Latin America

  • Authoritarianism
    Academic Webinar: Authoritarianism
    Moisés Naím, distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, leads the conversation on authoritarianism. CASA: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach Department at CFR. Thank you all for joining us. Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be made available on our website,, if you would like to share them with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We are delighted to have Moisés Naím with us for a discussion on power and authoritarianism. Moisés Naím is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an internationally syndicated columnist. Dr. Naím’s experience in public service includes his tenure as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry, director of Venezuela’s central bank, and executive director of the World Bank. He has held appointments as a professor at IESA, Venezuela’s leading business school, and Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Naím is the host and producer of Efecto Naím, an Emmy-winning weekly television program on international affairs that airs throughout the Americas on Direct TV. He was the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine for fourteen years, and is the author of many scholarly articles, and more than ten books on international economics and politics. Welcome, Dr. Naím. Thank you very much for speaking with us today. NAÍM: Thanks for inviting me. Delighted to be with you. CASA: You have been reflecting on the nature of power, authoritarianism, and autocracy for many years, and have written a series of books that focused on these themes. Could we begin with you telling us a little bit about your current thinking on the subject? NAÍM: Of course. I am as concerned, as many other people are, about the fact that democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is moving. This is not just an opinion; this is solid data from Freedom House, which is an institution that analyzes and surveys the world in terms of its propensities towards freedom or not. And in the most recent report about the state of freedom in the world, they show that it has—global freedom has declined for the eighteenth consecutive year. So for every year in the last eighteen years, democracy was declining and authoritarian regimes, of different stripes and forms, were taking over. Political rights and civil liberties were diminished in fifty-two countries, and the fact is that the majority of the people in the world today live in authoritarian regimes, or regimes where the checks and balances that define a democracy are not functioning—fully functioning and are limited and constrained. This is a very complex, surprising world in which a lot is happening for the first time—or a lot that we believe is happening for the first time, in fact, has happened before. I have here a phrase—a couple of phrases by European thinkers in the 1930s. After the First World War and before the Second World War, they saw it coming. They did not know exactly what form would it take. But José Ortega y Gasset is a famous Spanish thinker of that time, and in 1930 he wrote a book, and one of the phrases in the book is, “we don’t know what is happening to us.” And that is exactly what is happening to us—that we don’t know what’s going on. We know that something big is going on, but we don’t know exactly how is it going to affect our jobs, our companies, our politics, our life, our society, and so on. Another politician, at the same time—an Italian this time—in the 1930s, wrote a book. Antonio Gramsci was his name. He was in jail for political reasons, and Gramsci wrote, “the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. In this interregnum, monsters are hatched.” I repeat: “The old is dying and the new is yet to be born. In this interregnum, monsters are hatched.” And we have the same feeling now, that first, yes, there is a lot that we don’t know, and that surprise us all the time, and happens for the first time. It’s almost—I wrote a column recently about that, the unprecedented planet, in which a lot of things were happening for the first time, typical in most—a well-known example of this is climate change, right? It’s creating all sorts of unprecedented situations and points of view. I have been tracking the world from this perspective, as you said, for a long time, and there are two books of mine—or three books of mine that I think do not answer all the questions, but do answer most of the important questions of our time. They are thirty years in the making. There was one in 2005, another ten years later, and another ten years. The first one is Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy (2005). And the book showed how, at the time in which everyone was globalizing and—going global it was called—very fashionable. The group that—you know, that took most advantage early on and were early adopters were criminal cartels, and they were very good at using borders as ways of leveraging their capacities, possibilities, and goals. So Illicit—the role of illicit, the role of criminalize, and governments is something that I’m sure we’ll have speak today. But looking at this, what’s happening was also that the governments were waging war on all these criminal activities, in the trafficking of people, of drugs, of narcotics, of money, of weapons, of—even human organs, and art, and everything else. And governments were losing this battle. You know, they won some skirmishes here and there with the cartels and the criminals, but all in all, they were losing. So that led me to my following book, The End of Power (2013), in which I analyzed—I started with thinking that this is a government thing only to discover that this was happening everywhere; not that power was disappearing, but yes, power was more constrained. People that had power had now more limits, more restrictions on how it can use power. And the central theme of that book was that, in the twenty-first century, power had become easier to obtain, harder to use, and easier to lose. And that is directly relevant to the subject of authoritarianism that we’re discussing here. Ten years later, I wrote a book called The Revenge of Power (2022), which is what we’re—those who have power in massive quantities, what we are doing to limit the erosion of the power, and the ways, and the sharing of power, and the distribution of power, the sources, the origins, the usages, the possibilities of power at this time. And I came up with the idea, recognizing that what the revenge of power is is that some authoritarian regimes were using the three Ps to retain government. The three Ps are populism, polarization, and post-truth. The three are very well-known characteristics, but they have acquired unprecedented potency under the new circumstances, and they define very quickly what are the new breed of authoritarian regime that appear to look like democrats, but in fact, they are undermining democracy from the inside. We have a long list of leaders that were elected, some in fair and free elections; others by just stealing the elections, but once they got in government, they started limiting, constraining, and diminishing the powers that constrain, the power of the public chief executive. So that is a context in which we are moving. And one of the themes that I would like to—hope to chat with you all has to be with what I mentioned before: the criminalized nature of the state, and how this is related to authoritarianism, and to globalization. Let me stop here and start the conversation, Maria. CASA: Oh, thank you so much for that introduction. Now let’s open it up to questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll start with a raised hand from Carl Gilmour, an undergraduate student at Stanford University. Carl? (Pause.) We’ll give Carl another second—otherwise we can come back to him. Well, let’s move on to a written question. It’s from Michael Strmiska, professor of world history at SUNY Orange in New York state, who writes, “I see a dilemma with the need to restrict communications and mis- and disinformation from extremists and authoritarians, though this would seem to mean a restriction of free speech. However, free speech is never an absolute right. What can governments do to prevent authoritarians and extremists from taking power through manipulation of the information and social media sphere? I no longer believe the argument that the solution to hate speech or other such disinformation is more speech because, with social media, lies and hate can be spread at lightning speed in great mass and force. NAÍM: Well, the question has many good answers embedded in it. It’s hard to disagree with the professor’s perspective, and his caution. We have been surprised by what’s happening in social media and how that has changed a lot in the world of politics and so on. That, we should remember, was driven by technology. It was driven by all sorts of innovations. I think his question is the question for our time: how do we protect free speech and democracy while at the same time limiting the impact of the wrongdoers, or the people that are abusing the system, or using the system for very nefarious goals. We don’t know; nobody knows. That question is at the core of the great debate of our time. All I want to stress—perhaps in addition—is that expect surprises, and it’s very likely that the surprises will come more from the world of politics and from the world of technological innovation. But we don’t know what those are. CASA: Next we’ll go to Buba Misawa, who is professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College. Please go ahead, Buba. Q: Can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: OK. Professor Naím, that was a great conversation you started. But let me ask a simpler question, and I know, between you and Gramsci you can answer. Why are we attracted to this new model or this old model of authoritarianism? Is it because democracy has failed, or why? NAÍM: Another great question at the core of a lot of the debates that are going on, so thank you very much, Professor Misawa. The answer has a lot to do with the underperformance of governments and the—you know, broken expectations. The expectations of people—very justifiably—grow much faster than the capacity of the state to respond to their needs, and hopes, and ambitions, and expectations for a better life. That is happening. That was also always happening, and somehow I think the famous professor identified it, that the gap between the expectations of the voters, or the people, and the capacity of the state to deliver on that, that has always existed, but now it has been amplified with technology, and with the globalization, and with all kinds of new ways of doing things, and changing the regime. The essence of the story is that we will have to deal with the non-performance of governments, and what is happening is that we need to—I don’t think we have to relaunch everything and throw the baby with the bath water, but capitalism in the twenty-first century and democracy in the twenty-first century need adjustment. The world and assumptions that were—on which these were based are no longer with us, and we have not replaced them yet. And that’s where Gramsci is so relevant, you know. In this interregnum—he called it—a lot of very bad things can happen, but also very good things can happen. But the essence of the story is that expectations are making governments very hard to function and very—there is a need to—as I said, and I’m repeating myself—there is a need to adjust our capitalism and democracy that we have until now to the new realities. And we all know the long list of new things that are happening that need a response; climate change being, you know, very important in this story. CASA: Our next question is from Bernard Haykel, professor at Princeton University. Q: Thank you, and I hope you can hear me. Thank you, Professor Naím. I’m a great admirer of your work. NAÍM: Thank you. Q: I have two questions, so one is that you have different petrostates, both of which are authoritarian, but they deliver very different goods and services to their populations. So take, for example, the UAE or Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Venezuela, on the other. So what accounts for that difference? And the second is that in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, they tell you, you know, we’re a tribal society. If we had democracy we would have inefficient government, we would have chaos, we would have Islamists who would come to power, as you can see, for example, in Kuwait where they have a parliament. And so, therefore, there is an argument that authoritarianism is really the best way to contend with the global problems and with providing services to their populations. Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, yes, Professor Haykel, that’s absolutely right, and we don’t know—there is a respect for authoritarianism that is essentially grounded on the performance, and so we now give very—a lot of importance to governance and to the capacity to govern. And they are doing a good job down there in the Gulf countries, surely. But it is so specific—their set of circumstances, their origins, their history, their society, the geopolitics, their economy—is so specific to them that it’s hard to replicate elsewhere. We have not seen it. And then we don’t know how resilient these governments are like that without starting in the route of repression in, you know, the underlying assumption in this conversation. The elephant in the room, of course, is the capacity of these governments to be repressive, and then what happens. We saw, for example, the admiration for the Chinese model and its capacity to build infrastructure and to build all kinds of things. And it was presented to us as an example to follow. And remember the Beijing Olympics. It was this perfect display of organization and performance, but we—as you know now, that China has been entangled in all kinds of problems and all kinds of difficulties. So yes, we need to look at other examples, but remember the context and understand that this is a picture in a moment, but over time the sustainability of this governance is going to change. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Rodrigo Moura, who is an undergraduate student at the University of Essex. He asks: You have mentioned the three Ps that authoritarians use to gain and consolidate power and influence. What about money? How do you see the use of economic incentives by authoritarian regimes, mainly abroad, to gain influence? NAÍM: Yes, there are two themes there. One is the economic performance of a nation and a regime, and can it provide the prosperity that people need, want, and fight poverty, and fight inequality, and so on. That’s one dimension on the theme of power. The other dimension on the theme of power is one that is a very complicated one, and it has to do with money and politics, and how money can replace the will of the voters. And we are seeing that even in democratic societies in which money defines political outcomes with the negligible contribution of participation of the rest of the people. So money has many dimensions, but the two main ones are that money and politics, and the necessity to provide for a better life for as many of the people in the country as possible, and those are two challenges that a lot of governments are not meeting. CASA: Our next question—let’s take our next question from Lindsey McCormack, a graduate student at Baruch College. Lindsey? Q: Thank you. Professor Naím, I have a question—a follow-up to your piece in El País from—it was included in the background materials for this webinar. You discussed how today’s dictators don’t really have an out like maybe a generation ago that they could, you know, take a lot of money, and go somewhere and retire in luxury. (Laughs.) That was a very interesting point, and you suggested that’s a reason—a reason it can be so difficult to transition away from authoritarian regimes, that essentially their leaders are trapped in the situation of their own making. And I was wondering if you have any idea what to do about that? It wasn’t a good situation in the past where you could steal a bunch of money and go to the French Riviera, but at least it gave an out and the possibility of change. NAÍM: Yes, that’s a very thorny issue, as Ms. McCormack indicated—as she—as you mentioned. The challenge here is what do you do with dictators. And most of them cannot run the risk of not being in power because if they are not in power, they are in jail. So government is not just for service or for corruption, but also for protection. And unless you can provide an exit ramp out, it’s going to be very difficult for these people to go anywhere because no other governments would protect them as much as their own government and their own—typically their own military. So that is going to be with us for a while. An international coalition of democracies could do something, but as we know, multilateral work is as desirable as it is often ineffective—too ineffective, in fact. That’s a good question. Thank you. CASA: Our next question is written. It’s from Alfredo Toro Carnevali, professor of political science at Montclair State University. He writes: I was perplexed by the speed with which Ecuador, a relatively stable country a few years ago, was overtaken by organized criminal organizations from Mexico and Armenia, competing for access to the port in Guayaquil. How could this happen so quickly and so dramatically? What can Ecuador do? Could you comment on this? NAÍM: Yeah, it’s an incredible situation. Ecuador was one of the most stable of countries in that tough neighborhood of high political volatility and instability. And then it fell into the trap that met—so many other countries in that neighborhood are having, which is being complacent with the presence of drug cartels and criminals, and that have infiltrated the government, have infiltrated society, that have access to huge quantities of money. And we saw, you know, the globalization of organized crime because a lot of these things—for example, you saw a lot of the Mexican cartels operating in El Salvador—in Ecuador, sorry—and that is part of the answer. It was—it always existed, but never at the speed and scope that it exists now. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Björn Krondorfer, director of the Martin Springer Institute and an endowed professor of religious studies at Northern Arizona University. Björn? Q: Can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: Yeah. I brought my question. It’s about the role of religion in authoritarian regimes. We see this with white Christian nationalism in the United States, with Putin’s embrace of Russian orthodoxy, in Orbán’s Hungary—I mean really across the world at different—in different religious traditions. What is your sense of the religious power or the religious force in relationship to political authoritarian power? NAÍM: Thank you for the question, Professor Krondorfer. The magic word in global politics or politics today, everywhere, is legitimacy, legitimacy, and legitimacy. There is a huge deficit of legitimacy in which governments are not legitimate, either because they acquired power through sham elections or because they had a coup. But the need to have legitimacy, to be respected, to be recognized as a valid regime is there. And one of the tools for legitimacy is religion, as you well said. And yes, in the same way that money in politics is a very important thorny issue, money in religion to fund and support a specific government is also a big issue for which we don’t have a lot of good answers. But yes, your point is excellent. CASA: Going back to Carl Gilmour, who is a student at Stanford University. He has written his question: Many journalists appear to perish or become confined when confronted with the consequence of publishing truth to the people that expose the abuse of power. What is your recommendation to these beacons of truth when weighing the heavy cost of careers in journalism? Do you foresee that there will be any remedy to this assault on free speech or censorship through fear and violence? NAÍM: Yeah, what a problem, right? And we know that, you know, there are governments, there are countries that have the most journalists in jail. Turkey, Mexico are horrible situations in terms of persecution and the repression of journalists. And I don’t have any answer other than admiring, recognizing, and honoring the work of these journalists who every day go out in the street, not knowing if they’re going to go back at home later in the evening. It is a global situation. We are already seeing how some of these authoritarian regimes are using them—captured journalists—are using them as exchange in deals. There is a very well-known journalist from the Wall Street Journal that has been incarcerated unjustly in Russia, and he is just one of the most visible ones, but for each one of them, there are hundreds that are being repressed everywhere. And trying to generate—the most important prescription is to continue to generate visibility and don’t let them disappear from our information ecosystem. CASA: Our next question is from an executive-in-residence at the IESE Business School, Alex Wallace. Alex? Q: Hello. Thank you for this; so interesting. I wonder if there are any examples of authoritarian regimes where the populace is actually thriving and/or the standard of living is high. I looked at the World Happiness Index, and America is pretty far down there. There’s probably one or two above it that are not democracies. I just wonder if there is any place where authoritarianism has actually not been bad for the populace. NAÍM: Well, yeah, of course, Ms. Wallace. That’s very important. What we don’t know is for how long and how sustainable, you know. Look at the sustainability of these things, and it’s not clear that they are—in the long run, they will have the same format or the same face. But yes, there are places—Hungary is an example of places where the economy is doing relatively well, but that needs support and subsidies. And at the same time, there has been some progress. And let’s not forget the progress that had been taking place in China where literally millions—hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty. And that is a performance that is unrivaled in terms of success. But at the same time, as I mentioned in my answer to another question prior, is that now the highly admired system in Russia is beginning to crack. CASA: We have many, many written questions, but we would love to hear your voices, so please don’t be shy and click the raise hand icon if you would like to ask your question orally. In the meantime, we’ll take a question—a written question from Chip Pitts, who is a lecturer at Stanford University. He writes: I worked with a number of NGOs concerned about the expansion of unchecked surveillance technologies by governments and companies, surveillance capitalism. What’s your view on the trends regarding surveillance and how excesses can be corrected? NAÍM:: They are horrible. The threats regarding surveillance are horrible. And becoming more common around the world. Again, China is probably the world champion in terms of surveillance. But it’s also in Switzerland you can find it, and other European countries. Even in very well-functioning democracies you see these technologies that are being used. And, you know, there’s a violation of privacy. There is use to repress movements and organizations. And, again, the only hope we have, I think, is two. One is having a knowledge and understanding, recognizing, keeping in mind that this is happening. Don’t forget that this is going on. And the second is that, again, I think the world of technology may give us some positive surprises in terms of how to protect ourselves from this excessive, abusive, authoritarian kind of behavior in terms of surveillance. CASA: Our next raised hand is from Katie Laatikainen, who is associate professor at Adelphi University. Katie. Q: Hi. Thanks very much. I also wrote my question in the Q&A. I’m interested in what you think an international order premised upon authoritarianism would look like. For most of the post-World War II era liberalism and liberal concepts, universal human rights, rule of law sort of defined the operating system of the—operating system of international relations. Given what you’ve said about authoritarianism and the internal and domestic focus of it, what would be the elements of the operating system if there’s a shift toward authoritarianism as the operating system in international relations? Thanks so much. NAÍM: Mutual protection. What these countries that are authoritarian and beginning—we have evidence they’re working together internationally to ensure that they are protected. That they will not have some color revolution, or some invasion, or some other social political dynamic that puts them at risk. So each one of them has a dense web of international connections with likeminded governments. And we should expect more than that. But always remembering the phrase that says that countries don’t have friends, they have interests. And so the interests of these authoritarian governments are converging for now. But we don’t know if there’s going to be—what’s going to happen in reality there. CASA: Our next question is a written one. It comes from Patrick Duddy, senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University, and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. He asks: Dr. Naím, could you cite a recent example of a situation in which the international community or local democracy advocates have been able to rollback authoritarianism and restore democracy? NAÍM: Yes, first, let me say hello to Patrick, who’s an old friend of mine. Nice to hear from you. Yes, fortunately, we have examples. I think the most recent example is Guatemala. Guatemala had a government that essentially was voted out of power. But NGOs, and civil society, and the media, and the private sector, and the church, they all got together in a fantastic way and were able, with the support of the United States, by the way—with an important role on the part of the United States. The leadership was, in Guatemala, and Guatemalan democratic politicians were so successful. And so, yes, there is hope. And there’s always opportunity that a good leader, together with a good organization and the support of the international community, can stop the decline towards the autocracy in some—and protect democracies. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Andrea Cuervo Prados, who is adjunct instructor at Dickinson State University. Andrea. Q: Hi, Mr. Naím. Thank you so much for your insights and knowledge. I also wrote my question on the chat, and it is related to Colombia. I would love to hear your thoughts about that country, about Colombia, which right now seems to be moving to an authoritarian regime, recalling some of the initial stages you know very well, Venezuela live under Chavez tenure. So what’s your view on the Colombian case? And do you believe an authoritarian regime is emerging in Colombia? Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, I am worried, and I think there is—there are good reasons to be worried about what happens in Colombia. Colombia used to be a solid democracy. Colombia showed the way on how to combat drug trafficking, how to reclaim neighborhoods that were untouchable by the police and others, because they were controlled by the drug traffickers. So there was a long list that make Colombia a country worth looking at. But then a combination of toxic polarization in which the country were—like many others, by the way—got entangled in all kinds of highly polarizing debates, behaviors, created—weakened the state in Colombia. And now they have a president that is surely frustrating the hopes of the people that voted for him. And he is displaying behaviors that are not democratic. And all, you know, in the mix of showing and trying to present himself and his policies as democracy. But they’re not. So, yes. But at the same time, perhaps the good news is that what’s remaining of democracy in Colombia, and especially in the legislative branch, can curtail and limit the advances—the antidemocratic advances that that are taking place there. But it’s worth watching and crossing fingers. CASA: Our next question is from Jose David Valbuena, an undergraduate student at Buffalo State University. He asks: How does the rise of authoritarianism in certain countries affect the global balance of power? And what implications does this have for international relations? NAÍM: Yeah. Well, the central answer there is the hegemony, and the nature of hegemony, and who has it, and how it sustains it, is a central theme. Hegemony and, you know, dominate—the idea that, for example, the superpowers, that the United States, will continue to be a hegemon, I think it’s true. It will continue to be the hegemon, probably more than anything in some areas of the military, of military affairs, of military organizations. But yet, the hegemony will be—is on—is on the plate to be debated, discussed, eventually adapted at what are the realities of geopolitics in these times. CASA: Let’s see. We’ll take our next question from Rita Kiki Edozie, who is a professor and associate dean at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Q: Thank you. And thank you, Dr. Naím. Very interesting conversation. So about a year and a half ago, you participated in a debate around the same subject, you with Julian Waller. And your thesis was, of course, the rise of authoritarianism; and Julian’s thesis was that authoritarianism would not emerge in the U.S., despite, you know, your thesis about sort of Trump’s authoritarianism. And that’s because the U.S. had institutions at the national, local, and institutional level that sort of—would mute or, sort of, soften the blow of authoritarianism. Assuming both of you are right in that, you know, both there is an authoritarianism on the rise but so is there a pushback against authoritarianism, especially in the U.S., my question to you is: Don’t you think that democratic regimes are sort of embedded with the contradictions of authoritarian thrusts and pulses as well? And that, you know, they go one in hand, and we ought to acknowledge how they sort of coexist together? Thank you. NAÍM: Yes, Professor Edozie. I think the answer to that question will hinge quite a bit on the results of the U.S. elections this year. I do believe that Mr. Donald Trump is a threat to democracy in the United States, in a variety of ways. Because democracy is not just what happens when you go to vote, as you know, but is what happens in between periods in which—the days in which you go to vote, in which you really want the checks and balances to be autonomous, independent, objective, honest, and incorruptible, and all of that. And that is not what President Trump showed us in his time in government, nor what he’s saying these days. So I think whatever generalization one wants to make at this point, it has to be centered on the consequences at home and internationally of an electoral win by Donald Trump, if that happens. CASA: Our next question is a written one. It’s from Harry Mellor, political science student at Wheaton College, who writes: I was wondering what your thoughts were regarding whether the current Russian state reaction to recent terrorist attacks may be employed or used by the Putin regime to push an anti-Islamic authoritarian view, similar to the U.S. during 9/11. Or, in relation to earlier questions, used to bolster the hegemony of Russian Orthodoxy? NAÍM: Yes. I think Putin is already doing it. Of course, he has mentioned a little bit the Muslim theme, but mostly he’s blaming Ukraine. And he’s using the attack to show that—essentially arguing, which is not true, that the attack—the terrorist attack was, you know, the doing of the Ukrainians. And, again, we live in a world in which there are millions of people that don’t know who to believe, what to believe, and where to—you know, how to think about these issues. And I think this is an example. CASA: We’ll take our next question from Susan King, dean at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Susan. Q: Hi. Just to clarify, dean emeritus. So I’m no longer sitting dean. I want to ask a question with that plays off what you’ve just said about the U.S. And you’ve talked about the importance of government. There’s been a lot written just recently about the pandemic sort of overhang, that there’s PTSD, you know, in many communities; and that, reviewing it, that many felt the ambiguity of the guidance that they got has left people really desirous of more clear answers, and some worry that will lead to authoritarianism. Do you see the COVID experience, the pandemic, as sort of a backdrop for the United States elections? NAÍM: I don’t know. That is high expectations, right? Is assuming the government agencies in the United States are infallible and knew what they were doing. And the fact of the matter is, that they were doing it for the first time, without precedents. They surprised us—the scientists surprised us when they came up with a vaccine in record time, because everybody had been saying it takes a couple of years or more to get a vaccine through the system. Well, the scientists collaborating internationally were able to do it. But what I don’t think is that one should expect governments to have that capacity of dealing with a pandemic of the global scale and doing everything effectively, or doing things in service of certain ideology or political interests. I think there was room for mistakes and an ignorance about how to deal with the situation and doing as much as possible with the information they had. And the political context. Just remember the debates and how difficult they were. And the long-term consequences of COVID, of course, there is—long-term COVID is an issue and is becoming an important issue. But there is a new pandemic which is mental health, as you know. The global—the world has seen an increased level of mental health problems. And the United States is significantly there. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Alex Beltran, an undergraduate student at University of Houston-Downtown: I would like to ask you about your thoughts regarding Mexico and its current national issues, where there is a president who attempted to eliminate several national agencies including the ones in charge of elections. In addition, the current president is very clear on letting the corruption of cartels continue. Is Mexico on its way to becoming more authoritarian? Considering they have elections soon it might be early to talk about that. But I would like to hear what your—what you understand about the subject. NAÍM: Well, I understand that, yes, it’s too—in a normal democracy, it’s too early to be—to talk about what’s going to happen, because you don’t know who’s going to win. In the case of Mexico, everybody knows now who’s going to win, because there’s going to be an election that is heavily influenced by government intervention in favor of the candidate of the government. So that’s one thing. And the government of Mexico, and in particular President López Obrador, are important examples of what I call political necrophilia. You know, necrophilia is this perversion that some human beings have, you know, a strong attachment to cadavers—that they like cadavers. Well, there is a political manifestation of that, people that are deeply, deeply attached to bad ideas, ideas that have been tried and tested in the country once and again, in different countries, with different circumstances. Ideas that always end in more corruption, more inequality, more poverty, and so on. And President—if you look at the initiatives of President López Obrador, you will see that there are all kinds of examples of political necrophilia in which he is doing things that have been tested in the past. And there are clear mistakes to do it again that he’s undertaking. CASA: Our next question comes from Michael C. Davis, professor of law and international affairs at Jindal Global University. Michael. Q: OK, can you hear me? CASA: Yes. Q: OK. I’ve just written a book on Hong Kong called Freedom Undone. And one of the things I constantly run into in talking about the book is a criticism, well, it’s pointless to talk about Hong Kong. China’s not going to listen. And so you’re just—it’s a waste of our time even to host an event on it. And so the question I have is, does—in the cases like this, where a very successful authoritarian regimes is in charge, what’s the best response when you’re told that sort of naming and shaming really doesn’t matter, you’re just going to be called anti-China for this, and they’re going to ignore it? NAÍM: Well, but the rest of the world is not. The rest of the world will clearly benefit from a group of independent, objective, reliable, trusted analysts, professors, journalists, politicians, policymakers that said that—you know, that put the light on what’s going on. As you know better than I, this—recently there was already the decision to pass the law in Hong Kong that clearly curtailed any hopes of a more democratic—to retain some of the Hong Kong’s democratic values, and behaviors, and institutions. So it’s already happened. But I think there is the possibility that you find people that understand what’s going on, and how this backsliding towards authoritarianism in Hong Kong can be—still being formed, or used to be—to inform the rest of the world how to think about China, by the way to look at how they have dealt with Hong Kong. And then the next stage of the conversation, as you know, will have to do with Taiwan. President Xi Jinping constantly repeats that there is no debate there. Taiwan is part of China. And it will become integrated with China. And that creates, of course, all kinds of anxieties because of the role of the United States in the treaty. There is a mutual protection military treaty between China and the United States, as you know. So don’t stop it. Don’t leave it there. Insist. CASA: Our next question is written one from Hunter Shields, undergraduate student at Davis and Elkins College. He writes: If social media acts as a significant factor in the spread of authoritarian government models, does it become the responsibility of nonauthoritarian governments, who may see how such systems can cause chaos, to censor or limit the exposure of authoritarian ideals? Would censoring authoritarian governments make the nonauthoritarian governments act in the same way as they—as they try to maintain the political status quo? NAÍM: Well, I don’t know that censoring is for anything that I would ever recommend. But there is no doubt that we need a regulatory system that, for example, to contain the spread of disinformation that is now happening and that he’s being, as the question said, you know, there’s a lot going on there. And it’s important that the fight is—continues, the fight against misinformation, distortion, lies, hate continues. That we will need to find ways to contain that. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Wilson Wameyo, a graduate student at the Jagiellonian University in Poland. He asked: How is the new conflict between Russia and the West emboldening authoritarian leaders in Africa and South America? NAÍM: Yeah. That is the fear. And that is why so many leaders, so many democratic leaders, are saying that the outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine, as a result of Russia’s invasion, will define the prospects for democracy around the world. If Ukraine falls, you know, loses the war, and it becomes a province of Russia, all bets are off in a variety of ways. I don’t think that will happen. But I also think that a victory of the Ukrainian forces is—at this point, is on the table. So negotiations will ensue. And let’s hope that through these negotiations one can preserve the independence of Ukraine, and also stimulates the creation of an international coalition, prodemocracy coalition, that has some tooth and can work on that in support of countries that are fighting the good fight in terms of protecting democracy. CASA: Our next question is a written one from Azzedine Layachi, professor of politics at St. John’s University: You said earlier that we need to adjust capitalism and democracy to the new reality. First, what are some of the specific dimensions of this new reality? Second, what kind of adjustments do you suggest? NAÍM: Well, it’s obvious that the economy as it now works is not aligned to the realities of climate change that we’re facing. The climate emergency requires action and requires sound economic thinking, and action, and policies. Inequality. Inequality around the world has increased in significant ways. And, again, the economy, as it now stands, is—has a peaceful coexistence with inequality that has to be shattered. And if—you know, the fight against monopolies, the concentration of power, and all that has to be very effective. The whole regulation of free speech and speech in general, and disinformation and all that, has to be aligned to democracy and to what we have as a democracy political system. So there is a list of things that can be done, but that require political will that he was going to be very hard to get. CASA: Our next question comes from Mietek Boduszynski, associate professor of politics at Pomona College. The question is: From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, can the logic of great power competition be reconciled with democracy promotion? NAÍM: It depends how the promotion is done. Remember that under the banner of democracy, you know, promotion a lot of bad governments have been maintained. I understand the question. It’s a good question in terms of how to make it possible for democracy in the United States—for the United States to be effective at democracy promotion. I think that is going to be reviewed and is going to change. And I think the way we have been thinking about foreign aid is going to be adjusted. CASA: Our next question is from Diego Abente Brun, professor of the practice and program director, Latin American and hemispheric studies at George Washington University. He asks: Why are some authoritarian Latin American leaders popular—AMLO, Bukele, Milei, and so on? How can we restore faith and trust in democracy? NAÍM: Fandom. In my book, The Revenge Of Power, I talk about the new quality that has politics. You know, you always wanted a politician have to have some sort of attractiveness, the magic, that magnetism that attracts followers. Now it’s more than that. Now it’s a fandom. And it has to do with identity politics. It has to do with how do you feel you belong to a group that is like you and you are like them. And all of that has is having immense political consequences that we have not seen before? CASA: Thank you. I don’t know if we have—maybe we have time for one more question. We’ll take it from Robin Bittick, professor of political science at Sam Houston State University in Texas. Democracy is about self-rule and majority voting. Yet, populism employs something that can be—implies something that can be democratic but can become authoritarian. What can be done to ensure democracy does not result in suicide? NAÍM: Wow. Well—(laughs)—but I understand the feeling, you know, that democracy will be underperforming in some areas that are critical for people. And, again, performance and transparency are two important conditions for all of this. Transparency, and paying attention, and participating. CASA: OK. We have many more questions. We’ve covered an enormous amount of ground. So I’d like to thank you so much, Dr. Naím, for your time with us today. And to all of you, for your questions and comments. The final Winter/Spring Academic Webinar will take place on Wednesday, April 10, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at CFR, and Rebecca Katz, professor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, will lead a conversation on global health security and diplomacy. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at Follow @CFR_Academic on X. And visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues. Again, thank you all for joining us today and we look forward to you tuning in on April 10. (END)
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    José Miguel Vivanco, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at CFR and former executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, leads the conversation on human rights in Latin America. FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the Fall 2023 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s discussion is on the record. The video and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share them with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We are delighted to have José Miguel Vivanco with us to discuss human rights in Latin America. Mr. Vivanco is an adjunct senior fellow for human rights at CFR and partner at Dentons Global Advisors. He formerly served as the executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, where he supervised fact-finding research for numerous reports on gross violations of human rights and advocated strengthening international legal standards and domestic compliance throughout the region. He is the founder of the Center for Justice and International Law, an international civil society organization providing legal and technical assistance with the Inter-American Human Rights System. So, José Miguel, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought you could begin by giving us an overview of what you see as the most important human rights challenges and advances in Latin America today. VIVANCO: Well, thank you very much for this invitation. It is a pleasure to be with you all and to talk for an hour about human rights problems, human rights issues in Latin America. Let me first make a couple of points. First, I think it’s very important that, in retrospect, if you look at Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, it was a region that was pretty much run by military dictatorships. So if you look at historically, the region is not in such a bad shape. I know that this comment is quite controversial and many experts who follow the region closely might disagree with that statement, but objectively speaking I think we need to recognize that most of the region is run today—with the exception, obviously, of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—by democracies, weak democracies, the kind of democracies that we have in Latin America are facing very serious challenges and with endemic problems such as corruption, abuse of power, lack of transparency, lack of proper accountability, and so on and so forth. But in general terms, this is a region that has a chance to conduct some self-correction. In other words, electoral democracy is a very, very important value in the region, and the citizens—most of the people are able to either reward or punish the incumbent government at the times of elections. That is not a minor detail. It is extremely important, especially if you take into account that during the last twenty years in Latin America, if I’m not wrong, the vast majority of the governments elected were from the opposition. The statistics, I think, show that in eighteen of the twenty last presidential elections, the winner has been the party of the opposition; which means that even though our democracies in Latin America are dysfunctional, weak, messy, slow, you know, short-term-oriented, obviously, but at least citizens take their rights seriously and they exercise their powers so that is why you see a regular zigzag or, you know, transfer of power from a left-wing government to a right-wing government or vice versa. And that is, again, something that is, obviously, a very, very important tool of self-correction. And that, obviously, includes or has an impact in terms of the human rights record of those countries. You know, I’m not—I’m not addressing yet—I will leave it for the Q&A section—conditions in those three dictatorships in Latin America. Let me just make some few more remarks about one of the biggest challenges that I see in the region. And that is, obviously, the rise of autocracy or autocratic leaders, populist leaders, leaders who are not interested or as a matter of fact are very hostile to the concept of rule of law and the concept of independence of the judiciary. And they usually are very charismatic. They have high level of popular support. And they run and govern the country in a style that is like a permanent campaign, where they normally go against minorities and against the opposition, against the free media, against judges and prosecutors who dare to investigate them or investigate the government. Anyone who challenges them are subject of this type of reaction. And that is, unfortunately, something that we have seen in Mexico recently and until today, and in Brazil, especially during the administration of President Bolsonaro. The good news about, in the case of Brazil, is that, thanks to electoral democracy, it was possible to defeat him and—democratically. And the second very important piece of information is that even though Brazil is not a model of rule of law and separation of power, we have to acknowledge that, thanks to the checks-and-balance exercise by the Supreme Court of Brazil, it was possible to do some permanent, constant damage control against the most outrageous initiatives promoted by the administration of President Bolsonaro. That, I think, is one of the biggest challenges in the region. Let me conclude my—make crystal clear that there are serious human rights problems in Latin America today regarding, for instance, abuse of power, police brutality, prison problems. Prisons are really, in most of the countries in the region, a disaster. And you know, a big number of prisoners are awaiting trial, in detention and unable to really exercise their rights. And unfortunately, populist leaders use the prison system or essentially criminal law, by expanding the practice and enlarging the numbers of crimes that could be subject of pretrial detention, and—you know, regardless of the time that it will take for that case to be prosecuted in full respect for the rule—due process, and so on and so forth. And that—the reason is very simple. There is a real demand in Latin America for policies that will address insecurity, citizen security. If you look at statistics in terms of crime rate, it is going up in most of the country. Obviously, there are big difference between countries like Mexico, for instance, or Colombia, and if you link—if you look at the power of cartels and big mafias, and gangs in other countries, or petty crime impacting the daily life of the citizens. Regardless of that point, one of the biggest demands in Latin America is for better and more public security. And that’s why political leaders, usually the solution for that request and demand is to put people in prison with essentially no real due process and increase the number of prisoners without conviction. There are challenges for free speech occasionally, of those leaders who resent scrutiny of their practice. And normally there is a campaign against free media. And there are some attempts in some countries to constantly look for ways to undermine the independence of the judiciary. Keep in mind, for instance, that now in Argentina the whole Supreme Court is under impeachment, and it’s essentially an impeachment promoted by the current government because they disagree with the rulings, positions of the Supreme Court. All the justices on the Supreme Court are subject of this political trial conducted by the Argentine Congress. That is a concrete example of the kinds of risks that are present for judges and the judiciary in general, when they exercise their power and they attempt to protect the integrity of the constitution. So let me stop here and we can move on to the most interesting part of this event. FASKIANOS: Well, that was quite interesting. So, thank you, José Miguel. We appreciate it. We going to go to all of you now for your questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) We already have some hands up. We will go first to Karla Soto Valdes. Q: My name is Karla Soto. I’m from Lewis University. My question is, what specific measures could be implemented to address and/or prevent trafficking within the asylum-seeking community during their journey to the U.S.? VIVANCO: Irina, are we going to take several questions, or? FASKIANOS: I think we should do one at a time. VIVANCO: Well, Karla, there are multiple tools to address that specific issue. But this applies to essentially most of the human rights problems all over the world. The menu is pretty ample, but depends on one important factor—whether the government involved cares about its own reputation. That is a very important premise here, because if you we are dealing with a democratic government, once again, it’s not—when I refer to a democratic government, I don’t have in mind a sort of Jeffersonian model, I’m referring to the kind of democracies that we have in Latin America. But, if the leaders in charge are—you know, they care about their own reputation, they care about domestic debate, very important, because these types of revelations usually have ramifications at the local level. If they pay close attention to those issues, I think it’s possible to apply, essentially, the technique of naming and shaming. In other words, collecting information, documenting what exactly is happening, and revealing that information to the public, locally and internationally. That is going to create naturally a reaction, a process, an awareness, and local pressure is—hopefully, it’s not just twenty-four hours news, so splash—big splash, but also will trigger some dynamics. If we are dealing with a country that is run by a dictatorship, it is a very, very different question, because normally you’re facing a leader, a government, who couldn’t care less about its own reputation. They have taken already and assume the cost of doing business in that type of context. Now, sometimes conditions are kind of mixed, where you have democratic country in general—so there is still free media, there is an opposition, there is Congress, there are elections. But the government in charge is so—is run by an autocratic leader. That makes, you know, quite—a little more challenging to just document and reveal that information. And you need to think about some particular agenda, governmental agenda. Some specific interests of the government in different areas. Let me see—let me give you an example. Let’s say that the Bolsonaro administration is seriously interested in an incorporation into the OECD in Paris. That is an important piece of information. Whatever you think that is relevant information regarding the record of that government, you could provide information to an entity that is precisely evaluating the record of the government. And the government will be much more willing to address those issues because they have a genuine interest in achieving some specific goal at the international level. FASKIANOS: Fantastic. We’re going to go to Nicole Ambar De Santos, who is an undergraduate student at the Washington University in St. Louis: When we consider weak democracy in a more personal sense, like Peru, the controversy of obligation to help these nations arises. How much third party or other nations, such as the United States, intervene? VIVANCO: Tricky question. Peruvian democracy is quite messy. Part of the problem is that the system, the political system, needs some real reform to avoid the proliferation of small political parties and to create the real link or relationship between leaders, especially in Congress, and their constituencies, and so they are much more accountable to their community, the ones who elected them. I don’t think the U.S., or any other government, has a direct role to play in that area. My sense is that when we are looking into a dysfunctional democracy that deserve some probably even constitutional reforms, that is essentially a domestic job. That is the work that needs to be done by Peruvians. Without a local consensus about the reforms that need to be implemented in the political system, my sense is that it’s going to be very difficult for the U.S. or any other large democracy, to address those kinds of points. It’s very different, that type of conversation, from a conversation or an assessment of universal values, such as human rights. When we are looking into cases of police brutality, for instance, the international community has a role to play. But if I were part of the conversation or evaluation by the U.S. government or the European Union with regard to this dysfunctional democracy in Peru, I would approach very carefully by suggesting creating the right type of incentives, more than questions of punishment, or sanctions. It’s incentives for them to create the right conditions to address the domestic problem that is—has become quite endemic, in the case of Peru. FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Matthew. Matthew, you don’t have a last name, so can you identify yourself? Q: Hello. Yes, my name is Matthew. I am a junior student from Arizona State University studying business, but working on a thesis that has to do with human rights and the ethics of supply chain management. My question is, you were talking at the very beginning kind of just about history and how understanding history is important. And what I was hoping to get was, why is understanding history and culture important when working to address human rights issues, history of dictatorship, colonialism? In cultures it’s socially acceptable things, like child labor, in some countries, that’s not acceptable in Western ideology. So, yeah, just how is history and culture important when working to address human rights for the future? VIVANCO: Matthew, I think you’re referring to two different issues. History is central. It’s really, really relevant. Because that helps you—if you—if you follow your history, especially periods of time when massive and gross violations were committed in Latin America, it’s important to put things in context and value what you have today. And the job is to—not only to preserve democracy, but also to look for ways to strengthen democracy. Because part of the problem is that domestic debate is so polarized today, not just in Latin America, all over the world, that sometimes people—different, you know, segments of society—in their positions, they’re so dismissive of the other side, that they don’t realize that we need to frame our debate in a constructive way. Let me put it—one specific example. If the government of Argentina, who is a government very receptive and very sensitive to vast and gross violations of human rights committed during the military dictatorship, so in other words, I don’t need to lecture that government on that subject. They are actually the people who vote for the current government of Argentina—not the new government, the current government of Argentina—is deeply committed to those kinds of issues. I think that one of the biggest lessons that you should learn from the past is the relevance of protecting the independence of the judiciary. If you don’t have an independent judiciary, and the judiciary becomes an entity that is an appendix of the ruling party or is intimidated by politics, and they could be subject of impeachment procedures every time that they rule something, that the powerful—the establishment disagree, I think they’re playing with fire, and they’re not really paying attention to the lessons that you learn from recent history in Latin America. That would be my first comment regarding that type of issue. And the second one, about you mentioned specifically cultural problems, culture, tensions or conflicts. And you mentioned—your example was child labor. And, and you suggested that that—the combination of child labor is something typical of Western ideology. If I’m not wrong, that was the language that you used. I would—I would push back on that point. And because this is not just a Western or European commitment. This is a universal one. And this is reflected on international treaties, and that are supposed to eradicate that kind of practice. If you give up to the concept of local traditions, you know, cultural, you know, issues that you need to pay attention, sure, as long as they are not to be in conflict with fundamental human rights. Otherwise, in half of the planet you’re not going to have women rights, and women will be subject of traditional control. And you wouldn’t have rights for minorities, and especially—and not only, but especially—the LGBTQ community. And you wouldn’t have rights for racial minorities, or different religious beliefs. So, we have to watch and be very careful about what type of concessions we make to cultural traditions. I am happy to understand that different communities in Latin America might have different traditions, but there is some firm, solid, and unquestionable minimum that are the these universal human rights values that are not the property or monopoly of anyone. You know, these are—and this is not an ethical conversation. This is a legal one, because these values are protected under international law. FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to combine or take two questions. The first question is from Lindsay Bert, who is at the department of political science at Muhlenberg College, who asks if you could speak on the efficacy of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in addressing the human rights violations you described. And the second question is from Leonard Onyebuchi Ophoke, a graduate student at Cavendish University in Uganda: Why is it almost impossible to hold the actors that violate human rights accountable? What could be done to make the mechanism more enforceable? VIVANCO: The inter-American system of human rights protection, there is nothing similar to inter-American system of human rights protection in the Global South. You don’t have something similar in Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East. In other words, you don’t have a mechanism where ultimately a court, a court of law—not just a commission, a court of law—handle individual cases, specific complaints of human rights abuses, and governments participate in public hearings. The parties involved have the obligation to present evidence before the court, and the court finally ruled on the specific matters where its decisions are binding. The number of issues that have been addressed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the last thirty years in Latin America are really incredible. And the impact—this is most important point—the impact at a local level is remarkable. In the area, for instance, of torture, disappearances. I’m referring to the elaboration of concepts and the imposing the obligation of local governments to adjust their legislation and practice, and to address specific problems or issues by providing remedies to victims. That is quite unusual. And the court has remarkable rulings on free speech, on discrimination issues, on indigenous populations, on military jurisdiction. One of the typical recourse of governments in the region when security forces were involved in human rights atrocities was to invoke military jurisdiction. So they say, no worries, we are going to investigate our own crimes. And the court has been actually very, very firm, challenging that notion to the point that I don’t think there is a single case in Latin America today—once again, with the exception of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, that I hope that somebody will ask me a question about those three countries—and I don’t think there is a single case where today security forces try to—or attempt to shield themselves from investigation invoking military jurisdiction. And the credit is to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. I can elaborate, and give you—provide you with a long list of examples of areas where the court has been actually really, really critical in advancing human rights in the region. Let me give you actually one last example that I think is very—is very illustrative, very revealing. In Chile, something like probably twenty years ago or fifteen years ago, full democracy. Full democracy. No Chile under Pinochet. The Supreme Court of Chile ruled that a mother who was openly lesbian did not qualify for the custody of her children because she was lesbian. And she had a couple. So that was sufficient grounds to rule in favor of the father, because the mother didn’t have the moral grounds to educate her own kids, children. And this was decided by the Supreme Court of Chile. Not just a small first instance tribunal. And I will point out that the vast majority of the—I mean, the public in Chile was pretty much divided, but I’m pretty sure that the majority of Chileans thought that the Supreme Court was right, you know? The case went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And fortunately, after a few years, the court not only challenged that decision of the Supreme Court, forced Chile to change its legislation, and to change the ruling of the Supreme Court of Chile, which is supposed to be the last judgment in the country. And the impact of that one, not only in Chile, in the rest of the region, because it shapes the common wisdom, the assumptions of many people. It helps for them to think carefully about this kind of issues. And the good news is that that mother was able to have the custody of her kids. And not only that, the impact in Chilean society and in the rest of the region was remarkable. Now, the second question that was asked was about how difficult it is to establish accountability for human rights abuses against the perpetrators of those abuses. I mean, it’s a real challenge. It depends on whether or not you have locally an independent judiciary. If you do have an independent judiciary, the process is slow, it’s messy, it’s complicated. But there is a chance that atrocities could be addressed. And that is— especially human rights atrocities or abuses committed during the military dictatorship. There are countries in the region, like for instance, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, where there are people in prison for those type of atrocities. In Brazil, thanks to an amnesty law that was passed in 1978, real investigation and prosecution of those atrocities actually never happened. And an important lesson that you could bear in mind is that Brazilian military are very dismissive of these type of issues, of human rights issues. But not only that, my sense is that Brazilian military officers at very high level are not afraid of stepping into politics, and give their opinion, and challenge the government. In other words, they were actually very, very active, and I’m referring to top officials in the Brazilian Army, during the Bolsonaro administration. There were top leaders who actually publicly argued that if they have to organize a coup again in Brazil, they are ready. That kind of language you don’t find in Argentina, in Chile, in other countries where there have been some accountability. For one simple reason, the top military officers running the show are very much aware that if they get involved in politics, that they are part tomorrow of a coup d’état or something like that, at the end of the day they will be responsible. And they might be subject of criminal prosecution for atrocities committed during that period. And so there is a price to pay. So their calculation is much more, shall we say, prudent regarding this issue. But again, once again, how difficult it is? It’s very difficult to establish accountability, and much more difficult when you’re dealing with dictatorship, where you need to rely on the work done by, for instance, the ICC, the International Criminal Court, which is pretty active in the case of Venezuela. FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Fordham. Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Vivanco. My name is Carlos Ortiz de la Pena Gomez Urguiza, and I have a question for you. El Salvador is currently battling crime and gangs with strategies such as mano dura, which have shown a significant decrease in crime at the cost of violating human rights. Do you see a possible effective integration of such policies in high-crime-rate countries, such as Mexico, to stop the growth of narco and crime gang activity? And if so, how? VIVANCO: Well, look, yeah, Carlos, very good question. Bukele in El Salvador is a real, real challenge. It’s really, really a complicated case, for several reasons. He’s incredibly popular. No question about it. He has managed to—thanks to that popularity—to concentrate power in his own hands. He fully controls Congress. But, much more relevant, he fully controls the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court today is subordinated to the executive branch. And he is constantly going after the civil society, and free media, and the opposition. Now, in violation of the Salvadorean constitution, he’s going to run for reelection. And he will be reelected, because he’s also very popular. And his policies to go after gangs are cruel, inhuman, and without—not even a facade of respect for due process. Essentially, the policy which is not sustainable and is—I don’t think is something that you could export to other countries—is a policy—unless you have full control, unless you have some sort of dictatorship or quasi dictatorship. Which is based, in essence, in the appearance, in the number of tattoos that people, especially in the marginal communities in the periferia in El Salvador, where shanty towns are located. The police has a, you know, green light to arrest anyone who fit that profile. And then good luck, because it’s going to be very, very difficult for that person to avoid something like several months in prison. The whole point of having an independent judiciary and due process is that law enforcement agencies have the—obviously, not only the right, the duty to prevent crimes and to punish criminals. Not physically punish them. You know, it’s to arrest them, to detain them, and to use proportional force to produce that attention. But they need to follow certain rules. They cannot just go around and arrest anyone who they have some sort of gut feelings that they are involved in crimes, because then you don’t—you’re not—the whole system is not able to distinguish and to make a distinction between potential criminals and innocent people. But it is complicated, the case of Bukele, because, for instance, I was referring initially to the technique of naming and shaming as a technique, as a methodology to expose governments with deplorable human rights record. But in the case of Bukele, he couldn’t care less about. In other words, actually, I think he used the poor perception that exists, already that is established outside El Salvador as a result of his persecution of gangs in El Salvador—he used that kind of criticism as a way to improve his support domestically. In other words, when the New York Times published a whole report about massive abuses committed by Bukele’s criminal system, in the prison system in El Salvador, what Bukele does is to take that one, that criticism, as actually ammunition to project himself as a tough guy who is actually, you know, doing the right thing for El Salvador. It’s a question of time. It’s a question of time. All of this is very sad for El Salvador, one of the few democracies in Central America with some future, I think, because I think they managed after the war to create institutions that are—that were much more credible than in the neighboring countries, like Guatemala, Honduras, and I’m not going to even mention Nicaragua. But under the control of this strongman, everything is possible today in El Salvador. He will be able to govern El Salvador this way as long as he’s popular. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has relaxed its attention and pressure on that government, based on the question of migration. So they are hostage by the cooperation of Bukele government to try or attempt to control illegal immigration into the U.S. So that point trumps or, I mean, supersedes everything else. And that is actually very unfortunate. FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next two questions, written questions. One is on the subject that you wanted, from Brittney Thomas, who is an undergraduate at Arizona State University: How come the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are socialist or communist while other Latin America countries are predominantly democracies? And then from Roger— VIVANCO: I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand the question. Obviously, it’s about Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, but? FASKIANOS: Why are they socialist or communist while other Latin American countries are predominantly democracies? VIVANCO: Oh, I see. OK. FASKIANOS: Yeah. And then the next question is from Roger Rose, who is an associate professor of political science at University of Minnesota, Morris: Given the recent decline in the norms of U.S. democracy in the last seven years, does the U.S. have any credibility and influence in the region in promoting democracy? And, again, if you could comment specifically on nations with the least democratic systems—Venezuela, Nicaragua—how could the U.S. play a more constructive role than it is currently? VIVANCO: The U.S. is always a very important player, very, very important. I mean, it’s the largest economy in the world and the influence of the U.S. government in Latin America is huge. However, obviously, I have to acknowledge that our domestic problems here and serious challenges to the fundamentals of the rule of law, and just the notion that we respect the system according to which one who wins the election is—you know, has the legitimacy and the mandate to form a new government. If that notion is in question, and there are millions of American citizens who are willing to challenge that premise, obviously undermines the capacity of the U.S. to exercise leadership on this—in this context. And the autocrats and the autocracies in the region—I’m not referring to the dictatorships, but I’m referring to the Andrés Manuel López Obrador, once again, from Mexico, or Bolsonaro in Brazil—they take those kinds of developments in the U.S. as green lights to do whatever they want at local level. So that is a serious—obviously, it’s a serious problem. And what is going on here has ramifications not only in the region, but also in the rest of the world. Now, Cuba is a historical problem. It’s going to be too long to address the question in terms of why Cuba is a dictatorship and the rest of the region. Part of the problem with Cuba is that you have a government that violates the most fundamental rights and persecutes everyone who challenges the official line. And most of the Cubans today are willing to leave the country and to go into exile. But the problem is that we don’t have the right tool, the right instrument in place, to exercise pressure on Cuba. And the right instrument today is the embargo. And that embargo, that policy is a total failure. The Cuban government is the same, exactly the same dictatorship. There has been no progress. And there’s going to be no progress, in my view, as long as the U.S. government insist on a policy of isolation. You should be aware that every year 99 percentage of the states in the world condemned the isolation against Cuba, with the exception and the opposition of the U.S. government, Israel, and in the past was the Marshall Islands. Now, I don’t think even the Marshall Islands joined the U.S. government defending that policy. So the policy is incredibly unpopular. And the debate at international level is about the U.S. government policy on Cuba and not about the deplorable human rights record of Cuba. That’s why I was actually very supportive of the change of policy attempted during the Obama administration. Unfortunately, the isolation policy depends on Congress. And since the times of Clinton, this is a matter of who is the one in control of Congress. And the policy of isolation, it once again makes Cuba a victim of Washington. And Cuba, by the way, is not isolated from the rest of the world. So the U.S. is incredibly, I would say, powerless with regard to the lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba. And at the time, offers a fantastic justification for the Cuban government to present itself as a victim. I think that is the—this is one of the most serious mistakes of the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America that I hope that one day will be—will be addressed effectively. The case of Nicaragua and Venezuela is different, in the sense that we are looking into countries that—Venezuela in particular—have democracy for—a very questionable democracy, very weak, subject of tremendous corruption, and so on and so forth. But they have a system of political parties, free media, and so on, for many, many years. And they end up electing a populist leader whose marching orders and, you know, actually first majors was to establish some effective control of the judiciary. And the Supreme Court became an appendage of the government many, many, many years ago, which means that they managed during the Chavez administration to run the country with some sort of facade of democracy. Today, under Maduro it’s no a longer a façade, it’s a clear dictatorship responsible for atrocities. Fortunately, it is under investigation by the ICC. And the case of Nicaragua is an extreme case, similar to Venezuela. And it’s—it’s a dictator who has managed to put in prison everyone who is not in full alliance with the government, including religious leaders, and academics, and opposition leaders, civil society, et cetera. The case of Nicaragua is more complicated because Nicaragua is subject of sanctions by the U.S. government, and the European Union, and Canada, and some governments in the region. But still, we don’t see much progress there. FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Nassar Nassar, who has a raised hand. You can unmute yourself and state your affiliation. Q: Yes. Hello. FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Q: Hi. My name is Nassar Nassar. I’m from Lewis University. So my question is, which are the most significant actors in the global governance of human trafficking? And how effective are they in tackling that? VIVANCO: Well, this is a matter that is usually—the main actors—so this is organized crime. This is organized crime. This is a question regarding—this is a—it’s a huge business, and extremely profitable. And if you want to address these kinds of issues, you need regional cooperation, which is very challenging. Keep in mind that at a local level, in many of the most democratic countries in the region, you have tremendous tensions among the local police and different police. For instance, the local FBI—equivalent to an FBI, is usually in tension with other branches of law enforcement. And if you expect to have cooperation from the rest of the countries in the region, it’s extremely challenging. So these type of issues require effective cooperation, adjustment on legislation. Require more better intelligence. The reason why you have this type—proliferation of this type of business is because, obviously, corruption and lack of accountability. So this is—my point is that it is a reflection of how weak is our law enforcement system, and how unprofessional, and subject many times of corruption. FASKIANOS: Just to follow up on that, a written question from Patricia Drown, who’s at Regent University. How are the cartels and mafia being armed, and by whom? VIVANCO: Well, in the case of, for instance, Mexico, weapons comes from the U.S. Sometimes even legally. You know, the Second Amendment plays a role here. It’s so easy to have access to weapons, all kind of weapons, in the U.S. So that helps. And a lack of actually an effective control mechanism to stop that type of traffic. The amount of money that cartels moved in countries like Mexico, but Colombia as well, and this mafia scene in Central America is significant. So they do have capacity to corrupt local enforcement officials that belongs to the police, the army, even the judiciary. And as long as you don’t address the root cause of the problem, which is the lack of presence of the state—in other words, there are vast—as you know, there are regions of Colombia that are not under the control of the government, the territories in Colombia. And there are regions of Mexico that, unfortunately, are increasingly under more effective control of cartels than law enforcement and legitimate officials. So that unfortunately, is the—in my view, one of the reasons why it is relatively easy to witness this type of proliferation of illegal business. FASKIANOS: Fantastic. I think we are out of time. We have so many written questions and raised hands. Maybe I’ll just try to sneak in one more from Andrea Cuervo Prados. You have your hand raised. I think you also wrote a question. So if you can be brief and tell us who you are. Q: OK. Hello. I’m adjunct faculty at Dickinson State University. And, Mr. Vivanco, I have a question related to Colombia. What do you think about the state of the human rights in Colombia under the new leftist president, Gustavo Petro, compared to the previous president, Ivan Duque? VIVANCO: Andrea, I think it’s pretty much the same. When we witness actually an improvement of human rights conditions in Colombia, it was during the negotiations with the FARC. I’m referring to the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos. And with the signature of the peace agreement, when they signed the peace agreement, the numbers shows a serious decline in the cases of, for instance, internally displaced people, torture cases, executions, abductions, and many other of those typical abuses that are committed in Colombia in rural areas where this organized crime and irregular armed groups are historically present. But then the policies implemented during the Duque administration were actually not very effective. There was a sort of relaxation during that period, and not effective implementation of those commitments negotiated with the FARC. That had an implication in terms of abuses. And today I don’t see a major shift. My sense is that the local communities are subject of similar abuses, including human rights activists as well as social leaders, in areas where there is a very weak presence of the state. FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. José Miguel Vivanco. We really appreciate your being with us today. And I apologize. Great questions. I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to all of the written ones or raised hands. It’s clear we will have to do this—focus in on this again and have you back. You can follow José Miguel on X at @VivancoJM. And the next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, November 29, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Shibley Telhami, who’s a professor at the University of Maryland, will lead a conversation on public opinion on Israel and Palestine. And in the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at You can follow us at @CFR_Academic. And visit,, and for research and analysis on global issues. Again, José Miguel, thank you very much for today, and to all of you for joining us. VIVANCO: Thanks a lot. FASKIANOS: Take care. (END)
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