Thursday, July 11, 2019

Michelle Bachelet Blasts Maduro

I had been meaning to write a post on Michelle Bachelet's scathing report on human rights in Venezuela after her visit leading a UN team, but hadn't gotten to it. I did a Twitter thread with quotes from the report (which you can read here). You can also take a look at Andrés Cañizález's article in Global Americans.

Taken along with Bachelet's own comments, the UN is saying that the Venezuelan government is both inept and intensely brutal toward its own citizens, and that Nicolás Maduro is incapable of fixing any of it. It is so condemnatory that Cañizález notes the following:

Venezuelan activists such as Uzcátegui and Luis Francisco Cabezas, general director of the civil society organization CONVITE, believe that the document itself is written in a language that should serve as input for the International Criminal Court (ICC), since the report reiterates the systematic nature of the violations of human rights with cases of torture, forced disappearances and the right to life. The report also includes that individual criminal responsibilities should be acknowledged. 
The fact that Bachelet is the driving force of this report negates any effort to frame it as ideologically driven. As presidential candidate, after all, she brought the Communist Party into her coalition and was routinely called a Communist by the right. The Chilean Communist Party actually criticized the report, but they don't even try to criticize her. There is no way Bachelet suddenly became a tool of the right, a pawn of the Empire, or anything like that. She is firmly on the left and has enormous credibility. There is no wiggle room.

The government says the report is untrue and that it will publish a response. It will be hard, however, to use the "economic war" argument to explain the "dismantlement of democratic institutions" or "electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures." Coming from Bachelet, this packs a serious punch.


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dealing With Bad Debt

The question of how to deal with bad debt has long been a problem in Latin America. Some government or series of governments incurs debt to keep spending high, which at some point becomes unsustainable and there is political transition. The loans keep coming despite the obvious disaster because creditors assume the government will be forced to pay eventually, even if at a discount. (Though Néstor Kirchner famously gave creditors the middle finger).

As Patrice Franko writes in her excellent The Puzzle of Latin American Economic Development:

The history of Latin America contains numerous stories of a state firm's payrolls padded with dead people, construction taking place only on paper, and misguided attempts such as the Transamazonian Highway (p. 81).

It's a terrible dilemma. In most countries, with Venezuela the most current example, the debt was irresponsible and corrupt. Whatever new government comes to power feels no sympathy for the vultures who invested, but faces intense international pressure to satisfy them.

This is what Juan Guaidó is facing now. From Reuters:
Creditors holding Venezuelan debt on Tuesday pushed back on debt restructuring plans backed by opposition leader Juan Guaido, urging a "fair and effective" framework for talks and improved communications with investors holding defaulted bonds.
There is also this nugget:
The committee also took exception to the idea that debts to Russia and China would be treated differently than others.
This is where the particulars of the Venezuelan case show how it's different from, say, the 1980s debt crisis. China and Russia are propping up the Maduro government, so coaxing them away demands preferential treatment, however distasteful that might be. If they are not 100% convinced their demands will be met, they have no incentive to stop propping.

In short, all this talk is really about the political transition itself. Not only is Guaidó asserting himself as executive, he is also sending signals about upholding certain obligations. Vladimir Putin likes the status quo just because it creates trouble for the U.S., but even he wants his money.


Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Conditions of Imprisoned Immigrants

From a report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General. These are just direct quotes about the Rio Grande Valley area.

Specifically, we encourage the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to take immediate steps to alleviate dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.  
During the week of June 10, 2019, we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and again observed serious overcrowding and prolonged detention in Border Patrol
facilities requiring immediate attention. For example, children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers, despite the TEDS standards requiring that “reasonable efforts” be made to provide showers to children approaching 48 hours in detention. 
While all facilities had infant formula, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacksfor children, we observed that two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals — as is required by the TEDS standards? — until the week we arrived. Instead, the children were fed sandwiches and snacksfor their meals. 
Specifically, when detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody (e.g., beards) For example, although TEDS standards require CBP to make a reasonable effort to provide a shower for adults after 72 hours, most single adults had not had a shower in CBP custody despite several being held for as long as a month.

There are pictures too. The tone of the report suggests it was written by people who were horrified at what their seeing and hearing. We just more of such people on the inside to speak up. This is not how human beings should treat each other.


Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Alva Noé's Infinite Baseball

Alva Noe's Infinite Baseball: Notes From a Philosopher at the Ballpark sounds so intriguing. What you get, though, is a hodgepodge of previously published pieces with a tacked on introduction. By the time I got through the introduction, I was already getting disappointed. One theme he comes back to is that baseball is a game of responsibility--we're always trying to assign credit or blame for what happens. Such credit or blame ultimately takes the form of numbers, but baseball is in his eyes not a numbers game. It is this last argument that he has the most difficulty explaining and defending. In the intro, I kept stopping and thinking, "This isn't accurate." Some of the assertions in the intro:

--Baseball is an infinite game. Finite games, like chess, "can be simulated with computers" (6). This would come as some surprise to the many enthusiasts of Out of the Park Baseball, a hugely popular baseball simulation.

--Baseball is considered slow because "only explosive hits and big plays count as action" (22). No, baseball is considered slow because the length of time it takes to do the same things has risen quite a lot over time, 40 or so minutes on average during my lifetime.

--he argues that data should not be used to think about medical issues, such as breastfeeding, and so should also not be used to judge baseball. My own opinion is that this is terrible advice. He caps it off with the factually incorrect statement that with a pitcher, "the manager's decision to leave him in, or call on a relief pitcher, is not one that can be decided with the numbers" (25). Yes, human judgment is in there, but those decisions are fundamentally based on numbers.

--Baseball is different because kids model the stances of their favorite hitters (he puts pose in italics (27). Youth games are "rituals." How is this different from other sports? You know kids try to shoot like Steph Curry or do touchdown dances like their favorite receiver.

The intro lays out no framework, philosophical or otherwise, so my advice is to read the chapters, or better yet find the chapters in their original form online. He has some interesting insights into why steroids shouldn't be considered a problem for the Hall of Fame  Well, actually, that's the main interesting thing. He asks whether any variety of medical assistance (even Tommy John surgery) should be considered unfair advantage. Fair questions, and worth asking. That would actually be a better basis for a philosophical discussion.

But for me, this book boiled down to a lot of unhappiness about sabermetrics. He mentions and criticizes Keith Law's book Smart Baseball but really just reinforces Law's main argument. I agree that Law's own take is too intentionally insulting, but his arguments are solid. Numbers don't tell us everything, but they are being used in creative and productive ways to understand current and future performance. Noé says you cannot use numbers to determine value, period (67). He ends with his own shot that underlines his lack of sabermetric understanding: "Want to know what happened on the field? You'd better take a look, and give it some thought" (67). Guess what: Law and everyone else who judges baseball players go to endless minor league games to scout, while using the numbers. If you ignore the data, you will lose.

My advice to Noé is to accept the fact that numbers are more important than he wants to believe, but that they do not mess with the beauty of baseball. And a 2.5 hour game is no less enjoyable and fulfilling than a 3.5 hour one. As someone who lives on the east coast and follows a west cost team, infinite baseball with games that start at 10:10 pm are awful.


Monday, July 01, 2019

Why Did Fidel Castro Endorse Salvador Allende?

Rafael Pedemonte, "The Meeting of Revolutionary Roads: Chilean-Cuban Interactions, 1959–1970," Hispanic American Historical Review (2019) 99 (2): 275-302.


Fidel Castro's endorsement of Salvador Allende's revolutionary program in August 1970 was determined by global transformations and changing priorities within both Chile and Cuba. Since 1968, favorable prospects for the Left encouraged Havana to abandon its radicalism premised on the inevitability of armed struggle. Prior to 1970 Chile gradually promoted rapprochement with the socialist world and lessened Cuba's hemispheric isolation, imposed by the Organization of American States. It is within this framework that the meeting between Cuba's and Chile's revolutions has to be understood. Allende, knowing that Castro's support would push the radical Left to side with Popular Unity in the 1970 elections, sent a delegation to convince the Cubans that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means. These events and strategic discussions within Chile and Cuba reveal how the history of the Left needs to be placed in a broad context defined by the complex unfolding of domestic, hemispheric, and international transformations shaping Latin America in the 1960s.
It's a look at the local and global contexts that framed the Cuban decision to embrace Salvador Allende's peace road to socialism, which previously Fidel Castro said was impossible ("electoral opium" and all that). For example:

--The USSR was threatening Cuba if it didn't stop promoting revolution in Latin America, so this was a way to smooth things over.
--Fidel Castro was isolated in the region and wanted to expand trade and other ties. Allende's decision to restore diplomatic relations was a critical starting point.
--The Chilean Social Democrats started that process earlier, so Chile was a propitious place for Fidel to acknowledge political change that did not overthrow the existing order.
--Salvador Allende need the endorsement to get the radical left to vote for him.

Fidel and Allende needed each other:

The encounter between the Cuban Revolution and the Chilean road to socialism in 1970 was not just a response to the contemporary conjuncture but also the fruit of a long-term evolution rooted in previous developments and molded by a complex set of factors.

This is also a reminder that even radical movements can exhibit strong pragmatic impulses. I've made the case for some time that even leftist Latin American governments are more pragmatic than typically portrayed.


Russian Threats in Latin America

A lengthy white paper written for the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (text shared by Politico here) addresses the failure of the U.S. to counter Russian foreign policy globally. The Latin America part was written by Evan Ellis, who has written a lot on China and who typically I find on the hawkish side (though not alarmist). However, I agree largely with his take on Russia, which is that its influence is restricted and unlikely to grow much. It doesn't hand out cash like China, and outside a few countries there is little interest in engagement. The thrust of the assessment is that China has a far greater presence in Latin America than Russia does. Further, Russia is concentrated in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Its reach is therefore quite limited, though it gets a bit of a propaganda boost from outlets like RT.

In contrast to China, which uses access to its markets and the possibility of loans and investment as tools of soft power, Russian ability to exert influence through economic resources, either by providing aid or denying commercial transactions, is minimal. Even among its friends, Russia’s ability to exert influence in the region is limited.
Like so many much-touted threats extra-hemispheric threats, we should keep an eye on Russia's activities but they are threatening U.S. security.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Rex Tillerson Cut Out of Mexico Diplomacy and Publicly Humiliated

We already knew that Rex Tillerson was cut out of U.S. diplomacy with Mexico and that Jared Kushner was the conduit. But his description of it in congressional testimony last month shows how humiliating it must have been.

Q Did you ever find yourself in one of those situations where Mr. Kushner had
had a meeting or had a conversation that you weren't aware of and it caught you off
A Yes. 
Q Could you be specific about that? 
A Well, I'll give you just one example and then maybe we can -- 
Q Yes, sir. 
A -- leave it at the one example. But Mexico was a situation that that occurred
on a number of occasions. And I mention this one because I think it was -- some of the
elements of it were reported publicly that the Foreign Secretary of Mexico was engaged
with Mr. Kushner on a fairly -- unbeknownst to me -- a fairly comprehensive plan of
And the Foreign Secretary came to town -- unbeknownst to me -- and I happened
to be having a business dinner at a restaurant in town. And the owner of the restaurant,
proprietor of the restaurant came around and said: Oh, Mr. Secretary, you might be
interested to know the Foreign Secretary of Mexico is seated at a table near the back and
in case you want to go by and say hello to him. Very innocent on his part.
And so I did. I walked back. And Mr. Kushner, and I don't remember who else was
at the table, and the Foreign Secretary were at the table having dinner. And I could see
the color go out of the face of the Foreign Secretary of Mexico
as I very -- I smiled big, and I said: Welcome to Washington. And I said: I don’t want to interrupt what y’all are doing. I said: Give me a call next time you're coming to town. And I left it at that. 
As it turned out later, the Foreign Secretary was operating on the assumption that
everything he was talking to Mr. Kushner about had been run through the State
Department and that I was fully on board with it. And he was rather shocked to find out
that when he started telling me all these things that were news to me, I told him this is
the first time I'm hearing of it. And I don’t know that any of those things were discussing
ultimately happened because there was a change of government in Mexico as well. 
Embarrassed in front of the Mexican Foreign Minister and in public to boot. His comment of "just one example" means he could've rattled off plenty more.


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Podcast Episode 65: U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

I know it's been a while!

In Episode 65 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Arturo López-Levy, who is Visiting Assistant Professor of international Relations at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota. He has a Ph.D. in international Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. He has published articles about Cuba, Latin America, and the U.S. policy towards Latin America. We talked about U.S. policy Cuba, based on an article he recently published in NACLA. We ranged from Trump administration goals to reaction in Cuba, to what economic consequences we might see as a result of U.S. policy.

Link to his NACLA article.

Link to his Análisis Carolina article.

You can find this podcast at iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and anywhere else podcasts can be found. If there is anyplace I've missed, please contact me. Subscribe and rate, even if just to tell me I am wrong about everything.


Incentives in U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela

The Washington Post has a fascinating story based on extensive interviews with Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, who until April 30th was head of SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency, until he joined the 5/1 (then 4/30) plot against Maduro and then fled. A lot of it is uncorroborated, so take it with a grain of salt, but by this point the basic theme of extreme corruption seems uncontroversial.

I want to look at just one bit of it, which relates to the incentives behind the entire uprising.
In February, a group of Venezuelan businessmen, including media mogul Raúl Gorrín, who was put under sanctions by Washington and indicted on U.S. charges of money laundering, approached the Americans with a plan. The centerpiece, according to several people familiar with it: flipping key Maduro loyalists, including the chief justice of Venezuela’s supreme court, Maikel Moreno. 
The men had been serving as interlocutors between the Trump administration and members of the regime, the people familiar with the plan said, and were eager to improve their own situations with the United States, where they were used to sending their children to school and their wives on weekend shopping sprees.
What this means is that Chavistas flipped because a) there were targeted sanctions against them; and b) the U.S. had dangled the possibility of getting them removed. Note, moreover, that no one talks about the misery of the Venezuelan people. The general sanctions didn't enter into their calculations because they are shielded from the effects. While people went hungry, they continued to shop in Miami. Once that got harder, they started plotting.


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Tamaleria Laurita

Here is another one of my irregular posts on immigrant restaurants in Charlotte. Immigrants are the economic backbone of so many cities, including Charlotte, so the current anti-immigrant mood is something we always need push back against. Please go and spend your money at these businesses. I am no restaurant critic, but rather an enthusiastic amateur.

Tamalería Laurita opened a few years ago, when my UNC Charlotte colleague Eric Hoenes (who I periodically ask about places to eat) wrote about it for the Charlotte Observer. My 17-year old son and I had lunch there today, and the tamales are fabulous.

I don't eat meat so went with the cheese, which my son also did (he was hoping for mole but they did not have them right then). They are firm and moist, and just melted in my mouth. We were served red and green sauces, the latter of which is hotter, but both are good. It had originally been a very small place, but obviously opened up into the next door space because there were lots of tables, and a steady stream of people. We had been in the mood for tamales, but the menu is full--tacos, enchiladas, tortas, pupusas, empanadas, etc. Three tamales each, two Cokes, plus chips and salsa came only to $17 before tip. It's worth your time--I just wish it was closer to where I live!


Friday, June 21, 2019

Why Proximity to the Border Matters

Jeronimo Cortina, "From a Distance: Geographic Proximity, Partisanship, and Public Attitudes toward the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall." forthcoming in Political Research Quarterly.


The wall along the U.S.–Mexico border has become one of the most controversial issues in the immigration debate. Although the American public is often aligned with partisan predispositions, often ignored is the role that geographic distance to the border plays in forming attitudes. This paper explores the role of proximity, partisanship, and their interaction as determinants of public attitudes toward the border wall. This paper argues that geographic distance has two effects on public attitudes: as a catalyst for direct contact and as a dynamic filter that shapes how people process information and understand a particular place or policy. Using geocoded survey data from 2017, this paper shows that as the distance to the U.S.–Mexico border increases, Republicans are more likely to support building a wall along the entire border with Mexico due to a lack of direct contact, supplanting direct information with partisan beliefs.
Simply put, being close to the border means you actually understand it.
The basic premise of my argument is that distance interacts with partisan perceptions and attitudes toward the border wall. Republicans who live relatively close to the wall understand and experience the “here and now” of the border through direct contact and in terms of specific and unique features that can be experienced only by being in close proximity to it, whereas Republicans far away from the wall are perceptively separated from it and thus understand it in terms of decontextualized, general, and prototypical characteristics (Henderson et al. 2006) that align with both their own partisan beliefs (Bartels 2002) and the nationalized partisan discourse on immigration (Hopkins 2018). The results of this paper contribute to the emerging literature focusing on the effects of national versus local politics and the impacts of geography on political behavior (Enos 2017; Hopkins 2018).
When you are not close to the border, then you do not grasp the complexities of it. Instead, you are more likely to just claim you can slap a wall up there, increase border patrol, and you're all good.

I would add that some lawmakers visit the border and when there only a short time reinforce false views. A short visit can give them greater confidence in false views because of "I've been there and I've seen it with my own eyes" logic.

A final thought is that sometimes you live by the border and you're still stone cold crazy.

h/t Mike Allison 


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Policies That Increase Mexican Migration

Rebecca Galemba has a post at The Monkey Cage arguing that putting Mexican troops at the Guatemala border will not deter migration and will increase human rights abuses. At the very end she drops two intriguing sentences:

Making it harder for border residents to earn their livelihoods by traveling back and forth is the real security concern for residents. It could actually propel more to migrate to the United States.
We need to explore this further. If local residents feel under siege, they will get out. That means going to Mexican cities (internal displacement) and to the United States.

Indeed, one of the serious challenges for any sort of immigration policy is failure to understand likely consequences. The sharp uptick of enforcement after the passage of IRCA in 1986 prompted many people to remain in the U.S. rather than return to Mexico, which was the opposite of the intent. When NAFTA hit small Mexican farmers, it increased emigration, the opposite of the intent. This might fall into that category as well.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Are People Aware of Mexico's Economic Impact?

John Hyatt, a former student who is now a business consultant in Mexico, pointed this Economist article out to me. It looks at the role of Canadian and Mexican lobbying in the United States to emphasize the impact of Trump's policies (e.g. tariffs) on their districts. Here is an eye-opening sentence:

Most American lawmakers are said to be surprised when told how much trade their district does across the Mexican and Canadian borders.
I would say this is hard to believe, but we should know better. This is Congress we're talking about. The magnitude of Mexico's economic impact on  the United States has been reported endlessly, but people still have a difficult time pinpointing how it affects the specific places they live. This is the same dynamic as immigration. Immigrants impact our lives in a direct but often invisible way that people either don't realize or don't want to realize.

A lot of this is old fashioned nativism. It simply does not occur to many people--including high elected officials--that they are dependent upon Mexicans for anything. Latin American lobbying is an understudied topic, but it is a critical part of Latin American foreign policy. Here is a news article back in 1993 during the NAFTA negotiations:
The Mexican government has unleashed the most expensive and elaborate foreign lobbying campaign ever undertaken here, hoping to ensure passage of the trade agreement it wants with the United States and Canada, a nonprofit research organization said Thursday.
So Mexico has been lobbying forever, yet its economic impact never fully sinks in. For Mexico, it is a constant (and unending) process of reminding people of what should be obvious.


Monday, June 17, 2019

Latin American Trust in the U.S. Military

Michael E Flynn, Carla Martinez Machain, and Alissandra T Stoyan, "Building Trust: The Effect of US Troop Deployments on Public Opinion in Peru." International Studies Quarterly (early view)


Since the 1950s, US military personnel have taken on an increasingly diverse set of responsibilities, including less traditional roles delivering disaster aid and engaging in public diplomacy. Focusing on a particular subset of deployments, humanitarian and civic-assistance deployments to Latin America, we examine the effect that a US military presence can have on public opinion in the host country. We focus on the microfoundations of popular support and use survey data and newly collected subnational data on deployments to examine the effect of these deployments on mass attitudes toward the US military and government in Peru. We find that these deployments do improve perceptions of the US military and government, and correlate with assessments of US influence that are more positive. Our findings bolster the conclusions of previous research that shows how aid can both improve public attitudes toward the donor country and address the foreign aid attribution problem.
This is all about soft power, which is generally not what we get into when discussing the role of the U.S. military in Latin America. The military provides humanitarian services all across Latin America (e.g. the USNS Comfort is right now going to Latin America to help countries who are receiving Venezuelan migrants to provide medical assistance). The idea is to foster good will, and what the authors do empirically--using the case of Peru--is to show that it works.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Democrats Debating Latin America

Dan Restrepo calls on the Democratic candidates to formulate a vision for Latin America in their debate later this month.
The temptation will be strong to ask red-meat questions about Cuba and Venezuela narrowly cast to a South Florida audience. 
Instead, the moderators should ask for a broader vision, one that would also tackle the two overarching challenges facing the Americas today—migration and corruption. Two issues, sadly, on which the Trump Administration has singularly failed to lead.
I am certain migration will be part of the debates--how could it not?--but let's see whether it is framed primarily as a domestic issue rather than one that is also foreign policy.

I would be surprised if corruption and rule of law is mentioned very much outside the context of Cuba and Venezuela, but it would be great. Democracy is particularly fragile right now (and presidents are unpopular). He also mentions climate change, which I also doubt they will address in the Latin American context, but I would like to be surprised.

In general what I would like to see is a conscious reframing of U.S.-Latin American relations that gets away from the current victimhood. For Trump, the U.S. is always the victim, paying too much, giving away too much, etc. and that leads to counter-productive policies. Just at a minimum, calling Latin American countries partners would be a good start.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Who Are the Popular Latin American Presidents?

Consulta Mitofsky has some approval numbers for Latin American presidents. It's not a great time to be president.

Answer to the title question: Bukele (highest in the world!), AMLO, and Medina (funny thing, I wrote this type of post in 2014 and Medina was the most popular then as well). They are the only ones over 50%. A whopping ten presidents have approval ratings below 30%, which is staggering. Left, right, big country, small country, doesn't matter. The average in South America is just 30%.

Nicolás Maduro is the lowest, at 15%, but that's actually not too far behind Jimmy Morales and Juan Carlos Varela. Mauricio Macri was actually only at 19% in the last poll. Most Latin American presidents have substantially lower approval than Donald Trump.

Economic growth is slow, people are angry about corruption, and there is a lot of uncertainty.


Trump and Trade Instability

Ken Shadlen at LSE has a post about Trump's tariff threats up at the LSE blog. He has two main points. The first is that it's inaccurate to say that linking trade to other issues (in this case immigration) is unheard of. Even NAFTA was linked to other things, such as reform demands on Mexico as a condition of ratification. The second point, however, is that NAFTA was actually constructed to protect all parties from the whims of politicians making such linkages.
Beyond NAFTA per se, these events make one wonder why any country would sign a trade agreement with the United States. After all, if countries already have preferential market access under the GSP, then one of the main benefits of reciprocal trade agreements is to lock-in and stabilise those preferences – even with the need to make substantial concessions on “trade-related” policy areas. 
If, in reality, only half of the bargain is locked in and the benefits can evaporate at the whim of the US president, then for many trading partners the benefits of such agreements will be unlikely to compensate for the costs.
Indeed, one of the reasons Carlos Salinas pursued NAFTA was to lock in reforms the PRI dinosaurs didn't like. If you throw that stability out the window as Trump is doing, you completely change the incentives of foreign leaders. Trade with the U.S. is no longer seen as a stabilizing factor. On the contrary, it could become a domestic nightmare. Who wants to be in AMLO's shoes as he is told to attack desperate Central American migrants?


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