A Man Who Sought A Better Tomorrow

By Steve Weissman

Stan Ovshinsky working in his lab in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Stanford R. Ovshinsky).

The Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) has appropriately honored Stan Ovshinsky many times in the past. What additional insights can we garner from the beautifully written new biography, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Life and Inventions of Stanford R. Ovshinky? What room still remains for valuable reflection?

I begin, as others might, by adding what I know personally about Stan, based on my own experience, to the image of the man that emerges from telling his full story. I spent quality time with Stan on about six different occasions. They were all in his later years. It was clear from the outset: This was an individual of great skill and exceptional intellect who was willing to harness his talents for no lesser purpose than to carry our civilization safely and joyfully into an indefinite future. While the full biography explains his building blocks, influences, opportunities, and challenges, to know him was to see how those elements produced exceptional results.

Navigating a gauntlet of health problems and financial challenges, Stan pushed to the very end in an effort to produce a source of solar power so inexpensive that it would become ubiquitous. When federal and private funders balked at supporting his efforts to prove his concept and demonstrate production capability, Stan drained his own savings to rent a small research facility, furnish it with equipment, and hire the appropriate experts to run rigorous tests. To anyone who would listen, he would talk about the hydrogen cycle – his vision of using hydrogen-fueled solar radiation to generate electricity with photovoltaics and then use that electricity to separate hydrogen from water. Hydrogen could be used to fuel our lives without producing harmful waste. He was passionate, driven, and serious about the endeavor.

Stan Ovshinsky shows his thin-film solar panel as he speaks at UC Berkeley in 2008. (Photo by Jim Block).

In many ways, Stan was exceptional. But what makes his story so important is how it can help us reflect on the experiences of so many other innovators.

Because of Stan’s story, we know about the pathway that led us to flat screen monitors, nickel metal hydride batteries, energy-efficient switches, solid-state memory storage, and thin-film photovoltaics. His story also makes me wonder about the minds and stories behind many other things – effective adhesives, atomic clocks, voice-recognition software, high-end chocolate, mass-produced fabrics, pizza delivery robots, rubber stamps, electron microscopes, LED streetlights, digital animation, refrigeration, and the silent light switch — to name a few.

These objects – wondrous and large, whimsical and small – improve our lives and contribute to our health and security. Maybe it is easier to think that various people – some of whom may never had envisioned themselves as creators – were minding their own business one cloudy afternoon when suddenly they experienced an epiphany and TA-DA! a great new thing popped out. But of course, that’s not the way it happens.

Unrolling thin-film solar panels on a Los Angeles roof. (Photo courtesy of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc).

Perhaps it is the story of Stan as “parable” that brings up the important basics that drive and equip the many unsung scientists and inventors. Three factors jump to the surface that I believe ring true across the board:

Lesson #1: It usually takes a village. Stan did not become successful by locking himself away from his community. His innate gifts and extraordinary intellect were reinforced by a librarian who allowed the young Stan to take home as many books as he wanted, a barber who encouraged Stan’s visits to his chair to evolve into philosophical debates, and a supportive brother and father. Throughout his career, Stan surrounded himself with promising young engineers and scientists, as well as current and future Nobel laureates. Most striking in Stan’s case was his exceptional partnership with his wife Iris, who was also a prominent scientist. Not all creative output derives from someone who is literally married to their work, but great success often becomes possible only by being open to working with the right collaborators.

Lesson #2: Eyes on the prize. Stan lived for 90 years and never stopped working. No doubt, there were more quiet days than glamorous ones. Great strides require faith in the long-term results and dedication to staying with the project. One thing Stan did was to create a poster illustrating the elements of the hydrogen cycle. This wasn’t just a sign of dedication to certain technological advances. It was evidence of someone who knew why he got up in the morning, put on that three-piece suit, and went out in the world to do battle. He knew how to save our civilization and was dedicated to getting the job done. He stood for something. I have to think that a long-term vision and the passion to realize that vision are critical to success.

Lesson #3: Open mind, open heart. Stan was willing and able to look for combinations of factors that would produce important new ideas. This required courage, boldness, and a willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. It also required great intellectual generosity. To Stan, the ideas were more important than the glory. By sharing his thoughts freely and inviting the best minds to join him, he was able to make magic happen. Sometimes it came in the form of his own creations, but other times it was derived from others who could take his ideas to the next level.

CLAS Chair Harley Shaiken, President of Chile Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), and Stan Ovshinsky at Ovshinsky’s plant in Michigan in 2009.

Recently, the International Panel on Climate Change doubled down on its expression of the urgent need to act boldly and quickly to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At its essence, that is what Stan Ovshinsky’s work was all about. He made it clear that many of the solutions are readily at hand – if only we would dedicate our efforts to deploying them. Yet the growing urgency suggests that there is still a critical need to find new combinations and invent new solutions. The need to come together – to offer each other our intellectual generosity, our open hearts and minds – could hardly be greater.

Think of Stan and all of the less-honored men and women who have contributed so significantly to the quality of our lives. Think of the scores of men and women throughout the world who are capable of helping us move forward, together. Stan’s myriad ideas and plans are available to help along the way, but the very best solutions may be yet to come. Let’s get to work.


STEVE WEISSMAN is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as the
co-creater and former Director of the Energy Law program at UC Berkeley School of Law,
where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from
the California Public Utilities Commission where he was an administrative law judge as well as
policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners.




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Climate Threats and Opportunities in Aguascalientes, Mexico

Student Research Series:                                                                                                          UC Berkeley graduate students reflect on their fieldwork

By Julia Branco

A City Council meeting in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Julia Branco).

Funded in part by a Tinker Field Research grant from the Center for Latin American Studies, I spent two months in Aguascalientes, Mexico learning about climate threats in the region. I worked with local researchers at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) as part of a multi-year interdisciplinary pilot project to make climate science more accessible and relevant for local policy making. The goals for the first part of this study were to gather specific concerns and ideas of vulnerable communities in Aguascalientes and to produce a systematized process for co-producing community-relevant climate research.

Aguascalientes has a semi-arid climate characterized by high temperatures, low rainfall, and water scarcity, which makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Studies show that areas with warmer climates may experience longer and more severe droughts, causing such areas to become drier in the long-term due to an intensification of the hydrological cycle.[i] Consequently, warmer temperatures will likely exacerbate the existing lack of water available in Aguascalientes and cause other challenges, impacting rural and urban communities alike.

A stream in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Genevieve Johnson).

It is important to pay attention to the environmental consequences of how mid-sized cities like Aguascalientes (with a population of approximately 887,000) grow, because cities this size will experience the most growth by 2050. Aguascalientes is one of the most densely populated cities in Mexico’s north-central region, with 108.2 people per acre.[ii] Though its growth has been characterized by sprawl (from 1970 to 2010, the city’s population grew by 369% while its surface area grew by 608%),[iii] this growth pattern has environmental consequences as urbanization eats up proximate ecological sites with important environmental functions like air quality and microclimate regulation, water filtration, and aquifer repletion. Furthermore, services have failed to keep up with this pattern of growth. For example, 38% of the municipal transportation system’s units operate below required standards, which contributes to the high rate of motor vehicles in Aguascalientes, putting it in 5th place nationally for car ownership and in turn exacerbating local Co2 emissions.[iv]

As a first step to my research, I reviewed development plans at the state, municipal, and city levels to better understand the environmental and social context of climate adaptation. I focused on the extent to which the plans analyze the impact of rising temperatures and rainfall locally, the level of citizen participation in the plans’ development, and how robust mitigation and adaptation strategies were. My co-researchers at CIDE and I then used in-depth interviews to explore issues of climate adaptation with both government officials, who were developing and implementing adaptation strategies, and communities in rural and peri-urban areas that have a higher level of climate vulnerability.

Asparagus under drip irrigation in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Water Alternatives).

According to our interviews and document reviews, the most significant climate issues in Aguascalientes are water scarcity and rising temperatures. Aguascalientes extracts almost double the volume of the natural recharge of its aquifers, all of which were already in deficit in 2013. Farmers are feeling this impact, as rising temperatures exacerbate water scarcity and unpredictable rain patterns shorten the harvest season. Some have started adapting by choosing different crop varieties, while others have sought part-time employment in different industries. Furthermore, given inadequate city infrastructure and the growth of unregulated residences in flood prone areas, a large number of areas are at risk of flooding in the face of severe rain. Moreover, while development plans attempt to assess these risks and plan accordingly, many of the indicators used are based on interpolated data at much larger scales, with variables that are not relevant to the region. Thus, even when strategies are formed and implemented, they are often misguided and inefficient.

Most notably, our interviews revealed that political will is a major limitation to more sustainable development practices and prioritization of adaptation policies. There is limited citizen awareness of climate threats and a lag in climate polices in Aguascalientes. This disconnect points us to important challenges for our study. How do we engage citizens in climate research when the culture of participation doesn’t exist? How do we make this study relevant when there is such limited awareness of the gravity of climate change? And finally, how can whatever method we devise for involving communities in climate research serve and incentivize local governments and communities to collaborate on future adaptation planning?

Downtown Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Julia Branco).

It is projected that by 2040 the population of the city of Aguascalientes will be 1,310,823, which will put additional pressure on its natural and capital resources and require a concerted effort to deal with climate threats.[v] The challenge of adaptation is significant, but we hope that our research will help bridge both the gap in local information and in citizen participation in urban and environmental planning processes. In the next stage of our study, we will analyze what local communities revealed about their barriers to adaptation. We believe that this analysis will inform a new protocol to facilitate citizen involvement in climate adaption and policy creation, and guide climate data collection that is relevant for local communities.

[i] Dai A (2013a) Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat Clim Change 3(1):52–58; Seager R, Naik N, Vecchi GA (2010) Thermodynamic and dynamic mechanisms for large-scale changes in the hydrological cycle in response to global warming. J Clim 23(17):4651–4668
[ii] Plan Estatal de Desarollo 2016-2022. DR. Gobierno del Estado de Aguascalinetes, 2017
[iii] Programa De Desarrollo Urbano De La Ciudad De Aguascalientes 2040 Ciudad Que Evoluciona: Instituto Municipal De Planeación, Implan, 2015
[iv] Plan De Desarrollo Municipal 2017-2019. Aguascalientes, El Corazón De México. H. Ayuntamiento del Municipio de Aguascalientes. Primera Edición, Marzo de 2017
[v] Programa De Desarrollo Urbano De La Ciudad De Aguascalientes 2040 Ciudad Que Evoluciona: Instituto Municipal De Planeación, Implan, 2015

Julia Flor Branco is a Masters student in the City and Regional Planning department at UC Berkeley. Her interests are in environmental planning and housing issues in the U.S. and Latin America. Her research has been supported by a Tinker Field Research Grant from the Center for Latin American Studies.




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A North American road to the middle class

By Harley Shaiken and Representative Sander Levin (D-MICH.) 

This article originally appeared as an op-ed in The Hill on September 28th, 2018.

A man in Nikes walks in Buenos Aires in front of “NAFTA” graffiti. (Photo by Woody Wood.)

Now that Canada has joined a revised North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), renamed the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), we must not lose sight of the central problem that any new accord must address: the outsourcing of U.S. industrial jobs to Mexico’s system of suppressed wages. There have been efforts by some to dismiss or downgrade this issue and by others to focus on less central concerns relating to trade with Mexico. Any new agreement that fails to directly and forcefully address this issue of labor rights will only lock-in the status quo for many more years to come.

For proof, you need look no further than San Luis Potosí, an emerging hub of industrial production in central Mexico. Eight hundred workers there make tires at a state-of-the-art Goodyear plant. But here’s where the promise for prosperity takes a detour around most Mexicans. These workers have a compliant union and a so-called “protection agreement.” They earn about $1.50 an hour for a 9-hour shift with anemic benefits, hardly a route to the middle class.

On April 24, they walked off the job because of dangerous conditions and a promised raise that wound up being only 50 cents a day. That’s right, 50 cents a day! Fifty-seven leaders were promptly fired. One of us (Rep. Levin) met with fired leaders last month in San Luis Potosí and heard their disturbing grievances.

Down the road, 1,500 workers at a Continental Tire plant have an all-too-rare independent democratic union. They earn almost five times the Goodyear wage—$6 an hour—for an 8-hour shift, with far more generous benefits.

Mexican workers today can’t make a free choice between these two alternatives. They risk being fired and blacklisted or far worse. The overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of labor agreements in Mexico are “protection agreements”, which are signed by an organization controlled by the ruling party of the government and which workers have never seen, signed or voted on. The result isn’t simply low wages, but an entrenched industrial policy of suppressed wages.

Let’s not forget the flip side of suppressed wages is low purchasing power, which not only harms workers and their families, but throttles economic growth. Moreover, in a highly integrated economy, suppressed wages in San Luis Potosí push down on wages in Akron, Indianapolis and Long Beach, and provide a magnetic attraction for new investment.

An abandoned factory in Indianapolis. (Photo by Chris Ley.)

NAFTA was supposed to change all this when it went into effect in 1994, but instead it supercharged the problem. Trade has soared since then, but labor rights promises evaporated before the ink on the agreement was dry. Instead, NAFTA locked in a dysfunctional labor system for the next quarter century that’s led to an $80 billion trade deficit with Mexico in the auto sector.

Mexican workers have produced more and earned less under NAFTA. Manufacturing productivity rose by 60 percent between 1994 and 2011—an impressive achievement—while real wages dropped 20 percent and continue to slide. This was not necessary to compete in this key sector with China, but rather to lure industry from the U.S. to Mexico.

Mexicans overwhelmingly elected a reform-minded government this July that offers the promise of restoring rights for Mexican workers, thereby helping to protect conditions for workers in the U.S. and Canada. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, doesn’t take office until Dec. 1 but a new Mexican Senate, which his party dominates, has already been seated. On Sept. 20, the new Mexican Senate unanimously ratified ILO Convention 98 on the “Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining”, which the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) has hailed as a “major victory for Mexican Workers.”

Although this move is a positive sign, much remains to be done. Mexico passed a constitutional amendment last year outlining important new rights for workers but the critical implementing legislation went backwards in the previous Senate. New legislation has yet to be drafted in the new Senate and what will happen once this takes place is unknown. While intentions are clearly good, absent clear benchmarks and effective enforcement, large elements of the status quo once again could be locked in for decades, especially given the buzz saw of opposition to real change from entrenched interests.

It is therefore imperative that any new NAFTA agreement provide clearly for the prompt termination of the tens of thousands of protection contracts now in place in Mexico starting with the critical auto sector, ensure that all workers can have real representation at the bargaining table, and provide a transparent, enforceable process for carrying out these vital objectives.

The new agreement needs to lay the basis for a growing continental middle class with independent unions vital for vibrant democratic societies across North America. History has shown that an important way to protect U.S. workers is to protect Mexican workers and the other way around. We need a North American road to the middle class, not expanded exit ramps.

From left to right: Gladys Cisneros of the Solidarity Center, Professor Harley Shaiken and Professor Emerita Beatriz Manz of UC Berkeley, and Representative Sander Levin in Mexico City.

Sander Levin is a senior member on the House Ways and Means Committee. Harley Shaiken is a professor at the University of California Berkeley specializing in labor and the global economy. They recently returned from Mexico.


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The Migrant Caravan and the Midterms

This entry originally appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the October 23, 2018 issue of the New York Times.

Readers argue that the G.O.P. is stoking fear and demonizing immigrants rather than taking steps to actually address the issue.

By Beatriz Manz

Military controlled displaced people’s camp in Guatemala, 1983. (Photo by Beatriz Manz.)

Re “Trump Escalates Use of Migrants as Election Ploy”:

To the Editor:

While President Trump continues to demonize migrants from Central America, why do we so seldom hear about the causes of this migration north? During the wars in the 1980s, the United States government spent billions of dollars in support of murderous dictators while creating devastation that left tens of thousand dead, millions displaced internally, more than a hundred thousand refugees in Mexico and shattered societies. The lasting legacy is violence, corruption and impunity.

Instead of rebuilding what we destroyed, the Trump administration now threatens the little aid those countries get, reportedly $500 million last year.

Common sense would tell us that what Central American countries need is economic aid. The overwhelming aid that Central America is getting now is billions of dollars every year from remittances sent by immigrants. This aid is all that stands in the way of social and economic collapse.

The United States is at full employment, and these immigrants are clearly contributing to this strong economy. We have a moral responsibility to aid innocent victims of disastrously misguided previous policies. If diminishing immigration is the goal, there is no better way than rebuilding these societies starting now.

Beatriz Manz
Berkeley, California.

BEATRIZ MANZ is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) from 1992-1998 as well as Chair of the Ethnic Studies department from 2006-2009. Her research is focused on contemporary Mayan communities in Guatemala. She has had a long-term interest in human rights and justice and has been involved with several international, governmental, and non-governmental institutions, such as the UNHCR, UNDP, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the Center for Justice and Accountability.  




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Susan Meiselas: Berkeley and Beyond

By Lesdi Goussen

A postcard from Susan Meiselas’ 2018 exhibition at SF MOMA depicting her photograph “Las balas (The bullets)…” (Photo by CLAS staff).

On the eve of the inauguration of her retrospective exhibition “Mediations”- currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art- Susan Meiselas travelled back to Nicaragua where she took the image “SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” in June of 2018.

Depicting a graffitied cement wall with the words “SOS Nicaragua,” next to an unknown man with a t-shirt over his face who writes, “las balas (the bullets)…” in bright orange spray paint, the image confronts us with an ad-hoc, self-proclaimed call for help that is unfolding and unfinished. Like the phrase “las balas…”, which is left to be translated by an ellipsis, Nicaragua finds itself in a precarious present that is characterized by omissions, disappearances, and silence. Reminding us of the many images that Meiselas took of the Nicaraguan Revolution in the late 1970s, this image stands at the crosswords of history. I chose this image, as Meiselas did, to illustrate the ongoing dedication that is at the core of her practice – as a mediator, an activist and ultimately, as a photographer.

In this context, the Center of Latin American Studies and the Arts Research Center had the pleasure of hosting Susan Meiselas on the UC Berkeley campus for a series of talks and events perambulating her retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Susan Meiselas joins Berkeley students and faculty for lunch at CLAS. (Photo by CLAS staff.)

The first of these events took place on a Friday afternoon in the Center of Latin American Studies where faculty and students from across the campus gathered around a table for an intimate and informal lunch with Susan Meiselas. During our lunch hour, the topic of Nicaragua was immediately foregrounded. Having recently returned from Nicaragua, Meiselas spoke openly about the current social and political crisis taking place in country, and the ways in which today’s conditions relate back to her work in the late 1970s.

Infuriated by the lack of media attention that the Nicaraguan crisis has received in the United States, Meiselas explained the purpose of converting her photograph, “SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” into a postcard that was meant to be disseminated and circulated at her exhibition. For Meiselas this was a small but calculated effort to bring awareness and visibility to the repression that the Nicaraguan people are again facing.

In the days that followed, the topic of mediation was further elaborated on during a film screening and conversation between Susan Meiselas and the Nicaraguan writer and poet Gioconda Belli at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Commencing with Meiselas’ film, made in collaboration with Marc Karlin, Voyages centers the photographer’s voice through a thread of narrated letters that were written during her time in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. The juxtaposition between Meiselas’ photographs and letters capture her emotional processes as she beings to think critically about her role as a photographer in a country at the precipice of war.

Setting the tone for the conversation that followed, Voyages took on new valence in the context of Nicaragua’s contemporary crisis. Responding to the film, Gioconda Belli began by remarking on the temporal and emotional dissonance one experiences when coming to terms with the ultimate failure of the revolution- seen today in the guise of the Ortega-Murillo regime. With several Nicaraguan viewers in the audience- including myself- the tone of room was melancholic and full of disillusionment.

With no knowing how today’s crisis will pan out, Belli spoke not only of grief and mourning but also of resistance. She reminded us of the many ways in which the Nicaraguan people continue to speak out, fight back and resist dictatorial violence, despite the terror that grips the country. During the conversation, Belli thanked Meiselas for her ongoing efforts to represent and document a history that may very well have been lost. For Belli, Meiselas’ mediation sets the precedent for a type of solidarity that makes oneself an active participant, included – to some degree – into the body politic of resistance.

Iterations of Susan Meiselas’ “Molotov Man” at SF MOMA, 2018. (Photo by Torbak Hopper.)

After a weekend in San Francisco, Meiselas joined us once again on the Berkeley campus, where she gave a talk about her retrospective exhibition, “Mediations,” through the Arts Research Center, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.  While the topic of Nicaragua had been centered in the preceding days, Meiselas spoke broadly about her larger body of work included in the exhibition. Spanning the breadth of her career, “Mediations” includes work from her carnival strippers series from the 1970s, to the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as her ongoing work on the Kurdish genocide.

Joined by UC Berkeley Professors Natalia Brizuela and Leigh Raiford, Meiselas spoke candidly about her discomfort with labels and expectations around documentary photography. As signaled by the title of her exhibition, the concept of mediation lies at the core of Meiselas’ practice. Suspended in the in-betweenness of difference, Meiselas’ work is informed by the ongoing process of negotiating her role as an American photographer whose privilege, ability, and fluidity allow her take up a position that is unachievable for her subjects. As part of this reflexive positionality, Meiselas elaborated on the politics of seeing and the ethics surrounding visuality present in her work. As Meiselas puts it, “The ethics of seeing, are the ethics of caring.”

Susan Meiselas presents at UC Berkeley. (Photo by CLAS staff.)

Tied in with these critical perspectives is her relentless commitment to places and people, as she continues to go back to the sites in which her images were taken. For Meiselas, this is much more of a relationship than an objective imposition, or documentation of an event or subject.

“SOS Nicaragua: The bullets…” underscores the type of relationship and commitment implicit in Meiselas’ work. It is through this type of engagement that we are able to see the insidious ways in which history has iterative tendencies- as not to become disillusioned but rather remember the work we must continue to do, as we negotiate our positionalities and bear witness to our times. I would like to thank Susan Meiselas for giving us an access point into this conversation- especially today, as the situation in Nicaragua continues to precariously unfold.


LESDI GOUSSEN is a PhD student in the History of Art department. She studies mid-20th century Latin American art in a transatlantic context, focusing on the exchanges taking place between Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Framed within this context, her work primarily looks at the development and dissemination of Central American aesthetics from the 1950s through the aftermath of the Central American crisis in the 1990s, a time marked by armed conflict, US intervention, and revolutionary struggle within several countries. Working alongside a range of fields, Lesdi’s research interests include women of color feminisms, Latinx studies, postcolonial theory, and decoloniality.




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Corra pro Abraço: A Harm Reduction Approach to Challenging the Punitive and Racialized Management of Poverty in Brazil

By Maria-Fátima Santos 

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photo courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

A Pioneering Harm Reduction Program in Bahia State

Entirely coordinated by Black women since its inception in 2013, Corra Pro Abraço (Corra) is one of the first state-funded harm reduction programs in Brazil. Literally translating as “Run to the Embrace,” the program’s mission is to support drug users, people living on the streets, and youth who live or circulate in spaces impacted by high rates of violence. Established in the Northeastern state of Bahia, Corra is funded by the state’s Secretary of Justice, Human Rights, and Social Development (SJDHDS) and operated in partnership with CRIA—a non-profit organization based on a pedagogical model of art and education. Operating both on the streets and in central city courthouses, Corra takes a unique harm reduction approach to engaging with vulnerable populations that challenges the dominant logic of state institutions that penalize poverty, vulnerability, and ethno-racial marginality.

I first came into contact with “Corra” (as many community members fondly call it) through my research in Salvador, Bahia, where I was conducting field observations in the city’s Núcleo de Prisão em Flagrante—the courthouse where all those arrested em flagrante (“in the act”) in the city are taken to a judge to determine whether they will be released or held in confinement until summoned for trial. Corra program operators have a permanent office in the courthouse and play a crucial role in structurally challenging a judicial process that presumes the association of social vulnerability and poverty with criminality.

The association of blackness with criminality is especially glaring within the courthouses of Salvador, home to the largest population of Afro-descendants outside of Africa. The overwhelming majority of defendants who face trial identify as black or pardo (“mixed race”), as does the majority of Salvador’s population overall. In stark contrast, however, these defendants face a courtroom of legal authorities—from prosecutors, to defense attorneys and judges—who are predominantly white or lighter skinned.

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photos courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

Poverty and its intersection with other markers of social marginality—unemployment, substance abuse, and homelessness—increase the risk of pre-trial confinement. Those who cannot prove they have a fixed residence face a high chance of being kept in jail for months before being summoned to trial, even in the cases of alleged offenses that are non-violent or when individuals are arrested for possessing drug quantities more consistent with use (the latter no longer punished with prison time if actually convicted). However, the presence of Corra within the actual courthouse where these bond hearings are held has proposed an alternative: in some cases, judges may decide to release the defendant on the condition that they are connected with Corra Pro Abraço.

Comprised of teams of social workers, educators, sociologists, medical practitioners, psychologists, and legal advisors, Corra facilitates understanding and access to a network of basic services and resources in the areas of health, education, social services, and justice. Additionally, operators draw from methodologies and expressive mediums in the areas of art and education as means of individual and collective social transformation. Through music, theater, and creative workshops, the program’s mission entails crucial political work: to foster individual and collective empowerment among members to understand and insist on their “right to have rights.”

The program takes a unique harm reduction approach to engaging with vulnerable populations and facilitating access to those whose marks of social stigma have systematically denied them access to basic social services. As the director of Corra’s Núcleo de Prisão em Flagrante, Lucinéia Rocha, explains, “We understand that several different forms of social vulnerability are tied to drug use and abuse, so we start from a perspective that considers harm reduction to be as much about enhancing individuals’ access to services as it is about direct engagement related to the drug. In addition to the work we do in the courthouse and on the street, we also run workshops in the Casa [the program’s “home” building]. Some workshops are specifically on drug abuse, but we also have sections on human rights, racism, gender, and sexuality, in ways that bring this content to a political discussion and familiarizes them with our networks. We recognize that there is no way to actually reduce harm without talking about access and human rights.”

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photos courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

Coordinators recognize Corra’s many social achievements in just a short time, while also pointing to daily struggles in destabilizing the dominant association of social vulnerability with criminality. “For those who are on conditional release prior to their trial date, they still have to show up to the courthouse every month to sign their name and get updated on the status of their case. Many of our program participants are afraid that if they show up they will automatically be put behind bars, others literally do not have enough money to pay for the bus ticket to get there, or they do not have the clothes that are recognized as appropriate for entering a courthouse. But, if they don’t show up, then the judge will order that they be put in pre-trial confinement…There are many barriers to accessing ‘real justice.’ We reach out to our networks, in this case the public defender, and they speak with the judge. Some judges have come to respect our work and listen to our concerns, but others…well, they just don’t want to hear it.”

Amidst a social context in which the majority of citizens consistently demand harsher responses to crime, the program poses both a direct and structural challenge to the harms done to socially vulnerable populations, who are perceived as “criminals,” while in fact they are among those most directly impacted by the pervasive violence in the region.

Violence, drugs, and the punitive management of poor and black Brazilians

As of 2018, amidst the 50 most violent cities in the world, Brazil was featured more than any other country, with 17 cities making the list.[1] National and international human rights organizations persistently emphasize concerns of widespread violence characterized by disputes tied to organized crime, police abuse, and extrajudicial mass killings in poor urban neighborhoods, gruesomely violent prisons, and legislation that provides significant protection to the army’s unlawful killing of citizens. Poor, black, and socially disadvantaged urban communities comprise those most directly impacted by the violence that plagues the region.

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photos courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

Illicit narcotics commerce and militarized enforcement of anti-narcotics legislation are among a complex constellation of factors that have shaped Brazil’s sky-high rates of violence, which are also shaped by political instability and corruption, the organic relationship between the state and organized crime, and a deeply entrenched history of state institutions treating the poor and black citizens as enemies.

Backed by political discourses associating soaring rates of violence with organized crime, Brazil’s expanding and militarizing police forces have aggressively—and very selectively—targeted narcotics possession in particular. Brazil has since seen its most accelerated incarceration boom, with a dramatic increase in the percentage of those incarcerated under allegations of drug trafficking. With 683,000 individuals behind bars in 2018, Brazil incarcerates more than any other country in Latin America, and ranks third largest worldwide (surpassed only by the U.S. and China). One third of arrestees are confined for drug-related offenses, and among incarcerated women more specifically, violations of Brazil’s Drug Law comprise a staggering 65 percent of arrestees. [2]

Incarceration has proven to be a blatantly ineffective tool for remedying the violence associated with illicit narcotics commerce. Instead, it has actively contributed to reinforcing the association of criminality with poverty and marginalized ethno-racial groups. The majority of those arrested for alleged narcotics distribution are neither the primary operators nor benefactors of highly lucrative illicit drug markets. Instead, those flooding dismal and overcrowded jails and prisons are addicts, “drug mules,” or low-level street dealers trying to support their own addiction, and who come from the most socially disadvantaged segments of Brazilian society. [3]

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photos courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

Importantly, Brazil’s 2006 National Drug Law revoked prison time as punishment for illicit narcotics use for the first time in the country since the 1940s. This law opened up the possibility to develop alternative and non-punitive initiatives for illicit drug users. However, few programs exist to actually provide such alternatives for the poor and socially marginalized, who are systematically denied access to basic social services and continue to be thrown behind bars under allegations of narcotics trafficking.

In reality, scholarship has shown that illicit narcotics commerce successfully operates through a complex and interdependent relationship between powerful Brazilian comando organizations and the state, [4] which simultaneously incarcerates the citizens it neglects.

Among the glaring exceptions to the Brazilian state’s punitive approach to the poor and marginalized Brazilians is Corra Pro Abraço. Corra presents a generative model for understanding the complex conditions of social vulnerability, structurally challenging the punitive logic of the state, and embarking on both the practical and subjective work involved to transform the relationship between marginalized citizens and the state.

Corra program operators and participants in Salvador, Bahia. (Photos courtesy of SJDHDS/GovBA Photo Collection.)

For more information on Corra pro Abraço, please contact comunicacaocorra@gmail.com

[1] Mexico Citizen’s Council for Public Security’s Annual Ranking. 2018.
[2] Departamento Penitenciário Nacional (DEPEN). 2014. Levantamento Nacional de Informações Penitenciárias. Brasilia: Ministério da Justiça.
[3] Boiteux, L. 2011. “Drugs and Prisons: The Repression of Drugs and the Increase of the Brazilian Penitentiary Population,” Systems Overload-Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America. Amsterdam/Washington: Transnational Institute/Washington Office Latin America, pp. 30-8.
[4] Arias, Enrique Desmond. 2006. Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security. University of North Carolina Press.

Maria-Fátima Santos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the state, violence, law, and development and transnational drug control in Latin America. Her MA research studied a state-wide initiative to modernize the prison system of Brazil’s Espírito Santo State and its implications for understanding the features and functions of incarceration in Brazil. Her dissertation research turns to analyze the work of public defenders in criminal drug courts, which reveals the workings of Brazil’s criminal courts at the ground level. She was previously a Berkeley Empirical Legal Studies Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, and her research has been supported by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), Institute of International Studies, U.S. Fulbright, and the Social Science Research Council. Contact: fsantos@berkeley.edu










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Educación superior para todos los jóvenes colombianos

Por Natalia Ariza Ramirez

Read this entry in English here.

Una universidad comunitaria en los Estados Unidos celebra su ceremonia de graduación. (Foto cortesía de COD Newsroom).

Hace algunos años, alguien me dijo que una de las promesas de campaña que más motivaba a los colombianos para votar por algún candidato en una elección popular, era ofrecer a los jóvenes la posibilidad de ingresar a la universidad. Desafortunadamente, esta no fue la promesa de campaña más destacada de las pasadas elecciones en Colombia, pero sí debería ser uno de los retos que nos motive en el periodo del post conflicto.

Una de las primeras barreras para acceder a la educación superior de calidad en Colombia, son los pobres resultados de la educación básica y media.  En este país es evidente que si vas a educación básica y media de mala calidad, casi siempre a la que acceden los pobres, esto te cierra la puerta para poder acceder a la educación superior de calidad.

Por algo, la educación superior pública de Colombia ocupa el deshonroso lugar, después de las pensiones, de ser el segundo servicio público social peor focalizado. Pero esto no importa mucho, incluso para algunos académicos y políticos de este país, para quienes es un honor desprestigiar el Programa Ser Pilo Paga (PSPP) diciendo que es un atentado contra la equidad, pues le quita los recursos a la educación superior pública, la cual hoy no garantiza el acceso a la educación de los más pobres, pero no se escuchan muchas alternativas para eliminar las barreras de entrada que se han puesto a este grupo de población, como la que beneficia el PSPP, para acceder a sus aulas.[1]

El presidente Santos en Nueva York en 2013. (Foto cortesía de la Embajada Estadounidense de Colombia).

Pero hay al menos dos cosas que el nuevo Gobierno Nacional puede hacer para romper el círculo dañino que mantiene a los pobres en un sistema educativo mediocre. Frente a la calidad de la educación básica y media podemos crear una válvula de escape, además de otras estrategias, transformando de manera contundente la formación de docentes. En el Plan Nacional de Desarrollo (PND) de Santos se estableció la obligatoriedad de acreditar en alta calidad todos los programas de formación de docentes.[2] Esta medida llevará al cierre de al menos la mitad de los programas de licenciaturas y por eso invito a ser valientes. Quedarán otros 200, los de mejor calidad.

La segunda herramienta es la reestructuración del modelo de educación superior que hoy existe en el país. La primera puerta a tocar es la del Sistema Universitario Estatal (SUE). Este debe convertirse en el protagonista de esta gran reforma. Pero no solo un protagonista que pide dinero y reclama autonomía. Debe ser un protagonista que también analice, cree y ejecute el plan de ofrecer educación superior para todos. Es un llamado a ser el líder de un proceso de transformación de la visión de la educación superior que ya está ocurriendo en los últimos 50 años en otras partes del mundo. Por eso, el SUE debe involucrarse con lo que está sucediendo en el resto de la educación superior, el Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) y los colegios de educación media. He escuchado a las universidades decir que los estudiantes, incluso los que pasan sus procesos de admisión, no vienen con las habilidades y conocimientos suficientes para hacer frente a los requerimientos de la educación superior, pero he visto a muy pocos de estos quejosos trabajar duro con la educación básica y media.

El recién elegido presidente colombiano Iván Duque. (Foto cortesía de la Casa de América).

¿Dónde se le podría ocurrir al SUE, que se abrirán los espacios para 1.5 millones de nuevos estudiantes en la Educación Superior de calidad? Para responder, se deben explorar opciones como crear los grados 12° y 13° en la educación media, algo que se asemeje al esfuerzo que está haciendo la Universidad Nacional de Colombia con el Programa de Especial de Admisiones y Movilidad Académica (PEAMA) o el modelo de educación general de los Community Colleges de los Estados Unidos, entre otros. Estas son alternativas que permitirían desarrollar el modelo de Educación Superior General (EduGen).

Crear una oferta de programas de EduGen de dos años, permitirá cerrar la brecha de conocimiento requerida para acceder a la universidad y luego estos contenidos pueden ser homologados como sus dos primeros años de carrera profesional y los estudiantes podrán continuar sus estudios para obtener un título, bien sea de profesionales universitarios o de profesionales técnicos o tecnólogos. Este modelo permitiría pensar en que la educación superior tendrá un estándar mínimo, para no permitir que los profesionales se gradúen con niveles muy bajos de habilidades y conocimientos, como lo muestran los resultados de las pruebas SABER PRO [3].

Un edificio universitario en Bogotá, Colombia. (Foto por David Gómez).

Este modelo, abre a su vez un espacio para repensar el SENA y la función que hoy cumple en Colombia. Creamos esta institución hace 61 años pensando en el país de esa época. Era la entidad para formar la masa de trabajadores de la industria, por lo general sus operarios. Hoy el SENA es la puerta de entrada al mundo de la educación terciaria de más de 1 millón de jóvenes. Solo por esta condición, no puede ser sólo un centro de entrenamiento de oficios. Debe ser una institución que también amplié la capacidad de pensar y crear de los jóvenes. Así que el modelo de EduGen también lo podría adelantar el SENA. Como también podría ofertar el ciclo posterior de formación de los profesionales técnicos y tecnólogos, aumentando su nivel de competencia para que lleguen a eslabones más altos de las cadenas ocupacionales de cada sector, no solo al nivel de operarios.

El gobierno de Santos dejó creado el Sistema Nacional de Educación Terciaria (SNET), no solo en la ley PND, sino en documentos técnicos, y este modelo podría recoger estas recomendaciones. Para hacerlo realidad es necesario tomar la decisión política de querer igualar las oportunidades de los jóvenes, dialogar sobre los métodos para hacerlo, hacer lo necesario para conseguirlo y no destruir lo ya logrado. Al contrario, construir sobre terrenos ya explorados en Colombia y en el resto del mundo.

[1] Este programa fue creado en el Gobierno del Presidente Santos en el año 2015, para dar acceso a los jóvenes más pobres del país, quienes obtuvieron los mejores resultados en la prueba de estado SABER 11.
[2] En Colombia existe el Sistema de Aseguramiento de la Calidad, a través del cual las instituciones de educación superior pueden ser acreditadas en alta calidad cuando cumplen con los estándares establecidos por este Sistema.
[3] Esta prueba se realiza para todos los estudiantes de últimos semestres de pregrado como requisito para obtener su título de profesionales.

NATALIA ARIZA RAMIREZ is an economist at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and was Deputy Minister of Higher Education in Colombia (2014-2016). She is an expert in the design, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of public policies, especially in the education sector, and has led the construction of regulatory and public policy frameworks in institutions in Colombia including the National Apprenticeship Service, Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Social Protection, and the National Planning Department. Natalia is a CLAS Visiting Fellow for the Fall 2018 semester.




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Building Better Higher Education in Colombia

By Natalia Ariza Ramirez

A community college in the U.S. celebrates its 50th graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of COD Newsroom).

A few years ago, someone told me that one of the most motivating campaign promises to encourage young Colombians to vote in elections was to offer them help in accessing higher education. Although, this was, unfortunately, not the most prominent campaign promise in the recent election, it is still an important challenge that should continue to motivate us.

One of the most significant barriers to quality higher education is poor primary and secondary education. In Colombia, it is clear that if you attend low quality primary and secondary schools, which is usually the only option for the poor, the door to access quality higher education remains closed.

In 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos’ government introduced the Ser Pilo Paga Program (PSPP) in an attempt provide access to higher education for young people from the lowest economic group with the best test results. However, Colombia’s public higher education system continues to lack focus, and some academics and politicians discredit PSPP by saying it is actually an attack against equity. They argue that PSPP takes away resources from public higher education, which as it stands does not guarantee access to education for the poorest. They also refuse to listen to any alternatives that might eliminate these barriers.

President Santos in New York City in 2013. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy of Colombia).

Students who do manage to enroll in university often struggle with the academic rigor of their classes. I have heard university faculty and administrators say that students, even those who pass their admissions exams, do not arrive at university with the skills and knowledge to meet the basic requirements of higher education. However, I have seen very few of them work with primary and secondary educators to address the underlying issues.

Under the leadership of the recently elected president Iván Duque, the new national government should use two approaches to break the cycle that keeps poor people in a mediocre education system. Faced with the low-quality primary and secondary educational systems in Colombia, we first need to transform teacher training programs. The National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo; PND), created under President Santos, established that all teacher training programs must be accredited [1]. Enforcing this measure would lead to the closure of at least half of the degree programs, but 200 better quality programs would still remain.

Second, we need to restructure the higher education model that currently exists in Colombia. The State University System (Sistema de Universidades Estatales; SUE) must become the protagonist of this great reform – but not a protagonist who asks for money and demands autonomy in return. The SUE must become the kind of protagonist who analyzes, promotes, and executes a plan to provide higher education for everyone. The SUE must lead the process to transform higher education to match developed countries around the world. To do this, the SUE must collaborate with the National Learning Service (SENA) as well as secondary schools.

Newly elected Colombian President Iván Duque. (Photo courtesy of Casa de América).

Where could the SUE find space for 1.5 million new students in quality higher education? To find an answer, we should explore options such as creating 12th and 13th grades in secondary schools, something that resembles current efforts by the National University of Colombia and the Admissions and Academic Mobility Special Program, or something similar to the U.S. Community College model.

These alternatives would enable the development of the General Higher Education (GHE) model. A two-year GHE program would close the knowledge gap required to access universities, ensuring that higher education meets minimum standards and graduates have adequate skills and knowledge, as shown by the results of the SABER PRO tests [2].

A university building in Bogotá, Colombia. (Photo by David Gómez).

This model would give us the opportunity to rethink SENA and the role it plays in Colombia. SENA was created 61 years ago, with the intention of training industrial workers. Today, SENA is no longer just a trades training center – it is the gateway to the world of higher education for more than a million young people. SENA must also expand young people’s ability to think and create. SENA can propel the GHE model, offering training for technical professionals to increase their competence beyond the basic level.

The Santos government created the National Tertiary Education System, which would be the ideal institution to carry out these recommendations. To make this a reality, the government needs to make a political commitment to creating equal opportunities for young people. We should not destroy what has already been achieved, but rather take advantage of our accomplishments and learn from other examples around the world.

[1] In Colombia, there is the Quality Assurance System, through which higher education institutions can be accredited when they meet the standards established by this system.
[2] All undergraduate students take this test their last semester as a requirement to obtain their professional title.

NATALIA ARIZA RAMIREZ is an economist at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and was Deputy Minister of Higher Education in Colombia (2014-2016). She is an expert in the design, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of public policies, especially in the education sector, and has led the construction of regulatory and public policy frameworks in institutions in Colombia including the National Apprenticeship Service, Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Social Protection, and the National Planning Department. Natalia is a CLAS Visiting Fellow for the Fall 2018 semester.




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Update from Mexico

By Paloma Corcuera

AMLO supporters fill the Toluca Plaza in Mexico. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

On July 1st we elected our future president, 9 state governors, 128 senators, and 500 lower house representatives. This election was historic not only because of the number of local and federal positions that were at stake, but also because of the result. For most of the positions, Mexicans overwhelmingly elected representatives of a new political party: MORENA.

Even though MORENA was registered as a political party only 3 years ago, today it is the most powerful political party in Mexico. This is due to the general disappointment Mexicans feel about the more established political parties due to their numerous corruption scandals, a lack of efficient institutions, blatant inequality, increasing human rights abuses, and a sense of distrust towards the State in general.

MORENA, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who founded the political party and won the presidential elections by a whopping margin, got the diagnosis right. He tapped into the anger and annoyance of the Mexican population, which feels that the government governs only for few and mostly to enrich themselves. MORENA gave hope by promising a common good approach that would prioritize the more than 50 million poor people who live in Mexico. During his campaign (which is his third, as he lost the past two elections), AMLO claims to have visited every municipality in Mexico; he listened to concerns and promised change.

AMLO’s opposition is concerned that he is over-promising and that his proposals lack implementation plans and details. Some critics fear that even though he got the diagnosis right, his policies won’t bring about solutions and that he won’t be able to materialize the promises he has made. But also, let’s face it, a lot of them worry they will lose their privileged citizen status. AMLO is viewed by most of his opposition as a populist authoritarian threat.

Now let´s take a step back for a second. Let me describe the current situation of my country. Mexico is suffering from an insecurity crisis: high levels of violence combined with high levels of impunity and a generalized lack of trust in institutions. Additionally, the levels of inequality in Mexico are terribly high and corruption scandals occur on a regular basis.

The current homicide rate in Mexico is 22.5 for every 100,000 people. This compares to 89 in Venezuela, 60 in El Salvador, 24 in Colombia, or 3.3 in Chile. This number started steadily increasing in Mexico since the government of Felipe Calderón declared a war on drugs in 2006. Since then, Mexico has been combating drug organizations with the army. This strategy has changed the dynamics of the drug industry but has not been able to reduce the supply of drugs. Big cartels have broken down into smaller and more violent ones – due to the approach of capturing the heads of the organizations – but as the demand in the United States continues to grow, the cartels always find a way to profit. Additionally, this intensified prohibition creates a riskier environment that demands higher prices, which result in an even more profitable market.

Felipe Calderón speaks in London in 2012. (Photo courtesy of CONADE).

While this strategy has failed massively, Mexico is immersed in a human rights crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, there are alarmingly high rates of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture. Moreover, crimes are under-prosecuted in Mexico, both because of a lack of trust in institutions that result in few crimes being reported but also because this lack of trust is based on the reality that institutions are often incapable of penalizing criminals.

Inequality is another big concern in Mexico, and feeds the sense of discomfort of the majority of the population. Around 43% of Mexicans live in poverty, and this number is on the rise. At the same time, the fortune of the richest 16 Mexicans grows in size five times a year. On the corruption front, it is hard to say if corruption has actually been increasing or if it is just more visible, but there is no denying that it remains one of Mexico’s largest problems.

While AMLO did not talk much about his approach to the insecurity crisis during his campaign, he did refer to his proposals to reduce inequality, poverty, and eliminate corruption.

Now, let’s talk about what has been happening since the election. AMLO received 53.3% of the vote, even more than the polls originally reported (Oraculus: 48% and Bloomberg: 51%). From the nine states that elected governors, five elected MORENA representatives. The coalition led by MORENA (which includes a conservative political party fighting against rights like access to abortion or same sex marriage) attained the majority in both houses and in 17 of the 32 local congresses.

MORENA and AMLO have a historical opportunity to guide the country towards social progress, but there is also a real risk that this amount of power will be used in an authoritarian manner. AMLO has been criticized multiple times during his campaign and after being elected for contradicting himself. For example, he says he will eradicate corruption but has allied with some very corrupt actors including Elba Esther Gordillo, one of the few Mexicans arrested on corruption charges (whose arrest coincided with the beginning of President Peña’s regime and was recently freed due to lack of evidence after five years in prison, coinciding with an alliance with AMLO), and Manuel Barlett, responsible for the electoral fraud of 1988 that favored Salinas, arguably one of the most hated Mexican presidents.

When asked how he will eradicate corruption in Mexico, AMLO responds he will do so by setting an example. Critics argue that this is naïve and that in order to actually end corruption, institutions must be strengthened to reduce the levels of impunity (which is among the highest in the world). Recently these questions on corruption have intensified, as the electoral institution fined MORENA for failing to explain the origin and destination of resources that were deposited into a trust fund. Instead of recognizing his party’s mistake, AMLO called the fine “vile and vindictive”. This attitude calls into question the seriousness of his commitment to end corruption.

Along the same lines, an independent district attorney would be instrumental in reducing impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses. Civil society has been demanding one without success. It is very worrisome that AMLO has not pronounced his support for this. Instead, he has said he will propose three alternatives and that Congress will be able to choose one of them. This obviously would not result in an independent district attorney but in a position appointed by the president, who, even if his three alternatives are excellent choices, would not be able to prosecute autonomously or free from political pressure.

AMLO casts his vote in the 2012 election. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

There are also concerns about where AMLO will get the funds to implement all of his proposed policies, as he has promised not to raise taxes and only implement fiscally neutral policies. He states that he will fund all of his policies with money saved from ending corruption and the austerity program (the reduction of bureaucrats’ salaries, including his by more than half).

On the other hand, there is finally hope to reach an end to the devastating war on drugs in Mexico. Even though this was not one of the main topics during his campaign (probably because of the controversial nature of the subject), the only proposal provided regarding national security was one that would have intensified the militarization strategy. AMLO’s proposal was to create a joint force between the military and the police and use only this force to combat crime. Human rights activists, many academics, and members of civil organizations pronounced themselves against this, arguing that it would not solve the problem and would only make matters worse.  Alfonso Durazo, the future government’s secretary of security, has recently stated that this plan will not be implemented (at least not in the short term), and that the creation of a Public Security Department (SSP) will be the priority instead. This department would be formed by a civil police force in charge of combating crime. Durazo has also stated that the military forces would return to their barracks in the next three years, restoring the responsibility of public security to civil police forces.

Additionally, Olga Sanchez Cordero, the proposed Secretary of the interior, has been very vocal about the strategy that AMLO’s government will pursue to start a peace process with the objective of reducing violence and impunity. Sanchez Cordero understands both the causes and the vicious cycle that the militarization strategy has created, and is putting forward a drastic change in direction.  This includes legalization of marijuana, decriminalization of opium poppy production, amnesty for lower tier crimes, and new trainings for police forces aimed at demilitarizing the country and enforcing human rights.

Even though there is wide agreement that this strategy would stop the trend of increasing violence, there is still a lot of pushback by proponents of militarization and prohibitionist strategies historically led by the United States government. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said “[…] I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.” The United States government has historically had great influence in Mexican policy, so we have to wait and see how this plays out.

Inequality was one of the central topics in AMLO´s campaign. For years, AMLO has been blaming what he calls the “power mafia” (la mafia del poder) for the lack of democratic institutions and the high levels of poverty. As I mentioned above, inequality is a very big problem in Mexico with some municipalities enjoying one of the highest Human Development Index similar to Norway’s and others comparing to Liberia or Congo. In order to reduce inequality, AMLO is aiming to eradicate corruption and privileges while reducing public employees’ salaries, increasing minimum wage and pensions, providing scholarships, and increasing the number of universities by 100. The achievability of this last idea is also doubtful because of the huge cost, but a smaller number might be realistic and hopefully a more young people would be able to attend university (today, only 3 out of 10 do so).

A young pro MORENA skater in Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

Another contradiction that has been criticized is that political parties were not included in AMLO’s austerity program. In Mexico, political parties receive exorbitant amounts of public money. This administration will receive 4,700 million pesos (more or less 250 million U.S. dollars) even though there will be no elections. MORENA would receive more money than any other political party due to the substantial majority achieved in the past elections. It is incongruent that this budget is excluded from the austerity program. Recently, taking a step in the right direction, some congress representatives of the political party proposed to halve the budget allotted to political parties.

In terms of the relationship with the United States government, in a recent exchange with Donald Trump, AMLO agreed that the priorities of the relationship of their governments will be trade, economic development, migration, and security. AMLO has promised to develop a more prosperous Mexico in order to deter the need for migration to the United States. He has talked about increasing the minimum wage. This would also increase the probability of reaching a trade agreement with Canada and the United States as these countries have been arguing that the salary differential is too high and harms their economies. Trump stated in a letter that he would like to see a NAFTA agreement as soon as possible, but also threatened that if this doesn’t happen soon he will have to find a different path. This threat implies that Mexico and Canada would have to accept an agreement that they don’t feel comfortable with. Again, we can just wait and see how the negotiations evolve with this change of priorities of the Mexican government.

The United States government has been pressuring the Mexican government for decades to stop Central American migrants at the Mexican border before they travel to the U.S. border. Mexico has engaged in horrible practices like increasing the speed of the train that migrants use to travel north, effectively making the trip more deadly. Mexico should start by treating migrants in transit the same way Mexico demands migrants be treated in the United States.

In terms of security, as I have stated above, I believe that there will be huge disagreements between both countries due to the conflicting drug policy approaches.

On energy policy, AMLO has proposed to build two new oil refineries, arguing that Mexico should be able to produce its own gasoline and end the dynamic of exporting oil and importing gasoline. Environmentalists are naturally against this because they believe we should be moving away from the dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, there are concerns about the economic feasibility of these investments. Critics believe that the refineries will cost a lot more than what AMLO is budgeting. On the other hand, he has said he will also invest in renewable energies and that he will prioritize community need above the investor’s, which would be a shift from the current administration’s approach.

It is undeniable that there are plenty of proposed policies that mark a positive change for Mexico towards a more peaceful and equal country. Nonetheless, there are also many contradictions and a real risk of authoritarian tendencies due to the mass representation of MORENA. As for the civil society, let’s hope for the best, stay informed, and continue to provide constructive criticism.


PALOMA CORCUERA studied economics at Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, and earned a Master of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Today she conducts macroeconomic analysis and teaches at the Economics Department of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter @palcorcuera.




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Desafíos del nuevo gobierno en Colombia

Por Daniel Payares Montoya

Read this entry in English here.

La inauguración del President Iván Duque en Colombia. (Foto cortesía del gobierno Colombiano).

El ocho de agosto inició el período de gobierno del presidente Iván Duque, quien tendrá que liderar a Colombia en los próximos cuatro años en medio de un ambiente político marcado por la polarización y una incipiente recuperación económica tras el fin del súper ciclo de commodities en 2014.

Dentro de los incontables desafíos a los que tendrá que hacer frente como cabeza del Gobierno, hay al menos tres que determinarán la forma en la que será evaluada su gestión en el futuro.

El primero de ellos está relacionado con el fin del conflicto con las FARC. Si bien este acuerdo, sumado a una eventual negociación exitosa con la guerrilla del ELN, significarían el fin del último vestigio de la Guerra Fría en América Latina, aún es temprano para cantar victoria.

El Estado enfrenta numerosas dificultades para consolidar su autoridad y legitimidad en las zonas de posconflicto, las cuales han empezado a ser copadas por disidencias de las FARC, grupos rebeldes y otros actores criminales asociados al narcotráfico. Así mismo, la institucionalidad en esos sitios es mínima y la provisión de bienes públicos básicos, como educación, justicia y salud, entre otros, es precaria. Tampoco es claro cómo se va a crear el suficiente dinamismo económico para proveer oportunidades para la creación de riqueza legal y reducir la pobreza y la desigualdad que han agobiado durante décadas a las poblaciones que se encuentran allí asentadas. Si bien es cierto que se han diseñado planes para hacer frente a estas dificultades, su implementación no ha sido fácil y han tomado más tiempo del presupuestado.

Periodistas asesinados a manos de disidentes de las FARC. (Foto por Agencia de Noticias ANDES).

Por otro lado, en el frente económico, el país parece haber superado exitosamente la caída de los precios internacionales de las materias primas que se inicio hace cerca de cuatro años, y se encamina a tener tasas de crecimiento cercanas o superiores al 3% en 2018 y 2019.

No obstante, el principal desafío en el mediano y largo plazo para poder tener un mejor desempeño económico sigue estando asociado a la productividad. Durante tres décadas, ésta ha estado estancada y es necesario que tanto el sector privado como el Gobierno nacional actúen conjuntamente para revertir esta situación. Mejorar las capacidades empresariales, aumentar la eficiencia de los mercados, reducir la informalidad y cerrar las brechas de capital humano, son algunas de las acciones que deben considerarse para lograr esto.

Aunque ya se han realizado propuestas concretas desde el sector productivo para avanzar en este sentido, al nuevo gobierno le corresponde responder rápidamente con medidas encaminadas en esta dirección. Sin productividad será complejo pensar en generar bienestar de manera sostenible para todos los colombianos.

Participantes en el programa “Jóvenes con Futuro” en Antioquia, Colombia. (Foto cortesía de la Secretaría de Educación Antioquia).

Finalmente, y quizás el reto más importante, consiste en superar la división política que se ha exacerbado en los últimos años y consolidar un ambiente en el que, desde la diferencia, distintos grupos de interés puedan aportar para el desarrollo del país. Como lo manifestó recientemente el mismo presidente Duque, es fundamental que los colombianos puedan construir sobre las cosas que los unen y no quedarse en el lo que los divide; de lo contrario, será sumamente complejo pensar en que Colombia pueda dejar atrás definitivamente una historia que ha estado marcada por la violencia.

En resumen, el nuevo gobierno tiene retos enormes. Aunque su resolución estará plagada de desafíos, en sus manos está la posibilidad de que Colombia continúe avanzando hacia el desarrollo y entregar un mejor país del que recibe dentro de cuatro años.


DANIEL PAYARES  MONTOYA es un estudiante de primer año del Master of Development Practice de la Universidad de California, Berkeley. Antes de ir a Berkeley, él trabajo en el Consejo Privado de Competitividad, en Bogotá, como Investigador Asociado y en la Fundación Proantioquia, en Medellín, como Coordinador de Proyectos. También ha sido profesor de cátedra en las universidades EAFIT y CESA en Colombia.




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