Sunday, February 18, 2018

U.S. Meddling in Politics

Here is former CIA Director James Woolsey joking that the U.S. still meddles in elections around the world "only for a very good cause."

And yet we call Latin American leaders paranoid for believing that the United States is going to interfere in their political systems for our own benefit. "Very good cause" rarely means what's best for the country itself, or what the people of that country actually want. It is, as Woolsey says, for the good of the "system." And we are the system.

Ah, exceptionalism. Your average American is likely indignant that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but simultaneously feels confident that if the U.S. government does so abroad, it's for the right reasons because we are the shining example of the world. That our own democracy has been so sharply eroded tends not to register.

Finally, I come back to the joking. It's funny to cause mayhem, illegitimacy, and death.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

PRI Blames AMLO For Violence

Andrés Manuel López Obrador is regularly accused of all sorts of things, but this is the first time I've seen him accused of fomenting violence.

El líder nacional del PRI, Enrique Ochoa Reza, aseguró que la violencia en el país se duplicó luego de que Andrés Manuel López Obrador, propusiera una amnistía a criminales. 

Now, I will say that it would be fascinating to do a study about whether the anticipation of amnesty increases the frequency of whatever thing is currently prohibited.


Violence in Mexico is deeply rooted and not new, and the PRI is responsible for a chunk of it. The party in power obviously has more impact than a candidate, even if that candidate has a good chance of winning. Not a winning move for the PRI.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Podcast Episode 48: What DACA Recipients Deal With

In Episode 48 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Ana Valdez Curiel, who is an undergraduate here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an activist and involved in a lot of different things but for the purposes of this conversation I have to note that she was brought to the United States as a young child and is currently a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

This is a personal look at DACA and we talk about the stress involved, the uncertainty about life, the misperceptions people have, and the debate over the “good” vs. “bad” immigrant. Congress is dealing with the issueright now and the stakes are high.

Thanks to Alex Frizzell for doing the recording, which for the first time we did at a studio here on the UNC Charlotte campus.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Players in the Cuba Sonic Attack Mystery

Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella have a great long read at ProPublic on the Cuba sonic attack mystery. The sounds seem to be non-natural but why is it happening?

The players:

Cuban government: does not want to antagonize the U.S. and appears to be cooperating fully. But what about rogue groups within the government? Could they be doing this without Raul Castro's knowledge? Unlikely but we don't know.

Russia: Has a history of harassing U.S. diplomats. Loves to make trouble. Maybe does not want Cuba getting closer to the U.S. right when Russia is trying to replace Venezuela and get closer to its old friend. But do old friends back stab each other? And how do a bunch of Russian agents go around Havana without the Cuban government knowing?

North Korea: Rogue country, crazy leader, would love to mess with the U.S. But there is no reason Cuba would allow this, and a bunch of North Koreans running around would definitely attract attention.

Venezuela: rogue and all that. But Cuban intelligence taught them everything they know and no way they're hanging around without Cuba knowing.

Donald Trump: showing uncharacteristic restraint, but still used the crisis to kick out some Cubans and bring U.S. diplomats home. Is mostly uninterested in Cuba except as a way to say Obama does bad deals.

Marco Rubio: Wants rapprochement to end, gets all excited on Twitter. Is happy to use the mystery for political ends. Holds hearings that tell us little.

Canadians: some had issues seemingly related to sounds but they were milder and different. Canadians didn't criticize Cuba and didn't bring anyone home. We like the tourism, eh.

Cuba migrants: screwed because there are not enough personnel in the U.S. embassy to process them. No visa for you!

Cicada expert: don't malign the poor creatures! You'd have to shove one in your ear for this to happen.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Podcast Episode 47: Political Change in Venezuela

In Episode 47 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Geoff Ramsey, Assistant Director of the Venezuela Program at the Washington Office on Latin America. As part of that position, he contributes to the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. They discuss what possibilities there are for political change in Venezuela, including dialogue, international pressure, elections, and military actions. Not exactly an uplifting conversation but we try to end on a positive note.


OAS Report on Human Rights Abuses in Venezuela

The OAS' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report on the human rights situation in Venezuela. Here is the press release and here is the report. It is blistering.

The report concludes with 76 recommendations. The ones that go beyond democratization show how far Venezuela has fallen.

Regularly monitor the nutritional state of the population and investigate testimonies of specific cases of food deprivation, foodrelated corruption, and failure to receive assistance due to lack of inputs.

In other words, feed your people. We'll soon hear denunciations of the report and the IACHR more generally, but people are not getting enough calories, enough medicine, and enough social services.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trump Doesn't Like Latin America Aid

The Congressional Research Service published a report comparing the Trump administration's aid proposal and that of the U.S. Congress. Trump wants to slash it (36% cut) while Congress wants to keep it.

Right off the bat the report says "the Administration’s proposed cuts, combined with other policy shifts, could contribute to a relative decline in U.S. influence in the region." This is stark. It is followed by with several paragraphs later in the report: "In the view of some observers, the Administration’s proposed foreign assistance cuts are part of a broader trend of U.S. disengagement from Latin America and the Caribbean."

Here is the last paragraph of the report:

Over the past year, public approval of U.S. leadership in the Americas has declined from 49% to 24% and disapproval has climbed from 27% to 58%. These relatively high disapproval ratings could constrain the ability of leaders in the hemisphere to work with President Trump, particularly in the six countries preparing to hold presidential elections in 2018.

A fitting and accurate way to conclude. The administration is actively disengaging from Latin America, seemingly as a way to save a little bit of money. This is a penny wise but pound foolish approach.

See also an article on this at InsightCrime.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Trump and Jimmy Morales Have a Convo

Donald Trump met with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, the TV celebrity turned corrupt executive-in-chief. Here is the entire White House statement (h/t Mike Allison). Guatemala's pressing problems right now are corruption and violence.

President Donald J. Trump met today with President James “Jimmy” Morales of Guatemala. President Trump thanked President Morales for supporting the United States and Israel, and for his announced decision to move the Guatemalan embassy to Jerusalem.  The two leaders discussed the situation in Venezuela and agreed to work together to restore democracy to the country.  President Trump also underscored the importance of stopping illegal immigration to the United States from Guatemala and addressing Guatemala’s underlying challenges to security and prosperity.

The upshot: I am not interested in you or your country. We have no plans of developing a strategy to reduce undocumented immigration, so you fix it. Follow our lead on Israel and I'll let you take a picture with me.

To be fair, the meeting is being seen by at least some in Guatemala in a better light and in a larger context, where at least through Rex Tillerson the message is that just moving your embassy doesn't get you off the hook with regard to corruption.


Friday, February 09, 2018

Podcast Episode 46: Latin American Baseball

In Episode 46 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk to Isabelle Minasian, who is an editor at Lookout Landing (a Seattle Mariners site) and a contributor for La Vida Baseball and The Hardball Times. She wrote an article about the Caribbean Winter Leagues for the 2018 Hardball Times Annual, which is the topic of our conversation. Since we're getting close to spring training, it seemed an opportune time to have my first podcast on baseball. It's not focused just on politics, though immigration and the Venezuelan conflict are in there.

I should also note that The Hardball Times has really been focusing more on previously excluded voices, especially women, which is really refreshing in such a male-dominated field. Their podcast is great.


Cuba Defends Blocking Freedom of Expression

The Cuban government never sounds more unhinged than when it defends its right not to allow its citizens to use the internet. Case in point: this article in Granma about U.S. interference in Cuban affairs. It goes back in history to show all the examples of imperialist evil. For example:

Operation Surf, unmasked by State Security agent Raúl - Dalexi González Madruga – consisted of smuggling equipment and software into the country to install illegal antennas to access the internet.
Thank God an intelligence agent was able to stop the free flow of information!

The U.S. Department of State, headed by Condolezza Rice, creates the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, specifically aimed at “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas” in China, Iran and Cuba.

Fortunately this disgusting act of giving people access to the world was stopped!

Of course the U.S. has interfered in Cuba affairs in the past. I've written critically about it more times than I can count, both on the blog and in my own publications. But these examples are just naked authoritarianism, which the Cuban government is typically better at masking.


Thursday, February 08, 2018

Dialogue Failure in Venezuela

The dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition in the Dominican Republic has yielded a proposal from each side. Here is the government's and here is the opposition's.

There are points of agreement but the presidential election in particular keeps them apart. The opposition wants far more guarantees than the government offers. In particular, the opposition does not want a rushed election and needs guarantees that all political rights will not just be respected but will be restored to those who had them stripped for ideological reasons. That's where the government's version remains vague, so the opposition would not sign it. The dialogue is now in "indefinite recess."

So last night the government announced officially that presidential elections will be held April 22. Campaigning will only be allowed between April 2 and April 19. Many potential opposition candidates are either jailed or ruled ineligible. Maduro needs to have these elections quickly and without electoral reform because that's the only way he can win.

And now the opposition must decide whether it participates. Since in fact there is no single opposition, some may run while others boycott. Some may vote while others protest. The Chilean example of 1988 is always on people's minds--see my November 2017 post on that comparison.


Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Stavridis Gently Schools Tillerson

James Stavridis, former head of U.S. Southern Command (and current Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts), has an op-ed damning Rex Tillerson with faint praise, where he's off to a "good start" but basically needs to do everything differently. He says there are six steps the U.S. needs to take, somewhat like telling an addict how to change their ways. Right now we're addicted to failure.

1. Acknowledge how important Latin America is and develop an interagency strategy.
2. Prioritize Mexico and Brazil (including preserving NAFTA).
3. Acknowledge how critical Colombia is.
4. Elevate U.S.-Caribbean relations, especially Puerto Rico.
5. Engage with Cuba
6. Talk softly with Venezuela and let regional allies take the lead

Bonus: he says to stop talking about a "backyard" because it is condescending.

I agree with all of these points and the U.S. is doing poorly on just about every one. I guess Tillerson is doing a bit on #1 (at least traveling there even if showing historical ignorance) and is more solid on #4, but not on the rest.


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Putin Trolls Tillerson in Latin America

First China trolled Rex Tillerson. Now Russia is, with a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

The main takeaway is that the Monroe Doctrine continues to hold sway in Washington, even though it will turn 200 years old fairly soon, in 2023. The world has changed significantly over the years, but the America-for-Americans principle appears to be alive and well. 
Like President James Monroe in his time, Secretary Tillerson cited Russia to justify his conceptual framework, and so we would like to express our view of the region without arguing “by contradiction.”

Boom! The Russians know their history.

There's plenty of flowery nonsense in the statement.

Russia’s relations with Latin American countries are based on substantial shared interests, such as the commitment to the principles of multilateral diplomacy embodied in the UN’s activities, protection and assertion of national sovereignty, and promotion of sustainable development.

Yeah, right. The Russians are not known for their interest in diplomacy and protection of sovereignty, and ideology matters a lot, especially with Cuba and Venezuela, where Russia takes great glee in tweaking the U.S. But the Russians know better than Tillerson what history means in Latin America and they shove his nose in it.

The liberator (as he is referred to in Latin America) Simon Bolivar said that all states have the right to choose their own particular system of government, and other states must respect this choice. The Secretary of State will have the chance to read this eternally relevant quote, when he is in Bogota, at the main entrance to San Carlos Palace, which now houses the Colombian Foreign Ministry. It rings as true as ever today, including in relation to the situation in Venezuela and the dynamics of internal life in Cuba. The experience of half-a-century of US embargo failed to convince only the most obstinate individuals that sanctions pressure will not work against freedom-loving countries and peoples.

Mr. Secretary, make sure you get your historical references straight before the next trip.


Monday, February 05, 2018

Would Trump Sanction Venezuelan Oil?

Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is considering restricting oil imports from Venezuela and U.S. export of refined products back. This had not been on the table in any serious way before because it will impact the U.S. economy directly.

“We are looking at options and we are looking at how to mitigate the impacts on U.S. business interests” and on other countries in the region, Tillerson said.

One thing working in the Trump administration's favor is that Venezuela's inability to produce has decreased the amount of Venezuelan oil that the U.S. consumes. Here's a simple chart you can recreate at the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

You can also see month to month going back to 1993. The drop is drastic. The question is whether the U.S. can find alternatives ahead of time that counterbalance the loss. I assume the administration will not pursue this policy if it means gas prices go up, especially when the midterm elections are dicey already (though interestingly Tillerson only mentioned "business interests" and not "average American" so assumptions are problematic). OPEC is already holding firm and is "over-compliant" because Venezuelan production is at its lowest level since 1989. In short, keeping prices low will be challenging.

I've long ceased trying to predict what Trump will do. But this will be a tricky game to play given its impact on U.S. domestic politics.


Sunday, February 04, 2018

Xi Jinping Trolls Tillerson

As I noted two days ago, Rex Tillerson is trying to spread an unconvincing message of how good the U.S. is versus China. In response, Xi Jinping made a point of celebrating 30 years of relations with Uruguay and promising more.

President Xi Jinping vowed to expand ties with Uruguay in a “comprehensive way” in a message sent to his Uruguayan counterpart Tabare Vasquez on Saturday to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties. 
Relations between China and Uruguay had “witnessed great progress” over the past three decades, Xi said in the message.

He would have sent such a message even without Tillerson's prompt but the Chinese government followed it up:

“What the United States said is entirely against the truth and displayed disrespect to the vast number of Latin American countries,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “China is a major international buyer of Latin American bulk commodities, and imports more and more agricultural and high-value-added products from the region.” 
“The development of China-Latin America ties does not target or reject any third party, nor does it affect the interests of third parties in Latin America,” it added.

This is actually more truthful than Tillerson.

The press has been talking about how Tillerson's message is different than Trump's, which is true to a a degree. The China comments seem very Trumpish, however, with the mix of criticism and self-aggrandizement. Like many Trumpish messages, it is a bad idea and will backfire. Latin America does not need or want the United States to say what's good for everyone. Latin American leaders are perfectly capable of sorting out what kind of ties they want with China.


Saturday, February 03, 2018

Race 2: Gold Rush 5K

The Gold Rush is the 5K on the UNC Charlotte campus, which we have done off and on since it started (years ago it was so small I won awards, but now it's big). Great new look this year, with the biggest change being that all pre and post race stuff was in Belk Gym. Previously everything was on the track and this time of year can be cold (it was in the high 20s at race time). My 9 year old daughter came in second in her age group, with her friend in first (ok, there were only two in the field, but still). So they got a picture with Norm.

Campus is hilly and mile 3 was tough as a result, but it's always a fun race to do.


US Getting Closer to Mexico and That's a Problem

A few days ago I noted how Mexico's exports to the United States had actually increased during the Trump administration. Now Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray says Mexico's relationship with the United States is closer now than it was during Obama or Bush.

“I think in many ways the relationship today is more fluid, it’s closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people but that’s a fact of life,” said Mexico’s top diplomat.

Fluid, yes, no doubt. It's hard to pin down what the U.S. position is on many issues because they change with every tweet. As for closer, I would hazard the guess that given uncertainty and a skeleton staff at the State Department, Mexican diplomats have to work harder to develop personal relationships with Trump's top aides. In fact, Videgaray may be referring specifically to his relationship with Jared Kushner. From last October:

“Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy,” the U.S. official told me earlier this year. “It’s all pretty much just between them. There’s not really any interagency relationships going on right now.” In the State Department, he explained, career diplomats were no longer kept informed: “U.S. officials sometimes learn the latest not from their own agencies but from their Mexican counterparts—especially Videgaray.”

The "closer" is therefore not a positive sign. It is not based on broad institutional relationships but solely on personal ones. That makes it weaker.


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