Thursday, January 31, 2008

Correction on Cuba

When writing about the recent election in Cuba, I argued that given abstentions and invalid votes, Fidel could not have received more than 95.26% of the vote. That logic, however, is wrong because the votes for candidates are calculated per district, not nationally. In his district, Fidel won 98.2% and Raúl received 99.3% (h/t The Latin Americanist). Gotta love Cuban elections.


The Latino vote

Ruben Navarrette Jr. has an interesting commentary, arguing that even though Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama, his more significant role was co-sponsoring the immigration reform bill with John McCain. Since McCain is moving to frontrunner status, Latinos may be inclined to vote for him.

On the other hand, Obama is being credited for his controversial stance on allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, which is not a popular position among the general population (h/t Immigration and Politics Blog). Hillary Clinton flipped and flopped, then ultimately decided to come down against the idea, denying she had ever been for it. As Navarrette points out, however, Obama did vote for the Secure Fence Act.

So where does this leave Latinos? First, as I’ve noted a number of times, the Latino population is not a bloc, does not necessarily vote based on immigration, and many Latinos are registering as independents, though generally leaning Democratic. Given current conditions Latinos, like everyone else, will be focused quite a lot on the economy. Nonetheless, all will at the very least be paying attention to the candidates’ views on the issue.

A Clinton-McCain match-up could prompt more of those independents to move rightward. Hillary Clinton has voted in favor of immigration reform, but has not been nearly as active as McCain.

An Obama-McCain match-up is much harder to call. Both have stuck their necks out politically on immigration and taken heat for it.

Of course, if a Republican other than McCain ultimately wins the nomination, it is likely that much of the Latino vote will go to either Clinton or Obama. The only other viable candidate is Romney who, despite his ads in Spanish, has played to his restrictionist base on immigration during the campaign.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Making nice

It is nice to report positive developments in U.S.-Latin American relations, and to see that diplomacy is not entirely dead. According to La Nación, such is the case with the U.S. effort, led by the ambassador, to patch up relations with Argentina (see also Boz). The idea is to “encapsulate” Maletagate and not let it affect the overall relationship. This also involves convincing Fernandez de Kirchner that it is a police investigation, separation of DOJ and State and all that.

I wrote in December that there is a political angle to the investigation and since it involves Venezuela it is very hard for me to shake that notion. Nonetheless, I do not think the Bush administration is interested in tarnishing Fernández de Kirchner so things may well smooth out. She has the most to gain by working with everyone (like Lula) and her harsh words toward the U.S. (saying the case was “garbage” but not going too far over the top with the rhetoric) very likely pushed the U.S. government to start making amends.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

State of the Union

Boz already has a post up on the SOTU. There is nothing very remarkable about it, with regard to Latin America or anything else. I would just highlight the passage about free trade agreements.

These agreements also promote America's strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life. (Applause.)

The question of an FTA Colombia certainly deserves debate on its own merits (beyond platitudes like "trusting" American workers to compete). What bugs me, and I mentioned it last October when the administration made the same argument, is bringing Venezuela into the picture. The overall message is that even if you don’t like the agreement, you have to pass it because Hugo Chávez will benefit otherwise. Can’t we come up with a more persuasive argument? If Chávez did not exist, what would the argument be?

The other problem with the passage is that we’re going to “show our neighbors that democracy leads to a better life,” but an FTA is about trade, not about democracy. So what we’re really hoping to show is that free trade leads to a better life.


Monday, January 28, 2008

David Scott Palmer's U.S. Relations with Latin America during the Clinton Years

I read David Scott Palmer’s U.S. Relations with Latin America during the Clinton Years: Opportunities Lost or Opportunities Squandered? for a review in The Americas and put in on the side bar. I found it to be a good overview, clearly written and aimed at classroom use (and perhaps policy makers as well). It includes many interviews with key players. I won’t copy my book review for the journal (which I just recently submitted so it won’t appear for a while) but rather will note the issue of historical legacy.

It’s a generally even handed account, but Palmer is mostly critical of the Clinton Administration, leaning more toward the “opportunities squandered” side. Nonetheless, I wonder whether over the long term Clinton’s legacy will be viewed in more positive terms simply because of his successor.

We can rightly criticize him for failing to put together a coherent policy, for bungling the crisis in Haiti, for veering around with Cuba policy, failing to follow up on the Summit of the Americas, and supporting military-led drug policies more than democracy. As Palmer points out, with the end of the Cold War there was an window of opportunity but the administration didn’t take advantage of it.

On the other hand, compared to George W. Bush these deficiencies seem more mild. Clinton’s “haphazard and ad hoc” (p. 63) manner of making decisions is at least preferable to deliberate intimidation and condescension. Even compared to Bush I, who was much more pragmatic than Reagan yet still invaded a Latin American country, the Clinton years can be viewed in a more positive light.

To be sure, this is damning with faint praise but I think is still worth noting. Palmer also discusses the strong U.S. role in negotiating the Ecuador-Peru conflict, working with Mexican officials toward resolution of the peso crisis and also political liberalization, contributing to the Guatemalan peace agreement (and opposition to Jorge Serrano’s attempted autogolpe), and a variety of other issues. Nothing earthshattering, but they should be part of a holistic view of his legacy.

This comes down to judging the administration on its own goals (which Palmer does systematically) and comparatively. Clinton fails more on the former than the latter, and over time I think he will come out looking fairly positive. This is not to excuse his failures—the push for militarization in Colombia is certainly a terrible one—but to put him in some sort of comparative context.

The book is a first step toward defining a legacy of Latin America policy for the Clinton Administration, and certainly more will be forthcoming. This also makes me think of the next U.S. president, who will have a tremendous opportunity to restore badly damaged relations. Will it be squandered?


Sunday, January 27, 2008

We are family

There are, of course, strong political family clans in most countries, but in Chile it is especially marked. A few months ago, Adolfo Zaldívar was kicked out of the Christian Democratic Party after he voted against Transantiago funding, and now many of his family members have signed a letter of resignation from the party in protest. I don’t believe I’ve heard of a family resignation before.

At the time of Zaldívar’s expulsion, five members of the Chamber of Deputies also resigned from the party. Now we have to start asking ourselves what will happen to these former Christian Democrats. It is hard, though not necessarily impossible, to imagine them formally moving to the right. But if they don’t, the logical step would be to form another party. The Christian Democratic Party itself was formed in the late 1950s from splinters of other parties.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Marine Buddy Challenge

This morning I ran in the Marine Buddy Challenge with a friend of mine—it was tough but fun. It entails running a 5K on hilly trails with 10% of your body weight strapped to your back, then doing as many sit-ups as you can in one minute and as many push-ups as you can in one minute (with the pack on). Then they turn on a stop watch for carrying your buddy 30 yards, then doing 25 jumping jacks with your pack on, then lifting your pack over your head 50 times, then 25 more jumping jacks, then carrying your buddy back 30 yards. Marines periodically yelled at everyone during all these events. Proceeds went to a scholarship fund for Marines who want to go to college after they leave the service.

That’s me doing a push-up and carrying my buddy. I’m going to be sore tomorrow.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Fujimori trial

I happened across the bilingual blog Fujimori on Trial: Fujimori Procesado that provides details of each day of the trial. The last entry focused on the testimony of a Peruvian army officer who was part of the government-created paramilitary group Colina. Here's a sample:

Flores said he heard Rodríguez Zalbabeascoa say: “I went to see Vladi [Vladimiro Montesinos] in order to get the green light for the Barrios Altos operation, he told me, ‘beat the shit out of them.’” According to Flores, this demonstrates that Montesinos was aware of the group and approved Colina’s operations.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Trade with Bolivia and Ecuador

Here is the transcript from yesterday’s press conference by Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is going with Condoleezza Rice and 10 members of Congress (all Democrats) to Colombia to drum up support for the FTA.

He said a lot about the importance of FTAs, mentioning not only Colombia but Peru and Panama several times. He got a little more vague when it came to trade preferences with Bolivia and Ecuador:

ASSISSTANT SECRETARY SULLIVAN: The answer is we are working with the Congress with regard to making sure that particularly, the countries that we either just passed a free trade agreement with, Peru, or Colombia, looking for passage soon, is that that duty-free trade continues uninterrupted. So the answer is yes with regard to passage on a relatively short-term basis and that’s something that the Administration is working with Congress on.

With regard to Colombia and Peru, as you know, the ATPA is four countries and there have been some issues with regard to investor issues in Ecuador and Bolivia where we think further discussions between those governments, the Administration, and discussions with the Congress on how those benefits under ATPA would or should or could be extended is something that we are looking at right now.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that after you? Well, I mean, you seem to imply that the Administration will not ask for the renewal for Bolivia and Ecuador, that there could be a lapse there. I mean, is that -- can you clarify that a little bit? There could be a lapse of time for those preferences for those countries?

ASSISSTANT SECRETARY SULLIVAN: I’ll let Assistant Secretary Shannon clarify.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SHANNON: Yeah -- no, we’re not implying anything at this point in time. All we’re saying is that, you know, in our discussions with Congress -- and ultimately it’s a congressional decision. You know, because we passed a free trade agreement with Peru and because we’re in the process of trying to pass one with Colombia, the importance of extending benefits are obvious. There’s no doubt that ATPA has had a huge positive impact in Ecuador and in Bolivia and has met significant U.S. interests, including kind of enhancing trading relationships, but also building small- and medium-sized enterprises that create jobs. And this is something we’re aware of, it’s something we look at very closely.

But as Assistant Secretary Sullivan noted, there are some issues related to the statutory criteria of these agreements that we’re looking at closely and discussing with Ecuador and Bolivia and that we have an ongoing discussion with our own Congress on. So we’re -- we weren’t intending to imply anything. We want to underscore the importance and, from our point of view, the success of ATPA as a preference program. But we have due diligence that we still need to do.

Despite the protestations of not implying anything, the lawyer-speak of “statutory criteria” and “due diligence” is suggestive, not to mention the reference to “investor issues.” The Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) expires at the end of February, and it would be a mistake to let it lapse.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cuban election

According to Granma, in Sunday’s Cuban election 96% of registered voters cast a ballot, while 3.73% were left blank and 1.01% were annulled in some manner. Further, 91% went for the “united vote” where voters just approve all of them. This provides “undeniable proof of the cohesion of the Cuban people and of their confidence in the Revolution.”

So from my question of a few days ago about what percentage Fidel would get: Fidel and Raúl (along with 612 other unopposed candidates) were elected to the legislature with at least 91% but no more than 95.26%. I don’t know if we’ll be given anything more specific than that. And, of course, we have no idea whether the numbers are completely fabricated.

The most prominent rumor is that Fidel will be offered the position of president, but then can gracefully decline, and perhaps would be given some sort of emeritus position. However, the Cuban state runs a tight ship so predictions are often wrong.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Internal displacement in Colombia

Given the conflicts in Iraq, Sudan, and elsewhere, it is worth noting that the Red Cross named Colombia as the country with the most displaced persons. Somewhere between two and three million people have been forced to abandon their homes because of “threats, armed hostilities, and impressment.” The UN puts Colombia as second behind Sudan. Given the nature of the conflict, this occurs mostly in the countryside, and the poor rural population then moves in greater numbers to the cities, thereby sparking a host of other serious problems related to poverty.

It is very easy to point fingers based on political preferences. But this is the sort of issue that should be front and center of any U.S. aid package, and we should stop obsessing solely with record drug busts. Well, and if people in the U.S. would stop taking drugs in huge quantities, that would also help.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Breakfast of champions

Hugo Chávez is famous for his coffee consumption but now says he also chews coca every morning. This is, however, illegal in Venezuela unless there is a presidential coca waiver we don’t know about.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes

I really enjoyed Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. I’ve read quite a few good indictments of CIA operations, especially in Latin America (read anything by Stephen Kinzer, whose Bitter Fruit remains a classic, but for other regions All the Shah’s Men and Overthrow also merit mention). The devastation wrought on any number of different countries is well documented. What Weiner does, however, is demonstrate how these operations also show longstanding failure.

Starting with the old OSS in World War II, key decision makers have been obsessed with covert operations, which have consistently come at the expense of analysis. In short, the CIA is almost never able to provide insight into what’s going on in the world. It was clueless about the Soviet Union, North Korea, Iran, and later, of course, also Al Qaeda and Iraq. And in so many ways, covert operations made some of those situations worse. Presidents are also obviously responsible. In a reference to Lyndon Johnson, Weiner gives a quote that at times has fit all post-World War II presidents: “The only path between war and diplomacy was covert action” (p. 237). Time after time, it seems like the easy answer.

The CIA routinely portrayed the 1954 Guatemalan invasion and overthrow as a victory for covert operations. Yet as Weiner points out—and which has been widely analyzed elsewhere--it was largely bungled and “succeeded” only because of dumb luck. It also set a precedent for hiding errors and even lying to the president about the details. This, in turn, contributed to the Bay of Pigs debacle which, of course, was a boon to Fidel Castro.

The Contra War is just painful to read. On the illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbors:

“I was sitting home one night—frankly, having a glass of gin—and I said, you know, the mines has [sic] got to be the solution!” Clarridge said. The agency made them on the cheap, out of sewer pipe. Casey had notified Congress about the mining with an inaudible mumble. When Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, raised a ruckus about it, CIA officers defamed him as a muddleheaded drunk” (p. 399).

Over time, the CIA lied constantly, in large part simply because it was failing so often that the truth would quite possibly lead to its dissolution. Presidents also lied about covert ops many times, not to save the CIA but rather their own political skins, and consequently took enormous heat when their lies were revealed as such.

What’s really fascinating, though, is that the CIA’s own unclassified in-house journal published a lengthy and critical review of the book as well, written by a CIA historian. He raises some very interesting points about accuracy, and I’d love to see Weiner’s response to the review. But I think the review’s accusations of bias discount Weiner’s expertise too much. The book is extremely critical, yes, but the author’s knowledge and years of extensive interviews with high level officials give him credibility. I also take issue with the latter part of the CIA book review:

In his preface, Weiner claims to believe that the intelligence profession is critical to national security, but he is likely to have done considerable damage, as the people who take up the profession will, I fear, have to deal with his inaccuracies and skewed perspectives for years to come.

This logic is part of the problem. “Bad” books will damage the CIA’s credibility and therefore affect national security. I don’t buy it. The CIA’s failures hurt its credibility more than anything anyone writes about it.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Chile and Peru again

The Chile-Peru maritime border dispute, which I discussed last August, is getting worse. Peru announced it would take the case to the International Court of Justice, and then Chile responded by recalling its ambassador. Chile claims the lines were set by treaties in 1952 and 1954—I’d love to read them myself to see what the deal is.

The economic benefits of fishing are at stake, though I have to think that Alan García is looking for the age-old nationalist boost by heroically protecting the country’s interests from a foreign foe. His approval ratings are low (41.6% in December) and last month he also had a big cabinet shake-up. However, given her own problems Michelle Bachelet has a very strong incentive to fight back hard, and is in no political position to compromise (even if she were so inclined).


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Snow day

We were woken up by a 5:30 a.m. robocall from the school system, saying that because of the snow that had fallen overnight, there would be no school. Turns out UNC Charlotte is also closed (fortunately I do not teach today so won’t have to miss a class) and Mecklenburg County (where my wife works) is opening late and quite possibly will also just close.

If you want to see joy, then watch young children as they get up in the morning and first look out the window at snow that wasn’t there when they went to bed. There isn’t really that much, and it will melt before long, but you can always get in a quick snowball fight.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fidel and politics

Lula is in Cuba looking to a) make some money for Petrobras, as a number of other oil companies are also getting involved; and b) become more influential in Cuba at a time of transition.

On the latter point, Lula said he thought Fidel would once again “take on a political role,” which contradicts much of the conventional wisdom that Fidel was undertaking a slow process of retirement in favor of Raúl.

Fidel is indeed a candidate in the elections set for this Sunday, which keeps his political options wide open. According to the head of the Cuban Parliament:

The idea, he said, is to bring representative democracy closer to direct democracy, what is called the promotion of the real participation of people, popular control over the candidate's performance, parliamentarianism of society.
There are 614 candidates, which need 50% to be elected to the National People’s Power Assembly. The Cuban states has asked Cubans to do a “voto unido” by just voting yes for everyone, including him and Raúl.

So what percentage will Fidel and Raúl get?


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The FARC does math

It’s a drag when you give up hostages and you don’t get anything in return. According to the FARC, the solution to this dilemma is to kidnap more. This works out very nicely, because they gave up two, but then immediately kidnapped six.



Monday, January 14, 2008

Venezuela and Colombia

There is considerable controversy about how Hugo Chávez mentioned respect for the FARC’s ideology, which came on top of his assertion that the FARC should be considered insurgents rather than terrorists. Now he has also announced that he wants to meet with FARC leaders to get them to stop using armed struggle as a strategy for achieving their ideological goals.

I take it he is trying to put together a huge deal. He convinces the Colombian government to stop calling the FARC terrorists, then brings the FARC to the bargaining table by expressing solidarity with their Marxist goals while convincing them to stop using kidnapping and violence as a means to achieve them (he should also add that they get out of the drug trade, which has not been mentioned).

Megalomaniacal? Maybe so, but it’s also fascinating.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Media in El Salvador

I’ve had a lot of really good students over the years, but one really stands out. Gabriel Serrano is Salvadoran by birth, and now a U.S. citizen (the story of how he escaped the civil war and came here is amazing). Despite incredible obstacles, he is now the director of a cable television channel (Canal 67) in El Salvador, the purpose of which is to transmit alternative political views, such as an interview with FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes. As a result, it has been harrassed by the Salvadoran government (see here for some details).

As a result, they are also using YouTube, and Gabriel emailed me some links. They have several different shows (such as “Informe Legislativo”) all intended to provide information about politics to the public.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

The FARC and terrorism

In comments in yesterday's post on Colombia, the issue came up of Hugo Chávez asking Colombia to start treating the FARC as an insurgent group rather than as a terrorist one. I argued that they should be considered terrorists in anyone's book. Today Steven Taylor has a good discussion of the practical implications of labeling in Colombia, making the argument that negotiations have been the only means of successfully addressing violence in Colombia, and so even if the FARC is conducting activities most would consider "terrorist," it is not useful to have the official label "terrorist" because that immediately precludes any negotiation. Since the Colombian government has been unable to defeat the FARC militarily, some sort of negotiation is necessary.

Food for thought.


ICE in Charlotte

Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is) will be getting a new federal immigration court in a few months. The federal government therefore was also looking into putting in a new ICE detention facility, but for reasons as yet unknown there are “insurmountable obstacles” to doing so, and therefore the feds are looking to Gaston County (immediately west of here).

This is a difficult issue. It is entirely possible that local authorities did not want to be associated with it—compared to many other places, Charlotte has not seen the same level of inflammatory immigration rhetoric. On the other hand, the article also quotes Alan Gordon, an immigration attorney who was head of the mayor’s Immigration Study Commission. I've done some work with him and have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and he actually argued in favor of getting a detention facility because even if there is a judge in Charlotte, the individual would have to be shipped off elsewhere to wait for proceedings. Therefore one could argue that a detention center here would likely be easier on everyone concerned, including families.

Nonetheless, I do dislike the idea of having Charlotte associated with an ICE facility just for symbolic reasons.


Friday, January 11, 2008

He who shall not be named

Thankfully, the two hostages in Colombia have been released. A few weeks ago I noted that the U.S. government was trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because Hugo Chávez might end up looking good. Now, however, this is big news so the Bush administration could not ignore it anymore.

The State Department addressed the issue, and you really need to read the transcript. To their credit, the reporters pushed the spokesperson really hard on it, and you can tell that he tried as hard as possible not to say Chávez’s name and not even to insinuate that he played a positive role. [I discussed a similar thing about a year ago]. Here's how the tortured press conference ended:

QUESTION: Can I also ask you just by your choice of words earlier, you said you appreciate the leadership of President Uribe. Can you say that you also appreciate the assistance that President Chavez --

MR. CASEY: I said that we've welcomed --

QUESTION: I'm just wondering --

MR. CASEY: -- the good offices of anybody here. No, Matt, I'll leave it where I left it. Thanks.


QUESTION: Are you a little reluctant to give him credit for something?

MR. CASEY: Sue, look, I think I'll leave it to other people to add to this. I think I've said enough on this one already.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pushing free trade with Colombia

Check out The Hill for a business lobby perspective on free trade with Colombia. Naturally, business wants the FTA to be ratified. At the same time, however, lobbyists are getting nervous because they believe President Bush is soon going to try and ram it through Congress without getting prior approval from Democrats. They figure that if he does so, Democrats might not only reject it, but they might also refuse to pass any other FTAs.

If he goes ahead, that would set up a showdown between the Bush administration and Nancy Pelosi, who might feel some pressure to let the bill get to the floor or otherwise be labeled as turning her back on an ally in the “war on terror.” Obviously, she would get very strong opposite signals from her own base.

I would add that this would become a topic in the presidential race. In the primaries, I would guess that the contending Republicans would voice approval and Democrats would reject it (Clinton and Edwards are on the record as such, and from general statements I suspect Obama would do the same, though I can’t find specific statements to that effect). But after the primaries, and especially in a year of economic slowdown, this could hurt the Republican effort because of concerns about job loss (and general wariness about FTAs as well). I would like to think that Americans are also concerned about violence in Colombia, but I don’t really know.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

'Cause here I go again

Yet another major cabinet reshuffling for Michelle Bachelet, the third in two years, and which she says will initiate the “second stage” of her presidency. Following a pattern, she has brought in another old guard Christian Democrat, Edmundo Pérez Yoma, as Minister of the Interior. He helped put out fires in the 1990s as Minister of Defense and will be expected to do the same now (albeit not with the military this time around). El Mercurio has profiles of the other new ministers, which include PPD president Sergio Bitar in Public Works. It also notes that Pérez Yoma once said that the Bachelet administration “needs Ritalin.”

I keep using the word “disarray.” Bachelet has just not been able to find the right mix of people, and the right mix of policies. Her previous shake-ups have produced nothing of note, and have not stopped her popularity slide.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Goose is in!

With 85.8% of the vote, Goose Gossage was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I had written before how I thought he really should be in the HOF.

And for a Padres fan, how fitting that he goes in with Dick Williams.

A major debate will soon emerge. Should new style (i.e. one inning or less at a time) relievers have a shot at the HOF? Those in the HOF are not that way, except maybe Eckersley, but he was also a really good starter before becoming a reliever.


More problems for Chilean Christian Democrats

In an interview, Christian Democrat Gabriel Valdés said he believes his party is about to fall apart. He argued that the party was focused too much on power for power’s sake, strategically putting people into positions of political influence without any regard for ideas.

He’s a very important figure, as a founding member of the party (he’s in his late 80s) former senator and current Ambassador to Italy (I must admit I didn’t know he was still politically active!). This could just represent a generational dispute, but at the very least it is yet another example of the general disarray in the Concertación.

The theme of power is important. The Concertación has been in power for 18 years now. At what point does power for power’s sake get in the way of enacting positive change for the country? The next presidential election (not until late 2009) will be an especially fascinating one.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Constitutional reform in Nicaragua

A bloc of opposition legislators in Nicaragua is hoping to enact constitutional reform that would limit executive—and therefore Daniel Ortega’s—power. Ortega had tried to pass them before he was president (hoping to weaken Enrique Bolaños) but the opposition had decried the move as unconstitutional. The impasse ended when the two worked out a deal behind closed doors.

Opposition lawmakers, who claim that Ortega's authoritarian ways have marginalized the legislative branch in the past year, now hope to regain some political muscle by reenacting his own reforms against him. The law that temporaril suspended the reforms is due to expire Jan. 20, and lawmakers say they won't renew it.

Under the reforms, the National Assembly will have the authority to veto any presidential appointment to a government post. The assembly would also have the power to summon any government official to appear before the legislature and deliver progress reports and other information -- an important tool against Ortega's highly secretive administration.

This sounds exactly like the arrangement that emerged in Chile after the 1891 civil war, which pitted the president versus Congress. The congressional opposition cheered the end of presidential tyranny. The result was political inaction and eventually disintegration because it combined the combativeness of a presidential system and the legislative influence of a parliamentary system, but the president had no power over the legislature and coalition building didn’t happen. Ultimately, in 1924 the military (which by that time was angry at all sides) forced out President Arturo Alessandri and the country experienced civil-military governments until 1932.

In other words, this type of reform is not likely to make Nicaragua more governable.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Extemporaneous speaking

Yesterday I had the opportunity to be a judge for the final round of Extemporaneous Speaking at the 35th annual Laird Lewis Invitational Tournament at Myers Park High School. It was a national tournament with hundreds of competitors in different areas of debate.

I was really impressed. The students were given a topic about the U.S. economy and had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speech without notes. Topics included whether the dollar would be replaced by other currencies globally and whether the Federal Reserve Bank could avert a recession. In 30 minutes they had to cite sources, craft an argument, and fit it within the 7 minute time frame. Very cool.

The hardest thing as a judge was to rank order them, as they were all polished and persuasive, and looked like pros even though you knew how nervous they had to be.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Inflation in South America

I really want to discuss some good news for President Bachelet, but I can’t find any. The latest problem is that at 7.8% inflation in 2007 was the highest in 12 years. In the past year, 42 of the 50 goods that increased in price most were food (lemons were the highest at 157%).

Peru’s inflation is at a 9 year high (though still under 4%). Bolivia is now in double digits. Colombia’s inflation was well above Central Bank targets. Venezuela’s inflation has been high for quite a while (22.5% in 2007). Argentina's is above 8% and the Kirchners have often been accused of underreporting for the election.

On the other hand, Brazil has stayed stable and under 5%. Ecuador is also incredibly low (under 3%).


Friday, January 04, 2008

The CIA uses black highlighters

From The Onion. Hilarious.

h/t Alterdestiny


Iowa and Latin America

Upon seeing the Iowa results, it immediately occurred to me that Obama and Huckabee are polar opposites with regard to policy toward Latin America. We have to remember, of course, that no candidate is paying attention to the region, and most even see immigration as a purely U.S. issue.

I give Obama credit for rejecting the idea that we shouldn’t meet with the leaders of Venezuela or Cuba (though no one, of course, asked why we should lump Venezuela in with North Korea!). His position on immigration is also reasonable and includes working with the Mexican government. He gave a good speech on Latin America in March, and I would hope that anyone, once elected, would follow his words:

It is my hope that the President will break from his practice of touting the importance of the Americas during his travels only to turn his back upon his return.

Huckabee is really a disgrace with regard to Latin America. He was pro-Cuba trade while governor but now openly panders to the anti-Castro Florida electorate. He had more common sense about immigration while governor, but now panders to restrictionists, notwithstanding some positive comments he made during a debate about children of undocumented immigrants going to college. He even used the murder of Benazir Bhutto as an excuse to call for more border wall. Even if you agreed with Huckabee’s current positions, you would have to be alarmed by his 180 degree turns and lack of knowledge.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bolivian military and the opposition

Evo Morales has named a new Chief of the Armed Forces in Bolivia. The outgoing general said that the military should “persuade, dissuade, repress, and annihilate any enemy of the Fatherland that opposes its interests.” Morales added that the unity of the country was a central interest.

So far, opposition prefects have threatened “autonomy” but not secession. It is not clear whether the military’s message relates only to the latter, but the overall thrust is that the state will only accept so much before using force. Hopefully this can just remain rhetoric that serves as a first volley for negotiations in 2008.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Colombia hostages

The Colombia hostage release situation is one of the stranger stories I’ve seen in a while. The FARC stopped the operation, saying the Colombian government was doing new military operations, which the government denies. Now Alvaro Uribe says the FARC doesn’t even have the child Emanuel (and Hugo Chávez had named the operation after him—I see variations in the spelling that I assume reflect English vs. Spanish) but had given him up in 2005.

So far, Chávez has remained fairly subdued, blaming Uribe personally but also saying that if DNA tests matched, then the FARC would have serious explaining to do. In fact, they would need to explain why they were offering up a hostage they did not have—the Colombian government argues that given decentralized command, the members of the FARC who offered him may not have known he was already freed.

The entire situation is just depressing. Kidnapping is bad enough, but dangling people out in front of their relatives and then yanking them back is sickening.

[Trivia note: now the I get a “forbidden access” message when I try to go to the FARC’s website.]


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Some questions for 2008

I hope everyone is having a happy (and hangover-free) start to 2008. Here are some questions to think about for the upcoming year. The list, of course, is by no means exhaustive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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