CAF 2019 CONFERENCE
The Inter-American Dialogue, in collaboration with CAF and the Organization of American States, hosted the 23rd Annual CAF Conference on September 4 and 5 at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, DC. The conference was attended by over 700 people, including US and Latin American government officials, international economists, lawmakers, policy experts, journalists, and private sector leaders. Another 1,500 participants tuned into the conference online, via live-stream webcasts. The aim of this sustained collaboration is to bring a thoughtful review of hemispheric and global affairs to Washington policymakers and to discuss key developments in regional and global relations.
This is a period of considerable uncertainty but also enormous promise for the countries of the hemisphere. Major presidential elections recently took place in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama while others will occur later this year in Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay. These critical contests will not only influence domestic issues but will also help set the tone of inter-American relations—some already have. Meanwhile, China’s strong and growing influence in Latin America prompts interest in the strategy shaping its decisions, and trade has once again become a contentious issue in the Americas. These and other topics were discussed in sessions throughout the event.
On other conference panels, officials and analysts shared their thoughts on the role of social media and disinformation in politics and their impact on democracy. Of particular relevance, the conference featured an in-depth interview with a leading Venezuela analyst on the current crisis and future scenarios for that country.
In their introductory remarks, Luis Carranza, president of CAF – Development Bank of Latin America and Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, welcomed attendees and noted the growth and evolution the CAF Conference has experienced in the last 23 years, highlighting the impressive number of participants and the high quality and diversity of the panels.
President Carranza described two of the most important challenges facing the hemisphere: a shifting geopolitical and economic global landscape and the digital revolution, with important implications for democratic governance and the economy. He urged Latin American countries to come together and engage in long-term thinking to adapt to these challenges.
In turn, president Shifter noted that Latin America is undergoing a political transition, with new governments in Brazil, Mexico and possibly Argentina. He also addressed rising global tensions such as the US-China trade war and growing citizen malaise in democratic countries.
A conversation on global challenges and Latin America
Following the introductory remarks, Ambassador Thomas Shannon, co-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue and former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, moderated a conversation with Michele Flournoy, former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors.
Flournoy considered Chinese growing assertiveness in East Asia and elsewhere to be one of the most pressing challenges for the United States, while also noting that a combination of competition and cooperation is necessary between the two great powers. She also addressed Russian actions in Europe and elsewhere, noting that Moscow turns to indirect ways of aggression as its relative economic and geopolitical importance declines. When asked about future threats, Flournoy warned about the manipulation of information and the use of social media platforms to manipulate voters. She urged the United States to rebuild its weakened coalitions in the world, and to implement an immigration policy that is aligned with the country’s history and values.
Trade and the Role of China
The first panel of the day focused on the prospects for trade integration in the Americas. Topics discussed included ongoing trade negotiations among Latin American countries and the impact of the trade war between the United States and China. The conversation was moderated by Carla A. Hills, CEO of Hills & Company and former US Trade Representative, who was joined by Martha Bárcena, Mexican Ambassador to the United States; Anabel González, former Minister of Trade of Costa Rica and non-resident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute; Marisa Bircher, secretary of International Trade of Argentina; and Mauricio Mesquita Moreira, chief economist for the integration and trade sector at the Inter-American Development Bank.
Among other issues, panelists discussed the need for the Pacific Alliance and Mercosur to gradually converge and also addressed the crisis of the global trade system brought by the trade war between the United States and China. This conflict has greatly affected Latin America, since more than half of the region’s trade is done with China and the United States. In addition, the panel analyzed the ratification process of the US Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) and its prospects in the US Congress.
Silvia Pavoni, economics editor at The Banker, moderated the second panel of the conference, which addressed China’s growing economic presence in Latin America. Other panelists included Isabel de Saint Malo, former Vice President and Foreign Minister of Panama; Alex Hao, partner at JunHe Law Offices; Enrique Dussel Peters, director of the Center for Chinese-Mexican Studies at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma De México; Anton Chan, RMB specialist for financial markets at Standard Chartered Bank; and Rosa Ng, former representative of Dominican Republic-China commercial relations.
Participants noted that China is pursuing clear economic and strategic interests in Latin America, while countries in the region lack a comprehensive strategy to deal with Beijing. They agreed in that relations with the United States and China do not have to be a zero-sum game: Latin America should pursue opportunities with both great powers simultaneously. Moreover, they should take advantage of new China-led multilateral institutions, but must be aware of the potential risks such as high indebtedness.
Changing Politics: Elections and the (mis)use of social media
The second day of the conference began with a discussion on recent elections that had taken place throughout Latin America, focusing on Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. The panel was moderated by Michael Reid, senior editor and columnist at The Economist, who was joined by Laura Chinchilla, co-chair of the Inter-American Dialogue and former President of Costa Rica; Rossana Fuentes, founder and CEO of the Mexico Media Lab; Daniela Pinheiro, editor-in-chief of Revista Época in Brazil; and Daniel Zovatto, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
The panel agreed in that the regional situation is worrisome: support for democracy among Latin Americans is at all-time lows, and there is a growing sense of citizen dissatisfaction. In this toxic context, Latin America is undertaking an electoral super-cycle, since most countries in the region will have elected new administrations in 2018 and 2019. Participants also discussed the first months in office of president Andrés Manuel López Obrador in México and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil: although they come from different sides of the ideological spectrum, both leaders have promised a sharp break from the past.
The following panel dealt with the impact of social media on Latin American democracies. Catalina Botero, dean of the Faculty of Law at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, moderated a panel featuring Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Hugo Alconada Mon, editor of the investigative unit at La Nación in Argentina; Patricia Campos Mello, reporter-at-large and columnist for the Folha de São Paulo; Crystal Patterson, head of Global Civic Partnerships and Elections at Facebook; and Andrea Bernal, news anchor and director at NTN24.
Social media platforms have become essential tools for daily communication, but also create opportunities for misinformation campaigns and voter manipulation. In particular, panelists noted, because of a context of high political polarization and lack of credibility of the traditional media and political parties. Among other challenges, the panel discussed the tension between the need to properly regulate content in social media to filter falsities and the preservation of free speech.
A conversation on the Venezuelan crisis
The 23rd edition of the CAF Conference ended with a discussion between Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue and Luis Vicente León, President of Datanálisis, on the situation in Venezuela.
During the exchange, León noted that the opposition and the US government underestimated the capacity of Nicolás Maduro to resist growing sanctions and the emergence of a popular opposition leader in Juan Guaidó. He added that while there are differences within the regime, the military has remained together and in support of Maduro, which effectively blocked any political change. Finally, he argued that US sanctions have not been effective, are already having a negative impact on an already ruinous economy and risk strengthening the regime.
Author: Bruno Binetti, non-resident research fellow for the Office of the President at the Inter-American Dialogue.