Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Matters About the Chilean Election

Javier Sajuria has a nice post at The Monkey Cage on the Chilean election. There are major structural changes underway in Chile, in part unleashed by electoral reform. Most attention has been on the presidential race, but the Chilean legislature is younger, more female, and less experienced with governing.

Another issue that I have not seen addressed is whether we are potentially seeing a return to Chile's traditional three-thirds political system. For a good chunk of the 20th century, Chile had a left, center, and right. The center, which eventually was represented by the Christian Democratic Party, was the anchor. When it shifted away from the center, that opened the door to the 1973 coup. The binomial system put in place by the dictatorship squashed that system and pushed a two-party system.

Although these results don't matter for the outcome of the presidential race, they set limits on what the next president can do. The three-thirds system was centrifugal and plagued by the problem of the executive coming in with grand plans that could not be fulfilled given the composition of the legislature.

In his post at Global Americans, Lucas Perelló starts getting at this a bit.


The biggest challenge for both candidates, however, is to keep one eye on winning the presidency and another eye on forming the necessary alliances to get legislation passed in Congress. Whoever wins the run-off and becomes president of Chile will face a deadlocked Congress.

This is what really matters about the election. Whoever is elected will have to reduce expectations because the legislature will be more unwieldy than ever. If expectations of change (in any direction) are too strong, then there will be backlash.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Don't Celebrate Coups

Last week I expressed skepticism at the idea of a "democratizing coup" in Venezuela. Now Argentine political scientist Rut Diamint does the same, just more blistering, as she notes Latin American lessons for the coup in Zimbabwe.

I would dispute that Zimbabwe’s political rupture will usher in an era of order and progress. And I think many Latin Americans would agree with me. I wish Zimbabweans luck, but based on my country’s past, I fear for their future.

I really got the impression that she was reading optimistic views and it just ticked her off.

World history is full of atrocities committed in the name of law and order. The international community should be concerned about what’s happening in Zimbabwe right now. I’m an Argentinean scholar of Latin American militarization, and I can attest that so-called “democratizing coups” are largely fiction.

She does not get into the question of whether the military decides to stay in power or not, which matters quite a lot. But to her point, either way the military will remain a powerful political actor, hovering over everything, which itself is detrimental to democracy.

I think the parallels between Venezuela and Zimbabwe mean that we'll see comparisons between the two. In neither case is it a good idea to celebrate a military coup.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Latin America Liked Obama, Trump Not So Much

Latinobarómetro released a report on the Trump era. What you see is that the general Latin American view of the United States has not changed all that much since the Obama administration. Indeed, most of the questions are just general "United States" and are fairly stable. When you start asking about Trump specifically, then you see a change.

So here is the view of Donald Trump in his first year:



And here is the view of Barack Obama in his first year.


To sum up, Trump's most favorable rating (in Paraguay!) is still substantially lower than Obama's worst rating (Bolivia).

The report claims a correlation between views of the U.S. president and views of the U.S. more generally, but I don't see that. What I see instead is the optimistic view that, at least for the time being, Latin Americans do not consider Trump to be representative of the United States and so place more blame squarely on him personally rather than on the country. We can only hope that continues.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Democratic Coup in Venezuela?

Law Professor Ozan Varol raises the possibility of a coup in Venezuela that potentially leads to democracy in a post at The Monkey Cage. I like these kinds of arguments because they're counterintuitive and challenge conventional wisdom. Unfortunately he does not tell us what factors would make it more versus less democratic, as the latter is much more likely. He also distinguishes between a "full-blown" vs. a "haphazard" coup, though it's not clear what these mean.

Finally, he notes the following:

As I demonstrate in my book, other countries as diverse as Portugal, Mali, Colombia, Burkina Faso, Britain, Guinea-Bissau, Guatemala, Peru and the United States have all undergone democratization after their military forces turned their arms against their authoritarian governments.

Hmm. What was the coup attempt in the United States? I assume he means the civil war, but that's not a coup. And I don't know what Guatemalan coup he refers to because the last coup was 1954 and it led to authoritarian rule. If you want to include self-coups, then I guess you count the 1993 case in Guatemala but that's a whole different context since a) it involved strengthening the executive rather than overthrowing it; and b) it failed. So I'm not feeling too convinced at this point.

Update: I think the Guatemala case must be 1944.

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Dialogue in Venezuela

The Venezuelan opposition has postponed dialogue with the government until foreign ministers are included, which appears to be a scheduling issue.

The opposition’s principal demand is for free and fair conditions for the 2018 presidential election. 
It also wants freedom for jailed activists, autonomy for the opposition-led Congress, and a foreign humanitarian aid corridor to help alleviate Venezuela’s unprecedented economic crisis. 
Maduro accuses his opponents of conspiring with the United States and a right-wing international campaign to oust his socialist government via a coup. The government is seeking guarantees against violence and recognition of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly that has overridden Congress.


Should the opposition trade recognition of the Constituent Assembly for a 2018 presidential election that is fully overseen by international observers? I think the observers--which the government has rejected before--are necessary for anyone to believe in the elections at all (as I noted on Monday, this is one big difference from the Chilean case).

The Constituent Assembly is clearly illegitimate so this is a bitter pill. But if you've decided to engage in dialogue, then you've resigned yourself to bitter pills in order to achieve a main objective. If you can figure out a way to ensure free and fair elections and also, I should add, not some crazy gerrymandered structure, then maybe you go for broke and see if you can win. Whether or not free elections are possible is an empirical question that will be up to the opposition to sort out. If the answer is "no," then the opposition can say it tried everything and the government was intransigent.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Venezuela is in Default

Standard & Poor's has declared Venezuela in "selective default"* as it failed to pay $200 million that was due after a 30 day grace period. Bizarrely, the government had announced a big meeting of bondholders, then gave them an Honor Guard salute, chocolate, and no other news. The government claims it is in the process of restructuring debt but that is not actually happening (the parallel to Donald Trump is eery in this regard).

S&P says Venezuela is also overdue on four other bond payments worth a total of $420m but that the grace period has not yet expired on those payments. 
Venezuela's total external debt, which also includes loans from countries like Russia and China, is thought to be as much as $140bn.

So what now? Venezuela is low on reserves, oil output is down, inflation could get up to 2,300% by the end of the year, and raising cash is going to be hard even if Russia (and perhaps China, which has always seemed more reticent) remains generous. The government is literally running out of money. At some point bondholders are going to demand their money and take the government to court.

It may well be that as long as the hardcore Chavistas, including in the military, can generate enough oil revenue to keep themselves above water, they will simply ignore everything else, which will include immiseration. As we see with Zimbabwe, this strategy can actually work for a surprisingly long time.

* Selective default:

SD and D - An obligor rated ‘SD’ (Selective Default) or ‘D’ has failed to pay one or more of its financial obligations (rated or unrated) when it came due. A ‘D’ rating is assigned when Standard & Poor’s believes that the default will be a general default and that the obligor will fail to pay all or substantially all of its obligations as they come due. An ‘SD’ rating is assigned when Standard & Poor’s believes that the obligor has selectively defaulted on a specific issue or class of obligations but it will continue to meet its payment obligations on other issues or classes of obligations in a timely manner.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Possible Chilean Advice to Venezuelan Opposition

Tim Padgett has interesting advice for the Venezuelan opposition, using the Chilean opposition to the Pinochet government as a model, as they successfully won a referendum:

1, Grow up and unify
2. Take part in the process - even if the process stinks
3. Don't lash out at the regime's supporters - reach out
4. Reach out harder and smarter - abroad

The unity part is clear as day, and it is worth remembering how bitter the Chilean Socialist Party was for many years. It went from being to the left of the Communist Party during Allende's government to being the voice of moderation in the late 1980s. Socialists were the most successful at talking to military officers in the government. Change of heart was central to getting the "no" vote out. Ultimately the Communists chose not to participate, thus leading to their exclusion from the winning coalition for many years.

For me, the second point is the trickiest. The Pinochet government stacked the deck against the opposition (air time, harassment, and the like) but the electoral process was actually pretty fair. The critical difference is that Pinochet thought he was going to win so did not feel the need to cheat. When it was clear he wouldn't, his own junta pushed back against his desire to overturn it. Pinochet was in a position of strength so could ride out the loss.

The situation is quite different in Venezuela. The government is weak and unpopular, and as a result is clearly tampering with the elections. Maduro and others cannot (or at least feel they cannot) survive a change of government so will hang on desperately as long as possible. This makes participation in elections more complex. Doing so demonstrates commitment to a peaceful solution but almost certainly will not lead to success.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 43: Corporatism & Democratization in Mexico

In Episode 43 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Ana Isabel López García, who is is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana and Visiting Research Fellow, German Institute of Global Affairs and Area Studies. She does research on Latin American democratization and political institutions. She recently published an article on corporatist organizations and political parties in Mexico in The Latin Americanist. So our topic is corporatism and democratization in Mexico.


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Trump Losing Influence in Latin America

Chris Sabatini and William Naylor have a piece in Foreign Affairs about how the Trump administration seems dedicated to losing influence in Latin America.

When I was in Buenos Aires recently for a conference, I attended a panel on Trump and Latin America. The Latin American view was essentially the same. One panelist expressed puzzlement that Trump was pulling out of agreements (like the TPP) that in many ways were specifically intended to increase U.S. influence at the expense of China. Others mentioned how even after 10 months in office, it was unclear what, if any, goals Trump has in Latin America. Further, with the exception of Venezuela, South America seems barely to exist for Trump.

For years, I've gone against the current of people arguing that the U.S. was losing influence in Latin America. But I am changing my mind:

With the arrival of President Donald Trump, however, the United States’ relations with its southern neighbors have reached a new low. The problem is no longer one of neglect, but of malice, ad hoc policy responses, and blatant disinterest. 

Again, I don't actually agree there was as much neglect before as Chris and others claim, but the ad hoc and malice part is indeed true now. So much of the policy seems to be xenophobia for the sake of appeasing his xenophobic base.

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Thursday, November 09, 2017

Nicaragua Loses TPS, Just Shrugs

Mike Allison writes about how Temporary Protected Status has ended for Nicaraguans, roughly 5,000 of them. It seems the Nicaraguan government did nothing to try and lobby otherwise, unlike its Salvadoran and Honduran counterparts. That surprises me.

A quick scan of Nicaraguan newspapers shows that the issue is not necessarily on the front page anymore. Further, Vice President Rosario Murillo said (whined?) that no Nicaraguan had yet come to a Nicaraguan consulate for help. Further, the government really has no idea where anyone is:


El Gobierno de Nicaragua sostuvo que hasta ahora no cuenta con información oficial sobre la situación de los ciudadanos nicaragüenses. 
De acuerdo con Murillo, es posible que los nicaragüenses en Estados ya tengan una situación migratoria diferente, hayan regresado a Nicaragua o estén en otro país.

The Trump administration itself noted that the decision was made easier because Daniel Ortega never asked otherwise.

También destacó que el Gobierno del presidente nicaragüense, Daniel Ortega, no solicitó a Estados Unidos una extensión de dicho programa.

In short, Daniel Ortega decided he didn't care about those 5,000 families, perhaps because asking for an extension was an implicit recognition that his country was not able to absorb them and he did not want to claim that.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Oil Embargo Against Venezuela

Mauricio Macri (who is currently in New York) called on Donald Trump to impose a full embargo on Venezuelan exports to the United States. And there's more: he says it would have broad support across Latin America.


“I think we should go to a full oil embargo,” Mr Macri said. “Things have gotten worse and worse. Now, it’s really a painful situation. Poverty is going up every day, sanitary conditions are getting worse every day.” 
The Argentine president is the first Latin American leader to openly advocate such as tough step. But Mr Macri, a centre-right politician who has succeeded in transforming Argentina from an international pariah to one of Latin America’s emerging starlets, said there would be “broad support” across the region for such a draconian measure, despite the hardship it would entail. 
“We have been talking about this many times with many people over the past month,” he told the FT.

Meanwhile, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) did the same in a letter to the Treasury Secretary:

I urge the Department to continue targeting Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and consider banning the import of Venezuelan crude to the United States until constitutional order has been restored in Venezuela.

There's a lot going on here. Here are some key points to keep in mind.

First, this will do serious damage to the U.S. economy (though not as much to Florida and not at all to Argentina!). Gas prices will shoot up and oil-related jobs will evaporate. Self-inflicted wounds are the worst kind.

Second, I do not believe this would have broad support around Latin America. In fact, it is exactly the kind of unilateral policy that isolated the U.S. from the region with regard to Cuba. To repeat, the embargo has not isolated Cuba, nor will it isolate Venezuela unless the sanctions are multilateral. That would mean no Latin American country buys the oil--I didn't hear Macri saying anything about Argentina's role. It is a bad idea for the U.S. to engage in unilateral sanctions like this.

Third, it will greatly strengthen Russia's and China's position with Venezuela, just as the Cuba embargo accelerated and deepened Cuba's dependence on the Soviet Union. Again, a self-inflicted wound. (Update: Russia is right in there helping Venezuela ease its debt burden).

I tend to doubt that Trump cares enough about Venezuela to accept the risks, assuming he fully understands them. He would likely face an intense (even bigly) backlash at a time when his approval ratings are already terrible.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Maduro's Restructuring Plan

An article at CNBC quotes risk consultants about Nicolás Maduro's announcement of debt restructuring and concludes that this is a political gambit to make himself look stronger for the October 2018 presidential election.

I don't really see this. Maduro's main strategy has to kick cans down the road when faced with a crisis. This sort of announcement gives him and core Chavistas breathing room to sort out their next move. What's notable is that we're not seeing any sort of Néstor Kirchner or Rafael Correa move, which is to give the middle finger to creditors and thereby win the adulation of nationalists. That sort of move would qualify as making himself look stronger, but in fact everyone knows he can't because he needs his creditors too badly.

Maduro is known for empty announcements (remember early Christmas? Oldie but goodie) and I tend to think this restructuring will be taken as such until it shows something more concrete. Certainly it will have no ripple effect that can last an entire year until the election. But by delaying as long as possible, the government can come up with ways of neutralizing (often by arrest) the opposition and carefully planning election fraud so that the outcome of the presidential election is not in doubt.

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Monday, November 06, 2017

Review of Black Man in a White Coat

I read Dr. Damon Tweedy's Black Man in a White Coat. What a cool book. He's a doctor (in psychiatry) at Duke, where he also got his MD. It is a memoir about how he dealt with race in the 1990s as a student, such as being mistaken by a professor for a maintenance worker, and then later as a doctor. As you might guess, that experience burned in him. Yet he is so thoughtful, and used that to become more self-aware of his own biases. He would see poor white people with Confederate flags and immediately make assumptions about them, even ticking off his assumptions, then gradually came to see they were inaccurate.

In that sense he is really honest. In particular he dissects his own failings, not wallowing, but rather understanding. He once had unprotected sex and knows he cannot judge those who got pregnant because he just got luckier. It's all about being aware of yourself so that you are less likely to automatically judge other people. Although he is quite apolitical, he also has a lot to say about how the poor--regardless of race--are largely excluded from health care. There he also realized he made assumptions that people who didn't have health care must not work, but at clinics he found so many working full time who still couldn't afford it, or barely could. There's a lot to ponder in here.

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Latin America in Global IR

I've been in Buenos Aires at a conference hosted by Flacso Argentina on Latin America in Global International Relations. A lot of the ideas talked about here will work their way into this blog and a larger project I'm starting on Latin American autonomy in US-Latin American relations.

One in particular is the question of connecting IR scholars in the US to those in Latin America. Right now that relationship is almost entirely one way--Latin American scholars have used theories developed in the US and adapted them in various ways, but this work does not make its way back to be cited in US-based articles. I made the case that US scholars needed to start reading Latin American stuff more (and that includes me). From a variety of Latin Americans however, I got pushback. That's not realistic, they told me, because of the language barrier. Instead, we need to publish in English and get it out there.

Yet even if they are published, will US scholars take them seriously when they come from journals they've never heard of that may not have an impact factor? Or if they're qualitative? Those who study Latin America will, but others likely won't, unless I'm being overly pessimistic.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Commodities Dominate Latin American Exports

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has a new report that is a "glass half-full/half-empty" type of thing. The value of Latin American exports increased 10% in 2017 but it was based almost entirely on commodities. Processed goods and technology seriously lag behind.

The regional export basket is dominated by basic products such as raw cane sugar, coffee (not roasted or decaffeinated), soybeans, soymeal, maize and frozen beef. In contrast, the region shows a poor export performance in processed products. 
According to ECLAC, the current high concentration in raw materials imposes the urgent challenge of “decommoditizing” the export basket, which is also true of other sectors related to natural resources. 

This has been a policy suggestion for about 60-70 years. Mexico and Brazil have shown some success but too little has changed.

Also of interest, and certainly no surprise, is that trade with China and the rest of Asia is growing more rapidly than anywhere else.

the recovery in regional exports in 2017 will be led by shipments to China and the rest of Asia (23% and 17% value increase, respectively) while exports to the United States and within the region will expand at a rate near the average (9% and 10%, respectively). Meanwhile, sales to the European Union will be less dynamic (with a 6% increase).

China is establishing a relationship whereby it exports manufactured goods and imports raw materials. It has been even more active in pursuing such ties after Donald Trump's election, and before that had been focusing on increasing the import of food from Latin America.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Not So New Cuba Documents

The release of JFK declassified documents has included a few related to Cuba, which have been getting some attention. As I skimmed through them, however, they just seemed familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I was sure I had shown one of them in my class last semester.


For example, one of the documents is particularly disgusting, casually (and sometimes jokingly) referring to killing large numbers of innocent people. The following quote is from page 16 of that document:

"We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cubans in the United States, even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicised."


I don't know why this is the case. In any event, it's not a bad thing to have everyone reminded of the background of U.S.-Cuba policy, or the repellent nature of so much of JFK's foreign policy.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Crazy Cuban Cicadas

The Cuban government has issued a rebuttal of U.S. charges about the infamous "sonic attack." This situation had already become weirder before, and now this is just piling on. The first Cuban argument was that this was illegal so couldn't possibly have taken place in Cuba, which frankly is not the most convincing logic.

Then it gets better:


“It’s the same bandwidth and it’s audibly very similar,” said Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Molina, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Ministry. “We compared the spectrums of the sounds and evidently this common sound is very similar to the sound of a cicada.” 
The program’s narrator said that unnamed “North American researchers” had found that some cicada and cricket noises could be louder than 90-95 decibels, enough to produce hearing loss, irritation and hypertension in situations of prolonged exposure.

This sounds like a 1950s B-Movie.

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