Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Better But Still Terrible

The Wall Street Journal hits this one on the head for both content and headline. Poverty and inequality in Latin America have gone down but people live on a razor's edge:

Since 1995, extreme poverty, defined as individuals earning less than $2.50 per day, has been cut in half, to 13% from 26%, according to World Bank figures. The drop comes with a major caveat: “The largest segment of the region’s population still remains vulnerable to falling back into poverty, with 40% of the population living with incomes above the poverty line” of $4 per day.

I don't consider myself a glass half empty person, but rather from years of studying Latin America it's obvious that proclaiming success is a dangerous game. Everyone wants to do so badly--Chavistas and free marketeers alike feel a pressing need to prove that their ideas have resolved long-standing challenges and therefore are superior.

Just yesterday Gabe Aguilera tweeted in response to my blog post about Enrique Krauze's op-ed, and it applies here too:

@aguilera1: @GregWeeksUNCC Things are bad. Especially in Central America and the Caribbean Basin. Paradoxically, they have also never been better...

In other words, better but still terrible.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is a good read only because it was written by Bill Bryson. By this I mean it really has no stated point but that's OK because it's funny and sarcastic. Strangely missing from the lengthy prologue is any explanation about why he wrote it.

Beyond his writing, what made me connect to the book was its unrelenting insistence that the grand, glorious and glamorous 1920s, the heyday of which was 1927, was in so many ways either no better than now or much, much worse. That appealed to me since one of my pet peeves is hearing the pining for the good old days of fake nostalgia. You will not come away feeling nostalgic after reading this book. I have no idea whether this was his intent.

It is roughly chronological, though there is inevitable jumping, chock full of vignettes. That made it perfect for tweeting, which I did in the several days it took for me to read it.

The upshot is that America in 1927 was a place where people followed sensationalistic murder stories with excited interest while ignoring real news about other countries; where athletes were revered despite the fact that many of them were terrible human beings; where racism, anti-Semitism, and gender discrimination were rampant and often celebrated; where mindless desire for profit soon led to disaster; and where corruption was widespread.

There were good things, of course. Charles Lindbergh showed how much aviation could achieve, though he himself was odd, anti-Semitic, and pro-eugenics. Movie and television technology led to all kinds of innovation. So it wasn't all bad.

So don't read it if you want a recreation of F. Scott Fitzgeraldish Jazz Age images (incidentally, in 1927 he was on the decline and practically begging for jobs) but if you want to think about how far we have or haven't come as a country, then it's well worth it.


Another Weak Latin America Op-Ed

Enrique Krauze has a curious op-ed about Latin American politics in the New York Times.

First, it stems from a friendly disagreement he had with Mario Vargas Llosa a few months ago, which immediately leads me to ask why he didn't publish it a few months ago.

Second, he concludes that things look good from Peru and bad from Mexico, which may explain divergence from Vargas Llosa but tells us little about the region.

Third, he totally ignores Central America. If you want to talk about how great the problems of coups and political violence are, then it's a problematic omission.

On the other hand, I suppose it's good to have an op-ed that does not just consist of "the U.S. needs a grand strategy toward Latin America" or "Venezuela is at the forefront of a Hezbollah/Iran/Al Qaeda offensive against the American Way."


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Brazil's Foreign Policy Challenges

Oliver Stuenkel writes about Brazil's foreign policy challenges. Since it is a list, and end of year lists tend to have 10 items, so does his. I am glad to see, though, that he acknowledges this dose of abitrariness!

One point I agree with is the need to make a commitment to the nitty gritty of foreign policy by making sure the diplomatic corps is not understaffed. Wikileaks cables even show how the U.S. was aware of that problem. You can't be a player without it.

One point I am not sure about is the need to commit to the BRICS concept. He notes there is skepticism, and I tend to share it. These countries are just lumped together without much rhyme or reason. Plus, Russia is in fact a power that has declined rather than one on the rise. What leverage does this give Brazil? High profile meetings don't hurt, but they don't necessarily matter.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Latin America and Commodities

I've written about this so many times, but the news cycles on Latin American economies are predictable. Basically, you read about how awesome Country X is doing because of GDP and exports. Some time later, you will read how Country X faces an economic challenge of some sort. The structural causes are the same: dependence on commodities. That part generally is mentioned but remains unanalyzed.

So, for example, we hear that Latin American currencies are falling because demand for commodities is down:

Brazil’s real has lost 13 percent this year, extending its decline since the end of 2010 to 30 percent. The Chilean peso dropped to a two-year low on Dec. 3 and is down 9.2 percent this year. Mexico’s peso has declined the least, falling 1.2 percent, while the Colombian peso and Peruvian sol dropped more than 8 percent. Argentina’s peso, managed by the central bank through regular foreign-exchange market interventions, tumbled 24 percent, the most since 2002.

OK, but why did this dependence remain and diversification not occur when the money was flowing in? That is the interesting question, though I can understand why it's always omitted--the target audience for these articles consists of people who don't care. Their goal is making money, not promoting reform.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Outlawing Parties and Blowback in Latin America and Egypt

Outlawing political parties you don't like has a long history in Latin America. So as Egypt declares the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization we can look at, among other things, the Communist Party in Latin America.

I thought immediately of the ironically named Law for the Permanent Defense of Democracy in Chile, which outlawed the Communist Party in 1948 and lasted for a decade. During that time, however, the party became even more popular than before and in a short time joined the coalition that brought Salvador Allende to the presidency. As in Egypt, outlawing the party was done in the name of national security but under it lay concern (or in the Egyptian case, knowledge) that the party could win elections. It needed to be proscribed so it could not have that chance.

Or you could look at the Guatemalan Labor Party, which was the Communist Party and had influence in Jacobo Arbenz's government when--like Mohamed Morsi--he was overthrown and the party was outlawed. The result was radicalization and decades of civil war.

The point here is not that these parties are somehow paragons of democracy, but rather you cannot successfully legislate them into oblivion. Even more importantly, there is a very high probability that in doing so you will make them more popular and powerful, and perhaps even more radical than they already are.

There almost certainly will be blowback, the suffering of unintended--but in this case entirely foreseeable--consequences. Back in July 2013 I made essentially the same point about supporting coups in Egypt vs. Latin America. I also wrote a piece for Foreign Policy on the problem of boycotting elections in Egypt vs. Latin America.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Old News on Colombian Covert Action

Dana Priest has a lengthy article in the Washington Post about covert action in Colombia. I kept reading and reading, waiting to see something that was not already common knowledge, but then got to the end without finding it.

The U.S. has been helping the Colombian government track the FARC and provide bombs to dismember it, including an attack over the border in Ecuador. That was over five years ago and even at the time everyone knew it was impossible that the Colombian military was spearheading it.

Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos are both committed to bombing their own country to defeat the FARC--or force it to the negotiating table--and the U.S. has provided billions since 2000. Legal niceties are unimportant and there is a black budget with tons of secrecy. Sadly, this just confirms what was already conventional wisdom. So what's new here? There are some slick maps, photos of Super Tucanos with teeth painted on them, and a few juicy operational details but little meat.

Perhaps I am just too jaded after reading and writing about this for so long. It is good for people in the U.S. to read this, though unfortunately the tone is so rah-rah that it doesn't encourage a critical response.


Saturday, December 21, 2013


In both op-eds and news stories about the Chilean election, both in the U.S. and in Chile (though admittedly more in the former, I think) you see plenty of mention of both Pinochet and transition. I published a book chapter on the latter a few years ago, looking at how no one could even agree when the transition was supposed to be over, whatever that meant.

Augusto Pinochet has been dead almost exactly seven years, and has been out of office for almost 24. So how long does it continue? There are many countries with personalistic dictatorships and traumatic pasts, but after a certain point their politics are no longer defined by that leader.

Francisco Franco died in 1975, for example, and Spain suffered a coup attempt in 1981, but then moved steadily toward a stable democracy--how long before people stopped saying post-Franco? In the Dominican Republic they even went around renaming all the streets/places Trujillo had named after himself, and eventually was no longer "post-Trujillo."

In Chile, part of it is institutional. The country still has the constitution he commissioned, and the broad contours of an economy that he was finally convinced to champion. There are calls to change them but they're very sticky. Michelle Bachelet wants to change them but votes will not be easy to come by. Let's see if the 2017 presidential election is similarly framed by Pinochet and the dictatorship.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Richard Helms' Six Mile Creek

Richard Helms' Six Mile Creek is a murder mystery with a bit of social commentary attached to it. The setting is a small North Carolina town, not too far away from a larger city like Charlotte. A high school girl, who is Latina, is found murdered. Police Chief Judd Wheeler investigates.

It's not filled with Deep Thoughts, but the overall theme is about preconceptions and deep seated views. Everyone assumes there is a race war brewing, when there is not. Everyone assumes drugs have not reached the town, when they have. Everyone holds high school football players on a pedestal, when they don't deserve it. The stereotype that turns out to be justified (in the novel, anyway) is that rich white men who control small towns are largely jerks.

Chief Wheeler solves the crime, of course, as well as a few others that pop up along with the way. What he finds is high school replicating adulthood. The same obsession with money and status. Even ethnicity is subsumed under that, Anglo-Latino tensions are less about "difference" per se and more about encroachment on women or turf.

What is oddly missing is a single African American character. The town is Anglo or Latino.

As a solid mystery, I recommend it.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Confused About the Bay of Pigs?

From the National Security Archive: The CIA does not want to release the secret final volume of its internal history of the Bay of Pigs because people would get "confused." The problem is that the CIA disagrees with its own historian:

A 400-plus page report by the CIA’s inspector general critiqued the invasion. Pfeiffer, the CIA historian, in turn critiqued the inspector general’s report in the still-secret fifth volume of his history. Pfeiffer’s supervisor, though, called the volume a “polemic” troubled by “serious deficiencies,” and said that it would not be published. 
“Dr. Pfeiffer’s account (was) an uncritical defense of the CIA officers who planned and executed the Bay of Pigs operation,” the supervisor, J. Kenneth McDonald, later stated.

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/12/12/211491/lawsuit-seeks-to-unlock-cias-secret.html#storylink=cpy
This is the Bay of Pigs we're talking about. It's already a well known foreign policy disaster and has been for, you know, over a half century. It can't get worse!

I see the CIA's point, though. It's confusing to hear a government agency deviate from a single programmed line. We're used to lockstep and our brains might explode if we're suddenly faced with something else that requires thought.

I like the point that the Constitutional Convention records were only sealed for 30 years and we know how contentious they were and how much higher the stakes. Rip the band-aid off, release the book, and move on.


Maduro's Economic Hangover

Back in November, Nicolás Maduro declared the early beginning of Christmas in anticipation of the December elections. Sometimes after a party, though, you suffer a hangover. Moody's has provided that:

New York, December 16, 2013 -- Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the Government of Venezuela's local and foreign currency ratings to Caa1 from B1 and B2 respectively. The outlook on both ratings remains negative. The key drivers for the action are: 
1. Increasingly unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances; and
2. Materially higher risk of an economic and financial collapse. 
The downgrade reflects Moody's view that Venezuela is facing increasingly unsustainable macroeconomic imbalances, including a skyrocketing inflation and a sharp depreciation of the parallel exchange rate. As government policies have exacerbated these problems, the risk of an economic and financial collapse has greatly increased.

That came a few days after Standard & Poor's did the same:

S&P cut the rating to "B-", already well into junk-bond territory, and added a "negative outlook" to the rating.
[I]t expects further deterioration of the situation, which "could increase the risks of a government debt default over the next two years".

A response I've often seen is that the inflation rate is not so different than from the past and so is being exaggerated. Then the logic gets tortured in a way that's unintentionally ironic.

The Toronto Star is worried about inflation in Venezuela – but did it worry in the decade of the 1970’s when inflation jumped from 7.6% to 20.4%? Or that in the decade of the 80’s the average inflation rate was 19.4% until it reached 47.4% in the decade of the 90’s?[1] And what world newspaper or politician at that time forecasted with undisguised glee the ruin of the Venezuelan economy? None.  Which newspaper denounced the immoral excesses – mistresses, drinking, fraud and corruption- of presidents Betancourt, Leoni, Caldera y Carlos Andrés Pérez? None.

Yikes! What this Chávez supporter argues is that inflation (and the numbers she cites are lower than now) was part of a past economic collapse but the media shamefully ignored the collapse. Remember that the past collapse heralded regime change and the triumph of chavismo. By extension, then, she's acknowledging that history can repeat itself, but she's just mad that it is getting media attention.

I have no idea what will happen to the Venezuelan economy, but the government and its supporters are finding it increasingly difficult to explain things in a credible way. The latest blackout, for example? It was a imperial-loving fascist saboteur with a gun. There is proof of this, though I guess we're not allowed to see it.

Hangovers are no fun.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Snowden and Brazil

Edward Snowden apparently is still looking to Latin America and there is plenty of parsing his open letter to Brazil. He's careful not to make a formal request, which would box Brazil in and possibly make it even less willing. But he says:

Many Brazilian senators agree, and have asked for my assistance with their investigations of suspected crimes against Brazilian citizens.

I have expressed my willingness to assist wherever appropriate and lawful, but unfortunately the United States government has worked very hard to limit my ability to do so -- going so far as to force down the Presidential Plane of Evo Morales to prevent me from traveling to Latin America!

Until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak.

I read that as a quid pro quo.

Dilma Rousseff would have to decide that a long-term break with the United States is desirable. Whoever takes Snowden cannot have good diplomatic relations, period. Therefore we would expect a government to do so only if it saw long-term gain in antagonizing the U.S. It's hard to see that in Brazil.

Of course, the U.S. will be sending private signals not to accept, but let's see if it does anything public. Screwing around with planes helped lead to Nicolás Maduro's asylum offer, which originally was not forthcoming.

Isn't it interesting, too, that Snowden wants Brazil, which has not said yes, instead of Venezuela, which already has? Venezuela is just not a stable enough place these days.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Discontent and Support for the Left

Nina Wiesehomeier and David Doyle, "Discontent and the Left Turn in Latin America." Political Science Research and Methods 1, 2 (December 2013): 201-221. Link here (ungated).


The electoral success of the left across Latin America has largely been interpreted as a backlash against globalization and a manifestation of anti-market voting of citizens increasingly frustrated with their experience of representative democracy. However, studies trying to test these propositions show rather inconclusive results and face the problem of translating objective economic conditions into observable individual perceptions. This article contends that theories of subjective well-being in psychology and economics can shed light on this left turn. In particular, life satisfaction, as a manifestation of experienced utility, can help explain the electoral outcomes observed throughout the region. The findings show that support for the left is higher the more unsatisfied voters are under a right incumbent.

I am mulling this one over. It employs sophisticated methods to argue that when people are dissatisfied while an incumbent from the right is in the presidency, support for the left will be higher.


If current left incumbents are unable to deliver policies that improve the electorate’s well-being, they run the very real risk of losing office at the next election, as the results from our individual-level models suggest. Future research should concentrate on the dynamics behind life satisfaction and policy delivery to fully untangle the implications for the survival of the incumbent president.

I feel like there must be something I am missing. It seems a truism to say that as people feel unsatisfied under an incumbent, they will think of voting for someone else. The net gain here, I think, is measurement of dissatisfaction. But would we expect any other result? Am I being uncharitable?


Turnout in Chile

Lots of news stories about yesterday's Chilean presidential runoff election mention turnout. The worst offender is Fox News Latino: "Michelle Bachelet Wins Chilean Presidential Election in a Landslide, Despite Small Turnout," as if turnout and margin were somehow related. You can win or lose big no matter how many people vote.

The turnout focus, though, doesn't get adequate explanation. Voter registration is now automatic in Chile, but voting became voluntary, whereas before it was compulsory. There was every reason to believe that turnout would plummet. In particular, the combination of a lopsided contest and a stable economy left many people figuring there was no reason to vote. It happens in the United States all the time.

Plus, young people vote in smaller numbers than older people. Telling young Chileans they could choose whether or not to vote didn't change that.

So 41% of registered voters decided they would participate in an elected whose outcome was clearly predetermined. If you think about it that way, it doesn't sound quite as bad, or surprising.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Stripping Away The Oil Reforms In Mexico

We talked a lot in the U.S. about how polarized we are, but in comparative perspective our congressional debate is stuffy and tame. If they really cared then they'd strip. From Mexico:

This is about the oil reforms, which get to the heart of nationalism for many Mexicans ("stripping" the nation, he said). If Democrats were really so mad at George W. Bush, or if Republicans are really so mad at Barack Obama, why do they stay clothed?


Eric Pettis' Just A Minor Perspective

Eric Pettis' Just A Minor Perspective was the perfect light, short book I needed around finals. It is his account for low-A short season baseball in Williamsport. In many ways it's about becoming a small cog in a very big machine, and becoming a set of numbers rather than a person. Even the numbers are hard to parse--he made the All Star team and his stats are good (the book ends on a high note) but he has not played since 2011. Baseball is just not a very forgiving profession.

He takes it all in, the college player suddenly thrust into professional sports, and is quite perceptive and funny. He was humbled by the draft (where he was first ignored and then picked very late) and remained level-headed, despite the grind and constant PBJs:

Even though we were assured by our trainer that "it's actually good pregame meal," my intestines didn't always agree. But humans are made to adapt, even it if is to peanut butter and jelly.

Why is it that pitchers, especially relievers, seem to have the most writing talent and eye for the funny and unusual? These are fun books but it would be great to see some more variety--don't tell me there isn't some smart catcher or power hitter.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

FRUS: Declassifying the Guatemala Invasion

As I've mentioned multiple times over the years, I am a very big fan of the Foreign Relations of the United States series, which I find endlessly fascinating. Via the State Department Historian's Twitter feed, here is a 1981 document trying to figure out how to compile the American Republics, 1952-1954 volume. The problem is that this covers the invasion of Guatemala and the CIA wasn't willing to declassify a lot of it and the NSC didn't want some of it released. The Office of the Historian wasn't too happy.

In any declassification controversy, there is a point at which HO must opt to cut its losses, but I regard the decision to go forward with publication in this case as premature for the following reasons:
  • it puts the onus for failure to publish the record of, or to account for, a well-known covert episode squarely on the Department of State and the Office of the Historian, thereby seriously eroding the credibility of the series;
  • it radically changes the nature of HO's mission, in spite of its current mandate, without the sanction of higher levels in the Department of State or the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation;
  • it imposes a form of self-censorship on the series, and suggests that there is compelling logic to move the threshold of self-censorship from the declassification to the collection phase of the production process;
  • it eliminates the possibility of testing the CIA's claim that there is a distinction between policy and operations, and that the former may be releasable;
  • it forecloses an appeal to the NSC on deletions of materials appearing almost verbatim in previously published volumes, thereby encouraging the NSC to widen this practice;
  • it establishes a strong negative precedent for other Foreign Relations volumes in progress, thereby jeopardizing a substantial aggregate of documentation; and,
  • it weakens the position of the Department of State in dealing with the anticipated negative reaction of the consuming public.

Good for them! In the short term, though, the State Department lost. As the Cold War ended that began to change. In 2003, an entire volume was dedicated to Guatemala, with the following press release:

The operation to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954, a decisive event in U.S. relations with Latin America early in the cold war, is the topic of a retrospective volume of the Department of State's official documentary history, Foreign Relations of the United States, released on May 15, 2003. As part of a sub-series of the Foreign Relations series that documents the foreign policy of Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, this retrospective volume supplements the 1983 publication of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Volume IV, American Republics. The 1983 volume—which covered multilateral and bilateral relations with 20 American republics—provided an incomplete history of U.S. relations with Guatemala by not documenting the U.S. Government-approved role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the ouster of Arbenz. 
Partly in response to this omission, Congress passed legislation in 1991, which the President signed, mandating that the Foreign Relations series “shall be a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity” and requiring U.S. Government departments and agencies to provide Department of State historians with “full and complete access to the records pertinent to United States foreign policy decisions and actions.” 
In the early 1990s, Directors of Central Intelligence officially acknowledged 11 covert actions during the early cold war years, including the one in Guatemala. At the same time, Department of State historians gained fuller access to the CIA's files on Guatemala. The new volume is a product of this improved access. The Central Intelligence Agency has reviewed the volume for declassification, in coordination with its review of a larger collection of documents on the Guatemalan operation that it is releasing to the public at the National Archives.

One of the really ridiculous parts of this is that the CIA's role was very well known anyway. Already by the early 1980s there was a lot of solid scholarly work on the topic. Keeping information out of the public eye had nothing to do with national interest and everything to do with keeping extremely unsavory CIA activities out of the official record as much as possible.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Americans Slowly Liking Cuba More

Dave Weigel has a short piece in Slate about how Americans don't hate Cuba the way they used to. He shows this from Gallup:

Here is more context, going back to 1996, and indeed it is gradually becoming more favorable over time. Aside from the xenophobia this graph reveals (Canada, people? Japan?) it does not measure intensity, which I think is much more important in the Cuban case. A very, very small proportion of Americans feel strongly about Cuba; the rest have a generalized sense of disapproval but don't care. Get rid of the embargo? Big deal. The embargo is held in place by a tiny but powerful minority. More from Gallup:

(Asked of a half sample) Apart from their diplomatic relations, do you favor or oppose the United States government ending its restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba?

No opinion
2009 Apr 20-21^

People do not support the embargo, but they also do not feel strongly at all about actively supporting change. They just don't care much, which makes it easier for a minority to keep it in place.

My hunch too is that very few Americans care much one way or the other whether Barack Obama shook Raúl Castro's hand, unless it is to provide more ammunition to already existing strong opinions about whether they like Obama or not. In other words, it's only peripherally about Cuba.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cuba Downplays the Handshake

This morning the news of Barack Obama shaking Raúl Castro's hand at Nelson Mandela's funeral was all aflutter on Twitter and then picked up very quickly by other media. It's a travesty! It's a symbolic step forward! Etc.

But you know who ignored it entirely? Granma, the Cuban state newspaper. It ran a story about Castro speaking at the funeral, and made no mention of Obama at all. It also had a photo, but emphasized how Raúl Castro was sitting next to Dilma Rousseff.

I checked out Juventud Rebelde, another major Cuban media outlet, which did mention it. Its story made a point, though, of noting how Bill Clinton had shaken Fidel Castro's hand in 2000. And that didn't portend anything.

The divergence is interesting. In the U.S. we see any minor gesture toward Cuba as a sign of great potential policy change, whereas in Cuba there is far less evident. The embargo is still in place after 50 years of far more dramatic events than that, so from the Cuban side I would suspect it is difficult to imagine something like this mattering too much.


Monday, December 09, 2013

Seats and Votes in Venezuela

As I write, the website of Venezuela's Consejo Nacional Electoral won't open, but the results seem pretty clear at the moment. Chavistas won roughly 44% of the national vote while the opposition won 41%. With malapportionment, that 44% translated into 58.5% of municipalities (196 of 335).

However, the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias says that Chavistas won 210 (62.7%), and got 49% of the total vote versus 42.7% for the opposition, which I guess just assumes anyone who didn't vote for the opposition must support the government. I wrote a blog post three years ago on Venezuelan malapportionment that I think holds up well.

Whatever the exact numbers, the gross mismatch between seats and votes is what gives Nicolás Maduro the ability to talk about how popular his Love and Loyalty to the Eternal Comandate has been, and how he will deepen the revolution.

I argued after the presidential election that the opposition would move to think about recall, though of course it would have to wait. I think that is still one of the more useful prisms through which to understand these election results. The electoral system essentially locks up seats for Chavistas, especially given how it favors rural areas. Real change requires a national presidential vote, which the opposition has never been successful at winning. No matter how you parse the votes, Chavismo is still more popular than any other alternative.

The main thrust of news reports is that the country is divided and there is a stalemate. Yes, the country is certainly divided but "stalemate" is not entirely accurate because Chavismo has the massive advantage of incumbency. In a stalemate both sides are stuck, and in Venezuela only one side is stuck.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

Laskas' Hidden America

I read Jeanne Marie Laskas' Hidden America, which is a series of vignettes about people who make our lives go but are "hidden." A general theme is how much pride they take in their work, even though they recognize they're hidden. It's an interesting book--very quick read--but a mixed bag.

Coal miners: from this chapter you would think they are all relatively wealthy and happy. She mentions that coal is central to electricity but does not explain the process or how the workers view themselves in that process.

Undocumented blueberry pickers: good chapter but these days they are much less "hidden" than they used to be.

Cheerleaders: weird chapter. She veers between admiring and making fun of them, and could there be any profession less "hidden"?

Air traffic controllers: interesting chapter that basically becomes a critique of unions. I kept thinking of Pushing Tin.

Gun dealer: this is just about the opposite of "hidden." As with cheerleaders, she seems to alternate between mocking gun culture and enjoying it.

Beef ranchers: definitely more hidden, but a superficial chapter where you learn little, though I must admit I didn't know anything about bull semen.

Arctic oil rig: this was a great chapter--how we get oil for virtually everything we use from a desolate place and who the people are working there was fascinating.

Trucker driver: very sad chapter, in large part because it comes back to the death of the author's elderly parents. The "hidden" America of truck drivers gets a bit obscured.

Landfill: fascinating chapter. Where our trash goes and who deals with it is definitely hidden.

If you like books in this genre, I would suggest Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows, which is much more nuanced and he actually does the work to better understand it.


Thursday, December 05, 2013

U.S.-Latin American Relations Should Be Boring

Boz notes how positive U.S.-Colombian relations are:

After the meeting, Santos told reporters, "The relations of our two countries find themselves at their best moment ever." 

That's an important message that analysts in both countries and across the political spectrum need to hear. It would be a shame if anyone thought the "best moment" in US-Colombia relations was when we had good police cooperation during the Pablo Escobar era or great military training during the implementation of Plan Colombia. The "best moment" should never be defined as the moment at which the most military aid was provided.

This jibes with something that has become like a mantra for me. In U.S.-Latin American relations, boring is good! That deserves some bold. Here is the last time I got cranky about it.

There is a strange yet persistent view that U.S. policy toward Latin America is only positive and successful when accompanied by massive plans and grand strategy. U.S. relations with Colombia right now are "boring" in that regard, and that's good. The same goes with most other countries in the hemisphere. There is a lot going on under the media radar that involves progress, especially in trade, but without the hype.


Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Blogging Plagiarism

Thanks to Otto for pointing this out to me on Twitter. A History Ph.D. student at the University of Liverpool recounts how her blog was plagiarized.

In June this year I was sent a link to an article on a tabloid newspaper website titled Edwardian Rogues Gallery, by a friend and former lecturer, suggesting I might find it of interest. When I opened the article, I was surprised and horrified, to find a post I had published on my blog just weeks earlier staring back at me, with somebody else's name placed at the top. Worse still, I found the same post reproduced on other sites, under the name of more authors. 
At first, my overriding emotion was that of disbelief. Although I knew that some news organisations were far from scrupulous in their reporting, I had always assumed this would stop short of reproducing others work without permission or acknowledgement. But after taking to Twitter to get some more opinions, I was saddened to hear that, yes, this can happen, and yes, it happens all the time.

Plagiarism sucks. Period. I am glad, though, that ultimately she says she is not giving up blogging, because I definitely think the benefits outweigh the risks (though a quick Google finds her blog here and it has not been updated since July 1, 2013). This seems rare to me, but maybe it is more rampant in some fields than others. And I wonder whether it happens more to graduate students than to professors. And to women more than men.

For some reason, she does not link either to her blog or to the offending piece, which I found here, so you can see for yourself.

I am trying to think about what I would do if I were in her shoes, which is also tough because I am not a graduate student, which is obviously a much more tenuous position. But if you've developed an audience, and it certainly sounds like she has, then you make this situation as viral as possible, with as many links and named names as possible. Shame can work, and with any luck the Guardian piece contributes. I understand that is cold comfort to this graduate student, who is trying to develop an original line of work and get it disseminated without harassment. I wish there was some other way to address such problems without having to hire lawyers.


Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Politicizing the Chilean Military in Haiti

This is a really scary and bizarre thing to ask of the Chilean military:

Chile's National Assembly will meet in a special session on Tuesday to discuss the warning of the President of the Haitian National Assembly, Simon Dieuseul Desras, of an impending institutional conflict in Haiti and requesting that Chilean soldiers defend the 'people' and defy President Michel Martelly. 
Senate President Simon Desras wrote the letter to his Chilean counterpart, Jorge Pizarro. Chilean newspaper El Mercurio reported that, dated November 4, Desras requested from the Chilean Congress to take "all actions and dissuasive prohibitive measures on their part" so that Chilean troops in Haiti will assume the role of "defending the Haitian people thirsty for democracy against excesses of a totalitarian and arbitrary power", referring to the administration led by President Michel Martelly.

Holy cow. This sounds eerily similar to the Chilean legislature's message (aimed in large part at the Chilean military) just prior to the 1973 coup.

That it is a fact that the current government of the Republic, from the beginning, has sought to conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state and, in this manner, fulfilling the goal of establishing a totalitarian system: the absolute opposite of the representative democracy established by the Constitution;

It's bad enough for militaries to become politicized in their own countries, much less in others. This can't end well.


Monday, December 02, 2013

Scaling Back Venezuelan Subsidies

Nicolás Maduro has to cut back on oil foreign aid, and so U.S. exports to the Caribbean and Central America are surpassing Petrocaribe. I had made a similar argument (though focused primarily on ALBA) in an article for Americas Quarterly earlier this year. The Bolivian Ambassador to the UN had disagree.

The core issue here--and not exactly earth shattering--is that Maduro has to focus his attentions on domestic problems, especially as he faces a foreign currency crunch. He cannot afford to throw money around the region as much as before. Hugo Chávez spearheaded all sorts of regional agreements and organizations, but without funding they will wither to a husk, existing without really existing.

If the upcoming Venezuelan elections do not provide a resounding victory for Maduro, and it's hard to imagine such a victory, then the combination of economic problems and domestic discontent will accelerate this snipping of foreign aid.


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