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An Alternative Alliance

It is hard to imagine a world where the United States is not the dominant global power. However, over the last decade the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has emerged as a potential alternative to the traditional, US-centric power structure. In order to maintain its position as a global leader, the United States must effectively respond to the challenges presented by BRICS.

British economist Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs Asset Management developed the idea of BRIC in 2001 (South Africa joined ten years later) as an investment vehicle that took advantage of their large territory, abundant natural resources, and dense population. The BRICS nations leveraged O’Neill’s ideas to create the BRICS alliance to effectively leverage their combined strength. BRICS also provided each nation a platform to position itself as a regional power or as an international competitor of the United States. As BRICS continued to increase its presence in the international system, it presented an alternative to the traditionally western-dominated international power structure. There is a hope in some BRICS capitals, the alliance will accelerate changes to the status quo at the expense of the United States.

BRICS Economics

Without a doubt, BRICS is an international actor of significant influence. The BRICS nations represent 43% of the world’s population, 40% of its economy, 21% of the global GDP, and are responsible for 20% of global investment. According to the United Nations Development Program, the economies of China, India and Brazil will surpass the cumulative production of the G-7 in 2020. In 2014, in an effort to compete with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), BRICS created its own bank (the New Development Bank) and a framework for providing protection against global liquidity pressures they called the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. By 2018 the New Development Bank had lent US $7.5 billion, and this year it has issued bonds with a total value of 3 million yuan (US $447 million). These tools allow BRICS to operationalize the collective power of their economies. 

The BRICS heads of state meet at the BRICS X Summit in July 2018.
Photo credit: http://www.granma.cu/mundo/2018-07-29/que-temas-se-abordaron-en-la-x-cumbre-del-brics-29-07-2018-20-07-13

BRICS is well-positioned to take advantage of the current state of international affairs and is expanding its political reach. The concept of “BRICS Plus” provides a political mechanism for non-member states to engage the bloc at its annual summit. In some ways, BRICS appears more stable than some European countries such as the United Kingdom that are in the midst of political or economic crises. Recognizing this and perhaps hedging their bets, Mexico, South Korea, Jamaica, Argentina, and Turkey have all taken advantage of BRICS plus and have attended BRICS events.

 

2017 BRICS economic data from the IMF and the World Bank
Photo credit: https://ewn.co.za/2018/07/25/brics-nations-by-the-numbers

Future of the Bloc

Despite success in its first decade of existence, BRICS must adapt to overcome today’s challenges. The trade war between China and the United States presents one such challenge. Additionally, controversial positions taken by the Bolsonaro government in Brazil — discrimination against racial miniorities, homosexuals, and women — complicate the aspirations of BRICS to present itself as a role model for developing nations. In order to continue serving as a key partner for developing nations, BRICS must provide tailored solutions that focus on commercial investment in those nations as well as the needs of the people and communities there.

BRICS member states have managed to overcome cultural and geographic differences to create a strong alliance. Together, they’ve laid the groundwork to achieve their collective goals of becoming a global economic force and reducing the effects of climate change. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist that conceived of BRICS, is certainly optimistic. He believes four of the five BRICS nations (China, Brazil, Russia, and India) will have the world’s dominant economies in 2050. In the last ten years, BRICS has already helped to redefine the international order. If the United States, and the western world more broadly, intend to maintain a dominant position in international politics and economics, they must begin responding to BRICS as a separate economic and political entity — an alternative alliance — not just a tiny piece of the foreign policy of its member states.


Ligia Lee Guandique

Ligia 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.

 

 

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.

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.