Lasso’s Last Resort

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Ecuador’s president dissolves Congress and calls new elections, Colombian and Brazilian officials announce positive numbers on forest protection, and new U.S. asylum rules ripple across the region.

Last week, we covered Ecuador’s historic debt-for-nature swap. The deal, which reissued some of the country’s sovereign debt to fund a marine reserve in the Galápagos Islands, included political risk insurance for lenders that protects against potential financial losses due to destabilizing political events.

Those lenders did not have to wait long for political tumult to send jitters through Ecuador’s bond values. On Wednesday morning, conservative President Guillermo Lasso dissolved Congress and called snap general elections. The move, carried out via a never-before-used article in Ecuador’s constitution known as “mutual death,” came as Lasso faced an impending impeachment vote in the opposition-controlled legislature. Authorities are considering an Aug. 20 election date and are expected to announce a full timeline by next week.

In some ways, the events in Ecuador mirror what unfolded in Peru last December. In both countries, presidents battled with Congress over their legislative agendas and faced multiple impeachment efforts. But when Peru’s former president, Pedro Castillo, moved to disband the legislature, he lacked constitutional permission to do so. Peru’s Congress responded by removing Castillo, and chaotic countrywide protests by his supporters ensued.

In Ecuador, there are two political groups capable of mobilizing mass protest against Lasso: former leftist President Rafael Correa’s Correísmo movement and the Indigenous federation CONAIE. Neither immediately demonstrated on Wednesday. The country is now in a tense wait-and-see moment as the roadmap for new elections becomes clear.

Ironically, to dissolve Congress, Lasso took advantage of a 2008 Correa-championed rewrite of Ecuador’s constitution that gave the president expanded powers. The authority to call snap elections, though common in European parliamentary democracies, is unusual in Latin America’s presidential systems.

Since coming to office in 2021, Lasso has struggled with congressional gridlock as Ecuador has experienced rising insecurity and a sluggish post-pandemic recovery. Concerned with paying back Ecuador’s sovereign debt, Lasso has run a generally austere government when it comes to public spending; the opposition, meanwhile, has blocked Lasso’s efforts to change Ecuador’s labor code and enact other reforms he argues will make the country friendlier to private investment. Rising gang violence and a series of prison massacres have also shaken the population. A December 2022 poll pegged Lasso’s approval rating at 18 percent.

“This is not the same country as five or 10 years ago,” journalist María Belén Arroyo said at a Diálogo Político forum on Wednesday night. “Organized crime has permeated our government institutions.”

Lasso’s low popularity, combined with strong performances by Correísta candidates in key February regional elections, suggest he is far from the favorite going into the snap general elections. But competing presidential candidates have not yet been announced, and the opposition could fracture. In fact, it was a fracture between Correísmo and Indigenous activists that helped elect Lasso in 2021.

In the interim, Lasso still has constitutional authority to issue executive orders related to the economy for six months. Ecuador’s top court must approve them if they are to take effect. Lasso issued one such decree on Wednesday after dissolving Congress, cutting taxes for households and increasing them for the sports betting sector. In theory, he could use these powers to push his pro-business agenda, though boosting spending for the poor would make him more popular ahead of the upcoming elections.

“The upshot of all of this,” political scientist Arianna Tanca tweeted, “will depend on [Lasso’s] decrees and the opposition’s reaction to them.”

The impeachment charges against Lasso—which include permitting embezzlement related to a state energy company—were criticized by some experts as flimsy. That claim, along with Congress’s past obstructionism, could strengthen Lasso’s argument to voters that he is a responsible actor seeking to govern while opposition groups want chaos.

Arroyo said that Ecuadorian voters should leverage this moment to demand concrete policy proposals from presidential hopefuls. Otherwise, they may resort to pointing fingers at each other.

Friday, May 19: Julieta Valls Noyes, the top U.S. diplomat for refugees and migration, concludes a visit to Mexico.

Friday, May 19, to Wednesday, May 24: U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly continues a visit to Jamaica, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil.

Tuesday, May 30: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hosts a summit for South American leaders in Brasília.

An aerial view of a burnt area in the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, state of Rondônia, northern Brazil, on Aug. 31, 2022.

An aerial view of a burnt area in the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, state of Rondônia, northern Brazil, on Aug. 31, 2022.

An aerial view of a burnt area in the Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, state of Rondônia, northern Brazil, on Aug. 31, 2022.Douglas Magno/AFP via Getty Images

Forest protection progress. Deforestation in Colombia fell between 5 percent and 10 percent in 2022 compared to 2021, while Brazil’s Amazon deforestation fell 68 percent in April 2023 compared to April 2022, officials in each country said this month, citing preliminary government monitoring numbers.

Colombia’s announcement represents more sustained progress, as it covers a longer time frame. Reducing deforestation has been a goal of President Gustavo Petro’s government, which took office last August.

In Brazil, the April numbers represent the first major drop in deforestation under Lula since he was inaugurated in January. But the government’s forest protection efforts will be tested over the coming months: The period from July to September is when tree burning usually spikes as people take advantage of dry weather to clear land for planting and ranching.

Shackled in El Salvador. Excited by the security gains Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has touted after his sweeping efforts to arrest suspected criminals, two Colombian men traveled to El Salvador in January in the hopes of finding work. But the men were quickly detained by police who questioned them about their tattoos—attributes authorities have cited to lock up many other young men in recent months.

The two Colombians were sent to jail, where their heads were shaved and they were packed into a cell so small they had to sleep on their sides, the Washington Post reported. They were only released months later, after an appeal from a family member reached some of Colombia’s biggest national news outlets. “We let ourselves fall for this propaganda,” one of the men told the Post upon returning to Colombia. “And the reality is totally different.”

Concerts on wheels. In São Paulo, a bus filled with a rotating cast of musical performers is driving around the city every Tuesday in April and May to bring high-quality shows to residents who cannot usually afford tickets to such events. The production group that organizes the “Every Tuesday” bus—and performances in a central São Paulo bus terminal during other parts of the year—raffles off free tickets online each week.

Perhaps as expected for a confined space, much of the bus’s lineup includes small singer/songwriter acts, be they up-and-coming-names in rap, folk-pop, or “psychedelic pop.” Bright neon lights decorate the bus’s exterior, and a Reuters team that recently visited reported that there was a well-equipped sound system inside.

Around how much of the Amazon rainforest biome—a community of naturally occurring plants and animals—lies in Colombia?

That’s according to a group of research organizations known as the Amazon Network of Geo-referenced Socioenvironmental Information. After Brazil, the second-largest portion of the forest falls within Peru’s borders.

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States stuck in a makeshift camp on the U.S.-Mexico border look through the border wall toward San Diego on May 13.

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States stuck in a makeshift camp on the U.S.-Mexico border look through the border wall toward San Diego on May 13.

Migrants seeking asylum in the United States stuck in a makeshift camp on the U.S.-Mexico border look through the border wall toward San Diego on May 13.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Since last Thursday, major policy changes have begun to impact Latin American migrants moving northward. Many people who were previously eligible to seek protection in the United States have found themselves stuck in Mexico or thrown into uncertainty farther south.

For decades, migrants fleeing persecution who arrived at a U.S. land border have been governed by a U.S. law that stipulates they can apply for asylum in the United States. In fiscal year 2019, the United States granted asylum to over 46,000 people, more than 16,000 of whom were Latin American. But in March 2020, the Trump administration enacted a rule known as Title 42, which allowed authorities to immediately expel protection-seeking migrants at the southwest border on COVID-19 grounds. The Biden administration maintained Title 42 but used it selectively.

Title 42 expired with the end of the United States’ COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11. At that point, the U.S. government enacted what the American Civil Liberties Union calls an effective ban on seeking asylum at the southwest border: Migrants cannot apply unless they have applied and been rejected in another country along the way or get a scarce slot in a mobile app, with some unspecified exceptions.

The U.S. government says it is instead expanding temporary humanitarian parole for migrants from some countries (such as Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) to stay in the United States for two years as well as creating new pathways for other asylum-seekers to get protection. The catch is that many of these new pathways to asylum have been poorly communicated to migrants—or not even agreed upon with partner countries.

U.S. officials said that the shuttering of asylum slots at the southwest border would be accompanied by new chances to apply for asylum in Canada and Spain as well as U.S. support for the asylum system in Mexico. The pathways to Canada and Mexico would be reachable at migrant processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala that are run with U.S. and United Nations support. But those centers have not yet opened. The new quotas for asylum in Spain and Colombia have not been announced, either, and migrants rights advocates often argue that Mexico is not a safe place to seek asylum.

The U.S. government also said it would create 100,000 parole slots for family members of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Colombians who are already in the United States, but that details would only be announced next month. It is unclear whether the 100,000 figure will be the total number of slots or will be offered annually.

The new measures have triggered a lawsuit from the ACLU—and generated major confusion in countries throughout the hemisphere.

In Colombia, the Migration Policy Institute’s Diego Chaves-Gonzalez warned in La Silla Vacía that a careless rollout of the migration processing centers could create “a sensation of generalized chaos.” In Mexico, northbound Venezuelan migrants have been bussed from the U.S. border to southern Mexico in recent days. There, authorities tell migrants “one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday,” a former migration official told La Jornada’s Arturo Cano.

The plans for regional migration centers also “could potentially create bottlenecks in Colombia and Guatemala,” Jordi Amaral, an analyst and author of the Americas Migration Brief, told Foreign Policy. “What will asylum-seekers do while they wait for this policy process to pan out? Many have protection needs and don’t have the luxury of waiting a year to see the process working in full swing.”

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