Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Podcast on Colombian Presidential Election

Go check out Steven Hyland interviewing Steven Taylor on SECOLAS' Historias podcast. Among many other things, he talks about the Colombian left and offers a less optimistic view than I did. And there's the question of how independent Iván Duque will be from Alvaro Uribe. And of course there's Venezuela.


Dialogue Fail in Nicaragua

Late last week there was at least some hope that dialogue in Nicaragua could show some progress. In particular, the two sides were talking about finding international mediators. The opposition wants the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the European Union. They thought they had agreement, but when they asked the government to show the invitations, there weren't any. The Foreign Minister said there were "bureaucratic" reasons they weren't sent.

After reneging, Rosario Murillo said she wanted peace and reconciliation. She also said there were "malignant spirits" in Nicaragua and everyone needed to believe in Jesus Christ. She made clear that she wants everyone's spirits to be "full of light."

Apparently international mediators are not full of light because they aren't being allowed in. This story is starting to sound familiar. Fraudulent elections, opposition protests, splintered opposition, attempt at dialogue, failure at dialogue. I assume U.S. sanctions are not fall behind. Increasingly in Nicaragua, just as in Venezuela, the big question is how long the government can keep the army on its side.

However, I think one difference is how much more intense the anti-government actions are. Protesters are blocking large chunks of Managua, though elsewhere as well. It's at the point where you can go online for updated maps on where the tranques are. My sense is that there is more intense domestic pressure on Daniel Ortega than on Nicolás Maduro. At the same time, there have been periods of such pressure in Venezuela and the opposition could not keep it up as the government simply dug in and waited them out.

If you haven't already, listen to the podcast I did with Christine Wade last Friday on the crisis.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Venezuela's Refugee Crisis

The UN High Commissioner on Refugees just published a "situational update" on Venezuela. This is a catastrophe of frightening magnitude and it is affecting every country in the entire hemisphere. 1.5 million people and the majority are undocumented.

More than 340.000 Venezuelans have entered Ecuador since the beginning of 2018 (compared to 287,000 arrivals registered for the whole 2017). 
In Brazil, 527 Venezuelan nationals had been relocated from border regions to Brazilian cities in the country (Cuiabá, Manaus and São Paulo). 
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum has risen yearly. Between 2014 and 2018, some 185,783 asylum claims have been lodged. 
More than 1.5 million Venezuelans have moved into neighbouring countries. While some of them have obtained documentation which allows them to stay legally, the majority of Venezuelans who have left their country have no regular status, and are therefore more vulnerable to any form of exploitation, abuse, violence, trafficking and discrimination.
Here is the breakdown of asylum requests:

 Just remember too. If you squeeze the country with sanctions, you are directly contributing to this crisis.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Duque and Latin American Politics

Iván Duque defeated Gustavo Petro in the Colombian runoff election yesterday, 54%-42%. Boz has some good points about the outcome, including the importance of centrists. Adam Isacson also has a post worth your time on how this affects the peace agreement.

I'd like to chime in on the broader view. It will be tempting to view this as part of an overall conservative wave in Latin America, and I fully expect that kind of assertion to spread, especially since this was a clear cut contest between candidates who self-identified as left and right. It has already started, really.

But that is misleading and does not pay sufficient attention to the specific Colombian context. The FARC effectively prevented any real political left from developing in Colombia. It was too hard for the left to convince people it wasn't going to be soft on the FARC, or even tied to it. Look back at 2010, when Antanas Mockus ran and won only 27.5% in a runoff after being clobbered in the first round. It was just too easy to tie the left to the FARC, to Hugo Chávez, to Fidel Castro. Etc.

Petro was openly struggling against this. And the fact that he got 42% of the vote means he succeeded far more than anyone else in the past. Not enough to win, obviously, but enough to breath life into the aspirations of the left. It's fair to say that it won't be long before a leftist can win the presidency, and that's something that just has not been true before.


Immigrant Children as Hostages

The Trump administration is separating children from their parents when they are apprehended, a practice considered too harsh and horrible by previous administrations. There has been considerable public response and the administration's stance is indicative of dysfunction and deceit.

President Trump blames congressional Democrats. His logic is the same as hostage taking. Kidnap someone and demand ransom. If the ransom is not paid, you hurt the hostage and blame the side that would not give you money. The real answer is that the hostage never should have been taken in the first place. You do not need a law or any reform to end it. He can do so right this second.

But it gets worse. Attorney General Jess Sessions contradicted Trump by taking full ownership over separating families and saying the Bible defends the practice. White House advisor Stephen Miller also contradicted Trump and took ownership, saying it was a "simple decision." They happily label it as deterrence--treat people so inhumanely that word will get out and people will stop emigrating. As Steve Bannon says, it is a conscious zero tolerance policy that needs no justification. For xenophobes, it is simply common sense--hurting brown-skinned foreigners is good.

Melania Trump weighed in, saying through a spokesperson that she "hates" the practice and calling immigration reform, echoing the inaccurate assertion that you need a new law to end it.

But one of the truly craziest responses was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said it's not a policy at all. High level administration officials have already said it is a policy and the increase of the practice has been very public.

And that's where we are in 2018.

Update: the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics labeled it as "child abuse."

New Update: Not long after I posted this, President Trump and other administration officials changed the story a bit, saying that the parents were fake and were in fact criminals posing as parents.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Podcast Episode 54: The Nicaraguan Crisis

In Episode 54 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Christine Wadewho is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College. She studies Central America and recently published Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador and also the ninth edition of Latin American Politics and Development. We discuss the Nicaraguan crisis. FYI, she mentions an article that just came out at NACLA that she recommended: here is the link. Among other things, we talk about the diffuse nature of the opposition, what's up with security forces, and how much this is all affecting the average Nicaraguan.


NAFTA and North Carolina

Patrick Duddy has an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer about the impact of NAFTA on North Carolina. It just fell flat for me. He argues that NAFTA benefits the state, but he also bends over backward to praise the Trump administration. For example:

In the last quarter century all three economies have evolved in important ways. Hence, the Trump administration’s determination to force improvements on our partners is not unreasonable. The Trump administration’s goal is a better deal for U.S. workers and industry.

Trump is not necessarily wrong when he asserts that much of the world has ridden our coattails to an era of greater prosperity. We would be wrong, however, to ignore the corollary to that assertion: the U.S. has – in the aggregate – become more prosperous as well. The aim of the current negotiations should be to create a better trading regime, one that eliminates distortions without sacrificing benefits.
"Forcing improvements on our partners" means a trade war. It's not clear to me how we can consider that reasonable. And the whole "ridden our coattails" thing is simplistic and implies unreasonably that we are "owed." The United States has benefited massively from the post-World War II economic order. There's no way around that.

The piece seems aimed at the NC congressional delegation but the combined praise of NAFTA and Trump makes it difficult to see precisely what he's advocating.


The Latin Americanist and UNC Press

I am excited to announce that starting January 1, 2019 The Latin Americanist will be published by the University of North Carolina Press. It's a perfect fit, especially since the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, which owns the journal, is a southern-oriented organization. And it's great to be working with an academic press. If you have a manuscript, you should consider us!


Thursday, June 14, 2018

LASA Resolution on Nicaragua

I know, I know, organization resolutions don't "matter" in a policy way. But I still like having the key organization for Latin American Studies get things right. For a long time it was a muddled morass.

Here is its statement on Nicaragua. For example:

As academics who have spent our careers researching Central America and working with the people of Nicaragua, we want to express our profound concern for the extreme violations of basic human rights that have occurred in Nicaragua. No government should violently repress its own citizens for expressing their opinions, nor should it try to prevent the press from covering such protests.

Nice, clear, declarative. In the past, condemnations of government wrongdoing got all tangled with ideology--you can't really criticize Venezuela because of the 2002 coup, blah blah blah. This statement includes the proper caveat about U.S. policy.

We hasten to add that these measures should be carried out at the initiative of the Nicaraguan people and their constituted representatives. Given the long and tragic history of US imperialism in Central America, and the many regional problems that have their roots in foreign interventions, we are well aware of the need to respect Nicaragua’s sovereignty. That, however, does not preclude criticism of government-condoned violence against unarmed protesters.

Good. U.S. policy has done terrible damage to Nicaragua in its history but that should not give its governments a pass when they're killing their own citizens. And no one wants to give the impression they're asking for U.S. meddling.

Here's one of the worse resolutions, from five years ago.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Venezuela Election Apologists

You see periodic efforts to defend the integrity of elections in Venezuela. John Polga-Hecimovich takes aim at one and breathes fire at it.

Mr. Kovalik professes to support Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution for helping the poor. But 82% of the country is now below the poverty line, which indicates it’s more important for him to blindly follow an ideology than update his priors and criticize a “revolutionary” government.
He delicately concludes:

Venezuela is a dictatorship whose economic problems are the result of irresponsible policymaking. The more Mr. Kovalik and others see conspiracies where there are none, the more they allow themselves to become apologists for a dictator.

I assume his essay will be dismissed as the work of an imperialist pawn.

BTW, see Geoff Ramsey's post just prior to the election as well. Defenders of the election tend to skirt past most of the substance.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Maduro Looks Longingly at the Trump-Kim Summit

I was talking to someone about why Nicolás Maduro was letting political prisoners out and especially Joshua Holt. My basic and not particularly original answer was that he trying to make some sort of gesture to ease pressure and open the door to dialogue (of whatever sort, if only to gain time).

But after seeing the spectacle of Donald Trump meeting Kim Jong-un, I realized I was missing what was in front of my eyes all along. Trump's foreign policy consists in large part of alienating allies and embracing--even bromancing--adversaries. He famously loves Vladimir Putin and now he loves Kim too (he loves his country!). With them, he openly gives concessions without getting anything concrete in return. This summit was pure gold for an isolated Kim.

So Maduro, who also feels isolated, much wonder: how do I get Trump's love? And indeed, why shouldn't he think that way? Kim sets the standard for being a horrible human being who terrorizes his own population, and Trump loves him. Trump excoriates Maduro and calls him a threat. How is that fair?

So maybe Maduro is thinking that if he gives a little with some releases, just like Kim did, he can be bros with Trump too. Maybe even be invited to the White House. Kim has Dennis Rodman as celebrity go-between, and Maduro can use Danny Glover.

I am authoritarian, I am screwing up my country, and my government is responsible serious human rights abuses, so why don't you love me too?


Monday, June 11, 2018

Arepas Grill

In my very occasional reviews of Latin American restaurants in Charlotte, today I had lunch at Arepas Grill, which bills itself as the only place in the city to get Venezuelan arepas*. I was there with my wife and kids, so between us we got several different kinds, including the Pelua (shredded beef), the La del Gato (plantains and avocado), the traditional Queso de Mano, and the Revoltillo (screambled eggs and beef). All of us were in universal agreement that they were delicious, just crispy on the outside, hot and stuffed with food inside. They have a guasacaca sauce that is hot and tasty to add if you want.

Incidentally, it is directly across the street from the Woodlawn train station, perfect if you are on light rail.

* This should not be too surprising because the population is still relatively small. According to Census Bureau estimates, there are about 17,778 people in Mecklenburg County who were born in South America (I don't know offhand how many are Venezuelan but we have quite a few migrants also from Colombia and Ecuador in particular). That constitutes just 11% of all foreign born people in the county and 23.4% of the Latin America-born population. Those numbers have been increasing in recent years and I have to wonder how much the Venezuelan crisis is contributing.

Before, I went to Tamales la Pasadita.


Venezuela's OPEC Problem

OPEC meets on June 22. The Venezuelan government is asking that it denounce sanctions:

“I kindly request solidarity and support from our fellow members,” Venezuelan Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo wrote in a copy of the letter seen by Bloomberg News. OPEC should discuss “the constraining effects of unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States of America, which represent an extraordinary aggression, financially and economically, for our national oil industry’s operations and the stability of the market.”
In particular, Venezuela naturally does not want prices to decrease. Meanwhile, the United States is asking Saudi Arabia to increase production precisely to keep prices down while it sanctions Iran.

But, Saudi Arabia and Russia probably can’t simply allot themselves more production allowances without risking a full-blown revolt from the rest of the group. So, they will likely need to allocate more production to everyone, but even the act of deciding on a formula will also be highly contentious. Still, it will be somewhat of a formality for most members since they can’t increase production anyway.
Nonetheless, Russian output is already increasing. In part, Russia just wants lower prices but it also does not want OPEC's share of output to decrease, which would happen if OPEC went down just as U.S. production continued to increase.

This is pressing for Nicolás Maduro for existential reasons. It is pressing for Donald Trump for political reasons, particularly the midterm elections. This is not new--two years Barack Obama pushed OPEC in the same way, and it ticked Maduro off.

Oil markets think production will indeed increase. This would be bad news for the Venezuelan government, which needs prices to stay as high as possible since output is declining due to incompetence (oh sorry, I meant because of the empire).


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tim Wendel's Summer of '68

Reading Tim Wendel's Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever is a reminder that our current era has parallels for awfulness. The book is the story of a year, but it tends to focus a lot on the Tigers and on the World Series they played (and won) against the Cardinals. Wendel doesn't really come to any particular conclusions--he weaves some different sports in though they don't form part of a broader narrative.

The Tigers are an appropriate subject because their run for the championship helped unite the city to an extent, which has experienced riots the year prior. Baseball didn't fix or heal racial divides, but even the players themselves--black or white--felt like they were truly playing for their city. They were misfits, not smooth and athletic like the Cardinals.

If there is any theme, it's that the "real world" touches on and draws from baseball whether the players know it or not. Politicians from both parties wanted to comment on or attend games. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a sports fan per se but of course understood how race relations in major sports impacted public policy. Football was only just taking off at that point, and it's interested how it has overtaken baseball in terms of political importance. Donald Trump is whining about the NFL and to an extent the NBA, but not MLB.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

John Belohlavek's Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies

I read and reviewed John Belohlavek's Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies: Women and theMexican-American War for The Americas (2017). Here is my concluding paragraph:

An important contribution of the book is that for the first time it highlights the countless ways women on both sides of the conflict were central to it. For better or worse, the war could not have been waged without them. Women were taking care of business at home, traveling with armies, opening businesses, and working in factories (especially textiles). They were also writing stories, plays, and music. War changed gender roles, though Belohlavek is careful to explain that such transformations were not drastic. Yet the war represented “an incremental step toward advancing greater gender awareness and promoting female involvement within the Mexican and American societies” (243). He succeeded in that effort. Historical studies of U.S.-Latin American relations would benefit from more of this understanding.

If you like histories of U.S.-Latin American relations, you might want to check it out. Women don't tend to have much of a role in those histories so it's a refreshing look.


Friday, June 08, 2018

The Boston Group in Venezuela

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez-Hernáiz look at some of the important issues in post-election Venezuela. One merits special attention because of how much we can generalize it. It's the sometimes hidden importance of informal diplomatic relationships.

However, the Joshua Holt release shows the potential of cross-national, back-channel networks among politicians (see a stellar series of articles by AP’s Josh Goodman who reported on this development in March, and as the Holt release evolved here and here). 
All parties agree that the key player in the Holt release was Senator Bob Corker’s chief of staff Caleb McCarry. McCarry was a member of the Boston Group, a network of US and Venezuelan legislators who engaged each other back during the 2002-04 period. This group included Maduro, then a legislator, his wife Cilia Flores, as well as then politician and now businessman Pedro Díaz Blum. Díaz Blum brought Lacava into the network which brokered Holt’s release. Senator Orin Hatch of Holt’s home state of Utah was also involved in the dialogue and described his experiences in Time Magazine. 
The entire experience shows the power this type of cross-national back channels can have to broker deals. More broadly, the Boston Group and other efforts to open networks with members of the Maduro government could become fundamental conduits for channeling pressure into a transition back to democracy.
This is why the dismantling of diplomacy these days is so devastating. The Boston Group was a legislative initiative intended to promote dialogue and had bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and the Venezuelan government. It involved difficult discussions and was careful not to do anything that might jeopardize its existence. From a leaked cable:

In response to a request from Ortega, McCarry explained the mechanics of NED project funding, emphasizing the organization's bipartisan support within the U.S. After debating the topic, the group members agreed to refrain from making any public statements about GOV accusations that the USG is spending millions of dollars to assist opposition groups since it might affect the Boston Group's own existence. In response to McCarry's outline of the proposed Boston Group television project, Rangel promised support and resources.

These below-the-surface interactions, which really need support from the involved governments to work, can pay enormous dividends. I hope the Trump administration is open to such arrangements in the future, but the treatment of the State Department does not currently offer optimism.

In an interview, former Ambassador Patrick Duddy talks about how the Boston Group's connections persisted well after its members ceased meeting.

Shortly after the April 14 election and Maduro’s investiture as president, the foreign ministry announced that former Chavista legislator Calixto Ortega would be heading to Washington to become Venezuela’s new chargé d’affaires. Ortega had been a part of what was once known as “The Boston Group” which was founded in 2000 to try to promote improved understanding between Venezuelan legislators and their U.S. congressional counterparts. 
So this was formed during the Clinton administration and those relationships resolved a problem 18 years later. Are we building anything now to help solve crises in the future?


Thursday, June 07, 2018

Somoza and Ortega: Brothers in Arms

Nicaragua's La Prensa has an interesting story paralleling the end of Anastasio Somoza's regime with Daniel Ortega's current situation.

Los asesinatos de miles de nicaragüenses en manos de la sanguinaria Guardia Nacional eran el pan de cada día. Nicaragua estaba harta. La formación de una junta con intelectuales y empresarios, la llegada de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, un intento de diálogo con el gobierno de Somoza Debayle, la presión de los Frentes guerrilleros en los departamentos del país. Esto se vivió en los últimos años, meses y días de la dictadura somocista.

But there are major differences. The most important is that the Sandinistas were a well-organized fighting force, whereas the current opposition is not. Right now Nicaragua has protests rather than a guerrilla insurgency. Then the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro threw gasoline on the fire and got the OAS involved.

I think it's more useful to compare Nicaragua today to more recent examples than to its own history. Bolivia in 2003 comes to mind, when Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned after government violence and months of protests. But there is also the Venezuela example, where Nicolás Maduro has weathered protests up to this point and remains in power. Overall, this is about internal regime cohesion (esp. the army) as opposed to losing a civil war.

Nonetheless, Nicaraguans do have their own history in mind, a most ironic one given Ortega's role back then and the way he compares to Somoza now.


Cuba Sonic Thing Gets Bigger and Weirder

We all know about the weird "sonic crisis" with Cuba, which is one of the oddest episodes in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. Now it's in China too.

But with Americans now exhibiting similar symptoms in Guangzhou, American officials have raised suspicions about whether other countries, perhaps China or Russia, might be to blame.

Back in February I looked at all the players. I had of course included Russia but not China. If this is indeed the same phenomenon, could Russia really be doing it as a third party in two different countries? I don't think there's precedent for this in Russia-China relations, which historically have been rocky. This development doesn't make anything clearer at all.

Meanwhile, scientists can't agree on what's even going on and what's possible. The argument has spilled over into the academic world and academic journals, where it can get really nasty!


Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Review of Francisco Cantú's The Line Becomes a River

You're a hard person if Francisco Cantú's The Line Becomes a River (2018) does not move you. It is a memoir of a sensitive Mexican-American who joined the Border Patrol so that he could understand the border situation better, and was traumatized by the experience.

The book is about his struggle to understand it all. Why are people violent? Why don't people care? How can you successfully struggle against the incarceration/deportation machine of the United States government? And when people do care, why? These questions become especially pressing when someone he knows--a husband, a father--is deported and he tries to help him. He does not come up with firm answers but does a wonderful job of describing what he feels and what he sees, from the Border Patrol, to the prison, to the courthouse, and to Mexico.

It's about helplessness, really, but that's the reality of our current immigration system, not to mention the corruption of the Mexican government, which is also a theme. But it is a reminder to keep humanizing migrants as individuals rather than aggregate numbers, trying to re-connect their lives.

Update 6/12/18: I had been unaware of the controversy surrounding the book. I must say I did not get even the slightest sense he was trying to praise the Border Patrol or in any way profit from suffering. I just didn't.


Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Podcast Episode 53: AMLO in Perspective

In Episode 53 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my good friend and colleague JürgenBuchenau, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at UNC Charlotte. He is an expert on the Mexican Revolution and has published numerous books on the topic. We talk about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, who is the front runner in the Mexican presidential race. We look at him from a historical perspective to see how he fits into Mexican political history. Jurgen also shows how he can take any topic and show how the Mexican Revolution is relevant to it--if you ever see him, try it out.


Mike Pompeo on Venezuela

Here is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech to the OAS calling for, among other things, Venezuela's suspension. Unlike his predecessor and his boss, he was smart enough not to use inflammatory language. Instead, he stays away from military references and only emphasizes holding elections. What we can't know is how his private interactions went. The administration has indicated that it wants to twist arms pretty hard on this issue. That can only get you so far and veers toward the petty (e.g. literally "we're having a fun party and you can't come"). With Haiti is openly imperial.

There will be a vote today and the ultimate test will be whether the needle moves at all, especially with Caribbean countries. My hunch is that it won't move a lot--chances are pretty good that Haiti ultimately gives in, but there are plenty of Caribbean states who either still get a bit of oil and/or who have lingering positive feelings about Hugo Chávez, if not Nicolás Maduro.

Update (6/7/18): The vote was 19-4, with 11 abstentions, to open the door for an eventual vote on expulsion, which would require 24 in favor. Getting 11 abstentions into 5 more "yes" votes would not be simple. Nonetheless, Nicaragua is an abstention so even some hardcore supporters shifted.


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