Category Archives: Latin America

End of the Left: Latin America’s Right-Wing Swing

In the last three years, Presidential politics brought a series of changes to Latin America that seem to signal a shift away from the ideology of the Left. Though the shift is not (yet) a region-wide trend – Maduro, Ortega, Morales, and others still hold leftist power – it is significant enough in the large southern economies to raise eyebrows in Caracas, La Paz, and other left-leaning capitals. Recent Presidential elections in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are noteworthy, not just for their potentially large economic impacts on Latin America, but because the voters there cast off their left-leaning leadership despite their own dark memories of right-wing governments.

Though the shift may be a response to socialist governance that struggles with corruption and effectiveness, it follows a global rightward trend energized by a populist desire for something different. The most recent election results were disappointing for incumbents in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru. Most of those went to right-of-center candidates and some represented a complete ideological about face. Whether driven by ideology or simply voter frustration with those in charge, a change is in the air in Latin America and it does not look good for the Left.

Kirchner Leads the Way

The electoral downfall of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is an example of voter frustration with an incumbent. The wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, Cristina inherited his political identity as Argentina’s Peronist candidate, a reference to the popular President Juan Peron and the political movement he inspired. Considered the dominant political ideology in the country’s modern history, Peronist candidates have won nine of Argentina’s last 12 elections. Cristina’s “accession” to the Presidency as supported by her husband, entrenched the “Kirchner Clan” in Argentine politics in a manner reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of Peronism (the heavy-handed Peron was also succeeded by his wife). Cristina’s penchant for glamour and graft further entrenched the Kirchners in the economy, society, and courtrooms of the country.

Once she was out of power, the Argentine legal system began to investigate her corruption and that of her husband; actions which some view as the government simply catching up with what the people already knew. In October 2018, a judge began an investigation of Mrs. Kirchner and her children, Florencia and Máximo, for money laundering. Though this news drew significant media attention, it is not the only case being brought against Mrs. Kirchner. The state is also investigating her for irregularities in awarding public contracts to Grupo Austral in the province of Santa Cruz, the cradle of “Kirchnerism.”[1] She is also being investigated for defrauding the government through the dollar futures market, for trying to cover up the Iranian bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, and for several other charges related to the abuse of power.

Macri Kirchner
The ideological, political, and social division between the “Macristas” and “Kirchnerists”.
Photo credit: https://www.elintransigente.com/politica/2017/6/14/cristina-kirchner-difundio-duro-documento-contra-macri-441000.html

Nevertheless, Mrs. Kirchner’s ability to survive elections in order to stay in power cannot be denied. Now a Senator, Kirchner claims with some success she is a victim of persecution by her successor, Mauricio Macri. Despite the polarization between “Macristas” and “Kirchnerists”, she remains popular in large part due to welfare programs she implemented while President. Under her administration, however, subsidies designed to support social groups did nothing to contribute to the country’s economy and led to a large internal debt Macri has been unable to completely reverse. He now suffers from a relatively low approval rating because of external debt generated in part, by International Monetary Fund loans intended to manage the deficit caused by the Kirchners. Sensing opportunity, Mrs. Kirchner is widely expected to run for President again in 2019.

Return to the Right-Wing

One can clearly see a return to the Right in Chile with the end of Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party administration and the re-entry of rightist ideologue Sebastián Piñera in 2017. The case of Mrs. Bachelet is similar to that of Mrs. Fernández in that both were the first female leaders of their countries and both came from leftist political parties. The similarities end there, however. Mrs. Bachelet is not part of a family dynasty or the embodiment of a cultural-political movement like Peronism. In the comparatively healthy political environment in Chile, she has traded the Presidency with her right-wing rival for the last 16 years.

At the beginning of her first administration – 2006-2010 – Bachelet had a very high approval rating. Chilean voters had elected her with 53.9% of the vote; giving her a healthy seven-point margin and control of 12 of the country’s 13 regions. Her 2014 election was even more convincing when she won an astonishing 62% of the votes; setting up her second administration with a solid mandate for a more progressive program. Among her most notable achievements were the abortion law; the enactment of a union civil law; and the enfranchisement of Chileans abroad. Chilean Presidential politics is a balancing act between Left and Right however and the center-left political group she represented was no longer welcome in Chile. Whispers of corruption began to erode her still great popularity.

Bachelet Pinera
Mrs. Bachelet and Mr. Piñera, representing the political change in Chile. Photo credit: https://radio.uchile.cl/2018/03/10/bilaterales-marcan-ultimo-dia-de-michelle-bachelet-y-pinera-antes-del-cambio-de-mando/

In 2015, a company partly-owned by Bachelet’s daughter-in-law was investigated for use of privileged information and influence peddling in connection with a land sale. The company, “Caval Limited”, became known as Bachelet’s “secret business” and caused her approval rating to plummet to 35% in a single month in March 2015. By the time of the 2017 election, the desire for change was no surprise. Piñera won a clear victory, with 54.5% of the votes, a nine-point margin over the left-leaning Alejandro Guillier (a social democrat).

Ultra Shift

Brazil provides another example of the shift from Left to Right. In an ideological continuation of rule by the left-leaning Partido de los Trabajadores (PT), Dilma Vana Rousseff won the presidential election in 2010. Though she commanded only a narrow 51.64% of the vote, the win was seen as significant for PT which ruled in Brazil for the preceding 13 years. Rousseff, the first female President of Brazil, hoped to emulate her former boss, President Lula da Silva whom she served as Chief of Staff and Minister of Energy. At the time Lula left office, he was the most popular politician in Brazilian history, enjoying approval ratings of 80%. Like Kirchner however, Rousseff’s corruption prevented her from capitalizing on the widespread popularity of her predecessor. In 2016 she was impeached by the Brazilian Senate for violating fiscal rules and removed from office.

Dilma’s impeachment and Lula da Silva’s incarceration on influence peddling charges left PT without a strong candidate in the 2018 election. Reflecting the electorate’s frustration with 13 years of PT corruption, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army officer and an “ultra-right” candidate, won the presidential election by a whopping 11 points. Bolsonaro seems like a hard sell in free-wheeling Brazil. A constant stream of offensive comments has been the hallmark of his 30-year political career. Among other things, he has publicly said: he wouldn’t hire men and women with the same salary; he would be unable to love a homosexual son; and that Afro-descendants don’t do anything and shouldn’t procreate. Yet as shocking as he can be, he is the candidate that best embodies the Brazilian people’s disillusion with the Left.

Bolsonaro
Mr. Jair Bolsonaro. Now President of Brazil Photo credit: https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2018/11/28/estados-unidos-califico-de-oportunidad-historica-la-eleccion-de-jair-bolsonaro-como-presidente-de-brasil/

Indigenous Axis

Evo Morales Ayma has been the President of Bolivia for a record 13 years. He became the country’s first indigenous leader when he was elected in 2005 with 53.7% of the vote. His reelection in 2009 with 64% of the vote signaled that Bolivia had moved firmly away from the non-indigenous, largely right-wing politics of its past. When he won again in 2014 with 61.3% of the vote he seemed unstoppable. His affinity for Venezuela’s socialist icon, Hugo Chavez, was a cause for concern throughout the hemisphere and particularly in Washington which believed they presented an alternative form of left-wing governance that threatened the established order on the continent.

Morales’s political machine appears to be losing momentum, however. Perhaps sensing danger in the state of post-Chavez Venezuela, the Bolivian electorate is expressing a desire for change. The shift in opinion was evident in the results of a referendum on presidential term limits that would abolish term limits and allow Morales to run again in 2019. Not only was this his first electoral defeat in a decade, but it was a clear rejection of his continued leadership of the country.

Maduro Morales Correa
Mr. Evo Morales with Mr. Maduro (R) and Mr. Correa (L) in 2015. Photo credit: http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Frases-presidentes-Correa-Maduro-Morales_0_2361363938.html

End of the Left?

Latin America has a long and difficult history of abuse at the hands of right-wing governments, a fact that makes the rightward trend of electoral politics there a somewhat surprising development. Corruption has played a big part as leaders from both Left and Right have been found guilty of using their positions to benefit themselves and their cronies but it is the Left, which held the majority of Presidencies in the region for the last 15 years, that is receiving the brunt of voter frustration.

The failure of the socialist dream in Venezuela is also having far-reaching consequences with well over a million Venezuelans fleeing privation and despair in what used to be the region’s wealthiest nation. The significance of the exodus cannot be lost on voters struggling to reconcile their fears of a right-wing resurgence with their frustration over systemic left-wing corruption. Though it may be too soon to declare the end of the Left, there is a clear desire for change that will leave its mark on elections in 2019.


[1] Kirchnerism is poorly defined and probably cannot be considered a political movement in its own right. It can probably best be described as an extension of the heavy-handed left-wing political philosophy of Juan Peron.

Ligia Lee GuandiqueLigia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and is a regular contributor to The Affiliate Network.

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.

Tearing Down the Walls

In a speech marking the first year of his administration, President Donald Trump reemphasized a message he communicated many times during his campaign: that “open borders” promote the proliferation of drugs, weapons, and gangs. As distasteful as that message is, he might be right. Central America serves as a chokepoint for much of the drugs manufactured in the south. The region’s unique geography focuses the intense violence and vast sums of money required to control the drug trade and aims it squarely at markets in the United States. With many governments in the region still developing after the upheavals of the Cold War, Central America’s political geography is just as important as the physical. Corruption, poverty, and weak institutions provide the fertilizer for growth of the ultimate symptom of the regional disease: organized crime gangs known locally as “Maras.”

For Trump and his supporters, construction of a border wall seems like a common sense defense but the problem is more complex than bad people that want to cross the border. The Maras represent only one aspect of a complex regional problem that doesn’t lend itself to national solutions and certainly not to simple ones. So much so that President Trump’s politicization of border security reveals the weaknesses in his simplistic and unilateral solution: success requires the cooperation and assistance of regional partners. In some cases, these are countries the President recently referred to in derogatory terms. The subsequent cacophony of protests from around the world and the resignation of at least one US Ambassador (Ambassador John Feeley in Panama) indicate President Trump’s approach may enjoy limited success.

Highway to the USA

The Central American corridor has long been a direct path to the United States for gangs like the Maras. In the 1980s, they emerged in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles, California. At that time, many Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, were suffering violent civil wars that displaced thousands of people to American cities. The traumatized and largely uneducated victims of those wars found shelter for their fragile new lives in poor expatriate communities there but it was not perfect; the perpetrators understood the utility of violence and organization and they lived among their victims in America.

When peace began to take hold in Central America in the 1990s, many of the combatant “guerilla” groups demobilized, expecting to inherit a place in peaceful societies that respect human rights. However, they faced an unbalanced political and economic environment with big social differences and poverty that inhibited structural change. As a result, former guerillas and gang members living in the United States found themselves unable to assimilate in their home countries. The problem was not a small one. With an estimated 100,000 gang members in the three small countries that make up the “Northern Triangle” alone, prison systems were beyond their capacity to serve as a deterrent. Today in El Salvador, the prisons are at 320% their capacity and are now simply a base of operations for the Maras.

NUMBER OF GANG MEMBERS

Country Members Source
Guatemala 32,000 UNODC (2011 statistics)
El Salvador 60,000 Ministry of Justice and Public Safety
Honduras 36,000 USAID

With all the advantages of a peaceful sanctuary, the gangs began to strengthen. Groups like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Barrio 18, and the Batos Locos expanded their criminal networks and learned to survive as international outlaws. They established codes with tattoos, sign language, specific words, and proprietary clothing. They established a division of labor and territory and used violence to consolidate their control. By late 2016, the murder rate attributed to MS-13 in El Salvador approached 20 per day prompting more than one government to declare war against them.

Mara Gang signs
Example of corporal codes used by gangs -signs and tattoos-. Photo credit:  https://www.republica.com/2013/06/18/interior-teme-la-implantacion-en-espana-de-las-maras-centroamericanas/

Transnational Trouble

Though there is no internationally recognized definition of “transnational organized crime,” the United Nations does define “organized criminal groups” as:

“A group of three or more persons that was not randomly formed; existing for a period of time; acting in concert with the aim of committing at least one crime punishable by at least four years’ incarceration; in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit”.

The Maras certainly fit this definition, but existing tools of international law enforcement lack the muscle to address the sheer scale and intensity of gang violence leaving governments around the world struggling with whether to treat this as a criminal or terrorist problem. Recognizing this, and perhaps capitalizing on the Trump Administration’s own war on MS-13, Guatemala declared the Maras to be international terrorist organizations in January 2018, a move likely to win wide support from outside Central America. Salvadoran Maras for example, operate as far afield as Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Italy where they actually established a capital in Milan, one of the most important cities in Europe and home to the largest concentration of Salvadorans outside the Americas. In 2016, the Buenos Aires Minister of Security, Cristian Ritondo, declared the presence of Maras there after dismantling a gang of drug traffickers connected to MS-13.

Labeling the Maras as terrorists seems a bit of a stretch given how they are organized and recruited. Social dynamics, not politics, fuel the Maras in Central America where some 45% of gang members come from a violent family background, 91% have illiterate parents, and 70% have experienced abuse or abandonment. Alcoholism and drug addiction are commonplace and for some, the gangs are their only real source of support, love, and loyalty. Maras are organized in neighborhood “clicas”, making it very hard for gang members to leave. Those that do wish to separate from the gangs face the twin stigmas of disloyalty and dishonor but also the structural realities of having to relocate. Those that manage to leave face a life full of harsh judgment, social isolation, and fear.

These young gang members are the foot soldiers of their organizations, executing most of their operations and falling into a paramilitary structure as depicted below. Their tactics include extortion of vulnerable individuals and small businesses by the threat of violence against them or their families. The young Maras also manage drug distribution on land, accounting for 59% of the overall trade.

STRUCTURE OF A “MARA” OR GANG

Mara Gang Structure
Source Credit: https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/11121/bruneauMay05.pdf;sequence=3

Whether the Maras are criminals or terrorists or a hybrid of the two, governments agree they present a transnational challenge. Fueled as they are by regional social issues, the Maras are therefore very difficult to control. Dealing with the threat posed by these groups requires governments to change their perspectives in terms of strategy, security, and power. Enforcement requires police with the intelligence capacity to gather information on Mara smuggling routes, weaponry, membership, specific mechanisms for moving money, and the type of people that protect them. Intelligence sharing mechanisms with neighboring governments are paramount in order to combat cross-border crimes. Additionally, corrupt politicians that secretly support the Maras for personal gain must also be prosecuted. Though walls like the one President Trump wants to build will keep some people out of the United States, it’s exactly the wrong approach for this complex problem. Success depends instead on the creation of international partnerships, information sharing, and reduction of social anxieties that drive members into a life of crime. Mr. Trump, tear down these walls.


Ligia Lee GuandiqueLigia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and recently published this excellent piece on immigration issues.