Author Archives: David Doyle

Peru – Peru Offers Reward for Arrest of Former President Toledo

One of the topics I return to most on this blog is probably corruption and specifically, corruption in the president’s office. The last number of years has witnessed a veritable landslide of corruption cases by those occupying the highest political office across Latin America. Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. Another former Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, is currently in Matamoros prison in Guatemala City, serving a sentence for receiving bribes from importers. In El Salvador, evidence emerged linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, has appeared in court to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in. In Mexico, Angélica Rivera, the wife of president Enrqiue Peña Nieto, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In Peru, questions have been raised about the manner in which former president, Ollanta Humala, funded his presidential election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. And of course most famously, only last year, Dilma Rousseff, the embattled former President of Brazil was forced out of office partly as a consequence of the huge Lavo Jato corruption scandal which engulfed the Brazilian political establishment, which has also involved allegations of kickbacks from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, to former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Well now it seems the fallout from that crisis is spreading. Apparently, Odebrecht’s chief executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, told Peruvian investigators that Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru between 2001 and 2006, received US$20 million in bribes from Odebrecht in return for granting them the contract to build a large road and infrastructure project. Toledo has been under investigation in Peru since 2013, after his mother-in-law supposedly bought a number of expensive houses via offshore companies that seemed to extend significantly beyond the family’s means.

Somewhat ironically, Toledo came to power in 2001 in the tumultuous aftermath of the resignation of Alberto Fujimori, partly by railing against the corruption scandal engulfing Peru at that time following the discovery of videos of Peru’s head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, bribing TV network executives. Toledo was in France when this news broke and is now thought to be in California, where he currently holds a visiting professorship at Stanford University. Peru has now offered a 100,000 soles award (approximately US$30,000) for information leading to his arrest and current Peruvian president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has asked Donald Trump to arrest and extradite Toledo back to Peru.

But this scandal looks set to explode to other presidencies. Apparently, Obebrecht had a designated department to bribe governments across the world in return for state building contracts. The presidency of Alan García (2006-2011) is now also falling under suspicion, given that Odebrecht won a record number of contracts in Peru during his tenure and allegations have also surfaced that Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received illegal campaign donations from Obebrecht.

But why such persistent and prevalent cases of corruption in the very highest political offices? Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ.[1] Of course, while this type of graft is a problem in most other regions of the world, what makes the Latin American case particularly interesting is the often very public judicial and legislative battles to bring this wrongdoing to heel. It seems likely that the Obebrecht case is only going to inspire more of these.

[1] See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

Bolivia – Evo Morales Contemplates Fourth Term

Last March, I wrote about the defeated referendum in Bolivia to overturn the existing restrictions on term limits. President Evo Morales of the left-wing Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) attempted to change the country’s term limits via a popular referendum. This would have enabled Morales to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. However, with a turnout of nearly 85 per cent, Morales’ proposed reform was rejected by 51.3 per cent of the electorate. Although Morales had significant popular support and the overwhelming support of the legislature to hold the referendum, the defeat appeared to signal a definitive limit to his presidential aspirations and that seemed to be the end of that.

Rumblings from Evo Morales and his government appear to suggest however, that this is not the end of that. At a rally for supporters of his MAS party, at which Venezuelan Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz spoke, Morales announced his intention, contrary to the results of the referendum and Bolivian law, to seek a fourth term as president and just before Christmas, the MAS named Morales as its candidate for the 2019 elections.

Although Morales highlighted his economic success during the referendum campaign (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. Zapata held a position with the Chinese construction firm, CAMC, which had been awarded state contracts worth over US$576 million. Zapata has since been charged with corruption. When all this emerged during the campaign, Morales’ opponents accused him of influence peddling, allegations that were thought to severely dampen enthusiasm for his proposed constitutional reform. President Morales however, now states that the Bolivian electoral court should nullify the results of the referendum because it was overshadowed and unduly tainted by these allegations. The government even released a documentary in cinemas, El Cártel de la Mentira (Cartel of Lies), which challenges the veracity of these allegations and attacked the president’s critics.

It is difficult to see how Morales and the MAS will get around the current legal restrictions. 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.

Morales is already Latin America’s longest-serving president currently in office, having previously won elections in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Term limits have frequently been challenged in Latin America, particularly in those countries in the Andes that Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes.[1] In 2010, Álvaro Uribe received support from the parliament to hold a referendum, proposing to change the constitution to allow him run for a third consecutive term. The Colombian Constitutional Court however, thwarted his efforts. Rafael Correa in Ecuador initiated a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term and Daniel Ortega oversaw the abolition of term limits in Nicaragua to join Venezuela in allowing indefinite presidential election.

If Morales does succeed in reversing the referendum result and running for office in 2019, this would suggest Bolivia is dangerously close to a form of competitive authoritarian, regimes described as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety. Nicaragua and Venezuela are both already viewed as exemplars of these hybrid regime types. Watch this space to see if Bolivia will join them.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Presidents, Policy Compromise and Legislative Success

This post is based on a paper by Christian Arnold, David Doyle and Nina Wiesehomeier that is forthcoming in the Journal of Politics.

Presidents play a central role in legislative activity in Latin America. Previous research highlights that some form of ideological compromise on behalf of the president is vital to sustain successful legislative coalitions. Yet, primarily due to the lack of a firm empirical basis on which to measure such presidential give-and-take, the extent to which presidents make use of such policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy, remains unknown.

One of the primary obstacles towards a better understanding of these dynamics has been – to date – the difficulty of deriving reliable comparable estimates of the policy compromise of presidents over time. We collected ‘State of the Union’ addresses for 73 Latin American presidents between 1980 and 2014 and we used the Wordfish algorithm (Slapin and Proksch 2008) to provide a position for each one of these presidents, for each year, on the main latent political dimension. The heatmap below illustrates these positions. Each country’s time series reports standardized z-scores and progresses from the earliest speech available in our sample on the left to the most recent observation on the right. The shading of the cells reflect the estimated ideal-point; more negative values are shown in darker shading, increasingly becoming lighter with more positive values. Note that absolute positions can only be compared within a country. Cross country comparisons are only possible for presidential movements, because standardisation per country expresses movements relative to the stretching of the respective main political dimension.

Executives in Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and also Venezuela all display consistent and stable political views. In contrast, in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, the presidents’ movements appear to trend over time. The remaining countries demonstrate a high mobility of presidents along the latent issue dimension.

With this cross-national time-series, we can explore to what extent presidents engage in policy compromise, and under what conditions this is a viable strategy. Our central finding is relatively straightforward. We show that the president does not adopt a static policy position across her term. Rather, the president, if she wishes to pursue a statutory legislative agenda, will respond to shifting dynamics in the house. Specifically, we suggest that when the position of the median party changes, the president will shift her policy position in the same direction. Of course, the degree to which a president is willing to compromise will depend on a number of conditioning variables; specifically, the president’s non-statutory power, her government status and her ability to offset the need for compromise with increased material transfers (see the figure below). At high levels of executive power, and when the president has access to large amounts of discretionary funds to use as pork, she will compromise less in response to changes in the median party position. We also demonstrate that when the president compromises her position in response to the median party in this manner, a president will enjoy a higher rate of success for her legislative initiatives than were she not to do so.

We think our results have some important implications.  Presidents in Latin America are not always the inflexible and imperial leaders as previously characterized by Juan Linz. However, they also show that under certain circumstances they can be, in particular, in minority situations. In short, institutional variation among separation of power systems will condition the degree of harmony between the executive and legislative branch. The flip side of the coin is of course that presidents are willing to compromise given the right institutional incentives. Our results show that a president can influence the interbranch relationship with signals of policy compromise. Our results on policy compromise are indicative of this inter-branch legislative dynamic that helps the president to build and maintain coalitions, and pass legislation in the house.

Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega Cements Power with Landslide Electoral Victory

Just over two weeks ago, Nicaragua held presidential elections. The incumbent, Daniel Ortega, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice-President, dominated the election, winning with approximately 72 per cent of the popular vote. Nicaragua has experienced steady economic growth in recent years and has not experienced the same level of violence and homicides that have plagued many of their Central American neighbors. Additionally, the opposition are currently weak and fragmented, with Ortega’s nearest challenger, Maximino Rodríguez of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), gaining only 14 per cent of the vote.

Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. In 2009, he also sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.

In 2013, Ortega sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. The reform also awarded presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allowed the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change involved the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which was replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.

What is more, the opposition is weak and fragmented partly because of the actions of the incumbent. Critics allege that the Ortega government has actively manipulated the political playing field to undermine the electoral chances of his competitors. For example, with just five months to go before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role. Additionally, opposition parties have claimed that the recent presidential election was in fact rigged and called for their supporters to boycott the vote.

Clearly, part of Ortega’s electoral success lies in the economic success of Nicaragua, its relative stability and a reduction in poverty since 2006 of nearly 13 per cent. But part of Ortega’s success lies in the increasing electoral authoritarianism of the regime. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002.[1] These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. They are often accompanied by judicial reform and media manipulation. Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela, ticks many of these boxes, and indeed the recent electoral victory of Ortega with 72 per cent of the vote, exceeds the 70 per cent threshold that Levitsky and Way suggest in order to classify non-competitive elections. Echoes of electoral authoritarianism have also been heard in the Andes. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.

[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.

Annette Idler – Colombia, President Santos and the Nobel Prize

This is a guest post from Annette Idler at the University of Oxford. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Only days after the people of Colombia voted to reject a historic peace deal he spent years negotiating, the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the country’s decades-long war with the FARC guerrilla movement.

The no vote came a week after the government and the FARC had signed a peace deal, and after they had declared a bilateral ceasefire and the end of all hostilities at the end of August. Nevertheless, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has given Santos and his fellow negotiators a vote of confidence – one that they have earned through years of dogged and determined work.

Santos became president in 2010 after serving as defence minister under his presidential predecessor Alvaro Uribe. Those years were marked by a hardline military approach against the FARC, whom Uribe labelled as “narco-terrorists” that had to be defeated militarily. Previous peace talks had failed and had left many Colombians feeling betrayed by the FARC.

Uribe’s hawkish policy weakened the FARC considerably, including by killing some of the group’s leadership figures, and it made urban areas safer. But it also pushed the conflict towards the country’s peripheries and across its borders, contributing to huge refugee flows and a humanitarian crisis that went largely unnoticed in many of Bogota’s comfortable government offices.

This era was also overshadowed by severe human rights abuses committed by members of the armed forces, including the “false positives” scandal, in which peasants were killed and then dressed up as guerrilla fighters to artificially inflate the body count.

The Uribe administration had stuck to the line that the FARC were narco-terrorists, not insurgents, and that they therefore should never be talked to. At some points they had denied the existence of an armed conflict altogether. But when Santos was elected president in 2010, the government changed course, accepting that it needed to engage the FARC in dialogue.

In 2012, I was carrying out fieldwork at the Colombia-Venezuela border, one of the country’s most war-torn regions, when peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC were publicly announced. At that time, the displaced people, ex-combatants, military officials, indigenous leaders and other local people I spoke to greeted the news with deep scepticism.

On the ground, it was easy to see why. While the world applauded the start of formal talks, the FARC actually intensified its armed attacks, perhaps to ensure that it would enter the negotiations in a position of strength. The upshot was that even as the talks began, some of Colombia’s marginalised communities were even more vulnerable to violence than before.

Balancing act

When the peace accord was rejected in the October 2 plebiscite, Santos accepted the result and reached out to the opposition – in particular to Uribe – to bring them to the negotiating table and discuss how the accord can be made tolerable for all Colombians. He affirmed that he would remain committed to peace until his last day in office.

Already steps have been taken to try and preserve order. The government and the FARC have now agreed to extend the ceasefire until at least October 31. Together with the UN, they are currently discussing how the FARC’s planned demobilisation process and the mechanisms to verify it can be adjusted to the situation after the no vote.

One of the no campaign’s principal arguments was that the deal as signed offers FARC members legal impunity. However, it does include sophisticated transitional justice mechanisms, according to which those involved in atrocious crimes will be held accountable for their deeds, including through prison sentences. Finding new terms with which the FARC’s leadership agree will be tricky to say the least.

Then there are the country’s other armed groups. Colombia’s armed forces support the government’s efforts for peace. Contrary to previous years, today’s Colombian Head of the Army described his troops as “architects of peace”. Yet while guaranteeing the ceasefire with the FARC, they have to continue military operations against other violent groups such as the ELN. As long as the FARC’s fighters aren’t concentrated in what were supposed to be demobilisation zones, this is a difficult task. A minor mistake could easily spark an escalation.

Peru – Former President Ollanta Humala to be Included in Campaign Financing Investigation

Once again, I return to the issue of corruption scandals at the level of the executive office. It was announced last week that a public prosecutor would be including Ollanta Humala, the former Peruvian president who finished his five-year term on the 28th of July this year, in a long and ongoing investigation into campaign financing and electoral donations. This investigation had up till now largely centred around Humala’s wife and former first lady, Nadine Heredia.

The investigation of the prosecutor, Germán Juárez, revolves around money raised by Ollanta Humala to fund his presidential election campaigns in 2006 and 2011. There has long been allegations that Heredia, as President of the Partido Nacionalista Peruano, received and hid donations from the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and a number of Brazilian construction companies, which were then used to finance the campaigns of her left-leaning husband. Only this year, Heredia was prohibited from leaving Peru as investigations continue. For Humala, this latest announcement is significant because as of July this year, he can no longer enjoy presidential immunity, although activities during his presidency are still protected. However, such immunity does not apply to activities during the 2006 election.

This investigation is partly a product of Humala’s own admissions, when he stated that Heredia was only doing what she was ordered to do by Humala, as head of the party, but it also stems from information supposedly contained in a number of notebooks owned by Nadine Heredia, which were given to public prosecutors by former party members. These notebooks are alleged to document millions in campaign donations that remained unreported and which were funneled through personal bank accounts. The prosecutor has asked the judiciary for access to Humala’s domestic and international banking and tax records from his time in office, currently protected by Peruvian law. Ollanta Humala denies all of these allegations and claims that they are the product of political opportunism.

I keep coming back to this topic, but why do we often witness so many corruption scandals related to the highest political office across the region? The allegations against former president Humala, would appear to echo the explanation of Kurt Weyland; he argued that the last two decades have seen the emergence of personalistic leaders who have sought to bypass established political parties in order to reach “the people” through direct and often televised appeals. This can build a new loyal following, but it is also expensive and for these outsiders, the incentive to engage in ‘irregular’ campaign financing to boost coffers which cannot be filled through traditional party and donor networks, is often quite large.[1] Humala is the prototypical outsider. He was a former army officer who rose to prominence during the 2006 elections when he was somewhat scathing of exiting political elites. He only established his political party in 2005, the year before his first electoral bid.

Of course, it is also possible that we are not necessarily witnessing an increase in corruption scandals at the executive level, but rather an increase in the ability of judiciaries across the region to hold current and former presidents to account.

[1] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.

Ecuador – Ruling Coalition announces Candidate for February Election

At a convention over the weekend, Ecuador’s left-leaning ruling coalition, Alianza PAIS, announced that it had chosen Lenín Moreno as its candidate for the upcoming presidential elections in February 2017. Moreno served as the vice-president of the current Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, from 2007 until 2013, before being appointed as the United Nations Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility. Moreno’s running mate for this election will be the current vice-president, Jorge Glas.

This election can be seen as a good litmus test of the sustainability of Latin America’s turn to left-leaning political parties and presidents that began with the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. Given the income structure of the region, once left-leaning parties were able to institutionalise after the transition to democracy, it was no great surprise that they were able to successfully contest elections in the face of poor growth under right-leaning incumbents during the 1990s.[1] Recently however, poor growth following the collapse of the early 2000s commodity boom, and the fall in crude oil prices, has placed serious pressure on left-leaning incumbents; Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from power in Brazil; as was Fernando Lugo in Paraguay; the right-leaning Mauricio Macri won the presidency in Argentina; and the beleaguered left-wing government of Nicolás Maduro is looking increasingly fragile as the opposition gains strength. Suddenly, the right appears to be on the ascendency across the region.[2]

Similar dynamics can be observed in Ecuador. Falling oil prices have badly hurt the oil-exporting economy and economic growth has virtually ground to a standstill. The current left-leaning incumbent of Alianza PAIS, Rafael Correa, managed to maintain very high approval ratings through much of his presidency. He was re-elected for a third term in a veritable landslide victory in May 2013, and his approval rating remained consistently between 65 and 85 per cent. Back in April 2014, Correa began indicating support for a constitutional amendment that would largely abolish presidential term limits. Correa had already overseen a constitutional reform to allow him run for a third consecutive term, and with national assembly backing of his proposed amendment to term limits, it was widely expected that he would run in 2017. The stuttering economy and his declining approval ratings appear to have convinced Correa to step aside.

Moreno, an experienced disability campaigner, who is in a wheelchair following a robbery in 1998 when he was shot in the car park of a supermarket will face a splintered opposition on the right. Although the Ecuadorian electorate appear eager for change, the fact that the right is split between Guillermo Lasso of Creando Oportunidades (CREO) and Cynthia Viteri of the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), will favour Moreno providing the election does not go to a run-off, which would allow the right to coalesce around one candidate.

It remains to be seen whether bad economic times will claim the scalp of another left-leaning incumbent.

[1] See Steven Levitsky and Kenneth Roberts (eds.) 2011. The Resurgence of the Latin American Left. John Hopkins University Press.

[2] See the companion book to the one above: Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.) 2014. The Resilience of the Latin American Right. John Hopkins University Press.

Guatemala – President Morales under Pressure from Corruption Scandal

Once again, a corruption scandal has affected the executive office in Guatemala. Although the president, former comedian and political outsider, Jimmy Morales, is not directly implicated, his brother, Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, have both been placed under investigation by the UN-supported International Commission on Corruption in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. Last week, a Guatemalan judge barred both Sammy Morales and José Manuel from leaving the country.

The alleged offence involves the fabrication of invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and centres upon Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party. Apparently, Guatemala’s National Property Registry contracted Fulanos y Menganos, together with José Manuel and Sammy Morales, to provide 564 Christmas breakfasts in 2013. A bill was submitted to the Property Registry for 90,000 quetzals for the breakfast (about US$12,000), together with another 90,000 quetzal bill for seating. The breakfast is reported to have never happened. What is more, under public procurement law, three companies must submit formal bids for any contracts below a certain value. To cover his tracks, the President’s son, José Manuel supposedly asked his uncle to provide falsified bids from two other companies, in a competition that Fulanos y Menganos than won. Falsifying documents in this manner is also a crime.

What makes this case particularly noteworthy is the fact that Morales’ election campaign last year railed against the corruption allegations that dogged, and ultimately prematurely ended, the presidency of his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina. Molina had been accused of involvement in a scheme, know as La Linea, that allowed businesses to evade paying custom charges in return for generous kickbacks.

Morales’ election was symptomatic of the rise of political outsiders and the ‘politics of anti-politics’, which has become something of a recurring feature of the Latin American political landscape. Jimmy Morales, a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother and his election manifesto was only six pages long. In fact, the major and central plank of his entire campaign was opposition to the graft and corruption that was endemic among Guatemalan political elites. His campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’, so this current episode is particularly embarrassing for the President.

This incident is indicative of corruption scandals that continue to plague executive offices all over the region. For example, aside from the scandal involving Molina, another Guatemalan ex-President, Alfonso Portillo was recently sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court last year to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

I have written before about the relationship between corruption and the executive office in Latin America. Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ.[1]

More significantly, Kurt Weyland has suggested that a contributing factor to the persistence of populism has been the rise of politicians who appeal to “the masses” via television. Weyland argues: “Over the past 15 years, such personalistic leaders have sought to bypass established political parties and interest groups in order to reach “the people” through direct, most often televised, appeals aimed at building up a loyal following from scratch. Because its methods are costly, the new media-based politics has given ambitious politicians much higher incentives to resort to corruption.”[2]

Jimmy Morales is the proto-typical outsider politician. His campaign, and that of his vice-president, Jafeth Cabrera, was subjected to claims that it benefitted from a donation of half a million dollars from a known drug trafficker.  With this barrage of corruption scandals and with his party, the FCN, holding only 11 of 158 seats in the house, the incentives for the kind of behaviour Weyland described must surely rise. Either way, the Guatemalan President will do well to celebrate a one-year anniversary in office.

[1] See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

[2] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.

Presidential Success and the World Economy

This is a guest post from Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco Jr., both professors at FGV/EBAPE Rio de Janeiro, based on their recent paper in the Journal of Politics, “Presidential Success and the World Economy.”

For the economic vote to work as a mechanism of democratic accountability, voters need to be able to properly assign responsibility for economic performance (Ashworth 2012). In “Presidential Success and the World Economy” we show that this assumption does not always hold. The paper examines the extent to which Latin American presidents are punished and rewarded by economic conditions that were brought about by factors beyond their control. We find, in a nutshell, that this misattribution happens very often, at least in a subset of countries in the region, and argue that this  severely limits democratic accountability in the region.

Our general empirical strategy in the paper is to predict presidential reelection and approval ratings using only international variables that are exogenous to any action taken by presidents, but that have substantial impact in economic performance. The logic of the argument is that these factors should not predict the political outcomes if voters actively discounted “chance” when evaluating presidents based on economic outcomes.

It has been long established in the Economics literature that commodity prices and US interest rates largely influence the domestic economic performance of countries in Latin America (see, for instance, Malan & Bonelli 1977). Commodity prices operate through trade, as most countries in the region are commodity exporters (Maxfield 1998, Gavin, Hausmann & Leiderman 1995, Izquierdo, Romero & Talvo 2008). International interest rates operate through the financial channel, as capital flows to emerging economies tend to respond to the international costs of capital (Calvo, Leiderman & Reinhart 1996, Santiso 2003). The first contribution of the paper is to combine these two variables into the “Good Economic Times Index” (GET), which provides a cogent summary of the recent economic history of the so-called  low-savings-commodity-exporting (LSCE) countries of the region, mostly those in South America.


The figure shows the values of GET since the early 1980s. It reflects the hike in U.S.  interest rates in 1979 that  precipitated a debt crisis that ravaged the region, which coupled with extremely low commodity prices, produced the 1980s’ “lost decade.” In the early 1990s, lower US  interest rates prompted a boom of private capital inflows that helped improve economic conditions, which worsened again with the increase in interest rates that triggered the financial crises that marked the end of the decade.  In the 2000s, rising commodity prices combined with even lower interest rates to fuel a period of unprecedented wealth creation. In this context, the “great recession” was no more than a ripple in a region that was shielded from the crisis by high commodity prices and further decreases in US interest rates. The sharp drop in GET observed in the last few years contributes to explaining the economic downturn experienced throughout the region since 2012. Not surprisingly, as we show in the paper higher values of GET are associated with more growth, less inflation, less unemployment, and less “misery” in LSCE countries, but not in other Latin American countries, which we refer to as the “comparison group”.

Interestingly, the GET index is a very strong predictor of presidential success in the LSCE countries, but not in the comparison group. In a set of all free and fair elections in the region since 1980, we estimate that an increase from the 25th to the 75th percentile of GET is associated with almost 0.5 higher probability of reelection (understood as either personal reelection or election of the incumbent sponsored candidate) in LSCE countries. GET also predicts the presidents’ popularity in Brazil — the largest LSCE country — since the late 1980s, but not in Mexico — the largest country in the comparison group. A one standard-deviation increase in GET leads approximately to a 15% increase in popularity over an 18 month period. GET, alone, has the same predictive power as a large set of domestic economic variables.

Our results stand in contrast to recent empirical work, mostly on developed democracies,  which  shows  that voters’ capacity to assess and discount the impact of exogenous factors enables them to punish and reward incumbents exclusively for outcomes of their own making (Duch & Stevenson, Kayser & Peress etc). Authors have suggested that this capacity develops as citizens observe the global economy and benchmark their country’s  performance.  In our paper, we conjecture that inward-looking models of development, citizens’ relatively low media consumption, and relatively low levels of political and economic integration limit Latin American voters’ awareness of regional trends. As a result, citizens lack the elements to  benchmark their country’s economy, and to discount the impact of common exogenous shocks. Without this discounting, the power of the economic vote to hold leaders accountable is severely curtailed, as presidents are rewarded/punished for their good/bad luck.

We are currently conducting follow-up research to examine three important extensions of these findings. The first is to examine experimentally the conditions under which voters manage to discount exogenous factors when evaluating the president, or to overcome their “attribution bias.” The other is to determine theoretically and empirically — also through experiments — how presidents behave when they know their fate is determined by exogenous factors, a topic that speaks to literature on populism and corruption. Finally, we are looking at the role of local media in  enabling voters to correctly assign responsibility for economic performance.


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Kayser, Mark & Michael Peress. 2012. “Benchmarking across borders: electoral accountability  and the necessity of comparison.” American Political Science Review 106(3):661-684

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Venezuela – Crisis and Electoral Authoritarianism

This is a guest post from Maryhen Jiménez Morales, DPhil Candidate in Political Science at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Univeristy of Oxford. Maryhen’s thesis explores opposition parties and electoral authoritarianism in Latin America.

In the 1990s, Venezuela experienced a total collapse of its political and economic institutions. Poverty, macroeconomic instability, corruption scandals, and the repudiation of political elites, generated a broad discontent among the society. These traits were embodied within the two traditional political parties, AD and COPEI. The result of this dissatisfaction was the election of outsider candidate and former soldier Hugo Chávez, who promised a Bolivarian revolution, towards a socialist country and participatory democracy. Today, after 18 years of Chavismo ruling, the country is experiencing its most tragic collapse yet. Why so?

Comparing regimes has its risks. However, if we want to understand the differences between Venezuela’s first collapse during the 1990s and Venezuela’s current breakdown, we need to first explore the nature of both regimes. The Pact of Punto Fijo, signed in 1958 by Venezuela’s main political parties back then – AD, COPEI and URD –, gave the country political and economic stability. For all its flaws pointed out by recent observers, its stabilizing significance is crucial to note. Over almost four decades, Venezuela’s democracy started to flourish. The economy stabilized over the 60s and 70s, and a stable middle class emerged as a result of new inclusionary policies. The population began to participate in ways they had never done before, and the military was under civilian control. However, in the 1980s, the country’s economy began to crumble as a result of falling oil prices. By the 1990s, poverty, inflation and corruption had risen, and AD and COPEI lost the support they had built up over the past decades. Finally, in 1998, Hugo Chávez, won the presidential elections with the final goal of establishing a new political system that would erase the power of traditional economic elites and strengthen his personal hold on power. Chávez brought an end to Venezuela’s flawed, but working democracy, and replaced it by an electoral authoritarian regime. Here lies the secret of Venezuela’s second and most disastrous collapse.

Promising to generate true participation and real development, Chávez began to transform the political, economic and social sectors. However, the result of his reforms, alongside his mandate, (1999-2013) had one main goal: to ensure his political power. Step by step, he increased the powers of the president, controlled all state institutions, including the judiciary, parliament, and electoral bodies, and began to actively curb the opposition’s performance by disqualifying popular leaders, imposing sanctions, changing electoral rules or cutting their access to material and non-material resources. He replaced the old political elite, with a loyal civilian and military one. On the social level, he increased social spending to create patron-clientelistic networks organized around his radical leftist ideology that could defend and ensure his revolution. To guarantee the project’s continuity, he named Nicolás Maduro as his successor, who, in April 2013, won the elections with a 1% margin.

Ever since, Venezuela has been advancing towards total collapse. Sector after sector has been breaking down. The main motor of Venezuela’s economy, the oil industry, has suffered large mismanagement and corruption scandals, which has resulted in the loss of one million barrels in production since 1999. The government politicized the company by firing 20 thousand skilled and professional workers in 2002 and replacing them by loyal party supporters. Ever since, Chavismo has been packing the company with allies and military members, thus almost quintupling the payroll from 43.000 workers in 2002 to 170.000 in 2016. Today, the lack of professionalism and maintenance of PDVSA’s facilities results in accidents almost every day. In 2012, a pump collapse in Amuay led to one of the world’s worst refinery disasters in decades, causing at the death of 47 people. The tragedy of PDVSA’s maladministration forces Venezuela – the country with the largest proven oil reserves – to import gasoline for its daily consumption. Corruption has also penetrated the electricity sector. As a consequence of PDVSA’s collapse, the electricity lacks access to fuel to run its thermoelectric plants and to generate power. Once again, the lack of maintenance, and the effects of El Niño, are leading the country’s largest hydroelectric dam Guri to its virtual collapse. For Venezuelans, this translates into blackouts for up to 6-8 hours a day. No electricity also means no water for the same amount of time.

The state’s absolute control, and the catastrophically corrupt management of the economy, has caused the world’s highest inflation predicted to surpass the 500% mark this year and staggering the 1600% threshold next year, according to the IMF. Chavismo imposed a multiple tier exchange rate system which has only increased corruption, boosted the size of the black market, and devalued Venezuela’s currency. In today’s black market, Venezuelans get one dollar for 996 bolivars. A year ago, one dollar equaled 258 bolivars. Although the government praises its control over the economy and especially its fixed price policies, the truth is that Venezuelans cannot find regulated goods in the supermarkets anymore. And if they do, they have to queue for hours to buy them. Poverty has reached 75% this year. This adds 25% to the poverty records of the 1990s, which reached around 49% of the population. Continuing with the maths, the basic food basket has increased by 574,8 % over the past year, and by 25,6% from March to April 2016. A Venezuelan household of five people would need at least 22 times a minimum wage to afford it, according to Cendas-FMV. The state is also neglecting basic health care for its population. Chronic shortages of medical supplies, such as antibiotics or intravenous solutions, food and hygiene are common use in Venezuela’s hospitals. Most recently, however, doctors deal with dead newborns almost every day. On May 15 only, seven newborns died as a result of a blackout that caused the shutdown of the respirators in the maternity ward. Chavismo’s dream of public health care for Venezuelans has turned into a nightmare. Waiting lists for treatment are endless and, if patients want to be seen, they will need to bring the required tools and medicines – all goods they may not afford to buy or even find at the chemist’s.

Politically, as the government has lost power, it has increased repression. Since 2014, it brutally dissolved protests, jailed opposition leaders, and vehemently provoked the shutdown of the parliament, which is controlled by the opposition since December 2015. Currently, it is delaying the possibility of a referendum, knowing that it will lose if it takes place. More than 75% of the population wants Maduro to abandon his office, and even the military – an otherwise unconditional ally of the regime- is beginning to question its support. International actors have distanced themselves from Venezuela. Former regional allies, such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia or Uruguay have expressed their concerns over the current situation. The OEA, otherwise inactive as to Chávez and Maduro’s regime, activated the democratic charter to investigate the happenings in the country.

How was this all possible during the country’s largest oil bonanza? The answer is not as simple but may bear some leads. The authoritarian nature of the regime has allowed for unlimited control in all state affairs. It is precisely the lack of democraticness and transparency in government spending and further economic activities that has boosted corruption. A small, so-called Bolivarian elite, has disposed over the country’s largest oil income, filling up their pockets, and emptying the state’s treasury.

Although Venezuela is experiencing its largest collapse, some hope for transformation remains. Despite the authoritarian environment, opposition parties have emerged and strengthened their structures. Opponents have understood that only together, they will be able to transition towards democracy. Notwithstanding internal disagreements, a common fact in democratic systems, opposition parties are cooperating under the MUD and have not abandoned the democratic path for political change. Chávez’s populist seduction posed a threat in the past, but it will serve as an important democratic lesson for the future. Venezuela will have to enter a second Pact of Punto Fijo, that leaders ought to keep it place to prevent a third breakdown.


3ECFF702-EC8C-407F-B32E-324FFDBD549DMaryhen Jiménez Morales is a DPhil student at the Department of Political Science and International Relations. Her research looks at opposition parties in authoritarian regimes in Latin America. She completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Maryhen holds a BA in Political Science from the Goethe University Frankfurt and has worked for the German development cooperation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington DC.