Saturday, April 18, 2015

Supporting Negotiations With The FARC

Sometimes, good policy just means not overreacting. Here is the State Department response to the deadly FARC attack.

The United States government offers condolences to the families of the eleven Colombian soldiers killed and the 20 soldiers wounded in Cauca on April 15. We reaffirm our continuing support to the government of Colombia in its efforts to end the nation’s 50 year conflict.

We condemn the brutal attack in Cauca orchestrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The offensive was in direct violation of the unilateral ceasefire they committed to last December. We support President Santos’ decision to continue negotiations but also lift his halt of aerial bombardment of FARC.

It is our sincere hope that negotiators reach an accord soon to bring peace to all Colombians.

When you read about the U.S. being disengaged, isolated, etc. then remember this. Negotiating the end to a long-term insurgency is delicate and difficult. This is a setback but we have no idea why it happened. The proper course is to keep the negotiations going.

Remember this too when you read about the U.S. supposedly turning its back on allies. This is difficult for the Juan Manuel Santos, who faces intense domestic criticism from the right, and the Obama administration is backing him.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Weight of History in US-Latin American Relations

Orlando Pérez and Mike Allison weigh in on the importance of history for understanding current U.S.-Latin American relations. I talked about this precise issue in my U.S.-Latin American Relations class this week, using this quote from President Obama:

Leftist leaders also celebrated Cuba's inclusion at the summit, even as they continued to complain about past abuses by the United States. Many of the events they cited took place before Obama was born. 
"I always enjoy the history lesson," Obama said wryly during the summit's long-winded plenary session. 
"I'm certainly mindful that there are dark chapters in our own history," he said. But while bashing the U.S. may serve some leaders' political needs, Obama added, "that's not going to bring progress. That's not going to solve the problems of children who can't read, who don't have enough to eat. It's not going to make our countries more productive or more competitive in a global economy."
I made about the same point as Mike, though he sums it up more neatly: "necessary but not sufficient." In class we discuss all those abuses brought up by Latin American leaders (especially those on the left) and how U.S. policies have too often tended to have unintended and counterproductive effects. This is important for a better understanding of causes and effects.

But it does not mean, for example, that every discussion with Guatemala about child migrants must include lengthy analysis of the 1954 invasion. Or that dialogue between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro must get hung up on the Bay of Pigs. It's not that these things aren't important, but rather they are not always useful for solving any given problem.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, it's not helpful to view current leftist leaders in a Cold War lens. Raúl Castro in 2015 isn't Raúl Castro in 1965. The FMLN in 2015 is not the FMLN in 1985. Insisting on that lens distorts current realities and makes solutions unnecessarily difficult to reach.

However, history does help us understand why U.S. sanctions on Venezuela make it more difficult for Latin American leaders to criticize the Maduro government. Past abuses generated a lasting belief in both non-intervention and disinclination to support the US when it targets particular Latin American governments. History does help us understand Cuba's obsession with particular issues that it sees as central to national dignity.

The mere fact that Obama continues to acknowledge that dark past is refreshing. Ideally, U.S. policy makers can use keen understanding of that past to forge current policies that won't repeat them.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cuba Off The Terrorism List

I'm quoted in this story about the decision to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. This is one of those rare issues where I write about some unchanging thing for years and then it actually changes in a common sense direction.

I think John Kerry made a good point:

While the United States has had, and continues to have, significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these concerns and disagreements fall outside of the criteria for designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. 

This is not endorsing the Cuban dictatorship, or anything it does. It's just saying the years where Cuba actively supported terrorist groups are in the past. It was labeled a state sponsor in 1982 and the world is a very different place. Now this opens up more avenues for Cuba to get financing, which in turn will help its private sector, and that is precisely what the U.S. should want.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Telesur on Marco Rubio

Check out Telesur's take on Marco Rubio's announcement of his presidential campaign. It offers a mix of fact and paranoia. Yes, he rants about leftist governments and supports sanctions against Venezuela. Yes, he's close to the anti-Castro lobby in Miami. Yes, he's banned from entering Venezuela and Nicaragua, to the extent that anyone cares. Then we have:

The Florida Senator met recently with Colombian former president and current Senator Alvaro Uribe to plot against the Venezuelan government, journalist Jose Vicente Rangel claimed Sunday. 
Rubio has assumed the chairmanship of a Senate subcommittee on the Western hemisphere, which has given him full oversight of U.S. foreign policy across the Americas. 
You're in trouble as soon as you write "Jose Vicente Rangel claimed" because he is the King of Conspiracies.

As for "full oversight," I do not think it means what you think it means. My sense is that the editorial sees this as having a lot of power. But oversight is much different than the actual power of policy making. Rubio, like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, can have endless hearings on conspiratorial topics but the president is making policy (which at this point is obviously frustrating him).

Much of the U.S. right and the Latin American left have distorted and inaccurate views of each other, mixing facts and fears into an unhealthy combination. The notion that this could become part of the U.S. presidential campaign is simply depressing.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

China on U.S.-Latin American Relations

Here's a funny editorial at Xinhua News Agency, which is the state agency of the Chinese government. It makes two points:

First, it criticizes the U.S. for pursuing its own interests in Latin America, basically saying U.S. policy is based largely on protecting itself. That's hard to argue, since no one has ever suggested otherwise. But the critical tone is odd because of course this is also precisely what China is doing in Latin America. Does anyone think the Chinese government is selflessly buying up commodities and loaning money for the good of Latin America?

Second, the solution it suggests for U.S. policy makes no sense.

Starting from the 1st summit, U.S.-Latin American ties have grown increasingly complicated, as the United States imposes one after another unpopular policies despite resistance from Latin American countries.

If the United States is a true believer of "Prosperity with Equity," the theme of this year's summit, the FTAA would have already taken shape, benefiting member states, and the summit would serve as a friendly forum, rather than an arena for Uncle Sam to exert authority.

In other words, the U.S. imposes unpopular solutions so the answer is to impose an unpopular solution! The FTAA, of course, was declared dead by Hugo Chávez a decade ago because the idea was so unpopular. Perhaps Xinhua editorial writers were just asked to pump out some anti-U.S. narratives for the Summit of the Americas, and some of them don't know much about the topic.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Summit of the Americas Rundown

Lots of stories/posts/tweets on the Summit of the Americas, mostly focusing on trivia. I thought I'd give my quick rundown on what's important and what's not.


  • Low-profile talks on regional issues--energy, education, etc.--that don't necessarily result in big agreements but spark ongoing engagement. These are the bread and butter of why the U.S. isn't losing Latin America.
  • The ability of the highest level Cuban and U.S. officials to talk in private in person, which will facilitate normalization of relations.
  • The fact that even leftist governments are taking this summit seriously. For all the talk of imperialism, boycotts, etc. this summit--which was the brainchild of the United States--is something Latin American leaders want to attend.

Not Important:

  • Whether Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shake hands. Or give fist bumps. Photo ops are overrated no matter their symbolism.
  • The exact wording of any final declaration, if there is one. Evo Morales is mistaken when he says that declarations are the equivalent of unity.
  • The Venezuelan crisis. For better or worse, this will be a lot of hot air, tied into clumsy U.S. policy. This doesn't mean the crisis itself isn't important, but that the summit won't likely be an effective forum for anyone.
  • Rafael Correa, as one op-ed incorrectly claims. Though it might be weirdly entertaining to read his tweets.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Noriega: Blame Obama!

I mentioned in February that Jeb Bush had chosen Roger Noriega as one of his Latin America advisors. Noriega's current take is that President Obama is to blame for virtually everything in Latin America, and that we need to look to the model of Augusto Pinochet for inspiration. Why he consciously chose to mention Pinochet by name is beyond me, though he may well want to convey that the general is unfairly maligned.

Beyond that, he offers a tirade that at times is literally difficult to understand. For example:

Central American governments, whose promising economies were integrated into a free trade agreement with the United States just nine years ago, now are struggling to stem the tide of migrants fleeing poverty and drug-fueled violence.

He might be surprised to know that Central American governments are still integrated into the same free trade agreement; I don't know where he thinks it went. It actually makes more sense to ask what the correlation might exist between the two, but he chooses to blame Obama for...I'm not sure what.

Aside from that, he blames Obama in whole or in part for President Santos' negotiations with the FARC, Brazil and Mexico's economic problems, and of course Cuba and Venezuela.

Noriega and those who agree with him are usually referred to in terms of having a permanent Cold War mentality. Perhaps even more importantly, they reflect the firm belief that the U.S. must "fix" Latin America whether the region wants it or not. The U.S. knows best how to run your economy, deal with your internal conflicts, and run your government. If you disagree and certainly if you resist, you're an adversary.


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

U.S. Policy and Latin American Reaction

In another sign of policy mismanagement, the Obama administration has come out and said it does not consider Venezuela a national security threat. At the time the policy was announced, the administration was comparing the Venezuelan situation to Iran and Syria, then later Roberta Jacobson wondered why no one in Latin America saluted when the sanctions flag went up.

What this boils down to is lack of foresight about how the new policy would be received in Latin America. Otherwise this walking back never would've been necessary in the first place. At the time I was reminded that all this threat language was just statutory, and my response was that words matter anyway--now the Obama administration seems to be waking up to that fact, belatedly realizing that regional leaders have to deal with the words and can't explain them away in legal niceties.

As a result, the U.S. goes to the Summit of the Americas under a cloud, and by its own words and actions has made Venezuela into a victim, which is the opposite of what the Obama administration wanted.


Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War

I read Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2014). I like the idea behind the book, because I had never really thought about how former presidents related to the civil war (as in, we need to think more about how John Tyler was a traitor). While entertaining, in my opinion the book falls short for two reasons.

First, there is no framework or main argument to make things hang together. There is no exploration of how ex-presidents function in the United States, or precisely how the civil war shaped that. In the absence of a main argument, we just have a description of presidents and former presidents doing things. Further, as I read I realized there was another theme that DeRose depicts but never acknowledges, which is Abraham Lincoln's genius in ignoring former presidents. Indeed, DeRose periodically mentions how Lincoln assuredly received such and such letter from Fillmore or whomever, but didn't respond.

This is important because the former presidents had all kicked the can of slavery down the road in one way or another, and Lincoln was the first to refuse the same response. Lincoln was so much more farsighted than the others that he knew their advice would likely be bad. Making this the central theme of the book would've provided much greater clarity to the narrative.

Second, the book feels rushed. Major events get skipped over, so the narrative moves from John Tyler not feeling well to a funeral. He died somewhere in there of something but it never actually gets mentioned. Sometimes battlefield description are detailed and sometimes not, without any clear sense of why. Then the book ends very abruptly. I was left with the impression that DeRose had this neat idea and just wanted to get it into print as quickly as possible. This impression was reinforced by the acknowledgments, which indicate DeRose first go the idea in 2012, and the book came out in June 2014.

That said, it's well-written and still fun to read how the ex-presidents dealt with/felt about the civil war.


Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Corruption Perception and Turnover in Latin America

Joel W. Johnson, "Presidential Elections and Corruption Perceptions in Latin America," Journal of Politics in Latin America 7, 1 (2015): 111-142.

Abstract (full text available):

This paper argues that perceptions of corruption in Latin America exhibit predictable fluctuations in the wake of presidential turnover. Specifically, presidential elections that result in the partisan transfer of power are normally followed by a surge-and-decline pattern in perceived corruption control, with initial improvements that fade with time. The causes are multiple and stem from the removal of corrupt administrations, public enthusiasm about administrative change, and the relative lack of high-level corruption scandals in the early phases of new governments. A statistical analysis of two widely used corruption perceptions indices demonstrates the pattern for eighteen Latin American democracies from 1996 to 2010. Both indices exhibit a temporary surge (of about two years) after turnover elections, while no such change follows reelections of incumbent presidents or parties. The theory and results are relevant for understanding public opinion in Latin America and for the analysis of corruption perceptions indices.

This made me think of Brazil. Dilma Rousseff is drowning in a corruption scandal and trying to send bills to the legislature to convince people she's serious about fighting it. It's fair to say that few Brazilians will respond positively. At some point there will be presidential turnover and the new president will trumpet new anti-corruption measures. Public confidence will increase, then likely fade again. Wash, rinse, repeat.


Monday, April 06, 2015

Investigating Colombia Rape Case

Two weeks ago I asked why U.S. media not covering the allegations that U.S. citizens raped Colombian girls. The case is now creeping into the U.S. consciousness, as USA Today reports that the U.S. Army announced it is looking into them. I thought the allegations themselves were newsworthy, but the U.S. Army's response definitely is.

After writing the original blog post I was contacted by several people in response. As I understand it, the commission was set up in a way that allowed each member to essentially write what they wanted even if other members disagreed. The allegations came from one member, Renán Vega, who was seen by some others as an unreliable source. My main response was that I didn't think it mattered--this was newsworthy, as was providing that context, even if the facts may remain in doubt or dispute.

Now that's a moot point, and I am not a reporter but I would think that done well this story could get a lot of attention in the mainstream media.


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Clueless U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela

Roberta Jacobson says she is "disappointed" that Latin American governments rallied around Venezuela instead of supporting the sanctions.

I literally looked at the date to see if it was April 1 because this one just stymies me. I argued last month that the sanctions would make it harder for Latin American governments to support the U.S. and to criticize Venezuela. I did not consider this terribly insightful but rather a statement of common sense. There was no way, no way, that Latin American leaders would publicly support unilateral sanctions. And frankly, I do not see how anyone with a knowledge of the region would expect such an outcome.

Whether you support the idea of the sanctions--or the people being sanctioned--is irrelevant to the fact that such instruments will push away your allies and certainly your potential allies. As such they are not a very effective measure to achieve broader strategic goals.

Again, this shouldn't surprise anyone, and so I am surprised that it surprises Secretary Jacobson.


Saturday, April 04, 2015

Positive U.S.-Latin American Relations

Thanks to Mike Allison for pointing out this Brookings report by Richard Feinberg, Emily Miller, and Harold Trinkunas. It makes a similar case to one I've made numerous times, which is that U.S.-Latin American relations are much better than popularly portrayed.

They take an historical look, which is useful to see evolution, such as in decreased military expenditures. My one quibble is that in my opinion they underestimate how much has been achieved in Latin American in spite of U.S. policy. In that sense we need to be careful about using "Obama administration" and "Bush administration" instead of "United States." Many gains in reducing inequality, for example, occurred in the face of open hostility from the Bush administration, whose Latin America advisors were Cold War ideologues. Yet the authors consider inequality reduction as achieving U.S. interests. That makes sense in its own way--too many Bush advisors tended to advocate the opposite of what would achieve U.S. interested.

The broader point is that if you scrape away the simplistic views and the rhetoric, but most importantly set Venezuela aside as an anomaly in just about every way, then things look good. Perhaps even better than ever, even historically speaking. Don't get me wrong--there is plenty I disagree with, and the drug war is one disaster the authors also note. The U.S. government shoots itself in the foot (almost literally) and contributes to human rights abuses in ways that I find deeply frustrating, but baby steps are still steps.


Friday, April 03, 2015

The Revolution in Cuba Today

Nick Miroff has a great take on the current state of the revolution in Cuba. The basic takeaway for me is that whether you like it or not capitalism has already won. Incidentally, this is true all over despite all the rhetoric about revolution, Che Guevara, imperialists, socialism or death, etc.

Cuba today is a place where many young people idolize the United States and display little patience for the state-run economic model that has left much of their country in ruins. There is no stigma anymore toward entrepreneurship or private business. Real estate agents in Havana’s newly liberalized housing market signal high quality with the phrase “construción capitalista,” meaning a property that was built in the pre-Revolutionary period, when people cared about aesthetics and workmanship.

For U.S. policy toward Cuba to succeed, we need to treat Cuba as it is, not as it talks. After all, the Chinese still talk about Communism in a way that everyone understands is false. What will replace the old-style revolution is anyone's guess, but the command economy stopped working a long time ago, even if some in the U.S. won't accept that. The hopeful result is social democracy, where the real gains of the revolution--health and education in particular--are protected and maintained.

The best strategy for the United States is to engage without interfering. Cuba is moving in this direction on its own, and Venezuela's slow collapse is contributing.


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Political Scientists and the Media

As it turns out, the biggest impression made on me during the British Political Studies Association conference is the commitment to accessibility and media/public engagement (which I also wrote about Monday). I attended the launch of a new project called "Total Exposure" (not sure about a possible double entendre there, but let's leave that aside!) whereby the BBC and other networks will listen to pitches by a small group of political scientists for a show on a particular topic. In other words, you can get on TV discussing an issue you're passionate about. The PSA funds your travel to London to talk to the TV executives once they've decided it's a good topic. They envision a bunch of these happening over time.

The chair of PSA echoed what I heard from journal editors the other day, which is that the biggest obstacle in general is the inability of political scientsts to talk in an accessible manner without jargon. That actually seems to be the biggest hurdle.

He noted that there is often resistance to the idea (same as in the U.S.) and I found that the term "media whore" is also sadly universal. But I love the fact that as an organization the PSA is putting its money where its mouth is. He said, "The PSA is not short on money; it is short on great ideas." And what they want to do is show millions of viewers how political science research is important, interesting and useful. We do hear that on the individual level in the U.S., but that's not something the American Political Science Association is prioritizing as an institution. The equivalent here would be APSA striking a deal with a national network, then flying people to New York.

At any rate, I feel that this discussion of political science engagement is far more advanced in Britain than in the U.S.


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