Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jim Pendergraph and 287(g)

Jim Pendergraph was sheriff of Mecklenburg County and was the first to sign up for the 287(g) program in North Carolina. He did not like the Op-Ed I wrote about the program and wrote a letter to the News & Observer. He apparently thinks I make stuff up, because he finds it "difficult to believe" the direct quote from ICE that I got from the January 2009 GAO report, which he has obviously not read. He also believes that there is no problem with the relationship between law enforcement and the Latino community because there is "no verifiable evidence" that people are afraid.

Given his prominent position in all this, I was disappointed the response was this weak.


Vice President No

Two days ago I wrote about how Joe Biden announced that the administration did not have plans to end the Cuba embargo. Now he also says that there are no immediate plans for immigration reform, something that Central American leaders are very interested in (and they are particularly concerned about the number of deportations, which their economies cannot handle).

The overall theme of his Latin America trip has been "cooperation," and I've heard lots of pleasantries. However, the real message at the moment seems to be that the U.S. isn't planning on doing anything.

So I guess we shouldn't be too surprised that while the Obama administration talks nice and does nothing, the Argentine government decided to get Chinese help to shore up the peso.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Encyclopedia of U.S.-Latin American Relations

CQ Press is putting together an Encyclopedia of U.S.-Latin American Relations, and they still need some authors. If anyone out there is interested, here is the relevant info:


We have begun a final push to assign the remaining entries for EUSLA and hope to enlist you and your colleagues to aid in this effort! Assigning articles for an encyclopedia is a continuous process as contributors sign on and, for various reasons, may choose to sign off. Please consult the complete list of unassigned articles that is attached to this newsletter, or visit our project’s Sharepoint site at the following address to view the most current list:

Authors.cqpress.com/latin america

When prompted, enter the username: latinamerica

And the password: read

Additionally, if you know of people who would be interested in writing for the Encyclopedia, please refer them to Tim Arnquist or Liza Baron (at eusla@cqpress.com).


Back Channels

My friend and political science colleague Jim Walsh has started a new blog examining terrorism and other bad things, called Back Channels. So check it out. He's not a Latin Americanist but I don't hold that against him.


More on that Mexican "exodus"

The Houston Chronicle has another "exodus to Mexico" story. I am trying to keep an open mind about this, but I am still waiting for a good argument to convince me that it is actually occurring.

One problem is simply the reporting, which I have mentioned before. This particular article opens with the story of a guy who is making much less than in Mexico than he did in Houston. So he chose to do this? Actually, no.

Pichardo said he is not likely to make the dangerous journey to cross the Texas-Mexico border since he has restarted his life in his home state of Guanajuato. He returned home in September 2007 after an arrest on immigration charges, and now can’t afford the expensive smuggling fees to cross the border. He’s also heard work is increasingly scarce.

So he is in fact an example of someone choosing not to emigrate, rather than someone coming home voluntarily. He was deported!

Meanwhile, the report also interviews the director of the Guanajuato state social development office, who immediately rejects the idea of an exodus as "alarmist reports."

The only hard figure the reporter uses is the DHS estimate that the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has declined very slightly. That may suggest people have left and not come back, but even a small margin of error (and we are talking about rough estimates for this sort of thing) could point in a different direction.

There will always be people returning to Mexico, because that is how migration patterns have worked for decades. Some people might choose to stay, but as of now the number is relatively small.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obama and the embargo

Joe Biden has ruled out scrapping the Cuba embargo. This does not come as a surprise, as I think it's fair to say that conventional wisdom held that Obama would mostly use executive authority to repeal some of the more restrictive measures enacted during the Bush administration. There is still a review of Cuba policy going on (unless it is complete) so best case scenario is that we could move gradually toward the whole enchilada. Obviously, getting rid of the embargo requires Congress, and it is not a priority. There is, however, growing congressional interest in the matter.

What particularly got my attention, however, was Biden's logic, which is worse than the Bush administration's because it is so cloaked in the "we are moving in a new direction" language. So, Mr. Vice President, why not end the embargo?

"We think that Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom and have some prospect of economic prosperity"

I guess technically it is true that the best way to let people determine their own fate is to refuse to have anything to do with them.

But it gets worse:

"Obama and I made it clear during our campaign that we thought there's a need for transition in our policy toward Cuba"*

But refusing to get rid of the embargo means no real transition in our policy, so this is contradictory. Unless there is a very gradual plan they're not revealing, which does not seem terribly likely. We'll see.

* It also seemed a little weird for a VP to refer to his president by his last name.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Basic rules of diplomacy

You don't usually declare that a neighboring president's obesity is affecting his judgment (as Evo Morales said of Alan García).

On the other hand, you also shouldn't necessarily make a crack about how Bolivia had already given up its claim to sea access, given the fact that it is obviously a permanent gaping wound in Bolivia.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Funes and leftism

When I posted about Mauricio Funes' victory, I predicted that it was now time for people to start pigeon-holing him into "good left" or "bad left." Moisés Naím has the first I've seen, talking about the "axis of Hugo" and the "axis of Lula." He emphasizes how Funes will be antagonistic toward the United States, an argument that ignores pretty much everything Funes has said both before and after his election. If he is part of the Axis of Hugo, then I guess the idea is that we refuse to believe anything he says. He's a puppet of Hugo Chávez because we say so.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

287(g) program

I had an Op-Ed published in the Raleigh News & Observer about the 287(g) program, arguing that it is broken, but could be fixed.

They also published an opposite view, which makes the widely believed but totally inaccurate assertion that illegal immigration is a crime.


Labeling Mexico

I may be alone in this, but I am already tired of the "labeling Mexico" game. It all started with the the question of whether Mexico was a "failed state." Samuel Logan at Security in Latin America disagrees and makes an argument for a "hollow state."

Given how large and diverse Mexico is, I am really resisting any labels. At this point, it would be like calling the United States the place where everyone drinks Cheerwine.

And now we also get new acronyms. Boz mentioned Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO). Shannon O'Neil refers to Drug-Trafficking Organizations (DTO). Maybe I am getting old, but the good old term "drug trafficker" always referred to a transnational presence and to a broad range of economic activities. So I am a bit Tired of Acronyms (TOA).


The "F" word in drug policy

I've noted a few times the shift, sometimes subtle, that has been taking place with regard to drug policy. Hillary Clinton's speech in Mexico is yet another example. We would expect a reference to "shared responsibility," but how long has it been since a Secretary of State admitted a policy was failing? Even further, I wonder how many U.S. policy makers have said publicly that failures in U.S. policy have led to Mexican deaths.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Obama's border plan

I happened to catch the question about Mexico during Obama's news conference last night. There have been many loosely worded news stories about how more "troops" will be sent to the border and I kept wondering who these "troops" would be, and how many. I was glad to see that his answer avoided the word "troops."

Do you consider the situation now a national security threat? And do you believe that it could require sending national troops to the border? Governor Perry of Texas — Texas has said that you still need more troops and more agents. How do you respond to that?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, let's focus on what we did today. It's very significant.

We are sending millions of dollars in additional equipment to provide more effective surveillance. We are providing hundreds of additional personnel that can help control the border, deal with customs issues.

Indeed, at least for now it will be 450 federal agents and intelligence analysts, along with all kinds of equipment aimed at detecting gun smuggling.

It's not really a huge initiative, and only uses existing resources. But I do like the fact that it resists the temptation to throw National Guard troops to the border, as President Bush did in 2006 because of complaints about illegal immigration. They weren't trained, had no clear role, and ultimately achieved very little. But they made for a good "get tough" story.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fidel and baseball

Fidel Castro is doing a bit of gloating because he accurately predicated the course of the World Baseball Classic, including saying beforehand that the game between Japan and the United States was a mere formality, and that the final would be between Japan and Korea (and Japan just won it all). He had previously argued that the main goal of the organizers was to ensure Cuba's ouster, so the Cuban team was put in a group with two Asian teams because the organizers felt they were the best (did the organizers not get all weird about Venezuela?). He did acknowledge, however, that Cuba probably would not have defeated either Japan or Korea regardless.

It also occurs to me for everyone interested in Fidel that all this sports writing seems to confirm that he is not dead.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making research presentations

Notorious Ph.D. has some good suggestions for giving research presentations, two of which revolve around time--stay within your time limit, and don't cram too much in. I think the same is even more true of conference presentations because the time limit is so short. Strangely enough, I have found that if someone says, "I'll make this real quick" chances are very high that she or he will not.

I would also add that someone making a presentation should know the material well enough not to read from notes (or, worse, verbatim from the paper itself). I have seen some very interesting topics get crushed into boredom as someone looks down at the paper and reads in a monotone.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Drug trafficking in Peru

Peru's top anti-drug official says that coca cultivation likely rose 4% in 2008. Last June, the UN reported a 5% increase from the year before that (which, by the way, the U.S. then claimed was a good sign). Part of this is due to more activity by non-ideological profit seekers Shining Path "rebels."

The good news? Peru set a record! The 30 tons of cocaine seized last year is the most ever, and 10 more tons than in 2007. I've also noted before how the war on drugs is all about setting records.

In short, setting more records=losing.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Biden's trip to Costa RIca

Can you hear that? It is the sound of calm, spiced a bit with common sense. It may not last--indeed historically it never has--but let's enjoy it while we can. We start with Costa Rica re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, followed by President-elect Funes in El Salvador saying he will do the same once he takes office.

Taken alone, that is not very exciting. The U.S. chastises them for doing so, reiterates its commitment to cutting Cuba off as much as possible, and makes references to bad leftists. Right? Well, actually Joe Biden is traveling to Costa Rica on March 30, where he will meet all the Central American presidents, even Daniel Ortega (and Funes will accompany current President Saca). And, gasp, not even any "preconditions."


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Achy Obejas' Ruins

Achy Obejas' Ruins is a novel about one Cuban man's struggle with revolutionary purity during the Special Period. I really enjoyed it and am going to assign it to my Latin American Politics class in the fall. It centers on Usnavy (his mother was watching U.S. naval vessels) and his desire to remain committed to the revolution even as everyone around him is deserting it, either by grubbing for dollars or setting off on rafts.

I could not help but feel sympathy Usnavy, and Obejas does a nice job showing his internal debate. That debate revolves around a lamp he has, as well as a lamp he finds. Are they Tiffany? That allows Obejas to examine the market for scarce dollars (and how the hunt for dollars affects people), perceptions of what "quality" means (e.g. why would a Cuban-made lamp be considered worthless if it is equally beautiful) as well as the contrast between the beauty of the lamp and the squalor of Usnavy's tenement.

Finally, the end of the novel encapsulates all the conflicting feelings Usnavy has--the positives and the negatives about the revolution, his interest in dollars, even his perceptions of foreign tourists.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Colombian vs. Brazilian foreign policy

Adam Isacson links to and also translates an article in Colombia's El Tiempo about the contrast between Colombian and Brazilian foreign policy. It hits the nail on the head. The argument is that Uribe (and VP Santos) based their policies on an alliance strictly with the Bush administration, whereas Lula proved he could work with both Democrats and Republicans. As a result, Lula has moved very quickly to establish good relations with Obama, while Santos "stamps his feet."

Colombia will lose its status as preferred partner, also for obvious reasons. Because its role was being exaggerated and because President [Álvaro] Uribe did away with the bipartisan relationship he inherited from [1998-2002 President Andrés] Pastrana and took the side of the Republicans, who lost the election. The result is that Uribe was decorated [with the Medal of Freedom, in January] by Bush, but Colombia is left without solid bipartisan bridges to defend the country’s interests.

I would add, however, that the Bush administration should also shoulder some of the blame. During the FTA debate, I wrote several posts about how the FTA was being framed not just as a policy proposal, but as the last bastion of civilization itself. That overblown "us versus them" national security rhetoric further pushed Democrats away because it did not allow for legitimate concerns to be aired. And, ultimately, it failed.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Russia's failed war of words in Latin America

There were big headlines about Russia saying it might make use of short-term bases in Cuba and/or Venezuela, with a public statement of support from Hugo Chávez. Very juicy news. As usual, it generated at least one headline with the words "missile crisis" in it.

You don't see a lot of joking in Pentagon press statements, yet the press secretary's main response was, "That would be quite a long way for those old planes to fly."

And then, Chávez denied ever offering a base, but said he just told Medvedev that the planes could land in Venezuela if they needed to.

As posturing goes, this is not a particularly successful effort.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Follow up on U.S.-Salvadoran relations

The State Department spokesman answered a question about yesterday's election in El Salvador. I like the fact that he made a point of ignoring the reporter's insistence that the election be framed entirely in left/right terms. There was a free and fair election, and we're going to work with the new president. Period.

QUESTION: Yeah, there’s the El Salvador joining the ranks of leftist governments in Latin America.

MR. WOOD: Well, first and foremost, I want to congratulate the people of El Salvador for, you know, a very free, fair, and democratic election. I want to specifically congratulate Mauricio Funes as the winner of the presidential election, and also his opponent, Rodrigo Avila, for participating in the election and for respecting the election results. So we look forward to working with the new government of El Salvador, you know, on our bilateral agenda. And you know, and that’s what I have.

QUESTION: Do you expect the history of past ties with El Salvador by U.S. governments and, say, right-wing elements in Latin America to hurt chances for working with this new government?

MR. WOOD: I certainly hope that that isn’t the case. You know, this is a democratically elected government. The people of El Salvador made a decision and that – the will of the people needs to be respected. As I said, it was a very free, fair, and democratic election. This is something we’d like to see throughout the hemisphere. And the people of El Salvador deserve congratulations.


El Salvador presidential election

The big news is that the FMLN's Mauricio Funes won the presidential election yesterday, 51.3%-48.7% (that is 92% of precincts reporting). There will be plenty of speculation about whether he will govern more like Hugo Chávez or Lula, and how to define his "leftness."

Since Funes will have to forge legislative coalitions to get anything passed, it will be hard to enact very radical policies. The January 2009 legislative elections still left ARENA in a powerful position.

Given the fact that El Salvador depends heavily on immigrant remittances and even has a dollarized economy, U.S.-Salvadoran relations are critical. The Cold War right in the U.S. has been sounding the alarm about the FMLN, seeimingly permanently locked in the 1980s. However, there are two points that bode well in this regard. First, the Obama administration pledged neutrality. It is sad that such a pledge is necessary, but it is. Second, Obama just met with Lula and I have to believe this election came up at some point. Lula will be a good person for Obama to listen to.

For more analysis, see also Time's El Salvador Blog and Fruits and Votes.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Border Patrol's top 40

Like U.S. Cuba policy, U.S. immigration policy often gets downright bizarre. The Washington Post reports on the Border Patrol's newest effort to deter would-be border crossers: corridos.

In what may be among the lesser-known deterrents exercised by our nation's security forces, the Border Patrol is deploying up-tempo Mexican folk songs about tragic border crossings to dissuade would-be illegal immigrants. The agency has paid -- how much, it won't say -- a D.C.-based advertising company to write, record and distribute an album, "Migra Corridos," to radio stations in Mexico.

Better than a fence, I'll give them that. But I think that they need to work on the lyrics.

Before you cross the border, remember that you can be just as much a man by chickening out and staying

Because it's better to keep your life than ending up dead.

It sounds better than it reads, though--the article includes some audio samples.

"When we approached the Mexican media, we approach it as a humanitarian campaign," says Pablo Izquierdo, vice president of Elevación. "We didn't tell them who was behind it because consumer research indicated that it wasn't going to be as well-received."

I don't think you needed much consumer research to know that.


Friday, March 13, 2009

South American Defense Council

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs published a solid article about the first meeting of UNASUR's South American Defense Council. It is largely pessimistic, arguing that the diplomatic spats between countries (some long-standing, some more recent) preclude it from mattering much.

Consequently, the group’s set of aspirations look far too ambitious to be realized at least in the near future. There are undoubtedly some prospects for progress that have the potential to further integrate the region. However, a common regional defense policy will be difficult to put together. Moreover, if the highly vocal bickering continues to characterize the SADC, the Council will likely descend into little more than a talking shop with severely limited clout.

I agree more with Boz, who argued that the main themes and agenda items were a positive step forward. We should not confuse progress with integration, which is not (at least for now) the point of the organization. Its intent is to establish a formal, multilateral mechanism for dialogue and cooperation.

No doubt, there are major roadblocks. But it is premature to label it a failure.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lula and free trade

He's supposedly part of the wave of leftist leaders in Latin America, but the Wall Street Journal published a flattering portrait of Lula about his staunch free trade advocacy. He even says he is going to lobby Washington to pass the free trade agreement with Colombia along with ending the Cuban embargo (not to mention talking to Hugo Chávez about toning down his rhetoric). He is on a crusade to fight protectionism.

However, he also wants to decrease Wall Street's influence.

Mr. da Silva's disdain for investment banks is rooted in the aftermath of his 2002 election, when U.S. and European investment houses led a rout on Brazilian bonds, predicting Mr. da Silva would wreck the economy. Brazil's economy has remained on solid footing, and its financial system is intact.

Indeed, Mr. da Silva said the crisis offered an opportunity to create an economy where Wall Street financiers play a smaller role.

"The world will be less false," Mr. da Silva said. "The economy that will count is the one that produces corn, rice, a screw, a car, a suit, a watch."

Given his background and everything that has been said about him in the past, Lula's current position is amazing. He has forged his own middle ground and gets along with everything. He even noted that U.S.-Brazilian relations during the Bush administration were "dignified." How many Latin American leaders would say that?


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

If it's Cuba policy, then it must be weird

Changes to U.S. Cuba toward Cuba are starting in about the screwiest way you could imagine. Senators Menendez and Nelson were going to hold up the entire $410 billion spending bill because of relaxation of rules about travel to Cuba. So Treasury Secretary Geithner testified and also put into writing that Treasury will interpret the new rules very narrowly, thus not changing them much in practice. That got the votes.

Everyone is trying to proclaim victory, but even a Bush administration official thinks the Obama administration got what it wanted. The strategy was, it seems, rather Bush-like.

''The senators have this letter from Treasury saying, 'We're not going to follow this,' but six months from now, will [Obama administration officials] remember that letter, or are they going to follow the law?'' said Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce under Bush. ''Treasury is going to have to follow the letter of the law.''

He laughed and added: ''It's the kind of letter we would have signed.''

None of this is a big deal yet. It was not Obama's idea to push forward on Cuba in these first spending bills (though he may well have given tacit agreement). At some point he will put forward a plan for Cuba policy, and then the serious debate will get going.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Indefinite re-election a la Ortega

Daniel Ortega says he wants to push for indefinite re-election.* He wants it with a twist, though. He would shift the country to a parliamentary government.

The Economist made mention of this possibility last month, speculating very plausibly that a parliamentary system would allow a formal system of power sharing between Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, the extraordinarily corrupt former president who has been close to Ortega for some time (and who was let out of jail under cloudy circumstances).

Regardless, it would be fascinating to watch a Latin American country make the change.

* The interview also notes a rumor that Ortega has a disease that makes him sensitive to the sun and therefore he is only seen at night. He denied it. I had not heard of the vampire rumor before.


Monday, March 09, 2009

Bachelet's changing numbers

Adimark has Michelle Bachelet's approval at 58.6 percent, the highest she has ever received. La Tercera released a poll with a lower outcome, 49 percent, which still represents an increase.

I am becoming more convinced that Bachelet's numbers were low at a time when Chilean expectations were high. People believed she would get things done, and were disappointed when her performance did not live up to it. Now, however, the global crisis has greatly reduced expectations, and so she has much less to live up to.

I would even take this one step further and argue that for the Concertación, Eduardo Frei would be the candidate of reduced expectations. Solid, well-known, and uncharismatic.


Sunday, March 08, 2009

No effort drug trafficking

From the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the more unusual stories I've seen in a while. When drug traffickers at sea realize the authorities are closing in, they dump the cocaine. Eventually it makes its way to Bluefields, Nicaragua, where fishermen gather it in and make a ton of money.

The economy of this town of 50,000 is addicted to cocaine. While local authorities have no official figures, former Mayor Moises Arana says when the drugs float in, "everyone is happy, the stores are happy, the bars are happy, everyone has money. I remember one month when (Bluefields) bought 28,000 cases of beer.

So, you might ask, why don't the cartels come to collect it?

"The Miskito are guerrillas. They have been through war. They have AK-47s and up," said a local businessman named Peter, in reference to the protracted war between Miskito Indians and the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1980s. Peter, who carried a fat pistol under his Houston Rockets NBA shirt, also asked not to be fully identified.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Drug consumption

I do not want to make too much of it, but I like the subtle shift in tone I've been hearing about the "drug war" toward acknowledging the essential component of demand in the United States. Last November the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico said publicly that Mexico's cartel problem would not exist without that demand, even though the Bush administration was cutting drug treatment programs.

Now, however, the message seems to be spreading. From a March 5 State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: This is a follow-up to the State Department report on narcotics last week. AP interviewed Mexican President Calderon, and he shot back, saying that U.S. corruption is also to blame. He said that there are U.S. officials who should be prosecuted for corruption who aren’t. He also blamed the United States for not stopping the flow of weapons into Mexico. And finally, he says that there was not enough done to stop the consumption of drugs in this country. So just your reaction to his statements?

MR. DUGUID: I do believe that Ambassador Johnson was on the record speaking to many of these same issues in another context, and that the United States does recognize that we have a consumption problem and that we need to do – we need to do a lot to solve that problem or resolve that problem.

We will make so much more progress if that element becomes a core part of drug policy.


Friday, March 06, 2009

Stymie the stimulus in NC

Some NC lawmakers have introduced a bill to force anyone getting federal stimulus money to use E-Verify to make sure no undocumented immigrant benefits. If we're lucky, then this will just be a symbolic measure where you can show your constituents how tough you are.

If we aren't lucky, then it gets traction and seriously damages the NC economy. Remember that Georgia has acknowledged that using E-Verify is so difficult and expensive that the state has not been able to enforce anything. Businesses are hanging on by a thread, and will be burdened with a system that even its supporters realize does not work. Those who advocate using E-Verify, especially in a recession, have no clue that it is not a magic database.


Obamalula (a wop bam boom)

Lula is going to meet with Obama on March 17, and now Hugo Chávez says he asked for (and received) Chávez's approval to raise the issue of U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

"We don't need any intermediary to speak with any government on the planet, but since it's Lula and in good faith, I told him yes, that I gave him the green light," Chavez said Thursday in a televised speech, addressing troops.

Chavez added, however, that "I've told him I don't have much hope of that government changing."

Silva's office confirmed the two spoke by phone Wednesday and agreed the Brazilian leader could bring up Venezuela with Obama.

This situation could work well for all three leaders.

Lula wins because he puts himself in a position to be Obama's Latin America go-to guy.

Obama wins because he gets a chance to have a high-level discussion about Venezuela early on without the political flak he would get by meeting Chávez face to face. Come to think of it, he also wins if he lets Lula become his Latin America go-to guy.

Chávez wins because he has made a public show of good faith by initiating some type of dialogue with the U.S., even if through a third party.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

FTAs on the front burner

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says that the administration wants to move forward on FTAs with Panama and Colombia (in addition to South Korea). The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says the same, though the deals will have to be re-examined. And by the way, who writes for the USTR? Wrap your tongue around this one:

“It will be necessary to correct the imbalance in the current negotiations in which the value of what the United States would be expected to give is well-known and easily calculable, whereas the broad flexibilities available to others leaves unclear the value of new opportunities for our workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses,” the report said.

So we'll see. There is not much congressional resistance in principle to an FTA with Panama, but obviously Colombia generated a lot of controversy last year. No one has yet said how it would be made more palatable to get the votes. However, the bulk of the Colombia debate took place before the economic crash, so it is likely that support for free trade in general will have eroded in the meantime.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fidel explains all

Now it makes sense. According to Fidel, the big cabinet shake-up occurred because some people had been seduced by the "honey of power." I take it this is a particular type of Cuban honey that Fidel and Raúl started eating during the Eisenhower administration.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Reading Cuba tea leaves

I've been reading news stories about Raúl Castro's cabinet shake-up, and it became astonishingly clear that we have no clue what they signify. I have seen quite a platitudinous collection of quotes, vague and loaded with qualifiers. It would have been almost as useful for a reporter to use a Magic 8-Ball: "Reply hazy, try again." Basically we get the idea that Raúl is putting in people closer to him in order to do...something.

It really says something about the airtight nature of the Cuban government that after all these years, all these decades, we just don't know what's going on. We are almost always at least one step behind the Castros.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Mickey Hess' Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory

Mickey Hess' Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory is a really funny book about a university lecturer, though it is a different book from what I expected. The back of the book says it is "about choosing what you want to be when you grow up, and finding out you still have to wait tables on the weekends." Now maybe I am dense, but I didn't read much before I began to think that the book wasn't about that at all. Instead, I think this sums up the book's general theme:

Being an ice cream man, even for one weekend, canceled out the seriousness of my real job, and by not taking my real job seriously, I was determined to stay who I was before. Which seemed like a good idea at the time (p. 201).

I thought it would be a book about the exploitation of part time labor in academia, but that is only a small part of it (he even avoids getting a faculty ID as long as he can). Reviews said it was funny, and I was intrigued by the idea of exploitation made comic. Instead, it is a guy in his 20s trying to figure out whether he even wanted that job to ever become full time. Once it was full time, it would be a real job, lacking in variety, instead of a constantly shifting array of jobs that were intended to support his writing career. The solidity made him anxious.

Writing it out like that makes it sound dull, but this book made me laugh at loud multiple times. Plus, I've never heard anyone compare rappers and academics because they both cite each other all the time. And I discovered that it is really true that in Iceland there is a penis museum. Then there's the Billy Graham Corndog.

This is not your average book about academia because the university itself is not central to the story. It is really more about how Mickey Hess decides whether or not to make university work into a permanent job. And, in fact, I did not realize immediately that it is a memoir rather than fiction (he has a blog here). He is now an Assistant Professor of English at Rider University (which, I realize, constitutes something of a spoiler). I'd take one of his classes in a second.


Latin American and Africa

The president of Guinea-Bissau was assassinated. This will be good news for Colombian drug traffickers. The country was already seen as a major transit point for Latin American drugs making their way to Europe. There is nothing like additional instability combined with endemic corruption for providing nice opportunities for profit.

Europe needs to acknowledge the fact that, just as the United States, it has a huge market for cocaine and is therefore is a major cause of the problem.


Sunday, March 01, 2009

More on no exodus

It seems there is a template for stories about large numbers of Mexican migrants returning to their home country. A short article in Foreign Policy is the latest example, but I have noted several others in past weeks--they are all practically identical. If you would like to write your own, you just need to follow these simple steps, and you too can mislead the public and do everyone a disservice.

1. Start your story by finding one guy who will talk about leaving the U.S.

2. Use indirect indicators (like remittances) rather than direct ones (like academic studies or the Mexican government) because the latter will likely contradict you. In some cases it is easier just not to bother with statistics.

3. End your story with a paragraph that contradicts your first. Exactly why this is done is not yet clear to me. In this particular article, the author ends by interviewing someone who returned to Mexico, then decided to head back to the United States, thus screwing up the entire argument.

Done and done.


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