Latin American Studies Around the World: Southampton Hosted the 2018 SLAS Conference

Last week the University of Southampton hosted around 200 experts on Latin American Studies from all over the world who gathered at the 2018 Society of Latin American Studies’ Annual Conference to reflect on the history and current state of Latin American Studies in the UK and around the world.

SLAS_Team_IMG_20180322_111434.jpg

A team of ten students from Social Sciences and Humanities were part of the organising team, based at PAIR, and efficiently run this two-day event at the Winchester campus. For most of these students, it was their first experience on a professional academic event of this size and prestige. They enthusiastically combined work experience with attendance to panels and networking with the experts in their favourite topics.

Full information about the conference programme, keynote lecture, closing plenary and more pictures can be found at http://generic.wordpress.soton.ac.uk/slas2018/.

 

The shadow of Brexit: delegating or pooling sovereignty?

By Pia Riggirozzi (University of Southampton) and Diana Tussie (FLACSO/Argentina).

Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

On 23rd June, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union through a non-binding yet politically compelling referendum. The result was a close 48% remain and 52% leave, demonstrating a very divided society. This division is largely due to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership leading to apparently widespread support for anti-politics parties such as UKIP and insensitive political leadership and, more profoundly, a political-economic project that seems to be cutting away, wilfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Britain. As we have indicated somewhere else, this is also part of the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK where the Right is failing to impose an economic model based on rising inequality and the Left unable or unwilling to refashion a social contract of ‘caring capitalism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’. As a society it manifested some deeply disturbing moral, emotional and human issues of ‘national’ identity preceding any responsibility towards ‘others’, being those immigrants that legally contribute to the UK economic activity and social life, or those ill-fated, dispossessed, immigrants and asylum seekers who are simply trying to survive. Equally disturbing is, as Grugel claimed, how all this ignores both the complexity of identity in Britain and a history of internationalism of the UK in global affairs.

As the British elite spins with the implications of the vote, there is much to reflect on the current crisis in the UK and indeed in Europe more widely. Brexit is about class, inequality, voters feeling excluded from politics, as much as a loss of purpose of what regional integration is for.

 

What regionalism is and is for

Crucially, Brexit revitalised a conventional argument that regional integration is associated with a reduction of state power, especially in terms of the ‘loss of sovereignty’ to markets and normative regulating flows of people, in this case workers and immigrants, to regional institutions. Taking control back of the country was the political platform of supporters who consider that integration in larger multilateral schemes means diminution of state power as a result of the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty or surrender to the regional level. Effectively, once policy measures such as tariff liberalisation are established at the regional level, national governments’ direct control over policy is sharply diminished. Authority is thus removed not only from the state but also from societal influence. But this is not necessarily incompatible with a revitalisation of state power. Aldo Ferrer, former Minister of Economy in Argentina, defended the thesis that a successful integration rests on coordinated ‘construction of sovereignty’. This construction does not rest upon the delegation of sovereignty to supranational communitarian institutions, which in a conglomerate of unequally resourced members could lead to the subordination of the weaker states to the hegemonic power of the stronger states, as the experience of the European Union demonstrates for cases such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, nor does it rest on the transfer of sovereignty to supranational institutions, but rather on inter-governmental institutions and agreements that adequately address regional economic and social disparities within the bloc. Regionalism, from this perspective, enhances governance through cross-border intergovernmental forms of cooperation, and identified instances of regionally coordinated programmes of resource redistribution, social regulation, regional provision of welfare goods and services, social rights (including regional mechanisms that give populations the means of claiming and challenging governments).

As such, the key question is less what regionalism is (in terms of its philosophical, legal, or institutional bases) and more one of how regionalism acts, the roles and purposes to which the practice of regionalism gives expression to political actors and policies. In other words, what practices and political imaginaries specific regional governance enable or obstruct, what issues are made visible as central problems, and what modes of action are supported as a consequence.

The Brexit outcome indicates that the Leave platform in the UK successfully created a false sense that Britain would be better off on its own. By capitalizing on anti-immigration sentiments, economic inequality, and lack of understanding of the EU, the Leave campaign won the support of voters that have been in many ways the disaffected – older, less educated, low working class or non working class, and whose concerns focused on the loss of jobs, rising inequality, the supposed misallocation of government funds to the EU instead of British systems, and the increase in immigration. Brexit created a sense of identity and self-image amongst those actors who reacted to a regional integration model perceived as failing to adequately address regional disparities within the economic bloc, and across and within societies.

Likewise, Brexit shows that citizens’ information about and engagement with regional politics and institutions is vital for legitimacy and demands for accountability. A key problem faced by the Remain campaign was the lack of accurate knowledge about the EU, its normative beyond movement of goods and people, and its relationship with Great Britain and the ordinary people, including frameworks for rights, including the right to health. A 2013 EU Survey found that nearly half of EU citizens said that they didn’t understand how the EU worked, or how monetary contributions may support cross national arrangements for free health coverage and tax rebates.

 

Opportunities for reclaiming and rebuilding sovereignty through regionalism

The Brexit vote has led many in Latin American commentators to wonder about the benefits and disadvantages of regional integration. From an economic point of view, there are concerns about the prospects of economic vulnerability led by financial volatility and a halt in ongoing bilateral trade agreements with the EU. Politically, sceptics claims that compared to Europe, Latin America did not develop any ‘integration initiatives meaningful enough for people to even consider leaving’, taking this as a sign of failure. In fact, claims that Latin American regionalism has failed have been common for more than a decade despite the fact that that regional initiatives have proliferated since at least the 1960s and despite its long tradition in a diversity of regional associations.

This conclusion is certainly persuasive given the recurrent politico-institutional and economic instabilities in Latin America and holds up well if regionalism is merely understood as an economic project. However, over the last two decades regional demands for – and supply of – regional initiatives in Latin America increasingly focused not on economic deepening but on regionally-anchored projects addressing social development. These recent developments are significantly different, in content and in institutional architecture, from the experiments of the 1990s or even in the early years of the new millennium. For this reason, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for instance are seen as a manifestation of post-commercial or what we have identified as post-hegemonic regionalism with distinctive calls for reclaiming sovereignty collectively through, for instance, health and defense. From this perspective, we must pay new attention to the ways southern regional organisations are re-engineering normative frames and debates as to what the purpose of regional integration should be, what kinds of social policies are needed, and what roles regional institutions should play in helping members to achieve those policies. This is significant because regional normative frameworks articulate political forms of thinking that configure political agency; make central or even visible particular issues; and privilege particular forms of political practice. This is also key to rethink how regionalism can serve the purpose of strengthening sovereignty through regional diplomacy.

The case of regional health policy in South America helps to illustrate this point. In the field of health policy there are multiple tensions between the interests of international pharmaceutical industry, developing countries, their national health systems and citizens. UNASUR and Mercosur have taken action on access to medicines, coordinating active resistance to the dominance of pharmaceutical companies under a motto that links regional health diplomacy with sovereignty. As a consequence a new regional ‘Database on Medicine Prices’ was set up revealing the prices paid by South American countries for their drug purchases. By making the information public and comparative, UNASUR and Mercosur are seeking to provide policymakers and health authorities information to strengthen the position of member states in purchases of medicines vis-à-vis pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, UNASUR’s Health Council has recently launched a project for mapping regional pharmaceutical capacities, to coordinate regional policies for production of medicines. Within the WHO, UNASUR as a bloc has pressed to change international norms regarding the combat of counterfeit medical products. The harmonisation of policies on medicines means that MERCOSUR/UNASUR negotiated the price for public sector purchases of the anti-retroviral Darunavir to US$ 1.27 per tablet from up to US$ 2.98 paid by some South American governments; an agreement with the pharmaceutical Gilead for the lowest possible price for essential medicines to treat Hepatitis C. These are the ways in which South America has been constructing the coordinated construction of (health) sovereignty, ways that skew hegemonic heavy riding, do not hit the headlines, careful to keep policy discretion to cope with disparities but important enough to increase bargaining power in asymmetric situations. These features lie at the core of our understanding of post-hegemonic regionalism.

Courting Diasporas: The Politics of Emigration Policies in Latin America

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


Dr Ana Margheritis was recently invited to give a talk at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy on the politics of emigration policies in Latin America.

A short interview with Dr Margheritis on the subject of her talk is below, and the full audio and a summary is available here.

 

 

 

 

Upcoming Conference on Global Migration

This year the Institute for Latin American Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, have situated global issues (including migration) at the top of their agenda for debate. They invited Dr. Ana Margheritis to co-organize an interdisciplinary conference with broad aims. Please find more details in the call for papers and link to webpage below.

Managing Global Migration: New Perspectives from Latin America and Europe

November 12, 2015

Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London

This one-day ILAS conference at the University of London will present and debate new research on the multiple ways and means of addressing and managing global migration flows between Latin America and Europe. The conference will move beyond area studies by focusing on two world regions historically linked by human mobility and cultural exchange but now grappling with significant demographic changes and new migration trends. These changes and trends include the reversal of flows, the greater heterogeneity of migrant groups, the pull of women leaders in family migration projects, the concentration of newcomers in non-traditional destinations, the intensification of dual or multiple engagements in the country of origin and residence, and the development of new forms of citizenship beyond borders. The aim of the conference is to assess how and to what extent state and non-state actors in both Latin America and Europe are coping with and capitalizing upon the complex and creative implications of these new trends.

We aim to critically address the need to reconcile the political regulation of new trends in human mobility with democratic and multicultural demands for respect of rights and difference. We welcome papers that address this broad scope and aim from a variety of disciplinary, methodological, experiential, and comparative perspectives. ILAS aims to publish a selection of previously unpublished papers. Limited funding is available for travel expenses of participants. Please submit an abstract of 250 words with short bio and contact information by SEPTEMBER 15 to the conference co-organizers:

Dr. Ana Margheritis, University of Southampton
A.Margheritis@southampton.ac.uk

Dr. Mark Thurner, ILAS, University of London
mark.thurner@sas.ac.uk

All Change in Argentina as Sun Sets on the Kirchner Era

By Pia Riggirozzi. Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


Argentina’s open presidential primary is over, and the stage is now set for the election in October. With the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, constitutionally barred from running again, the autumn poll looks set to be a fight between Argentina’s two main political coalitions.

On the left is Daniel Scioli, the current governor of Buenos Aires province, who leads the official Peronist party Front for Victory. He is Cristina de Kirchner’s candidate of choice, though has stayed shy of taking on an explicitly Kirchnerist political identity. On the right is the current mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri; he heads a coalition of strange bedfellows called Cambiemos (Let’s Change), which comprises Macri’s conservative Republican Proposal party, social democrats, and the Radical Civic Union.

The primary system pits all the parties’ candidates against each other in one poll to determine who runs in the general election. Scioli and the Front for Victory got the biggest share with more than 38%. That sets him up well for the elections in October, bodes well for the nation’s verdict on the highly contentious and deeply personalised Kirchnerist legacy.

Twilight

When Fernández de Kirchner’s term ends in December 2015, she and her late husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner, who ruled from 2003-7, will have enjoyed the longest unbroken presidential tenure since Argentina became a democracy, in the course of which they left a profound mark on their country. As Juan and Eva Peron did before them, the Kirchners have managed to establish a political style that will bear their name long after Cristina finally leaves office.

Governor Scioli: Cristina’s best hope?
Reuters/Martin Acosta

The political project now known as Kirchnerismo (Kirchnerism) is undoubtedly very divisive. For some, it stands for a return (at least in aspiration) to economic growth, prosperity, and the expansion of citizenship rights, all led by the state. For others, it represents a corrupt quasi-authoritarianism, combined with cynical populism and meddlesome state intervention.

Nonetheless, the expansion of rights and welfare provision under the Kirchners has been so widely welcomed in Argentina that none of this election’s contenders dares to challenge it. And with such a strong consensus on a big tranche of Kirchner-era social policy, the campaign might fast descend into a game of character mudslinging.

That’s partly a factor of the weakness of the candidates themselves. De Kirchner has failed to cultivate a strong heir, and the opposition isn’t faring much better. Cambiemos, for its part, has not developed a convincing and comprehensive political platform to take Argentina in a new direction.

All it seems able to do is mount fierce attacks on the personal and political style of Fernández de Kirchner and her entourage – something the last few years have hardly made difficult.

Counting the days

Throughout their 12 years in office, the Kirchners have been dogged by accusations of corruption, which have badly eroded Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity and legitimacy. Things have only gotten worse in recent years. Discontent and distrust have grown under Kirchnerist statism, with its apparent reluctance to protect private property, and alleged propensity to favour government cronies with subsidies and contracts.

Conflicts with the media and opposition media groups have also led Argentine investigative reporter Jorge Lanata to investigate a possible network of international bank accounts and unaccounted wealth connected with the state.

Things reached a fever pitch when prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment on January 18 2015. His body was discovered just hours before a judicial inquiry was expecting to examine claims that Fernández de Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, tried to cover up Iran’s role in the country’s deadliest ever terrorist attack. Nisman’s case against Fernández de Kirchner and Timerman was dismissed on February 2, but it dealt a heavy blow to the government’s credibility and authority.

Adding to the twilight atmosphere is a seriously beleagured economy. Some pessimists are even predicting collapse, a forecast born of creeping inflation, slow to non-existent growth, a serious dependence on commodities markets, and a deeply destructive default.

Detractors of Fernández de Kirchner, and Kirchnerism, want Argentina to save itself from true disaster with a return to capital markets, even becoming a major regional economic power again if the right economic policies are implemented and sustained. Such accommodation with global neoliberalism would mark the true end of the Kirchnerist project.

A lasting legacy

Latin American politics expert Steven Levitsky argued that we might in fact be facing “the end of the left in Latin America”. The commodity boom has all but ended, and many of the leftist movements that rode it to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are running out of steam after too many years in power.

But what this analysis misses is the depth of the left’s legacy – a plethora of policies for social inclusion, citizenship and rights that has left a deep imprint on the continent. Kirchner-era Argentina, for its part, has taken bold steps to widen its social safety net and citizenship rights. Targeted cash transfer programmes, which were initially short-term, were extended by the plan Argentina Trabaja, supporting co-operative enterprises in poor neighbourhoods.

On to the next one.
Reuters/Marcos Brindicci

Cristina’s government also introduced a targeted programme for children, the Universal Child Benefit (Asignación Universal por Hijo or AUH). It’s not the country’s first child benefit scheme, but it covers the population on an unprecedented scale. The AUH provides around 200 Argentine pesos (US$50) a month to nearly 4m children and families, and 80% of Argentina’s children now receive some form of child benefit.

For the first time, the government is extending welfare programmes directly to children and to workers who are not unionised. In fact, most beneficiaries will be self-employed or in the informal economy – groups that were particularly active in the protests of 2001.

The Fernández de Kirchner government also introduced a “reasonable” minimum wage for non-unionised workers (including domestic workers) in 2008, and has put pressure on private health companies to extend their coverage and reduce their charges. An anti-poverty strategy has brought poverty down to around 25% from more than 50% in the wake the 2001-02 economic crisis.

In this scenario, it is not surprising that the poor voters who have benefited from state largesse over the past eight years remain loyal to the Kirchnerist project. This explains why Scioli is riding high, for now at least. His ascendance is a sign that despite all the problems they and their country have faced, the Kirchners have managed to construct a legacy of inclusion and social rights that may yet endure.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Short Commentary on the Summit of the Americas

By Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan. Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.


U.S. loss of hegemony, Venezuela the loser, and the international presence of Latin America.

The 2015 Summit of the Americas (SOA) was an historical event in Latin American history. The Summit was first launched by U.S President Bill Clinton in 1992, as a series of meetings that brings together leaders of countries in Latin America. Historically, characterized of being led by the U.S agenda, the programme was different. This year was the first time in the over 20-year history of the SOA that Cuba was allowed to attend. It may be early to celebrate that the event brought together Cuba and the U.S however, this rapprochement could somehow distracted the purpose of the meeting: pursuing a common quest for regional solutions to its many challenges. It is important that the countries work to make this forum a space of discussion where differences and the show of who will say what and what the reactions might be, are put aside.

While the U.S. domestically beginning an interesting political moment with three strong “Latino” candidates; Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, pursuing the Oval Office in 2016, Obama travelled to Panama with a friendly face and relaxed attitude towards the meeting. By leaving the presidency in 2016, now there is nothing to lose and what happens in Panama is of relatively little importance, right? However, under the regions eyes it is undeniable that the U.S. does not lead the agenda of the summit anymore and debate about this country’s hegemony over the region has increased. 

We will have to see what happens with the U.S. and its relations in the region. Apparently, the U.S. will try to have a more active role in negotiating its economic and development policies with the countries in the region. In fact, we already started to see the first trips of different representatives of the U.S. to Cuba, for example. Let’s follow what happens with the meeting that the governor of NY is set to hold in Cuba.

Evidently the winner of the summit is Cuba. This is not because of the positive opinion of its participation at the summit but because of the presence of the U.S., giving stability to the current political and economic situation in the country.  It seems that Cuba and the U.S. are helping each other in generating stability in both countries. In contrast, the loser of the summit is Venezuela. Has anti-American discourse stopped being important? Without succeeding in lifting the decree of Venezuela as a “threat”, President Maduro’s weakness as a political leader is evidently. Moreover, there was a clear absence of unconditional support from Cuba (see Joaquin Roy).

Finally, the presidents of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil went unnoticed. They are the presentation of the counter-examples in the development models that they are pursing. Brazil and Dilma with the Petrobras scandals and the protests in the streets back home, Mexico with the kidnaping and killing of 43 students in Iguala and a security crisis; and Argentina with the Nisman case. This shows, evidently, that interesting times are coming in Latin-American.

Finally, the presence of Latin America at the international level is growing. Among different things happening in Latin America currently impacting the world, I leave just the ideas of a young Latin American politician that caused commotion in social networks this week, with a video of her participation at the first Ibero-American Youth Parliament held in Zaragoza reproaching populism from left and right-wing governments in Latin American (see Gloria Alvarez).

Obama and the Latino Vote: Falling in Love Again?

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


A bold attempt to regain initiative capacity is shaping the last years of Obama’s second term in office. In late 2014 he announced the launching of two executive actions of great impact in domestic and foreign policy: a relief program to stop the deportation of millions of undocumented migrants (mostly from Latin America) and the initiation of conversations to reestablish relations with Cuba. These two decisions affect directly sectors of the electorate of Hispanic origin that have been crucial in his electoral victories. It is plausible then to expect that these measures will have some repercussions in the next electoral cycle. David Ayón and I addressed the roots and (still uncertain) fate of these initiatives in our publication entitled “Obama’s Latin Turn: A Strategy of Structural Change?” forthcoming next month in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

We argue that the content and timing of this policy shift cannot be understood without taking into account the evolving demographic and political profile of the highly diverse but increasingly integrated Latin American immigrant groups in the US, and in particular their role in domestic politics. We trace the careful crafting of a special relationship between the president since he was presidential candidate and the community of Hispanic origin, the use of specific tools and policies, the arduous negotiations to cope with obstacles to immigration reform, the launching of executive actions to overcome the stalemate, and the subtle mechanisms that allowed Obama to rely on the Latino vote to win elections since 2008. The historical and statistical account in our article leads us to questions of relevance for political scientists and practitioners alike: Is the next presidential election the opportunity for Democrats to forge a new structural and sustainable re-alignment in the party’s electoral coalition? Would this finally be “the time of change” as Obama announced it in his first campaign?

Far from predicting an outcome, we point out to the potential impact of the presidential leadership on the articulation of electoral and governing coalitions in the long term. We place this variable in historical context and in a broader domestic politics dynamic. Here are some of our points.

First, we note that it would be problematic to generalize about a proper “latin” community. Immigrants of Hispanic descent in the US are a highly diverse group. Their potential capacity to mobilize politically is proved and, therefore, they have to be included in candidates’ political calculus. But the formation of a coherent and independent front is still a matter of controversy. In addition, their voting turnout is still very low.

Second, we build upon other studies to show that Latinos’ electoral behavior is likely to be shaped by a number of factors, not just the fate of immigration reform. As Matt Barreto and Gary Segura explain in detail in Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation, the latino vote has been influenced by several factors lately: immigration matters to (mostly first generation) immigrants but they also care about questions of equality, religion, security, economics, and candidates’ ties with the community. Thus, the overall impact of recent presidential actions on the entire Latino community may be limited. And it would be misleading to assume that Latinos might act as a captive constituency for any party.

Third, we note that electoral times often polarized political views on controversial issues. Over the years, Obama managed to maintain hope and positive expectations alive among Latinos, despite generalized disappointment with lack of effective changes. The Hispanic community took note of outreaching moves such as the appointment of high-rank officials of Hispanic descent, the push to the Dream Act, and presidential opposition to a very controversial immigration law in Arizona. It also took note of the latest bold initiatives above. According to a Gallup’s survey, immediately after the announcement of such measures Obama’s popularity among Hispanic-Americans increased by 12 points, rewarding him with a 64% of performance approval. Would it possible to maintain that rate of approval if the Executive cannot unlock institutional vetoes? This is an open question since the presidential decisions are facing opposition not only in Congress but also from federal courts (see details in the recent analysis of the Migration Policy Institute: http://migrationpolicy.org/article/all-eyes-us-federal-courts-deferred-action-programs-halted).

Fourth, from a historical perspective, we learned not to overestimate the president’s capacity to have an impact on the performance of its party, especially in the case of a president in his last term, without any chance to be re-elected. Bruce Caswell reminds us in “The Presidency, The Vote and The Formation of New Coalitions” (Polity 41, 2009) that only Ronald Reagan managed to pass the presidency along to his successor from his party and only for one term. He also points out that Obama increased evenly the support of Hispanics and other minorities in past elections but he did not bring new groups to the traditional electoral coalition of Democrats. Thus, the next presidential elections will be crucial to assess if Latinos (especially, the younger generation) have really become incorporated in the Democrats’ electoral coalition on more integrated and permanent basis than in the past.

Thus far, re-gaining initiative capacity and projecting a positive message focused on economic recovery as Obama did in his last speech to Congress in January 2015, attest of the president’s strategic shift and might increase the electoral chances of his party. It is not clear yet how presidential bold moves articulate with a broader economic and political dynamic and to what extent institutional vetoes may be overcome. For most migrants of Hispanic origin, the trip “to the North” is embedded in deeply-rooted expectations of a better standard of life and improvement for individuals, families, and communities. But the conditions that may allow them to “reclaim the American dream” –as Obama called it in his book The Audicity of Hope—are largely beyond the control of the president.

In sum, we note that forging a governing coalition that might advance a “Latin agenda” as well as other innovative policies is a crucial challenge today –and probably the most uncertain aspect of Obama’s departure. The imprint that Obama is giving to his last term will probably raise his profile and mark his legacy. It might also have just a short-term effect and limited scope if other political actors do not endorse or negotiate his initiatives within a broad political agreement supportive of structural changes.

What Is Going on in Argentina with President Fernandez de Kirchner?

By Pia Riggirozzi. Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


[Cross-posted at The Conversation.]

Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has announced plans to dissolve her country’s intelligence services. President Fernandez de Kirchner’s move comes after the controversial death of a prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who had accused her of attempting to cover up Iran’s role in the country’s deadliest ever terrorist attack: the bombing of the AMIA (the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society) in Buenos Aires in 1994, which killed 85 people.

How did things get to this point, and how did Fernandez de Kirchner get into such terrible legal turmoil?

Cristina de Kirchner and Héctor Timerman. EPA/Jason Szenes

Muddy waters

Nisman had allegedly been investigating the AMIA bombing for over a decade. He finally brought things to a head in mid-January 2015, when he suddenly brought an indictment against Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, for their suspected involvement in the cover-up.

Nisman was then found dead in his apartment on January 18 2015, just four days after serving the indictment and hours before a judicial inquiry was set to begin. His death was declared “suspicious” despite the fact that it seemed like a suicide – and the investigation into it has now turned up evidence he may have been planning to arrest Fernandez de Kirchner herself.

Nisman’s allegations about the Iranian connection must be seen in a wider context. There has been a marked shift in Argentina’s policy towards Iran since 2010, mainly led by Timerman, towards trade and diplomatic relations.

At the same time, Iran has been trying to raise its profile in Latin America in general as it looks for ways to ease the pain of Western sanctions. Tehran has forged close ties with leftist governments in Venezuela and Bolivia, and has been seeking trade agreements with Brazil for food imports.

While the shift to Iran, and the lack of judicial progress in the case of international terrorism striking the country still needs to be accounted for, the death of Nisman and the ensuing political chaos has raised profound concerns about the state of Argentina’s democracy.

Alberto Nisman. EPA/Cezaro de Luca

Nisman’s case against Fernandez de Kirchner and Timerman was dismissed on February 2. It relied heavily on transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Argentine negotiators and Iranian officials, and these recorded conversations – provided by the intelligence services – were found to be inconclusive and the case lacking in substantive evidence.

There are suspicions about whether this evidence was all it seemed, and worries that the intelligence service was up to its old tricks once again – muddying the waters of a highly sensitive case, or even supporting sinister plans to destabilise the government.

But those misgivings themselves show that whatever Fernandez de Kirchner’s real reason for doing it, the intelligence overhaul was undeniably long overdue.

Toxic institutions

During Argentina’s so-called Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s, the intelligence services were dominated by the military, and acted as its instrument in the persecution of opposition leaders and social activists.

After democratisation began in 1983, the government of Raul Alfonsin was mainly focused on reforming two main enforcing agencies: the armed forces and the police. The intelligence services were left for later, despite the fact the secret services were still rampantly active, engaging in political disappearances and the extortion of prominent businessmen to “make up” for the dwindling demand for their services.

In part, this was just one of many difficulties facing a fledgling democracy that was struggling to achieve stability and self-confidence. But the intelligence services were also protected by the fact that even democratic governments found them very politically useful.

Taken at face value, then, Fernandez de Kirchner has done the right thing. Dismantling the intelligence services was necessary, a debt of democratisation in Argentina. And while passing the reform will require parliamentary endorsement, Kirchner’s Front for Victory party controls 39 of the 72 seats in the Senate and 130 of the 257 seats in the lower house, the changes will probably enjoy a smooth ride through both chambers.

But whether Fernandez de Kirchner’s newfound zeal for reform will do anything for the health of Argentina’s democracy is another question entirely.

For democracy’s sake

Instead of opening up engagement with the opposition, Fernandez de Kirchner’s swift intervention has become a piece of partisan grandstanding, and has all but trivialised the judicial process Nisman began.

It has also done nothing to dismiss suspicions about the president’s “real reasons” for dismantling the intelligence service, while sending party politics into a frenzied back-and-forth of accusations and denunciation.

The government stands accused of using Nisman’s case for partisan ends, dodging a major investigation into the president in an election year; it in turn accuses the opposition of not wanting to give up illicit paid access to political information from spooks.

Of course, weak institutions and impunity for the powerful are not the fruits of some latter-day Kirchnerista invention; they are long-established facts of Argentine political life. Still, the current government has done a lot to deepen distrust of the state among its people.

To be sure, the sensation around the death of Nisman made it clear just how badly Argentina’s intelligence system needed reform, and created the context to finally get the job done. But for the sake of democracy, this must not be allowed to descend into a party-political brawl – and certainly not at such a sensitive time, as a two-term-limited president nears the end of her tenure.

Mexico Needs to Put Corruption on the Political Agenda

By Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan and Simca Theresa Simpson. Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton and Simca Theresa Simpson is an MSc Graduate from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Following The Economist’s description of the current political crisis in Mexico as the “The Mexican Morass” (http://econ.st/1ExFARX), an apparent warning call from the international community has gone out to the Mexican government to build transparency into its national administration.

Peña Nieto’s government comes in the new wake of the democratization process in Mexico. This has meant the end of the single-party system, the election of Partido Acción Nacional (Right-party) administrations for two terms. The current president claims to be the new face of the PRI (the party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years), and the only government capable of pushing for the reforms needed to achieve the economic and social growth needed to move towards greater development. Indeed, Peña Nieto’s Administration passed constitutional transformations in Congress at an astonishing pace, and succeeded at enshrining political alliances and the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) into these changes. Through the Pact, the three major parties in Mexico commit themselves to analysing the constitutional reforms and working together to achieve development. However, once the constitutional reforms were passed, the Pact ended and the normal political discrepancies were back to normal. Nonetheless, the economic situation seemed to be improving, mainly, because the reforms allowed investment into economic sectors that had formerly been closed to private investment. The perfect storm was brewed under this political environment, nonetheless, with the events of the #Ayotzinapa kidnaping, the #Tlataya massacre and the discovery of links between members of the current administration and Grupo Higa (a business empire that won numerous contracts under Peña’s administration in the State of Mexico). To make matters worse, investment rates and predicted economic growth rates in the country are less stellar than expected, and as an oil-producing country, drops in petrol prices translate into greater misfortune.

The government has called for the Mexican people to overcome these events through a series of measures. However, Mexican society continues to reject the actions and information provided thus far by the government. The Mexican people have little faith in the discourse that the government is presenting. Likewise, with a tremendous lack of accountability, matching that of the current administration, the opposition parties haven’t provided a real alternative or taken a stand in the fact of these events. To complicate matters further, 2015 is an electoral year in Mexico, and under this perfect storm is not clear what stances the parties, including the President’s own, will take. It is likely that Mexico is experiencing one of its worst periods of political crisis, and to date the parties have no concrete solutions for facing June’s impending elections.

In this environment, three scenarios are possible in terms of addressing the events that have recently unfolded in Mexico in election time. First, the current administration could come up with a credible proposal to fight corruption and strengthen accountability. This would certainly strengthen the standing of their party (the PRI). Secondly the opposition could seize this opportunity and come up with credible proposals (other than those taken up by the current administration). This could give them a better chance at winning more seats in Congress. The third option, however, is a stalemate in which recent events are swept under the carpet, and the electoral process trudges along comme si rien n’était. The third option is of course the most dreadful.

It is likely that the only way for Mexico to move towards reducing corruption and policing it, will be for all politicians to view this topic as a political issue rather than simply joining the race for the best rhetorical defence in the face of accusations. The only way for truly make fighting corruption an issue on the agenda is for politicians of all stripes to realise that this is the only way to truly gain the trust of the citizenry. Has Mexico reached the point at which transparency can be a political topic, or are politicians so self-interested that they will blacklist the fight against corruption as an agenda item, because most of them have themselves been stained by acts of corruption at some point in their political career?

This electoral period may actually been marked by the most diluted political debates since the democratization process gained steam. The campaigns are approaching and it will be seen how political parties start to frame their campaigns. The Mexican people can hope that politicians do not take the third option: to sweep recent events under carpet and simply wait for this moment to pass. Many topics for campaign agendas could be taken from the #Ayotzinapa, #Tlataya, and the conflict of interest scandal. This is a good opportunity for Mexican politicians to frame their agendas in a new light.

The current situation in Mexico is an opportunity to build true politics of anti-corruption and accountability. General agreement and political consensus happened with the electoral reforms that put the country on the path to democracy. This probably caused the PRI to lose the elections in 1997 and; then 2000 and 2006. They shot themselves in the foot. However, the party came back onto the scene with a significant role, allowing it to secure the presidency once again in 2012. That’s how politics works.

The good news is that today the electoral system in Mexico is more democratic than before. It is true that it still needs transformations and discussions are underway for improving the electoral system, however, the impact of democratic transformations cannot be denied. There is no doubt that the electoral system is stronger than 20 years ago. General consensus pushed forward the electoral reforms in the 90s that ended Mexico’s single-party system in Mexico. But, can a general agreement be secured about fighting corruption or are there many personal interests that make accountability an impossible political topic? Will Mexicans be able to say in the coming years that the system is less corrupt than in the past? Truly this is a call for politicians to put tackling corruption on the political agenda, for the benefit of Mexican society.

The Mexican President’s Passing “Moment”

By Ana Carolina Aranda, Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.


Almost two years ago the international press claimed that Mexico was living through a special moment of reform and development (see http://econ.st/T2Woeg and http://nyti.ms/Xsvzlj). After the announcement of passing constitutional reforms, it seemed that Mexico was presenting to international actors an interesting model of development. It was called “The Mexican Moment.” For this moment, after many years, the capacity of the Mexican state was seen as positive by international opinion and the news media. However, today, the same international news media are claiming the end of this “magical” moment (see http://nyti.ms/1szud3L, http://fw.to/ex5GoNe and http://econ.st/1HJzrFd). Did Mexico really undergo a developmental miracle only to now find itself in crisis?

The crisis that the Mexican government is facing today is about an institutional and political crisis rather than the emergence of a focused problem on organized crime and drug dealing policy. First, there is a lack of acceptance by the Mexican government of well-established events and facts. There is a lack of recognition of human rights violations committed against the 43 missing students, as well as other crimes committed in recent years on behalf of Mexico’s war on drugs. Moreover, there is clear weakness in the Mexican rule of law and institutional responsiveness to the corruption embedded in the structure of the state. Secondly, the governments has not given the Mexican people a credible answer to the questions currently being posed. People are reacting to a collapse, a “perfect storm” in Mexican politics, due to the lack of transparency that for many years has been presented in the different presidential administrations.

The kidnapping of 43 Iguala students and the government’s response to this event do not constitute the most dramatic moment that Mexican politics has ever faced. Back in 1994, President Ernesto Zedillo confronted public opinion in one of the most histrionic moments in Mexican politics. However, what was the difference in response between these two administrations? Zedillo’s administration tackled the problem by being as accountable as possible. In fact, under Ernesto’s Zedillos administration, people said that they did not want to hear the president speaking on TV again, as every time he went live he needed to give some bad news. Apparently, the President took a strategy of attacking problems frontally, and this was welcomed by Mexican society. In contrast, the response to this crisis by Peña’s administrations has been less organized and quite unreliable. Their answers to this crisis have been full of contradictions.

The response to the Iguala event was a localization of the problem by the Federal Government. The authorities and institutions of the state of Guerrero were blamed for the disappearance of the students. However, Mexican society did not accept the localization of the problem and it was soon claimed that this was a human rights crime committed by the state at all levels. According to Mexico’s attorney general, the crime was committed by members of a local narco-gang and under the orders of the former mayor of the city. Students from the School of Ayotzinapa were about to protest in a public event held by the wife of the Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca. According to the authorities investigating this case, the officers and police (colluding with the organized crime and Abarca) were told to stop the students from interrupting a speech that was going to be delivered by Ms. Maria de Los Angeles Pineda (Abarca´s wife) on that day. The result of these orders are facts that we already know from the news: 43 students disappeared. However, to this day, none of these facts have been clearly explained. Therefore, a crisis of answerability is in the middle of the problem. Massive protests around the country have started. The protesters blame Peña’s administration and they question its legitimacy.

Local and international newspapers show thousands of people marching in the streets of Mexico. Additionally, through these events, in a moment of opportunity, new and old social protests have joined the street (see http://t.co/NKkgAbiEND). On the 20th of November, thousands of people were convened, mainly through social networks, to protest in different parts of the country and the world against Mexico’s government. However, what was supposed to be a largely peaceful march demanding the return of 43 missing students ended in violence in the capital city. Sadly, the news in Mexico and around the world reported what happened at the end of these demonstrations, showing pictures of violent events in the Zocalo area of Mexico City, but not reporting what happene some hours before when Mexican society organized themselves, walked all along Paseo de la Reforma (one of the main avenues in the city) claiming social, political and economic changes . Clearly, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful but angry. And, this non-conformity is well more than justified.

The popularity level of the president has sunk quite low. Coupled with Ayotzinapa events, some weeks ago Mexico’s President and First Lady Scandal over ‘White House’ mansion came to news, posing a crisis of Mexican government accountability. A house bought by the president’s wife from a state contractor, who was assigned millions of Mexican pesos when Peña was governor. The suspicion of a conflict of interest clouded even more the political situation in Mexico. Moreover, in addition to this scandal some other scandals from other cabinet officials are being opened. Recently, news confirmed that Luis Videgaray, the finance minister, bought a house from the same firm and government contractor, involved in president’s wife scandal. What is more, in both cases, the clearing of facts has not led to the accountability that would be required to convince the people that these situations are being dealt with truthfully and appropriately.

There is a feeling of moral resentment toward the way in which the government has been answering the crisis. In a couple of months, the events will start to lose potency. However, this administration has much work to do if it wishes to restore political and moral credibility. In the electoral year to come, to renew the position of Congress it will be necessary to answer all the questions that have been put to this administration’s credibility. The government’s partial solutions that have been delivered by the cabinet convince only a few. If Peña Nieto’s administration wants to make a transformation of Mexico and convince citizens about the reforms and the future progress of the country, then they must soon change their strategy of action. He must act quickly to re-establish his political credibility.

The presidency of controlled speeches has missed the entire challenge of these crises. Far from having a public response to all the problems presented so far, it ran out of credible answers as soon as this “perfect storm” started. Consequently, I see two potential actions which could help the administration weather this storm. First, the president needs to appear before the nation offering an apology and recognizing the errors committed. There is nothing more exciting than a person in power recognizing his own mortality. We saw it before under Nixon’s administration, and perhaps this recipe can work with Peña Nieto as well. Second, the president must make changes in his cabinet. He needs to remove those people directly involved in the scandals even after some of the facts have been clarified. Clearly and urgently, the president needs to eliminate the shadows that have blurred his administration and recover credibility from Mexican society. What do you think, is there another way for the administration to proceed?