Friday, September 21, 2018

Podcast Episode 55: The Brazilian Election Mess

Want to know more about the upcoming Brazilian presidential election, complete with a stabbing? After a hiatus where I was on vacation and then getting used to a new job, I have a new episode of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast. I talk with my friend and colleague Fred Batista, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNC Charlotte. I do my very best to end the podcast on an optimistic note, but it was really challenging.


For ease, I've used the link for the archive.org site where it is stored, but you can subscribe to the podcast in all major places.

Incidentally, I recommend listening to Brian Winter and Roberto Simon on the Latin American in Focus podcast on the same issue.

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Is Bolsonaro Like Trump?

Curious analysis in The Monkey Cage by Felipe Krause and André Borges, arguing that Jair Bolsonaro is not like Donald Trump.

Commentators are comparing Brazil's political crisis with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and populist movements elsewhere. Fear, fake news and acrimonious polarization, so the story goes, are driving an angry electorate into the arms of a dangerous and extreme candidate. 
But we do not yet know whether Bolsonaro will win. Comparisons with Trump and Brexit are overblown. Here's why.

The "whys" are all electoral. Their argument is that Bolsonaro will make it to a second round, then lose. OK, that's something to debate. But it has nothing to do with whether Bolsonaro and Trump should be compared. The similarities between them, combined with the extreme polarization in Brazil, make them an excellent comparison.

Indeed, one of the ways we can fruitfully compare them is to rewind two years and remember how political scientists proclaimed that Donald Trump had no chance of winning. You have to shift back to the center after the primaries, etc. We've heard this story before. The reasons for saying Bolsonaro won't win make perfect sense and yet they could be wrong.

Should we compare Bolsonaro to Trump? A resounding yes. Should we assume Bolsonaro will lose? A resounding no.

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Causes of Venezuela's Oil Implosion

Economist Francisco Rodríguez writes about the causes of Venezuela's economic implosion at WOLA's blog, centering on the decline of oil production. That in turn was caused by mismanagement and exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. In particular, the latter "toxified" transactions with Venezuela, thus raising the costs of doing business with the government.

This is not an exercise in blaming the U.S. but rather recognition that a lot of factors are working simultaneously. I had written for a while that Trump's policies seemed quite similar to Obama's in terms of targeted sanctions, but the more general sanctions against transactions are a step much further. Those now can also be accompanied by protests at the offices of financial institutions that loan money.

As we warned previously, these observations should not be taken as decisive proof that sanctions caused the output collapse. There are many other factors at play in the Venezuelan economy which can also be put forward as explanations. Maduro’s decision to appoint a general with no previous industry experience and the broad-ranging corruption investigation that led to the jailing of 95 industry executives, including two former PDVSA presidents, appear to have caused a paralysis in many of the sector’s professional cadres. The loss of the industry’s specialized human capital, part of the brain drain that accompanies large scale migration exoduses, also contributed to the deterioration of its operational capacity. 
The data, however, strongly suggests the need for much more in-depth research on the reasons for Venezuela’s oil output collapse and for the discontinuous behavior in the series. The fact that the acceleration of the decline coincides with the onset of the country’s toxification to international investors suggests that we need to closely explore this channel as a potential driver of Venezuela’s output collapse.
What we should also note is that these policies have increased China's influence significantly. Maduro just returned from a triumphant trip getting more investment promises. This is another example of Trump administration policies unintentionally boosting China's presence in Latin America.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

More Latin American Benefits From Trump Trade War

Because of Donald Trump's trade war, China is working to wean itself off U.S. soybeans.

The comments echo a growing confidence within China’s soybean industry and government that the world’s largest pork-producing nation can wean itself off U.S. soy exports – a prospect that would decimate U.S. farmers, upend a 36-year-old trading relationship worth $12.7 billion last year, and radically remap global trade flows. 
Just one prong of the strategy Mu detailed - to slash soymeal content in pig feed - could obliterate Chinese demand for U.S. soybeans if broadly adopted, according to Reuters calculations.
A bit breathless, I think, but the point remains that the Chinese government has a strategy here that will have long-term implications. As it turns out, those implications involve Latin America.

At the Kansas City conference, held by the U.S. Soybean Export Council, Mu highlighted reduced soymeal rations as part of a broader strategy, including seeking alternative protein sources such as rapeseed or cotton seed; tapping surplus soybean stocks, including a government reserve, and domestically grown soybeans; and continuing to boost soybean imports from Brazil and Argentina.
This is a recurring theme. Trump unsettles Latin America because he is unpredictable, but in some specific ways his economic policies benefit Latin American producers at the expense of the United States. In this case, U.S. farmers lose. I've been writing some variation of this in posts a number of times this year.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

CRS on US-Cuban Relations

In honor of the Congressional Research Service reports becoming fully public, here is the most recent analysis of U.S.-Cuban relations from Mark Sullivan. Here is one conclusion:

The human rights situation in Cuba likely will remain a key congressional concern, although with diverse views over the best approach to influence the Cuban government. Looking ahead, actions by the Díaz-Canel government to improve Cuba’s human rights record could be a factor affecting U.S. efforts to normalize bilateral relations.
I think this is really optimistic. The traditional approach has been to set goals posts and then move them. I do not think Diaz-Canel can take any steps that will convince reticent members of Congress. I think money will drive them more than anything else. Their constituents want to sell goods to Cuba and are currently prohibited from doing so. That has been true for a long time and change is slow.

Note also at the end that there are ton of legislative proposals floating around at any given time that are related to Cuba in some manner.

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US Support for Latin American Democracy

Luis L. Schenoni and Scott Mainwaring, "US Hegemony and Regime Change in Latin America," Democratization early view. Sorry, it's gated.

Abstract:

We contribute to the extensive literature on international influences on democratization and democratic breakdowns by conceptualizing hegemonic mechanisms of regime change and assessing them empirically. Our findings are based on a multi-methods approach and highlight the varying importance of hegemonic influences in post-1945 Latin America. We argue that US support for democratization was consistent in the wave of transitions to democracy that began in Latin America in 1978 and that it was decisive in many of these transitions. While past work has attributed responsibility to the US for the waves of democratic breakdowns from 1948 to 1956 and 1964 to 1976, an examination of the 27 breakdowns from 1945 to 2010 gives reason to doubt this interpretation. Future research could use these conceptual and methodological tools to explore the role of other powers in waves of democracy and authoritarianism.
This is a deeply researched and interesting study of how messy U.S. policy toward Latin American democracy has been. The thrust of the article is to show that the U.S. government has not been as anti-democracy as often portrayed. There are plenty of times, for example, that an embassy spoke out against democratic breakdown or in favor of democratization, which had an effect. This was especially true the series of democratic transitions in the 1978-1990 period.

The simplified summary is that the U.S. was less supportive of democracy from 1948-1977 and 1981-1985, and more supportive from 1944-1948, 1977-1981 and 1985 onward. The thing is, I think a lot of people already roughly agree with that assessment. The authors say they have an exhaustive list of cited works in an appendix but I was unable to find it online.

This would be a good article for a course--it combines methodological rigor and really good analysis.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

The US Left and Latin America Policy

Daniel Bessner at the University of Washington has a thought provoking op-ed in The New York Times about the U.S. left and foreign policy. He points out correctly that there is no real foreign policy emphasis at all, but there should be. He suggests pillars such a foreign policy could rest on, which coalesce around the idea that interventionism has tended to create more problems than it solves. It needs to focus on internationalism rather than interventionism.

He does not mention Latin America but it would be front and center of such a new orientation. It would mean making CICIG and any other UN-sponsored efforts to combat corruption a priority. It would mean collaborative and regional efforts to fight drug (and human) trafficking. It would mean backing off blind insistence on FTAs and instead working with countries like Brazil more closely about mutual trade benefits. It would mean working in a sane manner with Cuba. It would obviously mean no more talk of invading Venezuela. There are many more areas.

He talks about the lack of billionaire-funded left-leaning foreign policy think tanks. The work we're talking about would be perfect for the Washington Office on Latin America. Get them a ton of funding and have more politicians asking for their advice. Relations would improve quickly and US security would be the winner.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Review of Holway's Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues

John Holway was smart enough to get oral histories of Negro League stars in the early 1970s before they were gone. What a wonderful collection, just as The Glory of Their Times did for white players. I enjoyed it immensely. Each chapter is one player telling his story.

There is a lot of talk these days about the "right" way to play, and grumbling about how baseball used to be better before analytics. As you might guess, same as with general griping about how terrible youngsters are, this is an eternal lament. These ballplayers repeated similar complaints about how there was no "trickeration" any more, less skill, more coddling. And they were talking almost 50 years ago.

One of the "right" ways to play is bunting. They complained that by the early 1970s no one was bunting anymore. In other words, the old guys who whine now that the bunt has disappeared were themselves criticized for not doing it enough and not doing it well. Incidentally, the way the Negro League players talked, they must have bunted a lot. They all talked about it in some detail.

Just as I read in the Satchel Paige biography, these players were unanimous that Jackie Robinson was far from the best player and that the Negro Leagues should get more credit for showing white players and executives for so long that their players could beat anyone.

The players show a lot of nostalgia but amazingly little bitterness. They had the bad luck of being excellent baseball players at a time when they were not allowed to get the kinds of salaries, fame, and comforts they deserved. They felt proud that their hard work proved that they were just as good or better than white players, who they routinely defeated in all star games. As Othello "Chico" Renfroe said, "I can really say baseball's the great American game, although it did discriminate against us for many years."

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Almagro Wants to Invade Venezuela

Luis Almagro is opening the door to OAS participation in invading Venezuela.

“With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out,” Almagro said at a press conference in the Colombian city of Cucuta. “What Nicolas Maduro’s regime is perpetrating are crimes against humanity, the violation of the human rights and the suffering of people that is inducing an exodus. Diplomatic actions should be the first priority but we shouldn’t rule out any action.”
As the article notes, Almagro supported the OAS role in the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, but later recanted and said that sort of thing should never happen again.

Almagro is not the OAS so we need to take this with a grain of salt, but the real danger is inviting eagerly waiting officials in the Trump administration to use the OAS as cover for a U.S. military action. Reading Fear, you see how bad ideas can find a home unless someone waves something shiny in front of Trump to distract him.

Let's see how the leaders of the members states respond. They can tamp this down pretty quickly by condemning it. Unfortunately, at this point the region seems mostly content to do nothing and just respond to the immigration crisis.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Review of Bob Woodward's Fear

I read Bob Woodward's Fear and found it mildly interesting. You already know the story, but you get some more detail about how things work in the Trump White House. Trump himself is incapable of making consistent decisions, easily forgets things, and has already formed opinions he won't change even when they are obviously factually wrong. His staff believes in his mission, or at least most of it, and are exasperated a lot. Many do not respect him as a person.

Trump sees everything through a hazy film of profit, which he clearly does not really understand. He wanted to "take" minerals out of Afghanistan as if such a thing were actually possible with no infrastructure (aside from what a bad idea it would be). He sees war prevention as a bad deal where you make no money. A number of policy discussions involved staffers telling him facts and him responding, "I don't give a shit about that." He does not understand policy and has no interest in understanding it.

Steve Bannon was clearly an important source and he comes off as the reasonable one. Really. He's the one trying to set up rational processes, get people to work together, trying to avoid war, telling Trump to spend more time with his wife and son, etc. to a point that is quite hard to believe, as if he had dictated them. Same goes for the entire last part of the book, which is a lengthy discussion of Bob Mueller's investigation, based solely on the recollection of Trump's lawyer John Dowd. It's self-congratulatory, there is no case, and the like. But basically, Trump cannot testify because he is incapable of telling the truth. He literally lies all the time.

Lindsey Graham comes off as a foreign policy ultrahawk who left to his own devices would likely start several wars. John Kelly is a hothead with a short attention span. Hilariously, Rex Tillerson comes off as a guy trying to fill State Department positions but not getting good people. I don't think Woodward understands the State Department very well.

Most of the insider stuff shows the normal infighting that every administration has to some degree. The difference is that they spend a lot of time trying to show Trump how stupid his ideas are, and preventing him from signing stupid decisions. This is the country we now live in.


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Thursday, September 13, 2018

New UNASUR HQ is a Museum

Evo Morales opened a new headquarters for UNASUR in Cochabamba. He called it the "big house of South America," which doesn't make much sense to me, so I wonder if there is a cultural reference with which I am unfamiliar.

At this point, the building is essentially a museum of dreams that could never quite come true. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru all temporarily withdrew (which the TeleSur article conveniently omits), then Colombia decided that would be permanent, while Ecuador's President Lenín Moreno took away its building and turned it into an indigenous university.

This only leaves Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. As houses go, that's not very big, and one of the rooms is burning down.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Trump Tariffs Take Hold in Mexico and That's Good for Chile

John, a former student of mine who has now lived in Mexico City for years, emailed me about a personal effect of tariffs. In response to Donald Trump's trade war, Mexico imposed tariffs on apples. Mexico's choices of tariffs were specifically aimed at conservative rural America where Trump support was highest.

John noticed how the price of the Washington apples he normally bought had shot up. Turns out, though, that Mexico also has a free trade agreement with Chile. Chilean apples were cheaper, so for the first time ever he bought them.

But the story doesn't quite end there, because some Chilean apples were Del Monte, whereas others were Frusan, a Chilean company. So if you bought red, you were supporting Chilean growers and a U.S. company, and with yellow you were supporting only Chile.

U.S. growers lose in all scenarios, as then of course do the workers. Mexico is the top export destination for U.S. apples, so the 20% tariff hurts a lot. It is not yet clear whether the tentative new agreement fixes that. The only bright side for the industry is that the 2018 pre-tariff exports were higher than normal so they had a cushion. Growers are still concerned:

“The apple harvest is just kicking off across America and that’s normally a season of enthusiasm,” U.S. Apple president and CEO Jim Bair said in the release. “But this year the impact of disputes with Mexico, India, Canada and China, our No. 1, 2, 3 and 6 export markets, will be felt deeply across the industry. Our growers want Congress to know the damage being caused in their jurisdictions by these trade disputes.”
This is a nice boost for Chile, which to this point barely registered in the Mexican apple market. Chile exports apples all over the world (India is its largest market) and I would imagine that a new market is entirely welcome.

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Economic Policy Under Latin American Conservatives

Glen Biglaiser and Ronald J. McGauvran, "Political Mandate and Clarity of Responsibility: Economic Policies under Rightist Governments in Latin America," Latin American Research Review 53, 2 (2018): 250-272.

Abstract:


Since the mid-1990s, some rightist governments in Latin America have adhered to a strict market orientation while others have shown less attachment to doctrinaire neoliberal policies, a puzzle as rightists are expected to favor minimal government intervention in the economy. In an environment over the past two decades in which market-oriented policies, in general, have grown increasingly unpopular with many Latin Americans, we contend that rightists have less political cover to endorse neoliberal policies. Using panel data for eighteen Latin American countries from 1995 to 2015, we find that, because of the clarity of responsibility that occurs under political mandates and the unpopularity of market reforms, mandate-holding rightist governments will tend to go against their ideological preferences and decrease neoliberal policies. Our findings indicate that as presidential vote margins increase and responsibility for unpopular economic policies becomes clearer, rightist executives will be less willing to support such policies, but only to a point. The results suggest that clarity of responsibility can influence presidential decision-making concerning unpopular policies, especially microeconomic policies, but this influence diminishes as presidents become more electorally secure.
The upshot here is that conservative governments prefer neoliberal policies but find them impractical to push because it gets pushback and they lose support. I don't see this as a puzzle as much as the authors do--it has been a long time since anyone expected conservative governments to act like they did in the early 1990s. Even the conservative Venezuelan opposition has taken pains to say it wouldn't dismantle everything.

There is an insight worth mentioning in particular. Conservative presidents are more likely to hold onto macro-level policies (e.g. trade openness) and reform micro-level ones (e.g. wages). This is an important distinction because "neoliberal" does often get treated as a single thing rather than a large collection of different policies at different levels. But you can sign a free trade agreement while also creating new laws to protect workers.

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Trump Administration Lectures Latin America on China

It is now conventional wisdom that the Trump administration's Latin America policy is accelerating China's diplomatic and economic overtures to the region. Latin America is also becoming more vocal about that fact. Jorge Guajardo:

No Latin American country right now feels in any way encumbered or indebted to the United States with President Trump referring to the region the way we know he refers to the region.”
The administration has two options for a response. The first is to reverse its protectionist policies and its racist statements, to find ways of facilitating investment and working in partnership with the region. The second is to lecture Latin America about how stupid it is.

You take a wild guess which option it is taking.

Latin America would prefer to work with the U.S. more than with China. The ties are deeper, the cultural gap much smaller, the language gap minimal. But this is a case where the U.S. is simultaneously shoving Latin America away and criticizing it for looking elsewhere.

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

U.S. and Venezuelan Coup Plans

The New York Times reports that Trump administration officials met with Venezuelan coup plotters, some of them very corrupt. Here are points that jumped out at me.

First, for all the talk of how the U.S. has lost its influence in Latin America, plotters were basically begging the U.S. government to take an active role, literally asserting that U.S. involvement was the only way they could succeed. Often, what plotters need is just a green light rather than material support per se. What this means it that if a coup does happen, chances are high the U.S. actively helped it.

Second, it is good news that not even the most extreme Trump officials gave a green light. However, that mostly seems to be the case because they did not deem any plots to be well developed enough and they did not want an overt hand in. This news story alone will encourage more plotting.

Third, Robert Jacobson, certainly no hardliner, liked the idea of talking to them because the U.S. needed to know where the military stood. This is a sign of how desperate the situation is. I don't see her as a coup plotting type.

Fourth, look for arrests. You can bet that Nicolás Maduro is currently in a paranoid frenzy, not unlike Trump and the anonymous memo.

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Friday, September 07, 2018

Political Effects of a Brazilian Stabbing

Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed and had emergency surgery to treat some serious injuries. MercoPress offers up this little tidbit:

Brazil's Bovespa extended gains after the stabbing as traders bet the incident could boost support for Bolsonaro, who has tapped a University of Chicago-trained banker as his main economic adviser.
I can think of three main reasons people would think this. First, sympathy. The attack humanizes an otherwise pretty disgusting individual  He's more like you, you feel sorry for him, that sort of thing.

Second, tied to sympathy is concern about crime in Brazil. He now is a victim of that crime and can become an even stronger advocate for a mano dura approach to combating it.

Third, it can reflect echoes of a Cold War past where paranoia about left-wing terrorism was rampant. The military government was founded and sustained with the core belief that leftists were trying to destroy the country, which led to extensive repression. Some Brazilians may feel the attack is connected to the Worker's Party in some way, and vote for the right as a way to reject that.

I don't know how much these things will affect the outcome, but we do know it's very much up in the air, so every little thing counts. If Donald Trump had been viciously attacked before the 2016 election, I could imagine people feeling better about him.

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Thursday, September 06, 2018

Trump Administration Chaos and Venezuela

The bombshell NYT op-ed by an anonymous Trump administration official is still reverberating everywhere. Naturally, I thought about how it related to Trump's Latin America policy and my conclusion is somewhat disturbing.

The op-ed's point, which echoes interviews from Bob Woodward's new book, is that officials subvert Trump by not letting him see things, ignoring orders, etc. But for Latin America, Trump is getting a lot of encouragement. Establishment politicians like Marco Rubio call for military intervention, as do Bush administration officials. Mauricio Claver-Carone is a Cuba and Venezuela hardliner. These aren't fringe alt-right types.

Last year, Trump apparently talked a lot about invading Venezuela and was brought to earth by Rex Tillerson and HR McMaster. They're not in the administration anymore, so is anonymous also the only one holding the line against it? How many sane people are still in the asylum? And how many sane people stand between Trump and invasion?

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Wednesday, September 05, 2018

US Cuba Policy Under Trump

Dan Erikson has a good discussion of U.S.-Cuban relations. I like this point:

I think that U.S. interests would be best served in Cuba by allowing a much wider swathe of American society to engage with the island. Governments are notoriously bad at picking winners and losers. Having served in the U.S. government, I don’t think we are serving the American people effectively by trying to micromanage how, when, and why they engage with the Cuba people. I think that my fellow citizens are perfectly capable of deciding which church or school or museum to visit, where to travel, and how to best experience Cuba in ways that will build ties of friendship and respect with the Cuban people and lead to positive change.
This has been a major paradox of U.S. Cuba policy, which is that politicians and pundits who speak the loudest about personal freedom from government control are also the loudest about having the government control how you engage with Cubans.

This is also an interesting point:
Even though the Trump Administration has adopted a more aggressive tone regarding Cuba, it often seems kind of perfunctory, like they are phoning it in. Their real passion in the hemisphere is directed towards Venezuela, which of course is connected to Cuba, but has also surpassed it as a U.S. foreign policy focus. As far as I can tell, the U.S. bilateral relationship with Cuba is in suspended animation right now, with a few exceptions.
I tend to agree with this, since there is some hot rhetoric but not much strategy that I can discern. It tinkers with Obama but doesn't roll it back to Bush (though I must say this seems preferable to the Bush policy). Maybe the lack of strategy will change with the naming of well-known anti-Cuba activist Mauricio Claver-Carone to lead Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council. Donald Trump may or may not give it any bandwidth at all, especially with the Russia investigation taking up his attention. On the other hand, nothing like some harsh foreign policy to get your base excited when you're on the defensive.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Cycles of Argentine Economic Woes

In the 1990s, Carlos Menem pushed a series of market reforms (including the infamous dollar peg) to finally cure the woes of the Argentine economy. Then the global economy slowed, Brazil devalued, and things fell apart. The pain of austerity measures gave way to the rise of leftist populism under Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández. They were going to solve the problems that Menem created.

After years of their two administrations, Argentina had sunk back down again, and here we are. Since 2015, Mauricio Macri has been unable to deal with debt and the weak peso, and just announced his own austerity measures as the peso plunged and investors lost confidence. There will be pain again.

There is a sad and ideology-free flavor to this. If you are an Argentine voter, who do you turn to? Do you just retreat to clientelist relationships?

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Saturday, September 01, 2018

Who Is Behind the Cuba Sonic Attack?

The New York Times returns to the Cuba sonic attack affair, with an extensive analysis of the leading hypothesis: microwaves.


In particular, a growing number of analysts cite an eerie phenomenon known as the Frey effect, named after Allan H. Frey, an American scientist. Long ago, he found that microwaves can trick the brain into perceiving what seem to be ordinary sounds.

The false sensations, the experts say, may account for a defining symptom of the diplomatic incidents — the perception of loud noises, including ringing, buzzing and grinding. Initially, experts cited those symptoms as evidence of stealthy attacks with sonic weapons.
The leading potential culprit is Russia working with Cubans in the government who do not want diplomatic thaw with the United States. This makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, the article does not do anything at all to discuss how that would work within Cuba. I assume such technology would be controlled by the Cuban military, which in turn is controlled by Raúl Castro. Could the Russians realistically import it into Cuba without anyone knowing? Could multiple attacks be staged over time under the nose of Cuba intelligence, famous for its competence? It seems too sophisticated to be kept secret from Raúl, who has no incentive that I can think of to approve. Or is his level of control lower than I think?

I would love to see a Cuba analyst add that part to the otherwise highly detailed article.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

U.S. Invasion of Venezuela (Again)

Senator Marco Rubio says he spoke with John Bolton about all the options in Venezuela. And it's all crazy, about threats and Russians.

"Yo creo que las Fuerzas Armadas de Estados Unidos solamente se utilizan en caso de amenaza a la seguridad nacional. Creo que hay un argumento, muy fuerte, que se puede hacer en este momento de que Venezuela y el régimen de (Nicolás) Maduro se ha convertido en una amenaza para la región e incluso para Estados Unidos", asegura Rubio en un extracto de una entrevista compartido en la cuenta oficial de Twitter de su equipo de prensa.
...
"Maduro es un gobierno que apoya a narcotraficantes, a guerrilleros y a grupos terroristas que están amenazando la estabilidad de Colombia. Está desestabilizando a varios países y, si se le ocurre a Maduro invitar a que (Vladimir) Putin mande aviones militares, por ejemplo, o que abran una base, esto va a acelerarse aún más todavía. Yo creo que las circunstancias han cambiado y lo dejo ahí", indicó.
It's not the first time Rubio has waded into this. This is so discouraging. I am not going to reiterate all the many reasons why U.S. military action would be a disaster both for Venezuelans and for U.S. security. Here are some of them.

We can only hope that this is mostly just fodder for conservative Venezuelan-Americans and Cuban-Americans. It's interesting that this was disseminated via a video on Rubio's Spanish language Twitter account but is not mentioned at all in his English one. Therefore this is currently being reported only in Spanish--I could not find mention of it in English, thus suggesting perhaps that he cares only about a narrow constituency.

On the other hand, Bolton likes invading countries.

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

What To Do About Lula

Mac Margolis at Bloomberg challenges Jorge Castañeda's argument about why Lula should be allowed to run. I had written about his piece and how I tended to agree.

The arguments against it are not trivial. We need to attack corruption, we need not to excuse anyone, and we need even icons to be held accountable. But I think Margolis takes it too far in the other direction. For one thing, I don't see Lula as a "hero" and Castañeda clearly didn't either. This isn't about foreigners (for that is who Margolis is aimed at) letting their idols go free, or at least I don't think it is for most observers.

Further, the experiences of both Lula and Dilma Rousseff were highly politicized so we can certainly talk about the progress made by the Brazilian judiciary, but Lula's case has judges issuing contradictory decisions, just elevating the sense of political pressure. Legal experts had questions about the whole process against him.

I guess what nags at me is the certainty the two arguments have. Supporters say he is innocent and this is all collusion. His opponents say this is all fair. Neither sits well with me.

Ultimately, what is best for Brazilian democracy? If Lula is not allowed to run, you could call that a victory because it means corruption is attacked at even the highest level. But it will also mean that a good chunk of the Brazilian electorate will lose even more of their confidence in democracy, at a time when Brazil has the lowest satisfaction with democracy (13%) of any Latin American country.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Gold in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro has been talking a lot about gold recently. He announced that part of his economic recovery plan was to get people to save in gold. Well, actually, not gold, but rather a piece of paper from the government saying it is worth gold. In other words, a gold standard. That may or may not be backed by gold at all. You have only Maduro's word for it. But that is, in fact, how he even proposes that businesses play a role in that recovery as an effort to get around ballooning hyperinflation.

This increasingly has a medieval flavor. There are already plenty of stories about the Venezuelan barter economy. The national currency has no value and the government's various efforts to find alternate currencies don't generate any confidence. In such circumstances, it makes sense that people might look to the basic metal that humans have put value into. The point of that, though, is to have the gold in your own possession, not as a promise from the government that has no intention of keeping its promises.

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Pam Muñoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising

My daughter's fifth grade class is going to read Pam Muñoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising and since we had just bought it I decided to read it as well. It is the story of a girl from Aguascalientes in the 1930s who has to leave Mexico after her father is killed. Her mother takes her to California to meet up with family of their servants in the central valley town of Arvin, where they work in a company agricultural camp.

The story itself is simple (riches to rags) and the characters not entirely developed but I kept reminding myself that I wasn't the audience. I really like the idea of children in the U.S. having to think about the issues in the novel.

There is of course the question of discrimination, but also social class. Esperanza's family had money in Mexico and she took that for granted. She had to then see what it was like to be poor and how that felt. There is the issue of how workers are treated, why strikes happen, and the difficult questions they pose (should I strike when I need to feed my family? What happens when other workers accept less than me? What could a strike accomplish?). What is fair? Indeed, how does the "American Dream" work for some people versus others?

We'd all be better off if more children had to grapple with these questions, humanizing immigrants and even understanding a bit more of the history of Latin American migration to the United States.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Return to the Fatherland Plan

Earlier this year, the Venezuelan government announced the "Plan Vuelve a la Patria" (Return to the Fatherland Plan) whereby Venezuelans abroad who wanted to return but did not have the resources could come to the embassy and make their case.

Now around 100 Venezuelans in Peru accepted that offer and are flying home.

In interviews with The Associated Press, several of those returning said they had difficulty finding jobs and encountered hurtful xenophobia that made a recent offer by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to fly them back appealing — a sharp contrast to the plight of hundreds of thousands of compatriots now trying to leave.
This is just sad all around. People never want to just up and leave their country. They fled Venezuela because conditions had become too intolerable. And yet conditions are even worse abroad, where the reaction to Venezuelans has begun to sour. In other words, they aren't returning because the Venezuelan economy has improved. If anything, it's the opposite. So Venezuelans must choose between two kinds of misery.

This is just a drop in the bucket, a tiny handful of stories. Millions of Venezuelans have emigrated and although we don't know how many would return if they could, we do know that the government can't actually afford to fly them all.

Misery abroad or misery at home. That's your choice.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Should Lula Be Allowed to Run?

Jorge Castañeda makes the case in the New York Times that Lula should be allowed to run for president. Basically, the logic is that Brazilian democracy is already damaged and weak, and allowing him to run is the least bad option.

There is no good solution to this dilemma, especially in a country that has a terribly discredited political elite and is barely emerging from the worst economic recession in decades. Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing candidate, apparently advised, among others, by Steve Bannon, is running second to Lula in the polls. He appeals to the racist, homophobic and sexist streaks always present in Brazilian society and to a growing anti-establishment feeling. Clearly, Mr. Bolsonaro is a greater threat to democracy in Brazil than Mr. da Silva’s excesses, were they all to be confirmed. 
... 
The charges brought against him are too flimsy, the purported crime so petty (until now), the sentence so brazenly disproportionate and the stakes so high that in Latin America today, democracy should trump — so to speak — the rule of law. In an ideal world, the two go together and certainly do not clash with each other. In Brazil, they do. I’ll go with democracy, warts and all.
I buy this argument. Lula is no more objectionable than anyone else. Bolsonaro will have a worse impact on democracy than Lula. Two Trumps in the hemisphere is too much.

At the same time, this is not good for the Worker's Party. Parties need to transcend individuals and no one seems ready to step in.

The judicial decision will be coming soon.

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hideo Yokoyama's Sixty Four

Hideo Yokoyama's Sixty Four is one of the most unusual police procedural murder mystery books I have ever read. I was intrigued immediately, with the combination of the narrator Mikami's missing daughter and the seemingly cold case of a kidnapping and murder of a 7 year old girl.

My initial excitement slowed down with the slog of Japanese bureaucratic infighting and overly detailed discussion of how the Japanese police function. At page 200 I was almost ready to stop reading, especially as one mystery gets explained solely in terms of bureaucratic infighting. As a reader, I don't care about who is in charge of what in what division. But I wanted to know more about the other mysteries and was rewarded. The book requires some patience, including an avalanche of names, many of them quite similar in English (this is a translation so perhaps it is less confusing in the original). There is a brief list of main characters at the front, which is useful but far from comprehensive.

As you go, you will see how that back story matters to the bigger story about the kidnapping, which is far more interesting and driven by people rather than bureaucracies. I raced through the last 100 pages in particular but my interest had been re-engaged far before that. It's the beginning that requires real patience.

If, like me, you work somewhere in middle management within a large bureaucracy, you can identify with the hard work people do and how they want to do the right thing, how they deal with adversity, how they aspire to show their competence. The very end of the book reflects that as well.

But finally, and more importantly for me, there is real emotion in the book. As the father of two young daughters, I strongly identified with those who had lost theirs. So much of the plot made good sense to me as a result.

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Saturday, August 25, 2018

Race 8: Yiasou Greek Festival 5K

In the next installment of my year of running (see the first post here) I did the Yiasou Greek Festival 5K. It's labeled as "Charlotte's Flattest 5K) and although I don't know if that's true, it is definitely nice and flat, all around East Boulevard.


It was a beautiful morning, with the hint that fall is coming. This is part of the Run For Your Life Six Pack that my wife and I did last year and are doing again this year. One nice bonus is that NoDa Brewing Company is a sponsor and there is a tasty craft beer at the end of each race.

Next up: Hit the Brixx 10K

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Friday, August 24, 2018

White House Statement on El Salvador and China, Annotated

Here is the official White House statement on the Salvadoran government's decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, with my annotations.

On Tuesday, the Government of El Salvador announced it would discontinue its decades-long diplomatic relations with Taipei in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. 


Just like we did, almost 40 years ago.

The leaders of El Salvador’s governing party have made this decision, which will have implications for decades to come, in a non-transparent fashion only months before they leave office. 

"Non-transparent" means "you did it on your own without asking our permission, which is really annoying."

This is a decision that affects not just El Salvador, but also the economic health and security of the entire Americas region. 

Because...well, we're not sure, but it's really bad.

The El Salvadoran government’s receptiveness to China’s apparent interference in the domestic politics of a Western Hemisphere country is of grave concern to the United States, and will result in a reevaluation of our relationship with El Salvador.

We figure all your decisions are based on some other country's interference. But it should be our interference only.

Countries seeking to establish or expand relations with China in order to attract state-directed investment that will stimulate short-term economic growth and infrastructure development may be disappointed over the long run.

We just prefer that disappointment be generated primarily from private interests and not the state.

Around the world, governments are waking up to the fact that China’s economic inducements facilitate economic dependency and domination, not partnership.

We know better than you and you're asleep at the wheel. Just let us drive.

The United States will continue to oppose China’s destabilization of the cross-Strait relationship and political interference in the Western Hemisphere.

Tariffs, baby!


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Venezuela Oil Sanctions

The Trump administration is seriously considering sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil. The basic strategy is to make people's lives miserable enough that they rise up.

Some administration officials are worried that Venezuela’s problems are becoming the new normal. People inside, who want change, whether it’s the opposition, military or private sector need to take more aggressive steps, another administration official said. 
“We need the people to stand up,” the official said. “it’s not going to be an external force that creates change.”
I like that they're rejecting an "external force" but this is not nearly so simple. The U.S. has already sanctioned dozens of officials, making them less likely to overthrow Maduro. Further, deprivation alone doesn't automatically do it. Keep Zimbabwe in mind there, or even Cuba (where many thought regime change imminent when the Soviet Union disappeared).

I've now been posting about Venezuela sanctions for over four years and my thoughts haven't changed all that much. The most likely outcome is suffering and no regime change. Yes, there could be a straw that breaks the camel's back, but the chance of change is just not high.

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

More Displacement in Colombia

A representative from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that forced displacement in Colombia this year have already surpassed all of 2018. Violence has actually worsened in several different parts of the country.

La situación es crítica en varias regiones del país, sobre todo en la costa Pacífica, en El Catatumbo y en el Bajo Cauca Antioqueño. En esas tres zonas del país el conflicto armado no cesó con el acuerdo de paz entre el Estado y las Farc. Actores armados con el Eln, el Epl, las disidencias de las Farc y grupos paramilitares hacen presencia en dichas regiones. En el 2018 se ha intensificado la guerra en esas zonas, por lo cual se ha incrementado el desplazamiento forzado. En departamentos como Meta, Arauca y Córdoba también se han presentado desplazamientos masivos.
Even worse, often they are going to the same places as Venezuelan refugees. That becomes one of now numerous incentives for the government--already less tolerant of Venezuelans than its predecessor--to cut the flow of those refugees.

It is always worth reminding everyone that Colombia right there with Syria when it comes to internall displaced people. The scope of the problem is enormous.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Mexico Wall Failures

The General Accounting Office released a report on the border wall prototypes that came out of the governments call for bids. The upshot is that they are failures and this will cost more money than U.S. Customs and Border Protection can afford.

DHS plans to spend billions of dollars developing and deploying new barriers along the southwest border. However, by proceeding without key information on cost, acquisition baselines, and the contributions of previous barrier and technology deployments, DHS faces an increased risk that the Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected. Without assessing costs when prioritizing locations for future barriers, CBP does not have complete information to determine whether it is using its limited resources in the most cost-effective manner and does not have important cost information that would help it develop future budget requests. Without documenting plans to require CBP to follow the DHS acquisition process for the San Diego barrier segment, DHS may not establish cost, schedule, and performance goals by which it can measure the program’s progress. In addition, Border Patrol should continue to implement our prior recommendations to assess the contributions of existing barriers and technologies deployed along the southwest border and consider this information when making future border security investments.
The Department of Homeland Security is mostly stumbling around with this, though it's not easy to implement bad ideas.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

The Venezuela Immigration Crisis

The Venezuelan emigration crisis is truly a regional one. See links below to recent news stories from every country in Latin America that is not already a major sending country, which Nicaragua is also gradually becoming.

There needs to be a regional summit dedicated solely to Venezuelan immigration and it needs to take place immediately. It does not matter what you think of the Venezuelan government, and indeed that should not be the focus of any such gathering. What matters is how you manage that flow, when economic precarity quickly fosters xenophobia in receiving countries. Without any coordination, we are likely to see countries start copying each other and cracking down, which just worsens human suffering.

Argentina

Bolivia

Brazil

Chile

Colombia

Costa Rica

Ecuador

Guyana

Mexico

Panama

Paraguay

Peru

And last but not least, Venezuelans account for a lot of people in the United States who overstay visas.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Trajectory of Bolivian Politics

Miguel Centellas has a nice article in Chile's Revista de Ciencia Política analyzing Bolivian politics and economics in 2017. The upshot is that although there are question marks, some serious, things are going quite well. The biggest question mark is Evo Morales himself, particularly when the constitutional court abolished term limits, arguing that the constitution could not be an obstacle to the individual right to run for office.

It has become increasingly clear that Evo Morales has no intention of leaving the presidency and there are few (if any) meaningful constraints on his ability to stay in office indefinitely. It is comforting to realize that the last few years have seen a tremendous institutional strengthening, professionalization, and sophistication of the electoral court—and especially to know that the court’s leadership was willing to challenge the constitutional court’s decision to allow Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019. The problem is that confidence even in elections, along with confidence in most other institutions, is eroding. Thus, the real challenge will come if and when voters reject Morales definitively. Adam Przeworski once famously quipped that “democracy is a system in which parties lose elections” (1991: 10). Perhaps the best evidence for a consolidation of Bolivia’s post-2003 democratic system will come when MAS loses a presidential election.
Concentration of power in one individual is not good for democracy, but this is up to Bolivians. There is every indication they did not favor allowing further re-election, but that is not the same as saying they would not vote for Evo if he were on the ballot. Clearly, though, his approval has waned.

With regard to Evo Morales grooming someone and stepping aside, I wonder whether the Ecuador and Colombia examples are giving him even more pause. In both cases, the protégé quickly went in a different (and for them undesirable) direction.

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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cuba and the Media

As the President of the United States attacks the free press, it is interesting to see a parallel discussion going on in Cuba. Granma reports on the government's argument for the press' role in the national debate over constitutional reform. "Freedom of the press" obviously does not mean reporting on whatever you like without government intervention.

Instead, it means "building consensus." The way this is described is to collect opinions and explain how they will be evaluated, presumably to give people confidence that the final decision--which will be made by the Communist Party--is considered consensual. The point is "blocking the possibility that a private monopoly re-emerge in Cuba's media sector." The media's job, then, is to serve the state by getting buy-in. That is the "decisive role" it will play.

I am curious about the private monopoly reference and what it might have to do with the leadership change. It seems like calls for freedom of the press actually reflect some fear that it might actually happen.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Mattis Talks Latin American Politics

Two days ago I criticized Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for his comments on China's role in Latin America. I wrote that I hoped he had better messages during his trip. Fortunately, there have been some. In a talk at Brazil's War College, he touched on three things I very much agree with.

First, there needs to be a regional response to the Venezuelan crisis that is not led by the United States. The U.S. should provide humanitarian and other assistance, but this should be a Latin American initiative.

Second, Venezuela is "not a military matter." I am glad he reiterated that given Donald Trump's trap flapping about all options being on the table. Using the U.S. military, or any other military, should not be on the table.

Third, the military should not participate in election campaigns. This was in pointed reference to Jair Bolsonaro's running mate, retired General Antonio Hamilton Mourao. The "retired' part is a gray area for me. In my mind, the line is drawn when the individual is running as a retired general, as an identity. Mourao has just been chosen so I don't know how the campaign portrays him, but we do know he's been public about possible military intervention, which is dangerous.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Getting Gas in Venezuela

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

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

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

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Jim Mattis on Latin America

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, August 09, 2018

Assassination in Venezuela

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


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

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

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

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Trump Hurts Taiwan in Latin America

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

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

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

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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Venezuelan Immigrants in Colombia: Permanent or Temporary?

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

US-Colombian Relations Under Trump and Duque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, August 04, 2018

Race 7: Balboa Park 8 Miler

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


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

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

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Friday, July 27, 2018

What To Do When You Hate the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 23, 2018

MORENA Thanks California

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

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

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Andrew Shaffer's Hope Never Dies

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

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

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Why Is Immigration So Important to People?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

How Will AMLO Deal With NAFTA?

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

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

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

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Russia-Nicaragua Security Nexus?

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

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

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

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

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The Wrong Way to Address the Venezuelan Emigration Crisis

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Reintegrating Former Salvadoran Gang Members

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

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

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The Disaster of Zero Tolerance

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

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

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

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Electoral Systems and Padres Uniforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 16, 2018

How Does Trump Choose His Latin American Foes?

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

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

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

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