Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Considering Oil Sanctions Against Venezuela

Kejal Vyas at The Wall Street Journal says the U.S. government is considering oil sanctions against Venezuela.
The U.S. is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions against Venezuela's military and vital oil industry, a senior White House official said Monday, as it seeks to ratchet up pressure on authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro to hold free and fair elections. 
The Trump administration is considering a range of measures including curtailing the flow of Venezuelan oil to the U.S., the official said, in what could be the harshest blow to the country's money supply. No final decision has been made.
This is the nuclear option. Oil is the ironic tether that binds the U.S. and Venezuela together. Hugo Chávez threatened countless times to cut the U.S. off, but there was no way he could do that without destroying himself. Socialism of the 21st century needed the empire to give it life.

Here is a look at Venezuela's oil exports to the U.S.


As Vyas points out, this is about half of Venezuela's oil exports and it has always been difficult to switch because Venezuela's crude is hard to refine. In short, oil sanctions would be devastating. They would also be damaging to the U.S. economy, but that's a separate issue.

The essential question here is the effect on Venezuelans. Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde just finished recommending that the U.S. refrain from any sanction that exacerbates the country's humanitarian crisis. This nuclear option certainly would do so.

I think their suggestions are preferable to this kind of move. Simply saying "We don't recognize Maduro" is pretty minimal without a broader strategy beyond that. There are a number of options before simply dropping the bomb.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Decade of US-Mexican Relations

President-elect Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón met exactly ten years ago. We can see how little we have accomplished.

  • Obama said he wanted an "upgrade" of NAFTA. Mexican officials said they had no idea what he meant.
  • A U.S. senior aide said Obama was also concerned about how the flow of U.S. guns to the south was exacerbating the drug war. You don't hear that anymore.
  • Obama said he wanted to have a "comprehensive and thoughtful" strategy for immigration that would benefit both countries. Obama was blocked at every turn on that and of course it has now blown up.
  • Obama said he wanted more cooperation with Calderón on climate change. Now that's all unraveled. 
For many presidents, U.S.-Mexican relations are an afterthought, or develop only in secondary manner. Trump changed that by directly linking bilateral relations to the well-being of the U.S. on a constant basis, but in a negative way. What I want to see is a U.S. presidential candidate turning that on its head by making U.S.-Mexican relations a priority and showing that we are all better off by working in a mutually beneficial way. 

As we gear up absurdly early for the U.S. presidential race, I will be looking for U.S.-Mexican relations in the Democratic candidates' platforms. Talking about immigration without putting the issue in a broader context is a mistake.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Constitutional Argument For Ousting Maduro

Juan Guaidó, Venezuela's National Assembly President, said he should be president, citing the Venezuelan constitution. He hopes the military agrees.
"¿Es suficiente apegarnos a la Constitución en (una) dictadura? No. Deben ser el pueblo de Venezuela, la Fuerza Armada y la comunidad internacional las que nos lleven a asumir", expresó Guaidó. Por ello, el diputado llamó a una "gran movilización en todos los rincones de Venezuela". 
Este viernes, mediante un comunicado de prensa, la Asamblea Nacional informó que los artículos 333, 350 y 233 de la Constitución Nacional de Venezuela son los que le permiten asumir la Presidencia.
So what are these articles?

Artículo 333. Esta Constitución no perderá su vigencia si dejare de observarse por acto de fuerza o porque fuere derogada por cualquier otro medio distinto al previsto en ella.

En tal eventualidad, todo ciudadano investido o ciudadana investida o no de autoridad, tendrá el deber de colaborar en el restablecimiento de su efectiva vigencia.

Artículo 350. El pueblo de Venezuela, fiel a su tradición republicana, a su lucha por la independencia, la paz y la libertad, desconocerá cualquier régimen, legislación o autoridad que contraríe los valores, principios y garantías democráticos o menoscabe los derechos humanos.

Artículo 233. Serán faltas absolutas del Presidente o Presidenta de la República: la muerte, su renuncia, la destitución decretada por sentencia del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, la incapacidad física o mental permanente certificada por una junta médica designada por el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia y con aprobación de la Asamblea Nacional, el abandono del cargo, declarado éste por la Asamblea Nacional, así como la revocatoria popular de su mandato.

Cuando se produzca la falta absoluta del Presidente electo o Presidenta electa antes de tomar posesión, se procederá a una nueva elección universal, directa y secreto dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes. Mientras se elige y toma posesión el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta, se encargará de la Presidencia de la República el Presidente o Presidenta de la Asamblea Nacional.

Cuando se produzca la falta absoluta del Presidente o Presidenta de la República durante los primeros cuatro años del período constitucional, se procederá a una nueva elección universal y directa dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes. Mientras se elige y toma posesión el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta, se encargará de la Presidencia de la República el Vicepresidente Ejecutivo o Vicepresidenta Ejecutiva.

En los casos anteriores, el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta completará el período constitucional correspondiente.


Si la falta absoluta se produce durante los últimos dos años del período constitucional, el Vicepresidente Ejecutivo o Vicepresidenta Ejecutiva asumirá la Presidencia de la República hasta completar el mismo.

You may remember Article 233 from almost exactly six years ago, as Venezuelans wondered whether the winning presidential candidate was either unconscious or dead. This time around the idea is that the legislature has the authority to determine that the president is illegitimate by virtue of, among other things, violating human rights and democratic principles and can call new elections.

This is intended to give the military a legal-constitutional means of forcing Maduro out. If they don't want to, then you can talk about the constitution until you're blue in the face. The opposition is calling for national protests on January 23. Combine that with all the international condemnation, and they hope to push the armed forces.

I won't hazard a guess about what will happen. The safe money is on preservation of the status quo but we just don't know the tipping point of the military. This does seem the most propitious moment for the opposition we've seen in a long time, however.

Update (1/13/19) Now Guaidó has been arrested and his whereabouts unknown. As long as the military is on board, the government can act with impunity.

Update later the same day: government claims it was individuals who did this without authority. Who knows what's exactly going on.

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Friday, January 11, 2019

Jason Matthews Red Sparrow

I read and liked Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, the first novel in a trilogy (and also a movie). It is a spy novel about Russia and the U.S., with all the intrigue, double-crossing, and violence you associate with the genre. A Russian woman, Dominika  Egorova, is trained as a sparrow, or a sex spy, and her experiences lead to her being recruited by the CIA, specifically the agent Nate Nash (and then you get a romance there). She can actually see colors around people that indicate their mood, which is an intriguing addition to the narrative. There are American being paid by the Russians to spy as well.

The story moved along well, with plenty of twists and good descriptions of all the places they were. The odd thing about the novel is that there is mention of food in every chapter, then at the end is a short recipe for one of the dishes they ate. It was distracting to begin with, but then I got used to it and liked seeing what these dishes (many of them unfamiliar to me) were like. As you might expect from a spy novel written by a former CIA agent, the U.S. (and its spies) are all good and all the Russians (except those that spy for us) are bad. Indeed, one downside to the book is that the Russians come out much less nuanced.

The CIA itself gave it a favorable review, with this tidbit:

The amount of tradecraft, particularly surveillance and countersurveillance, will make the in-house reader wonder how he got all this past the Publications Review Board.
 I enjoyed it enough that I plan to read the sequel.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Maduro's Illegitimate Inauguration

I'm quoted in this story about the pressures being put on Nicolás Maduro as he is inaugurated for a term widely seen as illegitimate. My basic point is that just talking might not be enough. Illegitimate regimes can go on as long as they have the military's support. (Note that after the inauguration there was a ceremony at the military academy).

And that's the obvious unknown here. We do know there are rumblings from time to time, and that the government periodically feels compelled to punish officers who get out of line. We don't know the full extent of the gap between the rank and file and the generals, a gap that launched Hugo Chávez himself. We don't know what conversations Maduro and the generals have. Given our lack of information, it's equally possible that we wake up tomorrow morning to find Maduro ousted or wake up to find everything just limping along as it was.

I do find it interesting that Maduro is showing how the Lima Group got under his skin. He gave them 48 hours to recognize it or else. He can't really punish them so I don't know what the "else" is, but this shows he cares. Does he care because he feels the military getting edgy or just because he's thin-skinned?

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Getting Young People to Vote in Chile

Chile switched from compulsory voting to voluntary in 2011. Claudio Fuentes writes about the support to switch back again. Previously, the vote was required but only if you registered. Younger people therefore stopped registering in the first place. The electorate therefore got older. Now a poll shows support within Congress to make that switch back. That support does not currently seem to be reflected in the general population.

He argues that the current system is worse. Turnout dropped as soon as the system changed. Therefore major decisions are being made by fewer and fewer.

I wrote about this back in 2011. There was hope that young people would start voting once they were registered automatically, but as Claudio points out, that just didn't happen.

His conclusion?

Pero difícilmente las cosas cambiarán. Como resulta altamente impopular retornar al voto obligatorio, ningún sector político se atreverá a plantear esta reforma. El pragmatismo dominará por sobre las convicciones y, mientras tanto, se seguirá vaciando el sistema democrático. Cada vez un menor número de ciudadanos y ciudadanas activos votarán por una élite que gobernará para los muchos.  El gobierno de los pocos, para los pocos y por los pocos será el resultado sub-óptimo de aquella reforma.
The problem here is that young Chileans really don't want to vote. If there is a penalty for not voting, they won't register. If they are automatically registered and it's voluntary, they won't go to the polls. I suppose if you put those together by making registration automatic and the vote required, then they're more likely to participate. When teaching Intro to Comparative Politics, I would often have discussions about whether forcing people to vote when they don't want to is democratic.

So we have to balance the empirical (you do see turnout increase considerably with compulsory voting) with the philosophical (is forced turnout democratic?). You can argue that voluntary voting is more democratic, but if it leads to dominance by only one group, that is clearly less democratic. Meanwhile, compulsory voting may seem less democratic even though it leads to a more democratic outcome (participation by the many rather than the few).

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Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Taking Aim at CAFTA

As Donald Trump went after NAFTA, I kept wondering why he didn't say much at all about free trade agreements with other Latin America. Now the administration is taking aim at CAFTA-DR. And it's all about China.

“We are very concerned with Nicaragua’s move toward authoritarianism, and El Salvador’s and Dominican Republic’s questionable ties with China,” the official said. “As the United States has made clear, we will not allow our trade agreements, including CAFTA-DR, to become back doors to benefit non-market economies and repressive actors in the region.”
By "questionable" the official means "we told them not to and they did anyway." It's dangerous to view Latin America primarily through a Chinese lens, however. As I've written countless times, the U.S. has to be cognizant of unintended consequences. Punishing Central America at the precise moment you're talking about trying to resolve the immigration issue is counterproductive, to say the least.

Kicking Nicaraguans when they're down will make their lives worse without necessarily hurting the regime enough to prompt any change. In the case of El Salvador, if the economy stagnates then people will come in greater numbers to the United States. One could imagine Nicaraguans eventually doing the same.

Unfortunately, Central America is long accustomed to being a pawn between large powers that don't care about its well-being.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

U.S. and Russia in Latin America

Ted Galen Carpenter writes in The National Interest that the U.S. needs to "enforce" the Monroe Doctrine with regard to Russia. By this he means the U.S. should "stress to Moscow" that it cannot have any "military ties" to Latin American governments, and in return the U.S. will ignore everything Russia does "deep into Eastern Europe."

Washington’s failure to enforce the Monroe Doctrine during the Cold War when the Soviet Union made Cuba into a client state and military outpost has not encouraged respect for that doctrine in the post-Cold War era. The Trump administration needs to adopt a firmer policy toward Moscow’s intrusions into Latin America. At the same time, U.S. leaders must recognize that U.S. policy has been clumsy and provocative toward Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe, especially regarding Ukraine. Washington needs to adopt a new approach that respects Moscow’s implicit version of a Monroe Doctrine.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First, like all such arguments--and there have been plenty--he never defines "enforce" or "stress." I take it this means threatening Russia somehow. That alone could easily precipitate an unnecessary and unwanted crisis. What does the U.S. do if Russia refuses? Back during the Cold War, do you mean nuclear war? It was close for a while.

Second, do we really want a foreign policy that simply says Russian expansion, even invasion of other countries, is perfectly fine? I am no fan of U.S. intervention, but at the same time publicly handing Eastern Europe to Vladimir Putin does not appeal to me.

Third, this is a stretch even for the ever flexible Monroe Doctrine. I can't recall any version of it that forbade selling things to Latin American countries. Remember too that Latin American governments regardless of ideology dislike the Monroe Doctrine. Formally reviving it would be detrimental to U.S. interests.

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Monday, January 07, 2019

AMLO's Border Plan

AMLO has plans to stimulate the economies of Mexican border cities as a way to increase incentives for Mexicans to stay in the country. Immediately I thought of unintended consequences.
Under the plan, Mexico is to cut income and corporate taxes to 20 percent from 30 percent in 43 municipalities in the six Mexico states along the 2,000-mile border with the U.S. Half of that border is along the Rio Grande and Texas. 
Mexico, Lopez Obrador said, will also slash to 8 percent the value-added tax in the region and double the minimum wage for border residents to 176.2 pesos a day, the equivalent of $9.06.
If you raise wages only at the border, you can expect Mexicans from other parts of the country to move there. It is especially problematic because the poorer, more rural, more indigenous areas in southern Mexico have traditionally been ignored in favor of the more developed north. NAFTA exacerbated wage inequality, for example. Even more inequality could strain northern cities that are already struggling to deal with all the asylum seekers waiting there.

Further, it's not clear how this would affect the growing number of Central American migrants already there. Presumably they would not be eligible for the new wage unless the definition of "border resident" is loose. It's not clear what AMLO thinks will happen to them, or what he hopes will happen.

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Bolsonaro and Ideology

Jair Bolsonaro and his allies use the word "ideology" a lot. For them, it means "things we don't like." The Ministry of Education suggested that scholarships for postgraduate degrees abroad will be scrutinized (and rejected) for ideological content. Of course, imposing such a rule is a decision based solely on ideology.

The funny thing about ideology is that we all like to think everyone else has one except us. We just follow common sense, while everyone else is being manipulated by ideological overlords of some kind. Using the word "ideology" is quite similar to using "terrorist," which very often also just refers to people we don't like.

At the moment, Bolsonaro refers to ideology largely in terms of feminism, which he hates in large part because he wants everyone to accept rigid definitions of gender. As the Minister of Traditional Family Values says, girls will be princesses and boys will be princes. For them, rigid adherence to a particular rule because of religion is not ideology.

What you can be sure of is that behind every reference to ideology is a desire for control. The government will create rules specifically intended to reject all ideas other than the ones it approves of. Do things our way, or else. Professors in particular are in the cross-hairs.

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Sunday, January 06, 2019

Options For U.S. Policy in Venezuela

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde authored a policy brief for the Washington Office on Latin America making recommendations for U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Productive U.S. policy, that is. Not invasion threats, which is the predilection of many Trump advisers. Their recommendations are based on the following assertion, with which I agree:

Today, the only viable path out of the crisis is for actors in both the government and opposition to reach a political accord that restores democratic governance through some kind of credible negotiations process. 
Unsaid here is that any such accord needs to convince the army, which will then pressure Nicolás Maduro.

I will let you read the details but a few things stand out for me. One is the need to clarify sanctions. In particular, it's important to show what sanctions will be eased by what actions. We've seen for decades in Cuba that they're often just used as bludgeons, when they should be bargaining tools. In my opinion this is an important signal to the army.

Also important is more participation from the European Union and the United Nations. Make this as global as possible. The Lima Group is hampered by how many countries don't belong to it, or in Mexico's case still belong but don't sign on. A more global reach, as opposed to one that can easily be viewed as driven by conservative Latin American governments, will also be an important signal to the army.

I hope some within the administration can show the requisite subtlety, though I am not hopeful. What we've seen (publicly at least) is Mike Pompeo talking about Venezuela to conservative allies, including Jair Bolsonaro, who is unhinged. We see periodic announcements of sanctions without any strategy attached to them. We hear wild statements about invasion and coups. In short, we have yet to see evidence of adults in the room.

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Saturday, January 05, 2019

Frosty 25K

I ran the Frosty 25K this morning in Winston-Salem, around Salem Lake. It's a trail race but the path is wide and mostly flat. It's been raining here so the ground was soft but usually not terrible. The exception was the end (which because of looping I had to do twice) which was a sharp uphill in swampy mud.

Last year the race lived up to its name with historically low temperatures, but this year was nice, sunny and low 40s, which is good running weather. I have considered running an ultramarathon but remain undecided. But I would consider the 50K, which is four loops (31 miles). It would be a serious challenge but it's a scenic and pleasant course. Weather is definitely a wild card.


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Friday, January 04, 2019

Bolsonaro Bases

So not long after writing about how Iván Duque applauded the Monroe Doctrine, which is not something you hear from Latin America, I read that Jair Bolsonaro says he is open to having a U.S. military base in Brazil.

Say what?

Brazil's foreign policy has been the epitome of autonomy, especially in the postauthoritarian era (i.e. post-1985). Itamaraty has been all about projecting Brazil as an independent force, at times more regional and at times (especially with Lula) as more global. It has been cautious (sometimes even wary) about the U.S. without being hostile. I cannot imagine any past president saying this sort of thing.

I also don't think it will happen. Bolsonaro says he would consider it because of Russia's presence in Venezuela. My impression is also that the interviewer led him in that direction--it's not something he stated on his own, though it is true that he didn't just say "no." He also says he wants Brazil to have  “supremacy here in South America.” By virtue of U.S. troops? He also claimed vaguely that Donald Trump was interested in this sort of thing. I can see the U.S. interest but I don't see how U.S. troops helps Brazil--Russia isn't going to invade from Venezuela.

2019 is going to be a rough ride.

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Duque Woos Trump

There is a stir in Colombia stemming from Iván Duque's comment to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the founding the fathers of the United States were "crucial" to Colombian independence (he said the words that he tweeted after the hug). Supporters and critics are going at one another on social media (naturally). The discussion goes into the meaning of neutrality but also the Monroe Doctrine.



Now, it's worth mentioning that at the time many Latin American leaders did view the Monroe Doctrine in a positive light, precisely because they thought the U.S. would protect them from European powers. That soured over time as it became clear first that the U.S. invoked it quite selectively and then expanded it in a decidedly imperial manner.

But let's set that aside to look instead at the optics of Duque's statement right now. These days the Monroe Doctrine is widely--almost universally--viewed in Latin America as negative. It became the foundation for U.S. intervention for decades. Invoking it will get you positive reviews only from the United States government and its closest allies (like Alvaro Uribe, who has been tweeting approvingly). The message was intended for Donald Trump.

Duque wants Trump's approval, which has been slow in coming. Trump cancelled two visits to Colombia in 2018 and periodically emits critical tweets or statements about Colombia's failure to address the flow of narcotics. This is from September 2018:

PRESIDENT TRUMP:  What I want — what I want and what we’ve discussed, and one of the reasons I was so happy to see the President’s victory — that was a great victory and there was a very worldwide, world-renowned victory because of his strong stance on drugs. 
Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest.  If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another President of Colombia.
Duque's simple message (and all messages to Trump must be simple) is that we love you, we love your history, and we will even give you a lot of the credit for our own independence. Just please be my friend.

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Thursday, January 03, 2019

Pompeo's Latin America Trip in Six Tweets

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent six tweets in the past 24 hours about his trips to Brazil and Colombia.

The first praised Brazil's "thriving democracy" even as it removed a president by questionable means not so long ago.

The second said he hoped to strengthen "reciprocal" trade with Brazil, as if there was some other kind of trade.

The third was about meeting Jair Bolsonaro to discuss their "shared commitment" to human rights, something both governments are intent on violating.

The fourth was more about Brazil's democracy, which is currently on weak foundations.

The fifth was about meeting Iván Duque to discuss "shared goals" that apparently do not include the peace process.

The sixth inexplicably called attention to the fact that he could not be bothered to spend more than two hours total in Colombia despite it being a "key U.S. partner." Dissing Colombia has become a habit for the administration.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Bolsonaro's First Decision

The first action Jair Bolsonaro took after becoming president was to strip the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, the government agency tasked with assisting the Brazilian indigenous population. Its past is checkered but a minimum it servesd as some sort of break on, among other things, the encroachment on indigenous land. This decision shifts its key responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is now under the control of those same encroachers. Some of the other duties will be shifted to the new "family values" ministry, led by a hardcore religious conservative.

Attacking indigenous rights was in fact a campaign promise and Brazilians voted for him anyway, so this is not a surprise. Moreover, it is a signal that Bolsonaro will be looking to fulfill those promises and some of them are truly violent and disturbing.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Jane Leavy's The Big Fella

I read Jane Leavy's new biography The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, which takes the perspective of how the Babe changed professional athletes. More to the point, his personal manager Christy Walsh did so for him. The book focuses far more on the barnstorming he did (often with Lou Gehrig) and the many endorsements he did than on his regular play and salary. Walsh managed his money well, forcing him to save, and organizing all the barnstorming. Importantly, Walsh did not negotiate with the teams, which meant he was not quite the modern agent, but a precursor. The Babe made so much of his money outside the regular season.

Ruth's well known larger-than-life life comes out plainly. It's hard not to given how much he craved the spotlight, a product of his youth as one of many in a Catholic boarding school, where his parents dumped him. He didn't know how to be alone. He did just about everything to excess, which included both meanness (cheating all the time) and kindness (he loved children and spent tons of time with them). His inner thoughts are unknown to everyone. Certainly he didn't write them down, and it was not an era for introspection. Leavy was thorough in criss crossing the country to find everyone and every archive that offered clues.

Of particular interest are the rumors about how he might be partially African American because of his facial features and darker complexion (opposing players would even scream the N-word at him, which I didn't know). Leavy suggests this is doubtful, but clearly he went out of his way to play Negro League teams when barnstorming, and the African American community loved him.

If you like baseball, you will like this book. For the sabermetric minded, she even has an appendix discussing how people have worked to translate his performance into modern statistics.

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Burning in the New Year 2019

Exactly ten years ago I noted how burning what was bad in the past year is a tradition in Ecuador. Back then the two most popular images to burn were George W. Bush and Hugo Chávez. And now? It's still Venezuela, with Nicolás Maduro the most wanted to burn, followed by Lenín Moreno and Rafael Correa. Donald Trump is not mentioned, so Bush was actually more unpopular in Ecuador at the time.

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