of San Salvador, the streets are deserted and eerily quiet at night. Brightly lit shopping malls, which are patrolled by heavily armed security guards, have become some of the few safe zones for people to socialize. Outside of such areas, however, no one walks on the street. Walls are erected around houses. People stay inside their homes after dark.

Things are changing in El Salvador, however. Instead of promoting the spread of guns, the government, the church and gang members are trying to disarm the country in an effort to improve security.  As Insight Crime reported earlier this month:
"The leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, and three other street gangs in El Salvador said they accepted a proposal to end all gang activity in designated "zones of peace" in the country. In a statement released to the public, gang leaders said that they'd already handed over a list of 10 possible municipalities where they would agree to cease all criminal activity.
Within these designated zones, gangs would agree to a non-aggression pact, and would commit to stopping all homicides, extortion, theft, and kidnapping. The municipalities that would include these peace zones have not yet been identified, although gang leaders said the agreement would affect some 900,000 people who live in the proposed areas. In their statement, gang leaders said that they'd already ordered affiliate groups -- or "cliques" -- to begin disarming in these areas, and hand over the weapons to the truce facilitators."
Gang members are willing to put down their arms in order to make El Salvador a safer place. 

Why can't we do the same here in the United States?

Friday, December 7, 2012

How will Santos get his groove back?

I published another piece in Quartz (my new favorite online publication for global news and analysis) today: 
The only way Colombia's President Santos can get his groove back is a peace deal with the FARC. The article looks at Santos's dropping approval ratings as he begins to gear up for a reelection campaign (the next presidential elections are due in 2014).

The numbers don't look that great for Santos -- and it's remarkable how much popular opinion has shifted in two years. Upon assuming office in August 2010, Santos immediately surprised Colombians by taking a markedly different tack from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. He smoothed over prickly relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, brought in political parties who had vehemently opposed Uribe (such as the Liberal Party and Cambio Radical), and embraced legislation to compensate victims of the armed conflict and to undertake land reform. Many of my Colombian friends who had voted for Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus in the election told me "if I had known that Santos would have proposed these types of policies, I probably would have voted for him!"

But over the past year, we've seen a real shift. Check out these two graphics of approval ratings/favorability ratings from Gallup and Ipsos Napoleon:

Ipsos has the most recent numbers, since their poll was conducted in November. I haven't seen a Gallup poll published since August 2012, so the second graphic is dated. Looking at Ipsos (which asks about "favorability" -- a slight and important difference from "approval"), it's clear that Santos has seen a slow but steady decline in his favorability ratings. And it's no real surprise-- he's had his fair share of bumps throughout 2012: incessant criticism (Twitter attacks!) from Uribe, a botched judicial reform that diminished Colombians' faith in government institutions; ongoing concerns about security, and a perception that Santos delegates too much without paying enough attention to domestic issues.

(Important caveat here: both these polls' samples, Gallup especially, are heavily concentrated in urban areas. So we don't really know what sentiments are like in rural parts of the country).

With the 2014 elections creeping up on the horizon, Santos may not be feeling too great about his reelection prospects. As of now, he has an incumbency advantage and the political parties in his coalition still have his back. Putting standard factors such as economic growth aside, I'd say the biggest wildcard in 2013 will be the outcome of the FARC negotiations.

Santos can't be pleased with his poll numbers
If Santos strikes a deal, he'll go down in history as the president who ended half a century of armed conflict. If he doesn't -- well, it will only fuel the fire of Uribe's opposition movement and improve the former president's ability to gather support for an opposition candidate to confront Santos. Uribe can't run again, but he'll support his own list of senators and a presidential candidate.

The FARC needs a deal if it wants to demobilize and reintegrate into Colombian society -- and most important, begin to engage as a legitimate political force. Santos needs a deal as well -- but for his own political future.