Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Maduro's Big Press Conference

Nicolás Maduro gave a well-hyped press conference yesterday to discuss economic reform. The result was primarily a reiteration of conspiracy theories, whereby Venezuela's economic woes are the fault of Barack Obama and others.

He listed some vague goals for 2015 but as usual did not provide any details, saying--also as usual--that they would be forthcoming. For the most part, this was not newsworthy. More interesting is how Nicolás Maduro frames and presents this news, which he believed to be important for calming people down. For that, I recommend checking out Associated Press reporter Hannah Dreier's tweets (@hannahdreier) from yesterday. She was there and provides a really interesting view of the entire production, down to how he took an hour to answer one question and how he had a figurine of Hugo Chávez that Maduro had on his desk (I nabbed the photo from her Twitter feed).

As in the United States, style generally matters more than substance. Maduro was trying to acknowledge the onset of recession while cushioning it with conspiracies and promises of future plans. Apparently Chávez standing there with a sword was intended to reinforce his image of resolve.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

James Risen's Pay Any Price

Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen's Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014) is an angry book, and you'll get annoyed--you'd better get annoyed--reading it. The book's core message can be summed up as follows:

"A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat" (p. 203).

The post-9/11 period, and especially the Iraq War, has destroyed many thousands of lives, greatly damaged the civil liberties of average Americans, all the while making many criminals, snake oil salesmen and shysters rich. It's this last point that Risen probes in particular, using investigative journalism to show how the U.S. government showered billions of dollars with almost no oversight to anyone who could lend support to the Global War on Terror.

He shows how we get "unsmiling men with shaved heads" and a testosterone-pumped sense of self-righteousness who are empowered to push people around in the name of national security. Abroad these same kinds of men torture and kill. Resistance will bring you threats and/or imprisonment. Meanwhile, the government has stripped away rights and spies on everyone without restriction.

He write about how the American Psychological Association abets torture to maintain government contracts; architects focus on security for the same reason; people work for shady private contractors because they're showered in cash from the US government; self-proclaimed terrorist experts go on TV spouting on about threats and thereby get contracting gigs; and we all dutifully do absurd things like meekly take off our shoes in order to get on airplanes. Talk back and you'll get arrested. Spread the truth and you will find, as Risen has, that the government will come after you.

Profiteering is nothing new, but the Bush Administration took it to entirely new criminal heights. Unfortunately, since then it doesn't matter who controls the White House or Congress--it goes on unchecked. And that's the really depressing conclusion of the book.


Friday, December 26, 2014

George Will on Cuba

Leave it to George Will to have a basically solid argument (i.e. the Republican stance on Cuba is misguided) and then to muck it up. In particular, he argues that Obama achieved too little.

There are two reasons for questioning whether Obama really tried. First, he is generally congruent with, and partly a product of, academic leftism. Hence, he might be tinged with the sentimentalism that has made Cuba a destination for political pilgrims too ideologically blinkered to see the extraordinary sadism of Cuba’s treatment of its many political prisoners. Second, Obama is so phobic about George W. Bush’s miscarried “regime change” in Iraq that he cannot embrace, or at least enunciate, a regime change policy toward Cuba. Regime change, however, must be, at bottom, the justification for his new approach.

This "academic leftism" focused on Cuba idea, like so much else related to Cuba, is a Cold War-era phenomenon. I know plenty of academics who consider themselves on the left and they do not romanticize Cuban socialism. Even 15-20 years ago, in all my years of graduate school--when Latin Americanist professors impart their views on so many things to graduate students--I never heard that sentiment ever come up.

Next, you do not have to be phobic about George W. Bush to avoid a policy based on regime change. You just have to be intelligent and conscious of historical precedent pointing to disaster. What Will clearly does not understand is that Obama is simply saying that the U.S. won't be the obstacle anymore. We've helped prop up the Castro regime and now we'll get out of the way. Calling for regime change would've backfired. As always in Cuba.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Response to Venezuela Sanctions

Evo Morales criticized U.S. sanctions against Venezuela in a speech at the G-77+China meetings. Telesur says it was on behalf of the organization, though for some reason the G-77 website doesn't mention it anywhere despite mentioning other recent speeches. So I don't have a full text.

One obvious question is whether Venezuela "replaces" Cuba in the sanction department, serving as an obstacle to better U.S.-Latin American relations. It's possible, but I tend to doubt it. I do not think Latin American leaders view Venezuela the same way they do Cuba, and in any even the sanctions are microscopic in Venezuela compared to Cuba.

There is talk of the U.S. being hypocritical as it eases sanctions in one country and imposes them in another. In symbolic terms, perhaps this is true. In strictly strategic terms, however, it's not. The strategic problem with Cuba sanctions was how strict they were--the U.S. effectively removed all its leverage. Counterintuitively, the U.S. has more influence by reducing them, if only because they can be re-imposed. The Venezuela sanctions are pretty focused and at least in theory more pressure can be applied. As I've written before, I don't think it'll work that way, but that's at least the strategic idea.

Overall, my hunch is that Latin American leaders will respond to the changes in Cuba policy. They will rightfully make speeches against the Venezuela sanctions, but will simultaneously view the U.S. (and especially President Obama himself) more favorably.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Embargo Logic

The logic of the Cuba embargo has always been marked by illogic. The Twitter exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul drivers that point home. Rubio argued that the embargo didn't hurt the Cuban people. The problem with this argument is that the embargo is supposed to hurt the Cuban people, so that their support for the Castros would decrease.

Since the Castro brothers have been in power for so long, we already know that the embargo doesn't hurt the government. As far as I've seen, no one has even bothered to try and suggest it does anything to the Castros. What Rubio and others do instead is argue that removing it would help them. This is really a hard scratcher because it is not possible for the regime to be any more entrenched than it is now.

You might argue that we need to look to the future, that Raul Castro is looking nervously at Venezuela's implosion and this is a lifeline. But the regime has proven in the past it can survive even while its people suffer terribly. Maintaining the embargo in that context means hurting Cubans without much hope of hurting the government.

If it doesn't hurt the government and also doesn't hurt the people, you are saying it has no effect of any kind on Cuba. If it has no effect of any kind on Cuba, then we might as well make a policy change that helps Americans. Right?


Friday, December 19, 2014

Conservative Case For Obama's Cuba Policy

Like a number of other conservatives, my member of Congress came out strongly against President Obama's reforms to Cuba policy. This got me thinking, though, especially in light of how the Cato Institute says they don't go far enough. In many ways, this change in Cuba policy reflects conservative values.

Here are some reasons why:

1. It's not good for the Castros. I've argued until I'm blue in the fact that the embargo was extremely good for them, and that the changes now are related to Venezuela and demography. This opening is really risky because opening is really, really hard to control.

2. It's pro-economic freedom. Americans should not have the government telling them where they cannot invest or spend their money. And why is the U.S. government telling us where we can go on vacation?

3. It's good for U.S. business. This will expand opportunity for the farming and construction sectors in particular, making it easier to trade. Why would we want a policy that hurts farmers?

4. It's bad for the Venezuelan government. In one fell swoop it undercuts over a decade of rhetoric emphasizing how the U.S. needs to be excluded. Just as Venezuela amps up its conspiratorial talk, Cuba says the U.S. is fine after all.

5. It follows the desires of the American people. This is a no-brainer. Americans have been in favor of normalizing relations for years.

6. It puts even more pressure on the Marxist FARC to lay down their arms. Their unilateral ceasefire could not have been coincidence and it gives the Colombian government--our ally--more leverage. Conservatives have been saying for years that Obama does not do enough for Colombia.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Political Demography of U.S.-Cuba Relations

My dad and I have a post up at The Monkey Cage/Washington Post analyzing the timing of the shift in U.S.-Cuban relations from a political demography perspective. We had already been thinking along these lines for a paper we're writing for the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies meeting next spring.

I'll direct you over there for the post, but the basic point is that age structure matters for policy decisions, both for countries as a whole and for certain cohorts.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Normalizing Relations With Cuba

On Monday I laid out reasons why I though President Obama would take major steps on Cuba policy. Two days later it has happened. As Mel Allen would say, "How about that?" Both presidents will be making statements at noon today.

This is huge. HUGE. Alan Gross is out of prison, as are the three remaining Cubans of the Cuban Five. There will be more, much more, and we will learn more details soon.

At home, there's going to be a political screamfest given that Obama is taking action on immigration at the same time. Obama was finally pushed too far, and now is looking to his legacy on critical issues.

There are some huge moments in U.S. policy toward Latin America, and sadly most of them are negative. This will rank up there and is entirely welcome.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Obama's Legacy on Cuba

The media has been abuzz about U.S. policy toward Cuba. Most prominently, the New York Times  has been running editorials, including this one today:

President Obama could help expand the role of Cuba’s small but growing entrepreneurial class by relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba. The White House could start that process by removing Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorist organizations and making it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.

For the first time, I am actually starting to think this will happen. Cuba has bedeviled presidents for decades, and his legacy can be cutting the Gordian knot with executive action. Here's why he would do that:

1. Executive action is the only way he can relax the embargo because Cuban Americans in Congress won't let anyone touch the Helms-Burton law.

2. He has already set the executive action precedent with immigration, which is rallying people to his side and getting them excited.

3. The Summit of the Americas is coming up in April 2015 and all everyone is talking about is the administration's response to Cuba's presence there. With sweeping executive action, Obama can undercut Raúl Castro's stale talking points about the "bloqueo" and hammer him with a blistering speech about human rights and freedom.

4. Those who will excoriate him for this action already dislike him passionately, so this will not newly alienate very many people.

5. He can use it as leverage to get Alan Gross out of prison. Cuba has historically responded to gestures, and it has been begging for an end to the embargo (even the Castro brothers have benefited so much from it and almost certainly don't really want it to end in their lifetimes).

6. This would give him a real foreign policy legacy, which he will not get from the Middle East.

This last point is important. Obama's foreign policy has been characterized largely by mopping up his  predecessor's ill-advised policies. A major action on Cuba would be the sort of bold policy he could hang his historical hat on.


Friday, December 12, 2014

China, Torture, and Latin America?

Yesterday I wrote about CIA torture in Latin America in the context of the Senate report, and how this is really shameful. James Gibney has an op-ed at Bloomberg arguing that Latin America's distaste for the U.S. role in torture (both in Latin America and elsewhere) are pushing them to embrace China.

I don't buy this. Economic factors outweigh everything. China has money and is willing to lend it freely. China wants commodities and is willing to pay for them. Rafael Correa doesn't like U.S. foreign policy, but for him China is a bank. Same goes for Cristina Fernández. Same goes for Daniel Ortega. Same goes for Nicolás Maduro.

The basic point is that foreign policy is made in a hard-headed, realist way. After all, China is a dictatorship that is not well known for protecting human rights. But money always talks.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

CIA Torture in Latin America

The CIA officer who tortured people after 9/11 had previously helped torture people in Latin America.

The techniques used against Nosenko were taken from the CIA’s “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual” drawn up by the CIA in 1963, which served as the basis of the so-called 'torture manuals' that were provided by the CIA to at least seven Latin American countries in the 1980s. 
According to the report, the agent who would become the CIA's chief of interrogations beginning in 2002 "was involved in training and conducted interrogations" in Latin America during that era. The report goes on to say that "the CIA inspector general later recommended that he be orally admonished for inappropriate use of interrogation techniques."

This shouldn't surprise us, though it should sadden us. We're using the same language and rationale as brutal Latin American dictatorships, which is shameful. They claimed to be fighting an existential war against subversion, a black and white struggle between good and evil. With stakes so high, they said, torture was sometimes necessary. The people they were torturing were practically animals anyway, so why were all these do-gooder liberals complaining? They should be glad we're protecting them!

These leaders committed criminal acts. That's why Rafael Videla was sentenced to life. That's why Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted, even Guatemalan courts are too weak to make it stand. That's why Augusto Pinochet was arrested, even though he wiggled out of it. And we've been doing the same thing for years.

We even hear the same rationale for stifling this information. Truth will strengthen our enemies, we're told. This is similar to the argument that the truth in Latin America (or overturning amnesties) would only rile up the military, so we should stifle it.

How does this make us a beacon of democracy?


Padres Trade For Matt Kemp

It's been a long time since the Padres have done a blockbuster trade. "Blockbuster" has been trading for Carlos Quentin or Jason Marquis. So I am excited by the Matt Kemp trade, especially since we didn't give up Andrew Cashner or Tyson Ross. I was never excited about Yasmani Grandal so I don't mind seeing him go.

Sabermetricians will scoff at the unmeasurable notion of excitement, but we needed some. There had been a sense that the Padres were barely trying despite having a solid core of young talent. It's great to see new GM A.J. Preller stepping up.

So now we just need Kemp to stay healthy (I won't bother hoping for Carlos Quentin), for Jedd Gyorko to bounce back, for Yonder Alonso to live up to his promise, and maybe for Rymer Liriano to break out. Is that too much to ask?

Spring training starts in 70 days!


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Moment of Silence for Augusto Pinochet

The far right UDI party in Chile called for a moment of silence in Congress in honor of Augusto Pinochet, who died eight years ago today (here was my post on that day).

Here's the video, complete with sign language:

If you've wondered--as some of my students have--whether Pinochet retains some measure of popularity, here's your evidence. This is a small minority but not an insignificant one.


Argentina Ambassador

I am neither naive nor stupid. I know how much government appointments can depend on a quid pro quo. But the new ambassador to Argentina sends a terrible signal. This got a lot of attention earlier this year (it took this long for a vote) when he admitted he had never been to Argentina, spoke only a little Spanish (which I take to mean he speaks none) and had no idea what the current U.S.-Argentine relationship was like. His sole skill was raising $1.4 million for President Obama's 2012 re-election.

His State Department bio tries to stretch things as far as possible:

Ambassador Mamet has worked closely with national and international political leaders, including President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

I guess Madeleine Albright was born outside the U.S. so counts as "international"?

There will be plenty of complaining about what President Cristina Fernández does, how she criticizes the U.S., etc. but having a clueless ambassador certainly doesn't make things better.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Latin America and Extrahemispheric Actors

Evan Ellis has an article in Strategic Insights exhorting U.S. policy makers to pay greater strategic attention to Latin America in the context of the encroachment of extrahemispheric actors, especially China and Russia.

The rise of China and its projection onto the global stage, coupled with Russia’s increasingly bold reassertion of its imperial ambitions, increases the undesirable possibility of a serious conflict between the United States, and one or both of these actors. Yet, while strategists regularly ponder the political and military dimensions of how such conflicts could play out in Asia, it is unthinkable that a power with global political, economic, and military ties, such as Russia or China, would allow the United States to engage it in its own region without taking the fight to the U.S. “backyard” as well.

He emphasizes that we should not overreact or impose a new Cold War mentality, but once you get this ball rolling, those results are almost inevitable.

In the short term, the greatest need regarding U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere is not more money, but different thinking. It is difficult to identify a senior U.S. policymaker or prominent analyst who analyzes Latin America and the Caribbean with the strategic analysis that luminaries such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft apply to Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. Indeed, it is difficult to identify a major recent essay done by Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Scowcroft themselves focused on Latin America and the Caribbean.

I actually think this is good. Nothing good ever came from Henry Kissinger paying attention to Latin America. I don't see how we benefit much from shifting our thinking toward potential extrahemispheric threats, in large part because I think they pose less threat than often portrayed.

Vigilance is useful. But there is a big difference between advocating for vigilance (which has been my stance with regard to Russia, China, et al) and thinking about them primarily in threat terms, which is what I take from this (anyone can feel free to correct me if they didn't get that feeling from the article). There are many in Congress chomping at the bit to see Latin America in threat terms, and this would give them a platform that would be almost entirely bad for U.S. interests. It would likely involve unnecessarily antagonizing governments.

If U.S. policy makers are in a room and need to make some sort of quick decision on Latin America, I want their instinct to be caution. If their instinct is threat-based, I think there is more likelihood that we see an exaggerated response that ultimately produces unintended consequences that work out poorly for the United States.


South American Integration

Statements from the UNASUR meeting on integration demonstrate both why it's an interesting development but also why most of the ideas are likely to fail.

Pushes for integration have popped up ever since independence, but this is bigger because it includes citizenship, common currency, regional education, and more. So it goes beyond Pan-Americanism and looks to a European model. It is ambitious, which is a good thing.

The process of getting to there from here, however, is an entirely different matter. The presidential comments are illustrative in that regard. In particular, the weaker countries want more clout.

Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, argued that the statutes of UNASUR should be changed and that majorities, rather than absolute consensus, should be the minimum necessary basis on which to advance important areas of integration.

So if Suriname, Guyana, Uruguay, etc. want economic convergence but Brazil opposes it, the small countries can still get it. It is hard to imagine Brazil accepting such a scenario.


“From Venezuela we believe that we must take the agenda of shared economic development into our hands; a new financial architecture [that includes] the Bank of Structural Projects, that converts us into a powerful bloc,” he said to media in Guayaquil before the meeting with other UNASUR leaders.

Since the Venezuelan government has ruined its own economy, this is pretty comical. In any event, it is hard to imagine Chile, for example, wanting to expose itself to risk from Venezuela.

Nonetheless, starting with achievable goals would be beneficial for the region. In particular, it is good to have militaries start thinking more in regional terms. Defense transparency and confidence building is a laudable and reasonable goal.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

BREAKING: Maduro Unhappy with U.S.

Venezuela is being pummeled by low oil prices and looks to a grim economic picture for 2015. It is therefore the perfect time for Nicolás Maduro to announce that based on "information" he believes the U.S. embassy is "acting dangerously" and so he will have to "re-evaluate" relations with the United States. This is unfortunate, he says, because Caracas has been trying so hard to normalize relations.

It is not clear to me what "re-evaluate" means, given the current tattered state of bilateral relations. What's interesting is that given the influence Cuba has on the Venezuelan government, there seems to be surprisingly little diffusion of diplomatic strategy. Fidel Castro maneuvered constantly and sometimes successfully to get what he wanted behind the scenes. From what I have seen and heard, Venezuela is doing little to nothing of that. Both Castro and Maduro would make impassioned speeches and allegations, but Castro didn't just stop there, and I think Madur does. This may well be just one of the many offhand comments Maduro makes, vaguely mentioning "information" and then never talking about it again. Castro didn't teach him very well.


Friday, December 05, 2014

Fostering Lower Intensity Democracy in Latin America

Following up on my last post about trying to understand the trends we see from the 2014 Latin American Public Opinion Project data, here is a basic visual, which because of blogger is even cruder than I would've liked:

Econ. growth
Regional autonomy
Access to technology

Leads to:

Increased crime
Steady Corruption

Leads to:

Less trust in local govt.
Decrease in democratic legitimacy
Less democratic stability

Leads to:


What we have is what appears to be a paradox--the things in the top column represent some positive examples of what Latin America has experienced in the past decade. Yet we see some really troubling results--this does not mean correlation, but they do coincide. What we can say for sure is that democracy and growth clearly is not resolving some entrenched problems, which in some cases are getting worse.

System support has been gradually on the decline (53% in 2006 vs. 50.7% in 2014) while belief in the courts has decreased even more sharply, with 47.3% seeing them as fair in 2006 vs. 44.1% in 2014. There are all sorts of similar examples at the local level. Even with democratic consolidation in so many countries, people are seeing government as less responsive over time.

If you're wondering, this transcends ideology. Estimated stable democracy attitudes are high in Argentina and Costa Rica, and lower in Bolivia and Paraguay. You can see similar sorts of distributions on other questions as well. Both in academia and in the media, we tend to get too narrowly focused on ideology, but there are more universal issues that are driving these perceptions.

I was asked after my panel about what I thought the result would be. That is the question mark at the end. I don't have a great answer but my sense is lower intensity democracy. I don't see coups on the horizon, but a generalized sense that problems are not being solved. This has the potential to open door for populism, but it can also just mean strikes, protests, etc. Sadly, this is the direction things are moving.


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Figuring Out Latin American Public Opinion

I spent a long and really engaging day at Florida International University, whose Latin America and Caribbean Center hosted a conference for the launching of the 2014 AmericasBarometer data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project.

I served as discussant for the opening panel, and some of what I said remained relevant for the rest of the conference, which of course focused on the data. There is a lot we need to sort out, but overall people are not terribly happy with their political systems. They prefer democracy but too many don't like their own all that much. Even in place with turbulent civil-military histories (even Honduras, which is very recent) they want their armed forces to participate more in dealing with crime or other issues we would normally consider reserved for the police. And this transcends ideology.

This goes along with stronger economies, elections, more access to technology, etc. So things should be getting better, but people perceive them as worse. I am simplifying, because there was a lot of stimulating discussion about how best to interpret the data. I'll definitely be coming back to this.


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Herbert Hoover and the Good Neighbor Policy

Alan McPherson, "Herbert Hoover, Occupation Withdrawal, and the Good Neighbor Policy." Presidential Studies Quarterly 44, 4 (December 2014): 623-639.


Historians still associate the Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America almost exclusively with Franklin Roosevelt while admitting that Republican administrations before his set some precedents. This article argues more forcefully for recognizing the work of Herbert Hoover in establishing the major pillar of the policy—the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Latin America. More attuned than previous presidents to dissenting voices throughout the Americas, Hoover abandoned the rhetoric of paternalism toward Central America and the Caribbean and understood the moral and economic damage that occupation was doing to the United States. His diplomatic footprint was most visible in withdrawals from Nicaragua and Haiti.

As McPherson notes, this question isn't entirely new. What he adds is a focus on ending occupation, an idea that Hoover actively promoted and which therefore clearly predated Franklin Roosevelt.

So on the basis of listening to Latin Americans and articulating and implementing a rejection of U.S. occupation in line with the hemisphere's wishes, Hoover took more momentous steps than did FDR, and this against significant dawdling by the U.S. military and even the State Department.5 This tale of withdrawal from occupation offers a case in which a president, stirred by his own beliefs and his willingness to pay heed to foreign public opinion, wore down the rest of the executive branch and cleared the way for the next president's full normalization of inter-American relations.

Further, he argues that Hoover did not formalize his policy enough--he had quiet withdrawals but did not link them together in a broader public way (even though he did in fact use the term "good neighbor" a number of times).

He sympathized with the prominent isolationist wing of the Republican Party, but there was also simply the desire to end the backlash associated with the frequent sending of U.S. troops to Latin America by his predecessors. Although they sometimes claimed not to like intervention (except Theodore Roosevelt, who told everyone he loved it and he meant that) U.S. troops and ships were very active in the first third of the twentieth century. At least Hoover said he didn't like occupation and then actually pulled out. The sad commentary on U.S. policy is that he helped install new dictators, but still was the most favorable president to Latin America in a long time.


Monday, December 01, 2014

The Middle East Conflict in Chile

I've written before about the Palestinian population in Chile (which is the largest outside the Middle East) and The Guardian has a really interesting story about the tension between Palestinians and Jews plays out in Chile. The upshot is that the Jewish population feels it is on the defensive:

In August, as Israel resumed military operations against Gaza, Bachelet, re-elected in March, recalled the Chilean ambassador to Tel Aviv. Thousands of people demonstrated in Santiago in solidarity with Palestine. The ambassador only resumed his functions once a ceasefire had been arranged. Several neighbouring countries followed suit, the exception being Argentina, home to the largest Jewish community (250,000-strong) in Latin America. 
Gerardo Gorodischer, leader of the Jewish community in Chile, deplores “the confusion between Jews and Israel” and the rise of “antisemitism unprecedented in Chile”. He goes so far as to say: “We are enduring a pogrom, without the Chilean government lifting a finger. The most prosperous people are thinking of moving to the United States.” He claims that the Israeli flag was burned at several pro-Palestine demonstrations. Palestinian leaders maintain this was the work of “radical groups which are not representative of the community”.

The article doesn't provide evidence of antisemitism but it has been characterized elsewhere as graffiti and verbal abuse. The question of separating Jews and Israel is an important one. Sebastián Piñera recognized the Palestinian state in 2011, so I'd be interested to know whether antisemitism in Chile has increased since then, or whether it is sporadic depending on what happens to be in the headlines.

Either way, it is a reminder of how much diasporas matter, as they literally bring politics from other parts of the world with them. Just look at all my posts on U.S. policy toward Cuba.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Pink Tide" is a Useless Term

This article in the Christian Science Monitor disappointed me because I thought we were finally leaving behind the "pink tide" label. It refers to leftist or center-left government elected since Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1998. Those who use the term generally see these governments as a bloc, or nearly so. So the question is whether "they" will last, with the assumption there is a "they."

The article ignores cases where the left is not winning (e.g. Colombia and Mexico) where voters have been gone back and forth (e.g. Chile and Guatemala) or elections where the right very nearly defeated a leftist incumbent (e.g. Brazil and Venezuela). It also ignores the vast differences between "leftist" governments.

Ultimately, we'd be better served by breaking out of the left/right dichotomy, which is really locked in the Cold War. For all of the talk from Venezuela, capitalism won. This means so-called "leftist" governments combine greater attention to social welfare with kowtowing to foreign investors. Ask Peruvians who live around mines what they think of Ollanta Humala (who, incidentally, says he is not left or right, but "below").

It also means they talk socialist and govern capitalist. Michelle Bachelet, after all, is a "socialist" while carefully protecting the most capitalist economy in the hemisphere. Criticisms of her come more from her words than from her policies, which are typically much less radical.

I know "left" and "right" are deeply embedded terms that won't go away. But can we at least retire "pink tide"?


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Obama and Cuba

For those of you who have read Back Channel, or at least my review of it, this story is like a blast from the past. There are rumors that the Obama administration might have a minor policy change with Cuba, something that could be "concrete," but we're not sure. What we do know is that even minor policy shifts require ridiculous secrecy, multiple countries (in this particular case it's Spain, while in the past it's been Mexico and others) and high-pitched screaming from Cuban Americans in Congress. This story could've been written at almost any time since the 1980s, when the Cuban American National Foundation became prominent.

There may be some policy changes and they will have a real impact (economically and otherwise) on Cubans, albeit not on a major scale. What's notable is how minor shifts are treated as something much bigger. We all need to remember that thanks to Helms-Burton, substantive erosion of the embargo laws must come from Congress. For all the talk about executive orders these days, President Obama can tinker, but not much more. Yet even tinkering is viewed as radical.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cuba and Argentina During the Dirty War

Newly declassified documents show that Cuba and Argentina had a close and positive relationship during the era of the Dirty War.

Although they kept it quiet, Argentina's dictators had a gentlemen's agreement with Castro. Under the pact, Videla supported Cuba's bid in 1977 to join the Executive Council of the World Health Organization, a diplomatic feather in Castro's beret. The quid pro quo was that Havana stump among nonaligned nations to name Argentina to the United Nations prestigious Economic and Social Council. Apparently Cuba's vote was the 18th and decisive ballot, landing Argentina the coveted UN seat. 
Both sides profited from the arrangement. "The Cubans always, always supported us and we supported them," Gabriel Martinez, then Argentina's ambassador to Geneva, said, though no one appeared to be listening at the time. 
The secret cables help explain the prolonged bonhomie between the two otherwise inimical regimes, highlighted by the cordial encounterbetween Castro and Argentine General Reynaldo Bignone, during a summit of nonaligned nations, in New Delhi, in 1983. 
It also shines a light on why Castro could carry on for hours in the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana railing against right-wing tyrants but never raise his voice against the Argentine junta, even as it threw scores of discontents in the dungeon or into the Atlantic.

Fidel Castro had quite a lot in common with Henry Kissinger, both consummate realists and friends of the junta. Ideology goes out the window for what you perceive as a critical national interest. If this means accepting the deaths of thousands, so be it.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Misinterpreting Executive Action

President Obama's executive action on immigration has received plenty of criticism, but from Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog we get the most creative.

It will be construed in the developing countries ruled by Chavistas, Mugabes, and the like as encouragement to continue ruling by fiat whenever a troublesome legislature refuses to rubber stamp their will.

Apparently Nicolás Maduro would not continue exercising traditional executive authority in Venezuela on his own--he needed this "encouragement" from President Obama.

Meanwhile, a lot of bad actors running fake republics around the world are smiling, and that is not good for U.S. policy or interests.

Previously, Maduro (who is running a "fake" republic) had been frowning, wondering how to justify his actions. Now he is smiling because Obama followed the precedent of previous presidents.

Periodically I've noted the U.S.-centric view of U.S.-Latin American relations. This is an excellent example. The article suggests that leaders around the world make domestic decisions based on U.S. politics. If anything, Chavistas spent a lot of time comparing Maduro to other Venezuelan presidents, not to the United States.


Guns in El Salvador

The British NGO Action on Armed Violence published a report on guns in El Salvador. It takes pains to explain how many different sources of guns that exist, but one inescapable conclusion is that the United States is directly responsible for many of them. By funding the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, the U.S. was responsible for sending thousands of weapons--some very powerful--to the country. More recently, the massive gun trade in the United States has brought even more guns into El Salvador. (We can thank Cuba as well, because it funneled many to the FMLN.)

So El Salvador is hit both ways. The United States has a long history of intervening, then leaving countless guns post-conflict that make their way into criminals' hands. That's true in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Additionally, it is hit by the gun trade, which is currently a major problem for Mexico, which unlike El Salvador has strict gun control laws. It's not clear how you even begin to address the problem.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Back Channel to Cuba

I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.

My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.

Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).

Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.

One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?

And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change...


Friday, November 21, 2014

Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace

I read Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace (2013) and I was disappointed. As far as I can tell, it does not add to our understanding of why World War I started. Instead, it advances the vague argument that no one thought it would happen, then it happened because people did stuff.

It's a long book, so is filled with anecdotes--to be fair, many of them interesting--about how people didn't think war would happen even though we all know now it was about to erupt. But what annoyed me again and again were the brief and entirely superficial comparisons to the current day. They are so superficial that I assume some editor forced them in.

So when there is discussion of new powers, then she adds a single sentence to say she hopes the U.S. and China will handle things well, or with communication she mentions trying to deal with social media. Or she compares Nicholas II to Saddam Hussein because they both like uniforms (p. 275).

Meanwhile, the Tsar does stuff, the British do stuff, the Kaiser does stuff, etc. Which stuff was more important? We aren't told. Whose decisions were most critical? We aren't told. Which country did the most decisive stuff? We aren't told.

The book ends with "There are so many questions and as many answers again" (p. 645). That's true only if you don't engage the existing literature and think about which answers make more sense than others.


Immigration and Presidentialism

There is plenty of uproar over President Obama's announced executive actions on immigration, piled on top of his past statements about how he wasn't authorized to do them. Republicans are talking of "anarchy" if he pushes them through. He is an emperor, a king, etc., etc.

This reminds me a lot of the long debate about presidentialism in Latin America, which sought to explain the breakdown of democracy. Perhaps most prominently, Linz and Valenzuela's book The Failure of Presidential Democracy argues that presidential systems are very rigid in part because they do not easily allow for the executive to leave if he/she no longer has the confidence of the legislature. Particularly in a second term, there is no way to hold a president accountable. Meanwhile, the president will inevitably blame Congress for gridlock.

Their pessimism has been criticized since then, such as by Shugart and Mainwaring. In particular, they note the importance of many other variables--inequality for example--that explain breakdowns of democracy. The overall point of rigidity, however, is an interesting one. Democracy will not break down in the United States, but the rigidity exacerbates partisan rancor. In the 2014 midterm elections, voters divided the government even more sharply, so the president was in a position to choose between capitulating or to fighting harder. Obama is choosing the latter, but short of impeachment/conviction--which is really difficult--Republicans cannot remove him from office.

I wish that the popular discussion about gridlock would come back to these institutional realities. Our presidential system is simply set up this way. At times we resemble Latin American cases, though plenty of variables--an apolitical military, for example--do not lead us down the same destructive paths. But as polarization increases, the system we tend to venerate (because it was set up by the "Founding Fathers") can actually make things worse.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to Make U.S.-Latin American Relations Worse

A member of Congress who happens to be mine has an idea to damage U.S.-Latin American relations. He argues that if the United States provides foreign aid to a country, then at the United Nations that government must vote the way the U.S. wants on the issue of Israel. According to the recording, he appears to like the idea of making this a law but first wants to "reason" with these countries.

So, for example, before the United States helps alleviate the problem of children migrants, all Central American countries must give their UN votes about Israel to the U.S. government. If the U.S. wants to provide anti-narcotics assistance to Mexico, the Mexican government has to hand its votes to the U.S. That will go over well, I think.

The really odd part of this idea is that it assumes foreign aid is not tied to U.S. interests. Foreign aid aimed at drugs, for example, is not there for the good of the receiving country. Once a country refused to give its UN vote away--as would immediately happen--the result would be harmful to U.S. interests. The hemisphere would turn immediately against the United States just for the naked attack on sovereignty.

This has no chance of passing, but is an example of how too many policy makers have thought over the years. The United States is correct and opposing views are not valid.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Enabling Law in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro announced all the laws he has passed through the Enabling Law that gives the executive decree power. It was about to expire. They cover a wide range of issues that he says will help the country combat the "bourgeoisie's economic war." It is a "new era in the revolution."

The enabling law was passed last year, and according to Maduro its main intent was to fight corruption. I would expect the current batch of laws aimed at the economy will be about as successful as the anti-corruption efforts.

The government defends the laws, arguing accurately that they were used by other governments in the past. This logic seems a little strange, since they also claim those governments were corrupt and inept.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Aging (and Ageism) in Academia

I saw this article on aging professors at the Chronicle of Higher Education. The core argument is that older professors are selfish--they harm students and they're "hogs"!!--if they do not retire. If you don't retire by 70, you are not "honorable."

Set aside the issue of using anecdotes while claiming universality (I have plenty of anecdotes about great and productive older professors). Or the unsubstantiated argument about harm. The real problem I have with this argument is that it assumes that either younger professors are unselfish or it is fine if they're selfish because they're less expensive and more energetic.

A dirty secret of mine is that while in my 20s I entered this profession selfishly. I discovered many years ago that I got tremendous personal enjoyment reading, writing, analyzing, etc. about Latin American politics. This blog shows that I still do. I think my passion for it comes out in class. But it's largely selfish. The decisions I make are often centered on me--how exciting is this opportunity? Will it help pay for my children to go to college? I work hard and I think I do a good job, but it's not out of selflessness.

When I hit 70 years of age I will have to decide about what's left of my future. I will make that decision with me and my family first and foremost in mind.

Professors approaching 70 who are still enamored with hanging out with students and colleagues, or even fretting about money, have an ethical obligation to step back and think seriously about quitting. If they do remain on the job, they should at least openly acknowledge they’re doing it mostly for themselves.

Curse those professors who love coming to work! I'm not even approaching 50 (well, OK, define "approach") and I openly acknowledge that I am doing this mostly for myself. I don't feel guilty about that.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Obama v. Congress on Immigration

On immigration, President Obama and congressional Republicans have hit head on immediately, after all the talk of bipartisanship that no one actually believed. From the Washington Post:

Congressional Republicans said Friday they are considering a series of showdowns over funding the government if President Obama goes ahead with his expected plans to unilaterally overhaul the nation’s immigration system. 
Instead of passing a spending bill in coming days that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year, they are now mulling a short-term measure that expires early next year, according to more than a dozen top lawmakers and their aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

These are signals. Whether or not Republicans will actually go through with a showdown over immigration is another story. Messing with government functioning is broadly unpopular and the last time it hurt Republicans more, so this is clearly a risk.

I don't see much risk for Obama. For several years, conservatives have criticized him for not securing the border, while his base criticized him for not pushing anything through. I don't think the conservative base can dislike Obama any more than they already do, so he has almost nothing to lose. The strategic upside is bringing back the people who chose not to vote in the midterm elections because they felt he was all talk and no walk. He can also claim that he's taking these actions because Congress refuses to pass legislation.

An interesting question is whether it would've been a good idea to do this before the elections. Instead, he used the rationale that pushing immigration would hurt candidates in tough races. Those candidates lost anyway, and perhaps might've fared better had his inaction not annoyed people who might actually have voted.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Religion in Latin America

Pew Research has a bunch of thought-provoking polling data on religion in Latin America. There are plenty of political implications as well, though at this point we can only really speculate on them. Some highlights:

--Only 69% of Latin Americans are Catholic
--19% are Protestant
--8% are unaffiliated

Here is the trend over time:

What implications?

--Protestants are more conservative on social issues than Catholics, while unaffiliated are less so. This will likely lead to more tension on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

The growth of "unaffiliated" is intriguing:

I wonder why we see it in some countries and not others? It's amazingly high in Uruguay, which corresponds as well to the more permissive social environment we see there. What's going on in the Dominican Republic?

On the other hand, Mexico remains very Catholic in comparative terms, yet we also see political support for more liberal social policy. That may correspond to urban versus rural divides. That in fact explains a lot here in North Carolina along the same lines!


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ISIL and Latin America

Carl Meacham asks the question of where Latin America is with regard to fighting ISIL.

Many of the countries in the anti-ISIL coalition are providing support via military aid and airpower. But with an adversary like ISIL, support is just as important on the domestic side. Much of ISIL’s threat stems from its ability to recruit support and militants from outside the Middle East. And the potential that those recruiting efforts could target Latin Americans is not farfetched.

I'm not buying this. Connecting the Arab population to ISIL is a big stretch. Maybe you get a deranged volunteer here and there, as you do in the United States, but I just don't see Latin America as a battleground for the Middle East (even with the always-cited Argentina bombings 20 years ago, the Triborder Area, etc).

I see Latin America as mostly irrelevant to ISIL. Sure, encourage countries to combat money laundering, which is actually far more important for drug trafficking than for the Middle East. But we shouldn't encourage sucking Latin America into a regional conflict created in large part by the United States.

So the real answer to the question is that Latin America is primarily on the sidelines and that makes sense.


Nicolás Maduro Is In a Barbie World

AP reporter Hannah Dreier keeps her tongue firmly in cheek with this story, which highlights the bizarre ideological swirl that characterizes Nicolás Maduro. In the name of socialism, he mandated discounts on, among other things, Barbies.

Andrea Alberto, a 22-year-old student, managed to nab a stack of dolls for her stunned-looking 3-year-old, under whose arm she'd tucked an "I Can Be Cheerleader" Barbie, complete with sparkling pompoms.

The Venezuelan government apparently gives a lot of thought to Barbie. Back in 2007, Hugo Chávez went off on Barbie (and Superman) and made a point of how much he disliked the doll. And just one year ago, the Venezuelan state news agency had a story associating Barbie with the empty-headedness of the opposition.

It's a nice clientelist move to make the price of dolls artificially low, but it's not particularly socialist. Barbie remains a symbol of the United States and is produced by a U.S.-based multinational corporation, Mattel. Barbie is all about capitalism. Certainly that is the impression I get as my 6 year old daughter pushes her around in a fancy car and decides what jewelry she's going to wear. Viva la revolución! Barbie o muerte!


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lamenting the Berlin Wall's Fall

Via Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, this is just priceless. Aporrea, a pro-government Venezuelan news site, ran an op-ed about the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

It laments the occasion and yearns for the glories of the Soviet Union. Those were the days.

The wall protected the workers from the evils of capitalism, so he felt sad when it came down. It was absolutely necessary to build the wall because the United States was building a "Dollar Wall" of capitalism.

Hugo Chávez himself had rejected 20th century Marxism, preferring what he called "21st Century Socialism," which still has no real meaning but at the very least is not intended to copy the Cold War Communist model (or at least one of the models) as Cuba did. Clearly Aporrea thinks its readership would be interested in nostalgia about 20th century Soviet Marxism, though given what we know--e.g. "the people" were badly exploited--it's hard to understand why.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Legatum Prosperity Index for Latin America

I happened across this prosperity index by the Legatum Group, which is focused on investment. What's funny is that I saw it on TeleSur, which quoted it uncritically despite Venezuela's poor showing. From that article, this interest seems to stem from the fact that the index tries to view "prosperity" in much broader terms than just GDP growth (so, for example, Chile ranks lower than Uruguay even though its economic growth is better). It has eight different ranked variables.

For Latin America, such indices generally show similar results. Uruguay is in great shape (1st in Latin America, 30th in the world) and Venezuela is in terrible shape (100th in the world, one place worse than Rwanda). Chile (33rd) and Costa Rica (34th) are also high. Panama is right up there as well (41st). Honduras is the worst in Latin America (105th overall) and it has been getting steadily worse each year.

As with any index, you take it with a grain of salt. At the very least, though, they're useful in sparking discussions about comparative progress in the region, especially in terms of how different areas can be high and others low. Eocnomic growth without improvements in education, health, etc. is not really prosperity.


Friday, November 07, 2014

Is The Latin American Left a Disappointment?

Manuela Picq argues in Al Jazeera that there is a "collective sense of disappointment" about how little structural change has occurred under leftist governments. Further, "the revolutionary left disenchanted its supporters in the most overt ways."

I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly in one way and completely disagreeing in another. She is exactly right that there is a lot less revolution going on than claimed. Nothing being done is particularly new, and some of it is just ordinary capitalism. And she's pretty angry about it:

The problem with such development strategies inherited from the 1970s is not only that they perpetuate dependencies most leftists and progressives in the region are trying to reverse. They continue to treat Indigenous territories as terra nullius, dismiss Indigenous authority and allot their territories to extractive industries that fuel the global capitalist system.

The problem lies in making the jump from those facts to "collective disappointment." Rafael Correa and Evo Morales are perhaps the most popular presidents in the history of their countries. Venezuelans kept voting for Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro even while the economy tanked. Daniel Ortega has high approval ratings.

I can understand the idea that many governments had potential for political and economic transformation, and some people are disappointed they did not pursue it. But I am not convinced this sentiment is broadly shared by government supporters.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

Shlaudeman Memo on Cuba

I've been reading LeoGrande and Kornbluh's Back Channel to Cuba, which I will review once I'm done. As I read, I am struck by how much U.S. policy is on a treadmill, where we claim to be moving forward even though we're not.

In 1975, as the Ford administration--under Henry Kissinger's direction--prepared for some sort of normalization of relations, Harry Shlaudeman wrote a memo outlining the situation. It's declassified here at the National Security Archive.

Castro now has no apparent reason to concern himself further about the OAS sanctions. In fact, he has already succeeded in breaking the inter-American "blockade" without making a single significant concession and without ever having to deal with us. He may believe that a little patience will bring him the same happy result with respect to the U.S. sanctions...In brief, from where he sits, and from what he can see of the course of U.S. politics, there is not much to negotiate about.

Fast forward forty years--after the Cuban Democracy Act, Helms-Burton, changes in travel and remittances, agreements on immigration, etc, etc.--and this remains true. The United States has no leverage over Cuba. The status quo works quite well for the Castro regime, and it feels no need to make concessions.

Right after this memo was written, Fidel Castro sent troops to Angola and U.S.-Cuban relations went back into a tailspin. As always, he was in the driver's seat.


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Ditching The IACHR

The Dominican Republic left the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because of a decision about granting citizenship to the children of Haitian immigrants. Leiv Marsteintredet has an extensive discussion about the issue.

This is a dark moment for the Dominican democracy and the protection of the most vulnerable groups living in the country, the Haitian migrants and Dominican-Haitians. It is also a dark moment for the IACtHR and the whole IASHR, which now results weakened. Even thought the Dominican Republic may be a small and unimportant country in Latin America it is still the most democratic and democratically stable country to ever leave the IACtHR. Peru left in 2000 under Fujimori, an act that never took effect since Fujimori resigned not long after, and Venezuela withdrew under Chávez (in addition Trinidad and Tobago withdrew in 1998). The Dominican case, I fear, is likely to be the worst blow of them all. Peru returned after re-democratisation with Fujimori's resignation, and it is not unlikely that Venezuela would return should the Maduro-regime fall or the opposition win a future election. Today, however, the Dominican Republic is led by its most international human rights friendly government in decades, if not ever, and the regime is a stable electoral democracy, not any form of populist authoritarian regime. It therefore seems very unlikely today that the Dominican Republic will return any time soon.

Aside from the particulars of the case, we're now seeing a country leave the IACHR not because of ideology (such as Venezuela, which claims conspiracies) but simply because it didn't like the outcome. This follows Colombia's decision in 2012 to pull out of the International Court of Justice because it did not like the ICJ ruling on Colombia's maritime border with Nicaragua.

One would think that in this more democratic era, Latin American governments would be more willing to accept decisions made by international institutions. Yet they're going beyond mere disagreement. I think that this merits collective attention in the hemisphere--Venezuela will rant about U.S. control, of course, but all governments need to discuss why they're suddenly ditching these commitments.

Adhering to international institutions requires giving up some sovereignty. Unfortunately, the United States is in a particularly bad position to lecture anyone on that topic, but should be part of a discussion about how a regional human rights regime should function.

Boz has a quick take here as well.


French View of U.S. Election

Last week I spoke to a French reporter, who then quoted me in two articles. I can read French only to the extent that it resembles Spanish, so I'll trust he got my quotes right! I emphasized the challenge of getting anything done if Republicans took control of the Senate, and more locally the ways in which the Latino vote might or might not matter for the election given how President Obama has talked so much and done so little on immigration.

We're a funny people. We claim to hate gridlock so much but consistently vote to create it. Collectively we'll complain constantly for the next two years, blaming politicians for the mess we're largely responsible for.


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

My Voting Day in North Carolina

2014 was really an election about pet peeves. Mine, at least. For example, why do you make people vote at an elementary school but not let school out? I've tried to vote in the morning before and it's a mess of cars and school buses. Today I went late morning after my class and the parking lot was full, mostly because a school was trying to function. We also seem not to like the idea of just having a federal election holiday, which would make it easier for working people to vote. But I digress.

Next pet peeve: normally I get practically attacked when I approach the polling station, as activists lunge at you and try to hand you stuff. It is very annoying and sometimes slightly creepy. Today only one guy could get close to me, and he was slow so I was easily able to side step him as I might do to a slow-approaching zombie. There was another person there, endlessly and oddly repeating "Thank you for voting" to anyone and everyone around.

Inside there were about 25 people in line and 8 voting machines. It took 20-25 minutes, which wasn't too bad. All the volunteers did a great job and all the signing in, etc. went very smoothly. No pet peeves there at all.

Choosing, though, can be problematic in my district. I live in a weirdly shaped district where only one party has won for over 50 years. This year the incumbent was simply running unopposed. North Carolina is an embarrassment in this regard--too many House elections are just jokes. Hooray for the strongest democracy in the world! So I wrote in my own candidate, who may or may not be fictional.

As for the high profile senate race, it was a dispiriting and uninspiring campaign between two--actually, three--terrible choices. On that one I just held my nose and chose. We've been saturated with ridiculous ads that seem to string together non sequiturs. It was the most expensive senate race in history. This too is an embarrassment.

They reached all media. In the past week we took to ignoring the phone. It literally got to the point that my apolitical 12 year son asked me not to vote for either Thom Tillis or Kay Hagan because he was so sick of their online ads. Way to inspire young people!


Monday, November 03, 2014

Reassessing the Drug War (Or Not)

Check out Russell Crandall's article in The American Interest on the drug war. Great, nuanced stuff. The core of the argument is that the Obama Administration talks about changing the thrust of this war and gradually (but haltingly) has done so at home, but the militarized approach in Latin America remains unchanged and unquestioned.

It is simply not enough for the Obama Administration to tell the American public that it has “reason to be optimistic” about future drug abuse containment efforts, but then never reconcile this expectation to what the data actually tell us. Rosy predictions also undercut any effort to assess whether the amounts we spend on the effort are worth it. If cocaine use decreases but marijuana use grows over a given period, is that progress? Does that justify the budget expense? We don’t know, because we don’t even ask those kinds of questions. So we don’t know if the money could have been better used on one of the innovative programs that the Administration is so enthusiastically promoting, like drug courts or fair sentencing. Nor does the strategy address the obvious question of whether the drop in U.S. cocaine consumption simply reflects a shift to another substance. 
Since the strategy mutes any connection to what happens in Latin America, the attentive public also cannot readily know that, while domestic cocaine consumption has dropped by half, there has been a concomitant spike in consumption in Brazil and Colombia. Another less publicized development that might dampen our optimism is that Evo Morales’s Bolivia no longer cooperates with Washington on the drug front. That almost no Bolivian cocaine makes its to the United States (American consumption is almost exclusively from Colombian product) likely explains why Washington did not make more of the reality that the U.S.-led drug war is no longer operating in that heretofore vital South American “source” country—not because of any success it scored, but only because commercial patterns changed. 
Innovative programs or Sweden-style rhetoric aside, there is and will continue to be an inertial and almost impregnable military-narcotics-industrial complex, especially on the international side of the drug war—though it will always get less attention than the domestic side of drug policy, especially when punctuated from time to time by Mountain Sweep-style media spectaculars. The Obama Administration has shown that we can embrace, at least tentatively, a more holistic approach to our domestic issues. The question, though, is whether we have the courage to apply a new approach within the broader war on drugs, and tell the American people that the old way of doing things in Latin America just doesn’t work. Only courage can enable change. So far there is no sign of it.

He's right. Almost nobody anywhere beyond activists and concerned academics are asking the right questions. Plus, the phrase "inertial and almost impregnable military-narcotics-industrial complex" hits the nail on the head.

This means that at least for now we're stuck. It is incredibly difficult to get Congress and senior policy makers on board for a real rethinking of U.S. counter-narcotics policy in Latin America. Like so many other militarized programs, many are afraid to change because they'll be labeled as soft. That's one reason that long, counter-productive wars (from Vietnam to Iraq) drag on.

Sadly, we don't even know if we're "winning" because we've never defined winning. So you keep on fighting for the sake of fighting, of doing something.


Saturday, November 01, 2014

Hezbollah in Peru

There is a report that a Hezbollah agent was arrested in Lima and Mossad believes he was going to carry out an attack on Peruvian Jews. I am scratching my head about this because the Jewish population in Peru is tiny, only a few thousand in the entire country. The article suggests that maybe Israeli backpackers would be targets.

Here is the Interior Ministry's statement.

There is a lot we don't know here, but I keep wondering why Hezbollah would make this effort in a country that from a political perspective has little to no symbolic or strategic value.


Friday, October 31, 2014

The Cuba Embargo Keeping Us Safe

Via Tracey Eaton, the latest on the Cuba embargo. Periodically, the United States Treasury issues its Specially Designated Nationals list. This list keeps us safe:

The Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC") of the US Department of the Treasury administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States. 

Peruse the list and you can see how important it is that these companies are targeted and punished. Here are a few examples:

--there are lots of tourism companies, and they help Americans travel freely. We all agree that such activity is un-American. Some of them promote "fun," which is especially bad.

--some of the companies sell cigars, which are bad for your health. Terrorists can use them to make us die too quickly.

--there are companies promoting baseball. Baseballs are small and can easily be bombs in disguise.

--there is a company called "GOCUBA," which clearly wants to encourage people to go see Cuba and become Communists.

So rest easy tonight and every night. Those baseball playing, cigar smoking, eco-tourist encouraging terrorists will not threaten our national security. Uncle Sam will do his best to make sure you don't even get to see them, much less interact with them. You need not ever worry about having fun with those Communists. The U.S. Treasury will make sure of that. This is Merica.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Incumbent Presidents Win in Latin America

An article at the Pew Research Center brings up a really important point about presidential elections in Latin America: incumbents rarely lose.

Since 1980, incumbents in South America (not including Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana) have won all 17 presidential elections in which they were on the ballot. During the same period, four American presidents (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) won re-election and two (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush) were defeated. 

Please make sure to keep this in mind as you read all the op-eds explaining grand trends, ideological pivots, etc. This is happening a lot with the Brazilian election since it had so much ideological drama.

A key reason is Latin American presidentialism. The presidency is stronger in Latin America than in the United States. The position provides incumbents with resources that the U.S. president does not have (including state media). It doesn't even matter what the economy is like.

So when you read about why Dilma Rousseff was re-elected, a more interesting question is what unlikely confluence of events would've led to her defeat.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Future of Voters in North Carolina

Here is the political future of North Carolina in one visual:

This is a slow motion disaster for Republicans in North Carolina, who rely largely on the white, and especially older white, population for support. The number of Latino voters will definitely continue increasing, but it's hard to see the trend of white voters doing the same. The number of African American voters increasing is also interesting, and the gradual increase predates Barack Obama's election so may well continue beyond his administration.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Condemning the Embargo for the 23rd Time

The annual ritual of the United Nations vote calling for an end to the Cuba embargo just happened again, with the same results as last year. The U.S. can only count on Israel and a tiny handful of tiny Pacific countries. I first blogged about this eight years ago and my feelings--namely that the embargo can't be defended with logic--haven't changed.

The Reuters article adds some insight about how this vote has evolved over time.

When it first passed in 1992, it received 59 yes votes and three votes against. But there were 71 countries that abstained and 46 that did not participate in the vote. The gradual shift to a near-unanimous vote in favor is a clear sign of the widespread disapproval of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

This is indicative of the United States choosing to isolate itself with a Cold War policy even as the Cold War fades into distant memory. It's hard for anyone but a small minority to take the logic seriously anymore.


United Fruit is Brazilian

I talked about the Chiquita deal in my Latin American Politics class today, though I couldn't really think of a snappy conclusion to sum it up. I mostly wanted to show the strange twists and turns that now makes Charlotte, NC part of a transformation of what used to be United Fruit.

We start with United Fruit, which is well known by any Latin Americanist for its exploitation, especially in Central America and the Caribbean (plus Colombia). In 1990 the company (which had already undergone various mutations) became Chiquita Brands International.

In 2011 it moved its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte. At the time I blogged about its human rights problems as well as the money the city threw at it. Not long after moving here, the company was imploding because of poor business decisions. Now, after a length fight, it is being bought by the Brazilian Cutrale and Safra Group. It's not terribly likely the headquarters will stay in Charlotte, so the city is reminding the country it must pay the money back.

But stop and think for a moment. What was United Fruit is now owned by a Latin American company! That's quite a symbol of Latin American economic ascendance. And somehow it landed on my very doorstep to boot.


Monday, October 27, 2014

"Re-Industrializing" Latin America

UNASUR Secretary General (and former Colombian president) Ernesto Samper made some comments you don't hear much anymore. He noted that growth would be slowing across the region:

But he also pointed out to the existence of strong points such as the strategic reserves of oil, nickel, copper, hydro power and water resources. “But to all this we must inject added value, and the objective of Latin America should be to overcome the situation by launching an ambitious re-industrialization process”.

This sounds so much like the process I discuss in my Latin American Politics class about the development of import-substitution industrialization in the middle of the twentieth century. Or at least I assume this is the sort of thing Samper is thinking about, though he does not specify. I talk about adding value a lot in the class.

The idea of "re-industrialization" is problematic because many countries barely went through it in the past. Would Guatemala really be re-industrializing? If this is restricted only to the larger economies, then it is also confusing. Is Brazil not industrial? I guess any country could become more industrial, but that's not quite the same thing.

Setting aside that parsing, I actually like the idea of making this a greater part of the development discussion. I've been repeating constantly on this blog that relaying on commodities remains a problem--it's not easy to overcome, but should be seriously discussed.


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