Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is Venezuela a Model for Cuba?

One mantra for years with Venezuela is that the Cubans control everything and so the country was moving in a Castro-esque direction. Reality, however, has shown the seemingly hapless Chavistas to be far more subtle and flexible than Fidel's model. Instead, what we may actually eventually see is Cuba learning from Venezuela.


Fidel learned from Guatemala and Chile that co-existence with the empire was impossible, that socialism couldn't be achieved through electoral democracy. But of course that was the Cold War. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro never lived that experience in Venezuela. Instead, they had lived elections in Venezuela.

In Cuba, elections are funny things that I would joke about in class: Fidel figured that if you only claimed 98% or so of the vote, then that 2% was your veneer of democracy. You think we're so evil but we let 2% oppose us! There was no way the Castros were going to allow a real opposition to wander the country, talk freely, and the like.

Once Hugo Chávez died, oil prices dropped, and the weight of mismanagement and corruption all combined to destroy the economy and undermine confidence in the government, Maduro needed a new strategy for staying in power, but he couldn't use the Cuban model. In this era of (relative) democracy in the region, he needed a bigger fig leaf that Castroism could provide. So they kept having elections, but just carefully controlled who could participate. If the opposition elects a majority in the legislature, just ignore it and cite laws to do so. Then create your own "popular" body to replace it. Maybe you even learned a little gerrymandering from the United States. Now a large chunk of the opposition can no longer even participate in the 2018 presidential election because of their perfectly democratic decision not to participate in Sunday's local elections. Perfect!

All the while, you dialogue. You talk a lot about dialogue, and peace, and the wonders of working together for a unified, prosperous Venezuela. Foreigners hoping for some diplomatic glory sponsor and mediate this dialogue. It can drag on forever. This is a tremendous fig leaf that covers your enormous cojones.

The icing on the cake is the Trump administration, which does squeeze you economically on the one hand but gives you lots of political cover on the other. At least for now, Russia will help you cover the economic part and keep a sufficient number of people paid to keep moving forward. China is a little dicier but is still in the picture. But it's nice to have someone to rail against again because Obama knew much more what he was doing and he was hard to vilify. And now Trump apparently deems Venezuela an equal priority as North Korea and Iran. On this, at least, you can learn from Fidel, who played the U.S. like a fiddle.

Back to my original point, as Raúl Castro fades out, younger Cuban leaders will have to sort out how to move ahead. Over time, it wouldn't surprise me to see some sort of faux democracy that is primarily authoritarian. Venezuela, even more so than Russia, which is so much more heavy-handed, is developing a model to follow. You can have some measure of free speech, some kinds of free elections, and a vocal opposition, yet you can control all the levers and leave the world at a loss.

That model is working like a charm. For now at least. Worse models, like Zimbabwe's, lasted a hell of a long time. It's buying Chavistas time, though, and that's the best they can hope for at the moment. Cuba is watching too, and when there's political change there maybe watch for Venezuelans advising them. 

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Malevolence or Incompetence? Trump in Honduras

With reason, much as been made of the State Department certifying that Honduras was complying with the U.S. requirement of fighting corruption and protecting human rights precisely as election fraud was occurring.

Several times now, I've argued that Trump administration responses to Latin America have appeared either to be malevolent or incompetent--it's like a game show where you hear a scenario and have to choose one. The malevolent option is that the administration wanted to signal its desire for Juan Orlando Hernández to win. But there is always the incompetent option. From the Houston Chronicle:

But two days after the election and in the midst of the protests, the U.S. State Department stunned just about everyone. It sent a document certifying that Honduras had complied with its rule of law and human rights requirements to obtain millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
 Democrats in Congress immediately assumed that President Donald Trump was showing support for Hernández, a conservative who has gained favor with the White House for cracking down on street gangs that have made the country one of the world's most violent.
 But a State Department spokeswoman told reporters the certification was simply sent when it had been completed, saying "This was just something that it was done when it was done. Okay?"
 Okay, we get it. If it wasn't sent to help Hernandez, then it was sent with no thought or knowledge about the delicate situation in Honduras and the effect it could have, which among other things was to add to the confusion.


I actually lean toward incompetence here. The State Department is stripped to the bone and managed by someone who is hostile to its operation. A deadline was coming up so a lower level official generated the statement. This just would not surprise me.

I can't rule out malevolence, and certainly the Honduran opposition is reading Trump administration actions closely and finding them in favor of JOH. Either way, the Trump administration is sending the wrong signals and the region is paying attention.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

Ron Chernow's Grant

I greatly enjoyed Ron Chernow's Grant. I knew only the basics about him and the combination of strengths (esp. military genius and commitment to African American rights) and weaknesses (esp. misplaced trust and alcohol) make for good reading. I had not known what an abject failure he was when the civil war broke out (and that part of the book is much less interesting and therefore slower) nor the magnitude of his global image after he left the presidency. He died young, only 62, but that can happen when you smoke 20 cigars a day.


I am not that into military history but Chernow does a nice job of going through Grant's rapid rise through the ranks and the successful battlefield strategies that compelled Lincoln to trust him. The two developed a strong bond. Grant understood Robert E. Lee and outmaneuvered him time and again. Chernow brings out the emotion and stress he (and of course Lincoln as well) were under.

Reconstruction is heartbreaking to read, as Grant supported African Americans enjoying their rights and entering politics, which they did in large numbers. He sent troops to the South numerous times to counter brutal white violence, but his own party and the North in general tired of it, and after he left office whites quickly established apartheid.

Latin America note: Grant fought in the Mexican War and fell in love with the country, even going back later. Chernow is clearly a sympathetic biographer but Grant's own words suggest someone who tried to overcome racism and appreciate the people and culture.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Latin American Response to Honduras

I write periodically about the lack of unity and cooperation in Latin America, which is detrimental to democracy in the region. In the case of Honduras, we see a partial exception that underlines how difficult unity is to achieve. The Mexican Foreign Ministry issued a statement on behalf of eight countries in support of the TSE's decision to do a recount.

Los gobiernos de Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, México, Paraguay, Perú y Uruguay manifiestan su apoyo a la decisión tomada por las altas autoridades del Tribunal Supremo Electoral de Honduras de proceder al recuento de la totalidad de las actas de votación interpeladas respecto de sus recientes elecciones presidenciales.

Concern about fraud and calls for a recount have come from elsewhere as well, but it seems ideology still gets in the way. Evo Morales might agree with the statement but blames the U.S. Same goes with Nicolás Maduro. The statement lauds the OAS, which they would not want to do. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, where is Brazil? The powerhouse is conspicuous by its absence.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Latin American Elections Are Boring

I agree with a lot of Jorge Castañeda's op-ed in the New York Times about where Latin America is headed as a series of presidential elections are coming up. We hear a lot of concern about democracy breaking down but it's premature:

Fortunately, Latin American democracy is becoming monotonously normal and resistant to great upheavals. If there is a common thread underlying this sequence of presidential elections, it may reside in a healthy novelty: the humdrum nature of most of the possible outcomes. This is good news for the region.

I've used the word "boring" to describe elections in Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru that were supposed to be ideological battlegrounds that could convulse the region. Or at least they were portrayed that way. Remember back when Ollanta Humala was going to be the next Hugo Chávez and Peru would turn into the Soviet Union if he won?

This doesn't minimize or ignore the crisis in Honduras or the populist temptations in Brazil or Mexico. But in a regional and historical perspective, Latin America is not falling apart. Coups aren't gone but they're far less of a threat now than any other time in Latin American history. Civil wars are ending, not starting. I think of Ecuador, which was so coup prone, and now the elections are interesting politically but also boring in a good way.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Honduran Cobras Don't Want to Bite

The Honduran special forces group Cobras, which is often cited as "US funded forces attacking people" will not in fact attack anyone. They say they are "not machines or robots" and "before police, we are human beings," and they don't want to be part of killing people (or to be killed) for the sake of this election controversy.

They also make clear they are not taking sides. Instead, they just do not want to be part of domestic repression. They call on the police to do the same. Some police had already been on strike because of not getting paid.

This is groundbreaking stuff. My first thought is that they are indeed taking sides because the government is (presumably, since the president is Commander-in-Chief in Honduras) ordering them and they are saying no. On top of that Salvador Nasralla had called on the army to rebel. But at the same time, they are not calling for one or the other candidate to win, or telling Juan Orlando Hernández that they no longer serve him. Update: I hadn't seen the letter itself, which is actually much more directly aimed at the government.

Where does that go? The Venezuelan armed forces became increasingly resentful at being used to repress their own people, which then politicized them. What starts as "we don't repress" can eventually become "we don't support this government because it represses." Yet the contexts are different--JOH had solid approval ratings earlier this year and is not drastically changing economic policy. In short, we should not jump to too many conclusions. For the armed forces as a whole to shift course would be unprecedented.

It is also a reminder that using "US backed" or "US funded" as an automatic indication of brutality is simplistic because it robs groups of their agency. They are not simple puppets with no brains, which is generally the implication. Puppets tend to be puppets until they're not (remember all the analyses when Juan Manuel Santos became president in Colombia) and US funding alone does not tell us enough.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

Fraud in Honduras

The Honduran Tribunal Supremo Electoral shows Juan Orlando Hernández winning 42.98%-41.39% over Salvador Nasralla with 99.96% of votes counted. It is clear that the election was marked by significant fraud. Nasralla had been ahead, then the TSE suddenly stopped issuing results, which days later began trickling in and drastically changed the outcome. I sense that the fraud strategy was incompetent.

At this point there are numerous problems that must be addressed before a winner is announced.

The opposition is questioning ballots from an additional 5,200 polling places, almost 30 percent of the total, and has asked for a recount from three rural departments where turnout was about 20 percent higher than the average in the rest of the country. 
The monitoring group from the Organization of American States said Sunday that the complaints over those 5,200 polling places should be considered.


The problem is that there is too little international pressure to do so. Yes, the OAS monitoring group supports this, but Luis Almagro has only done a few bland retweets. He talked nonstop about Venezuela and needs to come out more strongly about Honduras. The Trump administration remains almost completely silent. With all the noise that both made about Venezuela, the charge of hypocrisy is easy to make.

Meanwhile, the TSE agreed to recount far fewer. No surprise there--recount a few, claim forever that "a recount" was completed, and give JOH his re-election. The TSE is discredited at this point. There is no defense for the delays.

Sadly, the most likely outcome will be more violence and more distrust. It doesn't help that Nasralla calls for military insurrection:

“I call on all members of the armed forces to rebel against your bosses,” Nasralla told a cheering throng of supporters who booed nearby troops. “You all over there, you shouldn’t be there, you should be part of the people.”

The army isn't going to rebel* but this will certainly provide more rationale for repression. Without international pressure, Honduras will continue the political disintegration that began with the 2009 coup.

* Update: Boz notes that I say this with too much certainty. This is true. The army has traditionally been strongly connected with elites, who do not want Zelaya near the presidency. If the army does indeed rebel, then we're in brand new territory.

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Sunday, December 03, 2017

AMLO and Amnesty

Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would consider an amnesty for narcos. On social media I immediately saw a lot of mocking his political acumen. I am not so sure. This might not be so dumb politically.

1. The general idea is not so new in Mexico. Vicente Fox has said the drug war is useless and he is on the other side of political spectrum. Therefore the idea of such a trial balloon is not so crazy. Mexicans say drug-related violence is partly why they disapprove of Enrique Peña Nieto.

2. The general idea is not so new in the region either. El Salvador experimented with a truce, which is obviously different but falls under the same category of "trying something other than the current failing policy." So it's not unprecedented (you could perhaps even make a comparison to the concessions Colombia made to the FARC).

3. Perhaps even more importantly, Donald Trump will eventually attack him hard on this issue, which will be great for AMLO. If I were AMLO, I would look to push Trump's buttons as much as possible, which will inevitably lead to disparaging of Mexico and Mexicans. AMLO is in great shape if he becomes the defender of Mexican nationalism.


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Friday, December 01, 2017

Trump Policy Toward Honduras

The Trump administration has been very quiet about the Honduran election. We've got one quick mention by the State Department spokesperson and that appears to be it. This screenshot from State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs says it all.



There are two main possible reasons for this. First, the Trump administration wants Juan Orlando Hernández to win so is intentionally ignoring the clear signs of electoral fraud. Because of Salvador Nasralla's alliance with José Manuel Zelaya, there are wild charges of another Hugo Chávez coming. This is an administration that revels in wild charges and there are plenty of people who actually believe this. John Kelly really likes JOH and wild charges.

Second, Trump does not care at all (even if Kelly tries to get his attention) and Rex Tillerson is too incompetent/distracted to bother doing so or even to delegate that duty to his Assistant Secretary. Sorry, I mean his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary because Trump has not cared enough to nominate an Assistant Secretary. Oh wait, there is no Ambassador to Honduras either. Oops.

So there you have it. Malevolence or incompetence. Take your pick.

I understand that many of you will say, "It's better that the Trump administration do nothing because realistically it would likely just screw this up even more." I lean heavily that direction myself but I do wish we had a government that would call for regional pressure to push for a recount or some other measures to counter fraud. I know that will not happen.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Honduras Election Mess

On Monday, the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal put Salvador Nasralla up 45.17%-40.21% over Juan Orlando Hernández. Then it stalled out and rumors flew of machinations to get Hernández the votes he needed.

It started moving again yesterday, and then when I awoke this morning, ta da! Hernández is winning 42.48%-41.7%.



This shift came right after the two candidates signed an agreement with the OAS to recognize the results, but then Nasralla basically said he would not accept all the results that were not proven. Nasralla's last tweet was from the middle of the night, where he called on his supporters to take (peacefully) to the streets.

Final results are expected by the end of today. If Nasralla loses, this will end very badly.

Meanwhile, Hernández calls for respecting the results and tweets about how great things will be. But this tweet from yesterday is probably not the best image to be transmitting to the world right now.


Update (11:35 am). JOH lead is now 43.54%-41.69% with 89.16% counted.

Update (2:42 pm). JOH lead narrows to 42.74%-41.55% with 91.09% counted.

Update (4:34 pm) JOH lead widens to 42.85%-41.48% with 92.02% counted.

Update (7:52 pm) JOH lead widens to 42.92%-41.43% with 92.63% counted.

Update (6:06 am) JOH lead stays almost identical at 42.92%-41.42% with 94.31% counted.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Colombia Ambassador Debacle

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to lay waste to diplomats has been well-documented. As a result, it should be good news when the Trump administration nominates a seasoned career diplomat--Joseph MacManus--to an important post, namely the Ambassador to Colombia. But Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee are unhappy with the choice because he worked in the State Department before.

Lee writes explicitly that he does not want anyone who served in the State Department under the Obama administration to be in an important post. It doesn't even matter whether you also served prior to Obama. Rubio brings Benghazi (of course!) into it, and MacManus is transformed into a "Clinton aide," thus erasing his entire career.

Ambassadorial nominations have always generated weird political debates, but this one takes it a step further. It's not uncommon for appointees with political backgrounds to be grilled or even rejected (like Sen. Jesse Helms blocking Robert Pastor for his role in the Panama Canal negotiations) for partisan reasons. But it's new and uniquely stupid to oppose nominations simply for having worked in the State Department.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Bolivian Democracy

Santiago Anria has a post at The Monkey Cage on the state of Bolivian democracy. Short take is that Evo Morales' efforts to stay in power damage democracy but it's not going the same route as Venezuela, as is sometimes alleged.

Two things occurred to me as I read it. First, he makes the point that the opposition used to be harsh critics of the constitution and now they are the only defender. This is just like Venezuela, where Chavistas rejected Chávez's own constitution when its democratic elements no longer were acceptable to them, while the opposition called for it to be respected. Definitely not a good sign.

Second, he doesn't mention the military, which has been the bane of democracy in Bolivian history. This shows how well Morales has managed the military politically--Bolivian politics are traditionally coup-prone yet now it is well in the background. That deserves more study and is central to Morales' ability to remain in office into the future.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Honduras Election

We're still waiting on the final official results of the Honduran presidential election, which includes 57% of voters at this point. Here is the current tally from the TSE website, which has Salvador Nasralla in the lead.



With calls of fraud, strong personalities, corruption, hypocrisy, rumors of military action, general uneasiness, and both sides trying to claim victory already, Honduran democracy--already weak and fragile--takes a major hit no matter the outcome.

Of course, the 2009 coup gets mentioned frequently but we also need to think about the broader point that coups have deep and long impacts. Eight years later, Honduras has still not recovered. People who think a Venezuelan coup would work should keep this in mind.

Back in 2013, Patricia Otero-Felipe published an analysis in Electoral Studies about the 2013 general election and concluded with this:

Honduras' political forces have the opportunity to build a common front and undertake policy and institutional reforms.

There was no common front and the only reforms involved efforts to stay in power longer. I think it will be hard to write an optimistic analysis after all the dust settles.

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See Boz on how tense this all is.

See Mike Allison Juan Orlando Hernández's creeping authoritarianism.

CJ Wade says Hernández is full of BS.

RAJ is constantly updating results.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Separatism in Latin America

The Bello column in The Economist has an article on the lack of separatism in Latin America. It notes various potential reasons we're not seeing Catalonia in Latin America, and kudos for referring to a Latin American political scientist for evidence:

For regional grievances to become separatist movements requires some specific conditions, as Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Lima, has noted in a comparative study of Peru and Bolivia. These include a powerful regional political elite, access to economic resources and foreign trade, and a paramount city that rivals the national capital. These applied to the Bolivian movement centred on Santa Cruz. And they apply in Catalonia.

Vergara published his book in Spanish, and it struck me that I couldn't think of one in English, even though it's a great topic. I suppose in general people like studying something more than the absence of something, perhaps not unlike the ongoing debate about publishing null results. Yet it's notable that although Latin America has dealt with devastating civil war, it has largely avoided the problem of separatism despite the many linguistic, nationalist, and geographical divides within it.

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