Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Latin America Appointees

Kudos to Chris Sabatini and Latin America Goes Global for keeping everyone updated on who will fill the Latin America positions in the Trump administration. Here's the latest post.

The nominee for the key National Security Council post appears to be Juan Cruz, who was the CIA Director for Latin America but who Mark Feierstein says is pragmatic. In the same article, Dan Restrepo also spoke highly of him. But then here's this gem:


"I don't know his ideology," he said. "Those guys are paid not to let on, so it's hard to tell." 
Univision was unable to find a photograph of Cruz or any reference to him on the internet, a testament to his spycraft.
OK, that's a bit much. But it does mean we just don't know what his advice to Trump will be like. Just as we already know that Trump may or may not listen to what his advisors say.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cuban Government Goes Outside DC

The Cuban government has always understood U.S. politics better than the vast majority of Americans. It (really, meaning Fidel Castro) knew how the president must deal with public opinion, how parties interacted, how the executive-legislative relationship functioned, and how interest groups interacted at all levels.* So it's not surprising now that Cuban diplomats, led by Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas (also active on Twitter), have been going all over the United States, to universities and local governments, even in places like Montana, to introduce people to Cuba and thereby try to make it harder for the Trump administration to roll back President Obama's reforms.

This is smart, because it's outside DC that Cuba can really make a case. Governors of both parties from farm states have been traveling and selling to Cuba for years. Farmers don't care about the revolution, or the Bay of Pigs, or anything else. Mayors want to know how to better serve their constituents. Universities want travel, cultural exchange, and discussion. So yes, you have lobbyists like everyone else, but you campaign and make yourself visible. All of these activities help increase the political cost for rolling back normalization.

*read Back Channel to Cuba to see how Fidel mentioned these things in messages to U.S. presidents.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Latin America Economic Forecast

There is a new IMF economic forecast for Latin America, and after years of reading and blogging about them, I can say they vary little. In fact, one of my goals when I teach Latin American Politics is to drive home the basic argument:

Growth is up when commodity prices are up

Growth is down when commodity prices are down

See how easy that is? Latin America is a commodity-dependent region, period.

But there is a new and ugly twist.

The outlook and risks for Central America and Mexico are being influenced by their exposure to the United States through trade, migration, and foreign direct investment. Mexico’s real GDP growth is expected to decelerate to 1.7 percent in 2017. Uncertainty about future trade relations with the United States and higher borrowing costs are expected to more than offset the positive effect from stronger U.S. growth.

Sadly, the Trump administration is hurting Latin American economies just from uncertainty and incompetence.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black

I read Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black. It's a white guy who grew up in the South making a good effort to figure out integration, based on the epiphany that he has no black friends.

It's earnest and informative, but scattered. He moves around the South, looking at unexpected twists and turns (such as reasons why some black communities resisted integration). The beginning is partly his story because it involves interviewing people he knew, but then moves on to other areas.

The book really calls out for structure, some way to show how all this fits together in a coherent way, but there isn't any. If you want to read some mostly interesting but sometimes wandering stories, then great. If you want to finish the book with a new way of thinking about integration, then it's not that useful.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Podcast Episode 34: Violence Against Journalists in Mexico

In Episode 34 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Jan-Albert Hootsen, who is Mexico Correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Trouw and America Magazine. As you might guess, he’s been focusing a lot on how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Mexico, and that’s the topic of conversation. Among other things, we talk about the murder of Javier Valdez and the complicity of the Mexican government (at all levels and across parties).


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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Roots of the Venezuelan Crisis

John Polga-Hecimovich has a nice article (detailed and loaded with links) on the historical roots of the Venezuelan crisis. He discusses partyarchy and its disintegration, oil dependence, elections, and poor economic decision-making. One lesson in particular that he draws caught my attention.


Politically, it suggests that free and fair elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy, and that democracy requires effective ongoing citizen participation, political representation, and political equality.

In my Latin American Politics class, we use the concept of "polyarchy" as a starting point. Are there elections and competition? From there you can start talking about representation, individual liberties, and so on. So I agree with his point.

But I also think we need to emphasize that free and fair elections are critical. They are central to legitimacy, and right now the Venezuelan government is suffering badly from illegitimacy. Indeed, elections are central to the entire crisis because blocking them is what has intensified the opposition to the government.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

What's Missing From Venezuela Explanations

When I discuss the Cuban Revolution in my Latin American Politics class, I always make sure to spend time talking about why it was popular and what programs Cubans liked. If you don't do this, students are left with the impression that it never had any foundations of support, which is false. This is the problem with yesterday's New York Times "interpreter" article about the development of the Venezuelan.

It becomes a presentist argument, where you use today's sensibilities to understand the past. Right now there are mass protests and even lots of Chavistas are unhappy. But rewind a decade and that's not the case. Hugo Chávez won elections all the time. People were lifted out of poverty. There are many popular social programs that poor Venezuelans appreciated. The article suggests that a majority of Venezuelans have been been outraged since Day One.

This isn't a normative argument (i.e. whether you approved of Chávez or not, or even Fidel Castro) but an empirical one, and it is separate from the question of democracy being eroded. Without widespread popular support, Chávez couldn't have ruled as he did. That should be part of the narrative.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Communists Write to Maduro

There is still a Communist Party in the United States, and it has translated (or at least approvingly published) an open letter to the government of Nicolás Maduro written by the Venezuelan Communist Party. Once you wade through the jargon, the message really is that all moderates need to be kicked out and radical forces should clamp down hard on all non-radicals. Then you've got "peace" (I will leave you to decide what "peace" means).

At the same time, in the context of a wavering and indecisive petty bourgeoisie in power, we call upon the most class conscious and militant sectors of the popular and workers’ movements, the peasantry, the middle strata, the revolutionary intellectuals and the patriotic officers to forge a block of forces to lead the wide patriotic, anti-imperialist alliance. Such and alliance must halt the seditious plans of the pro-US right and displace the reformist-appeasement sectors in government, which tend to favor the interests of the big capitalists and form pacts with social democratic elements of the right wing.  
Only an broad, popular unity, led by the organized and conscious working class can guarantee the defense of the Bolivarian nation and the deepening of the revolutionary changes towards the real construction of socialism on strong scientific foundations.
This is a step that Chavista leaders have never wanted to take, perhaps because the current system allows so much self-enrichment. But Hugo Chávez himself talked about "21st Century Socialism" as distinct from the 20th century, and therefore not in line with the Communists. At this point if the government cracks down harder, it's out of desperate self-preservation rather than ideological purity.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Another Venezuelan Scapegoat

Nicolás Maduro fired his Health Minister, presumable for telling the truth that infant and maternal mortality jumped, while malaria and diphtheria were also more prevalent.

In a move that Donald Trump would be proud of, Venezuelan state media reports that Tareck Al Assaimi made the announcement on Twitter (here's the tweet). There is no official reason.

Of course, ministers are routinely sacked when a problem pops up. It gives the impression of doing something. In this case, however, it immediately boomerangs right back at Maduro, whose policies have been generating shortages. I assume the lesson for the next minister is to never release any statistics. The government is already famous for not wanting to release inflation statistics. In general, statistics of any kind make the government look really bad.

Update: even UNICEF is talking about the data. Yet another reason the government will try to find ways to suppress the release of any more.

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Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (2004) immediately both hit me with irony and made me think I wish more people write such books. It's a short collection of essays, simply listing the books he bought and the books he read, with discussion, including personal stuff that pops up and admitting how many of the bought books were not yet read. That's reality.

My only quibble is that Hornby is less funny than he appears to think he is. I may well be guilty of the same, but I've never published a book of personal essays. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and would buy another (he has several such books, it seems).

But the irony is that because of a receipt I stuck in the book, I know I bought it from The Last Word used bookstore here in Charlotte (not far from UNC Charlotte, great store). Anyway, I bought the book over two months ago and basically forgot about it. I found it cleaning up my desk at home and then finally read it.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump Negotiates NAFTA

Donald Trump recently had an interview with The Economist and talked quite a bit about NAFTA. Besides the almost entirely inarticulate discussion about his goals, one particularly interesting point is that Trump, the master negotiator, seems not to understand that the leaders of Canada and Mexico are coordinating against him.

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. I was going to send them a letter, then after six months, it’s gone. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to…they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

What's amazing is that Trump thinks this is amazing, when in fact he's getting played.

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Military Spending in Latin America

Elizabeth Gonzalez at AS/COA has a nice post on military spending in Latin America, using SIPRI data. Some highlights:

--Colombia spends a higher percentage of its GDP on the military than the United States. It should be a goal to reduce that drastically with the peace process underway.

--Venezuela's spending fell 56% last year, the largest decrease in the world. This is not good news for the government because lower level officers who struggle to pay the bills and buy food will not be particularly loyal.

--as a percentage of GDP, Honduras is fifth in the region (1.6%), which doesn't bode well for human rights and democracy in a country where both are weak.

--Only Colombia and Argentina increased military spending last year, which is good, though there is no particular reason for Argentina to do so.

--as you might guess, the biggest drops overall were in oil-producing countries.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 33: The CIA and Latin American Intellectuals in the Cold War

In Episode 33 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Patrick Iberwho is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at El Paso (but soon to be at the University of Wisconsin. He studies the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, and is the author of Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (you can see my review here). I wasn't sure what to title this one--we talk about his book, which is about intellectuals and Cold War funding from the U.S. and USSR in Latin America, but also about his experiences on and off the tenure track.


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Walk Loud and Don't Bother With The Stick

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Francisco Palmieri, laid out some of the elements in Donald Trump's Latin America policy.  He focused on Cuba and Venezuela.

--The administration will be unveiling "changes" to the Obama administration's Cuba policy, to somehow be more focused on human rights.

--Trump is "concerned" about Venezuela and thinks the solution is "more democracy."

There are no details and little chance Trump is paying all that much attention to Latin America, which is good. The best case scenario is that Trump does very little and then proclaims victory, which has been a common pattern for him. I think it is also the most likely scenario.

Yes, H.R. McMaster met with Julio Borges and Trump talked to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as well about Venezuela. Absent a Latin American response, however, there is not much Trump can or should do. Actually, a better way of putting this is that I do not think Trump is capable of doing anything more positive. It is better to very little than to do something counterproductive. He can feel free to claim credit if he wants.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Tresquintos On The Chilean Presidential Race

Tresquintos is a site dedicated to political forecasting in Chile, run by Kenneth Bunker. They just published numbers on the presidential race (which will be in November 2017).



The upshot is that Sebastián Piñera is the favorite to win the first round, but only has a 33.9% chance of winning more than 40%. They estimate he'll get between 36.3% and 42.6%.

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Monday, May 08, 2017

Rick Waddell Is Out

Back in March I wrote a post about General Rick Waddell, who looked to be the next choice as Latin America expert on the National Security Council. Now Chris Sabatini points to the news that Waddell is out.

And finally, the White House chief of staff himself blocked McMaster this month from hiring Brigadier General Ricky Waddell as his deputy, complaining that McMaster failed to seek approval for that pick. McMaster had asked his inherited deputy to leave by May 10; she is now expected to stay on for the time being.

This is funny because as I noted, Waddell's own book showed very strong Trump-like proclivities. Now he appears to be the victim of infighting, which is always bad for presidents but seems especially intense in the chaotic and highly personalized Trump White House.

Now who? The number of people with knowledge of Latin America (I think H.R. McMaster is too professional to allow anything else), willing to serve Trump, and able to please everyone such that they pass muster is not especially large. Keep your eyes on Chris' list, I suppose, which is a good place to start.

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Perceptions of U.S. Policy in Venezuela

Uruguay's Frente Amplio passed a motion in its party congress condemning U.S. policy toward Venezuela:

Con una moción aprobada tras una jornada de debates y reflexiones, el movimiento político destacó que como parte de las intenciones del imperialismo estadounidense buscan "satanizar" a Venezuela y aislarlo en la región, como lo hicieron con Cuba. 

The motion goes on to cite U.S. Cold War policy, which in many ways is both common and unfortunate. Unlike Cuba back then, the U.S. is a minor player in the Venezuela crisis. Unlike Cuba, the U.S. president has no interest in Venezuela. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela is not a pawn in a global ideological battle. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela chose to leave the OAS. Unlike Cuba, the Venezuelan president is deeply unpopular. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela's democracy has gradually been eroded. And so on.

It's tempting to slap Cold War comparisons together in large part because it's so easy. You have to then assume that Dwight W. Eisenhower and Barack Obama are essentially interchangeable and their historical contexts irrelevant, but that's a small price to pay for a neat and tidy comparison. The U.S. wanted to destroy the Cuban revolution; the U.S. wants to destroy the Venezuelan revolution. Once you take that leap, then you can also enjoy a swim in conspiratorial waters, like giving cancer to Hugo Chávez.

But if you want to understand the crisis and the U.S. response to it, Cold War comparisons lead you astray pretty much immediately. And the U.S. isn't isolating Venezuela. It's isolating itself.


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Saturday, May 06, 2017

What "Dialogue" Should Mean in Venezuela

A few days ago Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, had a Twitter thread about the need to reassure possible dissenters in the Venezuelan military. When people write about what needs to happen, we often hear about "dialogue." That conjures up images of having the opposition and government leaders sit down and talk. Typically we would think that such talk focuses on points of disagreement and compromise solutions to move forward. But as the crisis deepens, that makes no sense anymore.

Instead, dialogue should really consist of the opposition sending strong, clear, and targeted signals to members of the government, both civilian and military. Steve Levitsky talks about elite defection in a New York Times article today.


“Defection is harder when the other side isn’t just some guy you disagree with about tax policy but rather is the enemy,” Mr. Levitsky said. “Moving to opposition, calling for Maduro’s fall, is still akin to treason. That atmosphere makes defection much harder.”

In other words, it is time for the opposition to reassure potential Chavista defectors. They may be nervous about the situation but more nervous about what the opposition will do to them if they break ranks. But if they break ranks in large numbers, then the government loses its moral authority, so the opposite should encourage it.

This is the same dynamic that civilian opposition had when trying to end military dictatorships in Latin America. An essential difference, though, is that the crimes of those regimes revolved around torture and murder. In Venezuela it is mostly corruption and drug trafficking, so it's potentially easier to accept the possible lack of accountability. The ultimate goal is a presidential election, and swallowing the freedom of some drug traffickers and money launderers may well be worth achieving it.

A final note is that even if you reassure them now, it's entirely possible--maybe even likely--that they will be tried eventually. Another lesson from Latin America is that memories are long, and courts are stronger than you think. The question, then, is whether that possible long-term accountability is enough to convince the opposite to lure Chavistas away from the government.

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is essentially a novel of slavery in a totalitarian system. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov was put in a work camp in Siberia for having been been taken as a POW by the Germans in World War II, which prompted the state to label him a spy. The book is literally the depiction of one full day in the camp, from waking up to going to bed.

Beyond the clear political importance of the novel, which showed the brutality of Stalin and which therefore was a part of the reforms enacted by Khrushchev, you see what forced labor does to people. They were worked very hard in bitterly cold conditions, and spent much of their time figuring out ways to play the system. How to get slightly more food, how to stay warm, how to get some tobacco, whose palm to grease, all of which risk being put in solitary confinement. Escape is not possible because there's nowhere to go. Therefore you find small measures of personal contentment wherever you can.

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