Friday, September 21, 2018

Podcast Episode 55: The Brazilian Election Mess

Want to know more about the upcoming Brazilian presidential election, complete with a stabbing? After a hiatus where I was on vacation and then getting used to a new job, I have a new episode of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast. I talk with my friend and colleague Fred Batista, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte. I do my very best to end the podcast on an optimistic note, but it was really challenging.


For ease, I've used the link for the archive.org site where it is stored, but you can subscribe to the podcast in all major places.

Incidentally, I recommend listening to Brian Winter and Roberto Simon on the Latin American in Focus podcast on the same issue.

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Is Bolsonaro Like Trump?

Curious analysis in The Monkey Cage by Felipe Krause and André Borges, arguing that Jair Bolsonaro is not like Donald Trump.

Commentators are comparing Brazil's political crisis with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and populist movements elsewhere. Fear, fake news and acrimonious polarization, so the story goes, are driving an angry electorate into the arms of a dangerous and extreme candidate. 
But we do not yet know whether Bolsonaro will win. Comparisons with Trump and Brexit are overblown. Here's why.

The "whys" are all electoral. Their argument is that Bolsonaro will make it to a second round, then lose. OK, that's something to debate. But it has nothing to do with whether Bolsonaro and Trump should be compared. The similarities between them, combined with the extreme polarization in Brazil, make them an excellent comparison.

Indeed, one of the ways we can fruitfully compare them is to rewind two years and remember how political scientists proclaimed that Donald Trump had no chance of winning. You have to shift back to the center after the primaries, etc. We've heard this story before. The reasons for saying Bolsonaro won't win make perfect sense and yet they could be wrong.

Should we compare Bolsonaro to Trump? A resounding yes. Should we assume Bolsonaro will lose? A resounding no.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Causes of Venezuela's Oil Implosion

Economist Francisco Rodríguez writes about the causes of Venezuela's economic implosion at WOLA's blog, centering on the decline of oil production. That in turn was caused by mismanagement and exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. In particular, the latter "toxified" transactions with Venezuela, thus raising the costs of doing business with the government.

This is not an exercise in blaming the U.S. but rather recognition that a lot of factors are working simultaneously. I had written for a while that Trump's policies seemed quite similar to Obama's in terms of targeted sanctions, but the more general sanctions against transactions are a step much further. Those now can also be accompanied by protests at the offices of financial institutions that loan money.

As we warned previously, these observations should not be taken as decisive proof that sanctions caused the output collapse. There are many other factors at play in the Venezuelan economy which can also be put forward as explanations. Maduro’s decision to appoint a general with no previous industry experience and the broad-ranging corruption investigation that led to the jailing of 95 industry executives, including two former PDVSA presidents, appear to have caused a paralysis in many of the sector’s professional cadres. The loss of the industry’s specialized human capital, part of the brain drain that accompanies large scale migration exoduses, also contributed to the deterioration of its operational capacity. 
The data, however, strongly suggests the need for much more in-depth research on the reasons for Venezuela’s oil output collapse and for the discontinuous behavior in the series. The fact that the acceleration of the decline coincides with the onset of the country’s toxification to international investors suggests that we need to closely explore this channel as a potential driver of Venezuela’s output collapse.
What we should also note is that these policies have increased China's influence significantly. Maduro just returned from a triumphant trip getting more investment promises. This is another example of Trump administration policies unintentionally boosting China's presence in Latin America.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

More Latin American Benefits From Trump Trade War

Because of Donald Trump's trade war, China is working to wean itself off U.S. soybeans.

The comments echo a growing confidence within China’s soybean industry and government that the world’s largest pork-producing nation can wean itself off U.S. soy exports – a prospect that would decimate U.S. farmers, upend a 36-year-old trading relationship worth $12.7 billion last year, and radically remap global trade flows. 
Just one prong of the strategy Mu detailed - to slash soymeal content in pig feed - could obliterate Chinese demand for U.S. soybeans if broadly adopted, according to Reuters calculations.
A bit breathless, I think, but the point remains that the Chinese government has a strategy here that will have long-term implications. As it turns out, those implications involve Latin America.

At the Kansas City conference, held by the U.S. Soybean Export Council, Mu highlighted reduced soymeal rations as part of a broader strategy, including seeking alternative protein sources such as rapeseed or cotton seed; tapping surplus soybean stocks, including a government reserve, and domestically grown soybeans; and continuing to boost soybean imports from Brazil and Argentina.
This is a recurring theme. Trump unsettles Latin America because he is unpredictable, but in some specific ways his economic policies benefit Latin American producers at the expense of the United States. In this case, U.S. farmers lose. I've been writing some variation of this in posts a number of times this year.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

CRS on US-Cuban Relations

In honor of the Congressional Research Service reports becoming fully public, here is the most recent analysis of U.S.-Cuban relations from Mark Sullivan. Here is one conclusion:

The human rights situation in Cuba likely will remain a key congressional concern, although with diverse views over the best approach to influence the Cuban government. Looking ahead, actions by the Díaz-Canel government to improve Cuba’s human rights record could be a factor affecting U.S. efforts to normalize bilateral relations.
I think this is really optimistic. The traditional approach has been to set goals posts and then move them. I do not think Diaz-Canel can take any steps that will convince reticent members of Congress. I think money will drive them more than anything else. Their constituents want to sell goods to Cuba and are currently prohibited from doing so. That has been true for a long time and change is slow.

Note also at the end that there are ton of legislative proposals floating around at any given time that are related to Cuba in some manner.

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US Support for Latin American Democracy

Luis L. Schenoni and Scott Mainwaring, "US Hegemony and Regime Change in Latin America," Democratization early view. Sorry, it's gated.

Abstract:

We contribute to the extensive literature on international influences on democratization and democratic breakdowns by conceptualizing hegemonic mechanisms of regime change and assessing them empirically. Our findings are based on a multi-methods approach and highlight the varying importance of hegemonic influences in post-1945 Latin America. We argue that US support for democratization was consistent in the wave of transitions to democracy that began in Latin America in 1978 and that it was decisive in many of these transitions. While past work has attributed responsibility to the US for the waves of democratic breakdowns from 1948 to 1956 and 1964 to 1976, an examination of the 27 breakdowns from 1945 to 2010 gives reason to doubt this interpretation. Future research could use these conceptual and methodological tools to explore the role of other powers in waves of democracy and authoritarianism.
This is a deeply researched and interesting study of how messy U.S. policy toward Latin American democracy has been. The thrust of the article is to show that the U.S. government has not been as anti-democracy as often portrayed. There are plenty of times, for example, that an embassy spoke out against democratic breakdown or in favor of democratization, which had an effect. This was especially true the series of democratic transitions in the 1978-1990 period.

The simplified summary is that the U.S. was less supportive of democracy from 1948-1977 and 1981-1985, and more supportive from 1944-1948, 1977-1981 and 1985 onward. The thing is, I think a lot of people already roughly agree with that assessment. The authors say they have an exhaustive list of cited works in an appendix but I was unable to find it online.

This would be a good article for a course--it combines methodological rigor and really good analysis.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

The US Left and Latin America Policy

Daniel Bessner at the University of Washington has a thought provoking op-ed in The New York Times about the U.S. left and foreign policy. He points out correctly that there is no real foreign policy emphasis at all, but there should be. He suggests pillars such a foreign policy could rest on, which coalesce around the idea that interventionism has tended to create more problems than it solves. It needs to focus on internationalism rather than interventionism.

He does not mention Latin America but it would be front and center of such a new orientation. It would mean making CICIG and any other UN-sponsored efforts to combat corruption a priority. It would mean collaborative and regional efforts to fight drug (and human) trafficking. It would mean backing off blind insistence on FTAs and instead working with countries like Brazil more closely about mutual trade benefits. It would mean working in a sane manner with Cuba. It would obviously mean no more talk of invading Venezuela. There are many more areas.

He talks about the lack of billionaire-funded left-leaning foreign policy think tanks. The work we're talking about would be perfect for the Washington Office on Latin America. Get them a ton of funding and have more politicians asking for their advice. Relations would improve quickly and US security would be the winner.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Review of Holway's Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues

John Holway was smart enough to get oral histories of Negro League stars in the early 1970s before they were gone. What a wonderful collection, just as The Glory of Their Times did for white players. I enjoyed it immensely. Each chapter is one player telling his story.

There is a lot of talk these days about the "right" way to play, and grumbling about how baseball used to be better before analytics. As you might guess, same as with general griping about how terrible youngsters are, this is an eternal lament. These ballplayers repeated similar complaints about how there was no "trickeration" any more, less skill, more coddling. And they were talking almost 50 years ago.

One of the "right" ways to play is bunting. They complained that by the early 1970s no one was bunting anymore. In other words, the old guys who whine now that the bunt has disappeared were themselves criticized for not doing it enough and not doing it well. Incidentally, the way the Negro League players talked, they must have bunted a lot. They all talked about it in some detail.

Just as I read in the Satchel Paige biography, these players were unanimous that Jackie Robinson was far from the best player and that the Negro Leagues should get more credit for showing white players and executives for so long that their players could beat anyone.

The players show a lot of nostalgia but amazingly little bitterness. They had the bad luck of being excellent baseball players at a time when they were not allowed to get the kinds of salaries, fame, and comforts they deserved. They felt proud that their hard work proved that they were just as good or better than white players, who they routinely defeated in all star games. As Othello "Chico" Renfroe said, "I can really say baseball's the great American game, although it did discriminate against us for many years."

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Almagro Wants to Invade Venezuela

Luis Almagro is opening the door to OAS participation in invading Venezuela.

“With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out,” Almagro said at a press conference in the Colombian city of Cucuta. “What Nicolas Maduro’s regime is perpetrating are crimes against humanity, the violation of the human rights and the suffering of people that is inducing an exodus. Diplomatic actions should be the first priority but we shouldn’t rule out any action.”
As the article notes, Almagro supported the OAS role in the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, but later recanted and said that sort of thing should never happen again.

Almagro is not the OAS so we need to take this with a grain of salt, but the real danger is inviting eagerly waiting officials in the Trump administration to use the OAS as cover for a U.S. military action. Reading Fear, you see how bad ideas can find a home unless someone waves something shiny in front of Trump to distract him.

Let's see how the leaders of the members states respond. They can tamp this down pretty quickly by condemning it. Unfortunately, at this point the region seems mostly content to do nothing and just respond to the immigration crisis.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Review of Bob Woodward's Fear

I read Bob Woodward's Fear and found it mildly interesting. You already know the story, but you get some more detail about how things work in the Trump White House. Trump himself is incapable of making consistent decisions, easily forgets things, and has already formed opinions he won't change even when they are obviously factually wrong. His staff believes in his mission, or at least most of it, and are exasperated a lot. Many do not respect him as a person.

Trump sees everything through a hazy film of profit, which he clearly does not really understand. He wanted to "take" minerals out of Afghanistan as if such a thing were actually possible with no infrastructure (aside from what a bad idea it would be). He sees war prevention as a bad deal where you make no money. A number of policy discussions involved staffers telling him facts and him responding, "I don't give a shit about that." He does not understand policy and has no interest in understanding it.

Steve Bannon was clearly an important source and he comes off as the reasonable one. Really. He's the one trying to set up rational processes, get people to work together, trying to avoid war, telling Trump to spend more time with his wife and son, etc. to a point that is quite hard to believe, as if he had dictated them. Same goes for the entire last part of the book, which is a lengthy discussion of Bob Mueller's investigation, based solely on the recollection of Trump's lawyer John Dowd. It's self-congratulatory, there is no case, and the like. But basically, Trump cannot testify because he is incapable of telling the truth. He literally lies all the time.

Lindsey Graham comes off as a foreign policy ultrahawk who left to his own devices would likely start several wars. John Kelly is a hothead with a short attention span. Hilariously, Rex Tillerson comes off as a guy trying to fill State Department positions but not getting good people. I don't think Woodward understands the State Department very well.

Most of the insider stuff shows the normal infighting that every administration has to some degree. The difference is that they spend a lot of time trying to show Trump how stupid his ideas are, and preventing him from signing stupid decisions. This is the country we now live in.


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Thursday, September 13, 2018

New UNASUR HQ is a Museum

Evo Morales opened a new headquarters for UNASUR in Cochabamba. He called it the "big house of South America," which doesn't make much sense to me, so I wonder if there is a cultural reference with which I am unfamiliar.

At this point, the building is essentially a museum of dreams that could never quite come true. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru all temporarily withdrew (which the TeleSur article conveniently omits), then Colombia decided that would be permanent, while Ecuador's President Lenín Moreno took away its building and turned it into an indigenous university.

This only leaves Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. As houses go, that's not very big, and one of the rooms is burning down.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Trump Tariffs Take Hold in Mexico and That's Good for Chile

John, a former student of mine who has now lived in Mexico City for years, emailed me about a personal effect of tariffs. In response to Donald Trump's trade war, Mexico imposed tariffs on apples. Mexico's choices of tariffs were specifically aimed at conservative rural America where Trump support was highest.

John noticed how the price of the Washington apples he normally bought had shot up. Turns out, though, that Mexico also has a free trade agreement with Chile. Chilean apples were cheaper, so for the first time ever he bought them.

But the story doesn't quite end there, because some Chilean apples were Del Monte, whereas others were Frusan, a Chilean company. So if you bought red, you were supporting Chilean growers and a U.S. company, and with yellow you were supporting only Chile.

U.S. growers lose in all scenarios, as then of course do the workers. Mexico is the top export destination for U.S. apples, so the 20% tariff hurts a lot. It is not yet clear whether the tentative new agreement fixes that. The only bright side for the industry is that the 2018 pre-tariff exports were higher than normal so they had a cushion. Growers are still concerned:

“The apple harvest is just kicking off across America and that’s normally a season of enthusiasm,” U.S. Apple president and CEO Jim Bair said in the release. “But this year the impact of disputes with Mexico, India, Canada and China, our No. 1, 2, 3 and 6 export markets, will be felt deeply across the industry. Our growers want Congress to know the damage being caused in their jurisdictions by these trade disputes.”
This is a nice boost for Chile, which to this point barely registered in the Mexican apple market. Chile exports apples all over the world (India is its largest market) and I would imagine that a new market is entirely welcome.

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Economic Policy Under Latin American Conservatives

Glen Biglaiser and Ronald J. McGauvran, "Political Mandate and Clarity of Responsibility: Economic Policies under Rightist Governments in Latin America," Latin American Research Review 53, 2 (2018): 250-272.

Abstract:


Since the mid-1990s, some rightist governments in Latin America have adhered to a strict market orientation while others have shown less attachment to doctrinaire neoliberal policies, a puzzle as rightists are expected to favor minimal government intervention in the economy. In an environment over the past two decades in which market-oriented policies, in general, have grown increasingly unpopular with many Latin Americans, we contend that rightists have less political cover to endorse neoliberal policies. Using panel data for eighteen Latin American countries from 1995 to 2015, we find that, because of the clarity of responsibility that occurs under political mandates and the unpopularity of market reforms, mandate-holding rightist governments will tend to go against their ideological preferences and decrease neoliberal policies. Our findings indicate that as presidential vote margins increase and responsibility for unpopular economic policies becomes clearer, rightist executives will be less willing to support such policies, but only to a point. The results suggest that clarity of responsibility can influence presidential decision-making concerning unpopular policies, especially microeconomic policies, but this influence diminishes as presidents become more electorally secure.
The upshot here is that conservative governments prefer neoliberal policies but find them impractical to push because it gets pushback and they lose support. I don't see this as a puzzle as much as the authors do--it has been a long time since anyone expected conservative governments to act like they did in the early 1990s. Even the conservative Venezuelan opposition has taken pains to say it wouldn't dismantle everything.

There is an insight worth mentioning in particular. Conservative presidents are more likely to hold onto macro-level policies (e.g. trade openness) and reform micro-level ones (e.g. wages). This is an important distinction because "neoliberal" does often get treated as a single thing rather than a large collection of different policies at different levels. But you can sign a free trade agreement while also creating new laws to protect workers.

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Trump Administration Lectures Latin America on China

It is now conventional wisdom that the Trump administration's Latin America policy is accelerating China's diplomatic and economic overtures to the region. Latin America is also becoming more vocal about that fact. Jorge Guajardo:

No Latin American country right now feels in any way encumbered or indebted to the United States with President Trump referring to the region the way we know he refers to the region.”
The administration has two options for a response. The first is to reverse its protectionist policies and its racist statements, to find ways of facilitating investment and working in partnership with the region. The second is to lecture Latin America about how stupid it is.

You take a wild guess which option it is taking.

Latin America would prefer to work with the U.S. more than with China. The ties are deeper, the cultural gap much smaller, the language gap minimal. But this is a case where the U.S. is simultaneously shoving Latin America away and criticizing it for looking elsewhere.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

U.S. and Venezuelan Coup Plans

The New York Times reports that Trump administration officials met with Venezuelan coup plotters, some of them very corrupt. Here are points that jumped out at me.

First, for all the talk of how the U.S. has lost its influence in Latin America, plotters were basically begging the U.S. government to take an active role, literally asserting that U.S. involvement was the only way they could succeed. Often, what plotters need is just a green light rather than material support per se. What this means it that if a coup does happen, chances are high the U.S. actively helped it.

Second, it is good news that not even the most extreme Trump officials gave a green light. However, that mostly seems to be the case because they did not deem any plots to be well developed enough and they did not want an overt hand in. This news story alone will encourage more plotting.

Third, Robert Jacobson, certainly no hardliner, liked the idea of talking to them because the U.S. needed to know where the military stood. This is a sign of how desperate the situation is. I don't see her as a coup plotting type.

Fourth, look for arrests. You can bet that Nicolás Maduro is currently in a paranoid frenzy, not unlike Trump and the anonymous memo.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

Political Effects of a Brazilian Stabbing

Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed and had emergency surgery to treat some serious injuries. MercoPress offers up this little tidbit:

Brazil's Bovespa extended gains after the stabbing as traders bet the incident could boost support for Bolsonaro, who has tapped a University of Chicago-trained banker as his main economic adviser.
I can think of three main reasons people would think this. First, sympathy. The attack humanizes an otherwise pretty disgusting individual  He's more like you, you feel sorry for him, that sort of thing.

Second, tied to sympathy is concern about crime in Brazil. He now is a victim of that crime and can become an even stronger advocate for a mano dura approach to combating it.

Third, it can reflect echoes of a Cold War past where paranoia about left-wing terrorism was rampant. The military government was founded and sustained with the core belief that leftists were trying to destroy the country, which led to extensive repression. Some Brazilians may feel the attack is connected to the Worker's Party in some way, and vote for the right as a way to reject that.

I don't know how much these things will affect the outcome, but we do know it's very much up in the air, so every little thing counts. If Donald Trump had been viciously attacked before the 2016 election, I could imagine people feeling better about him.

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Thursday, September 06, 2018

Trump Administration Chaos and Venezuela

The bombshell NYT op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration official is still reverberating everywhere. Naturally, I thought about how it related to Trump's Latin America policy and my conclusion is somewhat disturbing.

The op-ed's point, which echoes interviews from Bob Woodward's new book, is that officials subvert Trump by not letting him see things, ignoring orders, etc. But for Latin America, Trump is getting a lot of encouragement. Establishment politicians like Marco Rubio call for military intervention, as do Bush administration officials. Mauricio Claver-Carone is a Cuba and Venezuela hardliner. These aren't fringe alt-right types.

Last year, Trump apparently talked a lot about invading Venezuela and was brought to earth by Rex Tillerson and HR McMaster. They're not in the administration anymore, so is anonymous also the only one holding the line against it? How many sane people are still in the asylum? And how many sane people stand between Trump and invasion?

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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

US Cuba Policy Under Trump

Dan Erikson has a good discussion of U.S.-Cuban relations. I like this point:

I think that U.S. interests would be best served in Cuba by allowing a much wider swathe of American society to engage with the island. Governments are notoriously bad at picking winners and losers. Having served in the U.S. government, I don’t think we are serving the American people effectively by trying to micromanage how, when, and why they engage with the Cuba people. I think that my fellow citizens are perfectly capable of deciding which church or school or museum to visit, where to travel, and how to best experience Cuba in ways that will build ties of friendship and respect with the Cuban people and lead to positive change.
This has been a major paradox of U.S. Cuba policy, which is that politicians and pundits who speak the loudest about personal freedom from government control are also the loudest about having the government control how you engage with Cubans.

This is also an interesting point:
Even though the Trump Administration has adopted a more aggressive tone regarding Cuba, it often seems kind of perfunctory, like they are phoning it in. Their real passion in the hemisphere is directed towards Venezuela, which of course is connected to Cuba, but has also surpassed it as a U.S. foreign policy focus. As far as I can tell, the U.S. bilateral relationship with Cuba is in suspended animation right now, with a few exceptions.
I tend to agree with this, since there is some hot rhetoric but not much strategy that I can discern. It tinkers with Obama but doesn't roll it back to Bush (though I must say this seems preferable to the Bush policy). Maybe the lack of strategy will change with the naming of well-known anti-Cuba activist Mauricio Claver-Carone to lead Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council. Donald Trump may or may not give it any bandwidth at all, especially with the Russia investigation taking up his attention. On the other hand, nothing like some harsh foreign policy to get your base excited when you're on the defensive.

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