Friday, May 26, 2017

Electoral Fun in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro had announced a constitutional assembly, and now Anabella Abadi and Francisco Toro have a discussion of the electoral rules. The clear problem is simple:


how do you take 10-15% support in the opinion polls and turn that into 50%+1 of the seats in an elected Assembly?

Doing so requires creativity and by necessity also requires complexity. You have to advantage rural areas and specific groups of people, which means malapportionment. You may remember that malapportionment has been a key feature of the Venezuelan electoral system for years, including under Hugo Chávez, meaning that opposition votes have long been worth less. The main difference is that Chávez had a solid foundation of support to begin with.

This is a desperate and ad hoc effort to slap some facade of legitimacy on a crumbling government. And given the intensity of political conflict now, who knows whether the unwieldy body will ever actually meet.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fox Trolls Trump

We live in such strange times. Disparaging U.S. presidents is not new--just think back to Hugo Chávez's famous "devil" speech at the United Nations but it's been focused on ideology and foreign policy. Nowadays Donald Trump is universally the source of jokes and criticism. Left, right, doesn't matter.

The current example is that former Mexican President Vicente Fox made a video for Donald Trump, mocking him and "the bees buzzing inside your brain," complete with the camera focusing on a piece of chocolate cake. It is quite insulting. He then put it on Twitter, complete with bad English.



Fox has been trolling Trump for a while, This takes it all one step further by actually having a full production, with script and everything.

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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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Friday, May 05, 2017

Weak Regional Response to Venezuela Crisis

The Colombian government posted a statement it issued along with Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay.

En el marco del apego irrestricto al Estado de Derecho y para lograr la estabilización de la situación en Venezuela, reiteramos la importancia de cumplir el calendario electoral, liberar los presos políticos, restituir las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional democráticamente elegida, así como garantizar la separación de poderes. 
Por último, hacemos un llamado a todos los sectores para no avalar acciones que generen más violencia y manifestamos nuestra convicción de que ha llegado la hora de concretar un acuerdo nacional incluyente que provea una solución duradera a la crítica situación que se vive en Venezuela.

All the bloodshed, refusal to hold elections, the bizarre call to rewrite the constitution, the dancing while Venezuela burns, and all we get is a statement from eight countries (the OAS has 35 members). I wrote a while ago that Latin America would not unite and I literally hoped I would be found wrong.

My sense has always been that Latin American pressure is an essential ingredient for putting pressure on the Maduro government. U.S. sanctions aren't particularly relevant. In the absence of regional pressure, Maduro holds on to the implicit or explicit support of fellow presidents who have his back and give him room not to compromise. This makes the job of ordinary Venezuelans a lot harder, and has the effect of ramping up violence.

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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Cuba Needs Oil

Russia has started shipping more oil to Cuba, as the Cuban government understandably fears the effects of Venezuela's disintegration.

According to Jorge Pinon, an oil expert at the University of Texas at Austin, the Cuba deal is equivalent to around 1,865,000 barrels and valued at $105 million at current prices. 
In comparison, Russia reported it shipped oil products to Cuba from 2010 through 2015 valued at $11.3 million. 
Cuba consumes 22,000 barrel per day of diesel and 140,000 barrels per day of oil products.

So an increase, but not a massive amount. And not a return to the glory days of subsidized Soviet oil shipment.

The lesson to take from this, though, is that the embargo can have an adverse effect on U.S. interests. If the U.S. were selling oil to Cuba, Russia wouldn't be news.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad

I really liked Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad but sometimes the fantastical nature of it didn't quite work for me. In the mix of realism and altered history, the realism is the more powerful part. The depiction of slavery's brutality is potent and will stick in your head. His descriptions of the lives people make under bondage feels real. That in turn makes you feel for the characters. I wanted to keep turning pages.

The narrative drive of the novel, though, is the Underground Railroad. Not the actual historical one, but a real railroad that goes under the earth unnoticed and has stations across the South. There are quite a few other altered historical facts, though none as central. The train helped you see the changes in how each state dealt with slavery and the ways in which there was doubt about where it ended and how safe it could keep you. But the clash of real and imagined sometimes left me scratching my head.

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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Venezuela Leaving the OAS

Venezuela announced it will pull out of the OAS. This is getting compared to Cuba, which was suspended in 1962 and currently refuses to rejoin even though it has been told it can. There are, however, important differences, which all revolve around one main fact: in 1962 Cuba was operating from a position of strength. Fidel Castro thumbed his nose at the OAS and the United States, and was in complete control of his country. For Nicolás Maduro, the opposite is true. He's facing disaster at home and Chavismo is at its weakest.

For Venezuela, then, this measure is an act of desperation, a way of avoiding unpleasant votes and embarrassing pronouncements. It highlights to everyone how bad things had become in Venezuela and serves mostly to isolate Venezuela more. Few people see this in black-and-white ideological terms, which is the Cuba-type frame that Maduro wants to project.

One critical question now is how long do Bolivia and Ecuador in particular insist on pretending everything is fine? They were the key voices blocking any OAS action.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Podcast Episode 32: Lulu Garcia-Navarro

In Episode 32 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I was very excited to chat with Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, who of course reported for many years from Latin America. We discuss some of the political stories in Latin America that left the biggest impression on her, especially Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina. And, happily (not to mention selfishly!), she affirms that academics have had a positive impact on helping a broader audience understand the region.


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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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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Crying Fraud in Ecuador's Election

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Guillermo Lasso's accusation of fraud in Sunday's presidential election in Ecuador. Especially coming from a conservative media outlet, the article does not reflect too well on Lasso's case.

Most problematic:

On Sunday, one of Mr. Lasso’s allies in his CREO coalition cited two other exit polls giving him the lead. However, one of the polls cited—by well-respected Informe Confidencial—was never conducted, said Santiago Nieto, the director of that polling firm. 
A private poll conducted by Informe Confidencial on Saturday showed Mr. Moreno leading with a 4.8% advantage over his opponent, said Mr. Nieto, adding that Mr. Lasso celebrated too early based on exit polls, which are often inaccurate. 
“I don’t think it’s correct to put the figures from a poll ahead of the official data,” he said in a telephone interview. Exit polls “are not trustworthy.”

Ouch! We already know that exit pools are hotly contested and should be used with extreme caution. If you want an example, just look at the controversy about the Latino vote in the 2016 presidential election. But we should also know that you should not base an argument on an exit poll that never actually occurred.

Also working against Lasso is that international observers did not detect fraud. The OAS, which is no mouthpiece of the left, has confirmed Lenín Moreno's victory. Further, the conservative governments of Argentina and Peru have already congratulated Moreno.

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Elliott Abrams and Human Rights in Latin America

Mike Allison writes about how Elliott Abrams is mad that The New York Times is claiming Ronald Reagan (and by extension him) was indifferent to human rights in El Salvador in its obituary of Ambassador Deane Hinton. As Abrams writes:

And Ronald Reagan was a great president under whom there were remarkable advances for human rights in Latin American and around the world. Let’s leave it at that.

Mike puts that in the context of Efraín Ríos Montt, who Reagan believed was a committed democrat, going on trial for genocide in Guatemala.

Let's just get something out of the way. The notion that there were any advances, much less remarkable ones, for human rights in Latin America--or anywhere, really--under Reagan requires ignoring Mt. Everest-sized mountains of contrary evidence. And it should be noted that Abrams himself served in the State Department under Reagan in a human rights capacity, and his idea of promoting human rights was to attack human rights organizations. Those groups, meanwhile, could only respond that Abrams was so vicious that sometimes his attacks helped their cause. More recently, he was a vocal supporter of the coup in Honduras.

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Monday, April 03, 2017

Podcast Episode 30: The Venezuelan Crisis

In Episode 30 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Iñaki Sagarzazu, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. He studies political communication, voting, and Venezuelan politics. The topic is Venezuela. Among other things, we talk about whether this was an autogolpe, the nature of divisions in the government, the international response, and we end on a depressing note about the military, agreeing it was fitting to end on a depressing note.


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Initial Thoughts on Ecuador's Election

Here are the current totals from Ecuador's Centro Nacional de Eleccciones:



The right is saying it will contest the results, so nothing is set yet. When the dust settles, more likely than not any given story will be framed in left/right terms. Assuming Moreno's victory holds, I think "a much needed victory for the Latin American left" will be by far the most common (TeleSur is hopping onto that bandwagon already).

I'll come back to the point I made in an op-ed in February, which is that the left/right thing isn't necessarily a helpful way to understand what's going on. Fundamentally, this is mostly about the Ecuadorian right's inability to craft an effective message after years of demonizing Rafael Correa. Voters look to who is going to solve their problems. If we want to see this in left/right terms, the best way is to consider it an utter failure of the right. As in the United States, too much of the Latin American right is so immersed in its dislike for the incumbent that it spends no time actually developing policy alternatives.

If there is a lesson here, it's for the right in Bolivia and Venezuela. If you want to win (and in Venezuela this is predicated on actually having elections, I know, but it was a problem even when elections were held) then find ways to appeal to people. And even if you do win, you have to govern.

There will be other stories too, such as the 6% who voted null, and of course the right's dispute of the results. Unfortunately, though, I expect the "big win for the Latin American left" to dominate and people will cling to the "pink tide" imagery.


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Sunday, April 02, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' Mortality

You immediately notice how short Christopher Hitchens' Mortality (2012) is, and soon learn he had a much larger vision in his head. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June 2010 and died 18 months later. 


It is his effort to show what it means to be, as he puts it, "living dyingly." It's about suffering, straightforward and without wallowing, without religion (of course, for the famous atheist) and with apparently no regrets, and with no small amount of hope. He keeps coming back to the saying "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," which after his diagnosis he began to see as illusion. Some outcomes were just plainly not leaving you stronger, even if they put off death for a while.

Almost fittingly, the prose is as tight as ever until the final chapter, which is just jottings he was writing in hospitals and never able to make whole. 

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

A Weird Autogolpe in Venezuela

Some hours after the declaration by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, prosecutor (and Nicolás Maduro ally) Luisa Ortega said that the Supreme Court's action violated the constitution. This prompted a meeting of the Consejo de la Defensa de la Nación. That body issued a declaration read by Vice President Tarek El Aissami, framing the whole thing as a dispute between the legislative and judicial branches which, technically, it is, sort of, and for the court to review its own ruling to make sure "institutional stability" (which can be defined in any way you find convenient) was preserved.

Then it got weirder.

The core of the declaration is to call for dialogue. Who exactly will be engaging in dialogue is uncertain, given that all the government needs to do is rescind an illegal measure and actually allow the legislature to...legislate. And of course for a recall election to go forward as the constitution provides.

Then it called for dialogue for the broader crisis, not acknowledging that the only reason there's a crisis is because the government is taking illegal measures and uses dialogue as a way to endlessly delay action.

Finally, it took a gratuitous swipe at the OAS because they all hate Luis Almagro. Not really any other reason for that to be in there.

Several possibilities come to mind. They are not mutually exclusive.

1. The Venezuelan government is preparing to back off the Supreme Court decision, and will claim that doing so was a major concession, then require concession from the opposition, thus leaving things the same while pretending to move forward. This is more of the "master plan" sort of explanation and assumes a lot of guile for Maduro.

2. There are real fissures already within the government, and Maduro et al are getting nervous about how long unity will last under duress so are already cracking.

3. Maduro is not certain what the Supreme Court is doing and there is too much chaos (or distrust?) for coordination. That would make this autogolpe even weirder.

Developing...

Update: LITERALLY one minute after I hit "publish" I saw this breaking story on the Supreme Court reversing its decision. Weird indeed.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Autogolpe in Venezuela

There has been an autogolpe, or self-coup, in Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled that it would govern in the place of the National Assembly, and would feel free to prosecute members of the legislature. Horizontal accountability, already barely there, is now gone entirely. Unlike Peru in 1992 and Guatemala in 1993, the judicial system was part of it, not a target. But the basic idea is the same. In the language of all dictatorships, the government argues that democracy must be attacked in order to be preserved.

I had a lengthy Twitter discussion with Quico Toro yesterday, as he (like others) called on the military to do something. He argued that all other avenues had been exhausted. I argued that hope lay in pushing the splits between hardliners and softliners. Henry Ramos Allsup has said he thinks there plenty of people in the military and in the government who believe this is undemocratic and want elections.

Empowering chavista democrats is the challenge. My own opinion--for now, at least!--is that the best way to do this is for Latin America to close ranks. As I've made clear, I don't think Latin American unity is on the horizon. Maybe the autogolpe changes that. Maybe someone like Rafael Correa, who accepts elections and term limits, says something privately. Something along those lines could give life to the softliners. Peru recalled its ambassador but for now the response is not too strong.

If Latin America abdicates its responsibility, then the situation is more dire. At some point there will be large protests, and those protests will be repressed. Perhaps, as in 1989, a chunk of the military will resent being forced to do the repressing, and push back. Or perhaps a lot of people die and not much changes.

I suppose it's also possible that nothing happens, and everyone waits to see whether a presidential election is held in 2018. Meanwhile, Venezuela becomes more and more like Zimbabwe.

As they say, it's developing.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Postmortem on Venezuela and the OAS

I recommend Geoff Ramsey's post at WOLA's Venezuela blog about five key takeaways from the OAS session. Actually, I find the entire episode almost more interesting for what it says about broader issues than about Venezuela per se.

So, for example, the Trump administration is doing exactly what I would want a U.S. government to do, which is play an active role but one that is quiet and collaborative. As President Obama said several years ago with regard to foreign policy, "Don't do stupid shit." Marco Rubio is falling into that trap, but thus far Trump isn't in the Venezuelan case*. And that's amazing, really.

Next, Mexico playing a lead is quite a development. Remember when Brazil was the presumed hemispheric diplomatic player? Lula cherished that (as did many past Brazilian presidents), Dilma did so less, and now it's entirely dormant. Given its size, its threat from the Trump administration, but also ironically its close connections to the Trump administration, Mexico could be a hemispheric leader.

*Just one 3:00 a.m. tweet could destroy this, but so far, so good.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conservative Take on Cuba

Rep. James Comer, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, just returned from Cuba, where he joined four other members of Congress on a trade mission. He then published an op-ed calling for the end of the embargo. He makes a good case, with essentially the same arguments I (and many others) have been making for years.


The foreign policy position of every American President from Eisenhower to Obama has essentially been to shut off Cuba’s economy through an embargo, thereby starving its people and hoping the people would rise up and overthrow the Castro Regime.  However, what would transpire over the years with the embargo is that the Castro Regime blamed the blunders of the Cuban economy on the American embargo. Thus, the regime remained in power despite horrible economic conditions and standards of living for Cuban citizens.  In other words, U.S. policy toward Cuba actually helped Castro remain in power and keep Cuba a socialist state.
 Lifting the US embargo against Cuba is an overall win-win.  It is a win for foreign policy because countries that the US trades with are countries with which we have good relations. Similarly, countries we ban trade with are the ones where conflict often arises.  Noting Cuba’s proximity to the US, the last thing we need is for China or Russia to establish its own Guantanamo Bay Military Base pointed right at us.  It is also a win for trade, especially agricultural trade.

I'm not concerned about China or Russia establishing a base, which won't happen, but overall I agree.

The big question of course is whether Donald Trump sees Cuba in economic terms or in Cold War terms for his Florida constituency. Comer tries to play to his "make a better deal for Americans" schtick. Bit by bit, Republicans over the years have moved away from support for the embargo, so are ready to accept liberalization.

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Marco Rubio's "Bully" Pulpit

One way not to get what you want is to bully other countries publicly.

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a strong warning to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti on Monday, saying that it would be difficult to protect them from possible cuts in U.S. aid if they fail to defend democracy when the Venezuelan government comes up for a possible sanctions vote at the Organization of American States (OAS). 
The Florida Republican, one of the harshest critics of the Venezuelan government in Washington, told El Nuevo Herald that the OAS vote set for Tuesday is exceptionally important for the future of democracy in the region, and of the hemispheric organization itself. 
The vote would even affect the assistance that Washington provides to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, he added.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article141080013.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article141080013.html#storylink=cpy

This made me think immediately of George W. Bush pressuring Chile and Mexico (among others) in 2003 to get their UN votes for the invasion of Iraq. It did not go over well, and poisoned the U.S.-Mexico relationship for a long time.

Even worse in this case is the obvious fact that punishing El Salvador and Haiti will only make migration and other issues worse, which then creates more problems for the U.S. As with so many aspects of U.S. policy, unintended (but foreseeable) consequences hover around. Though I suppose we've been learning that blustering and then not getting what you want is a hallmark of the current administration.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Podcast Episode 29: Venezuela and the OAS

In Episode 29 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I consider the obstacles to the OAS taking some sort of action with regard to Venezuela. My basic argument is that prescriptive analyses aren't terribly useful unless we think about what challenges must first be overcome.

The upshot is that it will take a Herculean effort for anything substantive to happen.

I want to give a shout out to Xanda Lemos, a doctoral student in History at Emory University, alumnus of UNC Charlotte, and musician, for providing the musical clip at the beginning, which was something I had been lacking.


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Monday, March 27, 2017

Problems With Implementing Colombia's Peace Agreement

I recommend listening to Adam Isacson's podcast, where in his first episode he discusses challenges to implementing Colombia's peace agreement, especially with regard to measures being delayed. The list of potential reasons is alarmingly long. He also notes that there are precisely 571 "observable, measurable actions" that all the parties to the accords have to complete. Trying to do that much in such a complex environment is daunting.

One point he makes that I found interesting was that one (of the many) potential problems is that the Colombian military might be the state institution with the best logistical capabilities, yet for obvious reasons it cannot be used to help the FARC demobilize. So the logistics suffer badly.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Trump and Soft Power in Latin America

Andrés Oppenheimer brings up a useful point about the Trump administration and Latin America. When floods hit Peru, countries from around Latin America (including Venezuela, which can ill afford it) responded.

The presidents of Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama, among others, had either called Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski or announced humanitarian aid to Peru, the report said. But there was no mention of the United States. 
When I called a senior aide to Kuczynski to ask him whether the United States had been accidentally left out of the news report, he said there was still no official statement from Washington, nor an announcement of U.S. aid.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article140381658.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article140381658.html#storylink=cpy

This is all about soft power. In the article I recently published on the Obama Doctrine and Cuba, soft power was an important component. When you ditch soft power, you lose leverage. If you slice up the State Department and other government agencies, it's harder to respond effectively to crises. Trump is moving in a direction of almost exclusive use of hard power, with threats and bluster leading the way. That will not achieve U.S. policy goals in Latin America, though I suppose we don't have a firm grip of what the administration's policy goals in the region actually are.

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