Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Coatsworth and Graduate Students

John Coatsworth studies the economic history of Latin America and also happens to be Provost at Columbia University. He wrote a letter rejecting the idea of graduate students unionizing like other employees.

For my part—and, in this, I speak for my colleagues in the University administration and for many faculty members—I am concerned about the impact of having a non-academic third-party involved in the highly individualized and varied contexts in which faculty teach and train students in their departments, classrooms, and laboratories.

I am trying to decide whether it's ironic or just appropriate for someone who has studied Porfirian Mexico to make an anti-union argument.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Political History Is Definitely Being Taught

Two historians wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting that political history is no longer being taught.

The drying up of scholarly expertise affects universities’ ability to educate teachers — as well as aspiring lawyers, politicians, journalists and business leaders — who will enter their professions having learned too little about the nation’s political history. Not least, in this age of extreme partisanship, they’ll be insufficiently aware of the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.

I can't speak to where History has been going as a discipline, but from a political science perspective this is false. This week I am teaching the political background for understanding how the U.S. viewed Latin America after independence, and will spend more time over the next several weeks on political history. My colleagues here are teaching about all kinds of different topics related to U.S. political history. My colleagues elsewhere are publishing constantly on the history of U.S. foreign policy making--I've also reviewed quite a few books and articles by historians who study U.S.-Latin American relations, and they have reviewed me.

Already there is a #poliscihistory hashtag highlighting all the political history being done, often in fact by political scientists.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Declassified CIA Documents on Chile

The CIA has declassified 28,000 documents of Presidential Briefings from the Nixon and Ford administrations. You can go here to search them.

The problem, though, is that they are heavily redacted. Here is one example for Chile from September 1972.

Scanning through showed this to be the case with a lot of the documents, discussing different countries.

These documents are over 40 years old and very few of the protagonists are still alive. It is hard to imagine the rationale for blocking so much except for embarrassment of some kind.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Nobody Likes the Cuban Adjustment Act

The Costa Rican Foreign Minister has called on the United States to end the Cuban Adjustment Act, since it encourages Cubans to go through Latin America illegally to reach the U.S.

“We don’t disregard the humanitarian perspective,” González said during an interview about the thousands of Cubans who’ve passed through Latin America this year as they tried to get from the island to the United States. “But this has cost us millions of dollars – and millions of dollars that we don’t have available. Our people are claiming how is it possible that you don’t invest in your own people and you spend millions of dollars on handling migrants?”

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article98109147.html#storylink=cpy

Intriguingly, the Cuban Ambassador to the United States also tweeted this yesterday:

Immigration is one of the things they're discussing. At this point opposition to the Cuban Adjustment Act crosses ideological lines. It's a matter of "when" rather than "if."


Friday, August 26, 2016

Venezuela Can't Even Do Oil Anymore

Venezuela is an oil-rich country. However, it is currently unable to adequately extract oil, refine oil, or now even pay for imported oil.

Risk-averse suppliers are refusing to discharge cargoes to cash-strapped PDVSA without being paid first, unusual in an industry in which buyers normally have 30 to 60 days to pay after delivery. Others have stopped dealing with PDVSA entirely as it resorts to bartering its own oil in swap deals, according to traders and a company source who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The "good" news is that domestic demand for fuel is down, largely because the economy is such in bad shape. This is all happening in the context of decreasing reserves.

Finally, this is happening in the context of an opposition march scheduled for September 1, which is Thursday of next week.

At least there's Pokemon Go.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom

Patrick Iber's Neither Peace Nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America (2015) examines the intellectual struggle the U.S. and the Soviet Union waged in Cold War Latin America. More importantly, it examines how the results were unpredictable. Many people associated with the organizations did not share the views of the funders, which found them difficult to control--local interests sometimes trumped the funders. It's a very good read.

The two big players were the Soviet-funded World Peace Council (WPC) and the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). These were, as Iber, points out, imperial projects. The people in the front organizations, however, did not feel that way. They felt, only occasionally correctly, that they were struggling on behalf of peace and liberty.

Yet all this did not mean they were "working for" the U.S. and the USSR. They were publishing and talking in ways they believed, which happened in some manner to overlap with these powerful countries. Yet sometimes they didn't overlap. This is the point that I think needs to be remembered the most. People are not necessarily just puppets, and during the Cold War many Latin Americans were trying to figure out how to get the money necessary to reach a wider audience. At the same time, if someone exposes your funding to be CIA or the Kremlin, then your credibility gets hit. That started to happen at the end of the 1960s for the CCF.

Oddly enough, the adamantly anti-Communist CCF helped encourage the Cuban revolution (with money from the CIA!) because it was anti-Batista, then of course grew disenchanted with it. Especially after the revolution, the CCF and WPC touched directly or indirectly a seemingly endless spiderweb of political and cultural organizations. In the midst of all this, the Cuban government launched its own cultural war (through the Casa de las Américas).

The cultural war in Cold War Latin America was a messy business, indeed so complicated ideologically that it led to the decline of intellectuals' influence in Latin America. Iber's book is a reminder not to assume that anyone ultimately gets what they want.


Can the FARC Win Elections?

The announcement of the finalized deal between the Colombian government and the FARC is incredibly important and historic. There is so much to sort out here, but what immediately came to my mind was a question: can the FARC attract any voters?

One of the more controversial parts of the deal are some guaranteed seats in the legislature:

Santos said Wednesday that the rebels will be granted a limited number of seats in Congress through 2018, where they will not have voting rights but can speak on matters pertaining to the implementation of the peace accords. They will be assured a minimum of five seats in Colombia's Senate and five seats in its lower house for two legislative terms starting in 2018. But then they will have to win at the ballot box, Santos said. His opponents have already savaged this concession as an outrageous giveaway to the rebels.

This makes people like me cringe because of the Chilean example (where retired military commanders got appointed senate seats) but at least they are clearly temporary and non-voting.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I liked it. Unlike, say, the FMLN, the FARC has virtually no domestic support. By now, very few Colombians support their ideology. As a result, they have an uphill battle to win voters. I could therefore imagine a scenario where elections were held where the FARC won about very few seats (or none!) which in turn could blow things up (figuratively if not literally). Now the FARC can ease into democratic governance but without unearned power. It will have a chance to engage in debate and win future voters.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hillary Clinton Is Like Fidel Castro (In Terms of False Illness)

The Washington Post has a story about all the diseases Hillary Clinton has been accused of having/hiding. I immediately thought of Fidel Castro, who has been rumored near death many times. He gave a speech in 1986 joking about U.S. rumors of his death. Back in 2007, the Miami Herald had one of the best headlines ever: "Vague Comments Made About Fidel Castro's Health."

Then, of course, he eventually did get sick, but U.S. intelligence still couldn't figure it out. He had terminal cancer a decade ago, and Parkinson's a year before that. We have to assume that someday he will actually die, at which point the U.S. government can say, "See, I told you so!"


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Venezuela Desperate For Higher Oil Prices

The Venezuelan government is desperate for OPEC to cut production. Its oil minister is making the rounds to find supporters.

Venezuela expects oil price of $70 per barrel as ideal to help the global financial situation, the country’s president Nicolas Maduro said last week as he tries hard to shore up support to boost oil prices, which have plunged by more than 60 per cent since 2014.

If you're wondering, oil is now about $48 a barrel.

This sort of trip is common for Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro went to Saudi Arabia in early 2015. And, of course, when OPEC did not push for higher prices Maduro blamed the United States.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Peña Nieto's "Style Errors"

It seems Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto plagiarized sizeable chunks of his law thesis. His spokesman said there were "style errors." Don't you love euphemisms? In my class, such "style errors" would have very serious consequences.

It's another self-inflicted wound for a president with a 29% approval rating. Maybe he should Google a good "mea culpa" speech and copy it. As Patrick Iber noted on Twitter:

This is indeed a perfect post for the beginning of the semester. In classes I've used the New York Times' wonderful breakdown of Senator John Walsh's plagiarized Master's thesis as well. That, incidentally, compelled him to resign so at least there's some sense of accountability.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 2

As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2 (here is my review of book one), I kept thinking about how keeping things to ourselves is what holds civilization together. If we all said or wrote in the manner he has done, we'd all end up hating each other. Honesty is in fact not always the best policy. In large doses (like the 3,000+ pages he has written) it's even disconcerting

More so than in Book 1, Knausgaard writes in unsparing detail about the people closest to him, especially his wife Linda. It is hard to imagine a relationship holding together after such a public rendering of its most intimate and intense moments, dealing even with mental illness. We don't show these parts of ourselves to the world, and more importantly we don't expose those that we love. But Knausgaard needs to write, and so he does.

Yet the book is so fascinating precisely for these reasons. Periodically I saw myself in the narrative, sometimes laughing out loud (such as descriptions of dealing with very young children in public) but even when I couldn't really relate, I enjoyed the very deeply thought out way he describes his own feelings and actions.

It ends with him starting on book one (none of them are chronological). I'm now going to order book three. We'll see how far I go with all these.


Friday, August 19, 2016

Iran's Weak Ties to Latin America

The funny thing about the supposed Iranian influence in Latin America is that for at least the last ten years, every so often Iran feels the need to send a government official to launch a "new chapter" in relations with the region. It is doing so now.

Countries that have influence don't need to relaunch. They just launch once and then go from there. Also, countries that have influence don't need to blame Israel for the fact that all their launches fail.

Iran has been growing increasingly close to Latin America in recent years, but has accused Israel and other countries of undermining its emerging relationship with the region. “Certain regional states have also joined the Zionist regime and display a wrong image of Iran in line with Iranophobia plots,” said Takht-e-Ravanchi to Iran’s Fars news agency.

Not surprisingly, Telesur reports this uncritically without noting not just the anti-Semitism but also how ridiculous the argument is. Iran's image comes from Iran's own actions, including past terrorist attacks in Latin America.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Venezuela Timing and the Opposition

Gabriel Hetland has an article in The Nation about Venezuela, which is a good read for several reasons. He is sympathetic to the ideals of Chavismo but clear-eyed with regard to the ways in which the government has shot itself in the foot.

Further, he has an intriguing argument:

Officially, the opposition is adamantly opposed to delaying the referendum beyond January 10. There is speculation, however, that many opposition leaders actually prefer this scenario because the next several years are likely to be exceedingly difficult no matter who is in office. If the Maduro government stays in power it will pay the price. The opposition would thus be well positioned to win the 2019 presidential election.

I'm not a fan of the passive voice with regard to this sort of thing because there is no sense at all of who is making such a speculation and who the "many" opposition leaders actually are. I see the logic here, but I am left with the question: the opposition is already well positioned to win an election, so why would it want to wait and win later when things are actually worse?


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Complicated Colombian Peace Process

Adam Isacson tweeted about a new post up at the Washington Office on Latin America's Colombia Peace site explaining the complicated referendum process for the peace deal. Here's the flow chart they put together:

And that doesn't even get at the legal and political complexities involved.

It's a great post. One part that I found particularly interesting is that over time polls show a decreasing willingness to vote "yes." One problem is that Juan Manuel Santos' popularity has dropped, in no small part because of the drop in commodity prices. It would be tragic if the vagaries of the global economy--combined with the historic Latin American economic dependency problem--played a decisive role.


Cuba's Concern About Immigration

I'm quoted in this story about Cuba's dislike of the Cuban Adjustment Act. My argument is that as Venezuela disintegrates, thus making oil scarcer, Cuba cannot afford more brain drain, like losing doctors. In general, there has been an uptick of Cuban emigration, precisely as people consider the end of the immigration law.

At this point, opponents to the law include both the Cuban government and hardcore anti-Castro members of Congress, who correctly believe that Cubans are gaming the system because they're not actually facing persecution, but rather are going back and forth. It'll end, it's just a matter of when.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Chile's Sagging Pension System

Here's a good column in the Los Angeles Times about the privatized Chilean pension system, which is facing huge protests despite being held up for years as the model for the world.

As my friend and co-author Silvia Borzutzky has written about for years, the fees in the system (through AFPs, or Pension Fund Administrators in English) are astronomical, so the return to individuals is very low in comparative terms. Supporters of the system simply blame Chileans for not knowing enough (I am not making that up).

But what to do? Michelle Bachelet is proposing changes, but she's an extremely unpopular president and there will be legislative resistance. For the time being, it's hard to see changes being made.


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