Friday, March 30, 2012

Geography of violence in Latin America

Deborah Yashar gave an interesting talk at the luncheon today at SECOLAS. She's in the middle of a project that examines the geography of violence in Latin America, and especially why it occurs in some places and not others. The basic argument is that the growth of violence seems to correspondent to the growth of illicit drug routes. She looked at the region, but then also within countries (the cases of El Salvador and Guatemala) since violence is not distributed evenly within them either. She argued that the violence was not about the drugs per se, but rather the conflict over territorial control, either between DTOs and with the government. Someone in the audience brought up a good question about Venezuela, where there is a lot of violence in Caracas for example, without being a major transit route. She acknowledged it as an anomaly, admitting it was a work in progress (I liked her candor about weaknesses in the argument, actually).


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Secolas 2012

Blogging is light because I'm at the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies conference, and wifi has been hard to come by. My paper is entitled "Congressional Activism and U.S Policy Toward Latin America."


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Immigration polls

Rasmussen has a new poll on gaining control of the border, and the question is a mess.

In terms of immigration legislation, which is more important - gaining control of the border or legalizing the status of undocumented workers already living in the United States?    

Several problems here. First, "gaining control" isn't defined and on one has ever defined it. So many people will think it's more important, even though they're not sure what it is and it may not be possible. Second, the question clearly leads respondents to believe that border security and adjustment of status are mutually exclusive, when they're not. So if you read a news article saying 60% people want to control the border, be careful about what conclusions you take from that.

For example, a Republican polling firm, Tarrance, reports that the overwhelming majority of Republicans--even Tea Partiers--support a guest worker program.

The Wall Street Journal reporter sums up exactly what I've been writing on this blog for years.

The electorate seems to appreciate that foreign nationals fill niches in the workforce that help grow the U.S. economy -- and that giving these economic migrants more legal ways to enter the country means that fewer will come illegally. Could it be that voters have a more sophisticated understanding of human capital and labor markets than politicians give them credit for?

Absolutely. Americans are far less divided on this issue than many politicians would have you believe, and there is more support for common sense than the presidential primaries would suggest.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Anti-faculty op-ed

Robert Farley skewers this anti-faculty op-ed in the Washington Post. Normally the misconceptions about academia come from outside of it, so it's disheartening to see it come from someone who should know better. The idea that faculty work, even just the teaching part, is measured mostly by hours in the classroom has no relationship with reality. Just for the teaching side, the list of responsibilities includes, but is not limited to, writing syllabi, preparing lectures, grading exams and assignments, advising students (in some cases, like mine, both undergraduate and undergraduate), assessing academic programs (both your own and others), serving on committees (departmental, college, and/or university) related to student issues, writing letters of recommendation, attending pedagogical workshops/meetings, recruiting new graduate students or majors, sitting on MA or Ph.D. committees, supervising independent studies and last, but not least, answering student emails on all different kinds of topics. I am sure there are others I'm forgetting.

Not all of these activities are equally time consuming, and they come and go (advising, for example, is heaviest in the middle of the semester right before registration), but collectively they take up more hours than most people give credit for. I am not complaining because in fact I love my job and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I fundamentally disagree with anyone who believes that the job should be measured primarily by the amount of time I stand at a lectern.

There are many other problems with the article but that's enough for now.

James Joyner also weighs in.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Local immigration cost

The irony is too much. Farmers Branch, Texas, believes that undocumented immigrants cost the city too much in services. Before going further, I should note that the mayor acknowledges that "We're trying to solve a problem that people perceive to have" as opposed to "We have empirical evidence about a problem." But I digress.

It appears the city's solution to the costs of undocumented immigrants is to spend $5 million accomplishing nothing. In other words, the way to address immigration issues is to shift money from the city to lawyers.

A Dallas suburb has spent five years and nearly $5 million trying to ban illegal immigrants from renting apartments within city limits, but court challenges have kept the law from taking effect. Still, city officials say they’re likely to press on. 

I suppose there are now sunk costs, both political and economic. Once you've spent $5 million that you can never get back, then you don't feel you can cut your losses without an uproar, so you double down and keep going. What that does, though, is put taxpayers in a constant spiral of waste.

Further, spending money sends the signal that you are doing something, even if you are not actually accomplishing anything. That has been a core element in immigration policy at all levels in recent years.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Getting a Ph.D.

I wasn't so sure about Dan Drezner's first list of dos and don'ts for those who want to pursue a Ph.D. (e.g. go ahead and email professors) but this second list is spot on. It is really hard to get into good Ph.D. programs. As someone administering one of the terminal Master's degrees he mentions (in my case it is Latin American Studies) I am experiencing these issues firsthand with my students who are applying to Ph.D. programs. I am also convinced that getting our MA was essential for them getting accepted into those programs.

And yes, publish, publish, publish. I talk about this with my Ph.D.-leaning MA students. You need to start thinking like a professor in that regard as early as possible. Incidentally, it is also incumbent on professors to socialize the students they advise in this regard, and also to co-author with those students as a way to teach them how it's done.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Border Tunnel "Prevention" Act

Via the Just for Facts blog: the Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 is now trying to make its way through Congress (no pun intended). The fascinating part of this tunnel prevention act is that as far as I can tell it does nothing to actually prevent any tunneling. Instead, it enhances the penalties for tunneling, which is a very different thing. It's not clear to me how this will act as a deterrent, though it is something nice to hold up in an election year.

Further, no one seems to acknowledge the fact that tunneling has increased because of other enforcement efforts. There are leaks in the border everywhere, so the government runs around trying to seal them while creating others in the process.


Social Democracy in Mexico and Venezuela

Robert Funk and Pancho Díaz take a look at the presidential elections in Mexico and Venezuela as a challenge for social democrats to overcome demagoguery.

Both the Mexican and Venezuelan cases present real challenges for social democracy in general, and for possibilities of electoral success. For much of the past decade the centre-left in these countries has found it difficult to gain a firm footing in shifting political sands. However the elections taking place this year also offer the opportunity to reconstruct a disarticulated left, away from demagoguery and towards a forward looking and healthy social democracy which seeks economic growth but also emphasises well and responsibly funded social policy, all within the context of a vibrant democracy. 

What's notable about Mexico, though, is how much AMLO is attempting to shed his past image and once again appear moderate, showing "conspicuous moderation" as Patrick Corcoran has put it. There may be more room for social democracy.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chávez's future

I'm quoted in this Businessweek article on Hugo Chávez. All presidents want to appear as healthy as possible, but for Chávez the stakes--not to mention the timing of the president election--are especially high.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More on academic blogging

Here is some pretty good academic blogging advice from Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson at LSE. It is a bit over the top to say that blogging is "one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now," but it's true that blogging, along with Twitter, is great for academics. I can quibble with specific advice, and I've done so for other posts on academic blogging, but this particular post does a good job of discussing the positives without just bullet pointing what you should and should not do.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

South Carolina immigration hypocrisy

Lots of news stories about South Carolina's recent immigration law (some of which is currently blocked), which has a loophole.

A loophole in the S.C. immigration law exempts farmworkers and private maids and nannies from a mandatory immigration status check. 
The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires all private employers in South Carolina to use the federal E-Verify database to check newly hired employees’ immigration status. However, a little-known loophole provides exceptions for four categories of workers — agriculture laborers, domestic workers in a private residence, ministers and fishermen working on crews of 10 or fewer people. 
The agriculture industry and the legislators who supported the exemption said it was necessary because migrant farmworkers would be difficult to check, and no one wanted South Carolina to encounter a shortage of workers to pick peaches, strawberries and watermelons, as Georgia and Alabama recently did.

Read more here:

Critics are up in arms, saying it was done "secretly." I was about to make fun of any advocate who didn't read the entire bill and understand it before it was signed into law, but then took a look at what I think is the text of the correct law. I can't find the provisions. They have to be tucked in there somewhere (there are a ton of links in the document).

Regardless, this is the worst kind of hypocrisy. Maids and nannies? That simply means the wealthy people of South Carolina want continued access to illegal labor to which they can pay low wages with cash.

Supporters of the law and other similar examples across the country claim it will make undocumented immigrants leave the state, thus opening up jobs for U.S. citizens. This loophole, however, demonstrates that they don't believe that to be true. If U.S. citizens will fill these jobs, then why do you need the provision?

This is even worse than Arizona's SB 1070, which at least has a logical consistency. Instead, this law says that South Carolina recognizes how much immigrants contribute to the state's economy, but it wants to make their lives more difficult anyway.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Gas price reality check

Gas prices often become political in the United States, and with good reason. Gas is an important part of people's budgets, and a rise in gas prices not only eats up disposable income when filling your tank, but causes the prices of many other things to rise as well. It is one of the issues that deserves reasoned discussion, especially in the context of a recession. It is more important than most issues currently being discussed in the campaign.

What's frustrating, though, is that ignorance--willful or otherwise--invades every aspect of the gas price debate. Obviously being in a presidential election year exacerbates that unfortunate reality. Latin America plays a secondary but still important role because we get a lot of oil not only from Mexico and Colombia, but also from Ecuador and Venezuela, the governments of which is vocally opposed to U.S. policy everywhere. As a result, politicians lament how the price increases not only hurt us, but help governments that don't like us and line their treasuries to boot.

Here are some points, a sort of bullet point rant. If nothing else, remember that any politician who says he or she can drastically decrease the price of gas is lying. Period.

In no particular order:

  • The price of gas depends to a large extent on the expectation of future price increases. Invading or otherwise messing with an oil-producing country, or just making people think you might do so, will make prices increase. It is then hard to get them down again.
  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq had a serious and upward long-term effect on gas prices.
  • One consequences of the Iraq invasion was to empower Iran, which then prompted a U.S. response, which then made gas prices go up more.
  • The price of gas also depends on demand in large, growing countries like China and India. The United States has no control over that.
  • It is easy for a U.S. president to make policy that increases gas prices, but much harder to make policy that decreases them by an appreciable amount.
  • The main way a U.S. president can make the price of gas go down is to preside over an economic crash (see chart below).
  • The United States has been increasing its gas exports, which is something few people seem to know. It has not made prices go down.
  • Producing more of our own oil will not make the global price down much, if at all. What we produce is a drop in the global oil bucket. In fact, our oil production has already been on the increase.
  • The presidential campaign is contributing to the price increase because of the talk about Iran (and this is independent of what you think about the ideal policy toward Iran).
  • Any serious talk about imposing sanctions on Venezuela or Ecuador would make prices go up, even if no such action is taken (again, irrespective of whether you approve of that or not).
  • Even if the Venezuelan opposition wins the presidential election later this year, oil prices will not go down as a result.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jason Heller's Taft 2012

Jason Heller's Taft 2012 requires a significant suspension of disbelief, namely that William Howard Taft disappeared on his way to Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913, hibernated, and then reappeared in late 2011. No one in the novel worries too much about the science of it all. And we're not supposed to either, because that's not the point.

The point is to gain some lighthearted perspective on partisan politics and consumption in the United States. Taft is recruited by the newly founded Taft Party to run for president, and finds the movement annoying since it claims to stand for virtually everything and ignores reality.  People have an idealized view of the past, yet Taft remembers it as equally difficult, just in different ways.

Meanwhile, a giant agribusiness named Fulsom is making processed protein foods that are disgusting yet addictive. As it turns out, Fulsom is behind the scenes making the Taft Party possible. Moreover, it was doing so for reasons that were not immediately obvious. I won't elaborate, as that would take the air out of the story.

It's a fun novel that works because it does not take itself too seriously even while making some serious points. There is even a website for the book intended to serve as a mock campaign site. Who is Taft? You are!


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rubio's Nixon moment

Here's an op-ed on CNN from a conservative Latino, asking Marco Rubio to do a Nixon-in-China and call out the Republican Party about immigration. For reasons known only to the author, he does so by quoting Spock, who apparently mentioned Nixon going to China in Star Trek VI. Does this make the argument more logical?

Anyway, he laments that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen can't join the ticket as VP, so the op-ed is essentially an exercise in damning with faint praise. Rubio is no Ros-Lehtinen, but at least he could do some good if he weren't so soft.

Rubio is referred to as the Michael Jordan of politics. But you don't score points sitting on the bench, basking in the approbation of the hard right, oblivious to the crowd of could-be supporters in the bleachers behind you, unable to muster, even, a faint cheer for your positions on what really matters to them. 
You score points by leading. And that is where Rubio seems to fail -- so far. Rubio's "China" is immigration; by shirking this issue and standing fast to supporters who will brook no compromise, he demonstrates cowardice. 
Marco Rubio has a tremendous chance to journey to "China" in the face of the volatile backlash that such a journey would provoke from the far right. He has the chance to delve into an issue with no easy answers -- with the smarts, mettle and energy that he surely possesses, the same way Ros-Lehtinen approaches her own public service.

It's not a particularly well-argued piece, but the main point is worth noting. Conservative Latinos are staying quiet. If Rubio were chosen for the ticket, would he say anything, especially given the positions of the eventual nominee?


Friday, March 16, 2012

Immigration legislating in NC

The North Carolina Farm Bureau is trying to get out ahead to prevent a strict Arizona/Alabama type law from getting anywhere in NC.

Farmers can't find the help they need from the domestic workforce to pick crops -- and without foreign workers the crops would rot in the field, he said. The Farm Bureau is asking lawmakers to wait for federal government to fix the current system before taking any action. "It's a bad system that needs to be fixed," Daniel added.

Read more here:

From a logical standpoint, this is pretty convincing. From a practical side, however, it's useless because the federal government isn't going to fix anything for at least a year, and only then if Barack Obama wins the presidency. Even then chances are not great.

Instead, it's about waiting for the Supreme Court to decide what aspects of state immigration laws are constitutional and which are not. The court is going to start hearing oral arguments on Arizona's SB 1070 on April 25.

In the past year or so a number of immigration bills have been floating around the state, such as the NC Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act, that are aimed at copying other states (for a list of all pending immigration bills see here). Exactly what to do is now the job of the House Select Committee on the State's Role in Immigration Policy, which was in the news recently because of protests.

State legislators are not always known for common sense, but spending much time before the Supreme Court rules is a waste. Actually passing legislation before then just means a commitment to spending state resources on lawyers. "Boat rocking" just means "lawyer paying." I oppose such laws in any event, but throwing money away makes no sense.

Actually passing such legislation will also hurt the state in other ways, but that's another story.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Not so stately Brazil visit

A current recurring topic is U.S. treatment of Brazil. The United States has tended not to acknowledge its economic and political influence, slighting the country in various ways. There is a lot of trade and extensive dialogue between the two countries, so it's important not to blow the differences too much out of proportion.

Nonetheless, I have to agree with Andres Oppenheimer on the Obama's administration's bungling of President Dilma Rousseff's visit to the United States.

Brazilian officials are miffed by the fact that despite Brazil’s emergence as a global power, the White House has not granted Rousseff’s trip to Washington the status of “state visit,” the highest-level diplomatic distinction for such trips. State visits generally come along with a black-tie state dinner at the White House, a formal address by the visiting leader to Congress, and week-long cultural events. 
The White House’s explanation was that, because this is an election year in the United States, Obama does not grant state visits. But the Brazilian press was quick to note that British Prime Minister David Cameron is in Washington on a state visit two weeks before Rousseff’s trip. 
An article in Friday’s O Estado de Sao Paulo, under the headline “Dilma will be welcomed by Obama without a state visitor’s honors,” noted that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were granted state visits to Washington in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Not mentioned in the story, but perhaps harder to swallow for Brazilian officials, was that Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón made a state visit to Washington in 2010.

Read more here:

What's up with that? Oppenheimer notes a variety of other important slights that involve not only diplomatic problems but also large investments. This just seems dumb, a needless insult to a country we should be getting closer to.


Johnny Shaw's Dove Season

Johnny Shaw's Dove Season is a hardboiled murder mystery with the Imperial Valley as the backdrop. After years away, the main character Jimmy Veeder comes home to visit his cancer-ridden father, who asks him to find a particular prostitute in Mexicali. Only later does it become clear that it wasn't just an old man's last request but rather part of a larger transborder story.

The book morphs into a mystery, though Veeder is no private eye and the characters and atmosphere are more interesting than the fairly simple mystery itself. That includes a foray into Mexicali and extensive interaction with an old friend who now happens to be head of a Mexican crime syndicate.

It gradually dawned on me that the novel reminded me of the Wall of Voodoo song "Call of the West." It's all dusty streets, amorality, sex and violence in the hot towns on the U.S.-Mexico border, with Ennio Morricone in the background. A bit of Cormac McCarthy but with more of a sense of humor. The first lines of the novel are "There is something about the desert that pisses everything off."


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Headlines vs. content

Headlines tell us something. Authors rarely get to choose them, so they become a reflection of how the editors hope to grab people's attention.

This occurred to me when I saw Tim Muth's guest blog about the Salvadoran elections in the Christian Science Monitor.  The content is about the delicate and uncertain coalition possibilities that exist for both the left and the right, but that the right did better in the elections. The headline, though, is "El Salvador Elections: Another Test for Latin America's Left."

Nowhere in the article did he write about the rest of the region, and nowhere does he use the word "test." This election has nothing to do with the Latin American left, which in any case does not exist in any unified form (and not even within El Salvador).

Several years ago I got a blogging bug in my ear about the incessant and simplistic media obsession with left versus right in the region. This seems to be another similar example--framing it in ideological terms is more sexy than discussing the more mundane question of building coalitions.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Panetta in Chile

In anticipation of Leon Panetta's upcoming visit to Chile, I have a short Q&A at World Politics Review. Sadly,  drug trafficking is becoming more pressing in the bilateral relationship.


State Department in 1954

Check out the HathiTrust website at your own peril because if you're interested in government documents then you may find yourself sucked in.

Take this 1954 State Department document on relations with Latin America (Partners: The Story of Our Latin American Relations). The best quote is on the "Communist menace" in Guatemala, referring to how "the Guatemalan people themselves rose up and turned out the Communist conspirators."

That actually got me thinking about what the most egregious cases of U.S. government lying about Latin America might be. It would be a perversely interesting research project.


Monday, March 12, 2012


I learned about an interesting project called Hemosoido intended to get Cuban bloggers translated into English and other languages so their words can be disseminated more widely. If you're interested, please take a look.


Remittances up

The Inter-American Development Bank reports that remittances to Latin America went up 6% in 2011, to $61 billion. After a slowdown when the recession hit, remittances are back on track. Despite media reports, it is clear that there was no exodus back to Latin America. People waited things out, then started sending when they were once again able.

Two intriguing points, both of them positive:

First, despite the recession, Latin American migrants seem to be doing better in the United States.

Most of the money continued to be sent from traditional host countries such as the United States and Western Europe. In the United States, source of about three-quarters of remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean, foreign workers saw improving employment and wage levels. As a consequence, migrants made more transfers for higher amounts than the previous year.

Second, economies in Latin America are doing  better so remittances represent a smaller slice of the economy. Of course, this will only last so long.

In recent years, as regional economies improved, remittances have become a smaller share of gross domestic product. In several countries, however, remittances are still more than 10 percent of GDP.

Overall, remittances are here to stay. Harnessing them to foster further economic growth is the key challenge.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Honoring unused Venezuelan doctors

In what I guess is unintended irony, Hugo Chávez (or whoever he puts in charge) wrote a tweet honoring Venezuelan doctors even while sitting in Havana because he refuses to use Venezuelan doctors. The bottom line is that Venezuelan doctors are certainly capable of dealing with his cancer, but Venezuela is not Cuba when it comes to control over information. Chávez does not want Venezuelans or anyone else to know precisely what's wrong with him, and treatment in Caracas would yield leaks. Dictatorships obsessed with information control don't have that problem.

Chávez may come back to Venezuela next week. He isn't saying--that news came from the president of Colombia, of all people. As a result, Venezuelans are forced to wait for Nelson Bocaranda to tell them the current rumors, I suppose based on messages coming from Chávez's entourage. Currently he's saying that Chávez needs 25 radiation sessions and has done five so far, including on Saturday.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Spanish briefing

Thanks to a colleague in Spanish for pointing this out to me.  On Thursday the State Department held its first press briefing in Spanish.

It's a great idea. Any way to reach out more to the Latin American media is a good move, as it is a very real sign that the U.S. is taking Latin America seriously and trying to engage it. That goes far beyond just U.S. policy toward Latin America, as the questions often focused on the Middle East.

And yes, of course it's spin. But it's not a bad idea to spin people in their own language. It's part of el poder blando.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Coalitions in Chile

Via Twitter Patricio Navia has this graph on his website on identification with the Concertación versus Alianza.

Plenty of fun conclusions:

--Obviously, support for the Concertación has been dropping, but people are becoming ni-nis rather than moving to the Alianza

--The Concertación can't seem to capitalize politically on Piñera's problems (unless that little bounce at the end keeps going upward)

--The Alianza seems to be at a ceiling. It's a bit flexible at any given moment but over time 20% support seems to be about it

--Predictions of the Concertación's demise will continue, and get louder once electoral reform is underway

--Having its own president in power seems to have no effect on coalition approval, though it hasn't been long so it's reasonable to ask what the Alianza's floor might be if Piñera remains so unpopular


The definition of "duh"

From the WSJ's MarketWatch:

Latin America must take steps to defend itself from a growing reliance on commodities and China, while currency appreciation is warranted given the economic improvements relative to developed markets, the Institute of International Finance said on Thursday.

At least this seems to get more mention than it used to. It's important to note, however, that there is no "growing" reliance on commodities--although the specific commodities may change, it is long-standing and in some cases dates back to the colonial era.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

What Pat Robertson and Peter Tosh have in common

You could not make this up if you tried. With all the talk of drug decriminalization in the air with Joe Biden's trip to Latin America, we have a new advocate: Pat Robertson. Yes, that Pat Robertson, the one who says all sorts of weird and sometimes offensive stuff.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”

So this could become a white, middle-class evangelical issue? I wouldn't have thought so, but he puts a new, conservative spin on it:

He attributed much of the problem of overpopulated jails to a “liberal mindset to have an all-encompassing government.”

It's interesting to see how the right in Latin America, and now perhaps--to some limited degree--in the United States are coming to similar conclusions with different logic.

He noted that "he did not think marijuana appeared in the Bible." I am not a scholar of religion, but I would bet he's right. Insert your joke here.


Brain gain in Brazil

A country undergoes an economic boom and discovers it has a labor shortage even for high skilled jobs that needs to be addressed through immigration. This gets tricky because the government wants to be sure that foreign workers do not take jobs that a citizen could fill. At the same time, that economic growth is attracting undocumented workers, prompting new efforts to fight smugglers at the border. Overall, last year the foreign born population grew by 50 percent.

Sounds a bit like the U.S. in the 1990s, but actually refers to Brazil today.

One interesting tidbit was the suggestion that Brazil's participation in MINUSTAH has led to an increase in Haitian immigration. Under what circumstances does participation in peacekeeping operations connect countries through migration?


Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is a powerful novel. It is sad, as any book about North Korea really must be, but it is also full of life and at times is even funny. At its core is the question of identity. Pak Jun Do was an orphan master's son and took an orphan's name. This means everyone believes he is an orphan even though he is not. That widespread belief, however, led the state to force him to do its dirty work for it, including kidnapping Japanese. He regrets it all and seeks some sort of redemption.

That would lead to an effort to sneak someone, the actress Sun Moon, out of the country. Aside from the main character, everyone in the novel--from the highest official to aged parents who never leave their apartment--drips with resignation. Anyone can disappear at any time, either murdered or sent to a camp, which is just an extended murder. You take great care about what you say to one another. Ultimately identity itself comes into question. A constant theme is the movie Titanic, which everyone seems to mention because the elites have seen pirated versions. The metaphor about a doomed voyage is blunt.

The descriptions of North Korea are bold and vivid--I felt the same impression years ago when I read Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park on the Soviet Union. This book is also unique because it dares to push the limits of verisimilitude. Kim Jong Il himself plays a recurring role, which could have come off quite badly, but it works well. Don't expect the novel to make you feel very good, but it'll stay with you.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Personal and political of immigration

I recommend Elizabeth Llorente's analysis at Fox News Latino on the Latino vote, which explains the current situation well. One interesting point is that immigration is not just a policy issue, but also has a strong personal element. So you might rank immigration low on your list of priorities, but you are rubbed the wrong way when Rick Santorum says that breaking up families is "worth it" because "this is just who we are."

Even the Republican Party seems to accept this premise. Despite the fact that its two viable presidential candidates very vocally oppose immigration reform and applaud more enforcement and deportation, the party itself tries not to mention it.

“Once again, Latino voters reaffirm their belief that the most important issues are the economy and jobs,” said RNC spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi. “President Obama’s broken promises and failed policies have only brought record debt, out-of-control spending, and higher unemployment to the United States, all of which have disproportionately hurt Latinos struggling to make ends meet in this difficult economy. “

That isn't a winning strategy if Latinos are turned away from an economic message they might like by the personalized rhetoric of immigration.


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The politics of travel warnings

Today there's more on the politics of Mexico needing to maintain its image in the context of a barrage of media attention on drug violence. The Texas Department of Public Safety issued its own travel warning, as it did last year, telling young Texans that Mexico should not be a spring break destination.

The Mexican Embassy quickly released a rebuttal:

Mexico strongly disagrees with the assessment made by Texan officials regarding travel to Mexico in general. As their number one trading partner and largest export market, Mexico believes Texas should be able to more objectively evaluate facts, providing nuance and context, and in doing so, dispel the notion that their motivation is a clear-cut political agenda.

I am not sure there is a "clear-cut political agenda" beyond a generalized hysteria about the security of the border, though Governor Rick Perry did once say he was open to the idea of sending U.S. troops into Mexico to fight the drug war. I am not an expert on Texan politics, but I can't think of what Texas has to gain by issuing the statement.

The stakes are high, because tourist dollars are important, but the PR battle is getting harder and harder for the Mexican government. It endorses the more nuanced State Department warning, which is still pretty dire. The argument now is that lots of people are being killed in lots of states, but your odds of living are good, and if you're carjacked you'll likely live. That's not a lot better than the Texas version.


Piñera still unpopular

Barack Obama's chances in the 2012 election hinge to a large extent on how people view the economy. If people feel good about jobs, for example, then his chances improve considerably. Sebastián Piñera must be wondering what the problem is, because Chileans still don't approve of his presidency even though they are giving him increasingly good marks on how his government deals with jobs.

Look at these numbers from Adimark. Ouch.

Meanwhile, 53% approve of the way he is handling jobs, up from 45% in both December 2011 and January 2012, and the highest of his entire presidency.  It should be noted, though, that only 43% approve of his handling of the economy overall, which is down a few points, and is close to the lowest of his presidency. It's an interesting discrepancy.

He saved the miners and the economy is doing OK, but the government's response to problems like education and Aysén are crippling him.


Monday, March 05, 2012

Latin American right and wrong

Via Americas Quarterly Twitter feed: Juan Manuel Santos is headed to Cuba to talk both to Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez.

“Vamos a ir a Cuba con dos propósitos: el primero para tener la oportunidad de hablar personalmente, como se hablan todos los buenos amigos, con el Gobierno cubano, con Raúl Castro, el tema de Cuba en la Cumbre que se va a realizar el mes entrante en Colombia”, informó el Presidente Santos. 
Anunció que en el encuentro con el mandatario venezolano, Hugo Chávez, se busca firmar los anexos que permitirán la entrada en vigencia del Tratado Comercial entre Colombia y Venezuela.

Along with Otto Pérez Molina's drug decriminalization talk, this is a shift from the Latin American right. Not necessarily permanent, but still noteworthy. Colombia is always cited by the right in the U.S. as a major ally, yet its conservative president is talking in a friendly way (even "buenos amigos"!) to our enemies, while the U.S. refuses to do so.

It's another example of self-isolation. We're at a point where we can't even convince the more conservative governments in the region that our policies make sense. As a result, they just ignore us.


Mexican middle class

In a column remarkably free of her normal hyperbole, Mary Anastasia O'Grady argues that the Mexican middle class is rising. Roque Planas, meanwhile, points to a study from last July showing poverty on the rise. I discussed this very issue in November, noting similar contradictions.

In the Mexican case in particular, the government really wants to demonstrate that drug-related violence is not damaging economic growth. It needs to convince investors that it is a good place to come and that there is a strong domestic market for international trade. That is neither surprising nor necessarily bad. But it complicates things when there is so much contrary data out there.

The most useful analysis, then, is one that takes both into account and explains the contradictions. At this point, that's not happening.


Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dirk Hayhurst's Out of My League

There is no way not to like Dirk Hayhurst's Out of My League: A Rookie's Survival in the Bigs. You probably won't believe me, but baseball isn't even the most important part of the book.  Yes, of course baseball is central, and the insider details are cool, but he doesn't even leave for spring training until Chapter Ten. Instead, it is a raw, introspective, and absorbing account of dealing with a dysfunctional family, getting married, and figuring out your career even when things turn sour. It just turns out the career is baseball.

Like his first book, The Bullpen Gospels (which I reviewed when it came out two years ago), this book is unflinchingly open. There was more than one time when I read in amazement about what he was telling the world about his insecurities (not to mention ballplayer nudity). What makes this second book different is that his relationship with this future wife takes center stage, as he is trying to understand how to make that work within the confines of baseball demands. In fact, he's trying to sort out exactly how important baseball really is, a question that for most players is sacrilegious, or at least something you would not make public. At one point after a bad start, in frustration he just screams, "I hate this fucking game!"

But as always, Hayhurst is often funny, really funny. The account of his first time on the mound in the major leagues (for the Padres, coincidentally) is priceless (such as having the umpires remind him what direction the next base was when he walked in his first at bat). Or the account of what living in a minor league apartment is like--bare and stripped, with no more belongings than what will fit in a battered suitcase. Or how his mother called him, all excited because she saw him on SportsCenter giving up a home run to Manny Ramirez.

From the perspective of a baseball fan and reader, I wish Hayhurst could have a long career in many different places and chronicle it all. That wouldn't necessarily be the best for him, since every player's goal is a long-term contract to play in one place. But I have to wonder, and I am sure he has done so himself, how many seasons he can write about until people are wary of being written about. He is now off to play baseball in Italy, where I am guessing books on baseball aren't exactly topping the charts so it won't matter. Hopefully he will write a book about it, and it will burst with introspective insight. I look forward to it.

Incidentally, when you read the book you can also check out his photo gallery of that year:


Friday, March 02, 2012

Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere

A bill on Iran-Latin America ties is starting on its way through Congress. Click here for the full text of H.R. 3783, the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012.

It essentially mirrors public declarations about the topic, which means it combines solid facts (of which there are plenty) with rumors written in the passive tense to avoid admitting that the sources are unknown.

The thrust of the bill is to require the Secretary of State to document Iran's role in the hemisphere and discuss policy options to counter Iranian influence.  That former point should not be controversial--it's worthwhile to have a comprehensive look, especially one that sticks to the facts.

The problem with the bill comes with the details of the latter.  The bill requires pressuring Latin American countries to participate in a "multiagency action plan." Since at this point even the "allies and partners" of the United States don't necessarily agree with the threat perception, this could easily backfire.

There is also the question of addressing "the vital national security interests of the United States in securing energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere."  This, of course, can mean anything and will immediately look like a threat to oil-producing countries (and given the authors of the bill it is quite likely intentional in that regard).

Given the current tensions with Iran and the desire not to look weak in an election year, I would venture to say its chances are good at passage in some form. If it does get to that point, then I hope it ends up looking less unilateral.


Thursday, March 01, 2012

The American people and immigration

Immigration gets a lot of media attention, and is a source of obsession for many politicians.  A new USA Today/Gallup poll reminds us what we've known for years (and which my dad and I discuss in our book) but which you wouldn't know by listening to the rhetoric of the presidential race: Americans aren't nearly as concerned about immigration as commonly portrayed. It's certainly relevant, but just low on the list.

The easy answer is that given the Republican primary, this is all about the base. But an exit poll in Arizona--supposedly ground zero of anti-immigrant sentiment--showed only 13% of primary voters considered immigration the most important issue.

Further, if we break down the USA Today/Gallup results by party, we see that even Republicans rank immigration very low as an issue of importance for deciding their 2012 presidential vote.

These results tend to play out at the state level as well. For their own reasons, politicians at all levels play up immigration as if it were a major concern for voters (very often using the phrase "the American people"). This gets reported widely, and then copied by other politicians.

Exactly why is a matter for debate, as there are many possibilities that vary according to what level we're analyzing. They may truly believe that Americans agree, or may figure enough of their constituency does to emphasize immigration as an issue. Or they just emphasize it because it's a pet issue and they don't care whether others agree or not. And the media, of course, loves controversial human interest stories.

Regardless, it's important to remember that immigration is rarely as high on the list of "the American people's" priorities as we often hear in the media and from the mouths of politicians. In the 2012 presidential election, they are going to vote in large part on the economy, not on immigration.


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