Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Gang Violence in Brazil

Benjamin Lessing has a really interesting post at The Monkey Cage about the influence of Brazilian gang members in prison. Two largest gangs, the PCC and the CV, are fighting a war. I think two main points are particularly important.

First, like in El Salvador the Cold War matters, though in a different manner. The CV originated with incarceration practices by the Brazilian dictatorship, which put leftist militants and common criminals together. The latter learned organizational techniques from the former.

Second, mano dura policies that sound good because you're "getting tough" often make the problem worse. The PCC is a unified group built from disparate gangs that came together to protect themselves from the state. Mass incarceration led to imprisoned gang leaders wielding considerable power over the outside world.

The CV originally spread when officials unwisely dispersed its leaders among Rio’s prisons. PCC leaders have also been transferred to or arrested in other states, where they invariably founded local chapters. Conversely, some local copycat prison gangs were founded by inmates who spent time in PCC-controlled prisons in São Paulo. 
Once sophisticated gangs emerge within a state’s prison system, they generally begin to organize drug turf in that state’s urban areas. This suggests that the PCC’s and the CV’s organizational know-how constitutes a replicable technology, one that gives them a game-changing advantage over local incumbent gangs.
Eventually, you end up where El Salvador went, which is to desperately forge uneasy truces just to bring down the violence. Solving the underlying problem of marginality is a much bigger problem.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Latin America Links

Every so often, I do some links to posts on Latin American politics in case you're not familiar with people blogging out there.


  • At Central American Politics, Mike Allison notes how Salvadorans are not happy with their government's performance, but at least there is a bit of silver lining.
  • At Caracas Chronicles, Quico Toro looks at Nicolás Maduro's annual accountability speech. He's a wee bit critical.
  • At Latin America Goes Global, Chris Sabatini vents his spleen about how supposedly anti-populists welcome U.S. populism.
  • At AULA Blog, Carlos Malamud looks at the electoral calendar for 2017.
  • Boz muses about possible Russian interference in Latin America. I'm not quite ready to make that leap yet but I'll keep an open mind.
  • Honduras Culture & Politics has a post on drugs and corruption in Honduras.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Misunderstanding U.S.-Latin American Relations

In many ways the far left and far right have a common framework when examining U.S.-Latin American relations. Most importantly it involves living firmly and stubbornly in the past and maintaining a largely inaccurate view of relations. Case in point this article in Jacobin about Trump and Latin America.

Among other things, it argues that Trump will push hard for free trade agreements, which is odd to say the least, although later in the article it contradicts itself by saying the opposite. It says Obama's drug policy has been unchanged since George W. Bush, which is not true--you can certainly criticize it, but it's not the same. It calls Obama's opening to Cuba "tentative," which is bizarre. It believes the US government and the IMF have never left the 1990s with regard to economic policy. It misunderstands US sanctions against Venezuela (which are part of a good cop/bad cop strategy rather than "hardening"). Finally, China is somehow going to "thwart" U.S. hegemony. I don't even know how that's supposed to work.


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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review of Boy Erased: A Memoir

I read Garrard Conley's Boy Erased: A Memoir (2016) and it packs a punch. It's a memoir of the gay son of a Missionary Baptist preacher in small town Arkansas and how he is sent to therapy to "cure" him. He hates the therapy, which ultimately robs him of his faith, and he struggles both with his own identity and sexuality as well as his relationship with his parents. His father in particular simply cannot have a gay son--it would actually hurt his standing in his own church because how can you claim to fight Satan if you accept that?

It's a sad but engrossing book. The therapy is simply psychological abuse. You must've had problems in your family to be gay and you're in the grip of Satan. Stuff all your real feelings down and act like everyone else, no matter how painful it is. A lot of the book examines how we show things on the surface and hide so much else, and in fact we're often encouraged to do so. And sometimes that leaves scars.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Podcast Episode 19: U.S.-Latin American Relations Past and Present

In Episode 19 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Tom Long, who is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading and author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (which I reviewed back in August 2016). He also just published an article in the special issue of The Latin Americanist that just came out.

We discuss how Latin American foreign policy tends to get ignored, the balance between studying individual policy makers and structural conditions, and U.S. influence in Latin America. And with inauguration only a week away, we finish by talking about Donald Trump.


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The Obama Doctrine and Cuba

Yesterday's news that the Obama administration ended the "wet foot, dry foot" immigration policy coincided nicely with the publication of an academic article I wrote for a special issue of The Latin Americanist. Go check them all out.

My contribution is here.


This paper challenges the assumption about U.S. loss of influence in Latin America, arguing that it ignores soft power and the concrete advances it fostered. The Obama administration represented a policy shift that, though gradual, has paved the way to achieve stated policy goals. Using the case of Cuba, it will argue that the United States is increasingly its influence in ways that are typically not taken into consideration. Even the single case of Cuba has regional implications.

This argument won't surprise readers of this blog.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Wet Foot, Dry Foot" Is Now History

I've been arguing for some time that the "wet foot, dry foot" policy for Cuban migrants was certainly under discussion and would be changed unexpectedly and quickly. That time has now come, right before Trump takes office. Effective immediately.

This was a needed step because the policy creates a strong incentive for Cubans to emigrate, sometimes taking enormous risks, and is a Cold War policy that no longer makes sense. The people leaving Cuba are not doing so for political reasons. The much better policy is to help the Cuban economy so that people are less like to want to leave.

Even many hardline anti-Castro members of Congress are skeptical of the policy these days because it was intended to help Cubans escape repression, whereas these days they want to travel back and forth and don't suffer repression for doing so.

Update: here is the statement from President Obama.

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Alan McPherson's Brief History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean

I read Alan McPherson's A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016) and will have a review come out later this year in The Latin Americanist. A sample:


Alan McPherson has written a clear, succinct, and engaging account of the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean, which of course is a topic with no shortage of case studies. It is a synthesis aimed at classroom use, and will work admirably in that regard. 
McPherson lays out what he calls the “Five C’s” as a way to orient the reader. These are 1) causes; 2) consequences; 3) contestation; 4) collaboration; and 5) context. They’re more usefully viewed as guideposts rather than a framework, intended as categories for the reader to better grasp the narrative. For instructors, they will provide a useful way to help students understand causation and make comparisons across cases.


If you are teaching U.S.-Latin American Relations (or if you're an interested student reading this) then give it a look.


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Abortion in El Salvador

My dad has a post about abortion in El Salvador, which has very strict laws. Two key points he makes are that the debate (and law) is rife with hypocrisy, and that religiosity rather than religion per se determines how much the Catholic Church (or any religious denomination globally) pushes for anti-abortion laws.

There is at least some good news:

I should point out, however, that to its credit El Salvador does allow access to contraception and the PRB World Population Data Sheet shows that 68 percent of married women aged 15-49 are using some form of modern contraception--exactly the same percentage as in the U.S. 

Contraception gets too little attention in debates about abortion. For example, as Republicans in the United States vote to defund Planned Parenthood, they are also making it more difficult for women to get access to contraception, this increasing the chances of unwanted pregnancies. Same goes for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which includes a birth control mandate. The bottom line is that if you want fewer abortions, you need to provide broad access to contraception.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mexicans Are Not Happy

I saw a post at InsightCrime about a public opinion poll in Mexico. Here is the original link to the poll. It was conducted by the Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinión Pública, which is part of the Cámara de Diputados. I did not know that public opinion polls were being run by the legislature. Normally politicians do not want to admit they are making decisions based on a snapshot of public opinion, even though they might be greedily looking up polls or running them on their own through a paid firm. An obvious question is impartiality: is it run by professionals without political pressure?

In this poll, the results are not flattering. Many Mexicans think authorities are part of the crime problem, a majority think autodefensas are OK (this should make you shudder if you know anything about Colombia), they have high confidence in the navy (?) but, fortunately, recognize that having more guns is not the answer because it will increase crime.

Plenty of food for thought for legislators.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Venezuela Staggers Onward

Henrique Capriles has called for a protest on January 23 across Venezuela. The intent is to push for elections. They hope for a new slew of elections based on the notion that Nicolás Maduro has abandoned his post.  Given how desperate the regime is to stay in power, this seems wildly unlikely.

Interestingly, of course now if a recall referendum were held and triumphed, then Tareck El Aissami--who has all kinds of baggage, including drug trafficking--would become president. Now, perhaps that's not functionally worse than Maduro, but it's definitely not an improvement.

As I wrote in September, there is ample evidence to show that Venezuelans value democracy and want a democratic conclusion to the crisis. What this also means, though, is the government's anti-democratic responses to opposition have not been challenged. Dialogue went nowhere. Protests come and protests go. None of them have developed into something larger. The opposition keeps trying, but is still divided.

Therefore the country seems mostly to be staggering onward toward the April 2018 presidential elections, which if held will be won by the opposition.


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Monday, January 09, 2017

Consenso de Nuestra América

Over the past year or so, Latin American leftists have been working on a document entitled, "Consenso de Nuestra América." According to Granma, Daniel Ortega's inauguration was an opportunity to advance it. Apparently in a few days a document will be submitted to the Foro de Sâo Paulo, a conference of leftist parties and organizations. The idea is to present a united response to the setbacks the left has suffered over the past few years, but especially last year.

I was unable to find any excerpts, so I don't know what will be in it, but I will be interested to see whether it is just platitudes or whether it addresses real challenges. Will it be a platform or blueprint that parties can use? Latin America now versus the 1990s is very different, and leftists must address the skepticism that has settled in after governments have been in power for a long time.

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Matthew Carr's The Devils of Cardona

Matthew Carr's The Devils of Cardona is a murder mystery set in 1584 Spain. A priest has been murdered, then others are killed, and the question is whether moriscos, or Muslims forced to convert to Catholicism, are responsible. The Inquisition and its ideals are thus a key part of the story. It is a complicated--at times almost overly complicated--plot.

It's a good story, though not a great one. The narrative of the lies behind what everyone does is compelling--the priests, the Inquisitors, the investigators, the seemingly pious women, the forced converts, everyone hides behind facades. And the irrational fear of Muslims is clearly intended to speak to the post-9/11 era as well.

The protagonist, the judge Bernardo de Mendoza, is a well-rounded character, with enough contradictions to keep him interesting. The story has a few too many TV-ish rescues, but it's worth it. If Carr writes another Mendoza book, I'd buy it.

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Immigration Lessons

Joshua Breisblatt has a post at Immigration Impact about lessons to take away from the Department of Homeland Security's most recent enforcement numbers. For example:


  • The Obama administration has deported more people (about 2.7 million) than any other president in U.S. history. See my recent post on Obama's problematic immigration record.
  • We have a serious refugee problem on the border, which was not the case when Obama took office. We're seeing fewer single men and Mexicans, and more families and Central Americans. We should start calling this a refugee crisis.
  • Interior enforcement has finally started to differentiate between people who pose a public threat versus those who for any number of reasons deserve humanitarian consideration. This is one of the changes that will be vulnerable under the Trump administration.
Set aside the absurd debate over walls, fences, barriers, and who will pay for them. The critical problem is the degree to which the Trump administration views immigrants as a threat bloc, or is able to understand (or care) about the lived reality of the people they are rounding up. It took a while, but Obama was moving in that direction.

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Saturday, January 07, 2017

More Evidence of Kissinger Treachery

There isn't much good to say about Henry Kissinger, especially with regard to Latin America. Now Zach Dorfman, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, found new documents from 1979 detailing how Kissinger met with Chilean Foreign Minister Hernan Cubillos. His goal was to help the dictatorship withstand pressure from the Carter administration, which wanted extradition of the three masterminds of the Orlando Letelier/Ronni Moffitt murders.

Kissinger is thus aiding a dictatorship that had committed an act of terrorism in the United States, trying to thwart the Justice Department. That's his legacy.

Go read the whole thing, which also has a very good discussion of the domestic politics behind this conversation. An undertone was the possibility that Kissinger would become Secretary of State again, and both were talking openly about the 1980 election (which Kissinger got completely wrong).

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Friday, January 06, 2017

Who Thinks Mexico Will Pay For Trump's Wall?

Over and over, Donald Trump told crowds Mexico would pay for a border wall. It was a call and response thing at rallies. He even published an extortion plan that would last three days.

Now he changed his mind.

 The Trump team argues it will have the authority through a Bush-era 2006 law to build the wall, lawmakers say, but it lacks the money to do so. Transition officials have told House GOP leaders in private meetings they'd like to pay for the wall in the funding bill, a senior House GOP source said.... 
"Democrats may well find themselves in the position to shut down all of government to stop the buildout of a wall, or of a barrier, or of a fence," Messer said.

Even better, he says Mexico is going to pay later! I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a wall today. Well, or maybe just a barrier, whatever that exactly is.


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Thursday, January 05, 2017

LGBT in Latin America, 2016

Javier Corrales has a great post at Latin America Goes Global on the 10 top LGBT stories from Latin America in 2016. There has been a lot of backlash, but:


And yet, despite this heightened politicized backlash, the region scored enormous achievements in the struggle for LGBT+ rights. It held the gayest Olympic games in history, produced the first gay-inclusive peace agreement in the world, continued to lead the Global South in creating LGBT chambers of commerce, saw lesbian and transgender people running for office, and witnessed episodes in which the rights of non-traditional queer communities received some recognition. 
For these reasons, the top story of 2016 is not the unprecedented politicized backlash but rather the persistence of progress even in the face of these growing challenges. Don’t get me wrong, the politicization of the reaction against LGBT rights was a huge story. It’s just not the top one.
Indeed, often the heightened backlash occurs precisely because there has been so much progress (I even think of my home state of North Carolina). But progress continues.

One thing that strikes me about the new stories is that there is no consistent correlation between ruling ideology and progress. Leftists and the center-right are all over the map (I think it's safe to say the far right is consistently anti-LGBT).

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Tom Shannon as Secretary of State?

H/t Orlando Pérez on Twitter, citing Diplopundit.


We’ve asked the State Department who will be designated as Acting Secretary of State in the event that Mr. Tillerson does not get confirmation immediately after inauguration day. The State Department directed us to Executive Order 13251 of December 28, 2001 which designates the order of succession for the agency. Based on this E.O., if the Senate drags the confirmation of Mr. Tillerson for months, the State Department will have the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. as Acting Secretary of State until such time when the Senate can confirm the 69th Secretary of State. In the event that Ambassador Shannon is not able to, the next in line is the Under Secretary for Management, Patrick F. Kennedy.

For those of you who follow Latin America, you know that Tom Shannon is an experienced and respected diplomat who worked both for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In recent times he's been the administration liaison with Venezuela--I most recently wrote about this in November.

The odd thing, then, is that the potential acting Secretary of State is very well qualified but (almost precisely because he is so well qualified as a diplomat) has a mindset that is wholly different from the president he would serve. I have no idea how likely this entire scenario is, but he'd be a good choice, especially for relations with Latin America.

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Mexico's 2017 Is Not Starting Well

The year is only four days old, but already looks to be a bad one for Mexico, and Donald Trump is in the middle of it.

--Deregulation has pushed gas prices up, which has prompted protests. Prices could go up by 20% over January. The timing seems terrible, but speculation is that the government wanted an influx of cash in anticipation of the Trump administration.

--After being bullied by Donald Trump, Ford announced it would cancel plans for a $1.6 billion plant in San Luis Potosí. There is reason to fear that companies will hesitate to invest, at least for now, because Trump will tweet at them. But overall, concern about NAFTA being tinkered with will likely slow investment from all countries

--The peso dropped to its lowest point in seven weeks.

On the flip side, concern about Trump has made remittances soar, which at least is positive in the short term but not sustainable. We'll have to see after January 20 how that changes.

Enrique Peña Nieto has a 29% approval rating, with 65% disapproval. That's already bad but watch it go lower.

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