Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Obama and Cuba

For those of you who have read Back Channel, or at least my review of it, this story is like a blast from the past. There are rumors that the Obama administration might have a minor policy change with Cuba, something that could be "concrete," but we're not sure. What we do know is that even minor policy shifts require ridiculous secrecy, multiple countries (in this particular case it's Spain, while in the past it's been Mexico and others) and high-pitched screaming from Cuban Americans in Congress. This story could've been written at almost any time since the 1980s, when the Cuban American National Foundation became prominent.

There may be some policy changes and they will have a real impact (economically and otherwise) on Cubans, albeit not on a major scale. What's notable is how minor shifts are treated as something much bigger. We all need to remember that thanks to Helms-Burton, substantive erosion of the embargo laws must come from Congress. For all the talk about executive orders these days, President Obama can tinker, but not much more. Yet even tinkering is viewed as radical.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cuba and Argentina During the Dirty War

Newly declassified documents show that Cuba and Argentina had a close and positive relationship during the era of the Dirty War.

Although they kept it quiet, Argentina's dictators had a gentlemen's agreement with Castro. Under the pact, Videla supported Cuba's bid in 1977 to join the Executive Council of the World Health Organization, a diplomatic feather in Castro's beret. The quid pro quo was that Havana stump among nonaligned nations to name Argentina to the United Nations prestigious Economic and Social Council. Apparently Cuba's vote was the 18th and decisive ballot, landing Argentina the coveted UN seat. 
Both sides profited from the arrangement. "The Cubans always, always supported us and we supported them," Gabriel Martinez, then Argentina's ambassador to Geneva, said, though no one appeared to be listening at the time. 
The secret cables help explain the prolonged bonhomie between the two otherwise inimical regimes, highlighted by the cordial encounterbetween Castro and Argentine General Reynaldo Bignone, during a summit of nonaligned nations, in New Delhi, in 1983. 
It also shines a light on why Castro could carry on for hours in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana railing against right-wing tyrants but never raise his voice against the Argentine junta, even as it threw scores of discontents in the dungeon or into the Atlantic.

Fidel Castro had quite a lot in common with Henry Kissinger, both consummate realists and friends of the junta. Ideology goes out the window for what you perceive as a critical national interest. If this means accepting the deaths of thousands, so be it.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Misinterpreting Executive Action

President Obama's executive action on immigration has received plenty of criticism, but from Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog we get the most creative.

It will be construed in the developing countries ruled by Chavistas, Mugabes, and the like as encouragement to continue ruling by fiat whenever a troublesome legislature refuses to rubber stamp their will.

Apparently Nicolás Maduro would not continue exercising traditional executive authority in Venezuela on his own--he needed this "encouragement" from President Obama.

Meanwhile, a lot of bad actors running fake republics around the world are smiling, and that is not good for U.S. policy or interests.

Previously, Maduro (who is running a "fake" republic) had been frowning, wondering how to justify his actions. Now he is smiling because Obama followed the precedent of previous presidents.

Periodically I've noted the U.S.-centric view of U.S.-Latin American relations. This is an excellent example. The article suggests that leaders around the world make domestic decisions based on U.S. politics. If anything, Chavistas spent a lot of time comparing Maduro to other Venezuelan presidents, not to the United States.


Guns in El Salvador

The British NGO Action on Armed Violence published a report on guns in El Salvador. It takes pains to explain how many different sources of guns that exist, but one inescapable conclusion is that the United States is directly responsible for many of them. By funding the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, the U.S. was responsible for sending thousands of weapons--some very powerful--to the country. More recently, the massive gun trade in the United States has brought even more guns into El Salvador. (We can thank Cuba as well, because it funneled many to the FMLN.)

So El Salvador is hit both ways. The United States has a long history of intervening, then leaving countless guns post-conflict that make their way into criminals' hands. That's true in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Additionally, it is hit by the gun trade, which is currently a major problem for Mexico, which unlike El Salvador has strict gun control laws. It's not clear how you even begin to address the problem.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Back Channel to Cuba

I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.

My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.

Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).

Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.

One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?

And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change...


Friday, November 21, 2014

Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace

I read Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace (2013) and I was disappointed. As far as I can tell, it does not add to our understanding of why World War I started. Instead, it advances the vague argument that no one thought it would happen, then it happened because people did stuff.

It's a long book, so is filled with anecdotes--to be fair, many of them interesting--about how people didn't think war would happen even though we all know now it was about to erupt. But what annoyed me again and again were the brief and entirely superficial comparisons to the current day. They are so superficial that I assume some editor forced them in.

So when there is discussion of new powers, then she adds a single sentence to say she hopes the U.S. and China will handle things well, or with communication she mentions trying to deal with social media. Or she compares Nicholas II to Saddam Hussein because they both like uniforms (p. 275).

Meanwhile, the Tsar does stuff, the British do stuff, the Kaiser does stuff, etc. Which stuff was more important? We aren't told. Whose decisions were most critical? We aren't told. Which country did the most decisive stuff? We aren't told.

The book ends with "There are so many questions and as many answers again" (p. 645). That's true only if you don't engage the existing literature and think about which answers make more sense than others.


Immigration and Presidentialism

There is plenty of uproar over President Obama's announced executive actions on immigration, piled on top of his past statements about how he wasn't authorized to do them. Republicans are talking of "anarchy" if he pushes them through. He is an emperor, a king, etc., etc.

This reminds me a lot of the long debate about presidentialism in Latin America, which sought to explain the breakdown of democracy. Perhaps most prominently, Linz and Valenzuela's book The Failure of Presidential Democracy argues that presidential systems are very rigid in part because they do not easily allow for the executive to leave if he/she no longer has the confidence of the legislature. Particularly in a second term, there is no way to hold a president accountable. Meanwhile, the president will inevitably blame Congress for gridlock.

Their pessimism has been criticized since then, such as by Shugart and Mainwaring. In particular, they note the importance of many other variables--inequality for example--that explain breakdowns of democracy. The overall point of rigidity, however, is an interesting one. Democracy will not break down in the United States, but the rigidity exacerbates partisan rancor. In the 2014 midterm elections, voters divided the government even more sharply, so the president was in a position to choose between capitulating or to fighting harder. Obama is choosing the latter, but short of impeachment/conviction--which is really difficult--Republicans cannot remove him from office.

I wish that the popular discussion about gridlock would come back to these institutional realities. Our presidential system is simply set up this way. At times we resemble Latin American cases, though plenty of variables--an apolitical military, for example--do not lead us down the same destructive paths. But as polarization increases, the system we tend to venerate (because it was set up by the "Founding Fathers") can actually make things worse.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to Make U.S.-Latin American Relations Worse

A member of Congress who happens to be mine has an idea to damage U.S.-Latin American relations. He argues that if the United States provides foreign aid to a country, then at the United Nations that government must vote the way the U.S. wants on the issue of Israel. According to the recording, he appears to like the idea of making this a law but first wants to "reason" with these countries.

So, for example, before the United States helps alleviate the problem of children migrants, all Central American countries must give their UN votes about Israel to the U.S. government. If the U.S. wants to provide anti-narcotics assistance to Mexico, the Mexican government has to hand its votes to the U.S. That will go over well, I think.

The really odd part of this idea is that it assumes foreign aid is not tied to U.S. interests. Foreign aid aimed at drugs, for example, is not there for the good of the receiving country. Once a country refused to give its UN vote away--as would immediately happen--the result would be harmful to U.S. interests. The hemisphere would turn immediately against the United States just for the naked attack on sovereignty.

This has no chance of passing, but is an example of how too many policy makers have thought over the years. The United States is correct and opposing views are not valid.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Enabling Law in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro announced all the laws he has passed through the Enabling Law that gives the executive decree power. It was about to expire. They cover a wide range of issues that he says will help the country combat the "bourgeoisie's economic war." It is a "new era in the revolution."

The enabling law was passed last year, and according to Maduro its main intent was to fight corruption. I would expect the current batch of laws aimed at the economy will be about as successful as the anti-corruption efforts.

The government defends the laws, arguing accurately that they were used by other governments in the past. This logic seems a little strange, since they also claim those governments were corrupt and inept.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Aging (and Ageism) in Academia

I saw this article on aging professors at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The core argument is that older professors are selfish--they harm students and they're "hogs"!!--if they do not retire. If you don't retire by 70, you are not "honorable."

Set aside the issue of using anecdotes while claiming universality (I have plenty of anecdotes about great and productive older professors). Or the unsubstantiated argument about harm. The real problem I have with this argument is that it assumes that either younger professors are unselfish or it is fine if they're selfish because they're less expensive and more energetic.

A dirty secret of mine is that while in my 20s I entered this profession selfishly. I discovered many years ago that I got tremendous personal enjoyment reading, writing, analyzing, etc. about Latin American politics. This blog shows that I still do. I think my passion for it comes out in class. But it's largely selfish. The decisions I make are often centered on me--how exciting is this opportunity? Will it help pay for my children to go to college? I work hard and I think I do a good job, but it's not out of selflessness.

When I hit 70 years of age I will have to decide about what's left of my future. I will make that decision with me and my family first and foremost in mind.

Professors approaching 70 who are still enamored with hanging out with students and colleagues, or even fretting about money, have an ethical obligation to step back and think seriously about quitting. If they do remain on the job, they should at least openly acknowledge they’re doing it mostly for themselves.

Curse those professors who love coming to work! I'm not even approaching 50 (well, OK, define "approach") and I openly acknowledge that I am doing this mostly for myself. I don't feel guilty about that.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Obama v. Congress on Immigration

On immigration, President Obama and congressional Republicans have hit head on immediately, after all the talk of bipartisanship that no one actually believed. From the Washington Post:

Congressional Republicans said Friday they are considering a series of showdowns over funding the government if President Obama goes ahead with his expected plans to unilaterally overhaul the nation’s immigration system. 
Instead of passing a spending bill in coming days that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, they are now mulling a short-term measure that expires early next year, according to more than a dozen top lawmakers and their aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

These are signals. Whether or not Republicans will actually go through with a showdown over immigration is another story. Messing with government functioning is broadly unpopular and the last time it hurt Republicans more, so this is clearly a risk.

I don't see much risk for Obama. For several years, conservatives have criticized him for not securing the border, while his base criticized him for not pushing anything through. I don't think the conservative base can dislike Obama any more than they already do, so he has almost nothing to lose. The strategic upside is bringing back the people who chose not to vote in the midterm elections because they felt he was all talk and no walk. He can also claim that he's taking these actions because Congress refuses to pass legislation.

An interesting question is whether it would've been a good idea to do this before the elections. Instead, he used the rationale that pushing immigration would hurt candidates in tough races. Those candidates lost anyway, and perhaps might've fared better had his inaction not annoyed people who might actually have voted.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Religion in Latin America

Pew Research has a bunch of thought-provoking polling data on religion in Latin America. There are plenty of political implications as well, though at this point we can only really speculate on them. Some highlights:

--Only 69% of Latin Americans are Catholic
--19% are Protestant
--8% are unaffiliated

Here is the trend over time:

What implications?

--Protestants are more conservative on social issues than Catholics, while unaffiliated are less so. This will likely lead to more tension on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

The growth of "unaffiliated" is intriguing:

I wonder why we see it in some countries and not others? It's amazingly high in Uruguay, which corresponds as well to the more permissive social environment we see there. What's going on in the Dominican Republic?

On the other hand, Mexico remains very Catholic in comparative terms, yet we also see political support for more liberal social policy. That may correspond to urban versus rural divides. That in fact explains a lot here in North Carolina along the same lines!


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ISIL and Latin America

Carl Meacham asks the question of where Latin America is with regard to fighting ISIL.

Many of the countries in the anti-ISIL coalition are providing support via military aid and airpower. But with an adversary like ISIL, support is just as important on the domestic side. Much of ISIL’s threat stems from its ability to recruit support and militants from outside the Middle East. And the potential that those recruiting efforts could target Latin Americans is not farfetched.

I'm not buying this. Connecting the Arab population to ISIL is a big stretch. Maybe you get a deranged volunteer here and there, as you do in the United States, but I just don't see Latin America as a battleground for the Middle East (even with the always-cited Argentina bombings 20 years ago, the Triborder Area, etc).

I see Latin America as mostly irrelevant to ISIL. Sure, encourage countries to combat money laundering, which is actually far more important for drug trafficking than for the Middle East. But we shouldn't encourage sucking Latin America into a regional conflict created in large part by the United States.

So the real answer to the question is that Latin America is primarily on the sidelines and that makes sense.


Nicolás Maduro Is In a Barbie World

AP reporter Hannah Dreier keeps her tongue firmly in cheek with this story, which highlights the bizarre ideological swirl that characterizes Nicolás Maduro. In the name of socialism, he mandated discounts on, among other things, Barbies.

Andrea Alberto, a 22-year-old student, managed to nab a stack of dolls for her stunned-looking 3-year-old, under whose arm she'd tucked an "I Can Be Cheerleader" Barbie, complete with sparkling pompoms.

The Venezuelan government apparently gives a lot of thought to Barbie. Back in 2007, Hugo Chávez went off on Barbie (and Superman) and made a point of how much he disliked the doll. And just one year ago, the Venezuelan state news agency had a story associating Barbie with the empty-headedness of the opposition.

It's a nice clientelist move to make the price of dolls artificially low, but it's not particularly socialist. Barbie remains a symbol of the United States and is produced by a U.S.-based multinational corporation, Mattel. Barbie is all about capitalism. Certainly that is the impression I get as my 6 year old daughter pushes her around in a fancy car and decides what jewelry she's going to wear. Viva la revolución! Barbie o muerte!


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lamenting the Berlin Wall's Fall

Via Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, this is just priceless. Aporrea, a pro-government Venezuelan news site, ran an op-ed about the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

It laments the occasion and yearns for the glories of the Soviet Union. Those were the days.

The wall protected the workers from the evils of capitalism, so he felt sad when it came down. It was absolutely necessary to build the wall because the United States was building a "Dollar Wall" of capitalism.

Hugo Chávez himself had rejected 20th century Marxism, preferring what he called "21st Century Socialism," which still has no real meaning but at the very least is not intended to copy the Cold War Communist model (or at least one of the models) as Cuba did. Clearly Aporrea thinks its readership would be interested in nostalgia about 20th century Soviet Marxism, though given what we know--e.g. "the people" were badly exploited--it's hard to understand why.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Legatum Prosperity Index for Latin America

I happened across this prosperity index by the Legatum Group, which is focused on investment. What's funny is that I saw it on TeleSur, which quoted it uncritically despite Venezuela's poor showing. From that article, this interest seems to stem from the fact that the index tries to view "prosperity" in much broader terms than just GDP growth (so, for example, Chile ranks lower than Uruguay even though its economic growth is better). It has eight different ranked variables.

For Latin America, such indices generally show similar results. Uruguay is in great shape (1st in Latin America, 30th in the world) and Venezuela is in terrible shape (100th in the world, one place worse than Rwanda). Chile (33rd) and Costa Rica (34th) are also high. Panama is right up there as well (41st). Honduras is the worst in Latin America (105th overall) and it has been getting steadily worse each year.

As with any index, you take it with a grain of salt. At the very least, though, they're useful in sparking discussions about comparative progress in the region, especially in terms of how different areas can be high and others low. Eocnomic growth without improvements in education, health, etc. is not really prosperity.


Friday, November 07, 2014

Is The Latin American Left a Disappointment?

Manuela Picq argues in Al Jazeera that there is a "collective sense of disappointment" about how little structural change has occurred under leftist governments. Further, "the revolutionary left disenchanted its supporters in the most overt ways."

I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly in one way and completely disagreeing in another. She is exactly right that there is a lot less revolution going on than claimed. Nothing being done is particularly new, and some of it is just ordinary capitalism. And she's pretty angry about it:

The problem with such development strategies inherited from the 1970s is not only that they perpetuate dependencies most leftists and progressives in the region are trying to reverse. They continue to treat Indigenous territories as terra nullius, dismiss Indigenous authority and allot their territories to extractive industries that fuel the global capitalist system.

The problem lies in making the jump from those facts to "collective disappointment." Rafael Correa and Evo Morales are perhaps the most popular presidents in the history of their countries. Venezuelans kept voting for Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro even while the economy tanked. Daniel Ortega has high approval ratings.

I can understand the idea that many governments had potential for political and economic transformation, and some people are disappointed they did not pursue it. But I am not convinced this sentiment is broadly shared by government supporters.


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