Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Getting Gas in Venezuela

To combat smuggling, Nicolás Maduro announced a change in subsidized gasoline prices. If you have the "we intentionally want this to sound like Orwell" Fatherland ID, then you can get the low price for "about" two years (which really means whatever amount of time the government wants, though Maduro claims the problem will be solved within that time). If you do not have the ID, you pay market price, which is considerably higher.

This is intended to hurt the opposition, since many people do not want to get a creepy-sounding and personal information collecting Fatherland ID so avoid it, which now would mean paying more. How it affects smugglers is unclear, because they don't mind getting the ID if it means making a ton of money selling cheap gasoline in Colombia. I suppose the government will now know who is getting gas, but it won't know what they're doing with it once they get it.

The most likely outcome is that this will be a mess.


Monday, August 13, 2018

Jim Mattis on Latin America

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on China's role in Latin America.

“There’s more than one way to lose sovereignty in this world. It’s not just by bayonets. It can also be by countries that come in bearing gifts and large loans…piling massive debt on countries knowing they know will not be able to repay it,” Mattis said, in what appeared to be a jab at Chinese loans to countries like Venezuela and the Philippines.
My head is not big enough to give this the proper eye roll that it deserves. Let's set aside the obvious fact that the history of U.S.-Latin American relations is full of countless effort to undermine Latin American sovereignty through means other than military force.

But more importantly, this statement directly says that Latin American leaders are too stupid to know what amount of debt their countries should take on. The reporter mentions Venezuela but loans are going out all over the place. In other words, China is swindling the moronic Latin Americans, who will simply take on debt they cannot pay.

Hopefully the messages he carried to Latin American leaders during his trip the last few days were not this condescending.


Thursday, August 09, 2018

Assassination in Venezuela

A former police chief has claimed responsibility for the "drone thing that might have been an assassination attempt" against Nicolás Maduro.

Lucchese described the incident as part of a sustained, armed effort against Maduro. He declined to describe his precise role in the operation, in the broader resistance or identify others involved, citing the need to protect their identity. 
“We had an objective and in the moment we were not able to materialize it 100 percent,” Lucchese said in an interview in Bogota, where he is traveling because of activities with other opposition figures. “The armed struggle will continue.” 
Earlier this year, Lucchese parted ways with Popular Will, a prominent opposition party, saying he disagreed with its continued dialogue with Maduro’s administration.
Is this legit? We have no way of knowing. We do know that the opposition is split on tactics and certainly plenty of people see violence as the only means of political change. And we know that such moderate/violent splits are common--even the norm--in such contexts.

My main thought here is that this particular tactic is a bad idea. There was no doubt that Maduro would use any such attack as a pretext for repression, which he has done. Half-baked assassination plans (and this seems half-baked from what I've read) are far worse than doing nothing because you give the government cover to crack down even more on the opposition.

Lest you think I am calling for fully baked assassination plans, I think successful assassination would make things worse as well. My own preferred solution is one that sadly won't happen, which is coordinated Latin American pressure. The logic of assassination strikes me as Steve Bannon-ish, where your goal is to throw the country into such turmoil that you can build something new from the ashes. That's not how it'll work.


Trump Hurts Taiwan in Latin America

Latin American countries have been key allies of Taiwan for many years. But it occurs to me that the Trump administration's Latin America policy is especially hard on it. The president is heading to the region to shore up crumbling support.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will head to Paraguay and Belize – two of the island’s remaining 18 formal allies – on Sunday, in her fifth state visit, described by her government as a “Journey of Joint Celebration”, but seen by analysts as cementing ties in the face of a growing diplomatic squeeze by Beijing.
Paraguay and Belize are not what you call diplomatic heavyweights but Taiwan is keenly interested in Latin America. China is using its financial might to lure countries to recognize it, and Taiwan has been doing what it can (including bribes) to counter that.

Trump's tariff policies give China a big boost in this regard because it reduces the need to woo so much. Latin American countries are consciously looking to China given the uncertainty of future trade relations with the United States. The logical next step is recognition.


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Venezuelan Immigrants in Colombia: Permanent or Temporary?

David Smilde has a rundown on recent Venezuela political news, including how Juan Manuel Santos gave Special Permission status to 442,000 Venezuelans, allowing them access to social services and the ability to work. Questions about it are so similar to the United States.

EP status provides beneficiaries with access to Colombian social services and allows them to legally work and freely circulate in the national territory. Activists applaud this measure but point out that it is less than optimal. First, the ambiguity of the census meant that many Venezuelan migrants were fearful and did not participate. Second, the PEP status is temporary and does not include any road to citizenship. Finally, as a presidential decree it can easily be undone by Santos’ successor. What is needed instead is actual legislation that regularizes the situation of Venezuelan migrants now and in the future.
Colombia needs a discussion right now of how it wants to handle Venezuelans. This is exactly like the Temporary Protected Status question in the U.S. The president alone decides, and what started as "temporary" was renewed so many times that people had deep roots here. The measure is generous but too much ambiguity will cause pain in the future. Does it end with the end of the current government? With some measurable improvement in Venezuela? Never?

With regard to making it more permanent with a law, it's hard to imagine the current congressional composition passing something very liberal, but clearly Santos was in no position to get something passed before the election. I have not seen whether Iván Duque has indicated his precise position on migrants within Colombia, though he has said he wants to tighten border security.

In general, this is a time of high uncertainty. Venezuela cannot support its own citizens, Colombia struggles to support its own challenges plus migrants, the international community is slow to respond, and the political landscape in Colombia has shifted.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

US-Colombian Relations Under Trump and Duque

The Washington Post has an article about how Iván Duque will automatically become the closest U.S. ally in Latin America.

Duque, a conservative, hopes to turn Trump’s concerns about drugs and safe borders into a stronger partnership with Washington while promising to revisit elements of a historic peace agreement with rebels struck in August 2016 with the vigorous support of the Obama administration. 
“When he is sworn in, Duque will overnight become the most pro-American head of state in Latin America,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about U.S. diplomatic priorities.
A big question is how much Duque stays hardline after being sworn in. He is of course an Alvaro Uribe disciple and even is seen as a potential puppet (to the point that he actually had to say he wasn't a puppet). There are plenty valid of reasons to envision a major shift away from the Santos administration.

At the same time, this isn't the 1990s. Simply going back to aerial fumigation and old style punitive policies don't have the same national or regional support they did back then. Former presidents are calling for decriminalization. There is already precedent for a hardliner president to advocate for decriminalization. There is broader consensus that the U.S. drug war is largely a failure. And there is no more civil war.

Nonetheless, I would expect it to be relatively easy for Duque to the closest U.S. ally, in large part because the U.S. has no close allies at all at the moment. But will he bend to reach U.S.-determined goals of coca cultivation? Will he just redo Uribe's policies in a totally different environment?

Nikki Haley, who is attending the inauguration on Trump's behalf, published a carefully worded op-ed that did include a push for more eradication:

Working with Colombian police and military forces, the United States helped achieve record cocaine seizures in 2017, while Colombian forces eradicated over 125,000 acres of coca last year. But there is much more to do to achieve the goal set between our two countries to reduce by half coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia.
There is no mention of goals to reduce U.S. cocaine consumption, but that's a different story.


Saturday, August 04, 2018

Race 7: Balboa Park 8 Miler

The latest in my running series (see the first post here) I ran the Balboa Park 8 Miler in San Diego. It is a scenic route that includes some trails. It suddenly got tough just before mile 5, where you drop down a very steep trail into a canyon, then run a while alongside CA State Route 163 North until you climb (for me, at a slow pace) back up.

Since Balboa Park is so close to the airport, there were times I felt the planes coming right over me. Overall, a cool locale.

One small pet peeve. In general I am not a fan of an emcee saying "good morning" (or hello, or whatever) then saying the response was not loud enough, which then means they say it again louder, demanding a louder response. When the time is 6:15 am (the race started at 7 am) this is even worse.


Friday, July 27, 2018

What To Do When You Hate the Media

It is notable how Donald Trump and Nicolás Maduro have very similar approaches to the media. All politicians get annoyed by free press--it's the nature of the game. Presidents who accept democratic rule complain and mostly have to endure it. Presidents who do not accept democracy find ways to hurt the offending outlets and go after individual reporters. It's the way these two presidents (and their allies) do so that seems so similar.

Take this Reuters story on El Nacional, which it labels the last independent paper standing (what about the Latin American Herald Tribune, though?). It sounds like Trump taken to the logical next level. Both governments simply label facts as fake.

El Nacional’s independent reporting and headlines documenting power cuts, allegations of electoral fraud and strikes by desperate workers have prompted senior government leaders to regularly single out El Nacional’s coverage for public criticism.

Maduro’s supporters have assailed the paper as biased and accuse it of trying to precipitate his ouster. El Nacional denies this and says it accurately covers the current crisis.
Sound familiar? It is exactly what Donald Trump says on a regular basis. His supporters also routinely use the word "coup" to justify attacking the media. The Venezuelan government is nailing the paper with fines to drive it into bankruptcy and/or justify raiding it. Trump hasn't done that, but it's not a stretch to imagine it.

Indeed, at this point Trump has a majority of Republicans convinced that he is a more reliable source than the media, given his unrelenting attacks. The question is when insults and slights (e.g. refusing to answer questions) cross the line into trying to destroy the outlets themselves, not by sledgehammer but by a death from a thousand cuts.


Monday, July 23, 2018

MORENA Thanks California

I grew up in San Diego, and am now visiting. Today I heard an ad on the radio from MORENA. We know how much Mexican and Central American candidates in particular campaign in the United States, mostly California, because their citizens--often dual citizens--can vote from abroad. This was the first election where they could vote not just for president but for down ballot candidates as well.

The ad was in English and thanked supporters, saying that MORENA would be working to improve things in Mexico--I don't remember the exact wording, but it struck me how it was in English. I wonder what the average non-Mexican listener thinks of it.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

Andrew Shaffer's Hope Never Dies

Periodically I'll write that a particular novel is perfect for a plane, which means good plot development and entertaining. That is certainly the case with Andrew Shaffer's Hope Never Dies. It has an exceedingly creative premise. Joe Biden is a bit down in the dumps, wondering why his buddy Barack is globetrotting with famous friends and never seems to have time for Uncle Joe. Then the former president shows up and the two start haphazardly investigating the death of an Amtrak employee Biden knew on his many famous trip from Delaware to DC.

Sound crazy? It is, and really funny. Drop all disbelief and just go with the flow. Of course more people would recognize them, of course it's hard to imagine Obama busting into a biker bar with a sawed off shotgun. Just let it go. It's a fun mystery and the narration in Joe Biden's voice is highly entertaining, just exactly how you would expect it. Honest, outgoing, colorfully colloquial, always pining a bit for Obama. Obama is super smart, cool, and loves Biden like a brother even though he comes off as distant.


Friday, July 20, 2018

Why Is Immigration So Important to People?

I've spent years saying (accurately) that immigration is just not a major issue for people, especially when they're voting. As I had a student point out not long ago, that is a point made in my book that is no longer true.

A record 22 percent of Americans said this month that they believe “immigration/illegal aliens” is the most important problem facing the United States, according to Gallup polling numbers released on Wednesday
“The 22 percent of Americans in July who say immigration is the top problem is up from 14 percent in June and is the highest percentage naming that issue in Gallup's history of asking the ‘most important problem’ question,” Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport said in an analysis of the survey.
This is deeply frustrating because we know that demography and other factors have led to a situation commonly referred to as "net zero" immigration. This won't last forever because demography is ever changing. But whatever crisis people feel is way behind us.

Further, migrants aren't stealing jobs. People are not making the connection that President Trump is complaining about migrants while also acknowledging that there are thousands of skilled jobs that Americans aren't taking. There is a worker shortage in this country and we are just about at full employment.

Further further, people are afraid of MS-13 but this is not an immigration problem. This is a homegrown gang with transnational ties. Messing with immigration won't affect it. Better drug policies and attention to local community needs would.

Now, after that ranting, let me offer a ray of hope. It may well be that the relevance of immigration has soared in large part to a common sense response to the anti-empirical arguments being repeated all the time. In other words, many people appreciate and value immigration and now believe it's important to stop separating families, to support family unification, and more generally promote human rights. Maybe people think the "problem" is policy, not the migrants themselves.

So what percent of the 22 percent see immigration as a problem versus a good thing? We can find hope in the fact that more Americans than ever would like to see immigration increased and more than ever (75%) believe it is a good thing.

Or maybe more people than ever are showing their racism and xenophobia. I will leave it to you to decide.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

How Will AMLO Deal With NAFTA?

Brian Palmer-Rubin has a post at The Monkey Cage blog about clues to AMLO's response to NAFTA. He argues that Mexico's long-standing clientelist structures meant that labor and peasant unions never really pursued substantive change. That's what AMLO might change.

If López Obrador plans to follow through on this promise, we should see representatives of organized labor, small business and peasant associations at the NAFTA bargaining table. Provisions for foreign investment would be geared to not only factories that employ low-paying manual labor — jobs that are increasingly under threat by automation — but also technology and service-sector firms that promise to train and employ high-skilled workers. And negotiators would pursue agricultural terms that favor Mexican exports of high-value crops such as avocados, coffee and tomatoes. These trade provisions would be accompanied by domestic policies that enable small businesses and small-scale farmers to obtain the financing they need to reach more lucrative markets.
That's a tall order, but would be fascinating to watch if it happened. It would drastically shift the tenor of the discussions.

Most accounts offer a more standard outlook, i.e. AMLO has consciously tried to calm down business and there will be a lot of continuity. That is rather different than having peasant associations at the bargaining table.


Russia-Nicaragua Security Nexus?

There is a new senate bill that would impose sanctions on Nicaraguan officials responsible for human right abuses (see the text here). It also calls for credible negotiations and early elections. Pretty standard stuff, and a continuation of the sanctions already in place.

However, Ted Cruz takes it one step further by adding something not mentioned in the bill.

“There is a coalescing nexus of security cooperation between Nicaragua, Russia, and Venezuela that poses a direct risk to American national security. Targeting the assets of sanctioned Nicaraguan leaders, as required under this bill, will help reveal the network of financial institutions being utilized for illicit activity.”
This strains credulity more. Russia is certainly involved in both Nicaragua and Venezuela, but how much illicit activity is occurring that would rise to the level of a national security threat? These are most often overblown. He has made the pitch before. Fine, go ahead and target the assets and see what they show you. My guess is that it will be minimal.

I've mentioned this exaggerated Nicaragua-Russia "nexus" back in 2016 as well.


The Wrong Way to Address the Venezuelan Emigration Crisis

Latin American diplomats say that given its immigration policy, the U.S. has no moral authority to call for Latin America to do more with regard to Venezuelan migrants. Fair enough. But they take it one troubling step further.

Mimicking the Trump administration, some countries have already taken steps to tighten their border controls as the public has begun complaining to elected officials about extra competition for jobs.
Fernando Carrera, the foreign minister of Guatemala in 2013 and 2014, understands the diplomatic complaints, but said it will not change the reality that governments must deal with incoming Venezuelan migrants. 
“Even if in diplomatic circles, leaders say to Washington we will not accept more people if you don’t accept more of our nationals or you don’t have the moral conviction to tell us we should accept more people while you’re not accepting,” Carrera said. “The practicality is the flow of Venezuelans to Brazil, Peru and Colombia will continue.”
In other words, if you don't do anything, we won't either. That's simply awful.

Further, Latin America wants the U.S. to coordinate a response. This reflects a persistent theme that tends not to get sufficient attention, which is that in times of crisis Latin America looks to the U.S. Despite all the rhetoric about unity (of which there is little) and autonomy, or even freedom from the empire, Latin America does not come together effectively in times of crisis. This was painfully obvious during the Honduran coup crisis in 2009, when even Hugo Chávez was publicly asking Barack Obama to do something.

And in all things, mimicking the Trump administration is a bad idea. Don't do it.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Reintegrating Former Salvadoran Gang Members

The topic of reintegrating ex-gang members in Latin America is very much understudied. It gets some--though certainly not enough--attention in the United States, but in Latin America there are many people getting out of gangs who don't know what to do next and suffer discrimination. That's the topic Jonathan Rosen and Josá Miguel Cruz tackle in an article just published in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology (sorry, gated). The abstract:

This article is an effort to better understand the discrimination mechanisms that ex-gang members perceive upon leaving the gang and seeking to reinsert themselves into a society marked by high levels of violence and inequality, as in Central America. Based on 24 in-depth interviews with former members of MS-13, the 18th Street gang, and other street gangs in El Salvador, this article analyzes the different mechanisms of discrimination perceived by respondents as a result of the stigma of past gang membership. This article also documents how these perceptions of discrimination can affect individuals who are searching for employment opportunities and seeking to reinsert themselves into society.
Governments try to get people to leave gangs but do much less to help them reintegrate. They often turn to the church, but churches don't have the necessary resources. If you can't find a job, then you can guess what will happen.


The Disaster of Zero Tolerance

Go read this report on the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy co-authored by Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, and Adeline Hite at the Washington Office on Latin America. It details the disasters the policy has created. Beyond the humanitarian problems, there is no infrastructure for doing what the administration wants. Plus, they explain how the deterrence claimed by the administration is based on poor logic that empirical evidence shows is wrong.

The report also gets into the country of origin of migrants in different parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the conditions they are fleeing (not surprisingly, MS-13 is not a big factor). This is all complicated by the fact that organized crime has consolidated control over smuggler routes, thus dictating what part of the border people cross.

The report ends with recommendations, which are mostly just common sense. That means they are unlikely to be implemented. This report is the first installment of several.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Electoral Systems and Padres Uniforms

I listened to Padres owner Ron Fowler's interview with Jesse Agler on his Beyond the Booth podcast. Toward the end, Jesse asked him about uniforms. If you are not a Padres fan or at least a baseball fan, you may not know that the Padres had brown in their uniforms through 1990, and diehard fans have been calling for their return ever since. The current uniforms are blue and so the Padres are just some bland copy of the Brewers. Fowler said they did focus group research. To get a sense of how this worked, see Kevin Acee's article.

There were four uniforms: current, 1998 version, and two different brown uniforms.* OK, so we have four options going head to head. He continues to say that the "largest minority" likes brown. I assume he means one or the other brown option. We have to pause here to point out that the more accurate way to say "largest minority" is "plurality." In other words, the most but not a majority. In many elections, including most in the United States, plurality wins. Referring to plurality as minority is essentially pejorative. He says that the "second largest minority" is the current uniform. In plurality voting, another way to say "second largest minority" is "loser."

But we're not done yet. Many countries--and most Latin American presidential elections--use runoff elections to determine the winner when no one receives a majority. Runoffs are only between the two candidates who received the most votes. In our case, the top two are "some kind of brown" and "current uniforms." The 1998 version is clearly eliminated. Fowler confirms that he believes brown would win in "side by side" (meaning head to head) as opposed to four options and that they might actually be used starting in 2020. (According to Acee, you need to finalize uniforms with MLB in the spring for the following year.) Jesse interjects accurately that this sounds like a presidential campaign poll. In short, brown won.

But we're still not done. Fowler concludes by saying that "as the evening progressed" (was there beer involved here? That was my immediate thought) blue became more preferred than brown. It's hard to comment much on this without knowing their polling techniques, but I couldn't help wonder if they kept changing the questions, hoping for more blue support. Fowler started by saying that brown was the plurality, then ended by saying it wasn't. FWIW, people in the focus groups signed NDAs but talked privately and according to the Gwynntelligence podcast the sentiment was overwhelmingly pro-brown.

In sum, in plurality systems brown would win. In systems with runoffs, brown would also win. Brown won.

* He notes that these are not "baby poop" uniforms. He's used this phrase before and it refers to the 1970s look, I think meaning a lot of yellow. I remember vividly that a friend of mine who had a baby before me mentioned that infant poop is like wiping up Gray Poupon and I found that to be true. Fowler has now attributed the phrase "baby poop" to Tony Gwynn but I can't find any mention of him ever saying that (he said he loved brown and particularly the 1985 version). This is all confusing because Acee's article specifically says people did not like orange and brown and loved yellow and brown. Maybe I am missing something.


Monday, July 16, 2018

How Does Trump Choose His Latin American Foes?

Michael Shifter and David Toppelberg ask why Donald Trump is hard on Venezuela and Cuba whereas he likes dictatorships almost everywhere else. This is an interesting question. Their answer is "political ideology and his combative instincts." I'm not sure I agree. Trump does not fit well on the left/right spectrum (and why not North Korea?) and his combativeness is selective. I would emphasize two factors.

First, domestic politics. They mention this but only in passing. Trump visited Bay of Pigs veterans during the campaign and sees this as important for his support in Florida. Venezuela is an adopted cause for hardline Cuban Americans as well. Trump won Florida in 2016 and I doubt any of this was decisive but he'll stick with it.

Second, doing the opposite of Obama. The Obama administration opened up to Cuba and was less vocal about Venezuela than George W. Bush was. Trump is doing the opposite. The same is true of Iran, whereas Obama was tough with Russia and North Korea. In Latin America, this also helps explain Trump's hardline position on Colombia, which is an ally. One problem with this argument is that Obama was ramping up his rhetoric a bit, so Trump's policy is not really a full rejection. But clearly Obama was more interested in dialogue with Venezuela.


How Trump Helps Russia in Latin America

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted to ask Donald Trump to push Vladimir Putin about his support for the Venezuelan government, though for some reason he did not actually tag Trump.

This is how weird U.S.-Latin American relations currently are. The only allies Russia has in Latin America are governments the Trump administration has identified as threats, specifically Cuba and Venezuela. Trump's vocal and constant positive portrayal of Russia is a huge boost to those governments because Putin feels no pressure to reduce his support.

Now we have the Colombian president pleading for Trump to do something. The funny thing here is that Santos is a rock solid U.S. ally but Trump has decided he is somewhat less than worthy. For his own reasons, Trump is desperate to remain on good terms with Putin so will likely ignore Santos entirely.

That's bad news for the Venezuelan opposition, which Trump claims to support. And what it boils down to is that Trump's need for Putin's approval places everything else in the backseat. This is just not how power relations have worked in the past.


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