Friday, September 04, 2015

Bachelet's Second Term Blues

Javiera Quiroga at Bloomberg has a story on Michelle Bachelet's faltering second term. The economy is slow, the commodity boom is over, there are corruption scandals hanging around her, she's having a difficult time fulfilling her promises, and she's unpopular.

If she's in a glass half full mood, here's what she has:

First, everyone is unpopular these days. We've Latin American presidents all over the place implicated in corruption scandals, but even ones not touched by them are hurting. Only a few, like Evo Morales, are unscathed. As is usually the case, popularity also has no correlation with ideology.

Second, as has been the case for a long time, the Chilean opposition is also unpopular so it's not just about her. There is a whiff of the United States here, because President Obama's approval rating is about 46% (of course, still much higher than Bachelet) while Congress' is 14% and the Republican Party is 32%. This is cold comfort, but still.

Something I've written about a few times as well is the lesson that it's hard to avoid Grover Cleveland Syndrome, whereby the success of your first term falls apart when you win a second nonconsecutive term as president. The magic just isn't there.

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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Otto Pérez Molina Resigns

Well, that was fast. The Guatemalan legislature voted to remove Otto Pérez Molina's immunity and very soon thereafter the attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest, which in turn prompted his resignation. It's very nice to see political institutions functioning as they should to promote horizontal accountability (and no small measure of vertical accountability as well, given the extensive protests).

This is all good. As I wrote yesterday, I am not so sure about what it will mean in the long term for Guatemala. But it's a step in the right direction. I think it should also spark more discussion about the potentially very positive role of international institutions working with domestic political actors. Kudos to the United Nations.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

No Guatemalan Spring?

Warning: cynical post ahead.

The news that the Guatemalan legislature voted to remove President Otto Pérez Molina's immunity from prosecution is huge. The move puts even more pressure on him to resign in the short term, though if he chooses not to this could be a protracted process.

What's been brewing in my mind is hesitation to use the word "spring," which is popping up. Back in June I wrote this about the possibility of a "Central American Spring":

It's hard to see rapid transformation in any Central American country. I'd say the best case scenario is that presidents gradually come to understand that corruption will be prosecuted, that the international community continue to play a constructive role, and that Central American elected officials slowly demonstrate why citizens should trust them. 
If Otto Pérez Molina actually resigns or is otherwise democratically removed before his term is over, it'll be historic. But I am not sure it'll mean long-term change, which is a lot harder and requires chipping away at an oligarchy that will not give up easily.

I think this still holds. Here are a few reasons why:

Resignation doesn't mean the end of corruption. In Brazil, President Fernando Collor de Mello faced impeachment for corruption and resigned in 1992. Now he's a senator and another president is under fire and facing protests for corruption. Granted, Guatemala has CICIG, but this is not an overnight process.

The oligarchy remains. Even if OPM is forced out, it's hard to see radical transformation. The current VP, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, is no radical--he helped overturn the Efraín Ríos Montt conviction. How does a change in president help the poor and/or indigenous? Other Central American countries have seen presidents in jail and there was no transformation.

Political structures don't change. Unlike Middle Eastern cases, the problem in Guatemala is not elections, which have been held with alternation of power (and with Alvaro Colom at least some measure of ideological shift as well). It's that elections don't change the undemocratic status quo much.

Even if we call it a "spring," that's not necessarily the same as democratization. Just look at Egypt, where the military did not stay out of power long. Would Guatemalan military leaders accept rapid, democratic change?

Believe me, I want to be wrong. If OPM were to resign because of real legislative and popular pressure, I want it to represent a major step toward liberal democracy (that is, not simply the bare mechanics of procedural democracy). I fear that although it would be historic, it would also raise expectations unreasonably high.

Colin Snider did a nice job of summing up my sense of the "spring" label on Twitter.



I think this is true. And incidentally, the original "gate" resulted in Richard Nixon resigning but U.S. presidents became ever more secretive.

End of cynical post.

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Erik Jennische's Hay Que Quitarse La Policía de la Cabeza

Swedish journalist Erik Jennische's book Hay que quitarse la policía de la cabeza (roughly, You Have to Get the Police Out of Your Head) provides a detailed and sometimes personal view of Cuba's opposition and the challenges it faces. As the title suggests, his interviews with members of the opposition show how years of repression end up guiding people's behavior. Gradually activists have been more successful (though of course only within limits) in expressing discontent, but only once they can break free of that mental restraint.

Jennische interviews a wide range of people, from those who write political articles online to punk rockers. In at least one case this included someone who later turned out to be a government spy (which itself looks like a fascinating story). That example is indicative of how the state manages on a daily basis to make people suspicious of each other--you never know who might be listening. Organizing in any effective fashion and getting your message out is thus even harder. Meanwhile, the state keeps shifting to deal with potential "counter-revolutionaries" by shutting down avenues of communication or even music festivals.

Later, Jennische himself feels the effect when he is detained (and even accused of being part of the School of the Americas) and then deported. He didn't return to Cuba for over a decade afterward. This new edition of the book includes an epilogue that includes his return, which is sobering since he refers to a dissident who was imprisoned (for trying to let loose two pigs in the Parque Central with the names Fidel and Raul painted on them). Even though some in the opposite have been working to the get the police out of their heads, as he argues the state still treats them like children, incapable of their own independence.

This is a reminder that even as U.S.-Cuban relations evolve, we shouldn't expect quick results. The repression is still there and even if it eases there is a hangover effect. You can't get the police out of your head quite that fast.

On a side note, I don't think this book has ever been reviewed in English. Hopefully I can convince some others to check it out. Even nicer would be a translation.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Clinton Latin America Emails

If you're interested, take a browse through the Hillary Clinton emails that have recently been declassified. The 2009 Honduras coup is of course of particular interest--I haven't had time to look really closely but my first impression is that there's not much new, at least not that's declassified (though I doubt there would be much new even if every single email was released). That is similar to the lack of excitement in the Wikileaks emails.

On Twitter, Boz pointed out how often "Colombia" is misspelled "Columbia" and indeed it's depressing to see. I am sure Arturo Valenzuela was grinding his teeth as he read the subject line.


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Monday, August 31, 2015

Cold War Latin America Shapes the Pope's View of the U.S.

The AP takes a look at the Pope's views of the United States, focusing in particular on his lack of familiarity. Fortunately, it successfully navigates the "anti-capitalist" message that many seem intent on misunderstanding. And this point is a good one:

But Francis' outlook is also shaped by another history, including U.S. ties with Latin American dictators, America's treatment of Mexican and Central American immigrants, and longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sanchez Sorondo said. Francis recently helped negotiate a historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that has led to restored diplomatic ties between the countries. 
"I don't think the pope has anything against America," Sanchez Sorondo said in an interview in Rome. "What the pope might have is that he felt the repercussions of America in Latin America."
This is utterly new ground as well for American Catholics, accustomed to Francis' immediate predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who both lived through World War II, when Americans were considered liberators and generous benefactors who rebuilt the war-ravaged continent. 

These are great points. Pope Francis doesn't hate the United States and he is not socialist. But he remembers the terrible effects of U.S. Cold War policy--it affected him directly. So his perspective is not one of a benevolent power but rather a hegemonic power. You cannot quickly shake that off.

I don't know what Francis will say when he comes to the United States, and I don't know how he will be received (though my hunch is that he will draw huge crowds but then also grumbles from Republican presidential candidates). But his sensibilities will be new to most Americans, who take exceptionalism and self-reverence entirely for granted. The more Americans who listen to those unfamiliar sensibilities, the better.

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Venezuela-Colombia Crisis and Moral Standing

It can be difficult sometimes for the United States government to effectively admonish other countries for human rights problems given its own activities. John Kerry's statement about the border crisis is one such example:

As we do so, we urge that special attention be paid to the worsening humanitarian situation along the frontier. We respect the importance of secure borders and safe and orderly migration. However, we also believe that deportations should take place in accordance with international law, respecting the human rights of all involved, and in coordination with the receiving country. We also believe that refugees with recognized protection concerns should not be deported.


Among other things, undocumented immigrants in the United States get locked up and held for months without due process, thus violating both international law and the U.S. constitution. Human rights are very clearly not respected in all kinds of ways. In short, failing to deal with our own challenges gives us a lot less moral standing.

We should still make statements and push for protection of human rights, which is currently a crisis on the Venezuela-Colombia border. But we should also take this as a springboard for taking steps to solve our own humanitarian crisis. We would have so much more foreign policy leverage that way.



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Friday, August 28, 2015

The Venezuela-Colombia Border Crisis

The crisis at the Venezuela-Colombia border continues on, as Juan Manuel Santos recalled his ambassador and Nicolás Maduro followed suit. Maduro's argument is that right-wing paramilitaries, encouraged/funded by Alvaro Uribe, are terrorizing the border and that Santos is being tricked. He also says he'll keep the border closed.

I think one key issue is proportionality:

The number deported in recent days is now more than half the 1,772 people expelled last year from Venezuela, according to Colombian statistics, and has overwhelmed a government-built shelter in the border city of Cucuta designed to provide assistance to returning nationals.

If you have a problem of violently criminal behavior at the border, I would think there are far better ways of addressing it than mass deportation of families.

Plus, as long as Venezuelan goods, especially oil, are highly subsidized, there is an incredible incentive for smuggling to occur. It's not clear how these particular deportations affect that situation at all. Maduro says he won't open the border until Colombia "prohibits" the sale of contraband. One major problem is that Colombia hasn't controlled its borders well so this isn't going to be effective anytime soon.

Finally, Maduro has a very legitimate point to make about how many Colombians live in Venezuela because they fled their homeland. But his heavy handed tactics drown that out completely. I guess he scores a few points domestically, but stories of the affected families will likely deflate that. And he's alienating Santos, who is fighting off a lot of his own domestic opposition who argue he's been too soft with Venezuela.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Human Rights Abuses in Mexico

John Ackerman (who is at UNAM) rips up the Peña Nieto government in Mexico and Roberta Jacobson to boot. No words are minced:

It is an absolute disgrace that even after recent events in Mexico the Obama administration continues to prop up one of Latin America’s most corrupt and repressive political regimes. For instance, the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report openly protects Peña Nieto from international scrutiny and flat-out lies when it states that there are no reports of political prisoners, detainees or assassinations and that the Mexican government “generally respects” freedom of speech and assembly. 
The supervising officer for that report, Roberta Jacobson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has been nominated by Obama to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. While systematically turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in Mexico, Jacobson has been quick to condemn much lesser human rights violations in Cuba. It is time to drop the double standard and put an end once and for all to the bloody complicity of the United States with a government which systematically massacres, silences and imprisons innocent civilians.
We hear about Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela all the time, but Mexico needs the spotlight as well. It will not, however, ever receive that sort of attention from the U.S. government. Too much is riding on relative political and economic stability.

So I understand and sympathize with what Ackerman is arguing. But what can the United States government do that won't make the situation worse? If the Obama administration started going after Peña Nieto, would the result be positive or at least neutral for economic growth, drug trafficking, and undocumented immigration?

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Trump v. Ramos

The Jorge Ramos encounter with Donald Trump will keep getting plenty of attention--the image of one of the top reporters in the U.S. getting tossed out of a news conference is noteworthy. Of course, this will focus even more attention on how the Republican Party wants to deal with immigration, and one small comment in particular caught my attention.

During the five-minute exchange, Ramos said that 40 percent of undocumented people in the United States enter through airports, not over the Mexican border. "I don't believe that. I don't believe it," Trump responded. 
A 2006 report by the Pew Hispanic Center found that as many as 45 percent of the people in the U.S. entered with legal visas but overstayed them.

This is a major part of our collective problem. There are a lot of facts about immigration, but people simply refuse to believe them. When that's the case, there is no reasoned discussion, there is no real debate, and there are no common sense solutions. A large number of Americans strongly believe things about immigration and immigrants that are clearly untrue, and they vote based on these unfounded beliefs. I assume many of those same people believe that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim who happens also to be Communist. There's not much you can do with that.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Assessing Obama's Latin America Policy

Michael Reid (from The Economist) has an article in Foreign Affairs assessing the Obama administration's Latin America policy. Although it is much better than most such efforts, by highlighting how moderation has served U.S. interests quite well, it still advances three ideas about Latin America that I think need more context.

First,

Because it is not a source of strategic threats, Latin America languishes at the bottom of the United States’ long list of foreign policy priorities. It is rarely the object of a coordinated approach from the White House. Rather, individual agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Treasury Department, exert unusual influence over policy. So do lobbies within Congress, such as Cuban Americans or sugar and cotton farmers.

It is good that the region is not a major focus of the U.S. and that we don't have a grand strategy. Very rarely in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations has such attention been beneficial to Latin Americans themselves. This should not be viewed as negative. Yes, lobbyists exert a lot of influence but that's true of all countries/regions.

Second,

Latin America has been much less inclined to blindly follow the United States for another reason: China.

Latin America has very rarely followed the U.S. blindly, except perhaps very weak Central American dictatorships. So this harks back to a mythical past. Even setting that aside, leftist ideology in Latin America predates China's entrance by a long time. Later in the essay he uses the word "biddable," as if that were previously the norm.

Third,

In today’s Latin America, it is hard to imagine that more confrontational policies would have achieved better results, as some of Obama’s critics imply: since the United States is no longer the only game in town in much of Latin America, bullying is often ineffective.

This reminded me of John Mearsheimer's argument about needing to dominate the Western Hemisphere, which in the past has led to disastrous policies. Bullying has rarely served long-term U.S. interests because it creates blowback and unintended consequences. So I totally agree with Reid that Obama took the right stance, but he seems to suggest that bullying might have been effective in the past.

I am grateful, though, that he doesn't write anything about "losing" Latin America. I hope we are finally putting that one to bed.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Rundown on Argentine Elections

Mark Jones has a rundown on the December federal elections in Argentina at The Monkey Cage. It's a nice summary of the coalitions, candidates, scenarios, and schemes. This is all about two types of deals. There are big, coalitional deals and there are small, strategically placed clientelist deals. They are intertwined, of course.

In short, the primary told us what we already know: Daniel Scioli is the front-runner in the race to become the next president of Argentina. But at the same time, it reminds us that Scioli still has a lot of work ahead if he is to avoid a November runoff. That’s important for his chances. In a November runoff, voters who backed opposition candidates on Aug. 9 would outnumber those who cast a ballot for Scioli—and they wouldn’t be dividing their support among several candidates.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Purpose of U.S. Power in Latin America

The National Interest asked various people what the purpose of U.S. power was. John Mearsheimer's answer left me shaking my head in frustration:

There is one meaningful threat to the United States: the appearance of a potential hegemon in Asia or Europe. The purpose of American power should be to ensure that the United States remains a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, and that there is no regional hegemon in Eurasia. This rationale led the United States to help prevent Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from becoming regional hegemons in the twentieth century, and it remains relevant today.


First of all, it is inconceivable that the U.S. would cease to be "a hegemon" in the Western Hemisphere, so it's weird to claim this as a goal. I don't know if he means to suggest there could be several hegemons, but my hunch is no.

Instead, I take this to mean the U.S. dominates Latin America to keep out Russia, China and Iran. He does not mention that the Bush administration's obsessively efforts to do so actually pushed many Latin American governments even closer to those countries. U.S. blundering in the name of hegemony has caused all kinds of problems.

More troubling is that his example of keeping out the Soviet Union meant killing or encouraging the killing of countless people in Latin America. It included accepting the worst type of venality in the name of realism. It was shameful and contrary to what the U.S. claims to stand for. After all we learned about the Cold War, this is what U.S. power is for? I hope not.



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Friday, August 21, 2015

Who's Not Corrupt in Brazil?

Dilma Rousseff is facing serious corruption charges, which have led to calls for impeachment, but a key power broker who would help decide whether impeachment could move forward is also being implicated in corruption scandals. From The Rio Times:

The president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, and former President, now Senator, Fernando Collor de Mello were accused of corruption and money laundering on Thursday by the country’s general attorney, Rodrigo Janot, as part of the on-going Operation Lava Jato (Carwash Operation) investigations. The two are the first high-ranking politicians to be involved in what is already the country’s largest public corruption scheme in history. 

According to documents presented by Janot to the Supreme Court, Cunha is said to have asked for US$ 5 million from companies to help a company obtain contracts to construct drilling vessels for Petrobras’ oil and gas operations. In July, a consultant for one of the companies accused Cunha of asking for bribes to push through the contracts. Brazil’s Attorney General also accused ex-President Collor of receiving approximately US$ 7.5 million in bribes related to Petrobras’ subsidiary, BR Distribuidora. Both men have continuously denied any involvement with the Lava Jato scheme. 

Cunha had gone to the length of publishing an op-ed saying he wasn't out to get Rousseff. I suppose a question for many Brazilian politicians will be whether going after the president will lead to a slippery slope that will prompt more of their own resignations. It's true that forcing Rousseff to resign now could cause political instability, but there is plenty of self-interest involved as well.

Collor, meanwhile, already had to resign the presidency in 1992 because of scandal as his own impeachment process got moving.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bloomberg's Confused Venezuela Editorial

Bloomberg's editors have a very confused editorial about Venezuela. It argues that Venezuela's neighbors need to address its impending implosion, yet focuses largely on the U.S. and China. It argues that economic crisis is severe, yet suggests that creditors should squeeze it harder. It argues that the U.S. should "intensify" diplomatic overtures without explaining what that means. It argues that the U.S. should enlist Cuba's help with making Venezuela more democratic, which is nonsensical. It concludes by arguing that the U.S. needs to send powdered milk. The end.

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Republican Response to Trump's Immigration Policies

I haven't written about Donald Trump's immigration proposals, primarily because they're so full of crap that it would take too long to go line by line about their false claims. Sadly, fear mongering and xenophobia have a long history in political campaigns. And remember that Trump also says that he gets his advice on military issues by watching shows.

But another reason is that Trump won't last. Yes, he'll last a while, but then he'll be out and everyone will focus on the front runner(s). When that happens, I think his proposals will quickly be forgotten by all but the crazy people (and academics, who are also crazy). I think the eventual Republican nominee will soft pedal immigration. Jeb Bush has come out against Trump's ideas, as has Marco Rubio. Even Scott Walker has stopped short of jumping entirely on Trump's anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican bandwagon. And he's only moving in Trump's direction at all because he's desperate. The New York Times picks up on this:

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s hard-line positions, including seizing remittances sent by undocumented workers to Mexico and severely restricting legal immigration, are allowing some rivals to define themselves more clearly in opposition to him.

Republicans really want to win the 2016 election and the Latino vote matters. Donors will provide reminders as well. We're much less likely to get a Mitt Romney Etch-A-Sketch, where you pretend all the nasty stuff you said in primaries is now gone. Trump will be nasty as long as he lasts, but establishment Republicans will not. And it's hard to see anyone but an establishment Republican getting the nomination.

In short, ironically Trump may be paving the way for the eventual nominee to be much more moderate than we've seen in the past two presidential elections.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

End of the Cuba Billboard

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed lamenting how President Obama stopped using the electronic billboard erected at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. It was a "beacon of liberal solidarity in an otherwise benighted land."

This caught my attention immediately because it was the subject of my very first blog post ever, over nine years ago. I was so new that I forgot to make a title. And what I did was make fun of the billboard (with a link to the story that no longer works).

In its Interest Section in Havana, the U.S. government put up a sign that is beaming messages (such as the news that a conservative government won in Canada, though I am not sure how this would cause the Cuban people to get excited and overthrow Castro). Castro is now apparentlygetting really annoyed. The sad thing is that the U.S. has simply run out of ideas with regard to dealing with Fidel, and our policy has been reduced to trying to annoy him. Strangely enough, if that indeed was the goal of this particular stunt, it actually worked, which is a rarity for U.S. policy toward Cuba.


It's nice that we finally came up with a policy that goes beyond just being annoying.

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Latin American Soft Balancing

Tom Long and Max Paul Friedman have an article in The National Interest based on an article they have forthcoming at International Security. They argue that Latin America has traditionally soft balanced against the United States. Ironically, a reaction based on concern about a threatening unipolar power actually helps that power by tempering it.

Though U.S. policy makers often bristle at international opposition, we find that soft balancing has benefited (or would have benefited) the United States in the long term. Taking multilateral opposition into account can steer the United States away from costly unilateral interventionist policies. Despite the worries of many scholars writing in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, soft balancing need not lead to hard balancing. Because balancers respond to perceptions of increased threats to their interests from the leading state, the United States can take steps to diminish those fears. Therefore, soft balancingneed not lead to lesser U.S. influence.

Interesting stuff, and I look forward to seeing the article when it comes out. One question I have is about causation. For example:

At a series of Pan-American conferences, an increasingly large and coherent Latin American coalition demanded that the United States forswear its self-proclaimed right to intervene. In dramatic fashion, Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy accepted this Latin American priority, even barring U.S. ambassadors from meddling in domestic affairs. Yielding to the demands of Latin American soft balancers helped produce a secure hemisphere mostly aligned with the Allies in World War II. 

For the Good Neighbor Policy, though, we might also advance a self-interest thesis based on the need to stop spending resources abroad (especially occupation) in the context of economic crisis. In other words, can soft balancing and U.S. self-interest dovetail? How might they interact?

Regardless, it is interesting to think about how Hugo Chávez's tireless efforts to soft balance the United States may well have led to policy shifts that improve the U.S. image.

Update: Tom Long sent me the link to the published article, which just came out, and says they do account for that dovetail. So I encourage you to take a look.

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