After 28 years at the Inter-American Dialogue and 12 years as its president, Michael Shifter is leaving at the end of 2021, just as the region faces some of its darkest days in modern history.
From a surge in COVID-19 infections to the continuing migration nightmare on the US border with Mexico, this year has been devastating—and it’s still only August. Multiple crises are currently making news throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including the worsening dictatorship in Nicaragua, fallout from the assassination of Haiti’s president, and a violent crackdown against anti-government protesters in Cuba.
“Latin America is not in good shape today,” Shifter said in an Aug. 6 phone interview. “Social conditions, already bad before the pandemic, have gotten a lot worse. There’s widespread discontent, and the demands of societies exceed the capacities of governments and political leaders to respond effectively.”
Asked why he’s leaving, the Latin America expert simply said: “Renewal is healthy. Everything is changing so fast in the world and this hemisphere, and it would be good for the organization to have some new energy and new ideas.”
A search is already underway to replace Shifter, who admits he has no clue what’s next.
“I really don’t have a clear idea what I’ll be doing,” he said. “What I do know is that I want to be engaged in the issues that I’ve always been passionate about in my career. Even if I wanted to, I could never liberate myself from that.”
Shifter, 66, is no stranger to the region.
Born and raised in East Rockaway, N.Y., he learned Spanish at the age of 14 while living in Mexico on an exchange program. He added Portuguese to his resume in 1972 as a student in Portugal. Shifter spent his third year of college in Colombia, went on to study sociology at Harvard, later taught there as a graduate student, and then lived in Venezuela, Peru and Chile.
In the early 1980s, when the Dialogue was established, Latin America’s biggest economies—Argentina, Brazil and Mexico—were cash-strapped, debt-ridden and beholden to the IMF. And the United States under President Reagan was actively supporting the government of El Salvador in its bloody war against leftist insurgents, while at the same time secretly funding contras hoping to overthrow Marxist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.
Ironically, one of the few countries doing well at the time was energy-rich Venezuela—which today, under the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro, is largely considered a failed state.
Region accounts for 32% of all COVID-19 deaths
Shifter joined the Dialogue in 1994 as a program director and became its president in April 2010. Over the years, Washington’s leading think tank devoted to Latin America has focused on several key themes including foreign investment, China’s growing clout in the region, US immigration policy and the scourge of corruption.
“The outlook today is somber. There are protests in the street in nearly all countries, whether their governments are of the left or the right,” he said. “What’s also a problem is the lack of integration among the countries. The pandemic was a test to see whether governments were able to work together to face this terrible shock that has ravaged the entire region. And the sad reality is that they did not come together. They looked inwards.”
In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean, with only 8% of the world’s population, accounts for more than 20% of global coronavirus infections and 32% of COVID-19 deaths worldwide, according to figures provided by the World Health Organization. Yet only one in 10 Latin Americans are fully vaccinated, and in some Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala, that number is less than 1%.
In Peru, more than 185,000 people (or just over 0.5% of the population) have died of COVID-19, giving it the world’s highest per-capita mortality rate from the disease.
One of the biggest failures of all, said Shifter, is Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
“Brazil is obviously a critical player, and to have a president who has terribly mismanaged the pandemic at the cost of many lives, and who denies climate change and who has intolerant positions towards Afro-Brazilians, women and the LGBT community, is a major setback for the entire hemisphere,” he said. “And Mexico’s [President Andrés Manuel] López Obrador also has not managed the pandemic very well.”
Crackdowns underway in Nicaragua and Cuba
In Nicaragua, where longtime Sandinista ruler Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term as president, opposition candidates have been arrested and independent journalists silenced well ahead of elections in November. On Aug. 7, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said he views the regime’s “latest undemocratic, authoritarian actions—driven by Ortega’s fear of an electoral loss—as the final blow against Nicaragua’s prospects for a free and fair election.”
Shifter called the situation there an “outrage” that belongs to a completely different era.
“It’s hard to fathom the campaign of terror happening in the 21st century,” he said. “But the United States seems relatively impotent in what it can do. Ortega is utterly defiant, and most of the rest of the region is quite indifferent, sadly. One would have expected a stronger reaction.”
Also unfortunate, Shifter said, is Latin America’s silence regarding the recent crackdown in Cuba, where unprecedented street protests broke out in mid-July. The demonstrations—some of the largest seen since communists came to power in 1959—were sparked by an economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, food shortages and continuing US sanctions.
Some of the demonstrators overturned police cars while others chanted “Libertád!” and demanded the resignation of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. The White House protested the regime’s detention of protesters, but as is the case with Nicaragua, said Shifter, Washington’s options are limited. However, that doesn’t mean the United States is powerless when it comes to the Cuba dilemma.
“The Biden administration’s agenda is driven largely by concerns about migration. That’s true in Central America, and also true given the crises in Haiti and Cuba. The administration wants to support democracy in both places, but domestic politics is paramount,” Shifter said, adding that he’s disappointed that “Biden didn’t keep his campaign promise of relaxing restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban-Americans.”
Leadership Awards Gala set for Sept. 28
One of Shifter’s last official duties as president of Inter-American Dialogue will be to oversee the organization’s annual Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala, scheduled for Sept. 28.
The event, to be held outdoors at the Woodrow Wilson Plaza, will honor Blanca Treviño, CEO of Mexico’s Softtek, for “distinguished leadership for civic engagement.” Likewise, Feliciano Reyna, founder and executive president of Venezuela’s Acción Solidaria, will be recognized for “distinguished leadership for humanitarian service.”
The presenter will be Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, chief of staff to First Lady Jill Biden, and the master of ceremonies will be Pati Jinich, chef, author and host of “Pati’s Mexican Table.” Top corporate sponsors include Chevron, Grupo Vidanta, Jamaica National Group, Nippon Koei LAC and PepsiCo; other sponsors range from China Telecom Corp. to the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation.
Award winners Treviño and Reyna will be in good company. Previous honorees include Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Fernando Henriques Cardoso of Brazil and Felipe González of Spain; US Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia); Luís Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank; and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick.
Asked if there are any bright spots amid the gloom and doom, Shifter pointed to the resilience of Latin American civil society in general.
“Most governments throughout the region are elected, and that’s not true in much of the rest of the world. Economically, the region contracted by over 7% in 2020, so there’s going to be a bounce. But estimates are that the pre-pandemic economy won’t come back until 2023 or 2024,” he said.
Shifter added that “there’s a basis for optimism as well in Chile,” where 155 delegates—78 men and 77 women—are currently drafting a new constitution. “Even though it’s going through a very challenging period, if Chile comes out well, it could be a reference for the rest of the region.”