Dan Restrepo is one of the Latinos with the most remarkable careers in the Obama White House. The son of a Colombian father and Spanish mother, he was Barack Obama's special adviser on Latin American issues and director for the Western Hemisphere of the National Security Council.
An attorney from the University of Virginia, he was the strategist for Obama's two presidential campaigns on Latin American issues, to which he has been dedicated since the 1990s. After his time at the White House, he was director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.
From Washington he spoke with LPO and dived with passion to explore the conflicts of the region. "To think that Maduro has the capacity to destabilize several countries when he is unable to govern his own, is not in line with the facts," he says to rule out the accusations of Venezuelan interference in Chile and Ecuador.
You wrote on your CNN column that you do not believe that Cuba or Venezuela are behind the conflicts in the region. That these are the problems of democracy, such as inequality.
I think it is important to look objectively at each conflict. See each circumstance and try to understand what is happening, what are the factors that have brought them to this point and what should or can be done to alleviate the dynamics that have brought them to here. If you look objectively at what's happening in Chile, it's very difficult to think that it's the result of factors outside their borders and the dynamics that are going on in that country, and that have been going on for more or less the last decade. This is just one of many expressions of discontent. But not the discontent that we saw in Ecuador, they are different. The situations and the composition of each country are different. That's why I think it's important to understand it in its own terms and if we're going to look for analogies, I think it has more to do with the yellow vests in France than what happens in Ecuador.
In Ecuador, do you see the possibility of external interference?
In Ecuador there is an external factor, which is former President Correa, who is abroad. There was discontent among the indigenous communities. Again, something that is not new, it is something that has happened on many occasions with a capacity to mobilize those communities that has been seen many times in the last decades, with quite deep political consequences. This was a more of a reaction to austerity and to economic policies. Correa tried to take advantage of that moment to try to promote his political agenda, which was an additional factor, but we have to understand it as an Ecuadorian factor. It is an external factor but "internal external".
You said that Maduro and the Cuban leaders should not be turned into "giants". Do you think that they have a real capacity to influence the region - as the Argentine government says - with the internal problems they are facing?
Part of the reason for not treating them like giants is precisely that. And particularly in the case of Maduro, who has an illegitimate regime and is trying to govern a ragged country. To think that Maduro has the capacity to destabilize several countries when he is not even able to govern his own, I think it is not in line with the facts.
Cubans are a little different. They are not giants either, they also have a failed system. They have had the capacity and the intention, throughout the history of the Cuban Revolution, to export that revolution. When they had more resources, they did it, there are obvious historical examples. Their ability to do this today is much smaller than in their "best" moments. Cubans have a deep crisis at home, they have a system that works worse every day. If they are trying to influence another country in the region, and I think they are, it is Venezuela, but to stay in Cuba. So yes, Cubans are influencing the internal dynamics of other countries in Latin America, but that country is Venezuela.
Maybe it's not because of a lack of will or desire, it's a lack of real capacity. There is no objective indication that they are involved in everything that happens in the region.
Massive protests in Chile
Going back to Chile, what is your opinion on the reaction of the Piñera administration to the massive protests?
They have already reversed their initial reactions. The first one was to ignore the protests, the second one was to declare that they were at war. Both were a mistake. In their third try they got it right, which was to try to open a dialogue. It is going to be complicated for several reasons. The economic problem in Chile is a frustration of a segment of the population that sees itself on the doorstep of an improvement in life and does not manage to move on to it, in a country that has made much progress in recent decades. But there is also a problem of political dialogue; Chilean politics has not been renewed in a generation or more.
The Bachelet-Piñera-Bachelet-Piñera rhythm closed the doors to a whole political generation. New spaces must be opened for younger people to feel part of the political and social processes. You also see frustration there, and you've seen it before. The student mobilizations were also an expression of that. In addition to the specific issues of that moment, the claim was that the political process was - for structural and circumstantial reasons - a fairly closed system that did not open the doors to a new generation, which was the one that re-established democracy in that country.
This is evidenced by Piñera's lack of interlocutors in this crisis, unlike what happened in Ecuador.
Exactly. Precisely because of that, they are different. Therefore I say that we have to understand each conflict in its own terms. In Chile there is no obvious interlocutor and it is part of Piñera's difficulty in solving this crisis.
You said that it is necessary for democracy to provide other responses to social discontent. At the other end of the spectrum of these conflicts, can the Bolsonaro phenomenon in Brazil be understood as a reaction to this?
Absolutely. In the case of Brazil, an entire political and business generation was disqualified as a result of corruption. This is also happening in Peru, although more political than corporate. But the effect of disqualifying entire political generations opens a lot of space -on the right and left- for candidates and anti-system projects. Whether they are anti-system or whether they present themselves as such. That's one of the ways you can understand the Bolsonaro phenomenon and you can also understand the Trump phenomenon. There was also a challenge to the system here [in the U.S.] because of decades of frustration. In the American case there were two additional factors: a stagnation of the middle class, with real wages that have not grown since the early 1970s, and a profound demographic change. That causes a tension in which right-wing populism can offer a "response" that succeeds at the polls.
The effect of disqualifying entire political generations opens a lot of space -on the right and left- for candidates and anti-system projects. That's one of the ways you can understand the Bolsonaro and Trump phenomenon.
The Bolsonaro phenomenon can also be explained by the fact that the lack of political and economic responses has opened space for left-wing and right-wing populist candidates and proposals in the region and in many democratic countries of the world.
Dan Restrepo next to President Barack Obama on board Air Force One
Moving on to another of the conflicts in the region, how do you look at what is happening in Bolivia?
It is an attempt by Evo Morales to stay in power. Morales was able to go down in history as an important president, as an expression of the new democracy in Bolivia, but he decided to stay in power. And he turned his back on that possibility quite harshly. He opposed the will of the people on two occasions. First by ignoring the result of the referendum on re-election, and now with what seems to be a trap to avoid a second round in which he would not have done well. For Evo's legacy, it is a disastrous decision. And for Bolivia, it opens the door to a bigger, completely unnecessary social conflict.
If Macri's defeat in Argentina comes to fruition, do you think that a new center of power can be configured in the region, headed by Mexico's López Obrador and Alberto Fernández in Argentina?
This would obviously be an ideological change of course for Argentina, although the economic challenges facing the next president will be complex. But there is also a lack of synchronicity in the region's political movements. Maybe Mexico and Argentina changed course, but Brazil went the other way, Chile and Colombia and so on. And this underscores what I said when I started: it's important to understand what happens in each country in its own terms and how they express themselves politically is perhaps by reacting to similar dynamics but with different reactions.
If we look at the past twenty years what we see is more than anything an ideological alternation in the large countries of the region. At one time they were more synchronized than they are now, but neither represented a movement of the region in one direction. At the moment the region is not synchronized in the ideological sense, in the shifts we have seen in this electoral megacycle that closes this Sunday.
So, can there be well-differentiated blocs among the governments you mentioned? Can you imagine López Obrador leading a left-wing bloc?
López Obrador doesn't care about anything other than Mexico. He doesn't see himself as a Latin American leftist leader. He is first and foremost, Mexican and Tabasqueño. He is interested in what is happening in Mexico and has no regard for what is happening outside his country, including what is happening in the United States.
Lopez Obrador is in many ways a priísta of the 1970s, when Mexico was not very prominent outside of Mexico. In that sense, he is not a good interlocutor for someone who is looking to build a left-wing alliance in the region. It's going to be very difficult to build it with López Obrador because he's not interested.
The curious thing about López Obrador is that despite ideological changes in the countries of the Pacific Alliance, for example, Mexico did not leave the group. It also did not change from seeking a close economic relationship with the U.S., with the USMCA that he is trying to complete. And this underlines that national interests often function, at least implicitly, as a brake on ideological beliefs.
Bolsonaro is constantly talking about changing Mercosur if Alberto Fernández wins the Argentine election. But I very much doubt that there will be an economic rupture between Brazil and Argentina, as their economies are neighbors and they are not going anywhere. And the economic exchange that exists is going to continue. In the rhetorical framework there may be differences, but in the end, they have interests and those interests can be quite heavy.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador
What was the effect in the United States of the unsuccessful capture of Chapo Guzmán's son and the order to release him?
There was a great deal of concern on all sides. This is neither ideological nor partisan. The security crisis in Mexico should cause more concern in the U.S. than it does. What happened in Culiacan and what happened last week in Michoacan, where 14 police officers were killed, highlights a concern that has existed beneath the surface in the U.S. That the new Mexican government has not been very focused on the security issue and does not have a plan. The little plan they had - this is the discrepancy that exists in Washington - was to use the National Guard to deal with the security problems, but they have used that new resource to mitigate migration to the United States and avoid President Trump's foolishness.
Since you mention Trump, how do you see the Ukraine scandal and what do you think the consequences might be for Trump?
Trump is perhaps going through the toughest political time since he became president. The impeachment is real. I think it's more real than Trump expected. With negative consequences for him, in the sense that there is growing public support for the inquiry and the impeachment. And there is something growing, although I doubt it will happen, to remove him from the presidency. Trump still maintains support on the conservative base of the Republican Party, so I believe he will survive impeachment, but he will be just the third president in history to be tried by the House of Representatives. And I think that's going to hurt him politically in the run-up to the 2020 election. He understands it and doesn't know very well how to deal with it.
This has two interesting political implications. One is that for the first time in his presidency Trump has lost control of the narrative, he no longer marks the agenda from his Twitter account as he did up until a month ago. He still tries to do it, occasionally he wins half a day, but the political discussion right now is about the abuse of power in the Ukraine case.
The other is a very internal, American kind of impact. The fact that the impeachment will almost certainly go to the Senate and that Republican senators from moderate states who must be re-elected next year (Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia) must cast their vote not to convict Trump. It will be a very dangerous vote for them and can greatly affect Senate control after the elections. It puts Democrats' control of the Senate within reach, more than it was before the scandal. Two months ago, the Republicans were confident that they would win the Senate, no matter how the president came out. Today they are much more worried.
Finally, who do you see prevailing in the Democratic Party primary?
I think the primary is still in play. We have two well-defined candidates, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, and I think there's still room for a third. Today I think that's Pete Buttigieg, but his profile is yet to be determined. Most likely one of the top two will win. What I don't think will happen is Sanders, I think his moment passed. But it is difficult to say yet, there is a long way to go for the first caucus.
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