Friday, March 27, 2015

Vatican and Summit of the Americas

The Vatican is sending an emissary to the Summit of the Americas. Pietro Parolin had been the Vatican's ambassador to both Venezuela and Mexico. The Venezuelan opposition had in fact been asking for the Vatican to mediate with the government.

It can't hurt, as the Pope had helped with the negotiations between Cuba and the United States. With the first Latin American Pope, it is fascinating to see the political effect both on the region and on U.S.-Latin American relations.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why No Reporting on US Citizens Raping Colombian Children?

FAIR takes a very damning look at the recent report by the Colombian government on U.S. military personnel and contractors raping at least 54 Colombian children. Have you read about that story? Probably not.

Yet here we are, over 72 hours since the Colombian and foreign press first reported on the allegations, and there’s a virtual media blackout in America over the case.  Nothing on CNN, nothing on MSNBC, nothing in the New York Times or Miami Herald. Nothing in Huffington Post. Nothing inFusion or Vice. Why?

This is an excellent question. I just Googled "Colombia rape" and no U.S. news sources come up. This should be bigger news.

Update on 3/27/15: still no news story today.

Update again: Reporters are in fact starting to check it out and sort out the context of the commission report.


Don't Compare Yourself to Stalin

Here's the deal. You don't refer to other people as Hitler or Stalin because it's cliche (same with Winston Churchill, which of course is an indirect reference to Hitler). That does slip out of people's mouths occasionally, and it's annoying. However, to refer to yourself as like Stalin, and talk about how he defeated Hitler, takes you to an entirely new level of rhetoric. That is where Nicolás Maduro went, even calling him "comrade."

“Por aquí tienen, Stalin: Historia y crítica de una leyenda negra. Mira, Stalin se parecía a mí, mira el bigote es igualito. El camarada Stalin, que venció a Hitler”, afirmó.

The book he's referring to is a revisionist history of Stalin, intended to salvage his negative reputation. Make of that what you will.

It's common to blame the mainstream media (or bloggers for that matter) for mocking Maduro, but he says a lot of weird stuff.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Latino Aging in the South

Back in late 2013 I attended a conference and presented a paper (co-authored with my dad) at UT Austin on Latinos in the United States, which has now yielded a book chapter. "The Train Has Left the Station: Latino Aging in the New South".

Here is the abstract:

In the South, as in much of the United States, the demographic train has left the station. For over a decade the region has been attractive to migrants leaving either a Latin American country or areas of the United States with weaker economies and/or higher costs of living. Our projections going out to 2040 show continued growth under virtually all assumptions, signaling a permanent shift in what had traditionally not been a destination for Hispanics. Using U.S. Census data and other sources to develop projections, the core of our argument is that as the cohort of older (65 years and over) Latinos grows in North Carolina, there will be concomitant political shifts. Children who are citizens will eventually become eligible to vote, legislative districts will be transformed, and Hispanic adults will be taking care of a growing elderly population.

The train imagery is intended to emphasize the point that this is a done deal. In this case, policy cannot overcome demographic realities.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Origins of Mexico's Drug War

There is a lengthy article about the origins of the Mexican drug cartels by Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace at Jacobin that is well worth a read (though it is not a new argument). They argue that economic reforms pushed by the United States are responsible. The lost decade of the 1980s, which led to U.S.-imposed free market policies, opened up new spaces for drug traffickers to flourish. Here's the crux of it:

Farmers, unable to sustain themselves due to the removal of subsidies and the arrival of competition from US agri–corporations, found the burgeoning market for marijuana and poppies their only avenue to surviving on the land. The army of the urban unemployed gave the cartels a deep pool from which to recruit foot soldiers, and the miserably paid (and eminently corruptible) police and military provided the muscle with which to protect their interests.
The spread of everyday crime — aided by the rapid declension and corruption of local police forces — demoralized civil society, and provided a climate within which grander forms of criminality would flourish. 
The adoption of free trade, and the deeper integration of the Mexican economy with that of the United States, dramatically increased cross-border traffic, making it far easier to insert narcotics into the stream of northward–bound commodities. Some NAFTA rules were of particular help: because maquiladoras were exempt from tariffs and subject to only minimal inspections, Mexican smugglers began buying up such factories to use as fronts for shipping cocaine. 
Narcotrafficking had formerly been integrated into the PRI corporatist state, an under-the-table equivalent of labor, peasant, and business organizations. As such it was subject to a certain degree of regulatory control, and to unofficial taxation, in return for the de facto licensing of smuggling (the plaza system). The state’s abandonment of this form of corporatist inclusion contributed to the independent growth and power of organized crime syndicates.

The quibble I have is that although the end of the one-party is mentioned, it's not given enough attention. The article is really focused on criticizing U.S. policy, and the PRI's downfall does not match that theme.

This is important because it raises the question of whether the "drug wars" would have evolved in the same manner if the PRI had retained hegemonic control of the state. After all, the PRI did keep a lid on drug-related violence even through shock therapy and the implementation of NAFTA. Once the PRI's grip was released, political power vacuums opened up and drug traffickers quickly moved in. Then the free flow of cross-border exchanges made it easy to expand.

Either way, there are no happy conclusions. Free trade isn't going anywhere, and Mexico is a multi-party state. Both are good for Drug Trafficking Organizations.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Book Royalty Minimums

Book royalties of academic monographs are usually something people joke about because they are so low (unless you are Thomas Piketty!). But I noticed something today that got me thinking more about the state of the industry and the relationship between the press and the author.

In 2010 I co-edited a book on the Bachelet government at the University Press of Florida with Silvia Borzutzky. Today I received the royalty notice, which said I earned $30 (hence the joking) but could not receive a check until it reached $150. All presses have some minimum, though that seemed fairly high.

This means there are quite a few authors who have earned royalties but have not reached the $150 threshold, so UPF keeps the money. Unless there is a miraculous jump in sales, I will never see that money, which seems unfair in principle regardless of how small an amount we're talking about. If you add up all the authors, I would think it is not an insignificant amount.

On the other hand, I am all too aware of the precarious state of university presses. There is administrative cost associated with processing royalties, and a razor-thin profit margin at least potentially makes that a loss for the press if the amount is too low. That is, the press is not making enough money on the book to merit paying someone to deal with the processing.

I figure other presses will also start increasing those minimums. I suppose I would too if I were in their position. The benefit to the author for academic monographs is related to his/her own job, not to profit. In my case, for example, that book contributed to my promotion from Associate to Full Professor in 2012. Now what I'm doing is helping to subsidize the press, if only very modestly.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Nicaraguan Views of a Canal

Kenneth Coleman has an AmericasBarometer article on Nicaraguan support for a canal. The results are largely positive--people believe it will create jobs and help the economy. The negative side is what you might expect, as there is concern about the environment and opposition to the state expropriating property to build it.

One thing I found interesting is that in the U.S. the main issue raised in the media is about the Chinese role, but that does not matter to Nicaraguans. They don't share our paranoia. There was not a specific question about it, but there was the option of choosing sovereignty or "other" with regard to perceived problems.

Another interesting point is that a quarter of Nicaraguan had never heard of the project at all. Yet as he points out, that is much higher than the 30% who had heard of the constitutional reforms Daniel Ortega was pushing!


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cuba as State Sponsor of Terrorism

Argument in favor of keeping Cuba on the "state sponsor of terrorism" list.

Argument in opposition of keeping Cuba on the list.

What we end up with are questions about the criteria for not being on the list. If we hold Cuba to the same standard as the rest of the world, it clearly shouldn't be on there. If we hold Cuba strictly to the stated criteria, then it should be on there along with many U.S. allies. The fact that North Korea was removed and Cuba is still on there makes no sense at all according to the criteria. In other words, the criteria don't matter.

The real answer, of course, is that politics will determine whether a country is on there. So we can argue all we want, but Cuba will be removed, and in the near future.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Iran and Evidence in Latin America

There was a hearing today in the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs about Iran and Latin America. The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which tells you all you need to know about its ideological orientation. It is rabidly alarmist, and some of the testimony reflects that. Michael Shifter provides the only voice of reason:

It would further be a mistake to base a policy course merely on speculation and conjecture. It is important to adhere to the highest standards of evidence in assessing Iran’s role and what the US should do in response. Otherwise, there is a risk that policies could end up being counterproductive and only strengthening Iran’s influence in the region. Without ample evidence—and now it appears to be scant—we should not find ourselves panicked by a specter that does not exist. 

I really couldn't agree more. We need extremely high standards of evidence. Otherwise we do "stupid stuff." There are a lot of ill-informed but trigger-happy members of Congress and it would be a major mistake to let them dictate policy. Back in 2009 I wrote pretty much the same thing.

I don't trust the Iranian government at all, but given the U.S. history of overstating threats and overreaction, I need concrete evidence, certainly much more than Gates' statement about "They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries." I need a lot more than that.

I guess I should be glad that there has been a ton written about Latin America and Iran, but thus far the United States has not done anything stupid. The bar in that regard is low.


Maduro's NYT Ad

I'm quoted in this Guardian article about the Venezuelan government's full page ad in the New York Times, which is a letter criticizing U.S. policy (here is the full text, though it is in Spanish). It's as overblown as you would expect, saying the sanctions mean the U.S. is trying to govern Venezuela by decree, whatever that means. Despite its venue, I see the message aimed more at Venezuelans (i.e. Maduro is speaking out on behalf of the nation) than at the U.S., though perhaps Nicolás Maduro thinks people in the U.S. will voice their concerns about the sanctions (as this professor did on a plane!).

Unfortunately, this adds up to a lot of pointless hot air on both sides. The U.S. keeps saying this is all about the Venezuelan elections later this year, I keep wondering how that connection works.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More Bad News For Rousseff

As Dilma Rousseff faces fallout from corruption scandals, protests, and a drooping economy, the news continues to be sobering:

Estimates by financial analysts regarding annual inflation in Brazil for 2015 have once again increased, from 7.77 percent to 7.93 percent this week, according to the latest Focus Survey, released by the Central Bank. According to the survey analysts also see deterioration in the country’s GDP and industrial production, a devaluation of the country’s currency and a decrease in foreign investments this year. 
GDP going down, inflation going up, foreign investment going down. Current estimates show better results for 2016, but that's cold comfort for Rousseff right now. Her approval is down sharply, but it can also move up quickly if things improve. It seems for now that she just needs to slog through the rest of 2015. Impeachment seems unlikely in the absence of evidence against Rousseff herself in the Petrobras scandal, and even evidence against her while she was in charge of it wouldn't amount to an impeachable offense as president. It would, in fact, merit a no-confidence vote, but in a presidential system no such thing exists.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Brazil Protests and the Latin American Left

I was interviewed in this NPR story by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on the protests in Brazil. She wanted to look at it from a regional perspective. My take is that the end of the commodity boom is putting tremendous pressure on governments that have maintained high spending. Governments have to adjust expectations (which is what I think has happened over time in Bolivia) or lose elections. What I didn't get a chance to talk about, though, is the role of the opposition. Where it is poorly organized those governments on the left have more leeway. Dilma Rousseff is in a better position because the opposition has become more organized but she just won an election.


Sunday, March 15, 2015


The 2015 conference of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS) is done, and once again it was a great time. I co-presented a paper with my dad on political demography (focusing on Allende's Chile and Chavez's Venezuela) which was the first time we've done so despite a bunch of co-authoring. It's a great group of people here. On Friday after the banquet there was an event at a beer garden for graduate students (who are an important part of SECOLAS) to have a chance to chat with professors in an informal setting.

This year it was in Charleston, but next year we're planning on Cartagena, Colombia in mid-March. So you need to be there.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Venezuelan Historical Conspiracy

Here is some truly wonderful paranoia from Telesur, which may well reflect the basic outlook of Nicolás Maduro. It's a tour de force of conspiracy theories. The United States, it seems, is just about to launch some sort of covert military action against Venezuela, as things look similar to 1964 when LBJ expanded the U.S. presence in Vietnam. We know this too because, among other things, the United States intentionally bombed the Maine so it could invade Cuba in 1898. It also likely planned 9/11. Europe might join in as well, though I am not entirely clear why. I was also disappointed that the JFK assassination was not mentioned.

Sadly, we've inched back toward the Bush years, where Hugo Chávez blabbed on about "Mr. Danger" and Donald Rumsfeld pulled out Hitler references. I am still waiting to see what positive policy outcome can come from the sanctions with their accompanying national security threat reference.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Unclear U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela

I wanted to follow up on yesterday's post about Venezuela, to which I received both support and pushback. Some more thoughts:

--several people pointed out that certain language is just necessary from a legal standpoint to enforce these types of laws. I will concede that but argue that it still matters. What we're saying, then, is that we have to call corruption in Venezuela (or any other country, or even certain people within countries) a national security threat that is an emergency, but in fact no one actually thinks that. At the same time, though, U.S. officials were quick to compare this situation to Iran and Syria. If you want an argument about why Venezuela is a threat, read Juan Nagel here, but I am totally unconvinced.

Regardless, the Obama administration is sending a very clear signal that it believe its, as I am willing to bet plenty of foreign leaders will not appreciate the finer side of U.S. legalese. Plus, no matter what he actually thinks of it, Nicolás Maduro is holding it up to reinforce his overall paranoid conspiracy message. On the other hand, Boz figures this doesn't really matter much at this point. That's open for debate, as David Smilde disagrees. If you're interested, here are some social media responses from Venezuela via Hugo Pérez Hernáiz.

--Frank Mora, who not long ago was in the policy world, said I was wrong about seeing it as connected to Cuba. He has more insight into this than me, but it's hard for me to view this as disconnected from domestic politics. There are plenty of things going on that the general public does not know, but aside from domestic politics I can't see how this is a useful tool for the Obama administration in the region.

--if we reject domestic politics, what do we have left? Again, sending signals of some sort. Officials say the following:

They’re hoping the sanctions will send a signal to Venezuelan officials as the country prepares to host a national election later this year.
It's not clear to me what signals are really being sent. The intent apparently is to convince the Venezuelan government to run clean elections, but how does sanctioning seven specific people actually achieve that? It can serve as a warning that more people will be targeted, but it still doesn't explain how this would have any impact on the elections.

--what about regionally? Does this send a signal to the region that will help the United States? I tend to think that this sort of action with this sort of language attached to it will make it even more difficult for already wary Latin American leaders to speak up, because they'll be seen as supporting U.S. policy.

I am just having a difficult time seeing how this particular policy choice advances U.S. interests, stated or otherwise. And don't say oil--the funny thing is that trade continues apace regardless of these disputes.


Monday, March 09, 2015

Venezuela As National Security Threat

The White House just released a fact sheet on the executive order on Venezuela, outlining sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials. This is how it begins:

President Obama today issued a new Executive Order (E.O.) declaring a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.  

Say what? Whether or not you support the sanctions, there is simply no way to argue this with a straight face because it is so demonstrably false. The United States needs to declare a national emergency because of corruption in Venezuela? Obviously not. Venezuelan corruption constitutes an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security. Obviously not.

Interestingly, the legislation that Obama cites--the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014--actually provides an opposite clause, where the president can waive sanctions if he deems U.S. interests at stake.

So why is Obama doing it? My main reaction is that he has prioritized Cuba talks (which are a legacy thing) and he figures going overboard with Venezuela will help overcome resistance. I doubt he or anyone in his administration actually sees Venezuela as a threat.

Here are some examples of countries/people similarly targeted. It's a reminder of how emergency powers can be so abused that the terms "emergency" and "threat" lose their meaning entirely.

Update: I've now had several people tell me this language is just necessary for implementation. I don't think that changes much, though--words matter even if they're just there for bureaucratic reasons. Words send signals.


Oil Prices and Interstate Conflict in Latin America

A blog post at The Monkey Cage by Maria Snegovaya makes the case for seeing Russia primarily as a petrostate to understand its behavior. It's an interesting thesis but then I read this:

Jeff Colgan of Brown University analyzed militarized interstate disputes in 170 countries between 1945 and 2001 and found that countries where net oil export revenues constitute over 10 percent of GDP were among the most violent states in the world. Such petrostates showed a remarkable propensity for militarized interstate disputes on average and engaged in militarized conflicts about 50 percent more often than non-petrostates in the post-World War II era. Examples include Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez expelling their U.S. ambassadors, Venezuela’s mobilization for war against Colombia and Iran backing Hamas attacks against Israel during the 2008 oil price peak. Likewise Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and Libya’s repeated incursions into Chad also happened during the peaks of the oil prices in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Wait a sec. Those Latin America examples are lumped in with the Iran-Iraq war, which killed half a million people? Expelling ambassadors is certainly an interstate dispute but it is definitely not militarized. Plus, Nicolás Maduro just expelled more even after oil prices dropped significantly.

Venezuela's "mobilization for war" requires a lot of context. First, it was in response to Colombia bombing Ecuador with U.S. assistance. Second, it was so obviously a publicity stunt that Colombia didn't even bother responding. Alvaro Uribe was president at the time and hated Chávez, yet knew Chávez was trolling him.

What this suggests to me is that the analysis needs to break "interstate disputes" into different categories based on severity. Given the lack of militarized disputes in Latin America, I think that would provide much more fine-grained comparative results.


Holy Good Neighbor Policy Batman!

So it seems even Batman was interested in U.S.-Latin American Relations. My kids periodically flip around old TV shows, and out of nowhere I heard this line of dialogue:

And in Wayne Manor stately residence of millionaire Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson. 
He's just come in, sir. 
I'll get him for you. 
I thought Lima was the capital of Ecuador. 
Now as you can see, I was right. 
It's the capital of Peru. 
Oh, I just love this game of capitals. 
It's so educational. 
Not only that, if we don't know about our friends to the south how can we carry on our good neighbor policy? - Ahem.

I have never heard the Good Neighbor Policy mentioned in any form in pop culture so it really caught my attention. But then I had to shake my head because the episode was produced in 1966, a point at which the Good Neighbor Policy had been dead and buried for many years. Within the past 12 years the U.S. had invaded Guatemala, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. In 1964, just two years prior, the Mann Doctrine had proclaimed the U.S. no longer cared whether governments came into power by a military coup, and LBJ had encouraged the Brazilian coup that year.

I know, I know, I am criticizing Batman for historical inaccuracy. It is interesting, though, how the very positive popular view of U.S. policy diverges so much from what was actually happening.


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