Jun 26 2012

Their Man on Havana (and Everywhere Else)

Michael Shifter, media’s conflicted Latin America expert

Michael Shifter--Photo Credit: Inter-American Dialogue

Michael Shifter–Photo Credit: Inter-American Dialogue

If you’re covering Latin America for U.S. corporate media, Michael Shifter is the person to turn to when you need a quote. Currently the president of the Inter-American Dialogue research group, Shifter offers soothing centrism about political developments across the region—giving reporters soundbites on everything from a papal visit to Cuba to elections in Argentina to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Readers might wonder how one expert could be so valuable to elite media. What these papers don’t reveal is that Shifter is also valuable to an array of international corporations who fund his think tank—along with several governments of the region he’s commenting on.

These financial connections are not a secret. In fact, they’re listed right on the Dialogue’s website. Named funders include the embassies of Chile, Guatemala and Mexico, as well as the Mexican government directly. The think tank—with an annual budget of over $4 million—also receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Canadian International Development Agency.

And Shifter’s group has deep ties to corporations that have obvious interests in the region he so frequently comments on. The group boasts a “Corporate Circle” reserved for “business and financial leaders who are committed to the region’s future and who want—on a continuing basis—opportunities to engage Latin America’s policymakers in frank discussions and dialogue.”

Members include representatives from dozens of high-profile companies like JP Morgan, Merck, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Pfizer and Chevron. They enjoy perks like conferences, private briefings with staff and “members-only executive newsletters.” Corporate memberships costs, according to the Dialogue’s website, $7,200.

When Shifter’s group is identified in media reports that cite him, readers are unlikely to learn any of this. It is “a nonpartisan policy group focused on the Western Hemisphere” (New York Times, 1/22/12), or “an organization of business, political and academic leaders that promotes democratic principles, social equity and regional economic cooperation” (New York Times, 6/28/08).

Given Shifter’s corporate and government ties, it’s unsurprising that his analysis for the media so neatly aligns with the media’s general take on Latin American politics. In a Washington Post column (5/28/00), Shifter criticized left-wing populists like Chávez for “attacking the old order and appealing directly to ‘the people.’” Shifter added that Chávez “has delivered little to his main constituency”—meaning the country’s poor masses. But at the time Chávez’s approval ratings were high, and the country had just overwhelmingly passed his new Constitution.

Writing a year after the abortive coup against Chávez (Washington Post, 4/21/02), Shifter noted that the president, “though Venezuela’s elected leader, has undermined his country’s democracy through his own policies.” In a column for the Foreign Affairs website (3/4/11) headlined “Hugo Stay Home,” he presented the Arab Spring uprisings as good news for Chávez, since they “keep international scrutiny away from Venezuelan’s authoritarian practices.”

And in an analysis of Peruvian presidential contender Ollanta Humala (Foreign Policy, 5/23/11), Shifter gauged whether he would be “reassuring to the markets.” The real point—a familiar theme in coverage of Latin America—was that Humala might signal a move away from Chávez-style socialism toward so-called pragmatic leftism, which “would be yet another major blow to Chávez and further evidence of his growing irrelevance in the region.”


Shifter’s business-friendlycentrism was evident elsewhere. The Washington Post (4/22/12) took a downbeat look at Argentina’s stubbornly leftward drift, particularly the decision to nationalize the country’s main oil company—a decision that reporter Juan Forero said illustrated “the gulf that exists between a group of nationalist countries led by charismatic populists and the economic centrists who govern much of the rest of the region, most notably in Brazil.” (See page 10.)

And sure enough there was Shifter, buttressing Forero’s storyline:

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Argentina’s move was an effort to scrape the barrel, collect much-neededfunding and buy time. It is a process, he said, that has taken place repeatedly in countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador and reflects what he calls a leftistpopulist movement “in disarray.”“There’s really no sense of forward movement, there’s no sense of moving toward fulfilling some alternative vision and some utopian ideal,” he said. “There is a sense of just stagnation and just trying to hold on to power, which is really not a very attractive leftist project.”

That corporate-friendly center-right view of the world is popular in elite media, which might explain why calling Shifter for a quote is such a routine part of covering the Latin America beat. What he says is very likely indistinguishable from the views of the monied interests backing his think tank. The existence of these ties is, at the very least, something readers of papers like the Washington Post and New York Times should know.