Saturday, February 25, 2017

Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest (2015) is the sequel to The Three-Body Problem. Aliens (the Trisolarians) will be reaching earth in 400 years, so global leaders come up with a plan to protect themselves. Since the Trisolarians can see and hear everything on earth, the United Nations decides that the only solution is to have a small group of people (called Wallfacers) who are given as many resources as possible but who never say anything about their plans. The story centers on Luo Ji, one of the Wallfacers who does unpredictable things but is clearly targeted by the Trisolarians as the most dangerous person on earth. Eventually in the novel he goes into hibernation for two centuries and the narrative picks up again with an account of how much has changed.

The ideas in the novel are well conceived and Liu provides a realistic view of how humans react to impending disaster (hint: not well). There are a lot of plot twists as the Trisolarians get closer and humans grapple with the consequences. The "dark forest" refers to the universe itself, to how vast and empty it is. Unfortunately, humans have the arrogance to call attention to themselves when it is better to remain unknown and hidden.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

John Kelly vs. Donald Trump

I wonder how long John Kelly will want to keep his position at DHS. As someone who until recently served as a commander, he's being undermined his own commander on a regular basis. It all started when Donald Trump blamed him for the rollout of the immigration Executive Order.

Now, as Kelly went to Mexico to discuss the two DHS memoranda outlining the process by which the administration would speed up deportations, the president is undermining him while he's abroad.

Trump: This is a militarized operation
Kelly in Mexico: This is not a militarized operation, and it's the media's fault for saying it's militarized

Sean Spicer: U.S.-Mexican relations are "phenomenal"
Mexican government officials: We told John Kelly we disagree with just about everything

Trump: We're getting really bad dudes out of the country at a rate never seen before
Kelly: There is no mass deportation

You could parse this last one, arguing that "mass" is different from "bad dudes." But since both the memoranda and Trump himself lump undocumented immigrants together in one bloc of "bad," then it's reasonable to argue that he sees bad dudes are everyone.

Maybe Kelly believes enough in the mission he's trying to fulfill. But Marine Corps General to this? It must be unpleasant.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Refugees and North Carolina

My friend and colleague Steven Hyland down at Wingate University has a nice op-ed in the News & Observer about refugee policy and North Carolina. For example:

Many North Carolinians may be surprised to learn that our communities have played an important role in providing refuge and opportunity to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Faith and lay leaders, religious groups and non-governmental organizations, and concerned citizens have answered the call. As a result, the state has received nearly 12,000 resettled refugees since Oct. 1, 2012, from which only 845 are Syrians. North Carolina ranks 12th and ninth in the nation in both categories. Our generosity is clear, and we have much to be proud of. Yet, these efforts stand in stark contrast to the craven politics practiced by some elected officials.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article134255039.html#storylink=cpy

Go read the whole thing.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 24: Ecuador's Presidential Election

In Episode 24 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with James Bosworth, aka Boz, a consultant who is well known in the Latin American politics blogosphere for Bloggings by Boz, which is even older than my blog. The topic is Ecuador’s presidential election, which is going to a second round.


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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Details on Immigration Executive Orders

The Department of Homeland Security published two "implementation memos" to clarify the Executive Orders about immigration. One is labeled "implementation" and the other "enforcement."

Highlights of "implementation":


  • immediate hiring on 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 500 Air & Marine Agents/Officers, though interestingly there is a caveat of "subject to the availability of resources."
  • mandate detention, with parole only on case-by-case basis. This means no "catch and release."
  • expansion of 287(g) though it remains voluntary
  • start designing and building a wall, though it also gives some wiggle room with references to "most appropriate locations" and "appropriate materials."
  • expanding expedited removal. This is the answer to the backlog in the court system--just avoid it entirely. The number of people subject to this is not defined and will come later.
  • for people coming a contiguous country (yes, we all know which one we're talking about) they can be sent back pending the removal hearing, which will be a videoconference. It appears that you're removed while the government sorts out your removal. This is true even for non-Mexicans if they came through Mexico.
  • build more immigration jails
  • punish parents who use smugglers to bring their children into the U.S.
Highlights of "enforcement":

  • ICE should hire 10,000 more officers plus support staff immediately, "subject to available resources."
  • exempt no group from removal. Criminals would be first priority, but individual DHS officers have wide discretion over everyone on a case-by-case basis.
  • create an office for people who are the victims of crime by undocumented immigrants.
  • create a public database of apprehensions
“We do not need a sense of panic in the communities,” a DHS official said in a conference call with reporters to formally release the memos to the public. 
“We do not have the personnel, time or resources to go into communities and round up people and do all kinds of mass throwing folks on buses. That’s entirely a figment of folks’ imagination,” said the official, who was joined on the call by two others, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to answer questions. “This is not intended to produce mass roundups, mass deportations.”



This is not a figment of anyone's imagination--mass roundups can clearly happen under these rules, and there are orders to create a bigger enforcement structure to make it happen.

DACA is not mentioned, which means that for now it will not be affected. For now, anyway.

Incidentally, John Kelly is leaving tomorrow for Guatemala and then Mexico, where he will join Rex Tillerson. I expect they will get an earful.

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Fernando Lugo Trying a Comeback

Fernando Lugo, who was ousted in a shady 2012 impeachment (I discussed that here), now wants to come back to the presidency. He is currently a senator and his supporters are pushing for a constitutional amendment (through a referendum process) to allow his return. This comes after he said just last year that he did not like the idea of constitutional reforms aimed at a particular person.

Meanwhile, Lugo went to the hospital for a routine check-up and then was admitted with no explanation. He has originally planned to be an observer for Ecuador's presidential election.

The Paraguayan oligarchy has a firm grip on politics and I would have to imagine it would find ways to block this process.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Review of Hillbilly Elegy

Written by a Yale Law alumnus and self-described conservative hillbilly, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) is so absorbing in no small part because it should confound conservatives and liberals alike. It's a memoir about class difference.

What might annoy conservatives: he thinks the idea of blaming Barack Obama or the government in general for the plight of the white working class is ridiculous, and policies (Trump is not mentioned but is clearly relevant here) of blame are based on false premises. Plus, acceptance of diversity is healthy.

What might annoy liberals: he believes the key problem for the white working class is actually working hard rather than refusing hard work. Patriotism, pride, faith, and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps (such as through the U.S. military) are real and they should be celebrated as solutions. Stable marriages should be prioritized.

Vance grew up poor in Appalachia, raised largely by his grandparents because his mother was (is) a drug addict. His grandmother, who was mean as a snake and swore constantly, was his savior (she is clearly the hero of this story). He struggled mightily through life, but ultimately went into the Marines (which for him was transformational), Ohio State (a double major in two years!) and Yale Law School. Impressive by any standard.

But he still feels the culture he grew up in. Toward the end he thinks about how lucky he was and how to help others do the same. Public policy, he feels, can help, but only so much. Hillbillies need to help each other, create their own support systems, and learn to feel empowered. That goes beyond any political party or slogan. Heartfelt, provocative, and worthy of discussion.

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Ecuador's Presidential Election

According to the Consejo Nacional Electoral del Ecuador, Rafael Correa's chosen candidate Lenín Moreno has 39.1% of the vote, and opposition Guillermo Lasso has 28.28%. To win without a runoff, Moreno needs to edge his total up to 40%, at which time he would also have 10+% more than the second place candidate. There are conflicting accounts of where the remaining votes will likely go.

Boz has been following this on Twitter and makes the good point that even if Moreno gets just over the hump, he'll have a problem given the slim margin. The runoff system is intended to provide more legitimacy to the victor than, for example, we have in the United States. But if you just barely get to the minimum threshold, it works just as poorly as here.

Whatever the result, this will be labeled as part of a regional referendum on ideology, which is unfortunate. This is more about a country with a government that's been in power a long time, faces some serious economic challenges, but also which stabilized Ecuador to a degree it hasn't enjoyed in a very long time.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Podcast Episode 23: Venezuelan Conspiracy Theories

In Episode 23 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, who is is Profesor de la Escuela de Sociología at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, about Venezuelan conspiracy theories. He studies political conspiracies and has blogged extensively about both Venezuelan politics and conspiracy theories on his blog VenezuelanConspiracy Theories Monitor and on the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, run by the Washington Office on Latin America. We do a little bit of comparison to Donald Trump, but not too much.


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Chile's Apathetic Presidential Race

Patricio Navia has a nice roundup of the presidential scene in Chile at Latin America Goes Global.

The issue of new/old, which of course is connected to demography is increasingly important in Chile. The dictatorship left power 27 years ago, and a bit more than 35% of the current population was born in 1990 or later. Even notable events like Augusto Pinochet's 1998 arrest in Great Britain is a hazy memory of their youth.

Therefore key members of the political transition like Ricardo Lagos are especially dull choices (Eduardo Frei's 2009 effort to get a second term may well count as the dullest ever). Yet despite the apathy toward and/or dislike of the two main coalitions, Chile still does not face any populist or outsider candidates with any traction. The country seems to be going from an unpopular second-term president (Michelle Bachelet) to an inspiring new president.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Attacks on the Media in Latin America

Marisa Kellam and Elizabeth Stein have a great post at The Monkey Cage about government attacks on the media with a comparison to Donald Trump.

One strategy hostile presidents use is to circumvent traditional media by finding ways to get directly to their constituencies. They mention TV shows, which of course Hugo Chávez was famous for. But it made me think about how Trump's choice of Twitter is more awkward because of the brevity. I could quite easily imagine, however, Trump deciding to create his own show since he already has experience doing so. In other words, it's a bad sign if that happens.

Another point that merits mention is one I was just bringing up in my Latin American Politics class, namely that U.S. presidents are weaker than their Latin American counterparts, so media suppression here is more difficult. Trump can bluster and Breitbart can complain about the traitorous "deep state" but the U.S. presidency has a lot less power than the average American thinks (and, clearly, Trump also thought).

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Maduro Keeping His Head Down

I'm quoted in this article about the Trump administration's policy toward Venezuela. My quip about Nordstrom may not be particularly erudite (and it's so last week!) but my overall point was that for now Nicolás Maduro is keeping his head down and trying not to get Trump's attention. There is no obvious reason for Trump to spend much time dealing with Venezuela or getting sucked into a deeper conflict. So if Maduro can keep his name out of the headlines in major U.S. media outlets by, say, insulting Trump, all the better. No "Mr. Danger" so far.

Incidentally, David Smilde thinks Trump is in fact starting to pay more attention to Venezuela. Since Trump seems to have few actual guiding foreign policy principles that we can discern, we're all just guessing even more than usual.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Thomas C. Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy

I read Thomas Wright's Impunity, Human Rights, and Democracy: Chile and Argentina, 1990-2005 (2014) for review in an academic journal. Here's a sample:


Thomas Wright has written a well-researched and succinct account of the efforts in Argentina and Chile to bring human rights abusers to justice after the transition from military to civilian rule. His goal is to understand how impunity eroded and justice advanced, even if slowly and imperfectly, in the face of stiff resistance from the military, its political allies, and even cautious policy makers. 
He combines a synthesis of the existing literature with over forty of his own interviews and a variety of primary documents. The essential argument of the book is that human rights activists laid the initial groundwork in each country even when conditions were decidedly negatively due not only to the military’s political power but also to lack of funding.  Yet at the same time, buoyed by increased attention from the United States, international human rights NGOs increased the scope of their work. Then a confluence of precipitating events gave new life to domestic activists and judges.


It's worth checking out.

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Flowers From Colombia and Ecuador

Just a reminder on this Valentine's Day that the flowers you're buying likely came from Ecuador or Colombia. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has the following data for 2015.



This occasion (like Mother's Day) is important for the economies of both countries and they are very attuned to it. But they also come with challenges:

In Ecuador:


The flower industry in Ecuador, and rose-growing in particular, has been both a boon and a burden for the country; while it created more than 115,000 jobs in 2008, occupied mostly by women, and exported $800 million worth of cut flowers in 2015, the industry has grappled with water overuse and the human impact of horticultural chemicals.



In Colombia:

Stooping over rose bushes all day takes a toll on the body. One benchmark study revealed that Colombian flower workers can be exposed to 127 different chemicals from pesticide use. Pregnant women exposed to pesticide chemicals have high rates of premature births and miscarriages. Pay is minimal, the few pesos awarded per packaged rose result in a monthly paycheck of $300 or less. Child labor was rampant in the cut-flower business before initiatives were implemented in 1996 to eliminate the practice, but the use of underage workers still occurs. Women dominate the worker population, with more than 80,000 holding positions on farms, and sexual harassment by male bosses is often reported.

Sorry, I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip on you or ruin the occasion. We political scientists just tend to find the politics in everything.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump Sanctions Tareck El Aissami

The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami with sanctions. As I wrote last week, this is an easy decision for Trump. He can just continue President Obama's policy, ratcheting it up a bit because the target is quite high, and call it his own.

In a way, this works out fine for Nicolás Maduro as well. When people are targeted by the U.S., they're more likely to remain loyal.

The sanctions mark an extraordinary step against the second-in-command of a foreign government and are sure to lead to a further deterioration of U.S. relations with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who appointed El Aissami as vice president on Jan. 4 amid a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.

Maybe I am being too blasé after being numbed by following Venezuelan politics so long, but I feel like this is extraordinary only if you ignore how the Obama administration was already dealing with the Venezuelan government.

The bigger question is whether Trump takes this any further. I don't figure he will because he's not particularly interested in Venezuela and has other things occupying his time. Plus, even that congressional letter didn't ask for much more. But obviously he's unpredictable.


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PPK Talks Deportation

Now here's a first. A Latin American leader talked favorably with Donald Trump about deportation.

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski talked on the phone with Trump and asked him to deport former president Alejandro Toledo, who is implicated in the Odebrecht scandal. Will Trump do it? He should. The U.S. has long been a cozy place for former Latin American presidents facing accusations at home.

Apparently the two also talked about Venezuela, but I found it interesting that the White House referred to it as "humanitarian," which at least suggests that Trump is not planning on getting into the political side of it.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review of Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here

I read Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here and so should you. Published in 1935, it portrays an America that elects the populist Buzz Windrip, who sweeps in with promises he can't possibly keep ($5,000 for everyone!) but which people get themselves to believe; on making the country as good as it used to be, rejecting intellectuals, distrusting universities, attacking the press, railing against Jewish bankers, and even racist antagonism toward Mexico. People felt that he wouldn't be so bad once he was in office. After all, it can't happen here.

I noted so many similarities of Lewis' descriptions to now that I quickly lost count. And in his homespun, funny, snarky manner he lays out the easy disintegration of U.S. democracy and the cowing of the American people. The story revolves largely around Doremus Jessup, a small town newspaper editor who covers the coming of Buzz Windrip and then feels the brunt of censorship and violence.

On the people who believed in the president:

"they were the men and women who, in 1935 and 1936, had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probable saviors of the country from, on one hand, domination by Moscow and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth, whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality, the humor and art of comic strips--of a slave psychology which was making Americaa land for sterner men to loot" (p. 350).

The book is even more effective than 1984 or other famous dystopias because it is so very American. Even though it was written in the 1930s, you can recognize the context, the development, and the hatred that so quickly can bubble up and then is harnessed. Liberty is snuffed in the name of liberty.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Jared Kushner and Mexico

It seems that Jared Kushner has taken a lead role in foreign policy, especially U.S.-Mexican relations. While I had written previously that a connection between Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Secretary of State Tillerson might calm things down, it remains to be seen how much Tillerson is in the loop. Kushner has Oval Office access.

He asked for articles about Mexico and U.S.-Mexican relations, so he knows nothing about the topic. (I suppose the glass half full response would be that at least he's trying--I'd love to know whose articles he's given). More problematic, though, is that Donald Trump's attention span is minuscule. Kushner tried to moderate Trump's Mexico speech, but quickly everything went off the rails and Trump went berserk on Twitter.

Thus, we have foreign policy based on ignorance (literally, in the sense that neither Trump nor Kushner know anything about the countries they're dealing with) and whim.  Kushner's main ability is to get you on Trump's radar and maybe even into the Oval Office, which makes him a magnet. But complex discussion of issues and options so far may not be in the cards.

Unfortunately, this is where all foreign policy may now be going:

The diplomatic community is taking note, viewing Mexico as a guinea pig. Senior officials from several other countries have already reached out to their Mexican counterparts, hoping to glean insights about the new president, the changing geopolitical dynamics in Washington and the quiet, dimpled man behind it all — Kushner. 

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Congressional Letter About Venezuela

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen authored a letter with Bob Menendez and co-signed by 32 other members of Congress, split between the two parties. It asks the Trump administration to take action against the Venezuelan government and thereby send a signal to "bad actors" (how's that for a cringe-worthy phrase?).

Given the authors, I was a bit surprised by how mild it seemed. Get some more funds for NGOs, do targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials proven to be involved in corruption, make sure there are no Odebrecht-related problems for U.S. businesses, and investigate Tareck El Aissami. In short, pretty much a continuation of what President Obama had already been doing. Notably absent are any broader economic sanctions, vague calls to be tough or, in fact, even any criticism of the Obama administration's own policies.

Trump, who cares very little about Venezuela, can just renew Obama's original policies, call them his own, and declare victory.

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