Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nick Hornby's Housekeeping vs. the Dirt

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt is the second collection of Nick Hornby book review essays that I've read (the other was The Polysyllabic Spree, which I see I thought was less funny than he thought. I didn't get that type of impression this time). I find these books irresistible because he's a great writer, is not at all pompous about the books, and embraces the idea of being spontaneous about buying books but then reading according to mood. In fact, reading him makes me add stuff to my Amazon list that I may or may not ever buy or read.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Podcast Episode 39: Muslim Immigration to Argentina

In Episode 39 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Steven Hyland, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Wingate University. He specializes in modern Argentina and international migration. He has a new book coming out entitled More Argentine Than You:Arab-Speaking Immigrants in Argentina with University of New Mexico Press. We discuss Muslim immigration to Argentina how that fit with Peronism, and broader patterns across Latin America.


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Trump Doctrine in Latin America

I have a post up at Global Americans, trying to explain the contradictions of the Trump Doctrine in Latin America, and how Mike Pence and others have to spend time explaining to foreign leaders that they need to ignore his boss. My take on the Trump Doctrine.


Indeed, at least to this point the “Trump Doctrine” in Latin America has two essential elements: first, strong and sometimes bellicose rhetorical opposition to the Obama Administration’s policies; second, significant substantive continuity with Obama Administration policies combined with threats to change that fact. 

Click to read more!

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Santos Lectures Pence

It happened that Mike Pence went first to Colombia for his Latin America visit, so it was up to Juan Manuel Santos to tell him that Donald Trump's comments on Venezuela were counterproductive.

Santos said no Latin America country would accept any form of U.S. military intervention in Venezuela and that it should never even be considered. Recalling more than a century of U.S. military action throughout Latin America, Santos said no Latin leader wants "that phantom" to reappear.

There's an important point here. Trump supporters (or those playing devil's advocate) say that of course every option is on the table, that's true for all presidents, and Trump was just stating the obvious. But Santos is pointing out that in Latin America the military option should remain off the table. It won't work as planned and is not credible.

Remember, that's coming from an ally. And ideologically, Santos is not one to harp on U.S. intervention, given how deeply involved the U.S. government was with Plan Colombia. In other words, the Trump administration needs to make sure it's listening.

Instead, as I noted two days ago, the administration is insisting on treating the situation as bilateral.

Earlier Sunday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that Trump talked about the possibility of military action to "give the Venezuelan people hope and opportunity to create a situation where democracy can be restored.

The only "opportunity" will come with multilateral pressure. The only way to generate multilateral pressure is to avoid inflammatory statements. Coalitions are hard to construct and they require a lot of keeping your diplomatic mouth shut.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Will Englund's March 1917

Will Englund's March 1917 covers the events of that month that culminated with Woodrow Wilson asking Congress to declare war and enter World War I. He's a good writer and especially in the second half he narrates the tension that led up to Wilson's speech (which actually was not in March).

The disparate figures in the book, from Wilson to musician James Europe, first female member of Congress Jeanette Rankin, journalist H.L. Mencken, and a number of others, don't always add up to any particular whole. People were doing stuff, even interesting stuff, as the country lurched toward war. Some were influential, some were not. So I think the book is trying to get at mood more than anything else.

One element of the book that is worth pondering is how World War I gave Americans more of a sense than ever that they were messianic saviors of the world. The messianic part had always been there*, but the war made it truly global. We've suffered a lot as a country as a result because it is applied so broadly.

* On this point, read Brian Loveman's No Higher Law.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Trump's Venezuela Policy

I have a piece in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that just came out about U.S. policy toward Latin America. More specifically, it examines the effectiveness of soft power versus hard power.

Coincidentally, shortly after it came out Donald Trump announced that a "military option" was not off the table for Venezuela. This is Trump's "deal making," whereby he blusters to appear tough and then backs down. I suppose he believes such a statement will frighten the Venezuelan government to the bargaining table.

I am one of many who argued that doing this was a gift to Nicolás Maduro, who can use it to whip up nationalist sentiment. Chavistas who are wavering will find it harder to pull away when he talks like this.

But it was also unfortunate because Trump seems to be claiming that the Venezuela situation is somehow bilateral. It makes diplomacy more difficult, to the extent that the Trump administration cares. Allies in the region such as Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, all came out against the statement. It makes a multilateral solution even more challenging, and it was painfully difficult to begin with.

Henrique Capriles hasn't said anything, except to retweet the U.S. Defense Department's statement that it didn't know anything, and in general the opposition isn't talking. That's unfortunate. Perhaps they want to be careful about offending Trump, since they like how he keeps Venezuela in the headlines. Trump is a vain man who pays attention to those who criticize him.

Several months ago, I noted that Trump was doing little with Venezuela and that was a good thing. It is likely he will continue doing little, but there comes a point when the "walking loudly" is counter-productive.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

U.S. Leverage in Venezuela

A group of U.S. senators seem not to understand leverage. They are publicly asking Donald Trump not to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry, arguing (correctly, in my opinion) that such a move would hurt U.S. refiners and would push Venezuela more toward China and Russia.

“There is a market outside of the U.S. to receive the Venezuelan oil,” the senators wrote. “Ultimately, it is in the best interest of the U.S. and the Venezuelan people to maintain our economic ties as leverage for delivering a democratic government back to the people.”

Right now, a chunk of the U.S. economy is dependent on the continued flow of Venezuelan oil. As a result, no U.S. president has seriously contemplated stopping it. That means the economic ties do not generate any leverage. If anything, they do the opposite--Nicolás Maduro and the Constituent Assembly can feel reasonably confident that their actions will not be punished beyond the individual sanctions, which don't have much impact.

The idea that the U.S. could "deliver a democratic government back to the people" is both insulting and incorrect. The U.S. won't have much to do with the solution to the Venezuelan crisis as long as it fails to forge a multilateral solution, which right now it appears not to be doing.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Immigration Policy and Prices

When I've been asked about the effects of immigration reform, one answer I always give is that prices will increase. One reason produce is so cheap, for example, is that undocumented workers are being paid very low wages. Since picking fruits and vegetables is so taxing, if all workers are legal then farmers will have to raise wages significantly.

In California we're seeing a problematic wrinkle on this issue. In the absence of reform and in the context of harsh anti-immigrant policies, growers are offering higher wages and benefits but not getting takers.


Farmers say they're having trouble hiring enough people to work during harvest season, causing some crops to rot before they can be picked. Already, the situation has triggered losses of more than $13 million in two California counties alone, according to NBC News. 
The ongoing battle about U.S. immigration policies is blamed for the shortage. The vast majority of California's farm workers are foreign born, with many coming from Mexico. However, the PEW Research Center reports more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than coming here.


This is the worst of all worlds. Crops rot, farmers get hit, workers don't have jobs, and prices go up.

Update: Minneapolis Fed President tells employers to shut up, stop whining, and just raise wages higher.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Ecuador Supports the Constituent Assembly

9 days since constituent assembly vote. 4 days since it took power.

I had been writing about how Lenín Moreno was remaining conspicuously silent about Venezuela. He as an individual remains silent*, but his government released a statement condemning Mercosur's suspension of Venezuela. Here is the key part:

Ninguna voluntad extraña puede conminar al Gobierno de Venezuela a tomar decisiones contrapuestas a sus intereses legítimos, ni a desconocer la voluntad general de su pueblo, que se ha expresado en las urnas a favor de instalar al Poder Constituyente

Ecuador is saying straight up that a clearly fraudulent process is the will of the people. This is a very nice boost for Nicolás Maduro. Bolivia and Ecuador can stand as serious obstacles in the OAS.

* As a matter of fact, on Twitter he was talking about getting more foreign oil investment.

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Broadening the Venezuelan Opposition

8 days since constituent assembly vote. 3 days since it took power.

Henrique Capriles is reaching out to disaffected Chavistas. This is a good move that will broaden the opposition and shift its image. This won't be easy because those Chavistas hate Maduro, not Chávez.

I would go even further and consider giving one of those leftists a prominent leadership role. The opposition has found it hard to shake accusations of privilege, of wanting to ignore the reasons Hugo Chávez came to power in the first place, of disregard for the poor. Leopoldo López can't be the face of a unified opposition. The "united" part would be for free elections only--I can't imagine such a thing morphing into a ruling coalition sometime later.

Since Maduro is not allowing democratic change to occur, a broader opposition will serve as a signal both to Chavistas and the armed forces that the government is too unpopular to support. No doubt the opposition is putting out feelers to the military as well. Ideally, the combination of domestic and international pressure would force the government to engage in substantive dialogue, which would ultimately lead to elections. I am not holding my breath, but that's the hope.

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Sunday, August 06, 2017

Rebellion in Venezuela

7 days since constituent assembly vote, 2 day since it took power.

A major question in Venezuela right now is what the rank and file military officers are thinking. They are the foundation of state power, and we do not know the extent of the gap between the generals and lower-ranking officers.

Along these lines there was an attack on a military base in Carabobo state, which may or may not involve active duty officers but which is likely not to be the last example of rebellion. The state is eliminating all forms of legal political opposition (forcing out Luisa Ortega is the most obvious recent example), which means the opposition can only take to the streets and encourage military action. Closing out legal channels of dissent may well be the most dangerous thing the government is currently doing--the long-term effects will be violent and bad for everyone.

As the violence increases, the government will need the army to quell dissent. That is where loyalty is sorely tested. The soldier on the street aiming his gun at fellow Venezuelans--not the general sitting in his air-conditioned office and driving a new imported car--is the one whose loyalty will matter. And the worse things get, the less you can count on it.

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Saturday, August 05, 2017

Review of John Farrell's Richard Nixon: The Life

John Farrell's Richard Nixon: The Life is a snappily written and well-documented biography. The tone can move toward disbelief and sarcasm here and there, but given the record of unethical, illegal, and downright stupid actions, that can perhaps be forgiven.

The main attraction of the book is that Farrell does a tremendous job getting at the emotion, especially through the use of recorded interviews, notes, and the like regarding key moments. The Checkers speech was preceded by intense frustration and tension, with everyone wondering whether it would end with his announced resignation as VP candidate. The Pentagon Papers, which should've been a hit to LBJ and JFK, made him furious and so he lashed out. Watergate, of course, led to despair. There are a lot of great quotes, often related to Nixon's utter amorality or his extreme discomfort with other human beings.

That emotional side also helps you see Nixon's gradual emotional decline. By the time he was president, it took almost nothing to set him off. Indeed, he knew he would give orders that shouldn't be carried out. He admitted it, which itself is insane for a president. But when you're surrounded by ideologues like Charles Colson, those orders will sometimes be followed. And he'll hire crazier people like Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Farrell argues that Nixon hoped J. Edgar Hoover would do the dirty work, as he had periodically done for past presidents, but when he refused Nixon had to find his own people.

As I read, I realized there was no mention of previous biographies until the end, no explanation of what niche this book fills. Not until the acknowledgments do we learn that he liked the past biographies but wrote it to include more sources (like oral histories, which help capture the emotion) and to be an accessible one-volume biography for people to read for the 50th anniversary of his 1968 election. Fair enough.

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Friday, August 04, 2017

Podcast Episode 38: The Russia-Cuba Connection

In Episode 38 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Mervyn Bain, who is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Head of School of Social Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. He has published extensively on the relationship between Russia and Cuba. Among other things, we discuss the continued strength of the relationship, the role of the United States, and what the future might hold. I find it particularly intriguing to think about how many Russians might feel angry if they felt they "lost" Cuba, just as Americans felt the same way half a century ago.



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Veto in Quito

Fascinating scene in Ecuador, where there is a leftist brawl, a mirror image of the conservative brawl in Colombia. Lenín Moreno stripped Vice President Jorge Glas of his authority because of corruption charges and because of Glas' criticisms, which prompted Rafael Correa to go off on Twitter.



Get out your popcorn on this one. Glas is still VP but without any authority, which I have not heard of before, but he says he will not resign. The Alianza País party is in an uproar. The party released a statement on Twitter calling for unity and telling the "rancid" right this would not mean any change of platform or ideas.

Article 147 of the Ecuadorian constitution stipulates the following:

The Vice-President of the Republic, when not replacing the President of the Republic, shall perform the duties that the latter assigns him/her.

What this means it that the Vice President has power only to the extent that the President assigns/delegates it. If the president assigns nothing, the VP does nothing even though he/she remains in office.

Incidentally, this is yet another reason not to expect Ecuador to play much of a role in the Venezuela crisis.

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Venezuela's Core Support

TeleSur notes that four countries support Venezuela's Constituent Assembly: China, Russia, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. Unwittingly, the article gives a long list of countries opposed but can only come up with four specific examples of supporters. (Oddly enough, they do not mention Cuba, which is unsurprisingly supportive). What this shows is how weak Venezuela's international position is.

China's support is based on protecting its investments. The Chinese government made a statement that the voting was "generally held smoothly," which helped boost Venezuela's bonds. Last year China indicated it did not want to throw good money after bad, and it does not want default. Therefore it does not want unpredictable regime change.

Russia's support is based largely on poking the United States. Russia has a long diplomatic relationship with Venezuela, which has fueled countless conspiracy theories, but for the most part it's a reminder to the United States that Russia is present in its back yard (with the obvious message that the U.S. should stay out of Russia's). At the same time, Russian companies are also exposed in Venezuela and so do not want more upheaval.

Neither country will stick its neck out for Nicolás Maduro, and China in particular just wants reassurance about its investments.

Nicaragua's support is Daniel Ortega's ingenious ability to support everything. He talks stridently about imperialism while working closely with the U.S. government. He can be counted on to stick with Maduro all the way, but would also be ready to work with anyone. He will not sacrifice much for Maduro.

Evo Morales, meanwhile, is a true believer. He can be trusted to support Maduro to the hilt and blame all troubles on the U.S. He is one of the last of the leftist leaders who swept in over a decade ago still in office, and seems to see himself as the standard bearer of that era.

Conspicuous by its absence here is Ecuador. Rafael Correa was a vocal leftist internationalist but Lenín Moreno is not, which is partly why they're beginning a Juan Manuel Santos/Alvaro Uribe type of feud. Moreno tends to keep his mouth shut about Venezuela, and definitely is not providing support.

Overall, this is shallow support. Evo Morales is the key, as he can work the smaller countries in the hemisphere to reduce any majority in the OAS. Cuba is not particularly relevant diplomatically, and the rest will not stick their necks out too far.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

U.S. Support for Colombia Peace

There was a hearing today on the Colombia peace process before the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women's Issues. What's especially notable is that there is a diverse group of people giving testimony and two of them are the current front runners for the important Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs position (William Brownfield and Francisco Palmieri, who is currently the interim). But all agree that the U.S. needs to stay committed to promoting the peace process.

The Trump administration is focused almost exclusively on drugs. Well, fine--funding alternative crops and bringing the displaced back into the formal economy helps with that, but it requires commitment. You hate the FARC? Fine, but never-ending war doesn't achieve much. Bring them into the formal economy and the political system, all the while verifying what they're doing. We can only hope that Trump doesn't care about Colombia to the point that he lets his own officials do the work. Work, incidentally, that is just a continuation of President Obama's policies.

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Taking Stock in Venezuela

3 days since the constituent assembly vote.

In terms of the hemispheric response to the Venezuela vote, there's a sense of taking stock.

--Chile announced that two Venezuelan judges had taken refuge in their embassy and might be granted asylum. 

--Overall, the hemisphere is largely critical but cautious (see this post at Global Americans). It's worth noting, however, that criticism is more widespread than it has ever been since Hugo Chávez first took office.

--Rex Tillerson continued the administration's blustery response with ill-advised words:

The situation, from a humanitarian standpoint, is already becoming dire. We are evaluating all our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution. 

Talking off the cuff about regime change doesn't help anything.

--Smartmatic, which made the voting machines used in Venezuela, said the vote total was false.

This is going to be the sort of situation that involves a lot of small factors gradually coming together. As more evidence of fraud and human rights abuses emerge, more governments will feel empowered to be critical and perhaps even more Venezuelan government officials will feel empowered to speak out against their own leader (which, incidentally, is precisely why you have to be careful about imposing sanctions on lots of people in government).

At this point, the Venezuelan government will get the assembly together as fast as it possibly can to impose change before more of the hemisphere becomes more critical. Nicolás Maduro says it'll happen soon.

Finally, here's a nice look at the issue of the military, which has to keep order throughout all this. As I've written, Hugo Chávez become prominent in large part because of resistance to Carlos Andrés Pérez using the military to attack the people. Now we've come full circle and at some point one has to wonder whether the rank and file like to keep repressing fellow Venezuelans.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Symbolic Unilateral Sanctions in Venezuela

2 days since the constituent assembly vote.

The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Nicolás Maduro himself, which puts him on a list of people who are given symbolic sanctions yet remain in power. Maduro responded by referring to Trump's popular vote loss, which is actually something that might get the president's attention. Meanwhile, Canada condemned the vote but is not pursuing sanctions. That's true of a number of countries in the hemisphere.

And that's really the problem. Unilateral sanctions aren't going to do much but no one has the stomach to act multilaterally--not just for sanctions but for anything.  Back in March I argued that Latin America would not unite and so far it hasn't. Inaction is Maduro's biggest ally right now. The Trump administration can bully and bluster but at best that has little impact and at worse entrenches the Chavista core and makes other Latin American countries more hesitant to jump on board.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

AMLO and Venezuela

Andrés Manual López Obrador isn't too happy about accusations of being close to Nicolás Maduro. The PRD is demanding he make a clear statement about the Venezuelan crisis. AMLO went so far as to say his opponents want to "scare" people. In other words, Nicolás Maduro is a boogeyman, even for AMLO.

The political impact in Mexico is obvious. AMLO is a serious candidate for president and the other parties want to torch him. They've been trying to link his ideas to Venezuela for a while and laying it on as thick as possible.

But it also says a lot about Venezuela's regional presence. This is what being a pariah state means--even a hardcore leftist insists that he doesn't want anything to do with Venezuela. Latin American leftists seeking office don't want to associate with Maduro or the Venezuelan economic model more generally.


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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Venezuela Vote Explainer Explained

Venezuelans are voting today on members of a Constituent Assembly. TeleSur's handy explainer tells us a lot, actually more than it probably intends. Three main points:

1. The nine stated goals (as laid out in a decree from Nicolás Maduro) make no sense. Somehow this assembly will mean Venezuela is no longer dependent on oil and Venezuelans will all get along. Laying them out so uncritically would be amusing if it weren't so perverse.

2. The sectors are confusing and the voting system chaotic.



A post at Caracas Chronicles highlights how confusing it is for voters. Even if you sort out your sector (there are nine sub-sectors within workers too) then you have to figure out who the candidates actually are and where to vote.

Conditions change by the minute, and because there are so many candidates, people will vote for a number, not a name. Chances are, people will just pick them at random.   
The grandpa scratched his cheek. 
“Well, first I’ll vote for number one, that’s Delcy (Rodríguez). Then I’ll vote for the number a friend is going to tell me, someone she knows and I like.”
There's too little information available and the voting system is intended to be opaque. Just choose a number and get a Chavista. The state will work out the rest.

3. The process is an explicit rejection of representative democracy.

This has been described as an attempt to deepen the kind of participatory democracy mentioned in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, but developed more explicitly after 2005 by the government of Hugo Chavez. However it is anathema to those who believe representative democracy – electing representatives every four or five years and leaving it to them – is the only acceptable form of democracy.

This almost renders #2 moot. Who cares about the name of the candidate when they have no plans to represent you anyway? And that really sums up the explainer and the process itself.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of Murder on the Orient Express

On a whim, I bought Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express at a used bookstore, in Julian CA, of all places. It was a perfect book for traveling. I had read it years ago and in fact about 1/3 of the way through remembered the solution, but several things stood out for me anyway.

First, it begins in Aleppo, then quickly discusses Mosul and Baghdad. Right away it is showing you the places involved in the current fight against ISIS. And of course everyone in the novel sees the area as both a necessary part of the British Empire and a nuisance because of the locals. Later the British train official doesn't want the "Jugo-Slavian" police involved because they get all puffed up and indignant when talked down to.

Second, it engages in the worst stereotypes about "Latins" (in this case an Italian, but obviously it could be a Spaniard, Chilean, or anyone else). Of course they would be more likely to stab someone 20 times. That's what they do!

Third, it makes the same sorts of stereotypes about women, who also are more likely to get crazy and stab someone in his train bed. Couldn't be the stiff-upper lip British guy because they're so non-violent.

At least it is true, though, that the stereotypes are used to distract the reader because the truth is not so clear. Nonetheless, those stereotypes are accepted as generally accurate anyway.

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Jeff Sessions in El Salvador

Attorney General Jeff Sessions went to El Salvador where he emphasized that MS-13 had its "base" in El Salvador, when in fact it originated in Los Angeles and is based there and many other places. He then asked President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to put "emphasis" on gangs, as if that was something that perhaps a Salvadoran president doesn't already do. All of that to promote a mano dura policy that is widely seen as counterproductive, especially in a country with abusive police.

It's a seductive approach, as it drips with masculine images of being tough, hurting "bad guys," throwing people in prison and throwing away the key, etc. When it doesn't work, you can easily just say you didn't do it hard enough. And every so often you can go down to El Salvador and tell them to work harder, then head back to tell your boss how tough you are.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

The Administration Has No Positive Role to Play in Venezuela

Lots of discussion about the Trump administration's sanctions on Venezuelan officials and more generally what kind of role the administration can/should play.

I think what David Smilde recently wrote is characteristic of those who argue that the administration needs to be careful and that unilateral sanctions will likely be counterproductive:

The Trump administration can certainly do a lot to facilitate logistics and diplomacy around the negotiations. However, it must refrain from trying to lead and must resist adopting distracting unilateral actions.
Increasingly I am leaning toward the idea that the administration has no positive role to play at all. The idea that it could bring countries together, provide logistics, or talk to Nicolás Maduro in any sort of productive manner, seems silly. The Secretary of State has shown no ability to do any such thing, and in any case is peripheral to (or perhaps even absent from) decision-making. Indeed, the president undercuts him all the time. Lots of lower level positions are unfilled, and even qualified people need their instructions from above. There is no one above with the diplomatic skills to explain what's needed. For whatever reason, Secretary Tillerson himself seems to be avoiding the issue of Venezuela.

In short, the United States should and could be playing a role in bringing hemispheric partners together but it is simply unable. The Trump administration has alienated almost everyone, has no leverage anywhere, and tends to make things worse when it acts. Therefore it's preferable that it does nothing.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mexican History in Wax

Like last year, I took my kids across the border today into Tijuana for a little excursion. As I wrote last year, Mexico needs tourists and if you're in San Diego, I strongly encourage you to go and even just spend a few hours in Tijuana. This is all especially true now as anti-immigrant and anti-Mexico sentiment is so high and alarming. It is easy to park and walk over. The primary challenge is waiting in line to return (we waited about an hour mid-afternoon). Even walking around with three kids, I felt as safe in Tijuana as in any large U.S. city.

We even checked out the wax museum, which is near the border. It's a blend of history and kitsch. You see ancient history, the revolutionary leaders, some current leaders and artists, but then also some of the stars of the early 1990s when the museum was opened. So there's Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes along with Catinflas. We chatted a little about Mexican history, and my 12 year old daughter actually recognized Vicente Fox (whose pointing finger is inexplicably broken!) because of his viral Trump videos.



Especially with kids, it's good to walk around and just talk about stereotypes of rapists and criminals, and about how tightly connected border cities are. You can literally look at how a global economy works.

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Blogging Break

I haven't posted and likely won't for a while. My dad was hospitalized and I came to San Diego* to help. It was scary for a while but he is doing much better. I'll come back when I have the time and brainpower.

I don't know what condition Venezuela will be in by then.

* Where I grew up. I mean, how many Padres fans are out there who grew up somewhere else?

Update: My dad gives his own take on his near death experience.

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Monday, July 03, 2017

LASA Resolution on Venezuela

There is a new LASA resolution up for a vote:

Whereas: we recognize that different political forces have contributed to the crisis in Venezuela, we are particularly concerned about the recent events and government decisions that undermine democracy in Venezuela; be it Resolved, that the Latin American Studies Association (LASA); 
  • firmly condemns the violation of human rights and the undermining of democracy in Venezuela;
  • urges the Venezuelan government to ensure free and impartial electoral processes, to cease the arrest of activists, to release political prisoners, to halt violence against peaceful protestors, and to respect human rights and civil liberties for all citizens;
  • invokes Venezuela to seek a peaceful resolution of this crisis, within the framework of international law and humanitarian norms.

Disclaimer: This resolution reflects the Executive Council’s belief that the membership of LASA should express their opinion on this issue. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily reflect the unanimous view of the Council. 

This comes a few weeks after the LASA Executive Council refused to issue any resolution, which I noted was an embarrassment. This one doesn't have any nonsense about "historicizing" the conflict or claiming the state and civil society are equally culpable. It is straightforward and clear, just like the Brazil resolution last year. No rambling, ideologically-laden screeds. The Venezuelan government needs to democratize.

I voted yes.

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

Evo Morales Tweetstorm on Chile

Evo Morales is tweeting denunciations of Chile, which is currently doing naval (submarine) exercises with the United States.


In just three tweets, he packs in paranoia, ideology, accusations of imperialism, and even a dose of anti-Semitism. It's pretty odd to think of Chile as a lapdog of the United States, frankly at any time in its entire history, but things always get clouded when a Bolivian president talks about Chile. The Israel reference is also weird and he first made it a week ago in a similarly offbeat reference.

Think about these tweets whenever an OAS discussion about Venezuela returns, because it also shows the grim determination of the Bolivian government to oppose anything the U.S. does.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Podcast Episode 37: The U.S. Media and Venezuela

In Episode 37 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Hannah Dreier, who just finished three years as Venezuela correspondent for The Associated Press. She is the recipient of the 2016 James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for her coverage of the Venezuelan crisis. In July she’ll join ProPublica and cover immigration. In particular, we talked about the challenges of being a reporter in Venezuela, the difference between being a foreign and local reporter, and in general the nature of the coverage that Americans consume about Venezuela.

In the podcast, she mentions that this is the story that she "liked" (in the sense of how it conveyed something to reader as opposed to enjoying it) the most.



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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Quarantining Venezuela

The New York Times published an op-ed by Enrique Krauze, which calls for "quarantine."


And yet, in solidarity with the courageous Venezuelan people, Europe and the major countries of Latin America could support a quarantine — diplomatic, financial, commercial and political — of the outlaw regime of Mr. Maduro. They might persuade the first Latin American pope to take a stronger stand and together pressure Raúl Castro to accept a democratic solution: a halt to the repression, immediate elections, the re-establishment of civil liberties, respect for democratic institutions and the release of political prisoners.

Good lord, people. This is what we finally figured out didn't work with Cuba. Go ahead, punish the Venezuelan people with an embargo and see whether this magically makes the Maduro government and his military backers go away, or whether it simply deepens repression. Krauze argues the Trump administration should stay out of it, but I don't think that matters. Logic is logic.

And indeed, Krauze argued not long ago that the Obama administration had regained the moral high ground by rejecting quarantine with Cuba. The same logic should apply to other countries as well.

In re-establishing relations with Cuba, the United States renounces its “imperial destiny” and recovers much of the moral legitimacy needed to uphold the democratic values that led to its foundation (and also of the countries of Latin America). Obama’s action is meant for the good of all the Americas, including the United States. And freedom of expression in Cuba is an absolute necessity for its success. No people or country is an island unto itself. The Castro dynasty has kept Cuba as such for 56 years.

Yes, we should take his earlier advice, not his later.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Political Will in Colombia

Nazih Richani has a post at AULA Blog about the prospects for successfully implementing the peace accord in Colombia. Referring to forces trying to block it, he says:

These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

I added the emphasis. By coincidence, I just participated yesterday in a State Department roundtable on Colombia and the peace agreement. We discussed all kinds of different issues, but I felt that one overarching point was the question of political will. This is something political scientists don't study much because it's so hard to measure.

In the Colombian case, it's pretty simple: will Colombian politicians--even Santos supporters--tackle the hard questions of land reform, getting the necessary resources to remote areas in both the short and long terms, and in general filling the vast amounts of blank spaces with a state presence? There was lots of shrugging on that question.

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Monday, June 26, 2017

Self-Promotion in Academia

Dan Nexon had a long series of tweets about self-promotion, which generated a number of responses. They are all tied nearly here. His main point is that when you publish an article you need to make sure it gets as much attention as possible, which means going to social media consistently. It's not a one-shot deal.

The discussion veered around a bit about how times have changed and what young scholars should be doing now. And that's when I realized that there was no definition of goals. In other words, what's the point of all this? That question will be answered very differently by different people.

Goals include but are not limited to:

  • tenure and promoted to Associate Professor
  • promotion to Full Professor
  • publication
  • citations
  • external grants
  • salary increases
  • visibility in your field
  • visibility to the public
  • engagement with others on a topic you're passionate about
  • fulfilling college/university mission
  • media quotes
  • get invited to give talks
  • become policy relevant (in whatever way)

Some of these overlap, but some don't, and you do different things to achieve them. Self-promotion may or may not be part of that. Plus, some goals are critical to your life and some are not.

Change of vantage point will necessarily shift what choices you make. Take me, for example, and compare me to another white male full professor, even in my own department. Functionally we're the same. I use social media all the time--I love writing, the engagement, etc. The other professor does not, but loves his research and feels great about his work. This doesn't make either of us more or less "successful" in any sense. I won't be paid more because of social media presence, or cited more. If we're both enjoying our careers, then it doesn't matter much.

Or take an assistant professor. Their goal is tenure. Period. For some, social media serves as a way to connect to established scholars and engage with interested people they otherwise wouldn't have met. For others, social media is time consuming, worry-inducing, and draining. I'd tell the second person not to bother. Neither would necessarily be more likely to get tenure.

Of course, if the faculty member is a person of color, a woman, LGBTQ+, and/or any other under-represented minority, the calculation is far different because self-promotion is much more often taken as aggression of some sort and leads to more backlash. As a middle-aged, white, male, tenured full professor I am about as protected as you can get and so my choices are much wider open. Also check out Stephanie Carvin's series of tweets about the work/life balance challenge for women. I also have not addressed non-tenure track faculty, where you add in a whole host of other challenges.

I could go on and on with examples. Self-promotion is good for some, and maybe not for others. It fits some people and not others. I think this is like my many posts about academic writing. There is no single formula.

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Ex-Latin American Presidents Become Legislators

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced she is running for Senate, soon after creating a new party that may well split the Argentine left in the October elections.

Aside from the Argentine context, it's fascinating to see how it's common for former Latin American presidents to go into the legislature, even when they've been removed through means of dubious constitutionality.

It's not a natural choice. If you want to maintain political influence, then the legislature is a difficult place to do it. You are but vote, one voice amidst a cacophony. It's especially striking in a region with a strong presidential system. On the other hand, as an elected official you cannot be ignored the same way a former president with no official position might be. But does anyone think Alvaro Uribe really needs to a be a senator (which he is) to be influential? His senatorial position is secondary to his reputation.

Some of the answer may just be the personalization of parties. Kirchner created a new party, as did Uribe. Mel Zelaya joined a new party created precisely because of his ouster. If you're in a new party and it is focused on you, then it's harder to gain momentum if you are not deeply involved in the electoral process itself.

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

U.S. Influence in the OAS is Low

Mark Weisbrot has a post at Venezuela Dialogue arguing that the OAS is serving as a U.S. puppet as it tries to overthrow the Venezuelan government. He has questions that he clearly believes prove his point if you answer them. One in particular caught my attention:

How about the fact that the US government, led by Donald Trump and his allies filled with hatred for Venezuela, has more control over OAS decision-making at this time that it has had in decades?

The problem with this question is that it comes right as the Trump administration lost an OAS vote for the IACHR and the candidate was highly qualified by any standard. Of course, the U.S. also recently failed on more than one occasion to get enough support for action against the Maduro government.

I would actually amend his question as well, because I don't think Donald Trump hates Venezuela. He doesn't care about Venezuela at all. He will take pictures with people that Marco Rubio shuffles into the Oval Office and periodically continue the Obama targeted sanction policy, but I haven't seen anything beyond that. He does not care enough about Venezuela to do any serious work at the OAS to push U.S. policy.

This is all irrespective of whether you think his specific actions toward Venezuela (mostly confined to continuation of Obama's targeted sanctions) are good or not. My point is that evidence suggests that U.S. influence over the OAS is lower than it's been in some time. I suppose you could argue that the U.S. is telling Luis Almagro what to do, but this is a guy with decades of foreign policy work in the Uruguayan government, including as ambassador to several countries. Claiming he has no agency and no independent thought seems a stretch.

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Trump TweetAttacks Mexico

Donald Trump went after Mexico again in a tweet:


Putting Mexico in the same category as long-time war zones is exactly the kind of stereotype I actively try to counteract when teaching (I took my young children to Mexico last year--I would not take them to Syria). Trump's charge comes from a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and it specifically mentions Syria, though it cites only a Mexican government homicide report without any context.

The Mexican government felt obliged to respond, which it did on its website and also tweeted. Sadly ironic about the response was that it a) said we should not finger-point; and b) finger-pointed by specifically mentioning other Latin American countries that had worse homicide rates than Mexico.

This sort of outburst will have the effect of worsening U.S.-Mexican relations, damaging U.S.-Latin American relations, reducing U.S. credibility, and decreasing U.S. influence in the region.

And you know what? President Trump does not care. At a time when he's being hit from all directions with scandal, this is a little shot in the arm to his base. At least it's just on Twitter. Many past U.S. presidents have invaded in large part to pump up nationalist sentiment within their base (No one will mourn Manuel Noriega's recent death, but he found out what happens when a U.S. president rides a nationalist wave against the "other" in Latin America).

As Donald Trump would say, sad.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Baseball and Politics in Venezuela

ESPN has a great story that brings politics and baseball together. Octavio Hernandez taught himself some sabermetric skills in Venezuela, where data wasn't really used at all to analyze baseball. He also marches against the government.

"A couple weeks ago I was on a march, a demonstration, breathing tear gas, because we have a political system that is crumbling the whole state," Hernandez says. "To think about baseball makes me a little guilty at night. 
"But what I remember is, no, baseball is not necessary to humanity, but we can add to the analysis of humankind, to humanity's way of thinking, with the way we analyze baseball. If we analyzed politics here the way we analyze baseball, we maybe wouldn't be like this right now. If we were more focused on facts we could be a greater society."
This might be a stretch--just look at all the data analysis in the U.S. and our political system is in terrible shape--but the basic argument is that politics should be based on facts rather than false assumptions. Hernandez sees data as a foundation:

"We're not an organized country," he says. "Data is a form of organization, of order, and we don't have that here. We don't keep records. In the U.S. you can know, 'Oh, my grandpa was from Scotland.' You have long records. We don't know where our grandfather is from. You guys always have, 'Oh, 70 percent of people eat bananas in the morning.' We don't have that. It's not that we don't find it 'cool.' It's not part of us.

Meanwhile, he has to stop working periodically because of power outages when it rains and he has no way of bringing players to Venezuela because they're understandably afraid.

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Trump's Central America Policy

If you read through the "key deliverables" of last week's conference on Central America, what's striking is the continuity. The highlights:


  • Promote private sector growth and a favorable environment for investment
  • Combat organized crime and disrupt illegal networks
  • Improve citizen security
  • Promote information sharing
  • Support the Alliance for Prosperity
  • Acknowledge U.S. demand for illegal drugs


People have expressed concern that Trump would mark a return to a military-led policy. One problem with this argument is that under Obama the U.S. military already played a central role (indeed, at the end of the Obama's term John Kelly was head of Southern Command), and if you read Obama's statements on Central America, they are not all that different from Trump's.

The one important difference, to be sure, is the commitment of resources. Will the Trump administration put its money where its mouth is? The fact that foreign aid across the board is being slashed does not leave much optimism.

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On Academic Writing

Mike Munger was interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education about academic writing, and there's a lot to like. I say that as someone who dislikes most of the advice I see about writing. The worst advice focuses on rules, which I hate. Someone even once said you needed to set aside a certain time and even ignore your own bladder until by God that time had passed. The vast majority of writing rules take what should be a creative process and turns it into drudgery. Sometimes creation involve drudgery but we shouldn't heap more on.

In Mike's interview, the key points for me are that you should never let perfection get in the way of submission--send that manuscript out and forget about it for a while. You should also write as you research, not wait until the end. Let your ideas develop, even knowing you'll have to cut stuff later. Finally, and perhaps more important, "reward yourself with affirmation." Sending an article out for review is an accomplishment, so reward yourself. When it's published, reward yourself again. Shoot, if you tell yourself you'll write 500 words today and you do, then reward yourself.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

NoDa Brew Dash 6K Fail

I ran the NoDa Brewing Company Brew Dash 6K trail race at the Whitewater Center here in Charlotte this morning. I haven't run very many trail races so it's a nice change of pace and the race itself was fun.

It was, however, the Sadly Sober 6K because there was no beer. NoDa is a great brewery but this was 100% false advertising and they should change the name. At many races you get Michelob Ultra, which people apparently buy. I drink it when it's free and I've just finished running. I was looking forward to finishing a race and actually drinking good beer. Instead, there were small Dixie cups of tepid water. If you wanted to wait until 1 pm there was a festival, but when you finish a race before 10 am, waiting three hours in your car or sitting at a picnic table is not terribly appealing.

On the plus side, quite a few strangers were prompted to chat with each other based on their mutual frustration with a beerless beer race.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cuba Policy Takes

As we wait for announcement of some alteration of Cuba policy, here are some takes on the issue:

--Chris Sabatini says Obama created leverage with Cuba. Yep!

--Senator Patrick Leahy says opening up to Cuba keeps Russia at bay. That is, if you want to keep Russia at bay.

--David Wade says rolling back Obama policy damages, well, everything except the Cuban government.

--Rep. Ted Poe (R) says this would hurt U.S. agriculture, medical cooperation, and drug trafficking efforts.

The most likely policy shift is one that restricts travel more (right now travel authorizations are quite broad) but not entirely, and to try and maintain benefits for Cuban entrepreneurs instead of the state (i.e. the military). The tricky thing is that the two are partially contradictory. For example, you want more Americans going to Cuba and using Airbnb, because that money is going into people's pockets.

Assuming the administration really does make its announcement tomorrow, your best guess is that the talk will be tough, the Cuban government will be referred to as "very, very bad" and Obama will be labeled as "appeaser," then the actual details will be mostly continuity.

And finally, it seems the worst way to get the administration's attention is by sending a letter because there is no person in the position who would be reading letters. It even confuzzles the Cuban American National Foundation, and they're lobbying experts.

The Cuban American National Foundation hasn’t sent the administration a letter or position paper, partly because with so many unfilled positions in the Trump administration and uncertainty over who is really driving Cuban policy, “the question is who do you talk to?” said José “Pepe” Hernández, president and one of the founders of the exile organization“It’s very confusing, really.”

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Podcast Episode 36: Central America and Trump

In Episode 36 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Mike Allison, who is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Scranton (and who will forever be known as the first repeat guest on the podcast). He also blogs at Central American Politics. The general topic is Central America and Trump, so we cover the upcoming international conference, immigration, and the general outlook for Central America policy.


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

China Woos Central America

Panama severed ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China. This is important news and shows the odd way in which Central America has played an important role in the Taiwan-China dispute. For years, the region was firmly in Taiwan's court, but China has worked very hard, both diplomatically and economically, to pry it away. They've poured money in, sometimes illicitly.

This gives rise to what might the saddest sentence in the NYT article:

Panama “was at the top of the list” of Taiwan’s most important remaining diplomatic allies, said Ross Feingold, a senior adviser in Taipei at D.C. International Advisory.*

When Panama is on the top of your list, you're in trouble. Taiwan lost Costa Rica in 2007, but in Latin America still has the Dominican Republic,  Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua (and Belize if we're just looking geographically).

It's one of the truly rare times when Central American countries have leverage. It's in their interest to let woo China them but play hard to get. It would be interesting to see what constitutes the tipping point--when do you finally say yes?

*Yes, former Senator Russ Feingold, now lobbyist.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

PPK's Venezuela Idea

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski continues his role as regional leader by calling for a multilateral arbitration group that would consist of 2-3 "democratic countries" and 2-3 countries of Venezuela's choice (I am not sure whether there is supposed to be an implication that such countries are not democratic; I hope not. Some of it might be selective quotation). The group would elect a president.

There are plenty of potential logistical questions (e.g. who would choose the former group) but this is a solid idea. The broad multilateral context is large and prone to breaking down more easily. There is a disappointing lack of urgency in Latin America about the Venezuela crisis. This solution perhaps has the possibility of getting support from Bolivia and Ecuador, which have talked vaguely of "dialogue" without specifics. Evo Morales is all in for Nicolás Maduro but in fact we don't yet know if Lenín Moreno will follow the same lead as Rafael Correa. Looking at Ecuadorian press, it seems corruption is dominating the news so perhaps that is also dominating Moreno's time.

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Merkel Telegram

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to Mexico to meet with Enrique Peña Nieto, with the explicit message of solidarity against Donald Trump. How appropriate that it comes almost exactly 100 years after the last time this sort of thing happened. I wonder if Merkel is offering up Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona this time (given Texan politics, Mexico might politely decline).

Germany’s ambassador to Mexico, Viktor Elbling, suggested the visit is in part meant to demonstrate his nation’s leadership on the world stage and define new alliances that aren’t centered on the United States. "The fact that she is coming to Mexico in this difficult international political climate is a very clear sign of solidarity,” he said in a statement. 
In Mexico, where many feel not only afraid of the economic ramifications of Trump’s policies, but also deeply offended by his rhetoric, that support is welcome.

In international relations, countries can bandwagon or balance. Since the Trump administration is intent on making enemies out of friends, Mexico is disengaging and looking toward other powerful countries. As leader of the European Union, Germany is a natural choice, as is China. The Trump administration is consciously handing its influence to other countries.

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Friday, June 09, 2017

WOLA Podcast on Venezuela

Adam Isacson talks to David Smilde about Venezuela in a WOLA podcast, which is worth your time. Some quick highlights:

--the point of the constitutional assembly is likely to create a communal system of governance that basically serves to avoid a popular vote.

--all the opposition can do is go to the streets because there is no power to vote. He repeats the long-standing point that the opposition needs to expand its base of support. They're not going to the barrios, but they need not just to garner support but also to explain why people who live there shouldn't participate in the constitutional assembly.

--the opposition needs to condemn the violence on its side (e.g. don't applaud protesters who look like they're going to The Hunger Games is one memorable quote).

--he thinks there's a chance of a consensus statement (say, 2/3) by the OAS, which might lead to some sort of "group of friends" who could establish dialogue with the Maduro government. I am still in the "hopeful but doubtful" mindset.

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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Keith Law's Smart Baseball

Keith Law's new book Smart Baseball is a great primer on the fast rise of advanced metrics in baseball. He starts by picking apart the old measures, especially wins, saves, and RBIs, given how arbitrary they are and how they do not tell you what they purport to. He then moves to newer measures with their pluses and minuses, showing how they do a better job of telling us what we need to know--what players. He ends with what I thought was the most interesting part of the book, which is an insider's view of scouting and analytics.

If you follow baseball, then the discussion about statistics shouldn't be new, but you'll learn (or at least I did) from the logic he lays out about the relative usefulness of different measures. The book raised questions I hadn't really thought about. In particular, he notes that all teams now use advanced statistics, yet lauds the Cubs for how analytics helped lead them to the World Series, which helped them especially with defense. Yet this year the Cubs, including defense, are mediocre. So how we statistically measure the importance of statistics?

Further, what (if any) is the relationship between advanced metrics and baseball injuries, which have been increasing over time? Are players doing things differently or teams demanding different things as a result of knowing more? Law notes toward the end that one of the next advances could be finding ways t to identify characteristics of players that would decrease injury risk.

The only downside is that I tired of the insults hurled at those who focused too much on the old statistics. It was sort of funny at the beginning but never stopped. The save is like the Alien & Sedition Act (p. 5); "dumber than a sack of hair" (p. 19); "canonical tale told by an idiot" (p. 29); "swamped by all the bullshit" (p. 81); "strong Luddite streak" (p. 110); "sheer stupidity" (p. 114); "typical codswallop" (p. 157); "fetid anachronisms" (p. 208); and even using the word "clowns" twice on the page (p. 218) to refer to sportswriters. The Twitter-like zingers were a distraction for me.

So gloss over those, and focus on the argument, which is thought provoking.

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Vicente Fox's Mission in Life

Former presidents in the Americas have done lots of things. They've done good works, they've fled to the U.S. to avoid prosecution, they've gone to jail, they've painted bad portraits, they've trolled political opponents on Twitter, they've plotted to run for president again, they've made money, they've run for a legislative seat, and so on.

Vicente Fox is the only one who has made it his mission to make merciless fun of the President of the United States. I wrote about this just a short while ago. Now he's back with a comedy that is biting.



Who would've thought such a thing would ever happen?

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Podcast Episode 35: FRUS, Central America, and Venezuela

In Episode 35 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk about the new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States series and how for me it sparked thoughts about Central American migration (specifically how unforeseen it seems to be, though we need to see the Reagan volumes eventually) and comparisons to Venezuela today.


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Somoza and Maduro

The Central America 1977-1980 volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series was just released today. Naturally, a large proportion of it is dedicated to Nicaragua. Almost 40 years ago*, a beleaguered president told the U.S. to stop picking on him and declared confidently that friendly governments in the OAS would block these nasty U.S. policies.



This should sound quite familiar, though the confidence in OAS allies is significantly weaker for Nicolás Maduro.

* April 16, 1978. The clip is from page 210 of the volume.

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LASA Resolution on Venezuela

The Latin American Studies Association has embarrassed itself by refusing to issue a resolution condemning repression in Venezuela. Via John Polga-Hecimovich on Twitter:



If you need a translation from academic-speak, "historicize" means "find a way to put in tons of caveats to prevent any actual statement against the government from being made." LASA has put out plenty of "one-sided" resolutions over the years. There was one on Obama policy four years ago that was literally incoherent. I also should note, though, that last year's statement condemning Dilma Rousseff's ouster was spot on. And correctly one-sided! Nobody asked to "historicize" that.

Focusing on the government is appropriate. The state (in any functioning polity, not just Venezuela) has far more power than civil society and in Latin America has the responsibility (as stated in international agreements) of governing democratically. Giving the Venezuelan opposition responsibility for the Venezuelan government's repression is wrong.

BTW, Kellyanne Conway called and she wants royalties for the use of "alternative phrasing."

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review of Merridale's Lenin on the Train

One hundred years ago Vladimir Lenin took a train from Switzerland to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). It was nearly impossible to get through Germany because of the war, but the Germans let him through. They figured he could both upset Russian politics and get Russia out of the war. Catherine Merridale's new book Lenin on the Train details the trip and the intrigue it involved. Her message goes well beyond that particular moment in time.

"The history of Lenin's train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great-power intrigue, and one rule is that great powers almost always get things wrong" (p. 9). The irony for Germany is that helping Lenin ultimately made life for Germans far worse in the long run. People (including inside Russia) constantly underestimated Lenin and were not too concerned about the political ramifications of his return. His opponents figured they could just accuse him of collusion with Germany. The book ends before the October Revolution and so we just see him poised to take power. Germany's decision to let him through facilitate that.

Along the same lines, "the quick-thinking servants of the world's great powers still proffer plans to intervene, to jostle, scheme, and sponsor factions that they barely understand" (p. 270). And for Merridale, this means destroying hope for democracy in the Russian case, but elsewhere too.

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Twiplomacy in Latin America

Twiplomacy is a new study done by Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm. As the name suggests, it looks at world leaders' use of Twitter. Here are the most followed presidents in Latin America:



It's a great read with a lot of detail about how different leaders deal with Twitter, how they promote it, how they interact with each other, etc.

But from a social science perspective there are a number of problems with the study. Most importantly, it does not really define "influence." Having a lot of retweets indicates "effectiveness," they write, but what does that translate into? According to the study, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is incredibly "effective." So what? Does that help him achieve his policy goals?

I wrote about this exact issue four years:

Further, this tells us nothing about effectiveness. Presidents want to reach people and thereby gain support, but as yet I've not seen any evidence--perhaps with polling?--about whether it benefits them politically. An aide to Dilma Rousseff said that she thought Twitter is a "total waste of time." Clearly others disagree, but we don't have a good grip on how to evaluate that.

We still don't have a good grip on it. According to the study, Latin American leaders tweet the most of any region, with Mexico and Venezuela at the top. The presidents of both countries are extremely unpopular and clearly ineffective. So we could potentially even argue that hyperactive tweeting is a sign of desperation and weakness.

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Monday, June 05, 2017

The Upside of Not Filling Positions

The Washington Post has a list of the hundreds of unfilled cabinet positions, many of them without even a nominee. There are a number that relate to Latin America. Below are those that directly relate to the region, though of course there are countless others that deal with immigration, trade, energy, etc., etc.

--Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
--Ambassador to Argentina
--Ambassador to Venezuela (this is not just a Trump issue, obviously)
--Ambassador to the Dominican Republic
--Ambassador to Cuba
--Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States

The first is particularly important because the individual in that position helps frame events in the region for the president. Given Donald Trump's disdain for the State Department, I wouldn't be surprised if this stayed unfilled a long time, essentially meaning that the interim, career diplomat Francisco Palmieri, will stay in there almost permanently.

The key position for Latin America therefore is Latin America director at the National Security Council, which does not require confirmation. Rumor (or at least it seems to be rumor) has it that former CIA Director for Latin America Juan Cruz is on the job, but like Rick Waddell before him, there is nothing official. And yet Univision claimed that May 15 was his first day on the job. If you go the White House website for information, you will find it as unfilled as all the cabinet positions.

What we do know, however, is that at the moment the important slots are not filled with ideologues (with Cruz I am going by the appraisal of moderate Obama officials who know him). We also know that the Trump administration has largely maintained Obama policies in Latin America (with immigration and the wall as the glaring exception).

What I am getting at here is that if not filling positions means relatively moderate or at least not-stupid policies, then keep 'em unfilled. Better no leadership than bad leadership.

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Friday, June 02, 2017

Income Inequality in Latin America

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean just released its report on income inequality. There is actually some good news in there. Highlights:


  1.  Income inequality has done down from 2008-2015 across the region.
  2. Venezuelan inequality is among the lowest in the region, but has not changed over that time. (And indeed, one issue with looking at equality is that if everyone is lacking, then equality looks quite good. Just look at Cuba during the Special Period).
  3. As always, Colombia is persistently high, but at least decreasing a bit. The displaced play a role in that figure, and we can only hope the peace process changes that dynamic.
  4. Bolivia improved from 2008-2012, then got worse from 2012-2015.
  5. If you look at physical assets, then the Gini coefficient is 0.93. In other words, beyond income the ownership gap is extreme.
  6. Social spending as a percentage of GDP is far, far lower than the U.S. or Europe.
  7. Women, indigenous people, and Afro-Latin Americans are suffering disproportionately (which should surprise no one).

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