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Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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With limited access to chemical and mechanical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and farm machinery, Cuban farmers have pioneered innovations in sustainable agriculture out of necessity since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Although most continue to employ conventional agricultural methods, and Cuba continues to import more than half of its food, around a quarter of the country’s farmers have nonetheless succeeded in supplying some 65 percent of national agricultural output using agroecological practices. These achievements, however, could come under threat with the expected resumption of U.S.-Cuban trade relations.

Having lost the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc trade partners, Cuba suffered an 80 percent reduction in foreign trade between 1989 and 1991, leaving it fully exposed to the U.S. trade embargo. Its agricultural sector was hit particularly hard given its heavy dependence on agrochemicals. Chemical fertilizer use per hectare, which had been roughly double that of the U.S. in 1989, fell by almost 90 percent in the following decade, while herbicide and pesticide use dropped by a similar amount.

TIME magazine has sunk to new lows, soliciting a billionaire Republican donor, Paul Singer, to write its blurb for recently elected Argentine president Mauricio Macri’s entry in the 2016 edition of “100 Leaders.” It’s not ridiculous because he’s either a billionaire or a Republican though, it’s that for the better part of the last decade the man has funded a multi-million dollar campaign against the previous Argentine government. Oh, and he stands to make a pretty penny from the decisions of the new president too.

First, the backstory. In 2001, Argentina had the largest ever sovereign debt default in history, some $100 billion that the country, in the midst of a disastrous recession, simply could not continue to service. Over the following years, Argentina negotiated and reached a settlement with 93 percent of its bondholders. They agreed to take a significant haircut on their holdings and were given new bonds that were linked to the country’s economic growth. Since Argentina did quite well after its default (more on that here), the bondholders recouped their investment and a tidy profit as well.

But that wasn’t enough for everyone. A group of vulture funds, many of whom bought the distressed debt on the secondary market for cents on the dollar, took Argentina to court in New York demanding full repayment. The previous Argentine government refused to comply with court orders demanding billions be paid to these vulture funds, including Singer’s. The Argentine legislature also passed laws preventing the government from dealing with the vultures.

From Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to FIFA ethics lawyer Juan Pedro Damiani, the Panama Papers have already claimed their first few casualties despite having only been public knowledge for five days. In Peru, the revelations add yet another twist to an already tumultuous presidential election scheduled for this Sunday that has seen two candidates disqualified from running. Four of the remaining candidates now find themselves implicated in the same global financial scandal, including frontrunner Keiko Fujimori and her rival Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is tied with Verónika Mendoza for second place.

The Peruvian elections were first thrown into turmoil on March 4, a month before the leak, when the country’s electoral board disqualified both Julio Guzmán and César Acuña from the elections. Guzmán, an economist from the liberal party Todos por el Perú (All for Peru), had been regarded as Fujimori’s main challenger at the time, polling between 16 and 18 percent compared to Fujimori’s roughly 30 percent. Acuña, on the other hand, was a marginal candidate with single-digit support. The electoral board voted to exclude Guzmán on a technicality, as his party had completed their paperwork incorrectly, as well as Acuña for illegally purchasing support. But the board then courted more controversy three weeks later, when it allowed Fujimori to continue running despite similar accusations of vote-buying against her.

With Guzmán out of the running, the race for second place is now a dead heat between former Prime Minister Kuczynski and left-wing lawmaker Mendoza, whose support has surged dramatically in recent weeks partly by picking up vast numbers of undecided voters, who still make up an estimated 40 percent of the electorate. Kuczynski is widely supported by the elites, with an agenda focused on promoting private investment by lowering taxes and cutting bureaucratic red tape, while Mendoza has opposed these policies in favor of increasing public spending to promote growth and to diversify the Peruvian economy away from its dependence on mining and other extractive industries. One of the two candidates is likely to face Fujimori in a runoff election in June.

The recent murder of environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres has brought attention to the extreme danger faced by human rights defenders in Honduras. Less than two weeks after Berta’s murder, Nelson García, another activist with the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was murdered following the eviction of Lenca communities from their land by state security forces. In the past few years, COPINH members have been killed by state forces, as in the case of Tomás García in 2013, and have faced intimidation, harassment and continual criminalization by the government (including the arrest in 2013 of Berta Cáceres along with two other COPINH leaders on trumped-up charges).

Within a context of increasing persecution and intimidation against Honduran social activists, COPINH’s experience is not unique. Activists across Honduras — whether they are from environmental, labor, indigenous or LGBT rights organizations — have faced intense repression and violence. These acts of violence almost never result in prosecutions, and rather than protect activists, Honduran security forces are frequently suspected of criminal complicity in the attacks.  

“Berta Cáceres, my mother, is not dead. She multiplied. So it is our job, everyone whose lives she touched in some way, to continue multiplying her. From now on, we are committed to carrying on this work.” -Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, indigenous activist and daughter of Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres, co-founder of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and recipient of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was killed by gunmen in her home on March 3rd. Less than two weeks later, one of Cáceres’ colleagues, a COPINH member named Nelson García, was also assassinated following the violent eviction of a Lenca community at Rio Chiquito.

On Wednesday, March 23, Cáceres’ daughter and a COPINH activist were joined by experts on international law and megaprojects to brief U.S. congressional staff and the general public on the events surrounding Cáceres’ assassination and the efforts of Cáceres’ family members and COPINH to seek justice. The congressional briefing, “The Assassination of Berta Cáceres and Ongoing Killings and Attacks Targeting Social Activists in Honduras” was hosted by Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and moderated by Timi Gerson, Director of Advocacy with American Jewish World Service.

In the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, Honduran indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was assassinated in her home in the early hours of March 3. Winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her relentless opposition to the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, which would have threatened the livelihoods of indigenous communities in the area, Cáceres had received numerous threats to her life in connection with her work.

In examining cases of journalists murdered since 2003, PEN International noted that Honduras has an impunity rate of 95 percent, a figure that has risen dramatically since a military coup in 2009. Honduras is even more deadly for environmentalists; at least 109 of them were murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2015. As over 100 members of the U.S. Congress have pointed out, women, indigenous Hondurans, the LGBT community, Hondurans of African descent and other minorities have also been targeted.

Writer and filmmaker Pablo Villaça has weighed in with a scathing assessment of what appears to be a concerted effort between the Brazilian opposition, the Supreme Court and the national media to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office over her alleged manipulation of government accounts. Rousseff’s administration has been marred by a combination of economic recession, austerity measures and a growing corruption scandal involving state oil company Petrobras and top officials in her center-left Workers Party (PT).

There is no doubt that some officials within the PT have been heavily involved in corruption. Yet there is no lack of irony in the notion that Brazil’s centrist and right-wing opposition might sincerely be lending a helping hand to anti-corruption efforts. As The Intercept has astutely noted, most of the opposition parties working to impeach Rousseff are themselves “drowning in at least an equal amount of criminality” for the explicit purpose of personal gain – which Rousseff is not accused of, as Glenn Greenwald explains:

The irony of this widespread corruption is that President Rousseff herself is really the only significant politician, or one of the only significant politicians, in Brazil not to be implicated in any sort of corruption scheme for the—with the objective of personal enrichment. Everyone around her, virtually, including those trying to bring her government down and accuse her of corruption and impeach her, is implicated very seriously in schemes of corruption for personal enrichment. She’s essentially one of the only people who isn’t implicated that way.

Rumor has it that Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign is set to name hedge fund manager Paul Singer as its national finance chairman. The potential move may represent a belated attempt by the Republican establishment to rally behind Rubio in order to derail Donald Trump’s presidential bid, as Politico’s Mike Allen has suggested. It also draws the Florida senator ever closer to his second largest financial backer – who has incidentally just emerged victorious from a decade-long campaign to extract an exorbitant return from Argentina after its financial crisis of 2001.

Almost three years after Argentina defied a New York court ruling that would have forced the country to choose between default and certain bankruptcy, Argentine President Mauricio Macri reached a settlement on Monday with a small group of holdout creditors led by Singer’s Elliott Management. The deal still needs to be approved by the Argentine National Congress, which is set to vote on repealing two laws that currently prevent the country from paying these vulture funds.

Last summer, massive protests erupted in Honduras following revelations that hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the country's national health service had been siphoned off by officials from the ruling National Party. In neighboring Guatemala, similar protests, sparked by a similar corruption scandal, raged for much of the summer and led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Pérez Molina. Following a far-reaching investigation by Guatemala's International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG, by its Spanish acronym), Pérez and former Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti were charged with running a vast customs corruption network, and were jailed pending their respective trials.

In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández remains firmly in place despite evidence that much of the embezzled public funds had been used for his 2013 presidential campaign. To try to placate the protesters, Hernández worked with the Organization of American States (OAS) on a joint proposal for a so-called Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, by its Spanish acronym). But protest leaders, and most Honduran human rights organizations, have rejected Hernández's proposal, considering it far too weak to effectively take on Honduras’ rampant corruption and impunity, and not sufficiently independent. Instead, they have called for the creation of a United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras (or CICIH), modeled on Guatemala's CICIG.

Critics of the OAS/Hernández proposal have pointed out that, in contrast with a CICIG-like entity, the MACCIH — as it is currently proposed — would lack the mandate and capacity to carry out judicial investigations and prosecutions, and instead would merely offer recommendations of reforms that the government is unlikely to ever implement (if past experience is any guide).   

On December 4, Congressman José Serrano and 53 of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives backed these demands in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to support the creation of a CICIH. In a separate statement Serrano said:

We cannot expect to fully address issues of violence and instability in Honduras when people do not feel as though they can trust their government or judicial system. It is time to establish an independent commission to root out corruption and restore trust.

Update 12:12 AM: President Nicolas Maduro stated in an address that "we accept" the results, as he had pledged he would.

Update: 12:08 AM (December 7, EST): With participation of almost 75 percent, the CNE has announced that the MUD (opposition coalition has won 99 seats, while the pro-government coalition has won 46. Nineteen seats are to be announced.

Update 11:58 PM (EST): CNE announcement of results beginning. Watch live here. CNE President Tibisay Lucena says process was "clean and reliable."

Update 11:31 PM (EST): The CNE is expected to announce results within minutes.

Update 10:42 PM (EST): Venezuela Analysis reports that a CNE official was attacked in Chacao, Miranda state, while trying to enter a voting center, a few hours ago, with people chasing him shouting "kill him, kill him." Watch the video here.

Update 9:46 PM (EST): Stay posted. Official results are expected soon. Meanwhile, social media is abuzz over the opposition's unofficial claims of victory, helping to create a potentially dangerous situation.

Update 9:37 PM (EST): In an earlier press conference, Venezuela's defense minister said that there have been "72 electoral incidents," of which seven were electoral crimes, and seven individuals arrested.

Update 8:53 PM (EST): Venezuela Analysis notes "Opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles are celebrating their win on Twitter," and Reuters is likewise reporting:

But the celebration is premature, since, as Reuters notes as the CNE has not announced results yet. Such premature announcements are reminiscent of past elections, such as in 2013, when Capriles cried foul and accused the authorities of a plot to rob him of the election even before results were announced.

Also reminiscent of 2013's elections are attacks on social media accounts of people and outlets considered to be chavista.

Update 8:09 PM (EST): Opal Tometi tweeted:

Three batches of Hillary Clinton’s emails have now been released and, though many emails are heavily redacted, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of how Clinton handled major international developments during her tenure at the State Department. One of the first big issues to hit Clinton’s desk was the June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras that forced democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya into exile. Officially the U.S. joined the rest of the hemisphere in opposing the coup, but Zelaya—who had grown close to radical social movements at home and signed cooperation agreements with Venezuela—wasn’t in the administration’s good books.

The released emails provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of how Clinton pursued a contradictory policy of appearing to back the restoration of democracy in Honduras while actually undermining efforts to get Zelaya back into power. The Intercept and other outlets have provided useful analyses of these emails, but there are a number of revealing passages, some in the most recent batch of emails, that haven’t yet received the attention they deserve.

A number of Clinton emails show how, starting shortly after the coup, HRC and her team shifted the deliberations on Honduras from the Organization of American States (OAS)—where Zelaya could benefit from the strong support of left-wing allies throughout the region—to the San José negotiation process in Costa Rica. There, representatives of the coup regime were placed on an equal footing with representatives of Zelaya’s constitutional government, and Costa Rican president Oscar Arias (a close U.S. ally) as mediator. Unsurprisingly, the negotiation process only succeeded in one thing: keeping Zelaya out of office for the rest of his constitutional mandate. 

From the outset, U.S. interests and policy goals in Honduras were clearly identified in the emails that darted back and forth between Clinton and her advisors. On the day of the coup (June 28, 2009), Tom Shannon, the outgoing Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, provided an update for Clinton and her close staff that noted that he was “calling the new SouthCom Commander to ensure a coordinated U.S. approach [since] we have big military equities in Honduras through Joint Task Force Bravo at Soto Cano airbase.” A later email, with talking points for a phone call between Clinton and the Spanish foreign minister, indicated that Clinton’s team was already focused on making sure that Honduras’ upcoming national elections would take place on schedule (in November of 2009):

We hope Spain will work with us and the OAS to ensure a restoration of democratic order that will allow Honduras to carry through with its electoral timetable (presidential vote scheduled for November).

This talking point would prove to be mostly false. In later emails we see how the OAS is removed from the U.S. agenda, and the “restoration of democratic order” takes a back seat to the State Department’s goal of going forward with Honduras’ November elections no matter what. 

Members of Congress have once again called on the Obama administration to stop funding Honduras’ security forces. Alarmed at the rampant militarization of policing activities throughout the country and a rash of recent reports of human rights abuses involving Honduran security forces, 21 House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry on August 19 expressing their concern and making a series of specific requests, including “the suspension and re-evaluation of further training and support for Honduran police and military units until the Honduran government adequately addresses human rights abuses.” 

For several years now U.S. legislators have been urging the administration to either suspend or overhaul its security assistance programs in Honduras. Back in March of 2012, 94 Democrats asked then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to suspend military and police assistance, noting “credible allegations of widespread, serious allegations of human rights abuses attributed to [Honduran] security forces” and the impunity surrounding targeted attacks against “human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders and opposition activists.” Two years later, 108 House Democrats sent a letter to Kerry expressing concern over the accelerated militarization of domestic law enforcement under current president Juan Orlando Hernández and calling for the State Department to review its security programs in Honduras. Similar letters have appeared in the U.S. Senate, with, for instance, 21 senators questioning Honduran government compliance with human rights conditions attached to U.S. security assistance.

The Congressional letter of August 19 – led by Representatives Hank Johnson (a leading opponent of militarized law enforcement in the U.S.) and Jan Schakowsky (who has led several previous letters regarding Honduras’ appalling human rights situation) – describes the steady militarization of policing that has taken place in Honduras since 2010: The massive deployment of army units to police Honduran streets, followed by the creation of a 3000-strong military police force under a military line of command and a new “super-ministry” of Security combining civilian and military security institutions under the direction of a recently retired general.

This militarization trend is troubling enough in a country that only emerged from military rule in the 1980s and was subjected to a military coup d’état in June of 2009, but there is also abundant documented evidence of widespread abuses perpetrated by military personnel and militarized police, some of which is described in the letter:

A pusher cares less for the health of an addict than squeezing every last penny from the customer. Perhaps this is more so when the victim tries to manage the addiction. Likewise, creditors hardly have the best interests of debtors at heart. Thus, we ought to cast a suspicious eye when creditors make suggestions regarding fiscal policy for their debtors.

In 2002, in the face of a nearly four-year depression and increased borrowing to maintain an overvalued peso, Argentina devalued and defaulted on external debt. The economy recovered rapidly. To come out of default Argentina negotiated in 2005 and again in 2010 haircut deals with the majority of foreign creditors, but a small minority of holdouts continue to prevent Argentina from borrowing internationally. Unable to roll over its debts, Argentina has recently drawn down on foreign reserves in order to make principal payments. Ideally, this is neither better nor worse an option than borrowing. However there is a risk that the drawdown of foreign reserves can feed speculation against the peso, thereby contributing to a black market premium and inflation.

Absent sufficient reserves, Argentina must find a way to borrow or again reduce its debt service. One obvious way forward is for creditors to once again accept new international borrowing from Argentina. This would allow Argentina to roll over its current debt, although it may face a higher interest rate than implied by its current servicing of debt. However, creditors have made an alternative suggestion. According to Moody’s Investors Service, “For Argentina to regain full access to capital markets, its next government will need to reach an agreement with the holdout creditors that have not accepted a restructuring agreement.”

In other words, by bargaining further with its creditors Argentina must now pay for the mere option of continuing to service its debt. With Argentina’s dwindling capacity to pay out of reserves, Moody’s is insisting that Argentina would be welcomed back into credit markets if only it promised to borrow more. Such is the way of the debt pusher—inflicting pain upon anyone who struggles from addiction in the hopes that the struggle is just too great and the victim relapses with greater intensity.

On October 20, 2010, just a few days before Dilma Rousseff was reelected to serve a second term as president of Brazil, newscasts focused on reports that opposing candidate José Serra had interrupted his campaign to undergo medical examination after supposedly being attacked by members of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) during a rally in Rio de Janeiro. In much of the major media and on social networks, it was claimed that the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate had been hit by a heavy object. In fact, as documented by at least five TV cameras, Serra had been hit by a harmless ball of crumpled paper.

Earlier this year, on July 30, an attack at the Lula Institute in Sao Paulo (named for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also from the PT) involving a homemade explosive was reported as an “incident” of no major consequence. Merval Pereira, a columnist for O Globo, denounced the attempt by petistas (members or supporters of the PT) and Lula’s supporters to transform the event into a “terrorist act,” pointing out that “it only made a small hole in the door.” Ricardo Noblat, also a columnist at O Globo, raised the question of whether the throwing of the explosive wasn’t a “setup to allow Lula to pose as a victim.” Reinaldo Azevedo, in turn, on his blog for Veja magazine – one of Brazil’s most influential publications — accused petistas of wanting to exploit the bomb attack in order to crack down on opposition demonstrations scheduled for August 16 (no crackdown of any kind occurred).

Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples of bias in the Brazilian news media. Brazil’s large media outlets present themselves as bulwarks of democracy when in reality they work to guarantee that a society of exclusion and elitism remains in place. O Globo, for example, was one of the earliest supporters of the military coup d’état in Brazil, and it was only in August 2013 that a public retraction from the newspaper= recognized that “the editorial support for the 1964 coup was an error.”

Until the PT won the presidency, the historic social exclusion of certain sectors of the population had never been countered with efficient public policies. Years of per capita income stagnation, neoliberal economic policies and high income concentration exacerbated a large social gap, as shown by high levels of poverty and illiteracy. The result was that a significant portion of the population had no access to social rights guaranteed under the Constitution (healthcare, education, and complete political participation). The PT’s national project was based on social inclusion and the redistribution of income for millions of people who previously had not had the opportunity to fully exercise their citizenship. From the moment the PT began to gain national relevance in Brazilian politics in the 1980s, the country’s traditional media, led by a few families, made one of its main objectives preventing that project from fully developing.

Newly released emails reaffirm that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked to help Honduras’ 2009 military coup succeed. Lee Fang writes for The Intercept:

The Hillary Clinton emails released last week include some telling exchanges about the June 2009 military coup that toppled democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was seen as a threat by the Honduran establishment and U.S. business interests.

One of the most damning new emails, cited by Fang, is penned by veteran diplomat Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the time (and now Counselor of the Department). Shannon’s email makes clear something also detailed in the scores of State Department cables made available by WikiLeaks that we examined and analyzed for the forthcoming book, “The WikiLeaks Files”: Although the U.S. State Department claims to be a neutral observer of elections around the world, the U.S. government invariably has candidates and parties that it wants to win, often – if not routinely – channeling support to these candidates and parties, whether the support be political, material or otherwise.

Here’s then State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack in 2006, just prior to Nicaragua’s presidential elections, in a cable we cite in the book:

We do not … we are not trying to shade opinion or to try to take a position. This is a democratic election. If you look around the globe, we do not take positions. We do not try to influence these elections.

Here’s then Assistant Secretary Shannon in an email [PDF] to Clinton just after the results of Honduras’ November 2009 election were announced:

The turnout (probably a record) and the clear rejection of the Liberal Party shows our approach was the right one, and puts Brazil and others who would not recognize the election in an impossible position. As we think about what to say, I would strongly recommend that we not be shy. We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today's vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people, and we should call on the community of democratic nations (and especially those of the Americas) to recognize, respect, and respond to this accomplishment of the Honduran people.

Finally, this Administration, which worked so hard to manage and resolve this crisis, should be the one who defines the results and perceptions of today's vote, and not our critics on the Hill (who had no clear pathway to elections) or our adversaries in the region (who never wanted this day to happen).

On Sunday, October 4, 1998, as international bankers, investors, finance ministers and officials from the leading multilateral development banks met in Washington for the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, many eyes were looking south, to Brazil.

Late in the afternoon, when Brazil’s finance minister broke the news that Fernando Henrique Cardoso had narrowly won Brazil’s election in the first round, “the room broke into loud applause,” according to Bob Fernandez reporting for Knight Ridder. “Cardoso is an International Monetary Fund favorite,” Fernandez explained.

Officials had been scrambling for weeks to put together an international bailout package for Brazil in response to the Asian Financial Crisis, which threatened to spread to other emerging markets, including those in South America. But the negotiations were held behind closed doors. With key elections on the horizon in Brazil, Cardoso, the incumbent and leading candidate, went to great lengths to distance himself from the IMF package. The New York Times reported on October 1: “Among ordinary Brazilians, the I.M.F. is associated, if not faulted, for a punishing recession through the 1980's.”

On October 2, Reuters reported that Cardoso “has repeatedly denied that he will announce austerity measures immediately after the polls close.” Even after his first-round victory, Cardoso was reluctant to announce any measures before governors and state officials faced critical run-off elections later in the month, worried that an embrace of the IMF plan could hurt their chances.

Cardoso’s main opponent in the presidential race was Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party, who would later go on to win the presidency in 2002, and again in 2006. Lula voiced strong criticism of any potential deal with the IMF, saying that it would “tighten one more knot on the neck around Brazilians.” Lula would go on to end Brazil’s borrowing relationship with the Fund in 2005 when he was president. But the U.S. and other leading players in the global financial system were seen as heavily supportive of Cardoso in ‘98. The New York Times reported in late September (emphasis added):

The proposed package would be openly negotiated only after the presidential election in Brazil next Sunday, and only if -- as expected -- Mr. Cardoso is re-elected. Nevertheless, a senior Clinton Administration official acknowledged on Friday that active discussions are already in progress with the Brazilians, the I.M.F., other governments and private lenders.

Brazil currently has its most conservative Congress in decades. As violence against social movements increases and the criminalization of Brazilian social movements in the media and judiciary intensifies, it is a good time to take a closer look at who these movements are and what they are doing. How did they start, and what is their position in the current political context? This article is meant to serve as a very brief introduction to two of the largest Brazilian social movements: the MST and the UNMP.

During the 1970s, as Brazil suffered under a U.S.-supported neofascist military dictatorship, liberation theology factions within the Catholic Church created political organizing groups, called ecclesiastic base communities, in poor villages and slums. Using methodological tools developed by philosophers such as Paulo Freire, and influenced by Marxism, the priests and nuns began to develop local leaders and organize exchanges among them at the local, regional and national level. There were other factors at work, but the role that liberation theologians played, from the final years of the dictatorship until their censure by the Church hierarchy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was fundamental in the formation of the popular (or “poor people's”) social movements. These movements played an important part in creating one of world's most progressive constitutions, as well as in the formation of the PT (Workers Party), and the elections and re-elections of Lula Inacio da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

FNRUPhoto courtesy of the UNMP-São Paulo.

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST (commonly called the Landless Peasants' Movement, or Landless Workers' Movement), was created in 1984 to address historic inequalities in rural areas (caused by 500 years of monoculture) by fighting for agrarian reform, collectively squatting on and farming on unproductive land under the slogan “Occupy, Resist, Produce.” Due mainly to its efforts, this practice is considered legal under the 1988 Constitution (although the Constitution is frequently ignored by local governments and the judiciary in Brazil) and is now regulated, supported and protected by a government agency called the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária.

While the maquiladora export industry is sometimes touted as a symbol of progress and development in underdeveloped countries, the reality for many workers implies otherwise. In Central America, maquilas act as multinational levers to gain profit, but are not a guarantee of a sufficient income for workers.

According to a 2014 report [PDF] published by labor and social organizations, in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – approximately 350,000 [PDF] workers are employed in the maquiladora industry: 80,000 in El Salvador, 150,729 in Guatemala and 120,000 in Honduras.  As Table 1 illustrates, on average, 54 percent [PDF] of these countries’ total exports to the U.S. are produced in the maquiladora industry (42 percent for El Salvador, 55 percent for Guatemala and 65 percent for Honduras).

Table 1

Data from the U.S. Office of Textiles and Apparel shows that Central America and the Dominican Republic produce around 10 percent of all apparel goods purchased in the U.S., of which 70 percent is produced in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This means that Central America is behind only China (which produces 36 percent) and Vietnam (which produces 11 percent) in clothing exports to the U.S. Among the largest sectors that Central America exports to the U.S. are cotton knitted T-shirts (23.1 percent of these U.S. imports in dollars) and cotton underwear (24.7 percent of these U.S. imports in dollars).

The apparel export industry in Central America is concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals. Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, and Gildan Activewear are three of the biggest North American corporations operating in Honduras, employing around 25 percent of maquiladora workers in the country. Fruit of the Loom alone employs approximately 24,000 workers in Honduras and El Salvador. Nike and Adidas also subcontract production to maquiladoras; together they have about 30 outsourcing companies in Honduras alone.

On January 21, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the beginning of a national program called “Mexico with Decent Work” (México con Trabajo Digno), with the stated mission to “promote the respect, protection and guarantee of human rights for workers in Mexico, as well as to ensure decent work is fully in force.” However, only two months later, as Secretary of Labor Alfonso Navarrete boasted that the program was rescuing people working practically in slave conditions, thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley in the Northeastern state of Baja California went on strike, demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the government and multinational corporations.

Negotiations have yet to move forward. The Mexican government seems unable to respond, perhaps because the organized farmworkers are challenging an alliance between multinational corporations, public officials who also have business in the valley, and corporate unionism– a system that protects the interests of employers.

San Quintín Valley is one of Mexico’s largest export regions, employing tens of thousands of farmworkers, many of them first or second generation indigenous migrants [PDF] originally from Southern Mexico. Each year the region generates more than six billion pesos (about $410 million) worth of agricultural products. It is estimated that there are 80 thousand farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley, and yet in the municipality of Ensenada, which encompasses all of San Quintín, there are less than 24 thousand farm workers registered with the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS). The most important good produced is strawberries, but only a small portion of these are consumed in Mexico. Most are exported to the U.S. market to be sold by fast food chains, or in supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Safeway, or Whole Foods. Around 84 percent of U.S. imports of fresh strawberries come from Mexico, and Baja California leads Mexico’s production and export of strawberries.

Luis Hernández Navarro, Mexican journalist and coordinator of the opinion section of La Jornada, referred to the working conditions this way:

San Quintín’s day farmworkers labour in humiliating conditions on farms that grow produce for export: tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries. In exchange for starvation wages, they work up to 14- hour days without a weekly day of rest, let alone holidays or social security. Foremen sexually abuse the women, and they are forced to take their children to the premises to perform work.

… Many [workers] are indigenous migrants from Oaxaca (Mixtec and Triqui), Guerrero, Puebla and Veracruz, who have made San Quintín into another of their communities. Three generations of Oaxacalifornianos live there. They suffer constant police harassment. They rely on a single hospital [run by the] Mexican Social Security Institute [IMSS].

The Americas Blog’s friend for the week is none other than Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey! Currently under federal indictment on bribery and corruption charges, Senator Menendez recently took a break from trashing Venezuela and fighting the administration over its attempts to normalize relations with Cuba and reach a deal with Iran in order to add his voice to the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who criticize “Fast Track,” also known as Trade Promotion Authority.

Late last night, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced a Senate Finance Committee hearing with just 12 hours notice. The hearing started off this morning with three Cabinet level officials giving testimony, despite the fact that the “Fast Track” bill had not been published. All three said they had not seen the final text of the bill, which in any event was introduced several hours later, at around 2:30 PM this afternoon.

This rushed timeline and lack of transparency was the focus of a statement published by Menendez and signed by half of the Democrats in the Senate Finance Committee:

With millions of jobs on the line, American workers and manufacturers deserve more than a hastily scheduled hearing without an underlying bill. Congress should undergo a thorough and deliberative committee process for debating trade agreements that account for 40 percent of our world’s GDP. And we should be debating a bill that has seen the light of day and contains strong provisions to protect American workers against illegal trade practices like currency manipulation.

During his time for questions, Senator Menendez rightly pressed the U.S. Trade Representative, Ambassador Michael Froman, on his estimate of the net jobs effect of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Here is the exchange, taken from a transcript prepared by CQ Congressional Transcripts:


[…] Ambassador Froman, I asked you at our last hearing on the broad question of trade, how many jobs do you expect to be created -- net jobs, I would say, because in every process of trade, there are winners and losers -- net jobs to be created in TPP within the first year, the first five years, the first 10 years?

You didn't give me any figures, and I'm wondering if, at this point, you're in the position to describe what that would be.


So when the -- the agreement is complete, there'll be a full economic analysis done.

I think the most authoritative analysis right now is probably the one that comes from the Peterson report -- the Peterson Institute that talks about expanding exports when fully implemented by $123 billion a year, adding $77 billion to U.S. GDP and contributing to many more high-paying jobs.

It depends a bit on where you are on the spectrum of full employment. If you're not at full employment, then it adds jobs. If you are at full employment, then it adds better jobs. And so it'll bend a little bit...


So -- so we don't have a number on the jobs? You're talking about just gross?

From April 8-11, President Obama will make his first trip south of the U.S. border since February of 2014.  On April 9, he will be in Kingston, Jamaica for meetings with Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and the leaders of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an organization made up of 15 Caribbean governments.  Then on April 10 and 11, he will be in Panama City where he’ll participate in the seventh Summit of the Americas alongside the leaders of every independent government in the hemisphere including – for the first time – the Republic of Cuba.   

As we had predicted, the last Summit of the Americas that took place in Cartagena, Colombia in April of 2012 was a stormy affair for Obama, with many Latin American leaders objecting to the U.S.’ refusal to allow Cuba’s participation in the summit and criticizing the U.S. “War on Drugs” (not to mention that little scandal involving Secret Service agents and local prostitutes).  Following Obama’s efforts to begin the normalization of relations with Cuba and the lifting of his veto on Raul Castro’s participation in the Panama summit, many expect the U.S. president to receive a warmer welcome this time around.  But dark clouds have gathered again following the White House’s executive order declaring Venezuela an “extraordinary national security threat” and slapping senior Venezuelan officials with sanctions. 

On April 7, two senior White House officials, Ricardo Zúñiga – National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs – and Ben Rhodes – Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications – provided the press with a briefing on Obama’s trip to Kingston and Panama City.  As a service to our readers, CEPR has the pleasure of offering its own background briefing on some of the key issues that are sure to come up during Obama’s trip, with a few choice contributions from the aforementioned White House briefing.

Let’s start with Jamaica.  On April 9, President Obama will, in the words of Zúñiga, “have an opportunity to speak to Prime Minister Miller about (…) our strong support for Jamaica's work to deal with a debt crisis, with a fiscal crisis, and its strong performance in the last two years in working with the IMF and World Bank and others to address that, in support of the prosperity and security of her citizens.”