Monday, December 31, 2018

Most Popular Posts of 2018

Below are the five posts from 2018 that got the most hits.

1. My free Latin American Politics textbook

I'm very pleased by this. I want as many eyes on it as I can get. Hey, it's free!


This story resonated well beyond people who normally read blogs. 


Not sure why this one got so many hits. It's about how China actually made more truthful statements about Rex Tillerson. Remember him?

This is my review of a book a former student and a colleague of mine in Spanish co-edited. I'm glad so many people have seen it.


This was a great discussion I had with Geoff Ramsey back in February about all the possible avenues for political change in Venezuela.


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Sunday, December 30, 2018

My Favorite Books of 2018

Book reviews often get a lot more hits than regular posts, so I thought I would list what I thought was the best of 2018.

Fiction: 

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Here was my review. Very cool political novel in the Fantasy/Sci Fi genre. I just ordered the sequel.

--Honorable mention: I was introduced to the Vorkosigan sci fi novels written by Lois McMaster Bujold. I am thoroughly addicted and read six of them this year. Witty and smart books. Miles Vorkosigan is such a great character.

Academic Non-Fiction:

Lars Schoultz, In Their Own Best Interest: A History of the U.S. Effort to Improve Latin Americans. Here is my review. I am a sucker for a well-told and deeply researched analysis of U.S.-Latin American relations, a topic that has fascinated me now for 25+ years.

Popular Non-Fiction:

Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Here is my review. Great memoir. It is a reminder that higher education serves a real purpose beyond just getting people jobs. Even outside the classroom, universities and colleges bring young people together in ways they often have never experienced before. That is also a reminder of one disadvantage of online learning.

Movie:

I don't review movies on the blog (in large part because I see so few) but I want to plug They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary of World War I by Peter Jackson. Over years he restored, slowed down, and colorized old BBC film reels, then used original oral histories of veterans taken in the 1960s and 1970s. It humanizes that war, which we know through speedy, jerky black and white film. These were young boys and you can see the fear on their faces, the horrors of everyday living, and the terror of war. Two hours go by in a blink. Make sure to stay after for the post-credits part about how they made the film.

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Protect American Taxpayers and Secure Border Act

Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-TX) introduced a bill demonstrating that the Democratic Party is already doing a poor job of addressing immigration. It is called the “Protect American Taxpayers and Secure Border Act” and it stipulates that a wall must be paid for by Mexico. Here is the entire text:

To prohibit taxpayer funds from being used to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, and for other purposes. 
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, 
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE. 
This Act may be cited as the “Protect American Taxpayers and Secure Border Act”.
SEC. 2. PROHIBITIONS AND REQUIREMENTS RELATING TO BORDER SECURITY. 
(a) In General.—No taxpayer funds may be obligated or expended to build a wall or barrier intended to impede travel between Mexico and the United States. 
(b) Foreign Payment Required.—Any wall or barrier described in subsection (a) that is proposed to be built shall be paid for using funds provided by the Government of Mexico. 
(c) Securing The Southern Border.—The Secretary of Homeland Security shall take such actions as may be necessary to secure the southern border by making maximum effective utilization of technology and improved training of U.S. Custom and Border Protection agents and officers. 
(d) Increase In Immigration Judges.—The Attorney General may appoint 100 additional immigration judges in addition to immigration judges currently serving as of the date of the enactment of this Act. 
(e) Humanitarian Assistance.—The Secretary of Homeland Security shall take such actions as may be necessary to ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided to immigrants, refugees, and other displaced persons who are in need of medical assistance and aid to sustain health and life.

Given Rep. Jackson's views on immigration, I take this as well-intentioned. But it is terrible. We need to stop with the nonsense about Mexico paying. It's not just that U.S. taxpayers shouldn't pay for such a useless thing. No one should. It is insulting, damages bilateral relations, and serves no purpose. It defies common sense.

Perhaps this is just a ruse. We know Mexico won't actually pay, but we'll throw a bone to the worst xenophobes by pretending we will make them pay. I hope it is not this cynical and that xenophobic views do not get recognition at all beyond curt, simple rejection.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Immigration Message

I've been looking back at old posts, seeing how I viewed things a decade or more ago. I wrote a good amount about the xenophobic push to build a wall, how it was based on falsehoods, and how unlikely it was. I can see how it never occurred to me at all how that view (which is still minority) could hold power. Check out this post from almost exactly 11 years ago.

I mocked Mike Huckabee for his ridiculous views, and now his daughter is peddling the same sort of falsehoods on behalf of the President of the United States. From 11 years ago until today, we have regressed in so many ways. What I considered a foot in the mouth (you can't be anti-immigrant in a general presidential campaign, amiright?) is now considered a winning electoral message.

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Comparing AMLO and Bolsonaro

I am quoted in this BBC article by Daniel Pardo and he did a YouTube video as well. He compares AMLO and Jair Bolsonaro. I was hesitant about comparing too much, as there are also many differences, but the messianic tendencies are definitely there (interestingly, Boz was also just writing about hesitating about comparing Mexico and Brazil too much).

At present both get a lot of criticism about potentially damaging democracy because of personalist and authoritarian leanings, albeit in different ways. With AMLO it's more about centralizing power whereas with Bolsonaro that is also there but it's even more about finding scapegoats and limiting rights. Bolsonaro has a hate that AMLO lacks.

With both, we wait. Beyond Venezuela, perhaps the biggest stories of 2019 will be about what effect the two presidents have on democracy in their respective countries, both of which could really use a dose of democratic legitimacy.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Even Criminals Emigrate From Venezuela?

The murder rate in Venezuela has apparently dropped.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV) said in its annual report that Venezuela still had the world’s highest murder rate, 81.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, but it noted that figure was down from 89 in 2017 and 92 the year before. Director Roberto Briceño attributed the drop in part to migration. 
“The majority of the Venezuelans who emigrate are honest people who have been forced to look for work elsewhere, but many criminals are among them,” he told reporters, citing press reports on crimes in other South American countries.
Their website does not seem to have the report up, so I don't know what evidence they present, but I feel skeptical. This is an argument I do not think I have ever heard. Gangs thrive in places like Venezuela, so why would they leave? Even if some did leave, we would expect other gangs to fill the vacuum.

Two other possibilities merit thinking about.

First, this is just a blip. The data is going to be messy in the first place and will involve estimations because the government does not want anyone to know how bad things are. How big an actual difference is there between 81.4 and 89 per 100,000 given the error involved?

Second, it could be a change of tactic versus emigration. For whatever reason, gangs have chosen to use methods other than murder to get what they want. The report hints at this:
The number of robberies of farmers and food distribution trucks increased in 2018, according to the report, a sign of growing desperation and hunger as inflation topped 1 million percent. 
Maybe attacking food distribution trucks requires less killing than other kinds of crimes.

The answer matters. Xenophobes in other countries are looking for reasons to block Venezuelan migrants. A report like this gives them ammunition. You cannot make such arguments lightly or you can give a real and very negative impact on people's lives.

Update (12/30/18) The Venezuelan government says it is all lies. Violence in Venezuela is down across the board. To say otherwise is to be a pawn of the fascist right, the United States, the Colombian mafia, and all other enemies of the glorious revolution!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Lawrence Osborne's Only To Sleep

In the spirit of reading updates of old classic characters (see my review of the latest Bond novel from a few days ago) I read Lawrence Osborne's Only To Sleep, a new Philip Marlowe novel. I like the idea of having old characters come back. Why not? The originals are there and wonderful, unsullied by it. I read Raymond Chandler in huge gulps in my early 20s.

Only To Sleep takes place mostly in Mexico, around resort towns in Baja but Marlowe does a lot of driving. Osborne was a reporter in Mexico in the early 1990s and captures the scenes beautifully. He clearly loves the place, and has an eye for detail. I also enjoyed the San Diego and environs references, including Julian, a small mountain town northeast of San Diego that deserves attention.  I don't believe I've ever seen it mentioned in a novel.

It's a first rate story, good mystery with a pace. Marlowe is retired in Mexico and is hired to look into possible insurance fraud. An older man with a young wife died in Mexico with a sizeable life insurance policy. The company likes Marlowe because he is fluent in Spanish and old enough to be inconspicuous. The twists keep coming.

Unlike the Bond novels, it moves forward so it is 1988 and Marlowe is 72 and feeling it. I found it is discordant to hear Philip Marlowe refer to Guns N' Roses and Tina Turner. I found it discordant that Marlowe was quite physically weak and walked with a cane, even if it was one with a sharp Japanese knife inside it. In short, it was a good hard-boiled novel but completely disconnected with the Marlowe I knew. It's like a different person entirely.

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The Guyana Dispute and Petrocaribe's Demise

Old boundary disputes have new life breathed into them when it becomes clear there are valuable natural resources to be had. That's what we're seeing with the Guyana-Venezuela dispute over oil in territorial waters, which the U.S. is involved in because of Exxon. Chile and Peru brought a similar dispute to the International Court of Justice for fishing rights. (Here is the U.S. statement).

Guyana is working in close partnership with the United States, a reminder that oil diplomacy doesn't take you very far. Guyana is part of Petrocaribe, Hugo Chávez's effort to bring more countries into his fold.

On Monday, the Caricom group of 15 Caribbean nations including Guyana - many of which have historically received subsidized oil from Venezuela under Caracas’ Petrocaribe program - said it viewed the “interception” by Venezuela’s navy “with grave concern.” 
“Such acts violate the sovereign rights of Guyana under international law,” the group said in a statement.
The arrangement had already been sputtering because Venezuela could not provide the agreed upon amount of oil. Oil diplomacy works only as long as the cheap oil keeps flowing. Countries will act in their own best interest. This isn't about ideology. Economic self-interest wins out.

Update: amazingly, the Guyana dispute is one of the rare things that unites Venezuelans regardless of ideology.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Julie Lythcott-Haims Real American

I read Julie Lythcott-Haims' Real American: A Memoir. I found her story about being biracial compelling and heartfelt, not to mention highly readable. Growing up she felt neither comfortably White nor Black, but experienced racism (both micro and larger) at the same time she enjoyed privilege because of her socio-economic status (her father, who was Black, was a successful doctor who traveled the world).

She tells her story in snippets, snapshots of her memories growing up and then more recently. It might sound disjointed but the style works well as she reveals how confused she was, how people reacted to her, and how her own thinking evolved. People's reactions would change just by how she did her hair: if she had it in braids from a Black salon, people shied away from her. She felt self-loathing for many years and only gradually embraced being Black, which in turn leads to discussion about anger, frustration, and Black Lives Matter.

She moved from corporate lawyer to high-level administrative positions at Stanford working with undergraduates, which suited her better because it involved making people feel welcomed and supported. (Here is her website).

For those of us who enjoy just about every category of privilege by sheer chance of birth, it is a reminder of what other people deal with that we don't, and the ways in which our own casual words can hurt deeply, things we need to be mindful of (she has many such examples, even from people she knows well).

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Anthony Horowitz's Forever and a Day

For me, winter break is about relaxing with fun fiction. Last year I read Anthony Horowitz's Magpie Murders, which was great, and then I saw he had another mystery this year but also a James Bond novel, Forever and a Day. I had not read a Bond novel since my teens when I had a read most of them, along with pulp Nick Carter spy novels from a local used bookstore (where they were literally 35 cents). I couldn't resist.

Horowitz does an excellent job. Bond has feelings, is assertive but without the annoying misogyny apparent in the novels of the era, and as a prequel you learn some of his background (e.g. why shaken but not stirred?). The CIA plays a bit of a role and the effects of world wars are important to the narrative, but there is no Russian involvement, which disappointed me. I wanted to see some more of that Cold War intrigue. The story is about heroin trafficking in the south of France and Corsican gangsters, plus an empty cruise ship. There are plenty of "oh, really?" moments but no spy novel would be complete without them.  It even has the outsized (literally, in girth) villain in Scipio that you usually get with Bond. .If you like Bond (without being some sort of purist, I suppose) and the genre, it's worth your time.

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Saturday, December 22, 2018

Trump and Cuban Baseball

The trafficking of Cuban baseball players is a criminal, abusive, miserable, and degrading practice. Many in the Trump administration want it to stay that way. Major League Baseball negotiated an agreement with the Cuban government to regularize it.
Under the plan, the Cuban baseball federation would release players to M.L.B. in return for a percentage of their contracts, an approach similar to the posting system used by Japanese and South Korean teams. The purpose of the agreement is to end the human trafficking of Cuban players to the United States and Canada.
You should be able to see the problem. The Cuban government will start making a profit, paid directly from MLB.*
On Wednesday, a White House statement criticized baseball’s agreement with Cuba, saying the administration would continue to restrict Cuba’s ability to profit from American businesses.
I can't find the statement itself (which does not seem to be on the White House statement page) but this was to be expected. MLB's stance will be that it was negotiating the deal at the time the administration changed rules regarding Cuba, and that Trump grandfathered those existing relationships. Trump will be pressed hard, very hard, by his hardline advisers, not to mention Marco Rubio, who does not like it.

Trump has courted the Cuban hardliners, to the point of seeming to consider them part of the base. His first inclination will be to block this. Offhand I can't actually think of any reason he would let it go through. If he's distracted, maybe? Or perhaps a billionaire friend has his ear. Politically he has every reason to block it.

*On the ownership of Cuban teams and how it all fits with Trump-era restrictions, check out this really interesting post by a lawyer from last year.

One of the primary changes signaled by the presidential memorandum is its prohibition on any transactions with the Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA, or GAESA. Through this company, the military regime under Castro built an investment network that controls major aspects of the Cuban tourism industry, particularly hotels. 
This clearly restricts Cuba tourism and may also complicate the proposal made by MLB to the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the spring of 2016. MLB proposed lifting the ban on signing of Cuban players and paying compensation to a newly-created organization devoted to Cuban youth baseball development instead of to the government-owned Cuban teams themselves. 
The trouble is that GAESA has been described as “una especie de muñeca rusa” – a sort of Russian doll, each thing hiding something else inside that no one knows about. According to the Miami Herald, GAESA controls about 60 percent of the Cuban economy. With such an extended web of ownership involving GAESA in Cuba, it may be difficult to verify that GAESA holds no ownership interest in whatever entity MLB proposes to pay in exchange for Cuban ballplayers. Without such assurances, OFAC is highly unlikely to entertain MLB’s proposal.
Update (12/29/18): yep, the administration intends to nix the deal.

The administration did not respond to specific questions about plans to scuttle the deal, but officials have been clear they feel the agreement would “institutionalize a system by which a Cuban body garnishes the wages of hard-working athletes who simply seek to live and compete in a free society.” 
“Parties seeking to benefit from business opportunities in Cuba are on notice that the administration will continue to take actions to support human rights and restrict the Cuban regime’s ability to profit from U.S. business,” a senior administration official said.
MLB claimed it had been talking to supportive officials in the White House and State Department. Are they clueless? The State Department doesn't matter and the only people that matter in the White House are the hard-liners, who are the line to the base. This is not a situation where Jared Kushner will step in and solve the problem.

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Trump's Remain in Mexico Policy

Jonathan Blitzer at The New Yorker takes a look at the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy, whereby asylum seekers would have to stay in Mexico as they waited to hear about their asylum case, which could be years. In particular, he interviews Mexican officials and former U.S. officials, both of whom say it is unworkable.

First, migrants will enter the United States illegally anyway, particularly because staying in Mexico is not doable for economic and/or crime reasons. Central American migrants are targeted in Mexico.

Second, Trump might counter that a wall would prevent all those people from crossing illegally. That is a pipe dream but even if served as some level of deterrent it would result in instability in Mexican border cities, which would then disrupt the economies of their U.S. counterparts. "Remain in Mexico" really means "Remain in Border Cities." Many in Tijuana are already unhappy.

Third, U.S.-Mexican relations will become more strained unnecessarily. From the narrow perspective of U.S. interests, this has the potential for souring other areas, such as counternarcotics. This is even more problematic if AMLO starts to feel cornered.

There is nothing good about this policy.

Update: AMLO is going to help, at least temporarily. This is a risky move for him.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Brazil and Cuban Doctors

For years, the Cuban government has sent doctors abroad in order to generate revenue, sometimes in exchange for oil. Jair Bolsonaro ended the practice, saying the Cubans were slave labor. This is not inaccurate. But I had not appreciated the scope.

While Brazil said last month it had filled more than 90% of the vacancies, 2,439 out of 8,411 new recruits had failed to report to their work locations by a Tuesday deadline, a health ministry spokeswoman said. The positions will be opened up for new applications on 20 and 21 December, she said.
8,000 doctors! This is awful both for humanitarian and public policy reasons. The humanitarian is that so many Cuban doctors were forced to leave their homes and live in an unfamiliar country (though there is an obvious humanitarian positive for the work they are doing, irrespective of their own situation).

But the policy implications are immense. The Brazilian government chose to rely on thousands of Cuban doctors rather than investing in educating its own. There is a shortage because Cuba became a crutch, a way to cut corners and ignore reality. Then if you end it, you had better have a plan in motion to start filling those positions. It might take years.

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Thursday, December 20, 2018

FAIR in Venezuela

An argument in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) about Venezuela would be well served to provide more fairness and accuracy. The main argument is that there are a lot trumped up (pun not originally intended but I'll just leave it) criticisms of Venezuelan economic policy that ignore the driving force of U.S. sanctions. Venezuelan economic history is, as you might imagine, not included.

But this is the paragraph that really made me cringe:

The contradictions and absurdity of the opposition’s discourse, including the moderate faction, beggar belief. One shudders to think what would become of such opposition figures in Paris or Washington, but you will be shielded from such considerations reading Western media—and from understanding why Maduro easily prevailed in the 2018 election, despite an economic depression.
You cannot find any credible source to suggest the 2018 elections passed any basic tests of democratic electoral processes. He "easily prevailed" for authoritarian reasons. The author also does not believe Venezuela should be called a dictatorship, with this curious logic:
In fact, basic democratic freedoms in Venezuela remain at a level the US government would never tolerate were it faced with similar circumstances: a major economic crisis deliberately worsened by a foreign power that openly backs the most violent elements of the opposition. 
There is only counterfactual without actual facts and completely sidesteps what freedoms have been denied Venezuelans.

Let's debate the merits of sanctions (no need to debate invasion, which is a horrible idea) and their impact on the Venezuelan economy. But do not use those as a way to avoid both fairness and accuracy to whitewash political reality.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Podcast Episode 61: Exiting Gangs in El Salvador

In Episode 61 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Jonathan Rosen,

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Holy Family University. He does research on drug trafficking and also gangs in Latin America, especially Central America. Notably, he’s gone into prisons in El Salvador to do interviews. We discuss his new article, ““Rethinking the Mechanisms of Gang Desistance in a Developing Country,” which is based on a survey of nearly 1,200 gang members and 24 in depth interviews. Super interesting conversation.

Here is the link to the article: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01639625.2018.1519130

If you do not have access to that journal, I encourage you to contact Jonathan directly, as he can give you the PDF. His info is here: https://holyfamily.academia.edu/JonathanRosen/CurriculumVitae

In the episode I mention my Open Access textbook Understanding Latin American Politics. You can find it here: https://omp.uncc.edu/library/catalog/book/7

You can find this podcast at iTunes, Spotify, and anywhere else podcasts can be found. If there is anything I've missed, please contact me.


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Ideology in Latin America

A journalist at Bloomberg tries to make sense of the continued demand for a state presence even for conservative presidents in Latin America: voting right while leaning left. The premise, however, is wrong, and the reason lies with a comment by Guillermo Holzmann, a well-known Chilean political scientist.

“This government is not in power because of the Right or the Left—these are 20th century concepts—but because they appealed to the frustrations and the expectations of the small portion of voters that decide elections.”
This is right on the money. I've written plenty of times about how we need to stay focused on the pragmatic nature of the Latin American voter. They aren't voting in the "right." They are voting in governments to deal with problems in new ways. That often includes state spending. This isn't the 1980s anymore, when governments ran amok with dismantling the state.

But another point merits mention. The author assumes that protectionism is a leftist policy but the right has used it too, albeit less often. Protectionism was the essence of import substitution industrialization: Brazil pursued it in the middle of the 20th century, partially under authoritarian ("right") governments. The Bolivian military right imposed tariffs that later the civilian right would later cut. Now we see Donald Trump, who is far right in just about every sense, but who puts tariffs at the top of his economic priorities.

So it's better not to talk of left-right waves because that presupposes predictable policy positions that do not exist in practice. Voters want solutions and they do not fit neatly into pre-made ideological packages. Politicians that don't heed that get voted out or, at the extreme, have to use authoritarian measures to stay in power.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Unemployment in Latin America

The International Labour Organization estimates that unemployment across Latin America fell from 8.1% to 7.8% from 2017 to 2018. Given the error involved in making these estimations, that does not really constitute a change at all. Further, regional rates are tough to draw conclusions from. They see some general trends, like high youth unemployment (19.6%) which is indeed a problem. But the real meat is the data on individual countries. The report has tons of that. Below is one of the better snapshots.


You will likely notice almost immediately that Venezuela is missing. From a regional standpoint this is actually preferably because Venezuela always skews things given what an outlier it is. The Venezuelan government stopped reporting unemployment over two years ago, just as it did with inflation, because it just makes the government look so bad.

Another problem is Guatemala, which is at 2.8%, not to mention Mexico at 3.3%. To be fair, the report does discuss the informal economy in some detail (it hovers around 50%), but unfortunately what the media picks up is the supposed drop in unemployment, which is misleading.

What we can conclude is that the region is mostly the same as last year, Brazil is worse off than most, and Venezuela is a total disaster. Further, governments have barely made a dent in the informal economy. In other words, there are jobs but they don't pay well and they don't allow enough for basic living, much less saving.

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Who Is To Blame For The Cuban Economy?

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel reported on the sluggish economy in ways that you don't typically hear.

Commenting on deficiencies noted in execution of the 2018 Plan, he acknowledged that many are due to the complex economic situation we face, which is related to problems accumulated on the structural order, of operations, as well as those of our own making that we must resolve. Nor can the impact of the blockade be underestimated, he said, which has worsened under the Trump administration, especially financial persecution internationally. 
The embargo is secondary, which I don't believe I've ever heard before. Here is Raúl Castro in a 2015 speech at the UN.
However, the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba persists bringing damages and hardships on the Cuban people, and standing as the main obstacle to our country’s economic development, while affecting other nations due to its extraterritorial scope, and hurting the interests of American citizens and companies. 
That is a long-standing line.

So for Díaz-Canel, what or who is to blame if not the embargo? Bureaucrats!
The 2019 Plan, he said, is realistic, "but it's the least we can do. And if we implement it well, we have the potential to do more. But if there are bureaucrats, if there are people who delay making decisions, to export, to collect; if there are people who do not have the sensibility that the circumstances demand, then the plan is paralyzed.”
This is interesting because Díaz-Canel himself was, well, a bureaucrat. His career is serving on Communist Party committees. It also echoes what Fidel Castro himself believed. This is from 1965:
"Bureaucracy is a vice which threatens socialist revolutions as well as it threatens capitalists. But the socialist revolutions must know how to take measures to prevent this evil from becoming enthroned and causing all the damage it is capable of."
The embargo obviously hurts the Cuban economy badly. There can be no argument there. But this is a big step away from leaning on the embargo as a crutch to avoid self-reflection, which Raúl was doing to a degree with all his efforts at economic reform.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Joe Biden's Take on Latin America

Joe Biden has an op-ed in Americas Quarterly about the erosion of U.S. leadership in Latin America. I can quibble with his argument (e.g. excessive focus on the "geopolitical rivals" thing and how virtuous we are is not the best way to think about China and Russia) but there are a lot of good points. Terrible immigration policy is a problem. Antagonizing allies makes no sense. Undermining CICIG is a major policy failure. I also agree with this assessment about Venezuela:

Yet, even sensible efforts by this administration to exert pressure on Maduro and Ortega have been undermined by politicization, faulty execution and clunky sloganeering. Stronger diplomatic efforts and intensified sanctions on Venezuela have been clouded by saber-rattling and misguided efforts to engage with coup plotters. Similar responses to the civil unrest and state repression earlier this year in Nicaragua produced little in the way of results as that country settles into an intolerable “new normal.” This administration has demonstrated its willingness to capitalize politically on crises, but actions like its continued deportation of Venezuelans and the attempted revocation of “temporary protected status” for Nicaraguans demonstrate little concern for the Venezuelan or Nicaraguan people.
The Trump administration has been committing lots of own goals that were all preventable. Regional "leadership" is a vague term but at a minimum it should mean genuine desire to make people's lives better. The U.S. has not always been good at this, or at least its vision has been twisted. But with the Trump administration it seems absent.

Incidentally, it appears to be a coincidence but Biden published this op-ed on the same day four years ago that the Obama administration announced its major changes in Cuba policy. So much has changed since then.

Boz also took a look at it.

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US Wants Latin America to Prioritize Middle Eastern Terrorism

Last week the State Department hosted a ministerial on counterterrorism in the Western Hemisphere. Thirteen countries attended, though two (Brazil and Mexico) were just observers. It was all about Middle Eastern terrorists, the subject that the U.S. government periodically tries to get Latin America interested in. I won't belabor how tired that subject is--something else caught my attention.

The U.S. government's verbiage is that Latin America "joined" and "committed." In other words, they played active roles. Voice of America obediently and vaguely reported "with some analysts suggesting member countries are stepping up efforts" while interviewing one analyst who does not study Latin America and one analyst who writes alarmist stuff on Iran.

In the Latin America press, the verb used over and over to describe the same event was "pedir," which means "to ask" or "to request." Pidió colaboración (Peru) or pide ayuda (Paraguay). There's even a "solicit" (solicitó cooperación from Argentina).

The difference is subtle but noteworthy. South American governments in particular are paying attention, especially to money laundering. But unlike the Trump administration (and the Bush administration before it) they are not putting Middle Eastern terrorism front and center. I could see Jair Bolsonaro doing so just to curry favor but in general there is wide skepticism about U.S. priorities.

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Victor Sebestyen's Lenin

Victor Sebestyen's Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, and the Master of Terror (2017) is a highly readable and entertaining biography of Vladimir Lenin. The subtitle is a bit sensationalist but is in fact accurate.

You get a sense of him as a person, especially his relationships with his mother, wife, and mistress. He did not really develop close relationships with men, but he was very tender with those women and they were dedicated to him. He was exiled for many years and spent much of that time in libraries, writing books and cranking out countless articles (later he would write decrees specifying exactly how libraries should be run). Some derided him as a mere journalist rather than a revolutionary. If there is one thing missing, it is how he managed to generate so much support since at times Sebestyen notes how small and weak a group the Bolsheviks were prior to the revolution and how far he was from the action. But that is perhaps part of the mystery--how did this otherwise unremarkable though highly intelligent man create something so huge and destructive?

Then the dictator and the master of terror, two roles that go together. Lenin had no regard for human life and believed killing was part of the process, even in large numbers. The regime commonly used the word "terror" to describe what they were doing--it was not hidden. He openly disliked peasants and favored policies of intimidation and murder. He had no interest in democracy, and launched the October Revolution before the awaited constituent assembly could meet. A lot of people saw him for who he was, and there were assassination attempts, including a very serious one where he was shot in the neck. He responded with an "orgy of revenge violence throughout the major cities and towns of Russia" (417). Lenin never actually committed violence himself but he ordered it constantly and forcefully.

One point that Sebestyen repeats is that Lenin survived for many years in exile and then got back into Russia because rich people supported him and his cause financially. It's amazing. One could argue that Lenin never would have gotten anywhere without the rich people he hated. Meanwhile, the Germans intentionally let him back into Russia to sow chaos, not knowing they were creating a monster.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Ecuador Goes More Into Debt With China

For many years, the United States and then U.S. banks were deep in the loan business in Latin America. It's a great setup. You loan money to less developed countries and they often have a difficult time repaying on time. To ensure repayment, you loan them more money. As long as you keep friendly governments in power, you make a ton of money even if their economy falls apart. 


Now it's China. Rafael Correa borrowed about $6.5 billion from China between 2007 and 2017. Just as Mexico felt the pinch in the early 1980s, the fall of oil prices has made repayment more painful over time. So now Lenín Moreno felt obligated to go to China and get $900 million at the "lowest interest rate in history."

Rafael Correa, who is responsible for getting all this going, actually once said he thought Ecuador was being "ill treated" by China. Well, yes, countries that were heavily in debt to the U.S. or U.S. banks were ill treated too. What that means is that you are controlled and you have no leverage. When you owe huge sums of money, the loaning country is free to do as it wants.

Correa went that direction in large part to proclaim his independence from the United States. This was the same path Cuba took after the Bay of Pigs. All it means is shifting economic dependence from one great power to another. It does not lead to independence.

Moreno and Correa do not agree on much but apparently they agree that heavy indebtedness to China is the way.

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Will Bolsonaro Invade Venezuela?

Far right Venezuelan exiles see hope in Jair Bolsonaro and the possibility that he will either invade Venezuela or provide diplomatic cover for a U.S. invasion.
It is unclear how much support Rumbo Libertad enjoys in Venezuela. Henrique Capriles, one of the key leaders of its mainstream opposition, recently dismissed it as part of “a small extremist sect” that was intent on replacing Venezuela’s red dictatorship with one of another hue. Such groups were noisy on social media but did little to help feed starving Venezuelans, Capriles complained. 
But Navarro does appear to have the ear of Brazil’s next president and his influential son, Eduardo, a 34-year-old politician who is positioning himself as Brazil’s answer to Jared Kushner – and recently travelled to the US to meet with Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Steve Bannon.
A few thoughts. First, this is the worst possible solution. It will lead to deaths, suffering, and perhaps even some sort of new dictatorship. I shudder to think of what such a group would do if it actually held power. It would need to use a lot of force to overcome its illegitimacy.

Second, it is highly unlikely Bolsonaro will invade. Yes, he is currently popular but invading other countries is a good way to sour that. Brazil faces a lot of challenges and cannot afford military adventurism. It would be very unpopular in the region to boot and ruin any chance of Bolsonaro being a regional leader. Finally, in the article Harold Trinkunas points out the major military challenges:

“If they imagine that somehow the Brazilian armed forces under the direction of President Bolsonaro are going to change the government in Caracas, it reveals a complete lack of understanding of the military challenges that would present,” he said, pointing to the vast areas of jungle and savanna between Brazil’s northern border and Venezuela’s capital.

Third, it is highly unlikely Trump will invade, for many of the same reasons. It is cliche to invade other countries as a way to distract from domestic problems, and an invasion would immediately be viewed that way. When push comes to shove, Trump dislikes actual conflict--he likes to talk big and then back down, despite John Bolton's "troika of tyranny" stuff.

Could it possibly happen? Well, yes. There are far more reasons not to invade than to do it, but if you combine zealots and policy makers who lack common sense, it is a combustible mix.


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Thursday, December 13, 2018

I've Got Big Walls

The Department of Homeland Security issued a press release today about the border wall.


Direct quote: "DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly. We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall." Odd use of the English language, to say the least.

This tweet came right around the same time.

It's not clear who is saving in the deal. To pay for the wall, the money would need to be coming to the federal government. But free trade deals don't direct money to governments--they facilitate the movement of goods and services. I guess maybe you could claim increase tax revenue would be the source if American companies make more money.

The point here, I suppose, is to claim that new walls are being built (which is not happening--all walls the link mentions are just work on existing ones) to generate some popular pressure on Democrats to accept allocating $5 billion for even more wall construction. The deadline for getting a spending deal done is December 21.

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Rejecting Immigration in Latin America

The right in Latin America is diverse but one commonality is suspicion of migration. Sebastián Piñera joined Jair Bolsonaro in refusing to sign the United Nations pact on migration. From the Interior Ministry:

"Our position is clear," he said. "We have said that migration is not a human right. Countries have a right to determine the entry requirements for foreign citizens."
This is disingenuous because the pact (full text here) explicitly stipulates that states have that right. And it is non-binding.
The Global Compact reaffirms the sovereign right of States to determine their national migration policy and their prerogative to govern migration within their jurisdiction, in conformity with international law. Within their sovereign jurisdiction, States may distinguish between regular and irregular migration status, including as they determine their legislative and policy measures for the implementation of the Global Compact, taking into account different national realities, policies, priorities and requirements for entry, residence and work, in accordance with international law;
In other words, arguing that the pact erodes sovereignty is a lie. It is simply not true. Bolsonaro's incoming Foreign Minister added to the absurdity:
“Immigration shouldn’t be treated as a global issue, but rather in accordance with the reality of each country.”
Not a global issue? Where do you think the migrants are coming from, genius? And again, the pact explicitly allows each country to sort out its own reality while recognizing that by definition it is a global problem.

Not all presidents of the right rejected the pact but we've already seen Mauricio Macri targeting Bolivian immigrants. This is where the right leans on the topic and it is starting to worsen.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Baseball and Politics in Venezuela

I am an avid listener of baseball podcasts, which I listen to while exercising and while in the car. A great one is Effectively Wild, which focuses on baseball analytics. For the very first time, a recent episode actually touched both on Latin American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations. It is about the tragedy of Venezuela, focusing on deaths of MLB baseball players (huge stars in Venezuela) José Castillo and Luis Valbuena, who were just killed in a car crash because of an attack on a Venezuelan highway.

The hosts Jeff Sullivan and Ben Lindbergh talk to Octavio Hernández, a Venezuelan journalist and baseball executive who fled the country and now works for a baseball team in Mexico (you can go to 38:38 in the podcast for just his part, though the discussion about Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame is well worth your time!). He gives a passionate and emotional account of how far Venezuela has fallen. These attacks are just what happens. The normalcy framing is heartbreaking. When asked if there was hope for change, Hernández just said no. As I've written so many times, there are few options as long as the opposition remains divided and unpopular, and the military remains loyal.

The part that caught my attention the most was his mention of sanctions. He wondered whether the U.S. government might prohibit MLB from functioning anymore in Venezuela--sending players, scouts, or otherwise participating in Venezuelan baseball. I had never thought of this but in fact it would be perversely effective. There is a lot of money in baseball, even in Venezuela. Players keep going, as Hernández says, in part because of habit but also because they're paid well and they live in a bubble (though more and more are too afraid to return). Castillo and Valbuena got out of the bubble by driving their own car rather than the team bus. Cut off some the MLB money and the MLB players and you reduce revenue more, while embarrassing the government. Up to this point, the U.S. government has focused on financial transactions and individuals in the Venezuelan government. This would be a new angle.

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Russia's Bombers in Venezuela

Russia sent two bombers to Venezuela, which prompted a public (i.e. Twitter) rebuke from Mike Pompeo and then counter-rebukes. As with Cuba in the early Cold War, Venezuela is just a convenient place for Russia and the U.S. to push at each other.

As always, Russia wants to show that it can mess around in the United States' "backyard," which constitutes a warning to stay out of Russia's.

It can also serve as a warning not to invade Venezuela. Russia has a lot of money tied up in the country, and if the U.S. installs a new government, it might well push those new leaders to stiff Russia as part of an economic overhaul.

And Venezuela's role in this? It does not have one. Vladimir Putin is uninterested in Nicolás Maduro's views on anything.

This sort of thing has been happening for a long time. Almost a decade ago I wrote about all the false talk of Russia building military bases, rumors started by the Russians. This is what they do. The U.S. huffs and puffs, then it subsides, only to spring up again sometime in the future.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

New Documents on the 1965 Dominican Republic Invasion

The State Department just published a new Foreign Relations of the United States volume: Public Diplomacy, 1964-1968. Another word for "public diplomacy" is actually "propaganda." So, for example, in May 1965 the Director of the United States Information Agency wrote a memo to LBJ about the invasion of the Dominican Republic. He noted how difficult it was to get support in the region. We need to convince non-Communist governments of our good intentions.

If we are to succeed in making other Latin American nations believe that our actions are vital to their safety and freedom, it is of utmost importance that we get some members of the OAS, and perhaps non-OAS neighbors of the Dominican Republic like Jamaica, to speak out about the Communist involvement in the Dominican Republic, and to offer troops or other support to our efforts to end the bloodshed.

That did not work out too well. The OAS did eventually send people, including some troops, but this was not an OAS operation (Dominican President Danilo Medina did ask for an OAS apology two years ago). LBJ was pretty openly contemptuous of the OAS, and of Latin Americans: "We’ve just been kind of a holding operation until the Latin could in his own slow way finally move."

This is exactly the theme of Lars Schoultz's new book In Their Own Best Interest, which I reviewed in October. We invade because we care. Behind the scenes are public relations officials who try to find ways of framing the actions in terms of the good we're doing. Making them believe we are making them safer.

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Senate Hearing on Immigration Enforcement

The Senate Committe on the Judiciary is meeting to discuss oversight of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff tweeted the following:

Grassley opens Judiciary hearing referring to "ongoing conflict" at the Mexico border, as if describing a war zone, and falsely claims "hundreds of people" were "throwing Molotov cocktails"
This sort of misinformation is disheartening, though of course not surprising. So I clicked through to read through the testimony of the single witness, Kevin McAleenan, who is the Commission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was much better than I had expected, reasoned and calm. Professional.
With regard to the recent Central American caravan, we have worked closely with the
Government of Mexico and our Central American partners to address the challenges of these large groups. CBP very much appreciates the efforts of the Government of Mexico to address this challenging situation in accordance with the highest principles of protection of human rights and respect for migrants, while upholding the integrity of the Mexican border and Mexican immigration law. 
That contrasts sharply with Grassley. McAleenan is no angel, having of course overseen a policy of family separation (which he does not mention). What I wish, however, is that we could hear more of the reasonable part come from the mouths of the policy makers in charge of directing and overseeing agencies like CBP. Instead he gives his measured testimony about working with Mexico and many senators will simply respond with something like, "Oh yeah, Mexico is screwing us."

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Turnout Was Low in Venezuelan Municipal Elections. Why?

There was low turnout for the Venezuelan municipal election. Why?

Al Jazeera: "record low turnout, citing mistrust in the electoral process, the banning of opposition parties and widespread exhaustion amid the ongoing socioeconomic crisis."

Reuters: "Venezuelans said they preferred to use the day to shop for scarce food and medicine."

Associated Press: "not wishing to legitimize what they consider a corrupt process."

Deutsche Welle: "widespread apathy."

El Nacional: "la desconfianza en el voto, la inhabilitación de partidos opositores y el hartagazo ante la crisis soscioeconómica."

Or if you would like an alternative view:

Venezuelan government: ""Ganamos todos, gana el pueblo de Venezuela, es una democracia que se fortalece con cada proceso electoral."

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Saturday, December 08, 2018

Race 14: Kiawah Island Marathon

For the 14th and final race of this year (here is my first post about my running year) today I did the Kiawah Island Marathon. I have not seen the official results but it looks like I was about 8-10 minutes faster than the Charleston Marathon, which was my first race this year back in January. Kiawah Island is not big so the course loops and twists around.



The course is known for being flat, and that helps a lot. The weather was good--about 50 degrees and dry. A bit of a breeze at times but not too bad. The main down side was that there were cars and bikes weaving around runners, which is distracting, especially when you're getting tired and weaving is a chore. The upside is that was Palmetto Brewing (a good South Carolina brewery) Amber Ale at the end, which hit the spot.

Marathons are a lot of work, both to train for and to run. Somewhere around mile 22, I start questioning my intelligence but finishing feels great and before too long I will probably think about what else to run (the beer probably contributes to this).

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Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Decline of Academic Blogging

Matt Reed, a community college vice president and long-time blogger, asks where all the bloggers are.

why don’t my administrative colleagues elsewhere do something similar. After all these years, where is everybody?
He argues that in part people are concerned about having so many of their ideas and opinions public, a paper trail that could count against you.

Physicist Chad Orvel also discusses the issue and notes:
In the end, though, I think the biggest factor is that it takes a certain type of personality to make it as a blogger. You have to enjoy communicating through the written word in a way that isn’t all that common. Even in academia, where people’s careers are built on the production of text, you don’t see many people who are actually good at the sort of communication needed for blogging. 
This all resonates with me. I think one of the biggest reasons people don't blog is because they dislike it. These days academic journals often ask their authors to write blog posts summarizing their article and making it more accessible. More than one such author has talked to me about how difficult and time consuming they found the process. A number of people have talked to me and then launched blogs, only to stop quickly because they felt it took too much time and became a chore to do regularly.

Just clicking on the "Blogs" subject on the front page of my blog and seeing old posts reminded me of how many blogs are no longer updated, while new ones rarely appear. Next year will be an entire decade since I organized a panel on blogging for the Latin American Studies Association. There was a wave, albeit a small one, but it crashed and receded.

And that's fine. There are many other ways to communicate to a wider audience and blogging is just one of many. I feel like it is a good fit for academia but I am in a small minority. As I've written numerous times, I will blog until I don't find it fun. Somehow after almost 13 years, I still haven't reached that point.


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Capitalism In Cuba

From Granma:

Over the last eight years, self-employment in Cuba has continued to expand, from approximately 157,000 workers in 2010 to 589,000 in 2018, currently representing 13% of the country’s workforce.  
Minister of Labor and Social Security Margarita González Fernández, in a statement to Granma, commented that, as projected, this modality of employment has generated jobs, expanded options for the population, and freed the state from the responsibility of managing small scale activities that do not play an essential role in the national economy.
Quite a statement. No libertarian could put it any better. As the Cuban state says, workers are happier and the state is happier. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Cuban socialism.

The obvious next question is if it is working so well in "small scale activities" then would some injection also benefit large industries? That is a question we are debating in earnest in the United States and it is a normal one for capitalist countries.

And Cuba is also broadening internet access, though it is expensive and slow. But these measures build up over time. And what is the U.S. doing?
In 2015, President Obama allowed U.S. businesses to invest in Cuba's telecom sector. Shortly after that move, the Communist government opened hot spots to the public; previously only tourists and government officials could use the Internet, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reported.
The U.S. should be engaged with Cuba but of course it is not.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The Problem With Putting Venezuela on Terrorism List

For ten years Jason Blazakis managed the State Sponsors of Terrorism list at the State Department and he has some useful insights into the entire process, especially with regard to Venezuela. They are critical.

Labeling countries terrorist-supporting pariahs is an act of desperation — a “Hail Mary,” in football terms. Unless the international community shares the same sentiment, the country sanctioned will find ample opportunities to work around the SST tag.

And on Venezuela specifically:

The United States’ inconsistent application of the SST tag makes it harder for governments to accept U.S. arguments for strong action against countries it sees as threats. That’s why even if Venezuela is added to the list, it would not have the desired result — to convince the Maduro government to change its ways. Those ways though have little to do with terrorism. There is scant evidence to suggest that President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is providing material support to terrorist groups.

It is already hard to get Latin America to speak with one voice on anything, much less Venezuela. Doing this just throws a wrench into that because it generates distrust. Do this to Venezuela and everyone will immediately point to Saudi Arabia and Russia to ask, "Why not them"?

The answer is obvious. The list has been, is, and always will be based on constantly changing ideas of who we would like to label an enemy at any given time (we came to accept Libya and North Korea without any substantive change in what they were doing). Cuba was on for the longest time, which had no impact on its behavior, but which rolled eyes in Latin America. If there was evidence that it changed behavior, that's one thing. But there isn't any.

I wrote more about the implications of putting Venezuela on the list in November.


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AMLO's New Model of Austerity

A week ago I wrote about AMLO is currently a bit of everything for everyone. This won't last, of course, but it shows considerable political acumen on his part. Enough detail to offer hope and not too much to box himself in.

As I have been reading accounts of his first few days in office, it also occurred to me that he has successfully owned the word "austerity." That word has always been pejorative for the left, which views it as a euphemism for cutting jobs, wage, and services for the poor. It is a word of the right, the Washington Consensus, the neoliberals, the Chicago Boys. AMLO is now showered with headlines about his austerity measures, which in fact thus far are aimed solely at higher level government officials and bureaucrats.

In his inaugural speech, he listed a wide range of things he would spend more money on, most notably education. It was not a typical austerity speech. This new austerity is inverted. You get rid of the presidential plane, spend more on education, and chop high level salaries.

Appropriating the word austerity is a PR win for AMLO. But like being something for everyone, the PR part can only last so long. The question is whether it translates into economic growth, jobs, and wages. I don't have an answer for that, but he is carving out a solid honeymoon period to get it going.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Implications of Not Recognizing Maduro

Boz notes the implications of governments refusing to recognize Nicolás Maduro as President of Venezuela after January 10, when he is being inaugurated for the fraudulent May 2018 election. He compares the situation to Honduras in 2009, when Roberto Micheletti proclaimed himself president but was never accepted as such.

It remains to be seen whether the hemisphere and allies in Europe can coordinate to treat Maduro as the same as Micheletti. If that strategy succeeds, Venezuela won’t have anyone as its leader unless the National Assembly names a new interim president. Maduro would lose access to Venezuela’s economic and diplomatic capabilities in many key locations abroad. The actions would further isolate Maduro and make it hard to run the country and the economy. More powerfully, after 10 January, many countries would not recognize Maduro’s arrest or removal from power as a coup because he is not recognized as the president.

His points are well taken, but there are two major differences in that Honduras is deeply dependent on the United States, whereas currently Venezuela relies largely on Russia and China, both of which will continue to recognize Maduro (he is actually going to see Vladimir Putin right now!). The second is that the coup government in Honduras had an expiration date. The coup was in June and there was a presidential election in November, so there was a strong sense that there would soon be an acceptable leader everyone could recognize (at which point, of course, everyone stopped even pretending to care about the violence and corruption at all). That is absent in Venezuela.

In general, I tend to think the economic pressure will be the greatest problem for Maduro. As Boz points out, there is already the threat of not getting Venezuela's gold out of England, and after January 10 it could just be even harder to get Venezuela's resources that happen to be abroad. How much will Russia and China be willing to fill that gap? Trade will continue, as not even the U.S. has taken the plunge into an oil embargo. If Maduro keeps the military loyal and has access to funds through PDVSA, he can last a while. But each one of these measures makes his situation more precarious and reliant on Russia and China.

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Monday, December 03, 2018

Popular Participation in Cuba's Constitution

Cuba's state newspaper Granma announced that the drafting commission for the new constitution met to hear the results of popular feedback. The idea is to show how every single Cuban had a say somehow in this document, not unlike how 99.9% of Cubans voted for Fidel.

The Commission was informed of results from the recently concluded popular consultation, during which 133,681 meetings were held, with 8,945,521 persons attending.
That is a lot of people. Let's just say they aren't double counting. That is 80.5% of the entire population. Since 1.8 million Cubans are 14 years old or younger, they government is claiming that pretty much 100% of all Cubans aged 15 and older participated. Take that as you will.

In these meetings, 1,706,872 citizens spoke, making 783,174 proposals, (666,995 modifications, 32,149 additions, 45,548 eliminations, and 38,482 requests for clarification).
I am not sure what to make of this. The idea of too many chefs spoiling the soup hardly seems to fit. What if you have hundreds of thousands, even millions, of chefs?

Since Raúl Castro is the head of this committee, common sense and Occam's razor alike would suggest that there is in fact one chef, with a tiny handful of sous-chefs. But the image of popular input sure is pretty.

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Sunday, December 02, 2018

Trump & Macri Show The Current State of US-Latin American Relations

Is there any better visual image of current U.S.-Latin American relations than this? Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri walk out on stage at the G20, in Macri's own country, then Trump marches off (even apparently saying, "Get me out of here") while Macri raises his arms in a universal "WTH?" motion and then is left lonely on the stage.

I don't know if it is prompted by confusion or what, but I don't think it is intended as a snub.  But in diplomacy you have to be careful because not bothering to know what you're doing in a high-level event is easily seen as snub.

Latin America reaches out, Trump has his own agenda and has no interest. Latin America looks around, wondering what the problem is. By then Trump has already forgotten about them. Showing that you don't care has a major impact even if you do not mean it to.

BTW, Trump has often wandered. Go to YouTube and simply do a "Trump wanders" search to see examples.

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Saturday, December 01, 2018

Joshua Davis' Spare Parts

Joshua Davis' Spare Parts is a book about four undocumented teenagers at a low-income high school in Arizona who were led by an incredible science teacher who inspired them to participate (and then win) a national underwater robotics competition that included college teams (even MIT). It is a feel-good book but the ending lays bare how horrible our immigration system is.

They do not have much money so they have to borrow and find innovative ways to make parts work. They even note how this in no small part comes from watching family members fix cars, lay piping, and other things that they did not have much money for. But they were committed, even when constantly faced with their immigration status and poverty.

Davis shows how their country didn't care. One teen, Oscar, was in the ROTC and wanted to give back to his country by joining the military. He didn't realize he wasn't allowed to. The kids wanted to go to college, but Arizona changed its laws to make sure they had to pay out of state tuition they couldn't afford. Some were simply unable and had to struggle to make a living after graduating. We always say those are the people we want, those are the skills we want, but we place barrier after barrier in front of them.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

AMLO Is A Bit of Everything For Everyone

I don't tend to pay much attention to who attends presidential inaugurations, but it feels like AMLO's is about a diverse as you can get. And that's something he's making a big deal of. His choice as Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, keeps tweeting as he gets confirmations.

You have Mike Pence, Nicolás Maduro, Ivanka Trump, Daniel Ortega, (or someone close to him), Evo Morales, Miguel Díaz-Canel, Michelle Bachelet, governors, mayors, and former mayors of U.S. cities, there is Palestinian representation, Iván Duque, Jeremy Corbyn, and the list goes on.

At this particular moment, AMLO is a bit of all things to all people outside the country. He is the leftist who can influence Venezuela, he is the non-interventionist with regard to Venezuela, he is the pragmatist who can handle Donald Trump, he is the leftist who will help the poor, he is the pragmatist who won't radicalize economic reforms, he is center-left like Lula.

It will be very hard to be all these things and we know you can never tell until the person has been inaugurated. A lot of Latin American presidents have acted very differently from what was expected at the time of their election, which in some cases created serious rifts or even crises (e.g. Juan Manuel Santos and Lenín Moreno recently, with Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori in the past).

It is a positive sign, however, that he begins his term in office with a sense of universal goodwill from abroad. He will need it because so many of his challenges have international connections of some sort.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Podcast Episode 60: Foreign Policy in Latin America

In Episode 60 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Luis Schenoni, who is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Notre Dame University. His research focuses on the interaction of domestic and international politics in Latin America. They discuss his work on Latin American foreign policy change and U.S.-Latin American relations, and how he uses different methods to analyze them.


If you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or elsewhere it will be showing up soon.

As a reminder, check out my Open Access textbook Understanding Latin American Politics.

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U.S. Priorities in Latin America

Chris Sabatini has an op-ed in The New York Times on U.S. policy toward Latin America. I agree with his argument that the U.S. is focusing so much on authoritarian governments that it is completely ignoring the democracies. The U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time, and it should.

What this means is paying attention to what Latin American themselves want. Not what we want or what we think they should want (which has been a consistent problem in U.S.-Latin American relations).

Public opinion surveys show that Latin Americans care primarily about economic opportunity, corruption, security and immigration — none issues addressed by Mr. Bolton. Ignoring citizens’ concerns will mean derailing the chance for long-term partnerships between Washington and countries in the region, and sacrificing potential support for human rights and democracy.
Chris notes the importance of addressing corruption in particular. This is the ideal focus because you can simultaneously focus on dictatorships and the pent-up disgust in democracies. Nail money launderers from Venezuela and Guatemala alike.

Immigration is, of course, a lost cause. Trade is too. So there aren't even many potential avenues of engagement anymore.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Latin America Links: Lots of Bad News

Bad news abounds and there is commentary on it.


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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Maduro Invites Bachelet

Nicolás Maduro issued a formal invitation to Michelle Bachelet to visit Venezuela in her capacity as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

La misiva, firmada por el presidente Nicolás Maduro, convida a la exmandataria a observar y conocer en detalle “las repercusiones negativas que las medidas coercitivas unilaterales impuestas por factores adversos a Venezuela, han tenido contra los Derechos Humanos del pueblo venezolano”. 

She said she would visit all parties involved. Maduro had said before that she was welcome to visit Venezuela. She puts him in an interesting spot. She has leftist credentials, which makes it quite a bit harder for him to stiff arm her. By the same token, he might figure she is the most likely to give him a sympathetic report. If she writes a report that suggests equal blame for everyone, it would be a big PR win. I don't think she would do this, but I imagine he is clinging to that hope because if she assigns primary blame to the government, it hurts him.

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DoD's Take on Latin America

Here is an interesting contrast. Secretary of Defense James Mattis talking at SOUTHCOM:

“To some who look around the globe, the last two years might have seemed like bad ones for democracy. But not so when I look at our hemisphere,” Mattis said. “From Ottawa to Buenos Aires to Santiago, we increasingly find an island of hemispheric opportunity and democratic stability, amidst a churning and ever-changing global sea.”
And then outgoing commander Admiral Kurt Tidd, who prefaced it by saying he would be more candid:
"Gang violence is rampant and growing across Central America, and is spreading from major South American cities into transnational groupings. Illegal armed groups and transnational organized crime are carving out tacit control of swaths of territory, pushing out state and local governments,” Adm. Tidd said. “This produced wide swaths of under-governed or semi-governed spaces, which have become centers of corruption, of economic hopelessness, of illegitimate power centers that have already eaten away at the fabric of many societies, co-opting ruling elites and businessmen.”
Mattis' take is not what you would call a common one. But I have also noted in the past how Tidd overemphasized Middle Eastern terrorism and Russia's threat in Latin America. What he says is certainly true in some places, but it's not everywhere. For Tidd, the glass is not half empty, it is totally empty and smashed on the ground.

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Monday, November 26, 2018

Russians Want Their Money From Venezuela

The head of a major Russian oil company, Rosneft, went to Venezuela to let Nicolás Maduro know he was not happy about delayed oil shipments that were repaying loans. Reuters estimates Rosneft loans to equal about $17 billion since 2006. The added twist is that he complained further that Venezuela was paying China on time, but not Russia. The Russian government also recently made it clear it would not loan any more money to Venezuela given the current situation.

The point here is one I have made before about both Russia and China, but it bears repeating. You need to look beyond the simple "They are in our backyard to cause mischief and threaten us." The fact of the matter is that they want their money back. They are doing this in large to make a profit and fuel their own economies. The more Venezuela collapses, the more concerned they get. There is every reason to believe that if the government falls, a new one will try to get debt relief. So they need to balance the urgency of getting money back with trying to keep the government just afloat. This becomes just as much a matter of money as it is politics.

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Saturday, November 24, 2018

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 6

I read the sixth and final book of Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical My Struggle, which was far longer and less cohesive than its predecessors.

The first part of the book is meta, and not necessarily in a good way. The previous books were about his life, but now he has caught up and his life is centered on the reception of the books. So you end up in a loop as people you've already read about now themselves read the same for the first time and respond to Knausgaard. His uncle is apoplectic, which worries him. That got old for me fairly quickly, though Knausgaard is just so good at capturing emotion that I was still drawn to it.

Since the book came out so long ago in Norwegian, I knew there was a long middle part about Hitler. Knausgaard was trying to figure out whether he, in the midst of his own struggle with life, could have ended up the same way as Hitler if placed in the same context. So he reads Mein Kampf (it's a bit of "I read Mein Kampf so you don't have to"). Hitler as a youth was into art and did not stand out in any particular way, then as he matured figured out how to give a "we" to people that he could manipulate. I actually found this part interesting mostly because of our current political situation than as a connection to Knausgaard. Since it was written so long ago, it is totally unrelated to the fascism (or proto-fascism) that we face today but it's still relevant. People search for meaning and fascism gives it to them, with ready made enemies.

As he tries to explain his feelings about his own place in the world, and how he wants to relate to it, he tends to fall back on what to my untrained eye feels like literary theory jargon, citing novels, poems, and paintings (sometimes densely packed together in a string) and using words like "intertextuality" in sentences that seem never-ending. Here, in the middle, the book slowed to a crawl for me.

"Explanation is anathema in these texts, all meaning must be extracted from the events portrayed, which are not relative, only unfathomable" (p. 682).

That gets old. Hundreds of sometimes overwrought pages bring us to his conclusion that we find "we" in being human. "I am you" (p. 830). It took me weeks to get through it. The "I" vs. "we" permeates his life after the first volume of My Struggle was published, because writing alone about your life is "I" but as soon as it is published, the "I" becomes "we" since so many other real people are portrayed and, more importantly, hurt. That is where all the angst comes in.

After the Hitler digression, Knausgaard returns to his life, but again it is primarily about being the author of a biographical novel. Unlike all the other books, I can't connect to this. The previous books all had universal qualities (at least, I hasten to add, to a cisgender middle aged white male who grew up in the 80s), parts of growing up that I could see in myself. That was not so often the case with this book. But he is still such evocative writer that I enjoyed it, albeit less on a personal level. The same goes with his discussion of his wife Linda, with whom he seems perpetually annoyed and who he seems not to be in love with at all. He describes her manic episodes, both high and low, in detail that must be awful to her. He loves his children but not her so much. It is sad to read and clear that they will not be married much longer (they are divorced now).

I'm glad in a way. With the five previous books, I wanted to read the next one immediately. Now the narrative is done and that feels right.

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Race 13: University City Turkey Trot 5K

In my year of running I did the University City Turkey Trot 5K (here is my first post about running this year). We've done this or some other run for many years, as a way to get some exercise before spending the rest of the day cooking and eating. It is a simple, relatively flat there-and-back course not too far from where I live.


It was a perfect morning for running, clear, sunny and probably high 30s at the start. It was the biggest ever, with over 800 runners. That is quite a thing for a basic suburban race, but there were a lot of kids, a lot of walkers, and just a lot of people interested in getting out early on the big day.

Next up: the Kiawah Island Marathon in just two (gulp) weeks.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

How Mexico's Militarized Drug War Screws Up Everything

Gustavo Flores-Macías, "The Consequences of Militarizing Anti-Drug Efforts for State Capacity in Latin America: Evidence From Mexico," Comparative Politics 51, 1 (October 2018): 1-20.

Abstract (ungated, at least right now).

In response to the threat posed by drug-trafficking organizations, developing countries are increasingly relying on the armed forces for their counter-drug strategies. Drawing on the literature on violence and state capacity, this article studies how the militarization of anti-drug efforts affects state capacity along two dimensions: public safety and fiscal extraction. It advances theoretical expectations for this relationship and evaluates them in the context of Mexico. Based on subnational-level analyses, it shows that the militarization of anti-drug efforts has decreased the state's capacity to provide public order and extract fiscal resources: homicide and kidnapping rates have increased while tax collection has decreased. Given the wide-ranging consequences of diminished state capacity, the findings have implications not only for Latin America but also across the developing world.
Really interesting qualitative analysis. The first point is intuitive--as the state focuses on militarization, it actually ratchets up violence. Homicides increase as Drug Trafficking Organization generate greater firepower in response. Meanwhile, the military itself was also responsible for deaths.

The second point, about tax collection, is something that has not occurred to me before. All the increased violence increases a general sense of dissatisfaction with the government.

In addition to dissatisfaction, the prevalence of extortion in the context of deteriorated public safety has also affected fiscal extraction. As media reports have shown, extortion payments often prevent people from fulfilling their tax obligations, since people’s resources are limited and the threat to their physical integrity is imminent if they do not pay extortionists. For example, mining companies are forced to pay high protection fees to ship minerals through certain parts of Durango. In Michoacan, mining companies pay DTOs 7 USD per ton of iron ore extracted. In Veracruz, media reports point to the choice small businesses face of meeting their tax obligations or paying extortion fees in order to stay afloat.
People are mad, businesses are being shook down like never before, and so tax revenue also goes down. Lose-lose-lose.

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