Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




Elections

If Brazil goes “January 6,” what will its military do?

Brazil’s first-round presidential election is just over three weeks away (October 2). A consensus view is that right-populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who trails former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in every poll, will reject the result if he doesn’t win, setting up Brazil for a sort of January 6 scenario.

If that happens, what will Brazil’s military do? The country’s powerful armed forces ceded power and allowed civilian rule less than 40 years ago, in 1985, and many officers are believed to be admirers of Bolsonaro, a former army captain. A 2021 decree allowed active-duty officers to hold public office. Bolsonaro pushed to give the armed forces a role in detecting possible electoral fraud vulnerabilities, and the officers on a special “election transparency commission” reported finding some.

Few foresee a military coup. But it’s not clear whether the high command will go along with other undemocratic behavior.

Here are a few things that journalists and analysts have said this week in English-language media, as Bolsonaro headed some very politicized Independence Day celebrations on September 7.

Miguel Lago of Columbia University at the New York Times:

There’s a lot we don’t know about how that might come about. But it’s clear that if a contingent of supporters, armed and determined to keep Mr. Bolsonaro in power, burst into Brasília, the capital, it would create chaos. In many major cities, it’s not impossible to imagine an insurrection led by police forces — while truck drivers, overwhelmingly pro-Bolsonaro, could block the roads as they did in 2018, creating havoc. Evangelical pastors, whose congregants by large margins support the president, could bless those efforts as part of the fight for good against evil. Out of such anarchy, Mr. Bolsonaro could forge dictatorial order.

Who will stop him? Probably not the army. Mr. Bolsonaro, after all, has many supporters in the military and over 6,000 military personnel working in his government, filling civilian roles. For its part, the army seems to be relatively relaxed about a possible takeover and has — to put it mildly — no special attachment to democracy. There is no sign, as far as can be seen, that the armed forces could be protagonists of a coup. But neither is there a sign that they would resist an attempt at revolution.

Marcia Reverdosa and Rodrigo Pedroso at CNN:

[Guilherme Casarões, professor of political science at Getulio Vargas University and coordinator of Brazil’s Far Right Observatory] told CNN that that he foresees a “real risk” of a Jan. 6-type event in Brazil if Bolsonaro’s leftwing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, eventually claims victory at the polls.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a coup in the classic sense with the military on the street, like what happened in 1964,” he said, referring to the historic overthrow that led to two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil.

What I think is more likely to happen is an attempted coup, some kind of subversion of democracy … or any attempt to delay the electoral process by introducing doubts about the legitimacy of the process.”

Agence France Presse:

“There’s not the slightest chance (the military) will play any role outside the one established in the constitution,” said reserve general Maynard Santa Rosa, former secretary for strategic affairs under Bolsonaro.

Even though Bolsonaro enjoys close ties with top military figures, such as Defense Minister Paulo Sergio Nogueira, and has picked former defense minister Walter Braga Netto as his running mate, Fico, the military history expert [Carlos Fico, a military history expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro], said those two “have no troops under their command.”

“There is no generalized movement by active duty service members worried about verifying the electronic voting system,” he said.

Fico added that any election-related unrest from the security forces was more likely to come from the police, a group “very influenced by ‘Bolsonaro-ism.'”

John Otis at National Public Radio:

Bolsonaro has not clearly stated whether he would leave office peacefully if he loses. If Bolsonaro is defeated by Lula, then tries to cling to power, analysts say he would lean on the military for support. And some of his supporters are OK with that.

…Fears that the armed forces will intervene in the event of a Lula victory have also been fueled by Bolsonaro’s close ties to the armed forces. He’s a former army captain. His running mate is a retired general, while his government is filled with ex-military officers. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has spent the past year bad-mouthing Brazil’s electronic voting system and claiming that the military should help oversee the vote count. What’s more, authorities recently raided the homes of several Brazilian businessmen who, in text messages, appeared to back a military coup to keep Bolsonaro in power. But some Bolsonaro supporters on the beach, like Patricia Monerat, claim that would never happen.

Chile votes

Chilean voters in May 2021: *electing mostly left-leaning members to Constitutional assembly* “Go write a new constitution.”

Constitutional assembly: *writes a left-leaning constitution*

Chilean voters now: “No, not like that.”

Reuters: In Brazil, Biden’s defense chief to call on region’s militaries to respect democracy

From Reuters today:

U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is expected to call on militaries to respect democracy at an Americas-wide defense gathering this week in Brazil, a senior U.S. defense official said.

Those expected remarks – while not specifically directed at Brazil – are likely to turn heads there ahead of its Oct. 2 election, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro formally launched his re-election bid on Sunday by saying “the Army is on our side.”

This is the right, and really the only possible, move. Otherwise, a Defense Ministerial meeting in Brazil just 68 days before the presidential election risks appearing like a commercial for Bolsonaro.

WOLA Podcast: “What happens with the Petro government could become a model for engaging with the region”

My WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez was in Colombia for the June 19 election that brought a left candidate to power there for the first time in nearly anyone’s lifetime. We recorded a podcast about it on Friday, and here it is. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s podcast site.

Colombia’s June 19 presidential election had a historic result: the first left-of-center government in the country’s modern history. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who demobilized over 30 years ago, will be sworn in to the presidency on August 7. His running mate, Afro-Colombian social movement leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s next vice president.

WOLA’s director for the Andes, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, was in Colombia on election day, and has a lot to share about what she saw and heard. She and host Adam Isacson talk about what made Petro’s victory possible—including high levels of popular discontent. They discuss the political transition so far, the immediate challenges of governability and tax revenue, implications for implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, and hope for greater participation of women, Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and LGBTI Colombians.

The discussion covers areas of potential disagreement with a U.S. government that has long made Colombia its largest aid recipient, including drug policy, trade, and Venezuela policy. Sánchez and Isacson also discuss new areas of potential U.S.-Colombian cooperation, including judicial strengthening and implementation of peace accord commitments that could stabilize long-ungoverned territories.

Links to recent WOLA analysis of Colombia’s elections:

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Recent writing…

You may be wondering what’s the point of maintaining a personal website, if you don’t even use it to post links to things you’ve created at the moment they go public. You’d have a good point.

My only defense is something along the lines of “deadlines meetings too much happening in the news when do I sleep.” That’s a poor defense, though, because it only takes a couple of minutes to post things here, I enjoy maintaining this space, and I want it to be a useful resource.

So here’s what’s come out lately:

The Tragedy in Texas Was Avoidable, Just Like Hundreds of Other Migrant Deaths on U.S. Soil This Year: (posted June 28) As we absorbed the horror of the mass death of migrants in a cargo container in Texas, we published this commentary explaining the larger context: 2022 was already on its way to being a record year for grisly and preventable deaths of migrants on U.S. soil along the border. It’s a result of policies put in place by people in our federal government who have—I don’t know how else to put it—a really cavalier attitude about the deaths of people who’ve committed no crimes.

From rebel to president: Colombia’s new leftist leader: An hourlong English unpacking of Colombia’s election result on BBC’s “Real Story” program, with journalist Catalina Lobo-Guerrero and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck, University of London.

Migration and the Summit of the Americas: (posted June 23) a podcast I hosted with three WOLA colleagues. Between myself, VP for Programs Maureen Meyer, Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer, and Program Assistant Lesly Tejada, since March we’ve done field research in four of the nine sectors into which the U.S. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, we’ve been to the Mexico-Guatemala border, and we’ve attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where migration was a big topic. Here, we talk about all of that.

A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy? (posted to the Quincy Institute Responsible Statecraft site June 22) In the wake of Gustavo Petro’s presidential election victory in Colombia, a preview of areas where the U.S. government could work with him (peace implementation, environment, ethnic and women’s rights, anticorruption) and where there may be a collision course (drugs, Venezuela, trade, the military “special relationship”).

Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too. (posted June 16) Posted in the runup to Colombia’s momentous presidential election, a look at what the implications might be for U.S. policy toward a country President Biden views as a “keystone.”

OK, in the end, this post actually took me a while to write, especially on a Saturday afternoon when there’s a lot going on around the house. Still, I resolve to do a better job of sharing recent work when it comes out.

The last polls are done in Colombia

It’s illegal in Colombia to publish new poll data less than 7 days before an election. The final round of the country’s presidential election is next Sunday, so this is it.

La Silla Vacía maintains a weighted poll of polls, sort of 538 style. It shows Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez within 0.7 points of each other. And we’re not going to see any more polling after this.

With this close of a vote, and this much uncertainty, the looming question for the evening of the 19th and the days immediately afterward is: will the loser and his base of supporters concede? Or will the second half of June be a scary time of anger, fear, and disorder in Colombia?

If Petro wins by a razor-slim margin and Rodolfo Hernández rejects it: Hernández has picked up support from some wealthy and far-right elements who don’t have a history of playing by the rules. Though the political bosses, landowners and others who supported paramilitarism 15-20 years ago probably can’t force non-recognition of a Petro victory, they can spend the succeeding weeks and months making much of the country ungovernable and violent if they don’t accept the outcome. There also appears to be white-hot hatred of Petro in some corners of the military, and while I don’t foresee unconstitutional saber-rattling during the days following the election, I can’t dismiss the possibility either.

If Hernández wins by a razor-slim margin and Gustavo Petro rejects it: Petro’s supporters include core participants in last year’s national strike, which paralyzed the country for two months. They can control the streets again. And don’t expect Colombia’s National Police to obey proper use of force standards when they respond: they have little record of doing that in the past.

The second half of June could be really complicated.

Spanish version of today’s “Responsible Statecraft” analysis of Colombia

I’m grateful to the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, for publishing my analysis of the current moment in Colombia’s elections. The first round was five days ago, and the second, between two very non-traditional candidates, is coming on June 19. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Read the English version there.

Here (with help from DeepL, and me giving that a non-native-speaker edit) is el contenido en español.

“Cómo un populista esquivó la vieja maquinaria de izquierda-derecha de Colombia”

Por Adam Isacson

Las elecciones presidenciales de Colombia se dirigen a una segunda vuelta el 19 de junio. Es imposible predecir quién gobernará de 2022 a 2026, pero es seguro que habrá un cambio sorprendente. Por primera vez en la historia moderna del tercer país más grande de América Latina, el candidato elegido por la arraigada élite política colombiana no es uno de los finalistas.

Los colombianos están agotados por la pandemia, el aumento de la pobreza y la desigualdad, el incremento de la delincuencia y la proliferación de grupos armados, y un gobierno en funciones que no ha sabido transmitir empatía. En la primera vuelta del 29 de mayo, el 40,3% apoyó a Gustavo Petro, el primer candidato viable de centro-izquierda en al menos 80 años, en un país donde los candidatos reformistas han sido asesinados con frecuencia.

Aunque estaba llenando plazas y recibiendo mucha cobertura de los medios de comunicación, las encuestas habían mostrado correctamente que era improbable que Petro, ex guerrillero y ex alcalde de Bogotá, alcanzara el umbral del 50 por ciento necesario para una victoria en la primera ronda. Las encuestas apuntaban a que Petro se enfrentaría en la segunda vuelta, y probablemente vencería, a Federico Gutiérrez, el candidato respaldado por el partido del actual presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, un conservador impopular.

Eso no fue lo que ocurrió: Gutiérrez quedó en tercer lugar, y Petro se enfrentará a otro candidato “outsider” a favor del cambio. Rodolfo Hernández, un irascible ex alcalde de la sexta ciudad más grande de Colombia, de 77 años, obtuvo el 28,2%. Hernández, un acaudalado empresario que se presenta sin partido político y que aparece más a menudo en Tik-Tok y otras plataformas que en persona, atrajo a los colombianos opuestos a la política de Petro pero descontentos con el statu quo. Se ha disparado en las últimas encuestas, impulsado por un estilo populista, campechano y propenso a las meteduras de pata, y por un mensaje anticorrupción de gran calado (aunque se están investigando algunas irregularidades en la contratación durante su gestión como alcalde).

La ventaja de Petro y el auge de Hernández supusieron un duro golpe para la maquinaria política tradicional de Colombia, incluida la del otrora dominante ex presidente Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), un conservador cuyo candidato elegido (incluido él mismo) había llegado a la ronda final de todas las elecciones desde 2002, perdiendo sólo una vez. Quien gane el 19 de junio no estará en deuda con los partidos mayoritarios de Colombia, aunque éstos sigan teniendo muchos escaños en el Congreso. Y muy notablemente, independientemente del resultado, la próxima vicepresidenta de Colombia será una mujer negra: la líder del movimiento social Francia Márquez (Petro) o la académica Marelén Castillo (Hernández).

La matemática ahora mismo favorece a Rodolfo Hernández. Su porcentaje de votos válidos el 29 de mayo, más los de Gutiérrez, arroja un voto de “cualquiera menos Petro” de hasta el 54 por ciento. Una primera encuesta, publicada el 1 de junio, mostraba a Petro y a Hernández dentro del margen de error, con Hernández ligeramente por delante, y un gran número de indecisos (14 por ciento). Un segundo sondeo, sin indecisos, daba a Hernández un margen de 52-45.

Aunque se trata de una votación entre dos candidatos del “cambio” con fuertes tendencias populistas, el 19 de junio no será una contienda entre la izquierda y la derecha: ver las elecciones de Colombia de esa manera es malinterpretarlas. Hernández, en un claro esfuerzo por despojarse de la etiqueta de “derecha”, expuso en un tuit el 30 de mayo un hilo de propuestas políticas tan centristas, incluso de izquierda en algunos temas, que Petro lo acusó de “regoger mis propuestas”.

  • Ambos prometen implementar el acuerdo de paz de 2016 con las FARC, al que Uribe y sus partidarios se opusieron. El programa de Petro discute en mayor detalle cómo lo implementaría, incluyendo las prioridades de género y étnicas.
  • Ambos prometen proseguir negociaciones con el grupo guerrillero que queda en Colombia, el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), de más de 50 años de antigüedad.
  • Ambos restablecerían las relaciones con el régimen de Nicolás Maduro en Venezuela, un probable golpe al gobierno alternativo opositor de Juan Guaidó, a quien tanto Bogotá como Washington reconocen actualmente como presidente de Venezuela.
  • Ambos son muy críticos con la política de drogas tal y como se ha practicado en el último medio siglo. Hernández le dijo al embajador estadounidense que estaba a favor de la legalización de las drogas, cuando se reunieron en enero. Ambos buscarían legalizar el cannabis recreativo, y no se reanudará la dura política de erradicación de la coca mediante la fumigación de herbicidas desde aviones, apoyada por Estados Unidos y suspendida por razones sanitarias desde 2015.
  • Ambos candidatos se oponen al fracking, apoyan el derecho al aborto (recientemente legalizado por una decisión de la Corte Constitucional), y apoyan los derechos del colectivo LGBTQ, el matrimonio gay, y la adopción por parte de parejas homosexuales.
  • Ambos dicen que apoyan el derecho a la protesta social, incluido el paro nacional que paralizó Colombia durante semanas en abril y mayo de 2021. Y ambos critican duramente a Uribe, el ex presidente de línea dura al que los colombianos asocian con importantes logros en materia de seguridad, pero también con violaciones de los derechos humanos y faltas de ética.

La lente izquierda-derecha, entonces, es de poca utilidad para entender lo que está sucediendo. Las posiciones de Gustavo Petro son tradicionalmente de izquierda, pero no está claro si Petro gobernaría como un socialdemócrata o como un “hombre fuerte” populista. Hernández es más amigable con el sector de las grandes empresas, pero las posiciones enumeradas muestran más flexibilidad ideológica que la que hemos visto en populistas de derecha como Jair Bolsonaro o Donald Trump. En lugar de llamarlo el “Trump colombiano“, tiene más sentido comparar a Hernández con populistas latinoamericanos semiautocráticos que no encajan fácilmente en los encasillamientos de izquierda-derecha, como el mexicano Andrés Manuel López Obrador o el salvadoreño Nayib Bukele.

Gane quien gane, el próximo presidente de Colombia será un líder que tratará de apelar directamente al pueblo, que se peleará a menudo con los medios de comunicación, y que probablemente no defenderá las normas establecidas y las frágiles instituciones. El próximo líder se resistirá a los controles y equilibrios democráticos; ambos han planteado la idea de utilizar poderes de emergencia. Se enfrentará a los enemigos: para Petro, son las élites tradicionales de Colombia; para Hernández, son los que considera corruptos, o, de forma alarmante, la población inmigrante venezolana, que ha sido objeto de algunos comentarios xenófobos.

Todos estos son elementos de lo que podríamos llamar el “libreto populista”, un elemento emblemático de las democracias en declive del siglo XXI en todo el mundo. El próximo presidente de Colombia podría ser popular y transformador, pero el país podría ser aún menos democrático que es.

Esto supone un reto para Estados Unidos. Tanto las administraciones demócratas como las republicanas han invertido 25 años, y más de 13.000 millones de dólares, en construir una “relación especial” con Colombia, especialmente con las fuerzas de seguridad colombianas. Al presidente Joe Biden le gusta llamar a Colombia “la piedra angular de la política estadounidense en América Latina y el Caribe”. A Washington le preocupa perder influencia en el hemisferio occidental en favor de China y otras grandes potencias rivales.

Washington está a punto de descubrir que sólo ha construido una “relación especial” con un pequeño segmento de Colombia -las élites urbanas, las fuerzas armadas, las asociaciones empresariales-, lo que le deja sin preparación para trabajar con un gobierno cuya base está en otra parte, en la sociedad civil organizada y entre las clases medias descontentas, los colombianos más pobres, y los afrodescendientes e indígenas. Independientemente de quién gane, es probable que la relación entre Estados Unidos y Colombia siga siendo cordial en general, pero el camino que queda por recorrer será muy accidentado.

Los puntos de vista de ambos candidatos sobre las relaciones con Venezuela y sobre la política antidroga -especialmente la erradicación de cultivos forzados y la extradición- podrían ponerlos en vías de colisión con la administración Biden y con los republicanos del Congreso. La visión crítica de Petro sobre el libre comercio y la inversión extranjera, y su probable deseo de relajar la asociación militar entre Estados Unidos y Colombia, provocaría hostilidad en algunos sectores de Washington. El resultado podría ser palabras desagradables, reducción de la presencia diplomática, reducción de la asistencia y, quizás, un abrazo aún más estrecho a las élites empresariales y políticas de Colombia ya fuera del poder.

La relación de Washington con Colombia podría llegar a parecerse a la que tiene ahora con otros gobiernos populistas o de tendencia autoritaria en la región (aparte de los de izquierda dura -Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela- con los que las relaciones son totalmente hostiles). Si es así, los funcionarios estadounidenses evitarán airear la mayoría de los desacuerdos en público. Preferirán enfatizar las áreas de cooperación, como hacen hoy en día en materia de migración con México y Centroamérica, o en los lazos militares con Brasil.

Los funcionarios estadounidenses tratarán de relacionarse con algunas instituciones aunque se mantengan al margen de los líderes políticos. En Brasil, El Salvador y Guatemala, por ejemplo, el Comando Sur de EE.UU. continúa con un programa intenso de compromisos militares incluso cuando las relaciones con los presidentes Bolsonaro, Bukele y Giammattei son distantes. Es fácil imaginar un escenario en el que la relación entre militares, en vez de entre civiles, se convierta en la interacción más estrecha del gobierno estadounidense con Colombia.

El próximo reto inmediato para la política estadounidense -y para la diplomacia internacional en general- se producirá el 19 de junio. Si, como parece probable, los candidatos están a pocos puntos porcentuales de distancia entre sí, la posibilidad es alta de que uno de ellos clame “fraude” y rechace el resultado. Si Hernández rechaza el resultado, podría contar con el apoyo de poderosos intereses empresariales y jefes políticos, y quizás incluso de facciones de las fuerzas de seguridad. Si Petro lo rechaza, las protestas callejeras podrían paralizar el país, y quizás volver a encontrarse con una respuesta policial violenta.

Si esto ocurre, el gobierno de Estados Unidos, junto con la OEA y todos los amigos de Colombia, deben trabajar para desactivar la violencia y canalizar las tensiones hacia el diálogo. Eso significa basar todas las declaraciones públicas en hechos establecidos, no en resultados deseados. Significa condenar el comportamiento que viola los derechos humanos, algo que la administración Biden tardó en hacer durante las protestas nacionales de 2021.

Como demuestra la elección de dos candidatos ajenos a la sociedad, los colombianos están con los ánimos crispados en este momento. El objetivo diplomático debe ser amplificar lo que es cierto y buscar desescalar rápidamente. Sólo entonces podremos pasar a preocuparnos por la política y el populismo.

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

Here’s highlights of a discussion Gimena Sánchez and I had with Héctor Silva at WOLA the other day.

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

Colombia analysis at “Responsible Statecraft”

The Quincy Institute posted an analysis by me about Colombia’s election campaign and its implications for U.S. policy. It went up last Friday on their very good Responsible Statecraft site.

Head-to-head second-round scenario polling shows a razor-thin margin between the two leading candidates, who represent dramatically different visions of government. Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former Medellín mayor, offers continuity with Duque’s conservative politics, which the Biden administration might find reassuring. It would, however, mean continuity with a model of which most Colombians appear to disapprove after four years of worsening violence and economic insecurity.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, offers radical change that could consolidate a 2016 peace accord and implement reforms to address one of the world’s worst records of income and land inequality. Petro leads in first-round polling by a comfortable margin. However, he carries a strong whiff of populism and appears open to cooperation with China and Russia, which worries the United States. U.S. diplomats have sounded alarms about Russian interference in Colombia’s campaign, mostly via social media, and they could only be referring to Petro.

Read the whole thing here.

WOLA Podcast: What’s at Stake in Peru’s Coming Elections

The latest WOLA Podcast is about Peru, where presidential elections are happening on Sunday. I started by asking WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, a political scientist at George Mason University, “Is it really a Leninist versus a corrupt right winger?” She said, “pretty much,” and we went on from there.

The .mp3 file is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page:

Peruvians go to the polls on June 6 for a runoff election between two presidential candidates who, in April 11 first-round voting, combined for barely 30 percent of the vote. The candidates, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori, represent ideological extremes in a country hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which both heightened and highlighted gaping social divisions and failures of the past 30 years’ economic model.

Amid growing tensions about possible outcomes, this podcast episode features a panoramic discussion with WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt, the author or editor of four books about Peru, including Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru: Silencing Civil Society which, though published in 2007, is a very important volume for understanding the complexity Peru is facing today.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

A stark contrast with the other candidate

Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate when I was two years old, and he was never known as a stirring speaker. He still plods through some of this October 27 speech, but it’s the best I’ve seen him.

Given at Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR died, it’s got much of his usual stump speech in it, but with some reflections—about unity, the reason why people pursue public life, and “who we want to be as a nation”—that are important to hear today.

A week before Election Day, only a candidate with a comfortable lead makes a final sales pitch like this. There are a few passages where he bothers to mention and attack Donald Trump. But much of it is reflective and talking about bigger questions, and those parts are quite strong.

I wouldn’t have even known about this speech had the Trump campaign not put out an excerpt of a few seconds of Biden saying “Why am I doing this? Why? What is my real aim?” He was actually quoting Pope Francis, in one of the strongest parts of his remarks.

He says for those who seek to lead, we would do well to ask ourselves, why am I doing this? Why? What is my real aim? Pope Francis asked the question that anyone who seeks to lead this nation should be able to answer. My answer is this. I run to unite this nation and to heal this nation. I have said that from the beginning as badly necessary. The Bible tells us there is a time to break down and a time to build up. A time to heal. This is that time.

Not as entertaining, perhaps, as the unmasked 100-car pileup that is every Trump rally. But what a contrast.

Some pleasant surprises in Colombia’s local elections

Colombians voted for governors, mayors, town councils, and local legislatures on October 27, and—unlike so many places in the world lately—left and right radicals and populists had a lousy day. Voters especially rejected the ruling rightist party of President Iván Duque and former president Álvaro Uribe, who has lost his luster.

In most cities, voters also rejected powerful political machines. Independent candidates with anti-corruption messages—many with ties to social movements—enjoyed unprecedented success. Elsewhere, however, especially in the countryside, it was business as usual: supported by rivers of questionable campaign money, local bosses and candidates of long-reigning, corrupt political clans won easily.

Some highlights:

Bogotá’s new mayor will be Claudia López, the first woman, and the first LGBT person, to lead this city of more than 8 million people. This is a remarkable victory because Claudia comes from our sector: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with her since the mid-2000s, when she was an investigator at a Colombian think-tank, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. There, she helped blow the lid off of a major political scandal, known as “para-politics,” that saw about a third of the Congress elected in 2006, plus mayors, governors, and other officials, investigated, tried, or jailed for supporting murderous, drug-funded paramilitary groups. A bold and clear public speaker, López became a frequent commentator and columnist in Colombian media, emphatically denouncing examples of corruption. She won a Senate seat in 2014, and led a 2018 effort to pass a series of anti-corruption reforms through a referendum, which failed after voter participation narrowly fell short. She is often described as “center-left,” as a member of Colombia’s Green Party; while socially liberal and a supporter of the 2016 peace accord, López may be tough on common crime, and is unlikely to spend lavishly on social programs, other than for education.

Bogotá mayor-elect Claudia López, third from left, speaks at WOLA’s annual Colombia conference in October 2018.

The surprise victor in Medellín was 39-year-old Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate from the center-left. Polls had been showing a likely victory for Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of President Iván Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático party. This is a devastating defeat for the Centro Democrático, as Medellín is the home city of the party’s founder, populist ex-president Álvaro Uribe. (Uribe was briefly mayor of Medellín in 1982.) Even in his home region, the ex-president’s coattails were not enough to elect Ramos, who lost by a margin of 303,000 to 235,000 votes.

Many Colombians fondly remember Uribe’s 2002-2010 presidency for his personalistic style and tough policies that reduced several measures of insecurity and weakened leftist guerrilla groups. His star has fallen, though. The ex-president has since become quite extreme, even Trumpian, in his political messaging, leading efforts to sink Colombia’s peace accord and using his Twitter account to attack and intimidate opponents. Uribe is also in legal trouble; Colombia’s Supreme Court is investigating credible allegations that he sought to bribe or coerce jailed former paramilitary fighters into testifying falsely against a political opponent.

During his presidency, the bimonthly Gallup poll of Colombian public opinion routinely had Uribe’s favorability rating above 70 percent, and sometimes 80 percent; by August 2019, this rating had fallen to 34 percent, with 61 percent having an unfavorable opinion of him. (President Duque’s approval rating was only 29 percent, with 64 percent disapproving.) The Centro Democrático had a bad day nationwide, failing to win major population centers nearly everywhere. Its candidate in Bogotá, Miguel Uribe (no relation), finished fourth, the last of the major candidates.

Álvaro Uribe’s grim poll numbers.

Cali also elected a progressive candidate as its mayor: Green Party candidate Jorge Iván Ospina, a former mayor and son of a founder of the old M-19 guerrilla group, will return to the job.

In Cartagena, William Dau, a candidate who ran without a party, was the victor over a long-running political machine. The city’s corruption-riven government has gone through 12 mayors in the past 6 years.

In Buenaventura, the impoverished Pacific city that is Colombia’s busiest port, voters elected Víctor Hugo Vidal, a leader of the Paro Cívico (Civic Strike), a social movement that led weeks of protests against corruption and poor government services in 2017. This was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the elite in a city where local government corruption is epic in proportion.

In the Venezuela border city of Cúcuta, normally one of the most conservative corners of Colombia, voters chose Jairo Yáñez, a businessman running on the Green Party ticket with an anti-corruption message, claiming his campaign spent only about US$25,000. His victory is an unexpected blow to Ramiro Suarez, a former mayor, imprisoned for para-politics, who remains a major power broker in the city.

In Magdalena, Will Freeman writes at NACLA, a political movement called Fuerza Ciudadana swept the governorship and the mayor’s race in the capital, Santa Marta. This is remarkable since this coastal zone, the home department of author Gabriel García Márquez, has been notorious as a stronghold of paramilitary groups and corrupt “para-politicians.”

In the Caribbean department of Sucre, one of Colombia’s poorest, the gubernatorial candidate of para-politician Álvaro “El Gordo” Garcia’s longstanding political clan, Yahir Acuña, suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of the Liberal Party candidate.

In Chocó, Colombia’s poorest department, the powerful and para-political Sánchez Montes de Oca clan failed to elect its candidates for governor and mayor of Quibdó, the capital. The winning candidates, however, may not be paragons of integrity.

In Cauca Elías Larrahondo, running in a coalition of centrist parties, has become the department’s first-ever Afro-Colombian governor.

While I haven’t looked at all town council elections, the FARC political party, descended from the guerrilla group that negotiated peace in 2016, did not win mayorships, and only ran candidates for just over a dozen. The FARC ran 308 candidates, mostly for councils and departmental legislatures, and got well under 1 percent of the total vote. One former FARC member, Guillermo Torres alias Julián Conrado—known previously as a guerrilla folksinger—was elected mayor of the Cartagena suburb of Turbaco, Bolívar. Torres, however, did not run as a candidate of the FARC party; he showed up on the ballot under the logos of two other left parties.

On the other end of the populist political spectrum, candidates aligned with leftist Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and number-two presidential candidate in 2018, failed to meet expectations. Petro’s “Colombia Humana” candidates suffered defeat in Bogotá, Medellín, Atlántico, Cesar, Nariño, Santander, and Valle del Cauca, though a few candidates (like Torres, the ex-FARC singer in Turbaco) were elected elsewhere in coalition with other parties.

In much of the rest of Colombia, allegations of vote-buying, dirty campaign money, and candidates with organized crime ties were rife. These areas remain what Bogotá’s Fundación Paz y Reconciliación think tank, referencing the work of Northwestern University scholar Edward L. Gibson, calls “local authoritarianisms,” where candidates independent of traditional political bosses don’t stand a chance. Cities and departments where voters still went out and backed the “machines” include Barranquilla, Bolívar (except Cartagena, the capital), Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, La Guajira, and Valle del Cauca (except Cali, the capital).

The End of One-Party Rule is the End of Trump’s Border Wall

Sorry, but no.

Even before the Democratic Party won majority control of the House of Representatives, it wasn’t clear how Donald Trump was going to be able to get his border wall through Congress, which must approve the funding for it. Senate rules make it possible to block big budget outlays—like $25 billion for a wall—if 60 senators don’t first allow a vote to proceed. The Senate’s Republicans were (and still are) well short of that “filibuster-proof majority,” and Trump had been threatening to shut down the government to try to break the inevitable logjam of opposition.

His bargaining position just got far weaker. With the result of Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump’s border wall has hit a wall of its own. With a Democratic majority, there is no way that a piece of legislation with border-wall money can pass the House of Representatives. Full stop.

Democrats will now write the first draft of all funding legislation. The Homeland Security appropriations bill will be drafted by a subcommittee headed by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, who strongly opposes Trump’s wall. “I am acutely aware of America’s security funding priorities,” she said in January. “We will not address our security needs by building this wall.” In July 2017, when the appropriations subcommittee that she will now preside met to approve the 2018 Homeland Security budget bill, Rep. Roybal-Allard introduced an amendment that would have cut Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Assets and Infrastructure funding by $1,571,239,000—the exact cost of the border wall—and to use it for other purposes. The amendment failed by a party-line vote of 22 to 30.

Democrats will also decide ahead of time which bills and amendments may be considered on the floor of the House of Representatives. Because there are so many representatives, the House has a Rules Committee that acts as a gatekeeper. It meets before any major legislation comes to the House floor, to decide which bills and amendments will be “in order”—that is, permitted to be considered—during the next day’s debate. Republicans have used the Rules Committee to prevent much legislation and amendments from coming to the floor, ruling it “out of order.” As of January, though, this powerful committee will be chaired by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), a longtime advocate of human rights in Latin America.

It is very hard to imagine a scenario in which President Trump gets his border wall through this House of Representatives. And if it doesn’t get through the House, it doesn’t get through Congress, and it doesn’t get funded.

Unless: if the president really wants his border wall, Democrats might be open to a deal if it includes big concessions to their agenda. President Trump would have to give the Democratic Party something very big to win their approval for his wall. That “something” would probably have to do with immigration policy.

In 2017, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) reportedly offered not to filibuster a package of border-wall money if the White House and Senate Republicans supported legislation allowing “Dreamers” to stay in the United States. That deal fell through, and now that judicial decisions have preserved Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for now, the Democrats would probably demand much more for border-wall funding. Their demands would probably extend to preserving access to asylum, strict limits on family detention and separation, non-deportation of migrants with Temporary Protected Status, reforms to CBP and ICE, and probably other demands that strike at the heart of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigrant crusade.

If the White House isn’t willing to concede a lot on immigration—and after the over-the-top campaign rhetoric we’ve just heard, it probably isn’t—then Trump’s border wall is dead and done with. We are now “beyond the wall.”

Live updates of my House vote spreadsheet

I’ll keep updating this all night. Keep refreshing this page, or better yet, the Google Sheets page is here.

My pessimistic (or perhaps realistic) House spreadsheet

I hesitate to share this because it reveals how unhinged the midterm elections have made me. But here’s a spreadsheet of 70 House districts that could conceivably go either way in tomorrow’s vote.

To win a majority of the House of Representatives, Democrats will have to carry 33 of these 70. Nearly half. That is, they need to hold the ten Democrat-held districts listed here, and take 23 more.

After an unhealthily obsessive study of polls and coverage, I’ve given each of the 70 districts a score.

  • If it looks like a likely Democratic pickup, it gets a 1.
  • If it’s too close to call but I think it’s a plausible Democratic win, it gets a 0.5. That way, every two “plausible” districts equals one Democratic pickup.
  • If it’s a longshot, it gets a 0.
  • If it’s close but there’s a plausible chance that a Democratic seat could flip Republican, it’s a -0.5.
  • If the Democrat is likely to lose, it’s a -1 (that’s Radinovich’s seat in Minnesota, and a result of court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania-14).

I’ll update this through election night. But as of 5:00PM on Monday the 6th, I see the Democratic Party just barely squeaking by with a net gain of 23 seats, giving them a bare 218-217 majority:

You may score these districts more optimistically than I do. But I’ve been burned before, and by my reckoning, the Democrats will just barely make it.

Most analysts seem to be expecting the Democrats to pick up about 35 seats. (I’m closer to the RealClearPolitics map, which predicts a 26.5 seat Democratic pickup, for a 221.5-213.5 majority.) Sorry, but I just don’t see 35 seats.

There’s no wiggle room. This spreadsheet explains why I’m feeling pretty anxious about the Trump administration being subjected to any meaningful oversight and accountability over the next two years.

If I’m wrong and it’s a blowout, I’ll be delighted to admit how cracked my crystal ball is on Wednesday.

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.