Author Archives: David Doyle

Brazil – President Temer Continues to Battle Corruption Charges

Michel Temer continues to fight the corruption allegations that have dominated his short presidency. On Tuesday, a report presented to the Constitution and Justice Committee (CCJ) by Bonifacio de Andrada (PSDB-MG), a Temer ally, urged the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies to reject the latest criminal charges against President Temer, and two members of his cabinet, Eliseu Padilha, the Chief of Staff, and Moreira Franco, the General Secretary.

Temer is accused of obstruction of justice an racketeering by the federal prosecutor as part of the Lavo Jato scandal that has engulfed the Brazilian political class. This latest charge has emerged as a result of a set of tapes that was given to prosecutors by two brothers, Joesley and Wesley Batista, who are in control of the gigantic Brazilian meat packing firm, JBS. As part of a larger plea deal involving allegations of bribery and corruption, the Batista brothers released these tapes to the federal prosecutor, on which we can allegedly hear President Temer approving continued cash payments by the Batista brothers to the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, in return for his silence. As part of their testimony, the Batistas also allege that President Temer received millions of dollars over the last seven years in order to fund his electoral campaigns. Temer and his party are accused of receiving nearly US$190 million in return for political favors.

The Brazilian lower house now have to vote on these accusations. They will do this towards the end of October. For the investigation to continue, 342 out of 513 members of congress must vote in support of the allegations. If the Chamber reject the charges, then the investigation is frozen until Temer leaves office. If the charges are accepted, then Temer will be suspended and his case will be heard in the Senate, under the direction of the Supreme Court. In fact, this is the second time that the Chamber will have voted on charges levelled against Temer. In August, by 263 votes versus 227, they rejected a different allegation of corruption presented by federal prosecutors.

The wider Lavo Jato corruption scandal centers upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in addition to other construction companies, in return for a whole gamut of favors. In fact, Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

The scandal has also dragged other Latin American executives into its orbit and has included allegations of corruption involving the former president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), the sons of former Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, and in Argentina, members of Mauricio Macri’s centre-right organization have been accused of ties with Odebrecht, and in the case of Gustavo Arribas, of accepting a direct bribe from the firm. In the Dominican Republic, the Brazilian firm admitted that it payed US$92 million in bribes to Dominican government officials to secure large and lucrative infrastructure projects.

Michel Temer has a lot on his plate. He has been trying to push through crucial legislation relating to pensions and the retirement age in Brazil, but this scandal has dominated the political scene. Temer is now the most unpopular president ever in Brazil. According to a recent Ibope poll, only 3 per cent of the population consider his government good, or very good. Indeed, 77 per cent consider his government bad or terrible. One thing is for sure – the Lavo Jato will continue to dominate Brazilian politics for the foreseeable future.

 

Bolivia – Ruling Party Still Presses for Change in Term Limits

The issue of term limits for President Evo Morales and his left-leaning governing party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), still remains on the table. The MAS party has submitted a claim to the Plurinational Constitutional Court that the current constitution, and the articles specific to term limits, are violating the political rights of the president by limiting the constitutional right of all Bolivians to “participate freely in the formation, exercise and control of political power“. In short, their argument contends that the constitutional provisions on term limits are, in fact, unconstitutional. They wish the Court to overturn the relevant articles and allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019.

This is not a minor political battle. Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014. The Bolivian Constitution, the current version of which was adopted in 2009, states that presidents are only entitled to two consecutive terms in office. On this basis, Morales’ opponents challenged his right to run in the last election in October 2014. Morales was first elected in 2006, before being re-elected again in 2009 and as such, his opponents claimed he has already held two consecutive terms, and so was constitutionally barred from running again. The Supreme Court disagreed. In 2013, they ruled that his first term in office was not applicable in this instance as it occurred before the new constitution when the two-term limit came into effect.

But this not stopped Morales seeking a fourth consecutive term. In February 2016, Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum, which would have allowed him to run again in 2019. Despite high levels of popularity throughout his terms, coupled with growth rates of nearly 7 per cent per annum, he was dogged by a corruption scandal involving a former relationship from 2005 with Gabriela Zapata and her relationship with a Chinese construction firm, CAMC. During the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling and corruption, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. As a consequence, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate (with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent).

But Morales and the MAS, despite initially claiming that they would respect the results of the referendum have not left things at that. Morales publicly announced his intention to seek a fourth term after the referendum and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

What makes the current strategy of the MAS all the more interesting is the fact that elections for the juridical positions on the Plurinational Constitutional Court will be held this coming December. It is expected that candidates will be pressed by the media and the public, about their position on the proposal of the MAS. One thing is for sure: we have not heard the last about term limits in Bolivia.

Carlos Pereira, Mariana Batista, Sérgio Praça and Felix Lopez – How Presidents Monitor Coalitions in Brazil’s Multiparty Presidential Regime

This is a guest post from Mariana Batista based on her recent article with Carlos Pereira, Sérgio Praça and Felix Lopez,  ‘Watchdogs in Our Midst: How Presidents Monitor Coalitions in Brazil’s Multiparty Presidential Regime’, published in the Fall edition of Latin American Politics and Society. The full article can be found here.

In “Watchdogs in Our Midst: How Presidents Monitor Coalitions in Brazil’s Multiparty Presidential Regime” we analyze coalition politics from the perspective of what happens after government formation or what are the president’s strategies to manage “a government of strangers” (Heclo, 2011).

We argue that presidents in multiparty settings deal with the fundamental dilemma of delegating power to coalition partners while minimizing the risk of policy drift. Cabinet positions are the main currency of coalition politics and a fundamental part of coalition formation and survival. However, when trusting cabinet positions to coalition partners, the president runs the risk of being expropriated by their cabinet. There are some mechanisms to minimize the risk of expropriation in coalition governments such as coalition agreements, inner cabinets, centralized screening, and legislative oversight. In our article, we explore the strategy to reduce policy drift based on the appointment of junior ministers.

Junior ministers are the second in command in a ministry and may act as watchdogs on behalf of the president. When presidents cannot “choose whom to trust” (Martinez-Gallardo and Schleiter, 2015) they still may use their appointment powers to appoint a junior minister loyal to their preferences. By doing so, the president will have eyes and ears inside the ministry, even though a coalition partner is in control. This is a powerful way to “keep tabs on partners” (Thies, 2001) while holding the coalition together.

The role of junior ministers in the monitoring of coalition partners is a topic explored in parliamentary regimes, but not in the presidential setting where the president is the one at the top of the hierarchy. To analyze the presidents’ appointment strategies we focus in Brazil as a case study in the period from 1995 to 2010, exploring the partnering between ministers and junior ministers. We consider a junior minister a watchdog when the junior minister is not aligned to the minister. This may happen when the president appoints a junior minister from a different party or when the junior minister is a career bureaucrat. In these situations we expect the junior minister to be loyal to the president and to report on the ministers’ doings.

Figure 1 shows that presidents have the options of appointing 1) ministers from their party (PP), 2) from a coalition partner (CP), or 3) non-partisan ministers (NP). Non-partisan ministers are aligned with the president’s preferences by definition. However, partisan ministers have policy preferences of their own that may jeopardize the president’s agenda. For this reason, these are the ones that the president considers to monitor. Figure 1 shows that partisan ministers are monitored with the appointment of junior ministers. However, ministers from the other coalition parties are monitored more frequently.

Figure 1: Portfolio Allocation and Monitoring Through Junior Ministers, 1995–2010

Considering that appointing a watchdog is a direct control over the minister, the president will not implement this strategy indiscriminately as shown above. We expect that watchdogs will be used only when the costs of the delegation are high. We argue that these costs may be captured by three variables: ideological distance as a proxy for preference distance, portfolio salience, and the coalescence rate as a proxy for the degree of the coalition agreement.

We expected that the greater the ideological distance, the greater the probability of appointing a watchdog because ideological distance would represent preference divergence between the president and the minister. Knowing that the minister is not to be trusted, the president would appoint a hostile junior minister to keep control from the inside. Also, we expected that the most important ministries would be monitored closely with the appointment of watchdogs because the stakes are high. So, the greater the portfolio salience, the greater the probability of a watchdog. Lastly, we expected that the greater the coalescence rate, the smaller the probability of a watchdog because the coalescence would be a measure of the degree of the coalition agreement. This is especially important in presidential systems because there is evidence that coalitions reach some very different arrangements regarding the distribution of portfolios and the amount of power coalition partners will have in government (Amorim Neto, 2006). We expected that the greater this agreement, the smaller the incentives for coalition monitoring.

The results indicate that only ideological distance is important to explain the appointment of a watchdog junior minister, indicating that when policy preferences between the president and the minister are not aligned, the president will try to minimize agency losses and risks of policy drift by appointing a trusted junior minister. Figure 2 shows this relationship.

Figure 2: Predicted Probability Logistic Regression (with Controls): Ideological Distance (95 percent CIs

For a minister from the president’s party (an ideological distance of 0), the predicted probability of a watchdog junior minister to be appointed is 0.64. The predicted probability increases to 0.81 when the ideological distance between the minister and the president is 2, and to 0.95 when the ideological distance reaches 4.5, the maximum value in our distribution.

Analyzing the president’s monitoring strategies concerning coalition partners in Brazil, our main result is that the greater the ideological distance, the greater the probability of monitoring. Although we specifically investigate the political dilemma that Brazilian presidents have faced deciding how to monitor coalition partners, we hope that the particular results presented could travel well and extend to other multiparty presidential regimes elsewhere. We also expect that this discussion will increase interest in what happens after coalition formation or how coalitions actually govern in presidential systems.

References:

Amorim Neto, Octavio. Presidencialismo e governabilidade nas Américas. FGV Editora, 2006.

Heclo, Hugh. A government of strangers: Executive politics in Washington. Brookings Institution Press, 2011.

Martínez-Gallardo, Cecilia, and Petra Schleiter. “Choosing whom to trust: Agency risks and cabinet partisanship in presidential democracies.” Comparative Political Studies 48.2 (2015): 231-264.

Thies, Michael F. “Keeping tabs on partners: The logic of delegation in coalition governments.” American Journal of Political Science (2001): 580-598.

Brazil – Former President Lula Sentenced to Nine and a Half Years in Prison

In a decision, where the true political ramifications are, as of yet, unknown, last week, the former two-term president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison by judge Sergio Moro. Lula, of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Worker’s Party, served as Brazil’s president between 2003 and 2011. Probably Brazil’s most popular politician in recent decades, Lula was sentenced for his part in the ever-widening Lavo Jato corruption scandal. The sentence is connected to some UK£590,000 in bribes that Lula allegedly received from the Brazilian engineering firm OAS. Apparently, Lula bought a seaside apartment in a complex built and operated by OAS for UK53,000, but OAS then ‘upgraded’ Lula to a lavishly refurbished duplex apartment worth nearly UK£600,000 in the same complex.

The Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which has engulfed the Brazilian, and increasingly the regional, political establishment centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in addition to a host of other companies, in return for a whole gamut of favours. In fact, Odebrecht alone has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

The scandal has rocked Brazil. The current president, Michel Temer is facing corruption charges, and a much discussed list, known as Fachin’s list, when released, contained details of prominent politicians that are under investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht. This list is based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former Odebrecht executives as part of a larger plea bargain and includes at least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the whole cabinet.

The scandal has also dragged other Latin American executives into its orbit and has included allegations of corruption involving the former president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), the sons of former Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, and in Argentina, members of Mauricio Macri’s centre-right organization have been accused of ties with Odebrecht, and in the case of Gustavo Arribas, of accepting a direct bribe from the firm. In the Dominican Republic, the Brazilian firm admitted that it payed US$92 million in bribes to Dominican government officials to secure large and lucrative infrastructure projects.

Although this sentence hangs above Lula like the sword of Damocles, Judge Moro has allowed Lula to remain free until he appeals, a process that could take up to eighteen months. The decision will also have significant implications for the next presidential election in 2018. Lula has long been touted as a possible candidate for the beleaguered PT, and opinion polls suggest that he would be one of the hypothetical front runners in any election contest. Currently, as long as the legal action is ongoing, Lula is free to run. However, if he appeals and his appeal is successful, the verdict must completely quash Moro’s ruling. Any slight alteration or amendment to the sentence would still result in a conviction and would present Lula from running in the next election, as his case would have been heard in two different courts. If he accepts his sentence and does not appeal, he is also free to run, but he most likely will end up in prison. Not an easy choice for either Lula or the PT.

Guy Burton and Ted Goertzel – Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence

This is a guest post from Guy Burton and Ted Goertzel about their new book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence, available to buy here.

What makes a president ‘great’ and which have been the ‘great’ ones in the Americas? These were the main questions we sought to answer in our book, Presidential Leadership in the Americas since Independence (Lexington Books, 2016). We sought to extend the work of the US presidential scholar, Stephen Skowronek, who developed the concept of ‘political time’. For Skowronek (1993, 2011), the US political system appears stable on the surface, supported as it is by an unchanging constitution, clear separation of powers and a two-party system. But that doesn’t mean that turbulence has been absent. Since the republic’s foundation in 1789, the US political system has faced periodic periods of upheaval with those presidents best placed to tackle them regarded as the most outstanding.

Skowronek’s institutionalist account of presidential leadership combines both structure (including its opportunities and constraints) and human agency and distinguishes between four types of presidential actor: transformative individuals were those who adeptly exploited a crisis by setting down a new political order that might last generations. Those that succeeded them would be one of two types: either those who supported and consolidated that order (i.e. articulative) or challenged it – but find it too strong to break down (pre-emptive). Over time though, the parameters of the political order and its support base might erode, making it more susceptible to change. In such cases, those who tried to maintain and reconstitute it, but failed to do so were disjunctive; those who succeeded in replacing it with a new order were transformative.

As Latin Americanists, we were curious how ‘political time’ might be applied to our more visibly tumultuous region – and through it to identify those presidents who were transformational, or ‘great’. To identify ‘greatness’ we made use of two approaches. One was to conduct a survey of outstanding leaders in the US and Latin America. We calculated the average number of mentions for political leaders across North and South America based on an analysis of their mentions in a number of commonly used textbooks for the history and politics of the two regions (Skidmore, Smith and Green 2014, Williamson 2009, Eakin 2007, Keen and Hayes 2004, Jenkins 2012, Remini 2009, Sinclair 1999, Schweikart and Allen 2004, Zinn 2005). We were encouraged that our findings for the US case tallied closely with previous efforts to rank US presidents; we were therefore confident that our Latin American findings were similarly accurate although no other surveys have been done.

The other was to extract from the historical literature a description of the cycles of political regime change in each country. Many scholars have observed cyclical changes in the political climate in United States and European history. We extended this analysis to Latin America. We noted that transformational/great leaders tended to emerge at a time of crisis in the political climate. This uncertainty enabled them to innovate by creating a new economic and social order underpinned by a broad political consensus. But importantly, the new order needed to be lasting, surviving beyond the political (and perhaps biological) lifetime of a given president.

Like Skowronek we wanted to be broad in our historical approach. But we also recognized that it was important to compare leaders with others who confronted comparable historical challenges. : The scale and scope of George Washington’s eighteenth century presidency is not exactly comparable with that of George Bush’s twenty-first century version, for example. We found that there were four historical eras in the political development of the Americas which presented leaders with similar social and economic frameworks that constrained their actions.

The first historical era, independence and its aftermath, required establishing a new political order. The second was the era of national consolidation, in which the new political order was dominated by the influence of landed and agrarian elites. Their position came under challenge towards the end of the nineteenth century when industrialists became more prominent – and eventually aligned themselves with key agents in national bureaucracies and military forces to institute an era of state-led development. From the 1930s to the 1970s this alliance held sway until economic dislocation and inefficiency coupled with social disconnection prompted a re-evaluation by intellectuals and politicians: the contemporary era of neoliberal globalization. The political systems that operated were constrained by these historical conditions, but success in confronting them was not guaranteed. Few are the presidents or political leaders who did not seek to leave their mark, but not all were successful. To consider a transformational president successful, we insisted that innovations he brought about be long lasting.  Several instituted important changes, but the changes did not last after them. This includes the Diaz and Rosas dictatorships in Mexico and Argentina respectively.

Having established the framework, we then examined the successes and failures of specific presidents as they struggled to introduce lasting political innovations in the eight American republics: : the US, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Using histories at a regional and country level, we identified 20 presidents, over four historical eras, who succeeded in being ‘transformational’:

  • In the independence era we concluded there was only one: George Washington (US).
  • In the era of national consolidation we identified Ramón Castilla (Peru), Benito Juárez (Mexico), Pedro II (Brazil), Diego Portales (Chile), Rafael Reyes (Colombia) and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln (both US).
  • In the era of state development we concluded that Lázaro Cárdenas (Mexico), Fidel Castro (Cuba), Juan Gómez (Venezuela), Raúl Haya de la Torre (Peru), Juan Perón (Argentina), Getúlio Vargas (Brazil) and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (both US) were transformational.
  • In the neoliberal era and after we suggested Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Augusto Pinochet (Chile) and Ronald Reagan (US).

Ours is the first effort to compile a list of transformational presidents of the America. We hope it will be the beginning of a dialogue that could make use of other methodological approaches in the study of presidentialism. One such would be to apply a quantitative approach to the experience of individual presidents, thereby echoing a trend we have observed in the study of US presidentialism in recent decades (Mayer 2009, Moe 2009, Wood 2009).

References

Eakin, Marshall. 2007. The History of Latin America: Collision of Cultures. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Jenkins, Philip. 2012. A History of the United States. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Keen, Benjamin and Keith Hayes. 2004. A History of Latin America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ninth edition.
Mayer, Kenneth. 2009. Thoughts on the ‘Revolution’ in Presidential Studies. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 781-785.
Moe, Terry. 2009. The Revolution in Presidential Studies. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 701-724.
Remin, Robert. 2009. A Short History of the United States. New York: HarperCollins. Kindle edition.
Schweikart, Larry and Michael Allen. 2004. A Patriot’s History of the United States. New York: Sentinel.
Sinclair, Andrew. 1999. A Concise History of the United States. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd.
Skidmore, Thomas, Peter Smith and James Green. 2014. Modern Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 1993. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Boston: Belknapp Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 2011. Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Second edition.
Williamson, Edwin. 2009. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin.
Wood, B. Dan. 2009. Pontificating about Moe’s Pontifications. Presidential Studies Quarterly 39(4): 805-818.
Zinn, Howard. 2005. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial.

Biographical notes

Guy Burton (@guyjsburton) is assistant professor at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai. He received his PhD in 2009 from the London School of Economics. His research interests in relation to Latin America are comparative politics and political sociology, as well as the politics of the left and right.

 

 

Ted Goertzel (tedgoertzel@gmail.com) is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He has published biographies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva and is also known for research on homicide rates, conspiracy theories, social movements and on the misuse of regression analysis in social science research.

Venezuela – Protestors Storm National Assembly

I have written a lot recently about the situation in Venezuela. There are recurrent shortages of goods in supermarkets across the country, and inflation continues to rise, unabated. The capacity of the state is slowly crumbling, epitomized by rising infant mortality and malaria cases. With oil prices far from the highs of the mid-2000s, investment in the state oil company PDVSA, mooted to come from Russia, is a political and economic necessity. Given this context, political capital has been hard to generate, and since taking office, in response to weakening support, the successor of the late Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro, has increasingly adopted authoritarian tactics to quell and suppress opposition movements and parties.

Part of Maduro’s authoritarian turn can be explained by Venezuela’s current experience of divided government. In the last legislative elections in December 2015, President Maduro and his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), and his electoral coalition, the Gran Polo Patriótico (GPP), lost their majority in Congress to the opposition alliance, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). As I have discussed previously on this blog, although the opposition won enough seats for the all-important two thirds majority, some political machinations managed to prevent the super-majority taking all of their seats. The Supreme Court barred three opposition legislators and one from the governing coalition from taking their seats. These four legislators are all from the state of Amazonas, and the PSUV alleged that there had been irregularities during the election, revolving around accusations of vote buying.  To prevent the escalation of another political crisis, in January 2016, the three opposition legislators in question, Julio Haron Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, agreed to give up their seats while investigations into the alleged electoral irregularities continue.

The executive and legislative branch are now engaged in nothing short of open war. Although the opposition don’t have the magic two thirds majority, they have placed persistent pressure on President Maduro. In turn, Maduro has found an ally in the Supreme Court, which has struck down a number of the opposition initiatives. Two months ago, President Maduro issued a decree to establish a constitutional assembly, or constituyente in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Street protests have become a near daily occurrence, both in opposition to, and in support of, the Maduro regime and over the last months, we have seen a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors.

Now it seems as if the crisis is moving to the next level. Yesterday, approximately 100 government supporters stormed the opposition-controlled National Assembly, where they attacked and beat up a number of opposition legislators. A crowd had been gathering for a number of hours outside the Assembly, and following a session to mark the country’s independence day, and a speech from vice-President Tareck El Aissami, urging a new constitution to end the last vestiges of empire, the crowd attacked the building and kept roughly 350 people hostage for nearly four hours.

All of this came amid a video last week that purportedly showed a police helicopter attacking the interior ministry and the government-backed Supreme Court. The helicopter was apparently piloted by Oscar Pérez, a former member of Venezuela’s intelligence services. The Maduro regime are claiming that Pérez received support and backing from the CIA.

It has been asserted that the executive-legislative deadlock in Venezuela is living proof of Juan Linz’s direst predictions. Regardless of what the truth actually is, and the support that Pérez and his group have, one thing is for sure: things in Venezuela are only going to get worse.

Panama – Ex-President Ricardo Martinelli Wanted in Panama on Charges of Spying

On Monday, as the current president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, was meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House, the former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli was fighting his extradition back to Panama in a court in Miami. Martinelli, who was president of Panama from 2009 until 2014, is accused of diverting and embezzling public funds in order to pay for a highly complex and sophisticated wire-tapping arrangement that allowed him to listen in on political opponents. He was arrested last week in Florida, where he has lived as a political refugee since the end of his presidency, claiming that President Juan Carlos Varela has pursued this corruption and spying case against him for political reasons.

Martinelli is accused of diverting approximately US$13.4 million that was set aside for targeted poverty relief, and using this money to instead illegally gain access to the phone calls and emails of 150 major political opponents. Martinilli’s defence in the face of extradition back to Panama is largely predicated on the argument that during his term in office, Martinelli fired the current president, Juan Carlos Varela, as his foreign minister, because it allegedly emerged that Varela was receiving illegal payments from foreign consulates. Varela’s actions, so Martinelli argues, are a type of payback for this.

Although not from the same party (Varela is from the Partido Panameñista and Martenelli is from Cambio Democrático), Varela and Martenelli established a coalition after the 2009 election, which saw Varela assume office as Martenelli’s vice-president and foreign minister. As relations became more acrimonious between the two men, Varela ran for, and won, the presidency in 2014, against the candidate of Cambio Democrático, José Domingo Arias. Shortly after he came to power, Varela launched an inquiry into the alleged illegal spying of former-president Martinelli, who then fled to the US.

Of course, this is not the first time that former president Martinelli, or former Panamanian presidents for that matter, have been embroiled in some form of corruption scandal. I have discussed the fallout from the Lavo Jato corruption scandal before on this blog, which was partly responsible for forcing Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, out of office last year. This scandal centers upon allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former worker party president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), but as the scandal has rumbled on, it has also dragged other Latin American countries into its orbit.

One of these is Panama. Prosecutors have been seeking to detain the sons of Ricardo Martinelli, Ricardo Alberto and Luis Enrique Martinelli, both of whom are accused of depositing part of a US$22 million bribe that Odebrecht paid in return for lucrative state contracts in Panama. In fact, current Panamanian president, Juan Carlos Varela, has been accused by a former advisor of receiving political donations from Odebrecht.

The US and Panama do have an extradition treaty (although rather an old one) and the US judge will decide Ricardo Martinelli’s fate next week.

Brazil – Pressure Increases on President Temer

The repercussions of the Lavo Jato corruption scandal continue to rock the foundations of the Brazilian political classes. The whole scandal centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favours. Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

A little over a month ago, a federal judge, Edson Fachin, released a list of prominent politicians that were to be investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht, based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former co-operating Odebrecht executives. At least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the cabinet, were on this list, and it included President Michel Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and his foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira.

Well, now things have taken an even worse turn for the beleaguered government of Michel Temer. Last Friday, tapes were released by prosecutors, given to them by two brothers, Joesley and Wesley Batista, who are in control of the gigantic Brazilian meat packing firm, JBS. As part of a larger plea deal involving allegations of bribery and corruption, the Batista brothers released these tapes to the federal prosecutor, on which we can allegedly hear President Temer approving continued cash payments by the Batista brothers to the former Speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, in return for his silence. As part of their testimony, the Batistas also allege that President Temer received millions of dollars over the last seven years in order to fund his electoral campaigns.

The President’s office denies these allegations and disputes the validity of the tape. The Brazilian Attorney General, Rodrigo Janot however, has also accused President Temer of using his power to try and quash the investigation.

The political situation in Brazil has now only become more precarious. As has Temer’s presidency. In response to these revelations, yesterday saw violent protests in Brazil. Protestors in the capital Brasilía started a fire in the Ministry of Agriculture and damaged, and stormed, a number of other government buildings and ministries. There was an estimated 35,000 protestors on the streets of Brasilía calling for the resignation of President Temer and his cabinet in the wake of these fresh allegations of corruption. The protests, organized by labour unions and parties on the left, have clashed a number of times with police and in response, President Temer issued a decree that would allow troops, not only to guard government buildings, but also address the disorder more generally in Brasilía.

Allowing the military onto the streets of Brasilía to tackle public protests, in a country with Brazil’s past history of military authoritarianism is a good indication of how much pressure President Temer is facing. This decree was due to expire on May 31, but due to the political and public backlash to this decision, President Temer revoked this decree earlier today.

The combination of a corruption scandal and mass protests can, and indeed has, forced Latin American presidents to pre-emptively resign, or has forced the house to begin impeachment proceedings. Nonetheless, even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast institutional support have proven very difficult to remove from office.[1]

In this regard, things are looking bleak for President Temer. One of Temer’s coalition partners, the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB), announced on Sunday that they were leaving the government coalition and joined opposition parties in calling for the President’s resignation. At the same time, the influential Brazilian bar association voted to support Temer’s impeachment. This decision will be laid formally before the lower house of Congress. Temer’s largest coalition partner, the PSDB, is apparently also considering whether they will continue as part of the ruling coalition.

This all comes at a time when Temer is trying to push an important pension bill through Congress, which would introduce a mandatory retirement age and reduce death benefits, legislation that is deemed crucial in order to deal with Brazil’s very large primary budget deficit. Given the scale of the current political turmoil, it looks like this will have to wait.

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; or Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101.

 

Venezuela – Current and Former Latin American Presidents Denounce Recent Events

The situation in Venezuela appears to be deteriorating. Amid daily street protests, a steady stream of fatalities as police clash with protestors, rampant price instability and food shortages, and against a backdrop of a crumbling state, epitomised by rising infant mortality and malaria cases, Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela, has stepped up his confrontation with the opposition controlled legislature.

As I have written recently on this blog, although political machinations denied the opposition the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution, they have nonetheless been a thorn in the side of President Maduro, and at the end of last month, the Venezuelan Supreme Court announced that it would take over and assume the legislative powers of the opposition-dominated Congress. In the government’s battle with Congress, the Supreme Court has proven to be President Maduro’s best ally, striking down a number of opposition initiatives.

This move sent the opposition into overdrive and sparked a wave of street protests and international condemnation. Now, President Maduro has called for a new constitution, and requested that a constitutional assembly, or constituyente, be established in order to transform the institutional structure of the Venezuelan state. President Maduro issued a decree to begin the process of convening such an assembly. This move has sparked even more intense protests and to add to the chaos, President Maduro’s supporters have also taken to the street to defend the call for the assembly.

Given that presidential elections are due to held in December 2018, it seems likely that the purpose of the constitutional assembly would be to prolong or delay this election, and extend the tenure of President Maduro. At the same time, the existence of an alternative legislative body, could undermine the legitimacy and power of the current opposition dominated Congress. A similar tactic was employed by Rafael Correa in 2007.

But the last vestiges of the Venezuelan government’s international legitimacy appear to have ebbed away. Having been suspended from the Mercosur since December, today at a meeting in Buenos Aires, a group of current and former Latin American Presidents denounced what they termed the “descent into hell” of Venezuela. This group included President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, former Uruguayan president, Julio María Sanguinetti, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, former Brazilian president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Spanish prime minister, Felipe González.  They specifically criticised President Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.

Of course, what effect this will have remains to be seen. It doesn’t appear as if President Maduro has very many options. Given the depth of polarization in Venezuela and the anger of the opposition, any chance of a controlled transition seems improbable. In response to increasing opposition, the government has moved towards increasing authoritarianism. For the people of Venezuela, an end to this crisis still seems like a long way away.

Brazil – One Third of the Cabinet to be Investigated for Corruption

Everybody was waiting for this. I have written before on this blog about the long tentacles of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal, which has engulfed the Brazilian, and increasingly the regional, political establishment. The whole scandal centres upon bribes given to Brazilian politicians (and elsewhere) by the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, in return for a whole gamut of favours. Odebrecht has admitted to paying over US$1 billion in bribes and apparently, they even had a designated department whose sole function was to bribe governments across the region in return for state building contracts.

Well, now in Brazil, a federal judge, Edson Fachin, has released a list of prominent politicians that are to be investigated for allegedly receiving payments from Odebrecht. This list is based on information provided to federal investigators in Brazil by 77 former Odebrecht executives as part of a larger plea bargain. It was due to be released earlier, but the former federal judge responsible for the investigation, Teori Zavascki, was killed in a plane crash in January.

The list was part of a ruling that allows federal prosecutors to begin investigating politicians named by the Odebrecht executives and for the somewhat beleaguered government of Michel Temer, it is particularly damaging. It may also have consequences for the 2018 presidential elections. At least eight government ministers, nearly a third of the cabinet, will now be under investigation for allegations of bribery and corruption. It includes Michel Temer’s chief of staff, Eliseu Padilha, and his foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira. It also includes the Speaker of the lower house and the head of the Senate, not to mention a large chunk of sitting senators (24), 40 federal deputies and 3 governors.

This comes at a moment when Temer is trying to push an important pension bill through Congress, which would introduce a mandatory retirement age and reduce death benefits. This legislation is deemed crucial in order to deal with Brazil’s very large primary budget deficit. The deputy responsible for its introduction to the Chamber of Deputies has also been named on this list.

Potential candidates for the 2018 election have also been implicated, including Aécio Neves and José Serra (both from the PSDB). It is difficult to see how Temer’s party, the PMDB, could realistically contest the election given the incumbency curse they will face, and it remains to be seen whether the PT can shrug off its own involvement in the corruption scandal. Given that nearly the entire upper echelons of Brazilian politics have been caught up in this scandal, a cynical and downtrodden electorate might end up turning to an outsider like Marina Silva, or a populist, like the right-leaning Jair Bolsonaro.

One thing is for sure. There is more to come with this scandal. It has already spread across Latin America and its tentacles have thus far enveloped the sons of former Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), the current president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, and in Colombia, a former senator who admitted receiving bribes from Odebrecht has accused current Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, of receiving illegal campaign donations from the Brazilian firm. In Peru, Odebrecht’s chief executive there has supposedly told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, has also received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht, in return for a lucrative infrastructure project.

We have not seen the end of Lavo Jato by a long shot.