Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Primaries and Latin America

Michael Shifter throws up his hands with regard to the campaign rhetoric on Latin America during the Republican primary debates, and the stubborn refusal to have anything resembling a rational conversation about the region. He gets this just right.

To be sure, there are ample reasons to debate Cuba, along with other fiery issues like Venezuela and Iran's growing role in the region. But such debates should be anchored in facts and realities, and put in perspective. Across Latin America, there is a broad perception that Cuba occupies a disproportionate place on the U.S. policy agenda, the product of pressures from Florida's Cuban-American community. Washington is viewed as similarly obsessed with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who may be a nuisance and not a terribly constructive force in his country but whose regional influence has markedly declined in the past several years. 
Latin Americans believe Iran's moves in the region should be closely watched, but that, given their hard-earned democratic peace and prosperity, they do not offer fertile terrain for nefarious, destabilizing acts. They further believe that Washington should be careful not to exaggerate Iran's influence in the region, as Santorum did when he said, "Iran is organizing a Latin terror network." Within an increasingly self-confident and assertive Latin America, Newt Gingrich's reference in Florida to Iran's "overt violation" of the (long-defunct) Monroe Doctrine must have sounded especially outlandish and insulting.

The strong message being sent is that there are huge threats and the United States must swoop in and face them to save Latin Americans. Chances are very high that following such a strategy would make the U.S. less secure and more isolated.

Maybe I'm a hopeless dreamer. In the current political climate, is it even possible to have a serious debate about what the United States should be doing in Latin America? Does anyone care? It surely didn't happen in Florida, but perhaps it will in other primary contests, or in the general campaign. Like Newt Gingrich, we all have the right to fantasize.

The answer, sad to say, is no. Taken as a whole, it is foreign policy based on facts long past their expiration date and conspiracy theories.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Drug war and policy termination

Renee Scherlen, "The Never-Ending Drug War: Obstacles to Drug War Policy Termination." PS: Political Science and Politics 45, 1 (January 2012): 67-73.


Why does the war on drugs continue after 40 years? This article combines theories of policy termination and prospect theory to explain the drug war's persistence. After reviewing the case for termination, the article turns to policy termination theory. As previous case studies have demonstrated, rationality and economic reasoning alone fail to persuade politicians to end existing policies. In the case of the drug war, specific characteristics of the drug policy and the current political environment, as well as typical institutional and bureaucratic constraints, create substantial obstacles to end the drug war. Perceptions of the risks and benefits of drug war termination also create difficulties. The article concludes that a number of factors need to shift before drug war policy termination can take place.

As Scherlen notes right away, it's hard to terminate any policy. In the case of the "drug war," this takes on greater significance because it is a policy that has failed according to every single metric you can conjure up.

Using prospect theory, Scherlen argues that use of language is key for understanding not only why a policy continues, but how possibly to terminate it.

The analysis of the drug war policy termination process highlights the role that opinion about drugs, drug use, and the consequences of policy termination are central to the drug war's persistence. In terms of prospect theory, drug war framing is the crucial element. There is presently a low probability of policy termination; the public and politicians prefer the status quo to the risks of policy termination. However, if domain perceptions can be altered, the prospects for termination grow stronger. Policy termination entails risk; the future is an unknown while the present is not. If pursuit of the present course were presented as leading to sure loss (in prospect theory terms, shifting perceptions to the loss domain), then people would become more risk acceptant. Another method would be to offer an alternative policy as a “sure bet.” The result would be to place perceptions of policy change into the gains domain. Again, this would lead to greater support for policy change. 
How can proponents of policy termination change public perception? Prospect theory experiments review that language is central. Highlighting prospective gains (for example, emphasis on tax revenue to be generated by policy termination) while emphasizing current losses (for example, persistent failure to achieve goals) could prove to be effective.

I don't see it changing soon, but the importance of language is interesting. The debate itself has to be reframed so that people see less risk with termination. However, it is difficult to imagine how any alternative could successfully be framed as a "sure bet," because, of course, none of them are.


Rubio on immigration

Marco Rubio, the main name being tossed around for Republican VP and who finally figured out his own immigration story, namely that his family fled Fulgencio Batista rather than Fidel Castro, is talking about immigration as the Florida primary nears. However, he has done so in a fashion that answers very little:

Rubio stopped short of calling for comprehensive immigration reform. 
"How about everybody else? I don't have a magic answer for you," he said. "There is not political support for the notion of granting 11 million people citizenship or a path to citizenship. It's just not there. On the other side you can't deport 11 million people."

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/01/27/2611305/immigrant-advocates-target-rubio.html#storylink=cpy

This, as you might guess, is not particularly helpful. But when you want to be chosen then platitudes framed as complex truths are what the doctor ordered, especially when the favorite has already come out against immigration reform. Rubio says he won't be the nominee, though of course that's also the perfect thing to say when you want to be the nominee. No presidential candidate really wants someone dying to be VP. In fact, I don't want a VP who really wants to be VP.

To be fair, even though he offers no real policy suggestions, Rubio goes much farther than any candidate in recognizing reality:

"You find it in the faces of the men outside of Home Depot ... the women who work long and hard hours sometimes without documents," he said. 
Speaking to a potential audience far beyond the mostly Hispanic crowd of 600, he added: "I ask you what if you were them? Let me tell you-if I was there, there are very few things I would not do. There is no fence high enough; there is no ocean wide enough that most of us would not cross to provide for them what they do not have."

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/01/27/2611305_p2/immigrant-advocates-target-rubio.html#storylink=cpy

Rubio's chances have to be good for getting the nod. Republicans want the Latino vote and they want Florida. They also want tea party supporters, who tend to like Rubio. Add young and telegenic, and you're looking at a five-tool player.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Innovation in Latin America

Andrés Velasco, the very popular former Finance Minister of Chile, wrote an op-ed very critical of the way business is done in Chile, and in Latin America overall. A tiny  and closed elite, often made up of an extended family, makes it impossible to move beyond the traditional commodity extraction model.

However good your startup business plan may be, obtaining the necessary financing is nearly impossible if you do not have the right connections or did not attend the right school. Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima, and Santiago have their networking parties and incubators. But all too often they resemble an alumni reunion for posh academies, rather than a gathering of hungry, lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps types. 
And, if their startup fails, young entrepreneurs don’t tell the story with pride at the next party, as they might have done were they in Palo Alto, Helsinki, or Tel Aviv. In Latin America, bankruptcy and fraud are still inextricably linked in too many people’s minds.

Quite a bit to ponder. One problem, though, is that it is not simply "culture" we're talking about, but rather a deeply entrenched, historically rooted socio-economic system based on inequality. This isn't just about changing people's ideas. It also highlights the fact that a "free market" is not really very free.

But it is a good thing to have elites like Velasco talk more openly about how the apparently wonderful growth in Latin America is ephemeral and marks much less economic advance than claimed. In 1960, Chile had a small political and economic elite, and depended on copper. In 2012, Chile had a small political and economic elite, and depends on copper. And Chile is supposed to be the economic model for the region.

h/t Tuerto Magazine Twitter feed


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Stephen King's 11/22/63

I hadn't read a Stephen King book for years, maybe even twenty. I received his latest novel 11/22/63 as a gift. It's very long, about 850 pages, and absorbing. Its central theme is the quest of a man to save John F. Kennedy. He has a way of going back in time to late 1958 (and only that time, though he can do it over and over, resetting each trip) and he embarks on a complicated plan to kill Lee Harvey Oswald.

At first I was afraid it would be a version of Back to the Future. There's a little of that--he makes money by betting on sports--but it's minimal. The main character knows he is creating a butterfly effect, but despite warnings from the person who first found the time portal, he starts getting close to people and changing things. He also find that the past doesn't want to be changed so roadblocks keep popping up at him. The changes he does cause--with good intentions--don't tend to have good effects. He falls in love and that screws things up even more.

I won't spoil anything, but his quest to follow Oswald in Fort Worth and Dallas is a great story, including an effort to make sure he is acting alone before trying to kill him (after all, murdering him would be useless if someone else was trying to kill JFK).

The book does not wallow in nostalgia, and paints the late 1950s and early 1960s in what seems a realistic light. There is still violence and hatred, and people smoke constantly (I was reminded of this not long ago when I toured an old Air Force One, with ash trays everywhere).

Anytime a book is long, it will get reviews saying it needed editing down. This novel, like George R. R. Martin has put it for his own books, is immersive. King's afterword describes the research that went into making it as historically accurate as possible, while also admitting some creative liberties. You live the world, or really worlds, and people in the book. I found it to be a great ride.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Presidential re-election in Latin America

Michael Penfold (who is critical of Hugo Chávez) has an interesting look at Henrique Capriles Radonski and the Venezuelan opposition in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Beyond the Venezuelan political context, however, he makes the following point:

Incumbents in Latin America rarely lose reelection bids. In the last three decades, there have been only two: Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Hipólito Mejía in the Dominican Republic.

Is this true? Augusto Pinochet lost his referendum to remain president, though it was not a re-election bid because he'd never been elected in the first place. In some countries, like Mexico and democratic Chile, presidents either can only serve one term or must wait one term before running again (thus making it impossible to be an incumbent).

Latin American presidents who might have lost a re-election bid have tended to resign or otherwise leave office (sometimes by force) before facing voters. Or they simply steal the election. Alberto Fujimori did both--he stole an election and then later resigned. The lack of a no-confidence vote means a string of coups, coup attempts, and forced resignations. Overall, it's a pretty depressing statistic.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Latinos in Florida

Ruben Nararrette gets this right about Florida:

The estimated 10 million Latinos who are expected to cast ballots in November care about the same issues as other voters: jobs, the economy, health care, education. But with one major difference: Immigration tends to float to the top of the list when tensions flare, as they did last year when Arizona started a trend with a tough immigration law that all but requires the ethnic and racial profiling of Latinos.

A recent Latino Decisions poll confirms the basic argument for eligible Latino voters in Florida. Immigration is a distant third as a voting issue, but it is there.

Nonetheless, it is interesting that Mitt Romney is currently ahead for that same cohort, 35%-20% over Newt Gingrich, whose message on immigration is more centrist. No other Republican candidate received double digits. Romney favorables (very favorable + somewhat favorable) add up to 40%, and Gingrich's 33%. The main two issues for Latinos are the economy and jobs, so they may be holding their noses about immigration while believing Romney is the better choice for the economy (or, maybe, they agree with many Republicans who are repudiating Gingrich because of his problematic ethics past). Obviously Romney's goal in Florida is to avoid hostile language about undocumented immigrants, and he is already backtracking to consider the DREAM Act for people who serve in the military. Mr. Flip, please meet Mr. Flop.

On Cuba, both have tried to be anti-Castroier-than thou so that issue may simply not be on the table. For those who hate Castro, either candidate will do.

Another interesting tidbit: 7% of Florida Latinos have never even heard of Marco Rubio.


Bad Cuba policy

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney talk Cuba. Some excerpts (note: it doesn't even matter who is saying what--their messages were identical).

"I don't think it occurs to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban spring," said Gingrich at an event sponsored by the FIU College Republicans....He said he wanted to send "a clear message to the younger generation of Cubans that there will not be a successor to Castro."..."If I'm to become the next president of the U.S., it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet,"..."I will use the power of America to spread freedom in Latin America," 

The problem here should be abundantly clear. The Arab Spring was not proposed by the United States, and would have failed miserably if it had been. We did not tell Arab countries what would happen, or send messages demanding regime change, at least not until citizens of those countries had already determined the direction they were taking.

These points are critical for Cuba, because its history is rife with the United States telling it what to do. When the Castro regime falls, and someday it will, the optimal role for the U.S. is not to step in and propose the direction it takes. Sadly, chance are good the U.S. government will do so anyway, thereby complicating an already volatile situation.

The assumption that the United States can and should decide the fate of other countries is deeply ingrained in our collective psyches. It also has led to some of the most disastrous policy decisions of the last century.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

SOA and Bolivia

Following up on my recent WHINSEC post, here is an intriguing story. Juan Ramón Quintana is coming back to Evo Morales' cabinet as Ministro de la Presidencia. Who cares? Well, he took a few courses at the School of the Americas.

This contradicts the main argument of most opponents of SOA, which is that the graduates almost by definition are reactionary thugs. So having a leftist president make one a key adviser doesn't fit the prevailing narrative.

I keep thinking that the entire WHINSEC/SOA debate is stale. We know how terrible parts of its past (especially post 1959) were, but there are not simple causal arrows between participants and their later behavior.

h/t Eddie Avila on Twitter


Immigration in the SOTU

Pretty substantial mention of immigration in the State of the Union.

Let’s also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: The fact that they aren’t yet American citizens. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. Others came more recently, to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else. 
That doesn’t make sense. 
I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. 
The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now. But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away.

This follows the basic administration strategy for 2012. Make the case (even with militaristic "boots on the border" imagery), fail in Congress, blame Congress, and tinker administratively to show that you're taking some sort of action.

Taking credit for the decrease of illegal crossings is a stretch, given that the poor state of the U.S. economy and demographic change play huge roles.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Brazil and Iran

Who knew that Iran itself would undermine all the crazy arguments about how Iran is making dangerous inroads into Latin America? One of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's advisers went public about how Brazil isn't playing ball the way it used to. Not only that, but Iran appears to get testy when countries don't stand by it.

In recent months, however, trade ties between the two nations have frayed somewhat. Brazil’s exports to Iran climbed to $2.1 billion in 2010 from $1.2 billion a year earlier. But now some Brazilian companies have complained that it has become harder to obtain Iranian import licenses, curbing what had been an otherwise dynamic market for Brazil. 
“Since October, we noticed an abrupt break in purchases by Iran,” said Francisco Turra, president of the Brazilian Poultry Union, a trade group. He said that officials at Iran’s Embassy in Brasília and at Brazil’s Embassy in Tehran had assured his group that Brazilian exports were still welcome in Iran. Mr. Turra said he was awaiting the release of the new export statistics to determine how to proceed.

This strategy sounds quite similar to the United States during the Cold War. If you get all non-aligned on us, then we'll find a way to make you pay. Unlike the U.S., however, Iran has no political influence and limited economic leverage so these gestures carry little weight.

Dilma Rousseff has shown herself to be less interested in inserting Brazil into Middle Eastern politics and more interested in human rights abuses in Iran than Lula. Strangely enough, the Iranian government keeps saying that Ahmadinejad plans to visit Brazil this year. As sanctions tighten, Iran really wants to showcase how it has ties to major countries like Brazil, but I wonder whether Rousseff wants to stick her neck out that far.


Monday, January 23, 2012

La promesa de Obama

The White House's latest strategy is to hold meetings as a way to explain the tortured process through which the administration tinkers with immigration policy while remaining unable to pass anything substantive.

The discussions track with one of Obama's 2012 re-election campaign goals: connect with a key voter bloc that may sway the outcome of November's election. 
And one of the issues being addressed at the meetings is what's been commonly referred to in the Latino community as la promesa de Obama - Obama's unfulfilled promise to Hispanics to pass comprehensive immigration reform. 
"Every conversation we've had around immigration lasts over four hours," said Jose Rico, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, who was part of the Evergreen session Saturday. Voters understand Obama's position better, Rico said, "when we spend the time with community leaders, explaining to them the process the president has taken."

This doesn't sound too inspirational. But it's what I argued would happen. The Republican debates have helped.

But Republican candidates may have so alienated Latino voters with their harsh rhetoric against illegal immigration during GOP debates that Obama's best weapon "may be the mouths of the Republican candidates," said Gary Segura, a professor of political science at Stanford University. 
Even Obama himself appeared to acknowledge that during a meeting with Latino journalists last month. "We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim. We won't even comment on them," he told them. "We'll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds."

Obama's main strategy for immigration is simply to convince supporters that he is trying but Republicans are blocking, just enough to prevent them from staying home rather than voting.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tanks a lot

I am always repeating how Latin American countries rely too much on commodities, so I need to be fair. Chile, for example, does not only sell copper. It also might sell used European tanks to countries that, really, don't need them. Like Colombia, which is buying 60. Colombia needs plenty of tanks to fight a guerrilla war in the jungle as well as the phantom menace of Venezuela. Or maybe Colombia figures it can play with the tanks for a while, then still get some resale value by later selling them to an even poorer country that doesn't really need tanks.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rethinking WHINSEC

José M. Marrero and Lee A. Rials, "WHINSEC: Forging International Relationships, Strengthening Regional Democracies." Military Review January-February 2012: 55-58.

I think the topic of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, famously formerly the School of the Americas, is ripe for scholarly re-evaluation. I did a little bit, but it's been almost a decade. Too much of the literature is still stuck in the Cold War. WHINSEC needs to be critically examined as it exists in the 21st century, not for its past.

Supporters of the school can certainly play a part, but I was disappointed by this article, written by two members of WHINSEC's staff. It contains no references, and is just a repetition of the type of information already available at WHINSEC's website. It would be great for Military Review (and even its Spanish-language version) to publish something meatier in defense of the institution, something that engages the scholarly literature as opposed to assuming that SOA Watch typifies those who study it.

For now, unfortunately, objectivity is mostly absent. Academics who write about WHINSEC tend to dislike it--and often even the idea of military-to-military contact more broadly--and want it closed, while its supporters become defensive and proclaim its glories. Indeed, one of this article's authors rather angrily commented on this blog back in 2007 and accused me of never visiting a class at WHINSEC (when in fact I made two separate trips and did sit in classes, then wrote an article about the school's curriculum). Anyway, it's a sign of how the debate typically goes.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt goes Fidel on Mitt

Ah, Florida, where the "Latino" vote is very different from elsewhere. Mitt Romney already started Spanish-language ads there, and now Newt Gingrich has a Spanish-language radio attack ad that veers well into the insane. He says Mitt is soft on Fidel.

The ad opens with the phrase "Fatherland or Death, we will prevail," which uttered by Castro in Spanish said: "Patria o muerte, venceremos!" 
"Unlike Romney, who uses statements from Castro, Newt Gingrich has fought against the regime with Lincoln and Ileana to approve Helms-Burton," the ad says in Spanish, referring to two Florida GOP Cuban-American members of Congress. "He supported the formation of Radio and TV Marti; and is in favor of holding the Castro brothers accountable for the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes."

Yes, Mitt screwed up the reference back in 2007. Obviously, though, he did not intend to somehow endorse Fidel Castro.

There is a long tradition of Fidel-baiting for presidential candidates visiting Florida, though it has become more muted in the general election. For a primary, however, you want as much red meat as possible. The major problem with this particular attack is that "Lincoln and Ileana" already endorsed Mitt in his ad.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Romney immigration myths

So many myths, so little time. From the Mitt Romney campaign:

"We have to follow the law and insist that those who have come here illegally ultimately return home, apply, get in line with everyone else" to gain legal status, Romney said. "To protect our legal immigration system, we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration." 
Romney also rejected the idea that his position would alienate Latino voters, provided his message is coupled with a vow that he will improve economic growth. "As long as we communicate to the people of all backgrounds in this country that it can be better, and that America is a land of opportunity, we'll get those votes," he said.

First, "get in line" is a farce wrapped in ignorance. The backlog of cases is so massive, so daunting, and judges are so overburdened that we can talk of a line only if in the same breath we acknowledge that the line barely moves. The current system punishes virtually everyone.

Second, there is no flood of illegal immigration. It is hard to imagine Romney not knowing that, given that it has been splashed across all major news outlets. He uses it anyway because he figures it will rile people up who do not know he's wrong.

Third, it is true that Latinos--like all other groups--are focused on the economy, not immigration (this, incidentally, is a myth held by many on both sides of the issue) when considering who to vote for. But Romney is missing the point, because Latinos and immigration reform supporters are listening more to his tone, which is too often bordering on (no pun intended) or crossing over into acidic or at best indifference.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the abstract

Over the past several years, for my upper level courses I've developed an assignment requiring students to engage the scholarly literature. As I will in this afternoon's lecture, I spend a good amount of time explaining how to use abstracts to quickly determine the hypothesis, methods, and conclusion of academic articles--I put them up on a screen and we sort them out. This is especially important and useful when utilizing the online library databases, which provide lists of abstracts for any given search. The upshot here is that researchers should be able to use abstracts as a way to determine very quickly whether a given article would be of use. As scholars, we all write them, and we all use them.

So why are so many abstracts so poorly done?

In this indictment I include my own, or at least some of them. It occurred to me that I was never taught how to make one. When a journal or conference needed an abstract, I spent 2-3 minutes copying and pasting until I had about 100 words that conveyed the basic idea of the paper. Now as I try to teach undergraduates how to use them, I can see very clearly that all too few even state the hypothesis/main argument. They can often even be vague about conclusions. So many abstracts say something like "the effects of immigration are assessed" in the passive voice without explaining what the conclusions are.

All abstracts should state the main argument front and center, then the basic data/methods used, and the conclusion(s). Not only do you not need a lot of detail, you should avoid it. I've read abstracts that are something like 200 words, or two dense paragraphs. A Google search reveals many university links about how to write abstracts (such as my alma mater) advocating for 200 word abstracts, but that is not the norm for articles and in my opinion is too long. American Political Science Review, for example, limits them to 150 words.

That's my rant for the day, and an example of how teaching contributes to my own work.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Latino vote in NC

From the Republican Party's Director of Hispanic Outreach:

“It comes down to swing states and small margins. Hispanic voters are going to be swing voters in these very important states,” including Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and North Carolina, she said. 
Those are the very places some party strategists, activists and immigration experts argue Republicans will have the biggest challenge.

With regard to North Carolina, this is something we normally hear from the Democratic side, so it's interesting to hear it from a Republican. I've written before about how the Latino electorate in North Carolina is currently tiny, and the real key for Democrats in this swing state with small margins is to get African Americans to come out rather than stay home.

However, the future Latino vote will definitely matter a lot. For the GOP it actually makes political sense to campaign now as if it represented a swing vote. Heated talk of immigration will hurt him and the Republican Party, but will help him relatively little.

Why? Because the 2012 presidential election will be won or lost largely on the economy. Assuming Mitt Romney is the candidate, then President Obama will definitely go after him on immigration--he also wants to make sure Latinos don't just stay home--but that's not the heart of either campaign.

Romney, though, has only a short time horizon, and doesn't care about 2016 or 2020. The question will be whether he does believe that Latinos might represent a swing vote in North Carolina now. We'll have to wait and see what tone he brings.



One thing I don't like to say in polite company is that I have a long-standing Richard Nixon addiction. This isn't to say I like him, mind you, but the combination of insecurity, criminal inclination, indecision, aggressiveness, political acumen, intelligence and many other seemingly contradictory characteristics are fascinating. Back in 1994 I sucked down Fred Emery's book on Watergate, and watched the excellent documentary that was linked to it.

I hadn't had much time for it in recent years--remission, you might call it--but on a recent trip I rented Frost/Nixon, which I had not seen before, and subsequently I bought the book of the same name that David Frost wrote about his interviews. More than anything, it is illustrative of how Nixon convinced himself that he was always in the right, and could do anything he wanted as a result. That culminated in the famous quote, "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal." Criminality simply melts away in his mind.

There is a chapter dedicated to a transcript of the interview that focused on Chile. It underlines the fact that a) his knowledge of Chilean politics was sketchy; b) he didn't think knowledge of Chilean politics was particularly important; and c) all that mattered was that there was a government friendly to the U.S. Frost accurately pushed back, but Nixon just didn't care, and mostly wanted to emphasize that LBJ had acted against Allende too.

I enjoyed the movie, but it does divert from the book for dramatic purposes. In particular, the Jack Brennan of the movie, played as an authoritarian figure by Kevin Bacon, does not match the Brennan described in Frost's book. Nixon did ask Frost if he had "fornicated" recently, but the movie shows it as a way Nixon tried to throw Frost off, whereas Frost's own recollection was that Nixon clumsily wanted to be one of the boys, and had no idea how to do so. At the very least, if you liked the movie I would suggest taking a look at the book.

Reading more about Nixon these days is also a reminder that, bizarrely, he would likely be considered too liberal in many areas to win Republican primaries.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Inflation and presidential approval

The fight over reporting inflation in Argentina continues to rage, with the opposition claiming 2011 should be 22.8 percent while the government will soon report something less than half of that. Venezuela has the highest in the region, at about 30%.

What's notable, though, is that it does not seem to drive down presidential approval. After a dismal period for a while, Cristina Fernández is now very popular, with approval of 67 percent. Her approval has actually increased in the context of double-digit inflation. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez has decent approval--hovering around 50 percent--and it's fair to say inflation is not the top reason others view him unfavorably.

Meanwhile, there are unpopular presidents, such as Sebastián Piñera of Chile, who preside over low inflation.

So people obviously care about inflation, but they care about a lot of other things more when taking the measure of their president. I wonder, then, if there is any way to determine a tipping point. At what point do people start feeling disgruntled enough to start aiming their ire at the president?

It is worth noting that the constant media and political opposition attention to the higher levels of inflation in the region don't tell us much about popular reaction. Presidents have been ousted because of hyperinflation, but they may not even be voted out because of 20-30% inflation.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Romney's Chavismo

The ultimate in populism is to hand people cash directly. You make sure that the individual then feels connected and politically beholden to you, rather than a faceless government bureaucracy. That person will then vote for you, and convince others to do so as well.

Hugo Chávez's Aló Presidente follows that principle. The president hears the cry of the individual, and directs his ministers to address it immediately.

Apparently Mitt Romney likes the model as well.

Mitt Romney gave a handful of cash Saturday to a woman who had told him she was struggling financially after an event in Sumter, South Carolina. 
An aide said the GOP candidate gave the supporter "what he had on him" - about $50 or $60. 
The woman, Ruth Williams, met Romney earlier in the week and told him she was having trouble making ends meet. On Saturday, Romney recognized Williams while he was shaking hands with supporters after a rally, an aide said. 
Romney spoke to the woman and handed her several bills. 
"He was kind to me," Williams said. "He held onto me and he made Gov. [Nikki] Haley and them come see about me."

It is exactly the same as Chavismo.


The non-problem of trade trends

Andres Oppenheimer repeats the same old, tired, and unconvincing story that Latin American countries increasing trade ties with countries other than the United States constitutes a problem, perhaps even a crisis. Why this is the case is never made clear. I refuted the general idea in a December op-ed.

China's economy is doing very well, while the U.S. economy is still struggling. No amount of "attention" is going to change that fact. What's more, the diversification of trading partners is entirely good for Latin America, which then reduces its dependence on one partner. So what exactly is the problem?

Oppenheimer hands himself his own rhetorical sword by quoting someone from ECLAC:

While Washington in previous decades launched ambitious regional initiatives, such as the Alliance of Progress, the Initiative of the Americas, or the Free Trade Area of the Americas, today no such grand plan exists. Washington has bilateral ties, but no regional plan, she said.

Anyone with even a vague knowledge of U.S.-Latin American relations knows that those initiatives were failures. They were bloated visions of impossible futures that paid no attention to political realities within the countries they hoped to attract. The Initiative of the Americas is so obscure and non-influential that I never bother even mentioning it in my U.S.-Latin American relations course.

In short, the current state of affairs should not be considered a problem, and this non-problem should not be compounded with another regional initiative that will be doomed from conception.

But there is little question that for the first time in decades, there is no U.S. regional plan to increase trade ties with Latin America. It’s ok for Washington to look East, but it should also look south. Unless it does so, the bleak ECLAC forecasts for 2020 will come true.

The bleak forecast of what? He never says, and no one ever does.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Qualitative v. quantitative

The qualitative vs. quantitative divide in political science annoys me. It annoys me even more when people use the cutesy "qual" and "quant" as pronouns (as in "quant" for "person who uses quantitative methodology"). It annoys me because in my opinion it should be self-evident that either method can be used really well or very poorly. I've read reams of both, and found some interesting and some banal, some downright terrible. Why so many people want to self-segregate is beyond my comprehension.

This is why I felt compelled to comment on Andrew Gelman's post at The Monkey Cage. He mocks David Brooks and then equates journalism with qualitative work:

Just to be clear: my point here is not to pick on Brooks, it’s more to demonstrate the gap betweenthe quals and the quants. Statisticians such as myself see sweeping statements and immediately think, “Yeah? Really? Why do you say that?”, while journalists such as David Brooks or Samantha Power seem to think deterministically and don’t seem to let data get in the way of their ideas. 
Paradoxically, it is the quants who can be more accepting of uncertainty, while the quals are always ready to think that some simple formula can explain the world.

He makes fun of those who make sweeping statements, and then makes the sweeping statement that all qualitative analysis is inferior. The idea that qualitative research looks for "simple formulas" is absurd and has no empirical foundation.

I just don't understand the sneering, combined with the need to proclaim superiority.


Colombia and Mexico

Elizabeth Dickinson has a worthwhile article in the Washington Monthly on Alvaro Uribe's security policies  in Colombia and how they are not translating well to Mexico. The basic reason is that Uribe did not win the war against narcotrafficking. He dealt a devastating blow to the FARC and broke up the paramilitaries, but drugs continue to reap huge profits.

Across many of Colombia’s cities and towns, the violence looks less like the end and more like a new beginning of conflict. “Lots of people think that Uribe ended the paramilitaries, that narcotics trafficking went down,” says Salcedo. “But when you look, it’s really only been a reconfiguration [of the armed conflict].” 
To be sure, this reconfiguration has been kind to many Colombians in many parts of the country, especially elites, who no longer fear that FARC is about to topple the state. But residents in parts of Medellín and Buenaventura, among other places, now say that the calm of the mid-2000s was little more than a cruel illusion. “There is permanent dispute for control” of the narcotics trafficking routes, says Victor Hugo Vidal, an activist for the Process of Black Communities working and living in Buenaventura. “When that fight for dominance is ongoing, the violence increases. And when someone becomes dominant, the violence goes down.”

And from a regional perspective, nothing has changed much at all. The intensity of the violence just varies from country to country over time from the balloon effect.

In its time and place, democratic security was an inspired strategy, albeit far from a perfect one. Until the demand for drugs dries up, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras— even far flung narco-conflicts like those in Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan—will have to find their own medicine. 
Yet if there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it is as much for the United States as it is for these theaters of the drug war: the violence won’t stop until the narcotics trade does. Short of that, all that Washington—or anyone—can hope for is damage control. Off the main streets of Bogota and Mexico City, the damage is real. And not even Uribe knows the cure.


Friday, January 13, 2012

Feds vs. States

Good article by Peter Schrag in The New Republic on how federal inaction has prompted state activism on immigration, focusing on California. There's nothing exactly new, but the argument is well articulated. This quote is perfect:

It’s long been obvious that, as it’s currently designed, the law can’t work

And that's the bottom line. Making laws that cannot be enforced is irrational from a policy perspective, even if believed to be useful in political terms. Either way, the result is an endless loop of law-breaking and complaints of law-breaking that create new unenforceable laws that expand the scope of law-breaking.

He also nails this:

If nothing else, it would be a challenge to Obama, who’s spent the past three years dithering between brave rhetoric about bringing the undocumented out of the shadows and, until recently at least, presiding over an enforcement regime—including a record 400,000 deportations in the past fiscal year—that’s tougher than anything under George W. Bush. The deportations almost certainly cut into the enthusiastic political support from Latinos and other backers of legalization that Obama enjoyed in 2008. COPA and the California laws favoring illegal aliens that preceded it indicate that in the face of Washington’s inaction on immigration individual states could go left as well as right. More important, it makes the need for federal action all the more urgent. 

I've argued along similar lines as well.


The Lexicographer's Dilemma

If you like words and writing, then go read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park. It is a history of the power of words and how people have struggled to control them. He emphasizes that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and in fact some of the best parts are his descriptions of others' prescriptions. There is no ruler across the knuckles here.

Lynch documents the many  unsuccessful efforts to codify and control the English language. Jonathan Swift wanted an academy (as exist for French, Spanish, and Italian) to control the entrance of new words. These days, fortunately we still have no rigid and elitist academy, but Merriam-Webster's Dictionary gets plenty of media attention for its decisions. In 2011, for example, new words included tweet, cougar, and robocall. Words also get removed, like snollygoster. We may get sick of new words, like sexting, but language is far beyond anyone's control so these new words go in regardless of whether they think they're unworthy:

English has been growing and changing haphazardly for fifteen hundred years and has never taken kindly to attempts at regulation (p. 70).

He gives countless examples of how language develops because of custom, yet people get very up in arms when someone breaks the rules. That includes me, since I cringe when I read student papers confusing its and it's, or there/they're/their. Read aloud they are the exact same, but they hurt my eyes. I care because it's wrong, yet being "wrong" just means that lots of people think it's wrong.

And thinking of wrong and right, who knew how much fighting there has been over what to include in the dictionary, with new dictionaries written to counteract the evils of other dictionaries? Etymology can be so odd--some words are so offensive that people have been wary of them for centuries yet we don't even know for sure where they originated or why. At the same time, some words are controversial now, yet in a generation or two we will forget there was a dispute (did you know that "finalize" was roundly denounced as indicative of English's decline back in the early 1960s?).

Of course, no discussion of word regulation can exclude George Carlin, whose stand-up routine on the seven words you can't say on television took on a life of its own as the FCC paid attention. (For something a bit less raunchy, his take on the language of football versus baseball is classic). The entire chapter on obscenities alone is worth it--both illuminating and funny.

I've reviewed other books about words in the past. I am a sucker for these things.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Counting undocumented crossings

If you weren't paying close attention, you couldn't be blamed for thinking no one crosses the border illegally anymore. I almost choked when I read the patently false headline in The Atlantic: "Latino Immigration to the U.S. Could End This Year" and then watched as it zipped all over Twitter. Incidentally, it was a perfectly good article by Shannon O'Neil that does not make such a claim, and I am sure she had no control over the headline. This op-ed in the New York Times is more accurate, noting the net number of Mexicans crossing illegally is zero. That echoes the widely cited quote by Douglas Massey at Princeton.

“No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,” Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. “For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

What has arisen is confusion between flow and net flow. The flow will never stop. Because of enforcement, circular migration is no longer as prevalent as it once was, but the idea that people have stopped crossing illegally is absurd. No matter what we do at the border, people will always cross. We can slow it, but we can't stop it.

The net flow, however, does not mean people stop crossing. If it is zero, that means the number of people entering matches the number of people leaving. This is historic and important, but not the same as no flow. If you had read a certain book, you'd have been clued in a long time ago about how demographic shifts in the United States and Latin America would have this effect.

I like finding evidence that supports ending the wasteful and obsessive spending on enforcement, and I support the policy suggestions of the NYT op-ed. However, I want the evidence to be empirically valid. Pretending that undocumented crossings have stopped gives the false impression that a long-standing historical reality suddenly ceased while no one was paying attention.

Why do I care? Rational immigration reform must acknowledge the never-ending flow of people and embrace it.  Otherwise it will fail. In particular, we have to remember that demographic trends are always shifting, as are economic (the fact that bankers screwed up our economy plays a big part here) and political conditions. Together, they determine how many people will be trying to cross illegally in any given span of time. Good policy has built in flexibility. To say that the flow has stopped is to say that history has ended, and that doesn't get us to good policy.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mexican candidate numbers

Enrique Peña Nieto has a hard time keeping his foot out of his mouth, which may account for a dip in the polls. Still, he has 42 percent support versus Josefina Vázquez at 21 percent (other PAN hopefuls are much lower than that) and AMLO at 17 percent.

With that kind of lead, along with disaffection with the PAN and the general sense that AMLO is off his rocker, it is hard to see Peña Nieto losing regardless of his too-frequent gaffes (this is a particularly funny one).

I can't help but wonder what the scenario would be if the PRD's candidate were Marcelo Ebrard.

See also Americas Quarterly blog.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Boehner's trip

John Boehner is leading a small congressional delegation to Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico to talk trade. Two things caught my attention in particular. First:

In particular, the delegation will assess the implementation of the Colombia free trade agreement and its impact on job creation in the United States, and look at steps taken by Latin American countries to foster jobs and economic growth at home.

Much of this isn't actually possible. The FTA has not even gone into effect, so there is no way to measure its impact on anything. The connection between FTAs and jobs in the U.S. is difficult to measure in any case, and is fraught with correlation vs. causation confusion (and impossible for members of Congress being ushered around countries).

Second, after visiting a heavily militarized favela:

“What’s happening here is a great example of how they can bring everyone into society as a whole, and where everyone has a chance to be treated equally,” Boehner said.

He has it exactly backwards. The reason the Rousseff government, like Lula before, has to send troops into neighborhoods is because the inhabitants still are not being treated equally. I hope "pacification" leads to equality of opportunity, but they are not synonymous. Let's see after the Olympics and World Cup are over, and it's no longer necessary to worry quite so much about what foreigners think.


Monday, January 09, 2012

Ahmadinejad's trip

I was interviewed by a reporter for Al Jazeera this morning on Ahmadinejad's trip to Latin America. Anyone who's been reading this blog at all knows more or less what I said. Really, the more I think about it, the more I feel it is much ado about nothing. We'll hear lots of bluster about the empire and about grand development projects that will never materialize. Then in the U.S. we'll hear lots of bluster about Iran trying to attack the United States from Latin American bases.

Venezuela, of course, is the centerpiece of the trip. When push comes to shove, though, neither Iran nor Venezuela has much to gain from each other beyond symbolic alliance against the United States, and that can only take you so far. Neither president has domestic support for sticking his neck out too far for the other.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

Accusation vs. hypothesis

Hugo Chávez says he did not accuse the United States of spreading cancer to South American leaders. Instead, he just hypothesized it.

"Lo que he dicho es que me parece muy extraño que en tan corto tiempo nos haya dado cáncer a (Fernando) Lugo, a Dilma (Rousseff), a Chávez, Lula (Da Silva) y después a Cristina. Yo no he acusado a Estados Unidos, ni a nadie, sólo lancé una hipótesis"

This is a distinction that made me think of academia. Was he planning on figuring out a way to test his hypothesis? It's not clear to me where the line is between an accusation and a hypothesis. With both, you have reason to believe a causal relationship and you look for evidence to support it. I plan to use this in articles--I am not accusing you of having a faulty argument, I am just hypothesizing it!

At any rate, as it turns out Cristina Fernández does not have cancer (nice presidential doctors!) so the hypothesis is not testing well.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Political effects of protest

Roger Burbach has an article in NACLA about protests in Latin America that raises an interesting question: what political effect will they have? At least to this point, the answer appears to be different from what the article suggests.

These movements are highly diverse in their social and political composition, and they are anti-systemic, raising fundamental questions and challenging the existent order.

I don't think this is true, by which I mean the protests have not attempted to destroy the system, but to increase their leverage with it. Take the Chilean and Mexican examples, which he examines in depth. Looking toward presidential elections in both countries, all the likely candidates are establishment, with no one else in sight. The only anti-establishment candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been making up with the establishment (e.g. no longer constantly using the word "mafia") ever since he became the PRD's official candidate.

The comparison to OWS are particularly instructive. Except perhaps at its very small core, OWS is not anti-systemic, and in fact would have zero influence if it were. Rather, it is pointing to problems that the system should fix. The exact same is true with the Chilean education protests. This could change, but it is premature to lump Latin America (or OWS) in with the Arab Spring (as he does).

One important point the article makes, however, is that ideology does not explain much. For all the over-simplified "good left, bad left" rhetoric, there are protests against all different types of governments, even supposedly radical ones like in Bolivia or Ecuador. If anything, the protests have revealed conservative tendencies in leftist governments.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Advice for academic bloggers

Chad Black links to some advice for academic historian bloggers. I've read some other similar posts elsewhere recently, and I think it's fair to say there is a steady trickle of them as new people start blogging. Collectively, they reminded me that I find myself disagreeing with the typical "list of tips for academic bloggers" that I come across. In general, I dislike blogging rules because they seem to negate the precise reason I really enjoy blogging, which is that I can do whatever I want, following only my own whims, which can and do change.

So my first piece of advice is to ignore lists of advice. Seriously. Almost every list warns you to publish often, but you can forget that. Write when the muse hits you, and don't bother yourself if it lags. People read blogs largely through RSS readers, and your post will show up even if it is not frequent (I don't actually go directly to blogs all that often, unless I am commenting or want to look at something specific--in Google Reader I have plenty of  blogs that update once a week or less, and I read them when they pop up). If I felt I was on deadline, I would hate it, and the only reason I blog is because it's fun. I get all sorts of benefits from it, particularly in terms of connecting with people I otherwise would never know, but I would stop on a dime if it ceased being fun. For me anyway, blogging rules aren't fun.

Write long posts, write short posts. Post pictures, or don't. Write book reviews, or don't bother. Give your views on controversial current events, or don't. If you want your own domain name, go for it, but you don't have to. Promote through Twitter, or don't. All the rules about such things bewilder me.

My second, and last, suggestion is to begin by copying the style of blogs you read a lot and enjoy. As you get going, you will think of your own new things to do. How do they link up to other blogs? Is the tone a little stuffy, too snarky, too dry, or just right? How do they handle comments? Be your own Goldilocks and by reading others you can decide what feels just right. Blogs should grow organically without submitting to arbitrary dictates.

Actually, I have a third point, namely that you should feel absolutely free to ignore everything I just wrote.


Thursday, January 05, 2012

More on Iran in Latin America

I recommend Stephen Johnson's (former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies) take on Iran in Latin America. The conclusion:

A lot of what we think we know about Iran’s activities in the Americas is based on sketchy evidence, such as newspaper reports of a jointly constructed missile base planned for Venezuela’s Paraguaná Peninsula. Overstating the case for action could set back relations with friendly neighbors and make cooperation, when needed, less likely. Instead, U.S. and friendly intelligence services should boost efforts to understand the degree to which Iran is circumventing sanctions, transferring technology and materials, establishing an Iranian Guard presence, and engaging terror groups for possible attacks. Obtaining reliable information is a necessary step in mounting an effective defense. After that, maintaining links by offering a competitive relationship advantage, even with disputatious neighbors, is the best way to minimize the appeal of competing powers.

That echoes more or less my recent post on the topic. What people claim to know about Iran's activities in the region is based on weak sources. This does not mean Iran isn't doing anything dangerous, but rather we know much less than many people claim to know. This is really important when making policy decisions because bad policy can isolate the United States, which is the opposite of what we need.


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Authoritarian terminology in Chile

A controversy is brewing in Chile because of a decision to replace the word "dictatorship" with "military government" in primary school textbooks.

When I was interviewing military officers in the late 1990s, I quickly realized how much language mattered. They used "military government" exclusively. It is in fact strictly accurate, since the president was an army general and many government positions were held by military officers, but of course it is much more generic than "dictatorship" and does not convey the same obvious image of repression.

Also important to the military was use of the word "pronunciamiento" rather than "golpe." From their perspective, there was a constitutional removal of a government, not an illegal coup, since the Chamber of Deputies had declared Salvador Allende to be violating the constitution and asked the military to take action.* Again, it is the use of a fairly bland term instead of one that immediately conjures up certain negative images.

More generally, it is a reminder of how much textbooks matter in every country, and certainly we hear about this pretty much constantly in the United States. Even if children don't bother reading them, their teachers will be using them to frame their own discussions in the classroom. They are a critical part of the construction of national identity, so revisions--subtle or otherwise--are a high-stake endeavor.

*The rationale of the Honduran military in 2009 was very similar.


Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon is one of those classics that I had always heard about but until now had not read. What a great novel. You can click on the link above for the plot, but it is an examination of how the Communist Party, particularly under Stalin, worked to eliminate all independent thought, to destroy the "first person singular."

What's especially interesting is that the main character, Rubashov, is not even particularly likable. He had wholeheartedly embraced the party line to the point of having people killed for failing to follow it or even questioning it. What we see is how a grain of doubt spread and became a cynicism and skepticism that he could not longer hide. In the novel, as in real life, that led inevitably to execution. Individuals, even thousands or millions of individuals, were unimportant compared to the greater good of the party, which in turn was directed Stalin (referred to always as "No. 1" in the novel).

Overlaying the novel is a sad sense of resignation. Writing in 1940, Koestler could not have known, though maybe he assumed, that for Eastern Europe there was no end in sight for repression. Only later, much later, would it be clear how wrong all this was:

There was no certainty; only an appeal to that mocking oracle called History, who gave her sentence only when  the jaws of the appealer had long since fallen to dust (p. 12).
Koestler died only a few years before the Soviet Union fell apart.


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Brazil and ethanol subsidy

I heard on NPR this morning the argument that the end of the ethanol subsidy in the U.S. will not affect Brazil because Brazilian domestic demand is outpacing supply to the point that Brazil is actually already importing from the U.S. Indeed, that is the case, by about 25 percent, to the point that it will take two years for the imbalance to change. I take it that all of Brazil's complaints--which included going to the WTO--were based on the past when this wasn't true.


Monday, January 02, 2012

Romney: Stop Dreaming

Mitt Romney is using anti-immigrant rhetoric to compensate for other problems he has with conservative primary voters. Not only does he not support the DREAM Act, but now he hates it so much he would veto it.

“If I were elected and Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, would I veto it?” Romney said, repeating the question a voter asked him at a campaign stop in Le Mars. “The answer is yes.”

Expect this to come back if Romney becomes the candidate. A majority of Americans support it, so it will be easy for Barack Obama to frame Romney as heartless, as Rick Perry has already done. This won't necessarily change the minds of many voters, but could be part of a general negative image that turns off moderate voters.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Revolution anniversary

Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua have begun 2012 by paying homage to the Cold War, namely celebrating the 53rd anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Seemingly without irony, the Venezuelan government lauded the revolution as a source of inspiration for oppressed people. Daniel Ortega also had kind words to say, and probably was also thinking that without Cuban support, there's no way he would have been in a position to get so much booty from the Piñata.


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