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Electoral trends and Latin American societies in the 2019-2021 period

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In 2019 as many as eight general elections were held in Latin America: El Salvador (February 3), Cuba (constitutional referendum on February 24), Panama (May 5), Guatemala (June 16), Bolivia (October 20), Argentina (October 27), Uruguay (October 27), the Commonwealth of Dominica (December 6 – not to be confused with the Dominican Republic).

In 2021 elections will be held in Ecuador (February 7), El Salvador (February 28), Peru (April 11), Saint Lucia (June), Mexico (July), Aruba (September), Haiti (September 19), Argentina (October 24), Nicaragua (November 7)Chile (November 21) and Honduras (November).

We need to dwell on the overall course of these elections and their significance for Latin American societies, as well as on the contradictions inherent in them.

The world is currently undergoing major changes never seen so far in the young 21st century, and Latin America is no exception. In 2019 the situation in Latin America had two characteristics: change, on the one hand, and chaos, on the other.

Considering the changes occurring in the international and internal situation, Latin American countries are facing huge pressure. Many States have tried to make financial, tax, pension and other reforms, as well as adopt various political adjustments and methods to adapt to the situation and reduce financial deficits, so as to promote economic development and improve people’s living conditions.

Nevertheless, due to the unequal distribution of wealth and the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as the delay in meeting people’s demands, large-scale protests and violence have broken out in many Latin American countries.

Latin America’s economic growth is stalling and diplomatic relations tend to be diversified and fragmented. The U.S. Administration has changed its policy towards Latin America and has promoted a new Monroe Doctrine in an attempt to divide and break Latin America’s unity.

The political climate in Latin America continues to retreat for left-wing parties and advance for the right-wing ones. Although the claim that Latin America’s progressive cycle is ending is unfounded, judging by the results of the eight Latin American elections in 2019, the pendulum of Latin American politics anyway swings to the right.

The right or centre-right parties continued to rule in Guatemala and Panama. The left-wing parties lost general elections in El Salvador and Uruguay. Although the Bolivian Left for Socialism won the general elections in both 2019 and 2020, President Morales was forced to resign due to electoral fraud and go into exile to Mexico as from November 11, 2019. On December 12 he moved to Argentina.

The Latin American Left, however, is progressing. In Argentina’s elections of October 27, 2019, Alberto Fernández, the candidate of the centre-left Frente de Todos with the Justicialist (Peronist) Party defeated the right-wing candidate of Juntospor el Cambio, Mauricio Macri.

Another feature of the current political climate in Latin America is that both left-wing and right-wing governments have evident difficulties. The political and economic crises of the left-wing governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua have intensified; the left-wing government led by Morales in Bolivia has fallen and the Cuban economy has undergone severe difficulties.

Macri’s government in Argentina lost the general election due to an internal economic crisis during its term of office. Conflicts within the government of Brazil’s President Bolsonarohave become increasingly severe. Bolsonaro himself has withdrawn from the Partido Social Liberal and has formed a new party, Aliançapelo Brasil. As stated above, economic growth has been slow also in Ecuador and Chile. The wave of protests in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Haiti, etc. has not subsided, multiplying one after the other.

The reasons for the outbreak of protests and revolts in many Latin American countries are not the same, but there are some common ones. Firstly, most countries pursue neo-liberal economic policies and their economic structure is unique, thus causing economic recession.

Secondly, in many Latin American countries, political elites and parties are scarcely able to rule the country and cannot cope with the challenges they have to face. People have no confidence in them.

Thirdly, in recent years the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and the lower middle class, that was lifted out of poverty years before, has plunged again into poverty.

Fourthly, people have some common demands, such as opposing the rising cost of living, the privatisation of education, of medical care, of public services and of social security – hence they demand increases in minimum wages and pensions.

Fifthly, in recent years the phenomenon of military intervention in politics has increased in countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Venezuela, etc.

Sixthly, there was direct or indirect interference by the U.S. Administration led by former President Trump.

The weak economic recovery in Latin America has been negatively affected by the international economic situation and the constraints of the national economic structure. In 2015 and 2016, Latin America’s economy recorded negative growth for two consecutive years. The economy rebounded in 2017, with a growth rate of 1.3% in 2017 and 1.1% in 2018.

According to a recent report by the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe dated November 12, 2019, there has been the slowest growth in the world for five consecutive years over the last 70 years.

In 2019, Brazil’s economy grew by 0.8% only, Mexico’s by 0.2%, Colombia’s by 3.2%, Peru’s by 2.5%, Chile’s by 1.8% and Cuba’s by 0.5%,while Argentina and Venezuela recorded negative growth rates, i.e. -3% and -23%, respectively.

In 2019, the poverty rate was the most severe in Latin America. The third meeting of the Foro de losPaíses de América Latina y el Caribe sobre el Desarrollo Sostenible comoejemplo de coordinación y seguimiento de la Agenda 2030 en la región, which was held in Santiago de Chile on April 22-26, 2019, highlighted that the population living in poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean had decreased in the first 15 years of this century, but since 2015 extreme poverty in Latin America has increased.

On November 29, 2019, ECLAC published the 2019 Report known as Latin American Social Overview and Outlook. There are currently 191 million poor people in Latin America, accounting for 30.8% of the total population: 72 million people (11.5%) live in extreme poverty and the malnourished population amount to 42.5 million people(6.6%).

As noted above, the main social problems currently facing Latin America are the increasing social inequality, rising unemployment and rampant violence.

This shows that the political elites and parties are scarcely able to rule the country and cannot cope with the challenges they have to face. Some progress, however, is being made.

On December 1, 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the left-wing Movimiento Regeneración Nacional took office as Mexico’s President. After over a year in power, President López pledged to carry out the Cuarta Transformación (1. Independence 1810-21; 2. Leyes de Reforma: on the separation between Church and State, wanted by Benito Juarez, 1858-61; 3. Revolution 1910-1917).

In his first anniversary speech on December 1, 2019, Lopez stressed he had achieved remarkable results in fighting corruption, increasing minimum wages and pensions, improving public welfare, reducing government austerity and keeping inflation low.

He acknowledged that economic growth had not reached the desired level, but the government issued a number of plans to step up economic development and increase efforts to crack down on drug crimes in view of solving the security and violence problems it should face.

Latin American countries are generally also affected by major social contradictions. Besides the U.S. policy of division and disintegration, Latin American countries are clearly divided into two camps on issues such as the Venezuelan crisis, after the recent elections of December 6, 2020 that saw the left-wing Gran Polo Patriótico Simón Bolívar (69.34%) win over the pro-U.S. Alianza Democrática (18.76%) of Juan Guaidó, who self-proclaimed President of Venezuela on January 2019.

There are over ten Latin American countries that recognise and support the self-proclaimed pro-U.S.President (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic), while Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Uruguay recognise the legitimate President, Nicolás Maduro Moros, also bolstered by the support and strength of his very large victory in the Venezuelan election two months ago.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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