Monday, April 24, 2017

Cuban TV and U.S. Soft Power

Cuban state television is trying to get slicker and more immediate to attract young Cubans. There are limits, of course, because of what the state will allow you to say, and the young people working there harbor no illusions in that regard, but feel they can push the envelope at least a little bit.

This is also where U.S. soft power should come in. Old-style, rabidly anti-Castro transmissions seemed to have little impact in the past and certainly will have minimal effect now. I would guess young Cubans want to hear about the future, not about the Cold War. They don't want to hear about the Bay of Pigs. There are a lot of things that could connect the U.S. and young Cubans, even as simple as hip-hop or sports. That's the audience we want to engage.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Cixin Liu's Death's End

Death's End (translated in 2016) is the third in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy and it is incredible. Its scope is immense, centering on the "dark forest" problem in the universe, namely that civilizations immediately try to destroy each other when they discover a sign of life. Therefore often the best idea is to hide. This third book is by far the best, and somehow manages to both be apocalyptic and hopeful. After reading, you'll be reminded (or at least I was) of how your life is both meaningless and meaningful at the same time.

He deftly deals with the politics and religion of coming into contact with hostile forces. First earth tries a UN-type unified response, but over time that breaks down and there are violent clashes that result as humans try to figure out the best way to continue the species (this was the key theme in Book 1 as well). Deterrence was an important theme in Book 2 and its ramifications continue into Book 3. Religious beliefs shift and adapt, always looking in vain for a savior. Eventually a lot of human attention is spent on trying to make sure humans and Earth are remembered at all.

The science is remarkable. Discussions of light speed, dimensions (two-dimensional space becomes a major part of the story) and the structure of the universe itself are intense but not overwhelming. Lastly, it makes you wonder whether we should make any effort to find extraterrestrial life. It might not turn out well.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Maduro and Trump Hate Legitimate Protests

From Nicolás Maduro:

"The U.S. government, the State Department has given the green light, the approval for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela," President Nicolas Maduro said, speaking from the Miraflores Palace. 
... 
The “scenario” Maduro referred to consists in generating violence and deaths before blaming the Venezuelan government for allegedly violently attacking political opponents. Then the plot leaders would demand immediate elections, ahead of Maduro's official end of term in 2019.

From Donald Trump:



The nonsense is the same, and it is also self-defeating because assuming you believe your own nonsense it means underestimating your real opposition. It constitutes an effort to portray legitimate opposition to legitimately polarizing policies as paid for by outside agitators. Neither president is capable of self-reflection, through some combination of narcissism and desperation.

The Maduro one is worse, though, because it claims there is an evil plot to...have democratic elections as the constitution provides. The horror!

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Venezuela Protests

There will be dueling protests in Venezuela today. The opposition wants massive turnout, while the government is trying to turn out its own supporters and deploy colectivos basically to intimidate people. Nicolás Maduro has made creepy reference to handing guns to civilian militia as well, with a "civil military plan." That can't mean anything good.

I feel like the opposition's main hope at this point is to increase the number of soft-liners within the government in order to make it follow the constitution. We already know there are fault lines. Those soft-liners have no love for the opposition (which, I would think, holds them back) but they value democracy. They see the devastation around them and when combined with large numbers of Venezuelans on the streets, they find it harder to stand behind Maduro. Some of these soft-liners are undoubtedly in the military as well, though how that plays out is unpredictable because it depends a lot on rank.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Trump and MS-13

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan prioritized funding the civil war in El Salvador, which was extraordinarily violent and prompted large scale emigration. Many migrants went to California, especially Los Angeles, where over 30 years ago they formed gangs like MS-13 as a means of protecting themselves from existing gangs. Over time members of MS-13 became entrenched in their communities and spread out across the country. Prior to the civil war, there had not been a large migrant stream from El Salvador. This was a phenomenon created by U.S. foreign policy, specifically the Reagan administration.

This process began when Barack Obama entered his 20s. But, naturally, he is to blame.



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Monday, April 17, 2017

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

I hadn't read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (originally published in 1953) in many years. It's still so relevant for today. Not simply for the idea of book burning/banning, which of course is central to the story and is timeless, but for the idea of numbing oneself with entertainment. A major theme is how many people accepted the idea that thinking hard about difficult issues and dealing with complexity were overwhelming. Entertainment, which actually interacted with you through huge screens on the wall, made you feel good. By banning books the state was just making your life a lot easier.

Even going out for walks was unusual and people who did so were targeted, even for death. If you're out walking with only your own thoughts, you must be dangerous. Anytime you stopped being entertained, you might think. Children were therefore taken away right after birth, so they could be properly taught to be entertained and learn not to see more than one side of a story.

And, finally, professors are the main targets. Bradbury would fully understand the attacks on the humanities and on academia in general.

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North Korea Crisis is not Cuban Missile Crisis

Comparisons across time are never perfect but they can serve to give us a grip on current events. By the same token, inapt comparisons can make things more confusing. That is the case with comparing the U.S.-North Korea confrontation right now with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which The New York Times is pushing.

While all historical analogies are necessarily imprecise — for starters, President John F. Kennedy dealt with the Soviets and Fidel Castro in a perilous 13 days in 1962, while the roots of the Korean crisis go back a quarter-century — one parallel shines through. When national ambitions, personal ego and deadly weapons are all in the mix, the opportunities for miscalculation are many.

I don't see anything shining. The Cuban Missile Crisis had its roots in the Bay of Pigs, which JFK inherited and did not want. The North Korea situation now has its roots in Donald Trump's undiplomatic and unwise tweeting. JKF's ego/manliness was not particularly tied to the crisis--he felt he had to respond because in the Cold War context, he would get hammered at home and, he felt, the Soviets would feel emboldened.

Timing is therefore a lot different. Trump could've achieved a lot more by staying quiet and working with the Chinese. Instead, I get the impression that he's following some predetermined series of negotiation steps that worked when he built apartments in New Jersey or something. He actually intentionally sparked this crisis himself when he didn't need to. I can't imagine JFK wanting to do the same with Cuba, which he preferred not to hassle with.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved by skillful back-channel diplomacy. Since "skillful" does not apply to the current administration's diplomatic repertoire, we can only hope someone with sense is given the task of working with the North Koreans through the Chinese. And indeed, that is the other problem with the comparison--we don't have easy back-channel avenues for North Korea.

Instead, we have Mike Pence going to the DMZ and talking tough:

"We're going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience. But we're going to redouble our efforts to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on North Korea. Our hope is that we can resolve this issue peaceably," Pence said in an exclusive interview at the DMZ.

I have no idea what "this issue" is. There are myriad issues with North Korea and the U.S. cannot force any of them without going to war. With JFK, there was only one issue--remove the missiles. I doubt North Korea even knows what Trump wants. I am not sure Trump knows what Trump wants. That's really the problem.


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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Racism and Latinos in Baseball

More than ever, there is talk of Latino players "playing with emotion." More specifically, we hear how this has discomfited white players, especially older ones.

Some of it is just youth. Hall of Famer John Smoltz, for example, said, "I lean towards being professional." That itself was in response to Goose Gossage, who whined about Bryce Harper not having respect for baseball.

But most of it is focused on Latino players. José Bautista's bat flip in the 2015 playoffs is now iconic, and ignited a debate that continues.


via GIPHY


For U.S.-born white players, this was disrespectful. Exactly why a brief moment of exhilaration was disrespectful is never explained. It goes under the two categories of "unwritten rules" and "this is the way we've always done it." Under these rules, you show no emotion and then fight if someone slips up and lets a little emotion out. Now these immigrants are bringing their foreign ways.

The World Baseball Classic this year may have started a shift, because there was a lot of attention paid to the Latin American teams. But Smoltz again had to put his foot in his mouth:

But Smoltz's comment there, that "a lot of these guys are enjoying themselves, maybe they'll get it out of their system in about two weeks" -- that's pretty much the whole baseball thing right now, isn't it? The whole culture war in baseball, the "keep millennials engaged" business, the how-do-we-keep-the-game-relevant discussion … you can see the whole damned fight in that comment.

And so did Ian Kinsler:

“I hope kids watching the W.B.C. can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays,” Kinsler said. “That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

Somehow having fun is a problem. But the word "appreciate" is code for "professional." Showing emotion is unprofessional. White players do it right. Latino players do it wrong. But there are good signs. From former player Eric Karros:

“When I played (I was) very old school as far as you don’t show anybody up,” Karros said. “I was a non-emotional guy, very stoic. The irony now as a fan and as a player I like that bat flip. Now, if I were playing it wouldn’t be happening. But I think I’ve come to a point where I kinda like that sort of stuff and it adds some energy.

We can only hope this is spreading. I feel like it will, for demographic reasons if no other. The number of Latino players is increasing, as is the size of the overall Latino population. This could well the last gasp of uptight whiteness.

Let's stop worrying about bat flips and excitement. Anyhow, we all know the best way to put an end to it is to stop giving homers.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

George Orwell's Why I Write

Why I Write is a nice little collection of four George Orwell essays, with the second (The Lion and the Unicorn) being the longest by far.

"Why I Write"

Orwell describes how not until his 30s (with the Spanish Civil War) did he finally understand why he needed to write: "against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it" (p. 8). And I love this quote:

So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information (p. 9).

"The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius"

This is a lengthy treatise on what is means to be British, with World War II has the backdrop. His appraisal of Neville Chamberlain could also work for Donald Trump: "His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it was far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights. It is difficult otherwise to explain the contradictions of his policy, his failure to grasp any of the courses that were open to him" (p. 28). Yet as critical as he is, he has complete disdain for whiny intellectuals who offer no constructive suggestions, largely because they know they'll never have the responsibility of actually making decisions.

He bogs down in his discussion of the superiority of socialism over capitalism, because writing during the war (the essay was published in 1940) he is focused on Germany's advantages and argues that capitalism is incompatible with building a war force. The U.S. has shown clearly that profit and war can go together perfectly, and indeed too perfectly.* Orwell was quite wrongly convinced that winning the war would open people's eyes to the benefits of a more planned economy. Thomas Piketty wrote about how world war was critical for reducing inequality, but Orwell mistakes that for radical ideological change.

It gets hard, frankly, to square Orwell's excitement about a planned economy with his stated disgust for totalitarianism. He never discusses, for example, who makes decisions and what happens if people elect someone who wants to overturn it all. His discussion of India's inability to be independent is also both wrong and condescending. Ironically, both in essays and novels Orwell was very good at knowing what he was against but his vision of what should be is hazy.

"A Hanging" 

A short piece on the barbaric yet bureaucratic process of the British Empire executing prisoners in Burma. We don't even know what the individual did, but we know it was rather a bother to kill people sometimes because it delays breakfast.

"Politics and the English Language"

In this essay Orwell claims the English language is dying, and chooses a few politically-oriented passages to criticize as illustration. Some of these come from professors (even *cough* a political theorist) and communists, neither of which has ever been known to be proficient in the art of writing, so it's a straw man argument from the start. He starts to sound like Ernest Hemingway with his directness mandates.

But his basic instructions make sense. Avoid overused phrases and pretentious diction, for example. Though I must say his list of pretentious words (element, eliminate, etc.) seem pretty mundane to me. He even hates cul de sac and everyone calls it that, so I guess on this one the dictionary won and he lost. He says that "fascism" has little real meaning so should be avoided, which I agree with for today, though of course his earlier essay worked to precisely define the term.

*Just after publishing I discovered one of my colleagues in History, Mark Wilson, recently published an award-winning book on this very topic.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Immigrants in Argentina

Thanks to my student Nashaly Ruiz-González for pointing out this article about the mirror image of the immigration debates in the United States and in Argentina. Mauricio Macri has been aping Donald Trump's anti-immigrant language and policy, and is also getting an indignant response. There were recently protests/strikes to highlight how much immigrants do in Argentina.


"Soy mexicano, soy peruana, soy boliviano, soy psicóloga, soy costurera, soy estudiante.... soy migrante. También aporto a tu economía, a tu cultura, a tu sociedad", sintetiza una convocatoria replicada en las redes sociales.

Just like the U.S., Argentina is a country of immigrants but more hostile to the non-white variety.

Update: Fittingly, Macri will be heading to the White House in a few weeks. They have a lot in common.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Impeachment and Presidentialism

In our podcast conversation, Leiv Marsteintredet and I talked a little about how presidential impeachment in Latin America had become like the equivalent of a parliamentary no-confidence vote, something I've blogged about before.

We also talked about the 2009 coup in Honduras, which occurred in part because there was no impeachment process that could be followed. Another part of that was the fact that there was no legal way to really deal with proposing changes to presidential terms. We both knew the latter had changed, but weren't sure about impeachment. But impeachment was indeed added to the constitution in 2013.

Leiv has argued that Latin American presidentialism has become more flexible over time, which has decreased military intervention. One problem for Honduras in 2009 is that its institutions were inflexible.

But this raises important questions about process. Should it be OK to resolve institutional conflict through impeachment, even if the dispute is over policy rather than crimes? We know Dilma Rousseff was not being accused directly of a crime--she was removed for policy reasons. Does it damage democracy over the long-term or should we accept it as an unpleasant but useful way to avoid military intervention or just violence in general? In other words, is acceptance corrosive?

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 31: Presidentialism in Latin America

In Episode 31 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Leiv Marsteintredet, who is Associate Professor of Latin American Area Studies at the University of Oslo. His main areas of study are presidentialism and constitutionalism in Latin America. I ask him about whether presidentialism is in crisis (or whether it's just always in crisis) and how this plays out across the region.


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Friday, April 07, 2017

ISIS in Latin America

Reading Admiral Kurt Tidd’s 2017 Posture Statement for U.S. Southern Command, two things jump out at me. First, there are repeated mentions of budget constraints. Second, there are repeated mentions of Middle Eastern terrorists, including ISIS. In short, at least from the outside this sounds like a way to get Donald Trump’s (or at least Jared Kushner’s) attention at a time when he is talking about increasing military budgets and ISIS.

Right off the bat:

Threat networks engage in a range of destabilizing illicit activities that further dangerous ideologies or generate profit. Violent extremist organizations like ISIS seek to radicalize and recruit vulnerable populations in the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. Hezbollah members, facilitators, and supporters engage in licit and illicit activities in support of the organization, moving weapons, cash, and other contraband to raise funds and build Hezbollah’s infrastructure in the region.

That’s some serious red meat right there. When John Kelly (who of course is now Secretary of Homeland Security) did his last posturestatement, he definitely discussed Middle Eastern terrorism but couched it with phrases like “we have not yet seen evidence of this occurring.” But if you need money and money might be available, you do away with the nuance.

So we have a gradual expansion of SouthCom talking about such terrorists as more of an imminent threat in Latin America, which gets both the right and the alt-right excited. Go ahead and work with allies; go ahead and disrupt the financial networks. Just don't make this an excuse for ill-conceived intervention.



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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Venezuelans Like Their Legislature

The Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt has some brand new (October 2016-January 2017) survey data from Venezuela. Mariana Rodríguez and Liz Zechmeister just published a new AmericasBarometer Insights paper (it's been a while since one was published, so this was welcome). They show Venezuelans strongly disapprove of closing the legislature (a question they actually use in their normal battery, so obviously it's good to have in there).



As a matter of fact, over the past few years Venezuelans have increased their trust in the legislature:



We can reasonably argue that the executive branch attacks on the legislature have made it more popular. The authors further conclude that the recent attack will likely make Nicolás Maduro less popular. Since only 17% of Venezuelans think he is doing a "good" or "very good" job, he can't go a heck of a lot further down.

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Nica Act

The U.S. Congress has revived the Nica Act from last year, while making it more stringent. The idea is that the United States should block international loans if Daniel Ortega doesn't follow some required conditions. An initial version passed the House in late 2016 but didn't get further than that. The new version has more conditions. From Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's own description, arguing that it's the same for other countries:

The act placed numerous conditions on aid for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador including certification that the governments were taking effective steps to address 16 conditions, including combating corruption, protecting human rights, combat human smuggling and trafficking, and improving border security.

Nicaragua is a poor country and I don't tend to see depriving the poor as a great way of fostering democratization. It also has more than a whiff of forcing drug tests on welfare recipients. Plus, unless I am missing something, Ros-Lehtinen is talking about aid, whereas the bill is about loans. It's worth noting that some in the Nicaraguan opposition thinks it matters, though.

I am liable to listen to Luis Almagro, clearly no shrinking violet on such matters, who does not support it.

The OAS General Secretariat considers that the bill, in the context of the present legislature, is not a productive contribution to the tasks that the Government of Nicaragua and the this General Secretariat are carrying out in terms of cooperation for democratic, electoral and institutional strengthening in the country, that have as a direct reference the principles and values of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan government issued a flowery and lengthy denunciation.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Crazy Wall Ideas

The bids for Donald Trump's wall are now in, and some of the companies have released descriptions of their proposals. The upshot is that they're insane.

Imagine making the wall a tourist attraction. Perhaps sip a cold beer (maybe even a Mexican beer) at the top of the wall while you stare off into the desert.

Imagine storing nuclear waste inside it. Kinda like a moat, maybe?

Imagine it containing artifacts. I'm not sure how that works, maybe it's embedded. Even worse, the artifacts might be Mexican.

Imagine making it really slippery, with some sort of constantly flowing slime.

Or, conversely, imagine no wall at all but a bunch of libraries and cultural centers. That too is a proposal, and probably one of the more sane ones.

This is what we're currently doing in the United States of America.

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