Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cuba roadmap

The Brookings Institution just released a report with recommendations for U.S. policy toward Cuba. It advocates a wide range of unilateral liberalization measures and dialogue, divided into the short, medium, and long terms. It even specifically says that the intiatives should be undertaken without requiring specific quid pro quo from the Cuban government.

The most important part of the report, however, is the list of 19 names attached to it. It includes the president of CANF and Mark Falcoff, a well-known conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In other words, this is yet another sign of the erosion of conservative support for our current Cuba policy. The hard core supporters of the embargo are slowly, but surely, becoming more isolated.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chávez and Castro

Max Azicri, "The Castro-Chávez Alliance." Latin American Perspectives 36, 1 (2009): 99-110.

Abstract (gated): Socialist Cuba and Bolivarian Venezuela have embarked jointly on a historic journey of hemispheric dimensions. Under the collaborative and solidarity alliance between Havana and Caracas a complex web of bilateral trade and services has been developed, including Venezuelan oil and Cuban medical expertise. The mutually beneficial exchanges have served as a blueprint for the continentwide exchanges promoted by the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which was conceived by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Washington Consensus, and neoliberalism. Venezuela's alliance with Cuba is more than political calculation or commercial exchanges. Its reasons and foundation run deeper. The revolutionary solidarity between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, the bedrock of the alliance, is based on the vision of a united Latin America free of Washington's control, turning Simón Bolívar's legacy into a new reality.

Especially in the wake of Hugo Chávez's successful campaign to eliminate presidential term limits, a question about Venezuelan politics is whether the Bolivarian revolution can survive without its founder. The same question has often been asked of Cuba.

This article, however, raises the additional question of what the Venezuela-Cuba relationship will look like without Chávez or Fidel Castro. It discusses the many cooperative initiatives the two leaders have created, especially with regard to health care, which have benefited a large number of people who otherwise would have received nothing.

Yet Azicri repeats the point that cooperation is based largely on the personal friendship between Chávez and Fidel (and that close sense of fraternity seems not to extend so much to Raúl, though obviously they have ideological ties). He does argue that a "creative interactive network" (p. 103) emerged from their personal ties, but to what degree is it independent and sustainable without the driving force of its creators?


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brazil's role in South America

It is common to read about the decline of U.S. influence in Latin America, and the rise of other economic partners such as Russia and China. Less common, however, are analyses of the concomitant rise of the Brazilian economic presence across the region. Raúl Zibechi has a really interesting article in Upside Down World on that topic. It discusses a number of situations where relations between Brazil and its neighbors have been rough.

It is basically the affirmation of an emerging power that its borders extend to wherever its national interests are. All great powers were built up in this way, with an attitude that has always been known as "imperialism." Maybe that's why many South Americans feel that Brazil is creating its own "backyard."

This is an important question as Latin America (and South America in particular) seeks to achieve some measure of unity and to create new multilateral institutions.


Uribe and Chávez: The Odd Couple

Former Colombian president César Gaviria claims to see "totalitarian and antidemocratic temptations" in Alvaro Uribe and applies those same characteristics to Hugo Chávez.

According to Gaviria, if Uribe tries a new reelection, "we are to take the same path Venezuela is covering and pretty soon we will be talking about presidency for life."

Uribe has been criticized in Colombia for floating the idea of more terms, even by political allies, but this is the harshest language I've heard. It's still not clear how this will shake out, since uribe had apparently accepted the idea that he would have to wait out one term, but still would need to amend the constitution a third nonconsecutive term.

Considering he just helped write a report saying the drug war is a failure and that legalization should be examined, Gaviria is really on a roll. One note, however, is that by definition a totalitarian government does not have free elections.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

So does anyone listen to ex Latin American presidents?

Am I only one who wondered why Presidents Cardoso, Gaviria, and Zedillo waited about two weeks to publish their Wall Street Journal Op-Ed? Normally when you publish an eye-grabbing report that says the drug war is a failure and legalization is an option, you go straight to the media instead of waiting.

I can think of two scenarios. The first is that they wanted to make the story more "sticky" with more than one announcement about it.

The second is that they felt their original announcement of the report flopped, so desperately wanted to try again.

I hope I am wrong, but have the feeling it is more about the second.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Support for embargo keeps shrinking

After Richard Lugar went public with the argument that the Cuba embargo "has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,'" we are coming to a pretty remarkable state of affairs in which it is getting harder and harder to find supporters of current policy outside Florida.

The Republican Party has almost entirely deserted it. Governors, business leaders, and pundits alike are finally coming to the same conclusion. It has not normally been a policy where you would expect to find bipartisan agreement. And yet here we are.

Tom Shannon is already leading a review of U.S.-Cuba policy, which will obviously provide strong clues about what the policy change will look like. Something is going to change, but it's hard to tell how radical it will be.


Do tourists flock to failed states?

Yesterday I wrote about the way in which Mexico is too often inaccurately portrayed as a "failed state." Here's a follow up question: how many failed states see a big jump in tourism, with a particularly large increase in areas (i.e. the border) for which the State Department recently issued a travel warning?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The drug war and Mexico

Edward Schumacher-Matos at the Washington Post succinctly makes two important points:

The Mexican state is not failing, but the drug war is.

This does not mean the threats to stability in Mexico should be ignored, but the blanket "failed state" label is not helpful for understanding those threats. And here is the bottom line:

And all for nothing. Cocaine is still so readily available that its street price is a quarter of what it was in 1981. Heroin prices, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, have fallen as well, while coca leaf and cocaine production in the Andean region are at historic highs. Home producers of marijuana and illicit lab creations are equally thriving. Two of our past three presidents, and now our Olympic hero Michael Phelps, have tried drugs.

He then argues, albeit tentatively, for legalization. I don't see that gaining traction anytime soon, but it is notable that it is being raised in more prominent places.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Russian trade with Latin America

Boz mentioned a recent discussion by a Chinese official regarding China's ideological affinity (or lack thereof) with the Latin American left. The Russians are also talking about pragmatism versus ideology, as they claim a record $15 billion in trade with Latin America last year, up tenfold since 1992.

While developing relations with Latin American countries, Russia “proceeds not from ideology, but from mutual advantage and pragmatism,” he said, adding, “We, certainly, take into account mutual interest in the enhancement of bilateral relations.”

“The division of Latin American leaders into ‘the right’ or ‘the left’ is quite theoretical and frequently being misused for direct political pressure with global information space cliches,” the minister said.

“Closer contacts with the countries of the continent are not directed against third countries,” Lavrov said.

“Our partners in the US and in the leading West European countries understand this,” he said, adding, “They have repeated many times that they do not consider more intensive relations between Russia and Latin American countries as a threat to their interests.”

I think this is now reaching conventional wisdom, unless something unexpected happens. Given Raúl Castro's visit to Moscow last month, there is lingering affection for the Cuban government that at least originally was rooted in ideology (and with China remains that way). I wonder, though, whether that will survive the Castro brothers.


Friday, February 20, 2009

More on absence of exodus to Mexico

The president of the board of Mexico's National Statistics, Geography and Information Institute exactly echoes the recent study by the Migration Policy Institute. The upshot is that the economic crisis has slowed migration out of Mexico, but has not created an exodus back to Mexico.

Sojo attributed the net drop in migration to tough economic conditions abroad motivating Mexicans to stay at home, rather than Mexicans in other countries returning to their homeland.

"There is declining tendency of people going abroad, but we have not detected, up to now, any increase in people returning to the country," Sojo said.

More and more evidence is emerging about this. In addition, as we know from the past, if you do keep building a wall, you create an even greater incentive for undocumented immigrants not to leave the United States once they're here.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's newsworthy these day

Just an anecdotal account of how U.S.-Latin American relations had deteriorated: it is now newsworthy if the U.S. government admits that an election in Venezuela might actually be conducted in a free and fair manner. In fact, the article is more concerned with the State Department announcement than with the election itself.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Constitution-making in Latin America

Joshua Partlow at the Washington Post has a great article about the role of a team of Spanish legal scholars in drafting the the constitutions of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. One in particular, Roberto Viciano Pastor, is especially influential. They were influential enough, for example, that although Hugo Chávez initially wanted a bicameral legislature, they convinced him to go with unicameral.

I would love to see an article like this be expanded into a book. Constitution-writing is a black box, and it would be fascinating to know in more detail how it works. Obviously, the vast majority of the participants have no experience, so they need assistance. How are advisors selected? What do they do? How are the drafts worked out? This is particularly relevant with these constitutions, because they are so long and detailed. Interestingly, Viciano was publicly critical of the decision in Bolivia to accept some of the opposition's demands for revision:

"This is what those who call themselves revolutionary sometimes don't understand: In the revolution, you can't always reach consensus," Viciano said. "You either have revolution or you don't. But you can't force consensus."

Indeed, another question the article raises is what a constitution should actually do. For example, should it guarantee rights (let's say, health care) that the state simply cannot provide? There is a lot of fertile research ground for understanding the effects of a constitution on a population. Does its symbolic importance (such as empowerment) outweigh concerns about whether it can ever be fulfilled?


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More on the Chilean presidential race

It's been a long time since I posted on the Chilean presidential race. Back in August, Sebastián Piñera was viewed by a clear majority as the most likely person to be the next president. Since then, however, the race has gradually clarified as precandidates (most notably Rciardo Lagos) announced they would not run. Former president Eduardo Frei has become the Concertación front runner (the Concertación primary will be in April).

In polls taken both in December and January by Imaginaccion, the two are neck and neck, with about 12% unsure or undecided. A different poll by TNS-Times has Frei 8 point down, 46-48%. That tightens to 5 points when only registered voters are counted.

Ten more months to go, of course, but I think it's interesting that even in this time of economic crisis the Alianza still cannot land a knockout blow.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Chávez wins handily

Hugo Chávez won the referendum to amend the constitution, 54-46%. Despite being someone who is constantly criticized as dictatorial, Chávez is uniquely hyperactive in his pursuit of elections. Along those lines, Shannon O'Neil has a good discussion about how, precisely because Chávez seeks affirmation via elections, the economy will be his most pressing challenge to ensure re-election in 2012. This vote obviously gives him a boost, but he'll have to be creative to keep everything going in the face of dropping oil prices.

However, to that I would add that the opposition deserves more analytical scrutiny, given that Chávez has been in power a decade but it remains fragmented and incoherent. This time around, it seemed mostly to find some students and try to make them seem different from the remnants of the old broken party system. For 2012 (or for the 2010 legislative elections) it is not just a matter of Chávez and his policies, but also whether the opposition can convince anyone that it is a better alternative.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Venezuelan referendum

No more time for expulsions of diplomats or foreign politicians, or coup rumors, or empire taunting, or lots of one-sided news coverage (either one way or the other), or fear-inspiring ads, or more polls (which are tight). In fact, there wasn't even time for Valentine's Day. Now it's just time to vote.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

UNC Charlotte Homecoming 5K

As always, we ran the UNC Charlotte Homecoming 5K, a race on campus I always love doing. This year was even more special because it was my son's very first 5K. He walked/jogged and was the youngest participant (he turns 7 in a few days). As for me, it seems that for a variety of reasons, the more kids I've had, the slower I've gotten (especially when they have to be pushed).


Friday, February 13, 2009

Obama and immigration

Stephanie Valencia at Obama's Office of Public Liaison has a guest post on the White House blog about Latinos. It includes the following:

There was discussion about how to keep Latino youth in school, through high school and on to college, as well as about the broken immigration system and the immigration raids that tear families apart. Heather celebrated the recent victory on the SCHIP reauthorization – after many years of advocacy, legal immigrant children will now be covered – and highlighted the ways we can work in partnership on these key issues and more.

There have been other signals from the administration about ending or least drastically cutting workplace raids. We're still waiting to see what Obama's plan for immigration reform will look like, or even when it will be proposed.


Face time with Fidel

Michelle Bachelet scored a meeting with Fidel Castro. This alone isn't particularly interesting, but the end of the article mentioned that neither Rafael Correa nor Martín Torrijos got to see him in person. Cristina Fernández saw him, though apparently there are rumors in Argentina that the photo is a fake. So who gets a golden ticket?

It's also worth noting that she has come under criticism for not meeting with anyone in the opposition, a particularly poignant issue because she was detained, tortured, and then kicked out of her own country, and her own father died because of his opposition to the dictatorship.

Oh, and by the way, it appears that Fidel remains not dead.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy released a report ("Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift") outlining their recommendations about the "drug war." Here is the web site, but unfortunately right now the link to the report does not work.

However, press reports (e.g. the WSJ) provide the gist, namely that the supply emphasis is not working and that drug use is not decreasing. Further, it opens up the idea of decriminalization, at least of marijuana.

The potential importance and influence of this report and its ideas stems from the authors. The commission was headed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo, and César Gaviria. They are people the U.S. government gets along with and takes seriously. Having Latin American leaders from the center-right given even more weight to the argument.

Further, this is a regional response. It would have been even better to include a president from Central America to make the symbolic point. The overall point, though, is that regional consensus is quite strong and now is transcending ideological divides, since the left has been saying these sorts of things for a long time.

Obviously, this doesn't necessarily translate into any change in U.S. policy. But at the very least it is a more unified response than usual, and will be hard to ignore.

“It makes no sense to continue a policy on moral grounds without getting the desired results,” said Gaviria, citing an October report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showing drug reduction goals in Colombia have not been met. “Obama, being a pragmatist, should recognize these failures.”


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The vagaries of leftness

Michelle Bachelet is visiting Cuba, the first Chilean president to do so since Salvador Allende. Now, I thought she was part of the "good" or "moderate" left, but does going to Cuba make you part of the "bad" left? Maybe you're good when you sign free trade agreements, but then you can be bad for a while, then become good again. Or it's like certain baseball records--maybe Bachelet is good left*.


Undocumented immigrants are leaving, except they're not

What do you do with an article like this on CNN? They find one guy who is leaving, then cite a load of statistics and a scholar who says people are not leaving. Yet the headline is "Bad Economy Forcing Immigrants to Reconsider U.S."

Pablo is an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who came to the United States to support his wife and five sons back home. When he arrived, construction jobs were plentiful. Over the last year, he says, he's worked three days.

And then:

For some immigrants, the experts say, the reasons for toughing out the U.S. economic recession outweigh the reasons for leaving, including:
• One or two days of work per month at $8 an hour is often better than what they can make back home;
• Tougher border enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border has made it harder for them to return once they leave;
• Smuggling costs to get into the United States from Mexico have skyrocketed from about $1,500 three years ago to about $6,000 today.

"I'm not convinced it's a tidal wave of exodus," Valenzuela said. "There really is a fear mentality [of leaving], and as a result many immigrants are buckling down -- that is they're hiding or living in the shadows of our law. So they think more than twice about whether or not they want to go back to their country of origin, because they know very well that it's going to be extremely difficult and very expensive to come back if they want to pursue their dream."

To repeat, there is no exodus.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The U.S., Russia and Latin America

Joe Biden's "reset button" comment with regard to Russia may well have implications for Latin America, since the high profile Russian presence in the region was a clear reaction to U.S. policies in what Russia considers its own sphere of influence.

As the article points out, Obama has not changed policy toward Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, nor about the Russia-Georgia conflict more generally. However, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that we will not hear about the missile shield anymore.

That may well be enough for Russia, which would continue trading (e.g. weapons) with Latin America but leave it at that. This is also more likely because Russia cannot afford to keep sending ships that far.


Back wages six decades later

The legal system may be slow, but sometimes it works.

After years of political pressure and legal wrangling, a court settlement reached Friday allows Mexican laborers brought in to stem World War II-era labor shortages to collect on pension funds they earned decades ago.

The class-action suit brought on behalf of the workers was settled in a federal court in San Francisco. It will allow thousands of graying former guest workers who manned U.S. farms and railyards to collect earnings withheld from their paychecks and sent to Mexican banks under an agreement between both countries. The money was supposed to serve as an incentive for the workers to return home.

One notable aspect about this case is how the U.S. and Mexico cooperated.

Some 6,100 former braceros, or their family members, will be able to collect about $3,500 each in lost wages from the Mexican government, said Chicago-based attorney Josh Karsh, whose firm filed the suit against the Mexican government and Mexican banks.

Not much money, and it is 60 years late. But at least some action.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Expulsion: it's all the rage

Rafael Correa announced the expulsion of a U.S. official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying that he suspended $340,000 in aid because Ecuador would not grant the U.S. veto power over Ecuador's anti-smuggling police. Correa says he has a letter the official wrote to that effect.

What's odd, however, is that the official has been out of Ecuador for a month. So Correa's dramatic "give this man 48 hours to get his suitcases and get out of the country" doesn't make much sense.

If there's an incriminating letter, then Obama should act quickly and smooth it over. In general, Correa has been far less histrionic than either Hugo Chávez or Evo Morales, so despite the "I am going to eject someone while on my national radio show" drama it would not surprise me if there is something to this. How much remains to be seen.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Is Obama copying Castro and Chávez?

With regard to writing columns, that is. First it was Fidel Castro, then recently Hugo Chávez also started writing. Now Obama has a column in the Washington Post arguing for passage of the stimulus package. His style is a lot different, though. In particular, I think he should use more exclamation marks.

h/t King Politics


Friday, February 06, 2009

The documentary Made in L.A.

The good folks at California Newsreel were kind enough to send me a copy of the documentary Made in L.A. Here is the official web site, where you can see all sorts of background info (including numerous awards it has won). You can also buy it at the California Newsreel site. It is an excellent movie.

It documents the efforts of Latina garment workers in Los Angeles to fight for legal working conditions, focusing specifically on clothes made for the retailer Forever 21. They organize with the help of the Garment Worker Center in L.A. As one woman noted as she held up a shirt, the retail price was $13 and she made 19 cents for it. For over three years, they deal with the slow court system in California until they manage to get a settlement (the details of which remain confidential, but there were clear signs of improvement).

There were two things that really stood out for me. One is that the "Made in America" mantra requires deeper reflection. About 95% of Forever 21's clothes are made in the United States, but were (hopefully it is entirely past tense) under sweatshop conditions that treated workers like dirt. We all like to assume that such conditions are found elsewhere, not here. That something was made in America does not guarantee anything.

The other really poignant element is how the film is bittersweet. On the one hand, it is really a triumph. A few women (later, it seems, also joined by men though they did not play a role in the documentary) took on big business and through legal channels forced that business to pay heed. You see pretty amazing courage and sacrifice. You also see a legal system that can rule against the rich and powerful. On the other hand, it was long and exhausting, difficult to keep everyone united, there were arguments, and many feared it was futile. In addition, as Lupe, one of the most vocal organizers, put it, "ignorance somehow protects you." Knowing how the entire process works can make it seem even more difficult to start again with some other company and other workers. In fact, she begins to view the entire problem in global terms (traveling to Hong Kong to join protests) which in a way is even more daunting.


Thursday, February 05, 2009

Congressional hearing on U.S.-Latin American relations

There was a hearing on Latin America in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. The full transcript is not yet out, but you can see the text of the testimonies here. There is quite a bit of "Chávez boogeyman" stuff and way too much "good govt vs. bad govt" stuff, but there is also consensus that Obama needs to work more closely with Brazil. A notable exception to the "good vs. bad" frame is Cynthia McClintock, whose recommendations I very much like (for example, accept that the drug war has been a failure).

It was interesting, however, to see Chairman Eliot Engel's statement on Ecuador and Paraguay, arguing that they had governments interested in engagement. In fact, he went so far as to criticize the Bush administration for reaching out only to Uribe and not to Correa during the bombing crisis. That was in nice counterpoint to Connie Mack, who said that Correa was "destroying freedom."


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Immigrant arrest quotas

There are allegations that the Border Patrol in Riverside forced arrest quotas on agents, with punishment for failing to reach the goals. You knew this had to be coming at some point, as it is an old and familiar story. To prove "victory" or at least "progress," you need a body count--something to put in a report for the media, Congress, whomever.

As it turns out, however, there are already informal quotas:

Calhoon said the agency does use goals to inspire agents, for example, by driving units to compete against each other, and often the measuring stick turns out to be number of arrests. But he said setting numeric targets was not common practice — nor one he would recommend.

So agents are already rewarded for body count. If somebody looks Hispanic or is speaking Spanish, round them up. Even if they're in the country legally, you get credit for an arrest.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Bolivarian News Agency needs a new translator

Hugo Chávez's latest column is funny if you read it in English:

The national sham of the red machinery started early this Saturday, last day of January.


This sham reminds me my days as a private in ranks...


Ok. Let’s set memories aside… reports are still arriving from the electoral sham of the plains, the east, the Andes, Zulia and the Central valleys.

The Spanish word is "simulacro," and so I think they mean "maneuvers."


Monday, February 02, 2009

What's up with Paraguay and Mercosur?

I periodically get hits from people looking around for info on Venezuela and Mercosur, which gave me the idea to provide an update (of sorts). Venezuela's entry has been awaiting approval from the upper houses of Brazil and Paraguay since June 2006. Lula recently announced that the Brazilian Senate would vote in favor by March.

So what's going on in Paraguay? I assume President Lugo is in favor, but the Colorado Party (which I assume is opposed) has 16 of the 45 senate seats, which means it needs only 7 more votes to block approval.*

That's a lot of assuming, though, and you know what they say about that. Anyone know differently/more?

I am surprised that there isn't more about this, since full Mercosur membership would be important for Venezuela and would have regional implications.

* Article 189 of the constitution gives former presidents (of which there are two) a lifetime seat, but no vote. You learn something new every day.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mexico's military in Tijuana

Sandra Dibble at the San Diego Union-Tribune has a very interesting piece on the Mexican military's law enforcement role in Tijuana, which is getting hammered by drug cartel-related violence. There have been a number of problems, most of which seem to be connected to the fact that the armed forces are simply not used to local law enforcement--they don't know how to deal with people properly (so conduct illegal searches), don't know how to protect a crime scene, etc.

In general, employing the military to do law enforcement is a bad idea. It encourages mission creep and stunts the development of civilian institutions.

However, when cities are under attack and local police are ineffective and/or corrupt, I wish I had a better answer. A recent poll showed 92% approval in Tijuana for the presence of soldiers on the streets. At the very least, it is occurring at a time when Mexico political system is liberalizing, so there should be considerable public scrutiny.


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