Monday, May 25, 2015

Argentina Wants Cuba to Pay Up

For all the talk of leftist solidarity in Latin America, money still talks. Argentina is angry about debt, and applauded Vladimir Putin's announcenment that it would write off about 90% of Cuba's debt to Russia. But when it comes to Cuba owing Argentina money, ideology goes out the window. Amazingly, that debt dates back to Peronism's last days before the 1973 coup. Cristina Fernández (like all her predecessors) wants it paid up.

Yes, there is plenty of hypocrisy in here. More important, though, is the reminder that states pursue their own interests, which clashes with ideology regularly. Ideology often loses. That's true for all states. Left, right, or anywhere in between.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Oscar Romero's Beatification

Check out journalist Carlos Dada's discussion of Archbishop Oscar Romero in The New Yorker. He points to the dispute about how to characterize Romero on the eve of his beatification.

Romero was indeed deliberately and intensely political. He discovered the power of the archbishopric and decided to use it to influence the Salvadoran political process in favor of the victims and against the military regime. But his direct confrontation with the established powers can’t explain his assassination. He was killed because those powers thought they could get away with it. And they did, because Salvadoran history, for them, was a lesson in controlling the system through repression.

Even more biting:

The Church has now declared that Romero was killed because of his faith. Yet the death squads, the military, and the wealthy financiers of his killing all professed to be followers of Christ. Some of them, still alive, are active members of church communities, give lots of money to Catholic conservative organizations, send their kids to Catholic schools, and never miss a Sunday Mass. They say that they have God to thank for all their possessions (never mind their corruption, exploitation of the poor, repression, impunity, and historical position as the effective owners of the state). On religious grounds, they firmly oppose abortion, gay marriage, and birth control. They were not opposed to killing thousands of people who challenged their point of view. And, during the reigns of John Paul and Benedict, they also had leverage in Rome.

The gospel of prosperity is well-known in the U.S. as well, and is equally nauseating. Romero was killed because of his faith only to the extent that he embarrassed and threatened those who saw religion as a vehicle for wealth accumulation. In other words, I am rich and therefore I must be blessed. By definition, those who are poor are not blessed and not trying hard enough.

As a non-Catholic (not to mention non-religious) person, I find this whole sainthood process pretty baffling. Nonetheless, as a political scientist it is fascinating to see the politics behind both his death and his legacy. And what you see is a man of deep faith who used his position of influence to challenge the violent elite, which was an enormously selfless (and highly political) act, and then he paid for it with his life. For me that's enough for sainthood.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Measuring U.S. Influence in Latin America

Frank Mora has an op-ed in the new Latin America Goes Global website. He makes a similar argument to what I've repeated many times, which is that the commentariat does not measure U.S. influence very well.

Perhaps most perplexing is when analysts point to the vacuous anti-American rhetoric of increasingly irrelevant Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivian Alliance for the People of Our Americas—ALBA) or when governments refuse to toe the line on U.S. policy as indicators of erosion. 
Worst of all, pundits like to point to the dramatic decline in economic and military aid or the absence of an all-encompassing policy with an exciting moniker such as the Good Neighbor Policy or the Alliance for Progress as proof that the U.S. is ignoring the region and therefore ceding influence to others with a clear anti-American agenda. The desire for some anachronistic overarching policy or catch phrase for the U.S. leadership in the region are misguided—if not out and out facile—indicators for evaluating effective U.S. support and leadership in the region.

Yes! As I've argued, grand strategy often mean bad strategy, so we're better off without one.

Rather than focusing old time notions of levels of economic and military aid or large inspiring policy declarations, analysts and policymakers should focus their attention where policy and its return (i.e. influence) is most impactful—communication, contact and exchange that improve the daily lives of Latin American and Caribbean citizens.

This is also true, but since it's hard to measure it doesn't receive adequate attention. It's much easier to note the lack of grand strategy, or focus on rhetoric, or tally off foreign aid numbers. There is a lot happening on the ground and that's what we should try to focus on.

Oddly enough, this is a problem both for the left (which sees lack of influence as a victory) and the right (which see lack of influence as President Obama's fault). They're both insistent and both wrong.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SECOLAS 2016 Call For Papers

Check out the Call For Papers for the 2016 meeting of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, which will take place March 10-12 in Cartagena, Colombia.

It's going to be a great conference in a great location.


Monday, May 18, 2015

History and U.S.-Cuban Relations

Thanks to Steven Hyland for pointing out this excellent article by Lou Pérez on the historical context of current U.S.-Cuban negotiations. Pérez is one of the most respected historians of Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations, and has published something like five million books on the topic.

His key point is that U.S. and Cuban views of their relationship have always been different, and remain so. That fact alone makes negotiation extremely tricky, in large part because U.S. policy makers tend not to understand--or choose to ignore--the Cuban perspective.

He concludes:

The aphorism that the more things change, the more they remain the same seems to be on full display. Old habits are indeed difficult to break. 
Americans persist in seeking to insert themselves into Cuban internal affairs, the Cubans insist on defending self-determination, vowing never to “renounce the ideas for which it has struggled for more than a century.” The policy change announced on December 17 appears to be less a change of ends than of means.

In class I always show this document from the George W. Bush administration, the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba from 2004. It is a remarkable document that basically asserts the United States will reshape everything you could possibly imagine in Cuba, from schools to trash pickup to protection of coral reefs. From the executive summary:

As a new Cuban government initiates the process of establishing the rule of law, safeguarding human rights, and creating a new climate of opportunity, a variety of programs and services are identified that U.S. public and private sources could provide to the Cuban people over the medium- and long-tem. It is expected that such assistance would come not only from U.S. Government agencies and contractors, but also from philanthropic foundations, non-profit expert organizations, and businesses investing in Cuba’s future. Cuban-American and other U.S. citizens and organizations would be involved in these efforts.

It is stunning in its blindness to Cuban reality and its paternalism. Clearly, the Obama administration is a different animal, but fully jettisoning that paternalism requires effort.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Juan Pablo Villalobos' Quesadillas

Juan Pablo Villalobos' Quesadillas is a sometimes surreal dark comedy about Mexico the 1980s. The original Spanish title was "Si viviéramos en un lugar normal" (If We Lived Somewhere Normal). I'm not sure why they changed it so drastically--in the novel quesadillas are constantly mentioned as something like an economic indicator of the protagonists' family (i.e. how many you get, how thick they are, etc.) but the theme of the book is bigger.

That theme is basically that Mexico will do what it can to crush you (which along with the dark humor also made me think of the novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II). The family lives in El Cerro de la Chingada, which the author himself translates as "the hill in the middle of fucking nowhere." And as the teenaged protagonist noted:

But all this about being middle class was like the normal quesadillas, something that could only exist in a normal country, in a country where people weren't constantly trying to screw you over" (p. 28).

And the novel takes you on a bizarre journey, often really funny, that centers on getting screwed over. This includes a Mexican family where all the children have Greek names, as well as class conflict, cow insemination and alien abduction. There's no way to understand how those come together without just going ahead and reading it.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Colombia: No Spraying For You!

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced he was ending aerial spraying of coca. The New York Times interviewed Adam Isacson:

The decision ends a program that has continued for more than two decades, raising questions about the viability of long-accepted strategies in the war on drugs in the region. 
Colombia is one of the closest allies of the United States in Latin America and its most stalwart partner on antidrug policy, but the change of strategy has the potential to add a new element of tension to the relationship. 
Just last week, American officials warned that the amount of land used to grow coca in Colombia grew by 39 percent last year as aerial spraying to kill or stunt the crop, already a contentious issue here, declined. 
“The folks who run counternarcotics never want to give up any of their tools, and there are pockets of discontent inside the U.S. government with this decision,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.

This is a major shift, and the Obama administration should roll with it, which would actually improve U.S.-Colombian relations. Unfortunately, for right now the U.S. government's response is to deny there are any potential health problems when people are sprayed by glyphosate, and invoke the fear that the "drug war" will unravel if they don't get sprayed. What the Obama administration should be doing is acknowledging the legitimate concerns of Colombian farmers instead of arguing with them. It's just counterproductive.

One problem with aerial spraying was the tendency for it to be a high-profile solution that overshadowed the need for more permanent solutions, such as increasing the role of the Colombian state, which are much more difficult and much less sexy. Let's move our focus to more lasting (but more boring) solutions.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

US and Latin America in 2025

I read this article by Bill LeoGrande in the Huffington Post on the U.S. and Latin America in 2025 and immediately kicked myself for not thinking of the idea first. What a fun idea. For the most part he has a pretty optimistic view. For example:

Following successful experiments in Colorado and Washington, most other states will legalize marijuana for recreational use, drastically reducing the profitability of this segment of the illegal drug trade. At the same time, Washington politicians will embrace the stance pioneered by Barack Obama's administration and treat narcotics addiction as a public health emergency rather than a "war on drugs." Gradually, the consumption of cocaine and heroin will decline, and the contraction of demand will put even greater pressure on the profitability of the trafficking cartels. That will enable governments from Colombia to Mexico to finally get the upper hand against the traffickers, reducing criminal violence and corruption -- just as the end of Prohibition in the United States enabled U.S. authorities to get the upper hand against the Mafia.

Let's hope so! This outcome alone would have a major impact on the region, and on U.S.-Latin American relations. Despite the Obama administration's stated shift on drugs as public health, there is still serious disagreement about strategies to fight the drug war. It was only just yesterday that the U.S. grudgingly accepted Colombia's decision to stop spraying herbicides.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Venezuelan Elections Sometime This Year

The Maduro administration has finally announced there will be legislative elections later this year, though in typical fashion it is not quite sure when. Here is a pretty testy announcement from the state news agency. This comes after the Brazilian foreign minister publicly said he pushed the government to do so.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said he met with Venezuelan government officials this week and told them a date must be set quickly for the National Assembly election that is meant to be held before the end of the year. 
"I insisted that elections should be called as soon as possible and held within the legal time frame," Vieira said at a news conference.

As a result, rightly or wrongly this announcement is being framed as the direct result of that pressure.

I feel like over the past six months or so we're seeing more small cracks in Latin America with regard to Venezuela, a sense of losing patience. Latin American leftists in Uruguay and Chile have made critical remarks. I wouldn't make too much of this, but public statements from prominent politicians are not insignificant.

Update: even Ernesto Samper is delicately saying that Venezuela needs to fix the date ASAP.


Friday, May 08, 2015

Update on US Military Rape Case in Colombia

The Colombia rape case has taken a new and unfortunate turn. Adriaan Alsema of Colombia Reports writes that he was duped about the claims of abuse in 2004. He's the one responsible for helping spread news of the case, which had appeared in Colombia's truth commission report (a report that has no fact checking).

His account gets a bit confusing (and he's obviously really angry--you can read the whole thing to see why), but I take it as follows. He believes the 2004 allegations are bogus, and the person who wrote about them in the official report actually says he heard about them on TV once but can't remember where. Journalist Manuel Rueda recently wrote about this in Fusion.

Vega said that he got the number from local media reports from 2004. He said the information was also included in a 2008 thesis paper on U.S. military contractors written by Anna Kucia, a political science masters student at the University of Berlin. 
But the “sources” cited in Kucia’s thesis are the same references to Colombian media reports from 2004. She characterized it differently. She wrote that in August of that year, Colombian media blamed U.S. contractors for “producing twelve pornographic floppy discs and 53 videos” with local women in Melgar, but does not specify how many girls were in the videos. Kucia says some of the women who participated in the videos were promised money, but were never paid. 
“Many of the women were forced to leave their hometowns due to humiliations they and their families have suffered,” wrote Kucia, who now uses the married name Barrera. She did not respond to Fusion requests for comment. 
Vega, for his part, said he didn’t have time to dig any deeper into the sexual abuse claims before publishing his report. 
“I didn’t have an opportunity to do fieldwork,” Vega told Fusion. “I’m not a journalist or a sociologist…and I was asked to limit the number of pages. So I relied on the sources that I just told you about.”

What Anselma notes, however, and what I think is important, is that media attention on this one particular (and seemingly false) case has distracted everyone from other cases. As I had written not long ago, the U.S. Army started an investigation, but only for that case. It can then report this one is false, leaving the others uninvestigated. So:

You can pretty much figure out what’s next. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry is likely going to receive an update from the US Army saying they have concluded the investigation of Vega’s accusation and that this accusation proves to be false, as the embassy allegedly already found out in 2004 and had been reported by Fusion and Colombia Reports on Friday and Saturday. 
The remaining credible allegations of misconduct or even abuse will remain in impunity as nobody seems to want to take up the responsibility of going through the diffuse claims carefully.

What's next? For the U.S. and Colombian governments, probably nothing. Anselma concludes:

The only way this can be turned around is by Colombian authorities like the Ombudsman’s Office and the Family Welfare Institute assuming their responsibility and carry out their own investigations, parallel to the one the American army says to be carrying out. Or by American and Colombian mainstream media doing their fucking job. 
Until then, alleged child molesters are back in their American neighborhoods, making them a potential domestic threat.

So we'll see. On a side note, it's a reminder that someone may well read your Political Science Master's thesis!


Thursday, May 07, 2015

Stagnant Latin American Left?

That, anyway, is what former Uruguayan President José Mujica suggests in an interview.

P. ¿Viene una época difícil para la izquierda latinoamericana? 
R. No sabemos. La derecha tampoco está dando muchas respuestas, no creo que pueda hacer maravillas. Yo creo que estamos en un momento de retroceso de la izquierda en Europa y cierto grado de estancamiento en América Latina.

This is a good point. We see crises of low commodity prices but also of serious corruption, which are hitting multiple countries with leftist governments. As Boz points out, presidential approval ratings in UNASUR countries are hovering right around 30%. At the moment, the Latin American left has very little new to offer. Yet neither does the right, beyond simply asserting that its different. The free market mantra doesn't carry the same weight it used to given the suffering its extreme versions fostered.

Mujica was famed for his down-to-earth presidency, and has always been ready to speak his mind, yet without ideological baggage.


Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Coca Cultivation Up in Colombia

Adam Isacson notes that coca cultivation in Colombia is up. I'm taking his graph:

The key point he makes is one I talk about in my Latin American Politics class--the absence of the state.

[T]he presence of Colombia’s state has not improved in coca-growing zones, as Colombia has put fewer resources into the “National Consolidation Plan” and similar efforts to bring government services into neglected areas. The “stick” has declined, but so has the “carrot.”

A similar dynamic plays out in southwestern Colombia, where the government has ended aerial spraying but hasn't developed new programs.

Eradication has also been limited in zones, like the Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander, where the government has been negotiating with organized farmer protests. While the government has abstained from aerial spraying in these zones, however, there is little evidence to indicate that it has replaced spraying with other methods, such as voluntary eradication agreements or manual eradication.

Reducing coca cultivation is not just about ending dangerous eradication practices like aerial spraying (though I should mention that it's a welcome development). It's about moving the Colombia state into areas that have been been historically ignored. That means not just crop substitution but infrastructure.

It also means dealing with the massive displaced population. As it turns out, places like Norte de Santander are precisely also where there is a lot of continued conflict. Unfortunately, that's an angle you don't normally hear about, especially from policy makers.

Update: And I wonder what the effects will be from the Colombians returning home because Venezuela's economy is crashing?


Monday, May 04, 2015

Mexico's Role in Obama's Plan to Take Over Everything

Did you know that members of the Mexican army and federal police are in a camp inside Texas, along with members of ISIS, and that President Obama put them there so he could launch an attack and then proclaim martial law in Texas, which of course is what he's been trying to do all along?

This is what the Governor of Texas believes and he deployed the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the Navy Seals who apparently are part of the plot. The Texas Department of Public Safety has said this is nonsense, so at least someone is sane.

Conspiracies are normally entertaining, but they get scarier when they're articulated (or at least not rejected) by those in positions of power. Just ask Venezuela. And what do you know! The Venezuelan government just repeated its claim that U.S. joint military maneuvers with Spain are a pretext for invading Venezuela.

Maybe President Maduro and Governor Abbott should meet and share notes on their respective conspiracy theories.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Ideological Reactions to the Summit of the Americas

The reactions from the left and right to the Summit of the Americas are funny. So on the left we hear that Latin America beat back the imperialists. The fact that this means Cuba will be more integrated into the U.S. capitalist system seems not to register, but let's leave that aside for now. Meanwhile, the right is mad that the U.S. is opening to Cuba, and figures he has raised expectations too high. The fact that all he did was return things to a more normal level seems not to register, but let's leave that aside for now.

This is very similar to the question of "losing" Latin America, which I've harped on for some time. The right and left often agree on that. The right thinks Obama is weak, while the left thinks it means the imperialists are losing. They're both wrong.


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