Friday, February 28, 2014

U.S. and Latin American Relations writing (part 4)

Three weeks since my last confession. Two weeks ago we had three consecutive snow days, which was heavenly for textbook editing. As I was looking at the chapters, I realized I hadn't laid them out correctly, so now it is clearer with titles as well. Unfortunately I have not written any more of the new chapter.

But at least for now I feel pretty good about progress.

Progress (Deadline: August 1, 2014)

Chapter 1 (Theory) - Revised but not polished
Chapter 2 (Historical) - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 3 (Rise of US Hegemony) - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 4 (Intervention/Good Neighbor) - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 5 (Early Cold War) - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 6 (Cuba Revolution)- edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 7 (Communist Threat) - in the process of reading/commenting
Chapter 8 (Challenge to US Hegemony)- writing (3 pages)
Chapter 9 (Political Economy)- not started
Chapter 10 (Immigration) not started
Chapter 11 (Human Rights) - not started
Chapter 12 (Drug Trafficking) - not started


Maduro and the Protests

I'm quoted in this Wall Street Journal article. In many ways an extension of my thoughts yesterday about how Nicolás Maduro is hoping that things peter out. The holidays are part of that--can you keep protesting at a time of traditional celebration? How much will that annoy the rest of the population?


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gallup Survey of Venezuela

Here is the first of a two part Gallup study of Venezuela. What it shows is an increasing sense that the economy is getting worse and that in general Venezuelans feel they are becoming worse off. This suggests that the protests stem in large part from these feelings.

This is interesting, though it's important to keep two things in mind. First, even under Hugo Chávez these indicators bounced around. So, for example, on the economy:

After 2007 confidence took a nosedive but the government didn't fall apart. That spike at the end, though, is pretty dramatic, suggesting a correlation with Chávez's death and Maduro taking over. It'll be critical to see whether the trend continues or there is more bouncing.

Second, they say nothing about political preferences. The opposition seems to believe that dissatisfaction with the economy translates into support for the opposition, or at least for Maduro's departure. But that's not obvious at all. It's up to Maduro to implement policies that reduce crime and inflation, etc., which would stabilize the situation considerably.

These numbers, though, are indicative of the fact that even if the protests peter out in the next few weeks, the underlying causes for them must be addressed or political conflict will return. If the dissatisfaction continues, then his internal position will weaken. It's hard to see the opposition winning, but easier to see an internal push for a new president if conditions worsen.


Maduro and the Military

Reading about WWI is a potent reminder of how even logical assumptions can go terribly awry. Germany could affirm a secret agreement with Austria-Hungary because it wasn't in Russia wasn't likely to go to war. There were very solid, yet ultimately erroneous, reasons for believing so.

This is relevant when thinking about the Venezuelan military. A question that keeps popping up is whether Nicolás Maduro maintains its support. Without cracking the black box of the military, which is impossible for anyone outside the institution, you can only go by outward appearances and logical assumptions, knowing full well they are correct only until they are wrong.

But here's what we know, or at least what I claim we know:

1. The military publicly affirmed its adherence to the government, and has not made any public sign to the contrary.

2. The military is chavista and therefore is very unlikely to impose regime change if there is any chance of the opposition taking over.

3. If the military overthrew Maduro and installed another chavista, the protests would get far, far worse as the opposition smelled political blood. The military knows this and therefore it is not a likely outcome.

4. The protests have continued but it's hard to argue they've gained momentum, which leaves the military less likely to get nervous.

Things can change, and these assumptions are not permanently applicable. If there are months of protests, they will change. If Maduro intensifies repression, they will change. But for now that's how I see it.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

News Coverage of Venezuela

There's an article in the Washington Post about news coverage of Venezuela. I've read numerous complaints, most prominently from Caracas Chronicles, about the lack of coverage, which I don't buy. As the article points out, there was more coverage of Ukraine but there are reasonable reasons (so to speak) for that, and it's not simply that we ignore Latin America.

More importantly, though, is digging into what "coverage" or "attention" means. The article spends time examining what stories are "above the fold," referring to the news that you see on the front of a newspaper when it is face up on a news stand. That is what signals importance. Or did. Long ago. Now it's largely irrelevant. Who cares what's on the front when you get your news online or elsewhere? And if you go online, there is a flood of stuff on Venezuela from every source imaginable. I've been contacted by several reporters, as have numerous other people who study Latin American politics. Last week I was at the gym and on CNN there was Wolf Blitzer talking about Venezuela. If Wolf is on the case, then by definition you're mainstream. At this point you would need to be actively avoiding news not to know there is something up in Venezuela.

Now, all of this is anecdotal. To make a convincing case you would need to examine coverage across all media, accounting for where people get their news (print newspapers, for example, don't inform many people these days so should not be weighted very heavily so don't focus too much about what's "above the fold"). Then you have to decide what constitutes "reasonable" coverage, ranging from no stories to total saturation. I think this would show that Venezuela is not being swept under the media rug.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Various Faces of Nicolás Maduro

Over the last few weeks, Nicolás Maduro's statements and actions have seemed to have a certain schizophrenic quality to them, going in different and sometimes contradictory directions. It seems, too, that I've read a considerable amount of commentary sympathetic to the government versus the opposition, and none of it defends Maduro himself. He seems to have no plans and no strategies, which are replaced by saying whatever pops into his head. It's like he's playing good cop and bad cop simultaneously.

We saw that immediately as he slapped Leopoldo López into jail on flimsy charges, with Maduro personally saying he must answer for his "unawareness of the constitution" and saying he would put all fascists in jail. Meanwhile, Maduro spoke of "justice." This played directly into the opposition's hands.

Another example is the amazing array of insults he hurls at the opposition, all the while saying he just wants dialogue. In every other sentence he makes certain everyone knows that he will make no concessions and feels nothing but contempt for the opposition. If you weren't already numbed to the word "fascist" then you must be now, as it is overused to the point of absurdity. He plays eagerly (and understandably) to an internal audience, but seems oblivious to the fact that doing so closes off other opportunities.

Even as he unleashes insults at them, he laments the opposition's insults against him and the government.

Maduro also announced Venezuela would name a new ambassador to the United States, shortly after expelling three officials and giving a continuous barrage of accusations against the U.S. If you don't tone down the language, then the gesture is useless. What is it intended to achieve?

Lurching from one stance to the next and back again is counter-productive. Having López in jail is a boon to the opposition and no one is quite clear whether Maduro wants dialogue, or what it would be about.

The opposition is not much better. Henrique Capriles indicated he would engage in dialogue, then backed off. Leopoldo López seems to have few or no redeeming qualities, and apparently seeks to rival Hugo Chávez for megalomania. The government and opposition blunder along together.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Insults and Dialogue in Venezuela

I'm quoted in this Bloomberg story about the upcoming dialogue between Henrique Capriles and Nicolás Maduro. It really echoes my thoughts from yesterday's blog post.

Basically, I don't think all the insults necessarily preclude dialogue. These are seasoned politicians in an extremely polarized context. Each knows the other must play to a domestic constituency. It won't be a comfortable conversation, but it can at least happen.

What I don't get is what the dialogue will be about. If it is just a sign of good will, then that's positive (Boz notes some specifics in comments in that last post). But my quote is about how it will not be easy to back off the lines in the sand that each side has drawn: "la salida" on one side, and a deepening of the revolution on the other. At some point you have to either address that directly, or dialogue descends back into monologue. Monologue is what we've got now, and it serves mostly to exacerbate the divisions.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dialogue in Venezuela

Henrique Capriles agreed to talk to Nicolás Maduro on Monday. The way to do this, it seems, is to have an implicit agreement that each has the right to continue publicly hammering on the other. Neither can afford to look soft.

But it's still very unclear what the goal will be. Currently, the opposition's stance is all about Maduro's departure, which obviously is nonnegotiable. Maduro is all abou revolution, which is also nonnegotiable. "Dialogue" implies concession because otherwise you have only predictable monologue, which is what we've already got.

Don't get me wrong. Talking is good, certainly far better than the chest thumping we've been seeing. But following up on my post yesterday about the fork in the Venezuelan road, there are only two visions in Venezuela at the moment, and they're very hard to reconcile. I don't really see a "third way" that bridges the gap.

Insisting only on departure or only on revolution will likely create more violence. So what other options are there, and who can articulate them? With any luck, the meeting between Maduro and Capriles can somehow get them out of the rhetrical straitjackets they're in and point in that direction.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Taking the Fork in Venezuelan Road

In The Nation, George Ciccariello-Maher offers up an interesting view of the protests in Venezuela with a sympathetic focus on "democracy from below," as opposed to "liberal democracy."

At least in my eyes, here is the key quote:

Venezuela is indeed at a crossroads, having—in the words of the militant-intellectual Roland Denis—“llegado al llegadero, arrived at the inevitable.” It is the point at which the Bolivarian process itself—socialism in a capitalist society, thriving direct democracy in a liberal democratic shell—cannot survive without pressing decisively toward one side or the other: more socialist, more democratic, in short, more radical. This is not a crossroads simply between two possible forms of government from above: the Maduro government or its hypothetical right-wing alternative. It is instead a question of either pressing forward the task of building a revolutionary society, or handing the future back to those who can think of nothing but the past, and who will seek to fold the historical dialectic back onto itself, beaten and bloody if necessary. [Emphases in original]

This struck me because it gets down to the question of where these events are leading Venezuela. The opposition is the minority, but it is a large minority. Pressing more decisively in the direction of revolutionary socialism by definition means rejecting a very significant chunk of the Venezuelan population. Is that viable without protracted civil war? Can it happen without resorting to "beating and bloodying" that minority?

These are practical questions because such a society will require a much more aggressive use of the military internally, or at least I can't imagine how else that minority would be silenced. Is there some way of bringing that minority into the revolutionary fold without force?

Given how difficult and violent that route likely is (unless I am missing something in that regard) I would think the more likely result is more of the same. The opposition (especially since it seems to have no military support) will not take power, and the Maduro government will talk of deepening the revolution without truly doing so. As Yogi Berra allegedly once said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.


Statements on Venezuela

Here is the Washington Office on Latin America's press release on Venezuela. It goes much further than the most recent statement from John Kerry. Kerry's statements, meanwhile, have been much more mild than anything from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

If anything, then, the Obama administration has been pretty circumspect. Nicolás Maduro is lambasting Kerry on Twitter, but it's hard to get a lot of traction when he's well behind multiple NGOs that focus on human rights.

It is also harder to get traction given Maduro's treatment of CNN, which was an amazingly stupid decision. He backed off, but the threat remains, and provides more meat for human rights accusations against him. Unfortunately for Maduro, he has a habit of providing compelling evidence just by opening his mouth.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Book chapter on Chile

Just got my copy of a new book chapter:

Gregory Weeks, “The Military and Twenty Years of the Concertación.” In Kirsten Sehnbruch and Peter M. Siavelis (eds.). Democratic Chile: The Politics and Policies of a Historic Coalition, 1990-2010 (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2014): 103-117.


Diplomacy and Venezuela

A column in USA Today makes a case that there are no diplomats to hepl resolve the Venezuelan crisis, comparing it unfavorably to Europe. It rests on the assumption that diplomats are generated by trade, and there is not enough trade. I have no idea where this argument came from, and I am not convinced. Trade and diplomacy have no automatic assocation. Plus, Latin America has a long tradition of hesitance about overt intervention (covert has often been fine, but that's another story).

In any event, somehow this conclusion is reached:

That largely leaves economic sanctions as a way to influence the actions of the Venezuelan government.

I'm not sure at all why that follows. The chances that Latin American countries would impose economic sanctions are very, very close to zero--something really unusual would have to happen. Not only would that be out of character, but it would also very likely rally many people to Nicolás, thus negating whatever negative impact the sanctions were supposed to generate.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Nicolás Maduro Channels John Foster Dulles

Nicolás Maduro argues that the protests in Venezuela are not homegrown and legitimate. Instead, they were cultivated, trained, and financed by an external power seeking military intervention:

Advirtió que en Venezuela se está aplicando un plan para llevar al país al "caos social, político y militar (...) para generar una espiral creciente de odio y confrontación de pueblo contra pueblo y luego justificar lo injustificable: el llamado a una intervención extranjera militar en los asuntos internos de Venezuela".

This sounds remarkably like the argument made by the U.S. as it pushed for the Declaration of Caracas in 1954. Focusing on Guatemala, Communism was an external threat for all:

This declaration of foreign policy made by the American republics in relation to dangers originating outside this hemisphere is designed to protect and not to impair the inalienable right of each American State freely to choose its own form of government and economic system and to live its own social and cultural life.

John Foster Dulles followed this up with a speech a few months later after the U.S. overthrew Jacobo Arbenz:

Above all, we can be grateful that there were loyal citizens of Guatemala who, in the face of terrorism and violence and against what seemed insuperable odds, had the courage and the will to eliminate the traitorous tools of foreign despots.

Of course, the contexts are different. But the language is very similar. The best way to demonize your political opponent is to claim they are puppets of a foreign power that seeks to overthrow the system and establish something antithetical to the interests of the region. The "region" for the Eisenhower was the hemisphere whereas for Venezuela now it is Latin America.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dialogue and Words in Venezuela

In a variety of ways, the Venezuelan government is indicating that it is open to dialogue. The Venezuelan ambassador to the OAS noted that:

“El diálogo está abierto inclusive para hablar sobre aquello en lo que estamos en desacuerdo, no todas las quejas las consideramos válidas, pero estamos dispuestos a escuchar y tenemos ya algún tiempo discutiendo con la oposición”, expresó Chaderton, en entrevista con CNN.

The government has said similar things before, and there is one problem. If you look at President Maduro's own words, through the state news agency, you see that "dialogue" is accompanied by accusations that the other side are fascists, coup makers, racists, arrogant, and abusive ultra-right militia joiners. In that story alone, he says "fascist" or "fascism" ten times.

At this point neither side seems interested in dialogue. Indeed, the mere phrase "la salida" makes that clear on the opposition side. Maduro says he wants dialogue but it's tough to take that very seriously given all his other comments. When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (who has had a pretty positive relationship with both Hugo Chávez and Maduro) suggested dialogue, Maduro basically told him to shut up and butt out.

So where does that leave Venezuela? The military has already declared itself on the government's side, which makes this a very different situation from Honduras in 2009 or even Venezuela in 2002. Chávez worked for years to transform the military, and in the absence of any obvious splits (of course, plenty is going on that we don't know about) a coup is unlikely. If there is no dialogue, then it seems the country waits for the protests to peter out. Even if there is financing top keep it going and organized, people get tired of having their lives disrupted. Will they tire out?


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Venezuelan Protests and the U.S.

Mark Weisbrot says the U.S. shouldn't support regime change in Venezuela. I agree completely, though this isn't a particularly good case of the U.S. doing so. Vanilla statements about concern over treatment of protesters isn't exactly ringing endorsement of regime change.

An anonymous State Department spokesman was even clearer last week, when he responded to the protests by expressing concern about the government's "weakening of democratic institutions in Venezuela", and said that there was an obligation for "government institutions [to] respond effectively to the legitimate economic and social needs of its citizens". He was joining the opposition's efforts to de-legitimize the government, a vital part of any "regime change" strategy.

Meh. There is no doubt that democratic institutions in Venezuela are weakening. Saying so doesn't become a vital part of some strategy. Oddly enough, he even credits John Kerry for forcing the opposition to accept last year's loss.

There is no doubt that the U.S. would like to see someone other than Nicolás Maduro in power, so fair enough. But the evidence and examples don't match particularly well with a coherent strategy of externally imposed regime change.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Maduro Brings in the United States

Nicolás Maduro shifted gears a bit yesterday, aiming his rhetoric at the United States. He expelled three consular officials, saying they were conspiring:

Denunció que estos funcionarios han estado visitando, durante los últimos dos meses, diversas universidades privadas de Caracas para ofrecer unas supuestas visas, "pero sabemos que lo que andan es conspirando. Los tenemos precisados".

He also said that through John Kerry the Obama administration was lying:

El gobierno de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela rechaza contundentemente las declaraciones del Secretario de Estado de los Estados Unidos, John Kerry, en tanto constituyen una maniobra más del gobierno de Washington por promover y legitimar los intentos de desestabilización de la democracia venezolana que han desatado grupos violentos en los últimos días. 
El gobierno de Obama miente cuando pone en cuestionamiento la vigencia de los derechos humanos y las garantías democrática en nuestro país. Las instituciones de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, constituidas en un Estado de Derecho y de Justicia, garantizan el ejercicio de los derechos políticos a todos sus ciudadanos, en un marco de amplias libertades cívicas consagradas constitucionalmente.

You can look at these statements through two lenses. The first is that Maduro truly believes the United States is conspiring to overthrow him. The second is that he is using this as a time honored means of rallying the troops against a foreign enemy in a time of crisis.

It may well be both are true to some extent. I have no idea what the consular officials were doing, and Maduro himself wasn't very clear on it, but the Obama administration comments were pretty vanilla. Nonetheless, 12 years ago the United States openly supported a coup in Venezuela, so it is not unreasonable to believe the U.S. government would do it again. At the same time, it is always convenient to have a foreign threat you can point to. In particular, Maduro is increasingly tying Leopoldo López personally to the U.S. government as evidence that he is a fascist traitor.

At this point I am also left to wonder what U.S. officials are even still around to expel. I still haven't seen in either Spanish or English-language press what positions the three people held. We may well be getting into interns or something.

Update: now the Venezuelan government gets more specific and names some names.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Kristof on Academia

This Nicholas Kristof article really made the rounds yesterday on Twitter, where political science professors took exception with an argument that perhaps once was true but now is out of date. Here's the crux:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

This just isn't true. Outlets like The Monkey Cage are well respected, and contributors include top scholars of all different generations. Back when I started blogging in 2006, people talked about whether to blog while untenured. Nobody does that anymore.


My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

“Political science Ph.D.’s often aren’t prepared to do real-world analysis,” says Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political science Ph.D. who runs the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

Oh man, where to start? Political scientists are doing "real-world analysis" all the time. I do it pretty much constantly. I have colleagues in my department who are interested in various kinds of increasingly sophisticated methods yet are involved in a large Defense Department grant to understand the relationship between natural resources and conflict. I could go on and on for my department alone.

Now, maybe they don't phrase their research in terms of "policy prescription," but why should they? The important thing is to give policy makers the analysis they need to make decisions rather than tell them what decisions to make.

Kristof assumes that political science work is disseminated only through academic journals. But believe me, when people get things published, they want to reach as many people as possible, so they are writing op-eds, blogging, tweeting, writing about it on Facebook, giving guest lectures (including to the government in various ways, as I've done), talking to reporters, etc., etc.

Coincidentally, I organized a panel for the Latin American Studies Association on this very topic--the connection between academia and the policy world in the study of U.S.-Latin American relations (where, in fact, policy analysis abounds!). I disagree with Kristof's assessment, but the topic is a worthy one.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

CIDH and the Venezuelan Protests

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights issued a call for the Venezuelan government to investigate reports of abuses and to adopt measures that avoid the use of violence. It provides some examples that will be familiar to people who have been following the protests.

If history is a guide, to the extent there is a Venezuelan government response it will include words like mafia and fascist, perhaps even "pinochetista." Venezuela pulled out of the CIDH in September 2013, using words like "terrorist." The CIDH, it said, did not rule in favor of the Venezuelan people.

The bottom line is that by their very nature, governments don't like human rights organizations. In particular, they don't follow preferred ideological narratives. Even using the words "pinochetista" shows a weird linguistic mirror of the past, when the Chilean dictatorship hated human rights organizations for being leftist.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Lopez Acts Like A Thug

Yesterday I wrote about the logic of how the Venezuelan opposition, which is the minority, needs to show the majority of Venezuelans why they deserve their vote. This is clearly not how to do it. Leopoldo López allegedly has an arrest warrant out against him, and here is his response:

Late Thursday Lopez dared the government to arrest him.

“You don’t have the b---- to put me in jail?” He wrote Maduro on Twitter. “Or are you waiting for your orders from Havana? The truth is on our side.”

Put simply, this is the behavior of a thug. Henrique Capriles has been taking the conciliatory route, a strategy that splits the opposition. See David Smilde's very good take on both the protest violence and the split. López is the one pushing the "la salida" slogan and accompanying hashtag.

It may well be that López would like to become a martyr, but acting like a teenaged bully is not a good way to achieve that. Certainly it is not a good way to demontrate your leadership skills to the majority of Venezuelans that you need to convince. The fact that I keep coming back to is that you will never, ever win an election without that majority. And if by some combination of events you overthrow the government, then you will find a majority of the country against you, as you did in 2002.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Venezuelan Opposition is the Minority

On Twitter, Hugo Pérez Hernáiz linked to this incisive blog post with a Sociology professor in Venezuela. She had participated in the protests and come to a conclusion that is so simple yet gets much less attention than it should.

The bottom line is that the opposition is a minority and without a different strategy likely will remain so. Because of years of mismanagement, a majority of Venezuelans have to be convinced that anyone but the left deserves to rule them. The opposition has done precious little to bother doing so. Probably many don't feel they need to do so.

#LaSalida propone estos caminos porque parte del supuesto erróneo de que la oposición es mayoría. Convertirnos en mayoría tiene que ser, por el contrario, la principal meta política de quienes adversan el autoritarismo creciente de nuestro sistema político. La única forma de llegar a la gente es acompañando su organización, sus luchas y protestas por los problemas inmensos que enfrentan hoy. Es un trabajo arduo porque supone romper la barrera que hemos construido con años de extrema polarización. Y como todas aquellas metas que son difíciles de lograr, se necesita constancia y los resultados no se alcanzan de la noche a la mañana. Y este sería mi llamado a los jóvenes de hoy: no necesitamos que expongan sus vidas, necesitamos su creatividad, su ímpetu para hacer llegar su mensaje por un futuro mejor a ese sector del país que todavía se siente representado por el gobierno.

This isn't about marching, or making noise, or complaining, or even ideology for that matter. It's about constructing clear platforms and plans to demonstrate why current supporters of Maduro should ever vote for someone else. You can't just be the not-Maduro candidate. You can't just talk about oppression, because many of the people you want to convince don't feel oppressed, or at least feel no more oppressed than they ever did.

Otherwise you can go ahead and try to win a recall, and even if somehow you accomplish that, then you will lose the following presidential election. And you will keep losing elections, over and over and over.


Venezuelan Protests

I'm quoted in this Bloomberg story about the protests and violence in Venezuela. My quote comes out sounding very categorical, but it is what I think at the moment, namely that it's premature to talk of a coup or regime change. To talk about anything like that we need some sort of sign that the Venezuelan military--or parts of it--are shifting against Nicolás Maduro.

Chávez worked for years after 2002 to make sure the military was with him, and coups are rare in any event. My argument was that even to start talking in these terms, the protests would have to be sustained and spread. Maduro, unlike Chávez, is not a military man so no one knows exactly how deep the reservoir of good will ultimately will be.

The opposition wants "la salida," but we're not there yet. The best thing to do is watch the military, to the extent that it's possible. That's where coups happen or not.

Update: I forgot to include something I had put on Twitter yesterday, which was that the Venezuelan government's references to the protests were that the streets of Caracas were filled with "happiness." It's not clear who they figure to convince of this.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Support For Better Cuba Relations Means Little

Much is being made of the new Atlantic Council poll indicating that a majority of Americans support normalizing relations with Cuba. This isn't particularly new, and raises similar questions that have been raised in the past. The big one is if popular sentiment goes along these lines, then why does the policy as a whole not budge?

I think the core of the answer is pretty simple. The vast majority of Americans don't care at all about Cuba. Those who support normalization don't care very much about it. On a list of priorities they would place it really, really, low. Therefore if it never happens, they remain unconcerned, and will never alter their voting behavior as a result.

The tiny minority of Americans of oppose normalization care about it very deeply. On a list of priorities it would be high; for some, number one. Therefore they will fight very hard, expend considerable political capital, and spend a lot of money to make sure the embargo and other similar policies remain firmly in place.

Therefore the second group wins. It simply does not matter what a majority of Americans support if they do not really care about it.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Venezuela Celebrates Iran

Venezuela thinks the Iranian dictatorship is awesome and celebrates its 35th anniversary. Of course, this has much less to do with the ridiculous rumors of Iranian presence in Latin America and much more with the fact that the shah was a product of stupid and counterproductive U.S. policy, and therefore Iran is attractive to Venezuela. It's unfortunate, though, to take this to the extreme of saying things like Iranians are now free of oppression.

Once again, Venezuela criticizes the United States but simply takes a foreign policy that is the exact mirror opposite of it, which unfortunately is also reprehensible. The U.S. lauds Middle Eastern dictatorship allies and Venezuela lauds Middle Eastern dictatorships that aren't U.S. allies. That few of these governments deserve anything but criticism doesn't seem to enter the debate.

The U.S. and Venezuela (and their supporters domestically) then take the left-right ideological dichotomy for U.S.-Latin American relations and just translate it to the Middle East, where it does not make any sense at all. Just depressing, really.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Trusting Immigration Enforcement

Today's Charlotte Observer editorial hits the nail on the head about the John Boehner's backing off immigration reform:

“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner said Thursday at the Capitol. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.” 
This, of course, is like your 10-year-old telling you that he really wanted to clean his room, but he couldn’t trust that you would ever be satisfied. The “yes-we-can-well-no-we-can’t” also has the classic markings of a political bait-and-switch. Tell the voters that you really want to get things done, and even release a list of “standards” dealing how. Then, when the other side disagrees on the prescription, say “Well, we tried.”

Read more here:

As I say until I end up turning blue, President Obama has enforced immigration law and deported more people than any president in the history of the United States. If there is one thing you can trust him on, it is to keep up enforcement.

This goes back to Kevin Siers' great cartoon almost three years ago on the exact same topic. From a political perspective, this will remain a losing battle for Republicans.


Sunday, February 09, 2014

Maduro and Import Substitution

Toyota has stopped production in Venezuela, citing its inability to get the hard currency necessary to import parts. Nicolás Maduro is angry about it and blames Toyota for not having developed an import substitution plan years ago.

“Pareciera que su único plan a veces, de algunos de estos gerenticos, es dólares, dólares y dólares ¿Y la capacidad productiva para sustituir importaciones? ¿Dónde está la capacidad para crear los productos en Venezuela si ya tienen 10 años?”, preguntó el jefe de Estado.

I agree fully with the idea that Venezuela should be able to produce its own parts, but Maduro has this exactly backwards. Rail at them as you will, but companies are trying to profit and it makes no sense to criticize them for doing so. A much better question is why, after 10 years, Venezuela produces virtually nothing but oil. Where has the Venezuelan state been in terms of nurturing business that can foster backward linkages?

Basically, Maduro is mad that Toyota is not developing Venezuelan nationalism, and perhaps a socialist ethos to forge backward linkages even if it is not profitable. From his perspective, that would be the ideal scenario, but objectively we should never expect Toyota to do so.


Friday, February 07, 2014

U.S. and Latin American Relations writing (Part 3)

Another two weeks since I've updated progress on the 2nd edition revisions. A snow day last week helped me tremendously, as I spread my work out at the kitchen table and got at it, only stopping periodically to mess around with my kids outside. I am moving slowly but steadily, and that will pick up a bit once my Understanding Latin American Politics text goes into print, as right now I am also in the middle of the copy editing process. On the other hand, the later chapters have a lot more dated material so will take more time.

Progress (Deadline: August 1, 2014)

Chapter 1 - Revised but not polished
Chapter 2 - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 3 - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 4 - edited with red pen but not revised
Chapter 5 - Printed but not yet edited 
Chapter 6 - n/a
Chapter 7 - writing (3 pages)
Chapter 8 - n/a
Chapter 9 - n/a
Chapter 10 - n/a


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Criticizing Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has been a target for governments in Latin America and elsewhere for years--Hugo Chávez even had the director booted out of the country in 2008. An article in NACLA Report on the Americas now calls it essentially a puppet of the United States against leftist governments in Latin America.

To believe this, I need some evidence. The analysis, though, is weak. The argument is that if the United States violates human rights and HRW does not criticize them (or criticizes them adequately) then the human rights reports in Latin America should be ignored. The latter, though, does not follow logically from the former.

What's missing entirely is an examination of HRW's reports--especially for Venezuela--and showing how they are wrong. It's really not enough to call Michael Shifter an indirect tool of the CIA. There's lots of casting aspersions but virtually nothing on what HRW has actually published on Latin America. Here, for example, is HRW's 2013 report for Venezuela. It is definitely critical, but goes unmentioned in the article. If you could show how the report published untruths, then you have a good story. Mentioning how someone on the HRW board works for a bank is not so much.

Other parts are just hyperbolic:

HRW has taken its double standard to cartoonish heights throughout Latin America. At a 2009 NED Democracy Award Roundtable, José Miguel Vivanco described Cuba, not the United States, as “one of our countries in the hemisphere that is perhaps the one that has today the worst human-rights record in the region.” As evidence, he listed Cuba’s “long- and short-term detentions with no due process, physical abuse [and] surveillance”—as though these were not commonplace U.S. practices, even (ironically) at Guantánamo Bay.15 

It's not cartoonish to argue that Cuba has a worse human rights record than the United States, even taking Guantánamo into account. Here is the latest HRW report on Cuba, which includes a lot more than just detentions--which part of it is false? For the U.S., we do need to discuss and condemn treatment of all kinds of people, especially immigrants, but this has nothing to do with Cuba. And the U.S., for all its faults and repressive practices, is not worse than Cuba.

In sum, what I'd like to see is an article showing not where HRW's directors used to work, but precisely how their reports are factually wrong. If that can be shown, then they're in deep trouble. But I don't see that here.


Academic Blogging and Mixtapes

In response to the ISA controversyMarc Lynch compares hip hop and mixtapes to academic blogging, an unlikely sort of endeavor that ultimately works. Here are two notable paragraphs

That's what academic bloggers have been doing for the last decade: ignoring hierarchies and traditional venues and instead hustling on our own terms. Instead of lamenting over the absence of an outlet for academics to publish high-quality work, we wrote blogs on the things we cared about and created venues like the Middle East Channel and the Monkey Cage. Academic blogs and new primarily online publications rapidly evolved into a dense, noisy, and highly competitive ecosystem where established scholars, rising young stars, and diverse voices battled and collaborated.
Blogs and other online publications should be seen as the equivalent of the mixtapes in the hip-hop world.Mixtapes emerged in hip-hop, far more than in most other musical genres, as a way for rising artists to gain attention, build a fan base, display their talents, and battle their rivals. Sometimes they would be sold at shows or on websites, but more often they would be given away for free on the Internet. Mixtapes would often feature tracks that weren't quite ready for prime time or were recorded over somebody else's beat, but demonstrated the quality and originality of the artist's vision.

This is a nice way of thinking about blogging because it captures both the nature of blogs and the periodic establishment reaction to them.

It is amazing to think about how slowly academia moves. I've been blogging for eight years, which is a pretty long time, but still I was very late to the game. Academic blogging goes back a long way, yet too many professors still view it as some newfangled and potentially dangerous activity. I've long since taken for granted what blogging is all about, which makes it easy to forget that there are plenty of others who feel it's a threat, or a waste of time, or an exercise in insulting others.

Instead, like a mixed tape, you put things in exactly the way you want them, communicating exactly as you want, which makes your own research that much more enjoyable. It's rough and people can get annoyed by it--even criticize it--but it's all yours, and you can put more polished work in other, more traditional, venues.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Celebrating Coups

Imagine a situation where a government is becoming more unpopular, there are protests, there is inflation, there is a general sense that the economy is off the rails. As a result, there is a coup attempt. Would this be something you would celebrate? If you are the Venezuelan government, then the answer is yes. But, of course, only yes if the year is 1992 (22 years ago today) but certainly not if it is 2014.

The link above has a lengthy discussion of the heroic actions of Hugo Chávez and how wonderful the coup attempt--excuse me, military rebellion--was. Of course it wasn't a coup attempt, just like the Chilean military insisted that 1973 was a "military pronouncement" rather than a coup.

This reminds me of Egypt as well. Coups for your side are good. Similar actions by the opposition represent treason, treachery, and self-interest. Your side is for "the people." The other side is for narrow evil interests.

No matter how you slice it, coups are not propitious for future stability. Celebrating them is a bad idea. Having the state do so officially is even worse.

Update: according to Nicolás Maduro's Twitter account, it was a "Day of National Dignity" rather than a coup attempt, and it is semi-religious to boot.

Update 2: the cup of coup love overfloweth. Chávez's coup showed him to be "the Giant of New History," whatever that is.


Monday, February 03, 2014

No More Simplistic Left and Right

Via Conrad Tribble on Twitter (who you should follow if you're interested in U.S.-Cuban relations), Roberta Jacobson (Asst Sec State for Western Hemisphere Affairs) wrote this letter to the Washington Post:

The old left vs. right framework is no longer an accurate or meaningful way to look at Latin America, and attempts to sort the region’s governments by that dated rubric lead one down a confused path to contorted conclusions. 
There are indeed some lines of difference in the region with respect to open markets, global economic engagement and strengthening democratic institutions. I am confident that the positive returns for those choosing more open and globally engaged economies will create a self-reinforcing trend over time. But amid those differences is, perhaps as importantly, a consensus emerging across the political spectrum on the need for more inclusive, opportunity-oriented agendas. 
This has become a central organizing principle for virtually all the governments in the region and mirrors a similar discussion that the United States is having among our own citizens on how best to spread the benefits of prosperity to all citizens and how to expand educational opportunity more wisely and ensure that our people have the right skills for the 21st-century workforce. The exact answers may vary, but we see this new consensus in Latin America not as cause for concern but rather as an opportunity to work together on shared challenges.
How nice to hear that from a senior policy maker for Latin America. This had come up just today because of the media attention on El Salvador, where there is an obsession with labeling the candidates in narrow ideological terms.

The left-right labeling puts leaders and even entire countries in boxes that just don't reflect reality. This blog is now 8 years old, and not long after starting I had already complained about the rigid "good" and "bad" lefts, among other silly labels.

I know they will persist because they offer very easy ways to show whether you approve or not of a given person/country and/or want to project a certain image of them. "Contorted conclusions" is a nice way of putting it. We should have more concerted effort to avoid the simple labels.


Stress on Immigration Judges

Fantastic story in the Washington Post about federal immigration courts, the backlog of which I've written about numerous times. Any discussion of immigration reform needs to take courts and judges into consideration. I've done expert witness testimony in a number of cases, and I have seen firsthand how judges have a very short amount of time to sort out a large amount of evidence and then make a life-altering decision for another human being and--often--their family. As a result, those judges burn out while Congress looks the other way.

A group of psychiatrists surveyed immigration judges about their work in 2008 and concluded that the job was “impossibly stressful,” with burnout rates exceeding those of prison guards or physicians in busy hospitals, and since then the courtroom conditions had only worsened. The law becomes more complex each time widespread reform defaults to more piecemeal solutions. A hiring freeze has reduced 272 judges to 249, and a congressional proposal to hire 225 more stalled last year in the House. Nearly half of the judges who are left will be eligible for retirement in the next year, which means caseloads are again expected to rise.

This is crazy. The judge followed by the reporter had an average of seven minutes to decide each of his January cases.

While Congress and the White House make promises about the future of undocumented immigrants, this is the place where decisions must be made — day after day, case after case, in one of the 57 overwhelmed immigration courts across the country. Here, on the second floor of a high rise in Crystal City, tissue boxes are stacked near the courtroom entrance and attorneys push rolling file cabinets, because a briefcase is no longer sufficient to hold caseloads that have tripled in the past decade.

There seems to be this impression that Congress can create new laws and somehow everything will just magically work. Immigration reform cannot work at all until the court system itself is reformed, and that means hiring a lot more judges. In the future, if there is a way for 12ish (or more) million undocumented immigrants to apply for some type of legal status, the current system simply will not be able to handle the load.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

What China Isn't in Latin America

Mark Weisbrot makes the case that China may be a source of stability for Latin America, especially Venezuela and Argentina, because with lines of credit it can ease currency problems. Whether or not that would actually be enough is open to debate, but at least it's debatable.

What's not so debatable, though, is to assert that China basically has no power ambitions and just wants a strong United Nations and an emphasis on international law. The extent to which China does not criticize human rights abroad, for example, is directly related to its desire not to have the UN or anyone else actually cite international law for the Chinese government's treatment of its own people. Its main interest in Latin America, moreover, is economic. China has slowed recently, but has been sucking needed commodities out of Latin America. That's not about brotherhood, but rather a state looking out for its own interests, as we would expect.

We can debate what China is in Latin America: opportunity, threat to U.S. hegemony, neutral, whatever. But it isn't a benevolent partner in a shared utopian vision of world order.


Saturday, February 01, 2014

49er Gold Rush 2014

It is that time of year again for the 5K on the UNC Charlotte campus, one of my favorite races. I blogged about it eight years ago when it was the homecoming race, which I think was the first one--now homecoming is in the fall but the race stayed and just changed names. Campus has changed a lot since then but it is still hilly. It was chilly but clear and sunny when the race started and it warmed up pretty quickly.

It was a milestone for us because all three of my kids ran the race. We brought the jogger stroller for my youngest daughter, who is five, but she ran the whole way instead. This will mark the end of running strollers for us.

She also greeted Norm, the UNC Charlotte mascot:


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