Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review of Cathedral of the Sea

Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral of the Sea is historical fiction set in 14th century Barcelona, following the life of Arnau Estanyol as he goes from impoverished orphan to wealth and status. I thought the novel would be focused on the building of the Santa María de la Mar cathedral, but it served more as a symbolic backdrop and source of inspiration for Arnau. Of course, this is the Inquisition, which touches on virtually everything. It's an entertaining novel.

The novel is centered in many ways on class differences, the way nobles mistreat everyone else, but how the people can fight back. The unique role of Catalonia is critical to this because there are customs and norms that Castilians must accept. That angle represents some of the most interesting parts of the book, especially when Catalonia and the Inquisition clash.

The words "saga" and "sprawling" are cliches but fit. This becomes difficult at times because there are a lot of characters and periodically I lost track, especially when they reappeared after a long time. The dialogue at times can be rather wooden, though I though both the story and the characters really came to life in last 150 pages or so, which were much better than the beginning. There is even a bit of a twist at the end--not everything is tied up perfectly, which worked well in my opinion.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Challenges of Honduran Dialogue

The Alianza de Oposición in Honduras says it will accept Juan Orlando Hernández's offer of dialogue if there is an international mediator. Further, it called for protests and blocking highways on January 20, which is inauguration day, that would go almost a week.

But where does this go? A statement from the Honduran Bishops' Conference helps explain the dilemma.

In an open letter addressed to both Hernandez and Nasralla, the Honduran episcopate stressed the importance of transparent communication between the parties and all sectors of society. The religious delegation stated “the absence of dialogue” was the actual cause of the nation’s current political crisis.
...
The congregation of bishops suggested a respectful, earnest and fair exchange between the two politicians to give proof to their love of the Honduran people. This meeting should avoid awarding concessions to either party in order to quell the region's anxiety and settle on a solution which best suits the society.

This does not bear much resemblance to reality. A lawless elite power grab was the actual cause of the crisis, not absence of dialogue. And dialogue that never involves concessions automatically means favoring Juan Orlando Hernández and the status quo.

So what is the point of the dialogue? The protests apply pressure, but for what? The Alianza says that in the short term, it is about examining all the election evidence. In the long term, however, it is the creation of an "Asamblea Nacional Constituyente Originaria" and specifically that JOH is removed from power.

It stands to reason that the dialogue will focus on the election itself. This is an uphill battle since the government and the army currently have no interest in revisiting it.  The army claims the protesters aren't even Honduran!

Inevitably, JOH will be looking for signals from the United States, where he will see John Kelly winking at him in approval (I doubt Kelly is a winking person, but whatever). There is no public regional pressure that I have discerned, and Mexico has already congratulated JOH. The OAS has been loud but it has no leverage.

All the Alianza has right now is protest so it's primary challenge is to avoid protest fatigue. It will be hard enough to convince the army that it should pressure the government, and it will be impossible if the protests fizzle out. Honduras is not Venezuela but it's poor and people cannot afford simply not to work for days on end. Convincing them that real change is possible is tough--that's just not what Honduran political history has taught them.




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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Impact of John Feeley's Resignation

Juan González, who has served in a number of diplomatic capacities for U.S. policy toward Latin America, has a piece in Americas Quarterly about the resignation of John Feeley, who said he could no longer work for the Trump administration. This particular resignation is creating waves. President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have thoroughly demoralized the State Department and are wrecking our Latin American diplomacy.

The big question now is how much of a chain reaction we see.

Others may also follow Feeley’s lead during the summer foreign service transition season. I’ve heard from more than a few gifted diplomats who – as patriots – cannot in good faith advance policies and views that so clearly undermine and hurt U.S. standing and interests abroad, some in locations the president of the United States considers “shit hole” countries. Combine the brain drain at senior levels with the drop in people taking the foreign service exam, and you start having a serious institutional problem that could take a generation to fix.

These diplomats facilitate U.S. soft power. I don't want the U.S. to act as an imperial power, but neither do I want it to be clueless about Latin America, and that's where we're heading. I want better policy, not no policy. Our policy toward Honduras shows both. As does Mexico policy. As does El Salvador policy. Colombia policy sometimes seems to move in that direction. We're moving in a direction that hurts both Latin America and the United States.

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Chile's Capitalist Ranking

There are a variety of indices out there purporting to show how amenable a given country is to capitalism. These are infected with all sorts of biases and political motivations. The news about the World Bank and Chile is just confirmation.


The bank’s chief economist Paul Romer told the Wall Street Journal Friday that Chile’s recent slide in the “Doing Business” index was almost entirely due to methodological changes that could have been politically motivated, and not by deterioration in the country’s business environment. Romer released figures Monday that showed what would have happened to Chile’s ranking without the changes.

This is sensitive in Chile, where Michelle Bachelet's second term was littered with accusations that was practically a communist and the markets breathed a sigh of relief when the right won the presidency again. Political opponents use such rankings to confirm their suspicions of leftist subversion.

We shouldn't need a reminder but perhaps we do: the World Bank is not just an apolitical technocratic organization. Its founding was fundamentally political, as is its functioning. And bias floats all throughout politics.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Julian Assange is Ecuadorian

Rafael Correa first lauded Julian Assange as a warrior against the imperialist United States, then got tired of his political pronouncements and even pulled the plug on his internet when he seemed to be getting negative attention in the U.S. presidential race. Lenín Moreno similarly expressed frustration and Assange even went after him on Twitter.

Yet Ecuador just made him a citizen. I am still wrapping my head around this one. Moreno has nothing to gain politically from the move, but his Foreign Minister talked about increasing the "ring of protection" around him. One possibility is just that Ecuador wants to get him out of their embassy, and this is one way they can facilitate that more easily. In other words, give him what he wants so he gets out of your hair. The problem, of course, is that citizenship means he's in your hair, possibly for the rest of your life.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Politics of Chinese Tourism in Mexico

The Mexican Minister of Tourism said that Mexico must become less dependent on the United States for tourism and find more partners. Given political uncertainty in the U.S. this makes perfect sense.

Can you guess which was the only English-language outlet to report on this? That would be Chinese state media. And, incidentally, that same cabinet minister had traveled to China in 2016 to promote more Chinese tourism in Mexico. I assume he's made more than one such trip.

I do not want to make too much of this, but the shift is real and has been gradually been happening for years. Further, the Trump administration has definitely prompted Latin America in general to find new partners in just about everything. The United States is seen as an unreliable partner, which goes far beyond just policy disagreements.

Chinese tourism will go hand in hand with Chinese investment and trade. Screw around with NAFTA and that will accelerate even more. And remember, the Trump administration actually sees China's presence in Latin America as a security concern, even as its actions promote that presence.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Marco Rubio Hypes His Cuba Hearing

The Cuba Sonic Attack issue is one of the weirdest things I've heard of in a long time (I posted in September and October if you want some background). Marco Rubio has been hot on this issue and called a hearing that is going on right now. There are three witnesses for the hearing--the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, someone from the State Department's diplomatic security team, and State's medical director.

You can read their testimony here. It will take you approximately two minutes to read all three because they're far more brief than most testimony you see. What they mostly say is that they don't know what's going on. That is to their credit. Senator Rubio wants to make this into a crisis. He went on Fox and Friends to hype it. He issued a statement to claim credit for his tenacity:

Following pressure from Rubio, the State Department expelled a number of Cuban operatives from the U.S. after American diplomats were forced to leave Cuba as a result of the Havana attacks. Rubio has also pushed back on the idea that the Cuban government, which tightly controls and monitors the island, denies knowing anything about the attacks that injured at least 24 American diplomatic personnel.

This is old school "get tough on Cuba" talk, in which Rubio is well versed. It stands in odd contrast to the (thankfully) measured message of Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration, which has not tried to sensationalize it. I can't think of what audience this appeals to beyond the typical hard-line anti-Castro type.

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Running Elections in El Salvador

Especially given the fraud by the Electoral Tribunal in Honduras in November, Tim Muth's post on the TSE in El Salvador is thought provoking.

Perhaps the biggest challenge El Salvador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal ("TSE") has right now is to find the more than 94,000 citizens needed to run the vote reception tables across the country.    In previous elections, this was the responsibility of the political parties and the persons at the voting tables could be affiliated with the parties.   The parties recruited, trained and made sure that people showed up  Fairness was ensured by the fact that each of the parties was represented by one of the officials at the tables.   
However, since the last election the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the officials at the voting tables must be non-partisan and unaffiliated with the parties.  Now the TSE must enroll 94,000 nonpartisan officials and train them on a very complicated voting process.   The TSE has gone about this by directly recruiting persons to serve as officials, by using lists proposed by the political parties, and by a citizen draft.

This last part is staggering. The elections are in two months and they need to find 28,000 people, tell them they're working on the election, and fine them if they don't comply! What you'll likely end up with is a mess, with people who don't care and aren't committed to the endeavor. I am not an expert on poll workers, but in the U.S. generally the idea is that opposing parties get some representation. You need as much training and oversight as you can get. Hooking people off the street does not achieve that.

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Monday, January 08, 2018

Podcast Episode 45: TPA and DACA

On Episode 45 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I'm on my own today talking about the decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and how that connects the debate right now about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (altogether about one million people).


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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Profile of John Kelly

Nick Miroff at the Washington Post profiles John Kelly and how his work with Latin America shaped him. We already knew his views were not totally in sync with Trump and that he tended to embrace the alarmist Middle Eastern terrorist threat narrative. But you can see more about how his son's death affected him and prompted him to get out of his military comfort zone. In Latin America he is a man with a mission, and that is fundamentally conservative, sometimes zealously so.

What's still not clear is why he chose the job and stayed in it. Perhaps it's just that sense of mission. As interviewees in the article note, it must eat at him to be defending someone like Trump. There is a strong ideological thread between them, though, and it may well be that Kelly buys into that strongly enough to stay the course.

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Friday, January 05, 2018

Richard Nixon Talks to Fidel Castro

The National Security Archive released a large number of documents related to U.S.-Cuba diplomacy. These were the basis for Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande's book Back Channel to Cuba (which I reviewed here). Here's a fun one written by then Vice President Richard Nixon after his conversation with Fidel Castro in 1959.

As so often happens when you read Nixon is that he often has very sound advice that he actually is incapable of taking himself. He talks to Nixon about not abusing power, not "following the mob," to appoint good people, and to learn how to take criticism well. Essentially you have two power hungry leaders who are talking past each other.

And, of course, it has to end with paternalism. Nixon's last sentence is that "we have no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right direction." He wasn't really listening to anything Fidel was saying, and certainly Fidel had no interest in and probably complete contempt for Nixon's opinions.

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Dialogue in Honduras and Venezuela

Various groups are calling for dialogue in Honduras. For some reason, the German Embassy is one.  This sounds nice. Dialogue is always good, right? The problem is that the context is the same as Venezuela's. The president wants to have a dialogue with everyone and live in peace. The opposition wants the president removed. There is no compromise position to aim for.

The government has all the leverage, especially if it has the army's support. It simply wants to buy time until the heat of the protests dies down. You may remember that in 2009 there was also dialogue. Here's what I wrote then:

If protests dwindle and most people go back to their daily routines, then the crisis might easily revert to its previous situation of ticking off the days until the election. Just as before, there is little overt international pressure on the coup government, or at least not enough to change its stance.

And that's what happened. The days ticked off and corruption settled in even deeper.

I wrote back in 2014 that one positive aspect of dialogue in Venezuela was simply goodwill. Having people see each other as humans and fellow Venezuelans/Hondurans is an important step and at least can reduce violence. But the fact that I wrote that four years ago (and the Honduras post 9 years ago!) and nothing was achieved is an indicator of how hard it is to make dialogue reduce conflict in the long term. There isn't any reason not to dialogue and negotiated transitions do sometimes happen, but if the army is not on board then it's hard to see much happening.


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Thursday, January 04, 2018

Podcast Episode 44: The Election Mess in Honduras

In Episode 44 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk to Christine Wade, Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College. She studies Central America and recently published Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador and also the ninth edition of Latin American Politics and Development. The topic is Honduras and the aftermath of the November 2017 presidential election. We make every effort to end on some sort of high note, with mixed results.


This is her second time on the podcast. I talked with her back in November 2016 about the Nicaraguan election.

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U.S. Government Reporting on Latin America

Adam Isacson has links to 17 U.S. government reports on Latin America that he found most useful in 2017. Browsing through was a reminder that there are a lot of very good analysts in the U.S. government. This is the same impression I get when I am periodically invited to give presentations to the State or Defense Departments. These are intelligent and knowledgeable people whose career is dedicated to studying these issues.

As Adam correctly notes, you see the agency blinders they might have on, or disagree with their conclusions, but in my opinion you also see a lot of stuff that would improve U.S. policy if implemented. For example, they call for whole government approaches to drug policy, with a long-term perspective. You see skepticism about Trump's calls for drastically increasing the size of the Border Patrol. You see a greater understanding of the Central American context than any policy maker ever shows.

You certainly see more than Twitter diplomacy could ever capture. It's unfortunate that these voices don't get heard more.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Maduro's 12 Victories

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry** posted an article entitled, "The Twelve Victories of President Maduro in 2017." It is literally not possible to read it and not think that Donald Trump ghostwrote it. Just the first sentence alone:

Para empezar, hay que recordar que el Presidente Nicolás Maduro es el mandatario más injustamente acosado, calumniado y agredido de la historia de Venezuela.

And it gets better. Maduro is David, heroically fighting off the Goliath of the enemies who want to destroy him. The people who were elected but then not allowed to have any actual legislative power? They're angry hordes! The essay literally reads like a comic book.


At no point does the author actually list 12 specific accomplishments, which is also why it is so Trumpesque. He did, we are told, save the country and it quotes Che Guevara. So there's that.

Update: **Note: a reader alerted me to the fact that the Foreign Ministry copied this from what appears to be the original article in Mexico's La Jornada.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Do Not Invade Venezuela

I don't have answers for Venezuela. I do know, however, that there are some options that will make things worse. Invasion is one example. Ricardo Hausmann is now making that case. Here is the crux of his plan:

As solutions go, why not consider the following one: the National Assembly could impeach Maduro and the OFAC-sanctioned, narco-trafficking vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has had more than $500 million in assets seized by the United States government. The Assembly could constitutionally appoint a new government, which in turn could request military assistance from a coalition of the willing, including Latin American, North American, and European countries. This force would free Venezuela, in the same way Canadians, Australians, Brits, and Americans liberated Europe in 1944-1945. Closer to home, it would be akin to the US liberating Panama from the oppression of Manuel Noriega, ushering in democracy and the fastest economic growth in Latin America.

For starters, this is not Panama and should not be compared to it. Manuel Noriega was far more brutal and despised than Nicolás Maduro. Panama was also a country with a history of U.S. presence, occupation, and intervention. Venezuela is the opposite and so the dynamics will be far more combustible. And this sure as hell isn't World War II so stop with those comparisons already.

But back to Venezuela. Who is going to be proclaimed supreme leader of this new government? Obviously he or she won't be elected and the opposition is not popular. Venezuelans have shown no signs that they want someone Hausmann would approve of. This leader will immediately be illegitimate.

Next, the idea that a Latin American country would send its military into Venezuela is problematic. The long-term diplomatic damage would be huge. Right now, leaders can barely be coaxed to condemn Maduro, much less call for violent overthrow. Which European countries would want to be a part of this? Really? And I have to wonder whether Donald Trump is even crazy enough to send U.S. troops.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this would be civil war. Many Chavistas want change but it is dangerous to assume this is the change they want. Many will likely see this as an oil grab, Maduro's conspiracy theories in real life. Foreign soldiers invited by an unelected government will not be received kindly. Venezuela is awash in weapons, and a lot of people will die.

So I don't claim to have answers, but this is one we should reject.

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AMLO's Ordered Change

AMLO published a video message looking forward to 2018. It reflects what assuredly will be a basic strategy for his campaign over the next six months. On the one hand, he made it in southern Mexico (Chichen Itzá) which serves as a visible reminder of his professed commitment to the poorer parts of the country and its indigenous roots.

Critically, however, he adds the idea of "ordered change." He's not talking in revolutionary terms. He's always been careful to keep a safe distance from Hugo Chávez. He even published an op-ed in the Washington Post, about as mainstream a U.S. outlet as you can get, last year setting himself up as the defender of Mexicans in counterpoint both to the PAN and the PRI.

AMLO is a known quantity in Mexico, where he's been running for president for a long time. He's looking for that center-left sweet spot that gathers votes without losing others. "Ordered change" may not be too catchy but it might be his ticket.

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Monday, January 01, 2018

Protesting in Honduras

Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, Mel Zelaya tweeted out a letter calling on Hondurans to take to the streets until Juan Orlando Hernández was defeated (whatever that might exactly mean). It's interesting that he did not do so in conjunction with Salvador Nasralla, who gave a video message on Facebook, calling on Hondurans to push for the government to respect the law.

From a purely practical perspective, this raises the question of who would organize and lead large protests, and who would be willing to follow. Zelaya and Nasralla are already rather an odd couple, and Venezuela offers a fresh example of the problems of having multiple leaders who are not necessarily on the same page.

The odds are already stacked against them. The Honduran army is not known, shall we say, for its commitment to democracy. Then you have the fact that the U.S. is in fact committed to Hernández, as are Canada and Mexico. The OAS is on their side but it has no leverage and little influence. Overall, the outlook is grim for 2018.

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Latin American Politics A Decade Ago

Ten years ago today, I asked some questions about what would happen in 2008.  Not surprisingly, at the end of the year I forgot to come back to them.

--Can Evo Morales ratify a new constitution without serious violence or even civil war? If that happens, then perhaps there is more hope for Ecuador as well.

Yes. It's easy to forget how much the potential for violence hung over Bolivia. Even with the current controversy over Evo Morales running again, it's noteworthy how much that changed. Same with Ecuador.

--Can Hugo Chávez re-energize his base and move forward with his socialist project? And related, will a real opposition movement emerge?

Yes and no. Of course, the latter problem has never gone away.

--Will South America move in a unifying direction (e.g. expanding the Bank of the South, Mercosur, etc.) or will that remain largely rhetorical?

It remains rhetorical. Latin America hasn't unified.

 --Will scandals catch up to Alvaro Uribe or will he remain a Teflon president? Will he also seek to amend the constitution for yet another term? 

He remained Teflon. And although his supporters tested the waters for another term, fortunately for Colombian democracy it didn't happen.

--The same Teflon question could be asked about Lula, since he has scandals (though dealing with corruption rather than paramilitaries!) swirling around as well.

Ditto. Despite even more serious problems, even a conviction, Lula still polls well for the 2018 election. That's Teflon for you.

--Thinking of Lula, where is the biofuel debate going? The corn-based model seems to be creating serious problems (e.g. higher prices) but can sugar—or other products--represent a viable model of alternative fuel? 

The debate is muted. Ten years ago, it was discussed in the U.S. presidential campaign. Of course, biofuels remain a critical issue in Brazil and in fact the legislature just passed a new law to boost ethanol production and also recently opened its first corn-only ethanol plant. At the time there was considerable debate about whether corn ethanol was making food (esp. tortilla) prices go up, but I haven't heard that argument in quite a while.

--In what direction will Cristina Fernández de Kirchner go? Will she depart at all from her husband’s political and economic strategies? How will she deal with the U.S.? Will the U.S. election matter?

These questions are too broad. Generally, though, she followed a similar model.

--Will the Concertación—and thereby Michelle Bachelet’s chances of getting anything done--hold together in Chile? To be fair, rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated in the past. 

It did for a while longer. It's dead now, though.

--Can the Mexican opposition regroup? Felipe Calderón is popular yet by no means untouchable, but the left is still reeling. 

Actually, no. I was asking the wrong question because it was the PRI that regrouped. 

--With Raúl Castro—whose tone and message are different from Fidel’s--more in charge, will there be substantive political and/or economic reforms in Cuba?

Nope! Now we're asking the same question again. and for now the answer will likely remain no.

--Can Central American countries address drug trafficking and gang violence without also bringing the military back to fighting internal enemies? 

Sadly, no. I assume I knew the answer was going to be no when I wrote the question.

--Once the U.S. presidential candidates are decided, will they say anything intelligent about Latin America and U.S. policy?

Obama did. He issued a document during the campaign that was quite good. Republicans were mostly consistent with George W. Bush's policy. John McCain would eventually make Colombia a part of his campaign, emphasizing how unlike Obama he would stand with our allies.

--Will the immigration debate in the United States reach new lows? Will it be a central issue once the primaries are over?

Oh my. There was so much lower to go.

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