Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Podcast Episode 50: Implementing Peace in Colombia

In Episode 50 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Adam Isacson, who is Director of the Defense Oversight Program for the Washington Office on Latin America. He has been studying Colombia and its conflicts for many years, and recently traveled there to evaluate a USAID project to bring government services to post-conflict areas of the country. We talked first back in Episode 3 in September 2016 about the then upcoming plebiscite and uncertainty, so we discuss what's been accomplished (or not) from a firsthand perspective, what the outlook is, and what the Colombia-Venezuela border looks like.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review of King's An Excess Male

Maggie Shen King's novel An Excess Male (2017) is unique and engrossing. It shifts from human interest story to thriller and back, with Chinese authoritarian politics infusing everything. The setting is Beijing in the not-too-distant future, where the one-child policy has led to such an imbalance of men and women that men find it difficult to marry wives. One answer has been to allow for women to be married to more than one man. Wei-guo is single and in his 40s, and a matchmaker (hired by his two fathers) finds a possible wife who already has two husbands. The idiosyncrasies of that family frame the novel because they are brothers. One is homosexual and one appears to be high functioning autistic (he prefers to be called XX). The government punishes the former and is wary of the latter. Finally, Wei-guo plays a military-style real-life simulation intended for single men in which he is part of a mini-rebellion that angers government officials.

The female character, May-ling, loves her husbands but does not connect fully with either one. Part of the story is the evolution of her feelings toward Wei-guo, who falls almost immediately in love with her. He also connects with their rather difficult young child. The novel is really about what family means, and the human cost of government repression and control, which creates a lot of unnecessary misery.


Thoughts on the Petro Sanctions

Donald Trump issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. citizens from making transactions in the Petro (the Venezuelan government's new cryptocurrency). Here's the wording:

Section 1.  (a)  All transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018, are prohibited as of the effective date of this order.

The Petro was a last gasp effort by the Venezuelan government to have some sort of functioning currency while also providing more means of evading sanctions. So this closes out some options. Some thoughts:

First, I wonder how many speculators were going to want to make transactions of any scale when the government is so well known as incompetent. In other words, how many transactions will this actually prevent? I love this quote from Russ Dallen:

“Since most cryptocurrencies are not actually backed by anything real, cryptocurrency speculation is based on the greater fool theory -- I can buy this at $100 because there is someone who is a bigger idiot who is going to buy it at $200. When you take the U.S. out of that equation, you reduce the interest and potential for that speculation.”

Speculation would be based no how many other people you think are stupid. Perhaps that's almost infinite.

Second, this particular action shows the two-track strategy, which combines targeting Venezuelan government officials (which the Obama administration also did) but also U.S. citizens (which to the best of my recollection Obama did not do). It is a considerable one-two punch.

Third, the Trump administration has been going after government officials but does not appear to be thinking of any exit ramp for them. Right now there is no permanent Secretary of State and Tom Shannon's (who was experienced at good cop/bad cop) tenure is running out. If Mike Pompeo is confirmed, then U.S. policy will likely become more punitive. My worry is that this increases the amount of violence we will see as the Venezuelan government feels more cornered.

Fourth, I and others have long made the case that sanctions can be counterproductive because the Venezuelan government can use them as a foil. I feel like some line of incompetence has been crossed where this no longer holds. It would be great to operationalize this somehow, but at some point the government is so obviously dysfunctional that only the devout will buy the argument, and they don't need you to provide a foil anyway. The devout are those 20ish% or so of Venezuelans who support the government no matter what.

Fifth, I think it is irresponsible at this point to talk about "self-determination" in Venezuela, as Lula just did. Self-determination means that the people of Venezuela are able to make their own decisions. That does not currently hold there because the government will not allow it.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Podcast Episode 49: Latin America and Autonomy

In Episode 49 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk about my new book project on Latin American autonomy in the context of U.S.-Latin American relations. I presented a first draft of the first chapter at the SECOLAS meeting a little over a week ago in Nashville. One part of this project is to give the Latin American IR literature more attention, which unfortunately often doesn't happen enough in the U.S.-based literature.

I will definitely be writing and talking more about this as time goes on.


Latin America Responds to US Trade Policy

Interesting article in the NYT about how the Trump Administration's trade policies are pushing Latin American countries to a) pare back their own protectionist policies; and b) forge more trade relationships with each other.

Certain ideas that started among academics and political pundits are also reaching the status of conventional wisdom, where Latin American presidents say them aloud:

“I think that with this attitude the United States is leaving a void, and that void may be filled by China,” President Sebastián Piñera of Chile said in a recent interview, adding that he was startled by the messages that the Chinese and American leaders presented at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
 “The president of the United States was defending protectionism, and the president of China was defending free trade,” Mr. Piñera said. “It felt a little like the world upside down.”

I've said this many times, and will repeat it ad infinitum I imagine, but this sequence of events is detrimental to U.S. interests and a boon to China. I should also hasten to point out that this is a conservative president saying this. Piñera should be a natural ideological ally, same as Mauricio Macri, but the administration is explicitly slapping them.

The upshot: the U.S. no longer can identify a clear ally in the region--it labels all of them a problem in some manner. And Latin American presidents are responding accordingly.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Race 3: Shamrock 4 Miler

Race 3 this year was today's Shamrock 4 Miler. I ran a 7:51 pace, which is the fastest I've run in a really long time. It is the first in a Run For Your Life 6 pack my wife and I are doing. One great things about these races is that they all have NoDa Brewing Company beer afterward. Today it was CAVU Blonde Ale.

It is the sort of course I like, with gentle up and downhills, so unlike some parts of Charlotte you're not doing any real climbing. I slowed with each mile but I was trying to go fast so this has less to do with hills and more with my declining energy.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Support for Military Rule in Brazil

For quite a while, the Latin American Public Opinion Project has documented the weak support for democracy in Latin America, which is troubling.

A recent poll shows 43% support in Brazil for a provisional return to military rule. Younger people support it more than older, which makes sense because of course older people remember what it was like. From The Washington Post:

“This sentiment is in the air and is being exploited. The intervention in Rio is an attempt by the president to explore that feeling — the nostalgia, the feeling that the military is an anti-political, tough, external body,” said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “Depending on how the intervention goes, if it succeeds in even appearing to reduce crime, it could generate a dangerous wave of militarism.”

This is all so familiar. When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, I was immersed in the literature on civil-military relations, which discussed anti-political thought (here is a great example), popular support for the military, the military's belief in its role as savior, and the disintegration of presidential systems under the weight of political polarization. Fortunately, we no longer have the Cold War as a backdrop, but we are talking about the same things again.

Most Latin American militaries are back in the barracks, or at least mostly so. We need to keep them there. At this point, my hunch is that the Brazilian military has no interest in intervention, and nothing good will come from trying to change that.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Peru is Tough on Presidents

Peruvian journalist Simeon Tegel has an article at Americas Quarterly about how Peruvian presidents have the political deck stacked against them. I've written numerous times about how unpopular Peruvian presidents always seem to be.

Tegel points to institutional design. In particular, Peru has a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system with a dual executive, which he argues "serves both to institutionalize conflict and prevent fresh voices with public backing from entering the political arena." Congress has outsized power that has consistently crippled the president. That system is also why PPK pardoned Alberto Fujimori.

Further, Peru has a unicameral legislature, which when combined with high threshold for parties to even register, has fostered legislative dominance in many ways. Thinking again of PPK, it meant that Congress could use impeachment as extortion. And good luck getting electoral reform through that body.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Quick Thoughts on Mike Pompeo and Latin America

Franco Ordoñez writes that Latin America might look favorably upon Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. What the "favorable" really boils down to is the idea that Latin American leaders don't want to be ignored almost completely, as has been the case up to this point. But Pompeo is hawkish even for hawks and I expect initial shared interest in pushing Venezuela to sour. I expect the specter of Middle Eastern terrorists going crazy in Latin America and getting ready to invade the U.S. to reach the highest heights we've seen yet. I expect Cuba policy to deteriorate further just at a moment of opportunity with change of leadership. And I expect all that to start chafing before too long.

I do hope I am wrong. 

It seemed like Rex Tillerson would be moderate, and that was true. It would not surprise me if Pompeo's reputation for hawkishness holds up as well.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Refugee Guidelines for Venezuelans

Emigration from Venezuela has reached the point where the United Nations' High Commissioer for Refugees issued guidance about how to deal with it. Although the statement takes pains not to be political, the last sentence in this quote really says it all.

There has been a 2,000% increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals seeking asylum worldwide since 2014, principally in the Americas during the last year. Although over 94,000 Venezuelans have been able to access refugee procedures in other countries in 2017, many more of those in need of protection opt for other legal stay arrangements, that may be faster to obtain and provide the right to work, access to health and education. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain without any documentation or permission to stay legally in asylum countries. This makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination and xenophobia.
 Within this context, UNHCR’s guidelines encourage States to ensure Venezuelans have access to territory and refugee procedures. In addition, UNHCR welcomes and calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses for the Venezuelan people, such as alternative legal stay arrangements, including visas or temporary residence permits, as well as other regularization programmes, which guarantee access to the basic rights of health care, education, family unity, freedom of movement, shelter and the right to work. UNHCR applauds countries in Latin America that have introduced such arrangements, and hopes that costs and requirements are eased, where necessary to ensure accessibility.
 In view of the situation in Venezuela, it is crucial that people are not deported or forcibly returned there.

By contrast, Nicolás Maduro argued yesterday that he's helped create a "productive revolution" proving that the "capitalist model" was the wrong path.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Venezuela and Teapot Dome

Remember the Teapot Dome scandal? Maybe not--it was in the early 1920s during the Harding Administration. But it was a huge deal then, as the Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall got bribes from private oil companies in exchange for access to oil fields the department controlled. Fall was convicted and spent a year in prison.

Fast forward to 2018.

The president’s oldest son and Texas hedge fund manager Gentry Beach have been involved in business deals together dating back to the mid-2000s and recently formed a company, Future Venture LLC, despite past claims by both men that they were just friends, according to previously unreported court records and other documents obtained by AP.
Last February, just as Trump Sr. was settling into office, Beach and an Iraqi-American businessman met with top officials at the National Security Council to present their plan for lightening U.S. sanctions in Venezuela in exchange for opening business opportunities for U.S. companies, according to a former U.S. official with direct knowledge of the proposal.
Career foreign policy experts were instructed to take the meetings, first reported last April by the website, at the direction of the West Wing because Beach and the businessman were friends of Trump Jr., the official said. 

Pay money for better access to Venezuelan oil. The fact that the president didn't bite doesn't make it any less corrupt.

The irony here is that first Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro have always said the U.S. is being aggressive because it wants to take Venezuelan oil. This is actually an example of the exact opposite.


Bolivia's Message to Cuba

Bolivian Vice President Alvaro García Linera says Bolivia and other Latin American countries need to help Cuba more.

"Today, the great task of our country and progressive governments in Latin America is to quickly initiate the political brotherhood of our leaders and our governments channeling it into an economic and productive brotherhood. We must take a qualitative leap that will change our position in a time of continental combat," Garcia said. 
"We are advancing in meetings, understanding the positions of social organizations, but in the case of the economy, we are moving very slowly; it is the very expensive, but it is also necessary," he said, noting that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) ought to step up, leading the movement towards continental integration and economic stability.

The Bolivian political leadership is always a curious mix. All this talk of the economy is vague, I imagine deliberately so. Bolivia's own economic model is moderate and praised by the International Monetary Fund. Therefore it is best poised to help Cuba by serving as a model for dismantling the current Cuban economy. Obviously that's not what García Linera is intimating but rhetoric and practice have been two widely different things.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

You Should Go to SECOLAS Next Year in Oaxaca

From March 28-31 in 2019 the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies will hold its annual conference in Oaxaca, Mexico. It's going to be awesome.

I just got back from this year's conference, which was in Nashville on the Vanderbilt campus. I presented the first chapter from a book I am working on (which I will be podcasting about soon) and got some useful feedback. This is always a great conference--we had an opening reception and a networking event with free food and drinks, which is especially good for graduate students, and we also do a graduate student session on basic things like publishing for the first time, cover letter, and the like. It is small but not tiny (I am guessing the 150 range) and I've actually often received higher quality feedback there than at huge conferences.

If you're reading this and are in academia, you should come.


Thursday, March 08, 2018

Constitution Problems in Latin America

Niall Ferguson and Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez have a working paper on "disposable" constitutions in Latin America. I always make this case in my Latin American Politics class. Constitutions come and go frequently in the region and often get tied to individual leaders. That undermines long-term stability.

They conclude by arguing that Chile is better off amending the 1980 constitution rather than writing a new one, which Michelle Bachelet is pushing right now and which has been on the agenda for years. It has Pinochet roots. I wrote about this in my first book, with ultraconservative Jaime Guzmán on the commission as intellectual godfather. Put simply, the status quo argument is that despite warts, the country is stable. The change argument is that democracy has been held back because of it. In fact, that constitution was intentionally authoritarian, intended to limit democracy in many ways, so it's easy to make the case that it should reflect the democratic times. The critical issue is not necessarily a new constitution per se, but making sure a new one does not reflect an individual. You want a new one, built with consensus, that lasts. The 1980 constitution was not built on consensus.

But I digress. To be less disposable, constitutions should be de-personalized, set aside from the political projects of specific people. Make the process broad and consensual to the extent possible rather than personalized.


Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Failed US Meddling in Latin American Elections

Tim Gill has an article in today's Washington Post about U.S. meddling in Latin American elections. He notes U.S. officials participating in some manner in Venezuelan, Bolivian, and Nicaraguan elections, pointing out that supporting the military is not the only, or even main, avenue. There are strategy meetings, funding, etc. for opposition parties.

The interesting thing is that the U.S. failed in all three cases.

The failed efforts in these three countries against different popularly elected candidates show that the United States hasn’t stopped trying to undermine leftist Latin American leaders. But even failed efforts undoubtedly generate conditions more conducive to a pendulum shift to the right. And indeed, we have recently witnessed leftist governments displaced in Argentina, Brazil and Honduras.

Now, at least part of the conditions for the pendulum shift are also corruption and economic decline, but it would be fascinating to think about how to isolate the effect of meddling itself. It would be tough.

I wonder whether, even when looking at the U.S. for comparison, that a broader effect is decreased support for democracy itself. Faced with a flood of negative stories, rumors of manipulation, etc. voters simply see elections themselves as less legitimate.

We could also hypothesize that it prompts the targeted leaders to be more authoritarian. We make fun of Nicolás Maduro for paranoia, but he does have reason to be paranoid. As Tim shows, there is ample public evidence of meddling and we do not know what is also being done covertly.

His concluding point, though, is important whether or not the meddling succeeds. We are outraged at Russian interference, yet casual about interfering elsewhere. Why? Because we're exceptional and always do things for the right reasons. And that's a big part of the problem.


Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Laura Chinchilla on Sexism

Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla has a great op-ed in the Spanish edition of The New York Times about sexism and female presidents. Even using some data, she shows how women are valued less, their governments are written about less, and their personal characteristics get more attention (she notes how often she was asked if she cried after some dramatic event). She lauds the quota laws that are common in Latin America, which bring more women into politics.

She ends on an optimistic note, talking how some trends toward equality are now irreversible. Perhaps most importantly, people know women can be president, which of course is something we haven't yet tackled in the United States.

I will end on a less optimistic note. I could not find an English version of this article.

In other words, an article about sexism falls to sexism. Since we in the United States have a difficult time accepting the notion of a woman as president, and since we refuse quotas despite having legislators who are overwhelmingly male, we're the ones that need to see it.


Monday, March 05, 2018

U.S.-Mexican Relations the Trump Way

During the Trump administration, U.S.-Mexico relations have been guided in no small part by the personal relationship between Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Jared Kushner. Now Kushner is in hot political water. In his absence, relations are guided by Twitter sniping. From this morning:

Then the response:

This is not a healthy way for two allies with a long shared border to communicate. In fact, the personal relationship route is a dangerous one as well, but at least it involves mutual respect. Trump's tweet is intended as red meat for his core supporters and perhaps in some twisted way he sees it as giving him leverage in NAFTA negotiations, but fostering and nurturing animosity will backfire. Having a dysfunctional relationship with Mexico hurts the United States as well.


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