Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Final Blog Post

This is my 5,277th and final blog post. This blog has been tremendous fun, but I've found that I am consistently choosing to spend my time and energy doing other things.

I actually chose today of all days because I wondered whether the day after a huge election would change my mind. There are interesting stories: the effects of Venezuelan socialism, the vote in Miami, the impact on Latin America, and any number of others. But it really didn't. I am doing other stuff, even administrative, like trying to figure out how to give students an international experience in the Covid-19 era. I will still write, of course, but I also want to find new outlets. All of this is true for my podcast as well, which was a cool experience but one I've found myself thinking about less and less.

Anyway, it's been over 14 years. I started as a pretty new Associate Professor. Back then, the big debate was whether to blog as an untenured professor. That was a long time ago.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.


Monday, October 05, 2020

SOUTHCOM and Latin America in the Covid Era

I watched the Council of the Americas webinar with SOUTHCOM Commander Craig Faller and Civilian Deputy Commander Jean Manes, with Eric Farnsworth moderating. Some interesting discussion, with the kind of emphasis you would expect from SOUTHCOM. Here are my quick thoughts:

  • Major issue is Chinese illegal fishing around Ecuador and Peru (see here for background). I have to wonder how much that could sour Latin American views of China. On Twitter, Tracy North notes that it also affects Nicaragua, which they did not mention. I don't know if that was intentional (because of politics) or not.
  • Manes: the U.S. role in providing aid for Covid "hasn't been covered in the news much" but they keep careful track to make sure no other outside government (esp. China) does more. It's quite the cold way of looking at it--give more aid only if China does so first. The U.S. does not want other countries to "take advantage." I imagine Latin American leaders would not tend to view any Covid aid as "taking advantage." As for the news comment, it sounds in line with Trump but it's a constant in U.S. policy toward Latin America--the news is never quite positive enough of U.S. actions.
  • Faller: can we even call the Maduro regime a "regime" because it's a small group of criminals. Well, they control the government, so yes, it's a regime. That was a surprising and uninformed offhand comment intended as an insult, I guess.
  • Manes: the Colombia peace process is "on pause" because of Covid, at least until a vaccine, like other initiatives around the region. I get this, but one could argue it was already on pause before Covid because the Duque government is not committed to it, and the pandemic is just an excuse.
  • Faller: U.S. training of Latin Americans has actually increased because of technology. That actually makes sense, because at the university we find larger meeting participation.
  • Both Faller and Manes: U.S.-Brazilian relations at the military-military level are very good. I have not followed this, but it also makes sense--at that level it can transcend the politics of the particular government in power.
  • Faller had a not-so-veiled threat to countries pursuing agreements with China: "Our ability to have a trusting relationship will be jeopardized." Such a threat really suggests weakness--China is making inroads and the U.S. cannot figure out how to address it.
  • Manes: once someone decides to emigrate, you've already lost. You need to improve things at home. The big question, though, is how to deal with migrants when they reach the U.S. Her logic would suggest that just sending them home is a bad idea, though obviously that's not the Trump logic.
  • Venezuela: not much new. Faller: the external actors there are the "intricate weave of a Persian rug." Weird way to put it, but whatever.
  • No questions or discussion of Mexico. That surprised me. Mexico as a partner is more important than China as an adversary, I'd say. Update: I've been reminded via email that Mexico does not fall under SOUTHCOM. So this is worth mentioning. But it's weird to hear Central American migration kind of ending there.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Ecuador's Treatment of Venezuelan Migrants

Beyers, Christiaan., & Esteban Nicholls (2020). "Government through Inaction: The Venezuelan Migratory Crisis in Ecuador." Journal of Latin American Studies, 52(3), 633-657.

Abstract (gated):
This article analyses strategies for channelling a migrant population out of a country by indirect means. Specifically, we examine the response of the Ecuadorean state to the influx of Venezuelan newcomers since 2015. We argue that this response has been characterised by inaction, rooted not in policy failures or bad governance, but rather in a strategic governmental rationality. We show how migrants are ‘herded’ out of the country as a result of a form of indirect government that works differently from other ‘anti-immigrant’ policies like forced deportations or incarceration at the border, and yet produces similar outcomes.

I found this to be originally and fascinating. The foundation of this inaction policy is Lenín Moreno:

The strategic ‘inaction’ that we uncovered during our research is explained in part by the political weakness of the Moreno regime, which, during its first three years in power, resulted in a please-all stance towards sensitive political issues such as the Venezuelan question. 

And its implementation (if inaction can be labeled as such) is pretty twisted.

Our interviews with Venezuelans in Quito confirmed that many would prefer to remain in Ecuador. The majority who do stay do so because they have family, friends or a business partner in Ecuador. By contrast, the majority of Venezuelans who leave do so because of what is generally described as an impossible-to-comply-with series of legal requirements and administrative steps, and a general sense that the government is indifferent to their struggles. These subject dispositions are in themselves concrete effects of the governmentality of inaction. 

What they describe is a bureaucratic dystopia, where red tape becomes the means for what in the U.S. Mitt Romney once famously labeled "self-deportation." A critical difference from the U.S., however is that the public face of the government is benign. Ecuador "welcomes" Venezuelan migrants but makes it too much of a paperwork hassle to stay. Sorry, just following the rules.

The vice-minister goes on to acknowledge that, while Venezuelans ‘often arrive only with what they have on them’, the government cannot ‘exempt citizens entering the country from any requirements’, and effectively concludes that it is doing all it can towards some eventual resolution of the problem.

The system is actually specifically intended not to work. Migrants cannot get licenses to do any work and eventually give up. Word of the difficulties go back to Venezuela, and so new migrants come primed not to stay. They conclude by suggesting that this is part of an overall Moreno problem of inaction.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Venezuela Committing Crimes Against Humanity

The UN Human Rights Council sent an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission to Venezuela, and it just issued a report. It's incredibly damning:

While recognising the nature of the crisis and tensions in the country, and the responsibilities of the State to maintain public order, the Mission found the Government, State agents, and groups working with them had committed egregious violations. It identified patterns of violations and crimes that were highly coordinated pursuant to State policies, and part of a widespread and systematic course of conduct, thus amounting to crimes against humanity.

There is a state policy of extrajudicial killings and torture. It says this got going in 2014, which coincides with the aftermath of Hugo Chávez's death and Nicolás Maduro's desperate efforts to stay in power. State violence is all he's got. The National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) normalized torture, which included "stress positions; asphyxiation; beatings; electric shocks; cuts and mutilations; death threats; and psychological torture."

The document itself is over 400 pages and heavily footnoted to demonstrate all the violations of international law. It includes a highly detailed chronology of the political crises that were accompanied by increased use of state violence. At this point, the government targets just about everybody, not just high profile opposition leaders:

Intelligence agencies have also targeted other profiles of people seen to challenge official narratives. This includes selected civil servants, judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers, NGO workers, journalists, and bloggers and social media users.630 In 2020, various health, workers and social media users critical of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic were also detained.631 In July 2020, the Minister of the Interior, Néstor Reverol, announced that Venezuelans who had left the country and are returning would be charged under the Organic Law against Organised Crime and Financing of Terrorism, allegedly for bringing Covid-19 into the country.

Also selectively targeted were people associated with these actors, including families, friends and colleagues or NGO workers and human rights defenders. The questions authorities asked these people while in detention and under interrogation appear to suggest that they were detained to incriminate, extract information about or apply pressure on the main targets. This includes organizations that may have provided funding to opposition movements or received international funding. The measures used against people associated with principal targets often matched or exceeded the severity of that inflicted upon principal targets. 

They even get down to what detention buildings look like inside.

At this point, international organizations can just gather information, which eventually will be used in some manner for accountability once democracy is restored in the country. This is a meticulously documented dictatorship.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Podcast Episode 76: Trump & Latin America

In Episode 76 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, once again I join forces with the Historias podcast of the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (which everyone should check out). I talk with Dustin Walcher, Jeff Taffet, Mary Rose Kubal, and Maggie Commins about the Trump administration's policies toward Latin America.

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, rate, and keep 6 feet from it.


Friday, September 04, 2020

Repairing U.S.-Latin American Relations

Michael Shifter asks whether the damage Trump has wrought on U.S.-Latin American relations can be repaired, starting from an anecdote about how a Mexican business leader said relations would be set back 20 years.

I think there are two things here that go well beyond even what a Biden administration would look like. First, history tells us that of course relations can be repaired. The relationship is just too tight, the interdependence so strong. If we can repair relations with Cuba after years of trying to destroy it, we can do so with Mexico. Even Daniel Ortega tried for a while to engage with the U.S. So this part is easy, and in fact many Latin American presidents are just waiting for someone else in the White House, in a similar way as the 2008 election.

But the second is more difficult. China is now a player like never before, a process that became stronger in the 2000 and then accelerated, pedal to the metal, under Trump. That cannot be reversed no matter what the U.S. does. Shifts in trade relations are not super likely unless something happens in China. These are long-terms trends that will not change just because someone new become U.S. president. Latin American countries looked for creative ways to find autonomy from the U.S., and restoration of trust may slow that but will not stop it.


Thursday, September 03, 2020

Fake News in the Guatemala Invasion Compared to Now

Sylvia Brindis Snow and Shane Snow take a deep, deep dive into the U.S. use of fake news to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. It includes photos and audio. That story is not a new one (though the details make me shake my head no matter how many times I've heard them) but they take it a step further and view it as a precursor to the Russian meddling in U.S. presidential elections. There are interesting parallels.

Comparing Hillary Clinton to Arbenz feels like a stretch at times, but it's intriguing. The basic idea is to concoct an entirely false picture from abroad and broadcast it as broadly as possible, radio then and social media now. The CIA created a new reality that the Communists were taken over and that a rebel force was on the march. This was all recorded outside Guatemala by actors. Nothing about it was real. Similarly, we got (and still get) crazy stories about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. 

On the Guatemala side, we see David Atlee Phillips pleased as punch after Arbenz was overthrown, playing bridge and feeling smug. One can easily imagine a parallel in Russian hackers. And in both cases, they are leaving terrible wreckage. The authors conclude by showing how the offending governments cover up their tracks, lying even more. Unable to find any evidence of Communist affiliation in Arbenz's house, the CIA puts in bags of dirt labeled with Communist countries, as if he had collected dirt in his Communist ardor. Stupid, and unconvincing, but convincing enough for those didn't think too much about it, much like now.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Review of Vincent Bevins' The Jakarta Method

I recommend Vincent Bevins' recently published The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. It starts with an extended discussion of Indonesia and then looks at how Suharto's brutality (the word "Jakarta" became a synonym for mass political murder) was copied elsewhere, with the U.S. government deeply involved everywhere. He uses interviews with those who suffered (and often emigrated) to show how people were affected and felt at the time.

From my perspective as a Latin Americanist, the book's global perspective makes it especially interesting. Events in one part of the world affect others. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike are reading the news, and trying to glean lessons. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro famously decided from the 1954 Guatemala invasion that the electoral path was suicidal, but Indonesians were learning from Central America too. We know the U.S. government viewed Latin America in global terms, but we talk far less about how places like Indonesia resonated. Because of language barriers, those of us who study Latin America don't tend to do fieldwork in Asia.

The 1960s-1980s in particular was a time of wanton anti-communist slaughter. It was calculated, strategic, and entirely supported by the U.S. government. As he notes, the living carry psychological scars with them, and in Indonesia people still do not feel comfortable discussing it. Those labeled "communist" are still stigmatized, unlike Latin America where they're even becoming presidents of countries. Using the stories from this interviews, he traces the shift from hope and pride during the Sukarno government to fear after Suharto took over and killed roughly a million people.

Although it's not really a theme of the book, his interviews also show the global migratory impact of mass murder. His interviews, which are in different continents, show people fleeing in all directions, not even necessarily settling in the first country that will take them. I always talk about this in the Central American context in my U.S.-Latin American relations class. But I also lived it while being entirely ignorant of the causes at the time--Bevins mentions the so-called "boat people," some of whom ultimately ended up in the public schools I attended.

If there is an overarching political lesson in the book, sadly it is that mass murder worked amazingly well for U.S. political elites. The Cold War was "won" by preserving global capitalism and asserting U.S. hegemony. The average person in the United States is considerably wealthier than most people on the planet. And they are either unaware or uncaring about the violence that contributed to getting them there.


Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Venezuelan Government Attacks Health Workers

Amnesty International lays out the dire situation Venezuelan health workers are in. Repression, economic collapse, and lying all fold in together. 50% of health workers have emigrated rather than deal with dangerous conditions where often they arrive at work hungry. This is pure brain drain. 

“The Venezuelan authorities are either in denial about the number of health workers to have died from COVID-19, or they do not have accurate information about the precarious conditions in hospitals and the dire need for better protection of staff and patients alike. Either way, the government is being utterly irresponsible,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
Nobody believes anything the government says, and Venezuela is the only country in the hemisphere to imprison doctors who speak truth to power (and then drag them to military tribunals!). There is, of course, lots of tweeting about how successful everything is.

In fact, Maduro’s spokespeople almost don’t reference how medical personnel are being affected anymore; they have even criminalized them. On May 22nd, the Information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, said: “Assume that you’re standing in front of a COVID-19 patient. Follow the protocol, use facemasks. We’ve seen videos (…) where healthcare workers aren’t using them. They’re not using gloves, they’re not using the suits they were given to work on these patients.”

But the equipment hasn’t arrived. MUV began a campaign on July 23rd to promote donations of biosafety equipment, facemasks, face guards, gloves, surgical caps and scrubs; in Táchira, they reported shortages of up to 70%. In Caracas, Ana Rosario Contreras said that they’re being forced to reuse facemasks and scrubs, a problem already reported by Monitor Salud: in seven out of thirteen hospitals in Caracas, there are no facemasks available, and they’re forced to reuse them in ten of those hospitals. 

 No surprise, then, that Maduro already has people lined up to test the Russian vaccine.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Political Center in Colombia

The Canadian Council for the Americas held a webinar on the political center (sorry, centre!) in Colombia and whether it can unite. There was former Vice President Humberto de Calle (under Ernesto Samper, and he was also the head of the negotiating team with the FARC*) and then a bit later also Colombian journalists and a financier, moderated by Ken Frankel.

The quick answer is that it's really tricky.

De la Calle's main point was that, unlike Colombian political tradition, the center needed to start with a basic program rather than choosing a person to rally around. He gave various indicators, based on local election results and polls, about an appetite for centrist positions and parties. Centrist policy positions included agrarian reform, tax reform, pension reform, and crop substitution.

But that is where the conversation got more difficult. Responses included asking where was the focus on women and youth? If the right dominated non-urban areas, how was this going to function? What are some concrete objectives? Doesn't this seem too top-down? And, fundamentally, what is the "center" anyway?

Unless I missed it toward the end, when I had interruptions and missed chunks, the political mechanics of all this was missing. Who gets the ball rolling, which means controlling the message at the beginning? De la Calle advocated for self-exclusion, meaning no one would be rejected as long as they broadly accepted the program. But that depends on who defines the program.

I've written before about how the FARC really screwed the democratic left in Colombia, because it's too easy to connect the left to the FARC (and nowadays also to Venezuela, though I don't know how much that actually convinces people). But I hadn't thought as much about the center. This discussion demonstrated to me how tough such a project would be. The essential question "can it unite?" just kind of hung there. Fear has served the right very well, and it's hard to overcome.

* His overall political biography is really interesting.


Friday, August 14, 2020

Bolsonaro's Popularity

I recommend Brian Winter's article in Foreign Affairs on the durability of Jair Bolsonaro's popularity, which in fact just went up. He zeroes in on the country's interior:

The interiorzão is not defined on any map, but it generally refers to a belt of land sagging around the country’s geographic midsection, from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in the west through Goiás, Minas Gerais, and parts of Bahia in the east. This is a Brazil of soy farms and cattle ranches, oversize Ford pickup trucks, air-conditioned shopping malls, and all-you-can-eat steakhouses. Some of it is old, but much of it was erected only in the last 30 years or so. Instead of Afro-Catholic syncretism and bossa nova, it boasts evangelical megachurches and sertanejo, a kind of tropicalized country music sung by barrel-chested men in cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans.It is Brazil's equivalent to flyover country, parts that are not tourist destinations and do not correspond to the foreigner's view of the country as a whole. As with Trump in the U.S., it constitutes a core of support that's not likely to fall away.
I can imagine a similar worldview holding there and here. What I consider to be destroying institutions, Bolsonaro/Trump supporters see "getting things done." What I see as unacceptable rhetoric, they see as a return to morality. What I see as conspiracy theories, they see as truths. What I clearly see as lying, they see as "telling it like it is." Brazil's political history is so different from the U.S., but there are parallels here.

As Brian writes, quite a few elites have repented their support for Bolsonaro. The same has happened here, but that doesn't necessarily signal change. That core is still there, and they love the show they're seeing. The difficulty for any analyst is to truly move away from trying to sort out self-interest. People adore their president despite the fact that he is screwing them. Depressed economic growth, rampant virus, you name it (wrecked post office, even!).

From an electoral standpoint, it's sobering. The party systems of the two countries are so different that comparison isn't worthwhile, but at a very basic level, established opposite parties will find it hard to convince that core base that they have anything to offer. To win, you need to bring everyone else together.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Completely Broken Immigration System

I watched WOLA's webinar on immigration: "Stranded Between Borders: Draconian Responses to a Regional Migration Crisis." Adam Isacson moderated, with the following guests:

Gretchen Kuhner, Institution for Women in Migration (Mexico),

Marco Romero, CODHES and Professor at the National University of Colombia

Ursula Roldán, Institute for Research and Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University (Guatemala)

It was particularly worthwhile because it didn't in fact focus on Trump per se, but rather the responses and realities in the Latin American countries.

The overall message is that the immigration system is utterly, terribly, broken. The Trump administration is not only anti-immigrant, but it reneges on agreements. AMLO bows down to Trump just to avoid being attacked, and his own anti-immigrant policies are fine with his base in Mexico. Colombia has nothing but short-term, emergency responses when it needs much more. Immigrants live precariously at borders with no solution in sigtht. Covid-19 hovers over all of this, because vulnerable migrants find themselves infected and bureaucracies have ground to a halt.

Tied to that, there is so little hope for meaningful change. No current president is willing to build a long-term humane system, and is generally doing the opposite. Even if Joe Biden wins the presidency, it will take a long time to undo the damage that the Trump administration inflicted on immigration policy and immigrants.

The only positive note was that remittances to Guatemala were up in July. I can't even imagine how that is possible, but it is.


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Plan Colombia is Problematic

Michael Shifter writes of Brent Scowcroft in glowing terms for his role in promoting Plan Colombia. One thing I've noticed over the years is that advocates know Plan Colombia had some massively negative consequences, and so feel obligated to at least make some mention, but without going into detail and then head straight back to compliments. Examples from his short essay:

  • "however seriously flawed"
  • "Criticism centered around human rights concerns"
  • "failed to achieve its highest priority objective"
  • "for all of its flaws in conception and implementation"
That's a lot of qualifiers. More specifically, let's look at the most recent data from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre:

This is Plan Colombia in action--it created a disaster along Syrian lines for millions of Colombians, but they just don't get much attention. President Alvaro Uribe, who was largely responsible for implementing it after he took office in 2002, is a thug who oversaw major human rights violations, and is currently under house arrest for bribing members of paramilitaries so that he wouldn't be implicated for his involvement with them.

I understand fully that Plan Colombia served to ramp up the government's side in the civil war, and as a result it was able to weaken the FARC sufficiently to force it to negotiate, which stabilized the country. I am not trying to pretend that didn't happen. But it definitely needs to be seen as only side of a violent coin.


Monday, August 10, 2020

Trump's Latin America Nominees Are Bad in the Same Way

Not long ago, I wrote about how Trump pick for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Carlos Trujillo, was a bad choice. Now Chris Sabatini wrote what is like a companion piece, namely that Trump's pick to head the Inter-American Development Bank, Mauricio Claver-Crone, is a terrible choice.

Plus, they are terrible in almost exactly the same ways. They are Marco Rubio-groomed ideologues with no experience, chosen solely with Florida electoral votes in mind. They are obsessed with Cuba and Venezuela, and can't seem to concentrate much on anything else.

The White House’s nomination of Mauricio Claver-Carone seems certainly informed by domestic politics — part of its strategy to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes in November. Currently the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Claver-Carone’s previous experience was running a one-man lobbying shop for the U.S.-Cuba embargo. The underqualified candidate owes his meteoric rise from relative obscurity to his benefactor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — though the senator’s patronage twice failed to get him appointed as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, raising the question of why he should be in charge of a regional development institution at a time of unprecedented economic and social distress in Latin America.

These are important jobs at any time, but especially now. Latin America is in crisis, and political hacks are just not the way to go. They seem guaranteed to focus on all the wrong things.


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