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.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Jorge Castañeda's America through Foreign Eyes

I read Jorge Castañeda's America through Foreign Eyes, and since I was asked to review it, I will keep this brief and let you click on that when it's ready for clicking. Castañeda knows the U.S. very well, and is in a good position to tell us something about ourselves. And he clearly likes the U.S. a lot.

The one point that the average American would do well to take from this book is the dangerous absurdity of exceptionalism. We think we're exceptional when we're not, often creating our beliefs by conveniently leaving out key facts. I mean, don't talk about democracy and equality unless you explicitly say you mean only whites. Castañeda, like so many others, is frustrated by these beliefs and sees them as an obstacle to Americans themselves.

I will also say that Castañeda is optimistic about how we can change. He often seemed more optimistic than me. So I hope the outsider view is getting something I am missing.


Monday, August 03, 2020

Rubio's Influence on Latin America Policy: Much Ado About Nothing?

Interesting article in Politico about Marco Rubio's influence on Latin America policy, like the reference to him as the "virtual Secretary of State for Latin America." But something nagged me. Something seemed a but off about the influence. I mean, he's clearly influential, but...what? It finally crystallized as I thought about what Latin America policy would be like if Marco Rubio had no influence.

The answer is barely different.

He is viewed as having outsized influence on Venezuela and Cuba policy and keeping the administration centered on them. Makes sense. But in Venezuela, he's not getting what he wants, which is TPS and more interest in a military solution. He gets the oil embargo, I guess, but people like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo would've wanted that too. For Cuba, he's just getting establishment Republican policy, which would've been identical no matter what. Roll back Obama, love the embargo, no dialogue.

He's seen as contributing to ignoring the rest of Latin America, especially Mexico. Well, OK, except that for Trump, U.S. policy toward Mexico is driven from within the White House and would've been like that no matter what. Remember how Kushner ignored the State Department and everybody else. Further, Trump doesn't care about the rest of Latin America, so I wonder whether anyone could've convinced him otherwise. Trump likes Rubio's obsession with Cuba and Venezuela because it's about his own re-election, and he doesn't care about Latin America policy not related to re-election. Do you really think that absent Rubio, Trump would care about South America? He insults Colombia, our strongest ally, all the time, and that's not because of Marco.

This bring me to my next point. Rubio has been successful in getting his acolytes appointed to policy positions. I recently wrote about Carlos Trujillo in Global Americans. For Rubio, "personnel is policy," according to his office, and he pursues it with petty abandon. But in the Trump administration, the adage isn't true. Trump doesn't care what State Department officials say. However, they do have an impact on bilateral relations on the ground, and so can easily worsen them by showing ignorance about regional issues. I don't know if that's been the case or not.

This is all one big counterfactual. Would there be dramatic differences if Marco Rubio were not involved so deeply? He's got influence, but how much does it matter except for his ego and his cronies?


Friday, July 31, 2020

Michael Kozak on Latin America Policy

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Michael Kozak, talked on-the-record about U.S. policy. Here is the gist:

--The Bolivian coup government can delay the presidential election, no biggie.

--The Cuba embargo is totally going to work. History tells us so!

--Bolsonaro is, well, and Brazil, geez, they're tough, who the hell knows what's going on.

--Nicolás Maduro won't face up to reality so we are kinda out of ideas.

--Crap, you're going to keep asking me about Trump's comments and I sure as shit don't want to get into that, but some delays are OK and some aren't.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Government Violence in Bolivia

Andrew Pagliarini writes in The New Republic about the political crisis in Bolivia. He links to the new report by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, which is really disturbing. The title is They Shot Us Like Animals so you immediately get the drift.

According to witnesses, government repression since November 2019 has extended beyond killing protestors to quell criticism. The government has harassed, arbitrarily arrested, and tortured people that it perceives to be outspoken against the Áñez administration. Many Bolivians have found themselves facing charges or detention for vaguely defined crimes such as sedition, while others have been attacked in the streets by security forces and para-state actors. Certain visible groups are particularly susceptible to this persecution, including journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians. The result of this repression has been a pervasive climate of fear in many communities. 

Pagliarini frames the postponement of the presidential election in terms of lithium. Like so many other times in Latin America, political crisis and U.S. interests centers on a primary good deemed to be essential. And we're all using lithium.

Añez will hold on as long as she can, so international pressure is essential. Sadly, this will definitely not come from the Trump administration, which rushed to give the new government aid. As usual there is no unified stance among Latin American countries or any regional leadership on it.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Making Latin America Policy

I recommend Evan Ellis' post at Global Americans on his recently completed year at the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff. He now returns to the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. It is a useful read both for its insider look and its discussion of "why does this matter?"

Here is a key point:
The problem is also compounded by the fundamental orientation of the State Department to tell our partners what we think and want, rather than listening to what they think and want. While seasoned diplomats know better in their personal interaction, I observed the balance of the work that came across my desk to be about “transmitting” rather than “receiving.” Every high-level meeting involves the preparation of “talking points” seeking to advance an agenda, too seldom did they include questions about what our partners thought or needed.
This echoes Lars Schoultz's In Their Own Best Interest, where he questions all "uplifting" aid, the effects of which are never measured. We can check boxes on delivery and execution, but not on whether it actually makes lives better. Making lives better requires starting with what our partners actually want. This has often been true, but is accentuated in the Trump era.
In my own work, I did not see substantial evidence that the strategy and policy documents of each organization are actively used as guides to action by the other, beyond superficial references to fundamental documents such as the National Security Strategy. I also witnessed and participated in the drafting of some interagency documents, but beyond the somewhat useful exercise of meeting and coordinating about their wording, I did not perceive that the result meaningfully impacted the direction of either state or the other U.S. government entities involved.
This is clearly a Trump administration problem, though past administrations were clearly not immune.  Unlike the past, though, the essential problem now is that policy is made by tweet, with government agencies scrambling to interpret it just like the rest of us. How do you feel like you're doing something meaningful when the president ignores you?

I appreciate these kinds of perspectives. As a side note, as he does not address it, I know a number of people who have moved from academia to policy making and back, and I know their view of of the relevance and accuracy of academic work changed dramatically. I have not felt great temptation to try the policy making world myself, even as I recognize that even in small doses it would make us better analysts.


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Kirk Tyvela's The Dictator Dilemma

I read Kirk Tyvela's The Dictator Dilemma: The United States and Paraguay in the Cold War am writing a review for The Latin Americanist. I really liked it.

The “dictator dilemma” was often at the core of U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Cold War. U.S. policy makers professed commitment to democracy, yet commonly supported pro-U.S. dictatorships to advance U.S. security interests. The dilemma played out clearly in Paraguay, where dictator Alfredo Stroessner ruled by force and won elections with around 90% of the vote from 1954 to 1989. Kirk Tyvela’s book is a deeply researched and compelling addition to the literature on U.S.-Latin American relations.
You'll have to wait until later in the year to read the rest. But it's a great read.

One thing I liked in particular was his attention to Paraguayan sources. He used Paraguayan archives but only to the extent that they exist, which is minimal. That is the big challenges for future scholars, which will require close consultation with local experts of whatever country (and hopefully publishing collaboration as well). Are there untapped primary sources? The literature on U.S.-Latin American relations cries out for it.


What Biden Policy Toward Latin America Might Look Like

A few days ago I wrote about the Latin America part of the Democratic Party's platform. Now Juan Gonzalez, who as an Deputy Assistant Secretary of State was part of Latin America policy under Obama, writes in Americas Quarterly about what a Biden administration policy could look like.

The main thing I like about it is that he brings Mexico front and center, whereas the platform actually doesn't even mention it. Mexico is our most important Latin American partner by far, and must be part of any discussion of trade, immigration and/or Central America. There is a lot of work to be done, and we need Mexico's help to do it.

I also like that Colombia gets more attention, because the peace process needs support, and as he points out, we need to get beyond narcotization. He mentions helping with the exodus of Venezuelans, but I would also like the U.S. to be more publicly mindful of displaced Colombians as well.

There is more, on Brazil, the Caribbean, climate, multilateral response to Covid-19, and even the simple task of not being a model of corruption. Just that would be nice.
The great visibility of the United States makes us an example all over the world, for better or for worse. When we live up to our ideals as a nation, it bolsters civic-minded leaders elsewhere. But when our leaders deny facts and model corrupt behavior, it encourages actors who are anathema to our hemisphere’s democratic progress and social advancement. The task of building back better requires us to find common cause in our shared prosperity, a renewed partnership on climate change, a resolve to guarantee the security of our citizens, and a sense of urgency toward realizing a shared vision of a hemisphere that is secure, middle class, and democratic.


Monday, July 27, 2020

Venezuelan Healthcare and Covid-19

This morning, Chris Sabatini at Chatham House moderated a Zoom panel entitled, "How Prepared is Venezuela's Healthcare System for Covid-19." The participants were:

José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Acting Deputy Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Dr Kathleen Page, Associate Professor of Medicine, John Hopkins University

The answer to the panel's title question is, as anyone paying even passing attention would accurately guess, emphatically no. There is no good news. There is no silver lining. A massively corrupt and uncaring dictatorship is letting people die and lying about everything. Doctors are washing their hands from the drips of air-conditioning units before doing surgery. Many hospitals don't have potable water. Aid is tricky and the gasoline shortage makes it hard to reach the interior of the country. We have no idea how many people have the virus and how many people have died from it. Repression makes it hard to find out anything. BTW, I had never heard the phrase "verbal autopsy" before. That's where we are in terms of data collection, down to trying to get information on demand for funeral homes, but even then people are afraid to talk openly. It's an onslaught of bad, but Covid-19 has distracted the world from the disaster.

What can the international community do? We need a truly multilateral effort with a common position. José Miguel Vivanco lamented the Trump's administration embrace of militaristic rhetoric, which makes things worse. The UN is barely paying attention.

John Hopkins worked with Human Rights Watch before Covid-19, and already last year warned that Venezuela was in a dire healthcare crisis.

Anyway, it was a really interesting discussion, but one that left me sad and frustrated.


Nicaraguans Want Change and Don't Thinks It's Too Likely

Manuel Orozco directed a survey in Nicaragua for the Inter-American Dialogue. The results show deep distrust that has developed over years of corrupt government, from Daniel Ortega of course but also the right. Nicaraguans want free elections and they also want good choices, and they don't see either happening.

It would be logical to assume that Nicaraguans would lay the blame for the crisis--political, economic, public health, etc.--on Daniel Ortega. But that's only partially true. This graph caught my attention the most:

Several of these questions get at the repression and ineptness off the government, but a lot of people see this as just another example of Sandinista/right political conflict, which has dominated the country for over 40 years. Further, check out the sizable chunk of people who believe the crisis stems from the U.S. and the right.

Who do Nicaraguans want to vote for? They don't seem to see good options. They don't identify with the political parties and a majority doesn't even identify as "pro-government" or "pro-opposition." If the election were held today, a large majority either doesn't know or would not choose from any candidate (which they could write in). They think there will be fraud and see international observers as important.

What can we take away from this?

--Lack of popular interest in the opposition and an alternate leader works very much to Ortega's favor.
--International observers are critical for the legitimacy of any election. The next presidential election is now scheduled for November 2021.
--Ortega's inept response to Covid-19 is truly devastating. No one believes him when he says it's barely affecting the country.
--There is support for sanctions, but they should stay very focused on the Ortega clique.
--as with Venezuela, the situation keeps getting worse with no real solution in sight.


Friday, July 24, 2020

MLB (Weakly) Acknowledges Injustice in Venezuela

Last night was opening night for Major League Baseball, a huge thing for all of us baseball fans. The issue of social justice was apparent, down to the highly visible "BLM" stenciled on the pitching mound. Before the game, the players knelt and held a long, black tapestry, the brainchild of Phillies star Andrew McCutchen. This sort of display is radical for baseball.

What I didn't know is that McCutchen meant it as a general statement about injustice, and specifically included Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
"This is a moment for us to honor each other, to honor the things that we're going through," he said. "With the social injustices we're going through in this country, with the things that exist outside our nation -- places like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic. To honor that and show that we honor each other, that we have each other's back, that we're going to fight for each other. And the way we do that is by collectively being together as one. This is a representation of that."
I can't find anything to suggest that McCutchen has talked about Venezuela before, or even what exactly he's referring to in the DR. It might be as simple as the fact that he has teammates from there. In terms of injustice, he certainly needs to add Cuba (I don't think there are any Cubans on the 40 man roster for the Phillies, which might account for the omission).

The acknowledgment, therefore, is pretty weak, to the point that hardly anyone is aware. I wish players, announcers, and writers would give it some more attention. Baseball is an international game, and players from other countries face problems that are different but sometimes no less dire.


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Latin America in the 2020 Democratic Platform

Here is a link to the latest draft of the Democratic Party Platform. Here is what I wrote about 2016 in Global Americans. The party is not paying much attention to Latin America, either then or now. Back then, I wrote that countries were just jumbled together. In 2020 they solved that problems by not mentioning countries at all. Mexico is not mentioned at all, even in the discussion of USMCA. 

I know, I know, the platform is just a basic document of values, with a lot of cooks making the soup. But as I noted last year, is it so hard to say we support the Colombia peace process and anti-corruption efforts in Central America, we value Mexico for everything, and the like?

Below is the "Americas" section:
Democrats believe the Western Hemisphere is America’s strategic home base—a region bound together by common values, history, and vision of a more prosperous, democratic, and secure future. When the United States hosts the region’s leaders at next year’s Summit of the Americas—the first to be held here since the 1994 inaugural meeting in Miami—we will turn the page on the Trump Administration’s denigration and extortion of our neighbors, and we will chart a new era of cooperation based on partnership and shared responsibility for the region we all call home. 
"Denigration and extortion." Strong, but accurate. I really don't like "strategic home base," which is militarist and imperialist. It's not our home--it's their home.
Democrats will reaffirm the importance of North America to U.S. global economic
competitiveness. We will ensure the USMCA lives up to its commitment to create prosperity for American workers, and we will strictly enforce compliance with its labor and environmental provisions. We will reinvigorate and build upon the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza launched under the Obama-Biden Administration and work with our partners to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused the biggest economic decline in history across Latin America and the Caribbean. 
This is a funny paragraph, beginning with acknowledging Trump's passage of a new bill, then pivoting to an Obama policy as counterweight. The labor and worker language is like 2016, which also reflected Bernie Sanders' influence, but I feel like the wording is stronger now. 
Rather than coerce our neighbors into supporting cruel migration policies, we will work with our regional and international partners to address the root causes of migration—violence and insecurity, weak rule of law, lack of educational and economic opportunity, pervasive corruption, and environmental degradation. Rather than encourage climate denial and environmental devastation, we will rally the world to protect the Amazon from deforestation, protect Indigenous peoples, and help vulnerable nations in the Caribbean and Central America adapt to the impacts of climate change. And rather than imitate populist demagogues, we will link arms with our neighbors to realize our shared aspirations for the region’s future. 
This is new and good. In 2016, Democrats framed immigration largely in domestic terms. Viewing it in structural terms, including climate, is a reality-based view, and very necessary.
We will reject President Trump’s failed Venezuela policy, which has only served to entrench Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial regime and exacerbate a human rights and humanitarian crisis. To rise to the occasion of the world’s worst refugee crisis and worst humanitarian crisis outside a warzone in decades, the United States will mobilize its partners across the region and around the  world to meet the urgent needs of the people of Venezuela, and grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States. Democrats believe that the best opportunity to rescue Venezuela’s democracy is through smart pressure and effective diplomacy, not empty, bellicose threats untethered to realistic policy goals and motivated by domestic partisan objectives. 
There are no specifics and Biden has never had any beyond doing mostly what Trump is doing without the empty threats. TPS is clearly critical, so a good step forward and he really needs to contrast himself in Florida on that issue.
Democrats will also move swiftly to reverse Trump Administration policies that have
undermined U.S. national interests and harmed the Cuban people and their families in the United States, including its efforts to curtail travel and remittances. Rather than strengthening the regime, we will promote human rights and people-to-people exchanges, and empower the Cuban people to write their own future. 
This is an easy one. Obama started it, and Biden will get back to that point and move forward again.


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Carlos Trujillo: Trump Loyalist for Latin America

Check out my post over at Global Americans about the nomination of Carlos Trujillo to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. My take is that he would be the least qualified person in the position's history and is there solely because of loyalty to Donald Trump. He is very much a "troika of tyranny" kind of guy.

He even showed that in the hearing yesterday, where he repeated Trump's favorite line of a military option in Venezuela still being on the table. It is Trump's way of telling everyone how tough he is.

There is no particular reason he wouldn't be confirmed, in the sense that he hasn't done anything extra objectionable since his last confirmation. Senator Ben Cardin briefly held up his nomination to the OAS in 2018 to get more information from the State Department about TPS, so something like that could potentially happen again.


Friday, July 17, 2020

Suffering Matters: When Political Leaders Get Covid-19

Boz has an ungated post from his newsletter about Latin American leaders who have Covid-19. I had been thinking of writing briefly about this as well, and he mentions what I had been thinking about:

In a presentation last week, I said my big concern was “Bolsonaro is going to survive coronavirus and then double down on being an idiot because his own survival will give confirmation bias to his belief that the disease is not that bad.” I stand by that comment.
I think this merits more attention, in Latin America and everywhere else. However, it's not about "surviving." I would call it "non-suffer bias." Those who get it and suffer are never the same. Those who get it and have only mild symptoms have a very different narrative. For them, it's just the flu or maybe just an irritating cold.

The Governor of Oklahoma announced he had Covid-19 even as he refused to mandate masks. He said he was achy but not too bad. Bolsonaro got it (tested positive twice!) and seems similarly little affected, which is the case for a lot of people. Covid-19 is not the Superflu of The Stand but rather a more crafty thing that kills the vulnerable and also kills and maims others in unpredictable ways. If you are a skeptic when you get it, you come out feeling more sure of skepticism if it only touched out lightly.

Politically, this is potentially huge. If a skeptic gets the virus and recovers easily, their ongoing story is that this is no big deal, just a bad cold, just a flu, and their platform gives that wide dissemination. They have "proof" in their own experience.

Contrast that to Juan Orlando Hernández, who was in the hospital, feared for his life, and made an emotional plea when he left the hospital. And that's a very conservative president. He survived but suffered, so his narrative is different. Boris Johnson suffered and now wants mandatory masks in shops, which fellow conservatives don't like.

I see lots of "ha ha, karma" tweets when skeptics are tested positive, but that entirely misses the point. It is the opposite when the virus treats them gently, and that has political repercussions.


Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Evangelicalism Offers a Way Out for Gang Members

José Miguel Cruz and Jonathan D. Rosen, "Mara Forever? Factors Associated with Gang Disengagement in El Salvador." Journal of Criminal Justice 69 (July-August 2020).

This study examines the factors associated with intentions to leave a gang in a context controlled by some of the most violent and structured street gangs in the Americas. It contends that group interactions better explain intentions to leave a gang in a place like El Salvador than life-course events.

Based on a series of logistic regressions using a cross-sectional survey with nearly 1196 active and former gang members in El Salvador, we identify the factors associated with disengagement intentions. We complement the analysis with 24 in-depth interviews with former gang members.

We find that group-related variables, such as the number of gang members in the clique, learning that a peer has successfully left the gang, incarceration, and affiliation with an Evangelical church are the most critical factors associated with attempts of disengagement. Intentions to leave the group are a direct function of the gang's ability to regulate the life and peer relationships of its members.

Social environments controlled by gang rule constrain the potential effects of life-course events. They curb the chances of disengagement, even among those with maturational tools required to desist from gang life.

Jonathan Rosen has done a lot of great work on gangs in El Salvador, and we discussed the issue of leaving gangs on my podcast back in December 2018. As always with his work, read the methodology section about interviewing gang members--it's not your everyday work.

The key findings are that "life-course" events, such as getting married, employment, or having children, don't seem to prompt gang members to leave. Instead, religion is central, both because it offers some moral clarity for the individual, but also because it is an accepted reason. In other words, you won't get killed for it.

It would be neat to connect studies like this to analyses of Evangelicalism in Central America. It's interesting, for example, that Evangelicalism offers a path out that Catholicism apparently does not. Perhaps only Evangelicalism provides a sense of being saved, of actually changing course. As Cruz and Rosen note, gang leaders "only accept the Evangelical church." Catholicism doesn't count.


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