Monday, March 31, 2014

Lessons From Latin America for Afghanistan

Alan McPherson has a thought provoking op-ed at History News Network comparing Afghanistan to early twentieth century Latin America in terms of optimal strategies for pulling troops out. I love this kind of comparative historical analysis. The lesson here is that there are no happy endings:

When the Marines did leave the Caribbean, the result they witnessed in each occupation was the worst of all worlds: dictators used the coercive power of national constabularies to destroy, rather than build up, what incipient democracy there was. Anastazio Somoza in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and eventually François Duvalier in Haiti crushed caudillos and “nationalized” power without the required nationalism. 
The lessons for Afghanistan today are dispiriting and opaque. There will be no happy ending, no riding into the sunset. Leaving earlier rather than later, as most Americans seem to want, makes sense, but isn’t a panacea. Afghans will sooner or later have to face their own demons and progress at their own pace. Peoples cannot be forced into nationalism; they must build it through their own initiative, trauma, and tears.

Colonialism has consequences. The longer you go, the more you get pro-U.S. elites entrenched in power that subsequently generate animosity and resentment, thus giving birth to rebellions that in the long-term make the situation even worse.


Brazil and Venezuela

Brian Winter makes some good points about Brazil's position vis-a-vis the Venezuelan crisis. I had argued not long ago that there was really no evidence to suggest Brazil was critical of the U.S. response to Venezuela, and what he does is show how Brazil shows clear signs of wariness toward Maduro.

The upshot here is that regional support is by no means unanimous and it is by no means strong. What remains to be seen is whether a statement like this helps convince Maduro that some sort of mediation is necessary:

"The path Maduro is on is full of risks," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We've been trying to encourage him to change."

I still can't think of any means except mediation to resolve this in the short term. The protests may eventually peter out but they've lasted a long time. The government has not been serious about dialogue despite its rhetorical insistence that it is (which is accompanied by insults, often bizarre) and the opposition seems to remain convinced that it's popular despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. So how much are Latin American governments, and especially Brazil given its influence, working behind the scenes toward this end?


Friday, March 28, 2014


I'm at SECOLAS in New Orleans, and just chaired a panel with papers by Miguel Centellas (Jackson State), Steven Taylor (Troy University and also of blogging fame), and Margott Paucar Espinoza (Universidad Científica del Sur in Peru). Unlike many panels at smaller conferences, the papers fit together really well as each focused on electoral politics in different Latin American countries. We had a good conversation after the presentations about the strategies and problems parties in the region have.

Of course, it's a great location. Being New Orleans, the conference rooms here at the Hyatt French Quarter have jazz piped in lightly.

I mention this every year, but I've been involved in SECOLAS for a long time and really enjoy it. Our plan is to have it in Charleston in 2015, so you (whoever you are) should come.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

U.S. Disengagement with Latin America

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing yesterday on "U.S. Disengagement from Latin America: Compromised Security and Economic Interests." Given the title, you get what you expect: paranoid conspiracy theories. At least Michael Shifter did briefly mention that disengagement was in fact the wrong term to use since the U.S. is actually heavily, constantly and positively engaged in Latin America (as I've argued many times).

These testimonies were even worse than the usually disengagement arguments because they reduced "Latin America" to "Venezuela and Cuba, with a heavy sprinkling of Iran and Russia" and "disengagement" to "lack of intervention." You know it's bad when you get the congressional testimony equivalent of Godwin's law since one makes a specific comparison to Nazi Germany (though, to be fair, not Hitler himself). But it was Otto Reich so, again, you get what you expect. Arguments about disengagement--and these testimonies in particular--suffer very badly from confirmation bias. They zero in on very specific cases and completely ignore the vast number of cases that contradict them.

You also get what you expect because the chair of the subcommittee is Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) who is strongly on the "Iran is a Threat in Latin America" bandwagon. He is far enough right to be quoted favorably by Mary Anastasia O'Grady. You don't really need to add anything to that.

Scrolling through the names of people who testify before the committee or subcommittee on Latin America-related issues, you see very few academics, and then only a tiny amount from DC universities. I understand how things work--it is a think tank dominated process with a tremendous amount of ideology involved. But the quality of so much of the testimony is so low and depressingly simplistic.


Leopoldo López op-ed

Leopoldo López published an op-ed in the New York Times. Of course his targeted audience is the United States, and even more specifically Congress, but in many ways his message inside or outside Venezuela is the same. With both audiences, he makes clear that he has no understanding of why Chavismo came to exist in the first place, which is poverty and inequality. They go unmentioned, which makes the last paragraph a very poor conclusion:

For Venezuelans, a change in leadership can be accomplished entirely within a constitutional and legal framework. We must advocate for human rights; freedom of expression; the right to property, housing, health and education; equality within the judicial system, and, of course, the right of protest. These are not radical goals. They are the basic building blocks of society.

The "basic building blocks" for a majority of Venezuelans, as evidenced in elections and polls, are not those things, or at least not in the sense of "health and education" being lumped together with the right to property. It is safe to say that López's vision of health and education bear little to no resemblance to what poor Venezuelans receive now. It is also safe to say that poor Venezuelans want the state to protect and help them, not simply to establish a framework for market forces.

If you do not recognize these realities, and it's not clear the Venezuelan opposition does, then leadership really cannot be changed to your satisfaction within a constitutional and legal framework because you'll never get the necessary votes. Venezuelans just don't agree with you and won't vote for you.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Venezuela: No Tourist Visas For You!

I'm quoted in this Associated Press story on the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela announcing that it did not have the personnel to process tourist visas because Venezuela has kicked too many of them out.

The reporter wondered whether the United States was playing hardball and my response was no, not yet anyway. It's a warning to suggest that more could happen if Venezuela doesn't tone things down. As warnings go, it's actually pretty subtle, which is not always a hallmark of U.S. policy toward Latin America. It's a dig at the Bolibourgeoisie, who are getting rich from the revolution.

Even though Nicolás Maduro claims to have foiled a U.S. coup or assassination attempt about every other day, the response has been muted. Even the most diehard anti-Chavistas in the U.S. Congress talk about highly targeted sanctions and nothing more serious than that (at least for now!). It's almost as if policy makers are actually learning something...

Update: Comments got me to this over-the-top legislation from Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. If it goes anywhere then sadly my own comments about actually learning from the past fly totally out the window.


Monday, March 24, 2014

U.S. Engagement in Latin America

Boz makes a point that is quite similar to one I've made in the past as well, which is that there is plenty of U.S. engagement in Latin America.

Just in March:
  • Vice President Biden visited Chile for the inauguration of Bachelet and gave a good interview to local media there.
  • Treasury Secretary Lew visited Brazil (and Mexico), the highest ranking official to visit Brazil since the postponed state visit. Rousseff is now hinting she wants the visit to happen.
  • Assistant Secretary Jacobson traveled to Paraguay (and Brazil and Chile) where she promoted education exchanges.
  • After a request by President Obama and Secretary Kerry, Uruguay President Mujica agreed to take five Guantanamo detainees.
But please feel free to start your ridiculous op-ed on Venezuela with the indisputable fact that the US is "ignoring" or "not paying attention" to Latin America. The editors never fact check those unmeasurable claims anyway.

I couldn't agree more. The idea of "ignoring" or "drift" seems to boil down to one or more of the following three requirements:

1. Failing to have a grant strategy
2. Failing to enact large-scale trade agreements
3. Not cracking down hard on Venezuela

None of these three mention the constant and often vibrant state of affairs on the ground. If it's not BIG then it's unimportant. There is nothing inherently preferable about big policies, and in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations they've often been negative.

Even right now, though, someone is hard at work on a soon-to-be published op-ed about how the U.S. is ignoring Latin America and how awful that is.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Long-Term Political Foundations in ALBA Countries

At the AULA Blog, Eric Hershberg writes about how ALBA countries have so many leaders who are seeking constant re-election rather than constructing effective structures to groom new leaders.

Analytically, it is much more useful to strip this of the typical "they are just power grabbing" angle and focus more on the self-defeating nature of the current strategy of re-election.

But if a transformative, historic project fails to develop leaders and launch them into positions of growing responsibility and power, it is unlikely that it will succeed over the long run. Lula could transfer power to Dilma, Lagos could do so with Bachelet, Tabare to José Mujica, and so on. This is what made possible the conversion of eight-year projects into 16‑year projects, and so on. The PRI, in Mexico, managed successions for seven decades, and presumably is poised to continue along that road now that it has regained the presidency. Yet for some reason the ALBA governments have not taken this step. Their leaders have angled toward caudillismos that have a medium-term appeal, but that almost certainly cannot be the foundation of a decades-long project for changing societies in need of transformations that they themselves articulate.

This is a great point. If you support the political projects being undertaken in ALBA countries, then you should oppose re-election because that contains the seeds for future political implosion. The PT in Brazil is the opposite--Lula did not see himself as indispensable and thereby guaranteed the long-term continuation of the projects he got underway.

As far as I know, no one has really investigated why it happens in some countries and not in others. My first thought is that it is related to the strength of the existing party system. Chile and Uruguay have strong and lasting parties, and in Brazil the PT is strong even if others are not. Meanwhile, the party system in Venezuela was blamed for the crisis. But more systematic work would be interesting.

h/t Mike Allison on Twitter


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Latin American Response to Venezuela

If there is one thing Latin America very clearly is not and never has been, it is a bloc. Oliver Stone teams up with Mark Weisbrot to argue that President Obama is "surrealistically" unaware that the majority of Latin American governments share the exact same view of the Venezuelan crisis.

The region sees Washington as trying to delegitimize the government of Venezuela, thereby encouraging violence and destabilization.

If the Obama administration wants to improve its relations with the region, it could start by joining the rest of the hemisphere in accepting the results of democratic elections.

What is this unified region of which they speak? I haven't heard criticism of the U.S. very broadly. Brazil, which of course is very influential, has been careful not to blame either side and at least as far as I've seen, doesn't mention the U.S. at all. Dilma Rousseff is rightfully angry about U.S. spying but that is not the same as Venezuela.

We've seen statements by the Chilean, Panamanian and Colombian governments rebuked by Nicolás Maduro, while most other governments are saying either nothing or making statements about dialogue, which in fact is a clear sign of putting the opposition on the same footing as the government, which Stone and Weisbrot say these countries will never allow.

The rest of the hemisphere will oppose any attempt by the United States to put a relatively small number of protesters led by right-wing politicians on an equal footing with a democratically elected government.

The equal footing part is already reality. "Dialogue" refers to acknowledging there are two sides, that the opposition has at least some kind of legitimacy, and that some type of compromise (meaning even the government must make concessions of some sort) are required.

I don't really see any evidence that the entire region sees the U.S. negatively in terms of the Venezuelan crisis, and they don't provide any beyond the OAS vote, but it's difficult to see that as an indication of consensus in that regard. What I see (or at least think I see) are governments coming to the conclusion that the crisis is not immediately going away and so starting to talk about how to get the two sides together. This doesn't have much to do with the U.S.

You could reasonably say there is consensus that leaders would prefer Maduro not be overthrown versus overthrown, but that's not exactly the keen agreement that Stone and Weisbrot describe. I just don't see support for the idea that there is unified regional opinion about what direction events should take, who should compromise and in what ways, what the OAS (or even there, what should be public vs. private) should do versus UNASUR, etc.

I've been writing a lot about how much binary argumentation we're seeing about the Venezuelan crisis, which remains a frustration. Latin American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations just aren't black and white. In this case, the latter is shifting and contextual. Latin American leaders are wary of President Obama, but at the same time they are not locked into a vision of the United States in 2002. They have problems with the U.S. in some areas but not others. They want some sort of dialogue but not intervention, which can be hard to reconcile.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Self-Censorship in Venezuela

This post by David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz got me thinking about censorship:

The last minute removal of an article in Ultimas Noticias last weekend has generated a new round of controversy in Venezuelan media conglomerate Cadena Capriles. A press release from journalists association Colegio Nacional de Periodistas (CNP) recounts that the head of Ultimas Noticias’s investigative reporting unit, Tamoa Calzadilla quit her post in protest over censorship of the piece. (The unpublished article, already formatted can be read here.)

The general argument defending the government has been that the vast majority of media outlets are private and therefore, ostensibly, independent. Plus, you do see media messages highly critical of the government.

But censorship need not be blanket--it can be highly selective, and self-censorship occurs when, for example, reporters are pressured to avoid a story or stories are just yanked because the government doesn't like them. It is targeted but does not necessarily mean that no stories critical of the government can be published at all.

It can spread very quickly:

In his first meeting with Cadena Capriles journalists De Lima reportedly said“coup plans will not be on the front page.” The reference was to protest actions which the government portrays as coup attempts.

Refusing to discuss protests at all is just blanket censorship. But it seems to me that the more selective type is more relevant to Venezuela, and also why the accusations of blanket censorship are so easily refuted.

Along these lines, self-censorship seems not to get much scholarly attention. Blanket censorship is much easier to measure, whereas sporadic violations of free speech accompanied by sporadic allowances of anti-government messages are much tougher. This is a continuum, and measuring it as such would give us the opportunity to see how Venezuela stacks up against other countries, even the United States (think of the debate over whether to published leaked cables).

Absent that, we get a pretty useless discussion that ends up binary: "there is censorship in Venezuela, look at this case!" and "there isn't censorship in Venezuela, just look at all the opposition messages being broadcast!"


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Latin America and Taiwan

Mike Allison writes about former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo's admission of taking bribes from Taiwan in exchange for maintaining recognition. He discusses the issue in the Guatemalan context, but I was thinking also of the international one. If esteemed source Wikipedia is correct, then Taiwan is currently recognized by 22 countries, with Central America and the Caribbean constituting half.

From the perspective of incentives, this means Taiwan will do whatever it can to hold on to those countries, even while China starts to invest more heavily in Latin America, thus potentially creating a temptation to switch. Take the case of Costa Rica:

A similar story took place in Costa Rica, which severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of the PRC in 2007. China financed Costa Rica’s National Stadium and patrol cars for Costa Rica’s police force, as well as providingUS$900 million in credit for the expansion and remodeling of an oil refinery. On Xi Jinping’s recent visit, China pledged a further US$400 million loan for road construction and public transportation vehicles. Bilateral trade between Costa Rica and China reached US$6.17 billion in 2012.

Money talks. Taiwan is not capable of the scope of investment that China can provide and therefore resorts to more targeted investment, namely straight bribery. Portillo's (and who knows who else's) few millions is cheap, and despite Otto Pérez Molina's insistence that things are different, Taiwan has every reason to keep the flow going because over time its support has gradually trickled away.


Drug War as Black Market Problem

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf examines the testimony of U.S. Southern Command's head and makes an excellent point about the "drug war," which is that it can be more usefully viewed as a black market problem rather than a drug problem.

He uses it to push legalization:

Why doesn't the testimony note, as I just did, that the black market in drugs that prohibition creates exacerbates nearly every way in which transnational crime hurts us? 
Kelly isn't to blame. He doesn't make policy. He tries to carry it out. But the policy that he's been given is as doomed to fail as it always has been. Prohibition may make some (though not all) people inclined to addiction safer in some ways. But it makes all of us less safe in other ways, and wreaks havoc in foreign countries. It would be nice if hearings on U.S. drug policy acknowledged such tradeoffs.

You don't need to support legalization to benefit from the logic. Even you oppose legalization, this requires you to more clearly justify the immense amounts of money being thrown at the problem, much of it going into the pockets of defense contractors. If it is seen as an amorphous drug war, then the solution is to keep throwing money until drugs go away, which is never.

In other words, it is not enough to tout the latest "record" interdiction because those records keep getting broken. You need to show how how the current strategy is preferable to all other possible strategies. Instead, the mindset is "this is the only policy and so we need to keep paying more until we achieve its stated goals."


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Report on Immigration in North Carolina

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety issued a lengthy and carefully argued report on the potential effects of anti-immigration laws in the state. That report is now acting as a deterrent to supporters of such laws because it concludes that they will be costly (especially for incarceration and courts) and will not achieve their desired goals.

The 50-page study, released publicly last week, prompted the sponsor of the legislation mandating the study to say some of the proposals might not be essential. Said Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan: “They might be, and I stress might be, something that would be expendable.”

Read more here:

That's an interesting way to put it, but the basic idea is that common sense could possibly prevail.

The report also notes how unemployment in North Carolina has slowly trended downward, which negates the argument that immigrants are taking jobs from natives. In short, punitive laws serve little purpose and don't even achieve what you want.


The Poor and Protests in Venezuela

Really good story from Frank Bajak on Venezuelan students finally trying to enter poor neighborhoods and forge connections. It's taken weeks for them to get there, as the elite leadership of the opposition, such as Leopoldo López, have ignored the poor while illogically also claiming majority status.

One message in the story is fear. The students are afraid to enter poor neighborhoods, their parents don't want them to do so, and they will not do so after dark. Meanwhile, some in lower income areas do support protests but fear retaliation. This makes dialogue all the more difficult for both sides.

An even larger point is the failure of the opposition to articulate political goals that resonate with the poor. They do not want Nicolás Maduro forced out. They do not care so much about media fairness, whether López remains in jail, etc. They do care about the subsidies that have improved their lives and want reassurance that they will not be cut.

The widespread shortages, crime, and high inflation--not to mention a stream of unhinged comments from the president--are all potential sources of agreement but after five weeks of protest there has been precious little connection. Overcoming mutual fear is no easy thing but certainly essential if the opposition is going to be anything more than just an irritant.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Economic Policy in Venezuela and Bolivia

Dorothy Kronick has a really interesting post on Venezuela in 538. What's particularly useful about it is the explanation of how Chavistas compare Venezuela now to how it was in the past, whereas opponents compare it to how it is underperforming relative to other Latin American countries today. She tops it off with a comparison to the economic successes Bolivia has been seeing under Evo Morales, who was used natural resource windfalls much more prudently and effectively, maintaining solid economic growth and low inflation.

She sums it up as follows:

What might help Venezuela out of its impasse, then, is a kind of reciprocal learning process: If the cosseted nostalgics could grasp that so much of what repels them in Bolivarian socialism mirrors what came before, and if supporters of Chavismo could see that the revolution reflects so much of Venezuela’s past, perhaps both sides would come around to the wisdom of the data behind the mainstream opposition’s regional comparisons. Absent this convergence, it’s hard to imagine a way forward for Venezuela.

Good points. What she does not address, though, is the "why" question. Why did Evo Morales, who uses similar rhetoric, professes a similar ideological orientation, and faces a similarly elite opposition, go in such a different and more successful direction? Perhaps because it's so uninterestingly stable at the moment, Bolivia gets no attention paid to it at all.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Letter to John Kerry

A group of academics signed an open letter to John Kerry about the situation in Venezuela. The upshot is that the U.S. is "aggressive" and encouraging violence so it is should respect the legitimacy of Venezuelan elections.

This is similar to a discussion I had a month ago about the nature of Kerry's comments. Criticism of the Maduro government is taken as evidence of interventionism and inevitably there are comparisons to 2002, no matter how different the context.

For the most part, Kerry's comments have been mild and you really have to parse them to suck out a sense of intervention. An exception is his comment about a "terror campaign," which is excessive and inappropriate. He constantly talks about the need for dialogue and the need for OAS dialogue. I know that UNASUR is the preferred forum for many who are more sympathetic to the government, but calling for OAS action is not exactly imperialist aggression. That's why he's being hit from the right. If he continues that type of talk, I'll be more inclined to agree.

For now, though, if I were to write such a letter I would focus not on accusations of interventionism, but rather a) avoiding inflated rhetoric while simultaneously calling for dialogue (which indeed is the modus operandi of the Maduro administration); and b) avoiding sanctions. For the most part, the Obama administration has been very good at avoiding Bush-era comments, which had the sole result of becoming a perfect foil for Hugo Chávez. So now we get Elías Jaua calling Kerry a "murderer" in response to the terror mention. These comments on both sides are useless and best avoided.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Social Media and China

I've been in China for the last week working on student and faculty exchanges with several universities in Shanghai (especially Fudan University) and Hangzhou, which meant no access to Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of other social media. If you know what you're doing, it is apparently easy to get around the government blocks, but what I found is that everyone uses an app called WeChat (though apparently the government is cracking down on that too).

With this absence, I realized how social reading the news has become for me. I don't read anything for the simple act of knowing, but rather immediately think about sharing it and thinking aloud about it. I was still able to access Feedly, but found myself frustrated because I couldn't use Twitter to comment on them. I would see and experience things in China I found interesting, but then could share them only with the small group I was traveling with.

Frequently I hear mention of people "unplugging" from social media for some specified amount of time, which is framed as a virtue. I don't get the logic. Lacking social media doesn't mean I revert to some nostalgic past of "real" communication. Instead, it means I am less social, which is an unpleasant feeling.


Friday, March 07, 2014

Dirk Hayhurst's Bigger Than the Game

I bought Dirk Hayhurst's new book, Bigger Than the Game, as soon as it came out because I knew I'd like it. This is the third book in a baseball trilogy and the previous two were fascinating and funny.

This one is no different, but it's actually much less about playing baseball than about dealing with baseball. It starts with the self-inflicted shoulder injury (lifting too much weight) he got in the offseason after 2009 and how he dealt with injury during the entire 2010 season. That included depression, using pills to make himself sleep and get numbed, having people know about his first book, a run-in with an arrogant teammate who did not like him writing and talking to the media, and rehab (with a cameo by wrestler Triple H).

Baseball is a conservative game in many ways--players have their codes, things are done this particular way, and you must not rock the boat. The mere idea of letting people see inside scares baseball players, and seeing inside is what Hayhurst does. He goes off about the player who kept confronting him (different reviews speculate differently, but he may just be an amalgam) as well as a few others, in large because he's not respecting the game and instead is trying to be bigger than baseball, which is a sin.

In some way all of his books are about his efforts to figure himself out. You get the impression that he was finally getting there at the end of this one. He thought hard about what baseball means and how he should fit into it. He learned how not to care about others' perception of his role in it. Like many other entertainers--such professional wrestlers--the fans see you as a commodity and not as a person. Players buy into the image, which feeds their self-image and self-worth.

Everyday dumbasses get on the internet and debate your worth like you're a fucking commodity. But instead of trying to say we're not a commodity, we just want to be the most valuable commodity possible. Everyone wants to be the hyped, processed, nostalgia-injected product instead of being an actual fucking person (p. 125).

The player who didn't like him hated the fact that Hayhurst might puncture the bubble they live in and value so highly--just chatting too often with the team's own media person (who in many ways helps nurture the image!) was crossing the line. As he points out, though, this is already slowly changing. Glacially yes, but social media is here now and not going away. Way too few baseball players write real books but reality is spilling out in bits and pieces.

And like the rest of the books, it's funny and self deprecating. As he said to his book agent:

"My style is being honest about failing in a game that everyone thinks you're a winner in simply by playing" (p. 232).

I'm guilty of that feeling, and like how Hayhurst has made me think more broadly. If you're a baseball fan, you should check out all three.


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Maduro Goes After Panama

Nicolás Maduro's verbal attack on Panama and announcement that diplomatic and economic ties were frozen got a response from Ricardo Martinelli--this part is hard to argue with:

Rechazamos como inaceptables las ofensas proferidas por el presidente Nicolás Maduro en contra de nuestro país y su más alta autoridad. El lenguaje soez utilizado es impropio del Presidente de un hermano país.

What Martinelli had done was suggest that the OAS discuss the Venezuelan crisis and bring the two sides together in sort of dialogue. Even that made Maduro blow up. That extraordinarily exaggerated response resulted from his stated belief that Panama was plotting against him.

It's hard to interpret this as anything but straightforward paranoia. If it's a conscious strategy, then I don't see it resonating with his domestic audience (who cares about Panama?) or serving any real purpose. I guess we can set it alongside the wide variety of other conspiracy theories Maduro has claimed since the protests began.

So will trade with Panama truly be frozen? I wonder. A quick Google search suggests that the U.S. is Panama's biggest source of oil, but I don't know how Venezuelan oil fits in. Hugo Chávez did something similar with Colombia in 2009, which lasted a while and then went away after Alvaro Uribe left office. That was a particular kind of personal animus that isn't really the case with Panama.


Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Venezuela Student Manifesto

David Smilde has a post about the Venezuelan student manifesto, and makes a very good point.

I have a lot of sympathy with the students’ emphasis on individual liberties. However in political terms the statement reveals how little progress the opposition base has made in understanding what it will take to grow their coalition. The last fifteen years have shown that if Venezuelans have to chose between liberty and equality the latter will usually win out. Thus the art of politics in a context characterized by large scale poverty is in proposing solutions to inequality that at the same time preserve liberty.

The five points in the manifesto say nothing about poverty or inequality, which are precisely what launched Hugo Chávez to the presidency in the first place. All the ranting about "régimen castro-comunista" totally ignores that critical fact.

Political reality should dictate that no matter what your ideological inclination, you need to incorporate the preferences of the majority into your messages. Otherwise you are doomed to failure. It is bizarre that after so many years the opposition seems to remain blind about that. Leopoldo López seems to believe that pressure will force out the Maduro government and through elections bring to power something more middle/upper class that will focus largely on dismantling chavismo. If there is even a shred of evidence to support that, I have yet to see it.


Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Thinking About Venezuela Sanctions

It appears the idea of targeted sanctions is gaining momentum:

President Barack Obama’s administration is considering imposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials culpable in that nation’s repression and who travel to and hold bank accounts in the United States, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Monday. 
“There should be sanctions on individuals. ... The administration is looking at those,” said Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, citing an unnamed “high-level” state department official she spoke with earlier in the morning.

Read more here:

I had mentioned before that this would be tempting. They are low cost because they do not disrupt oil or anything else, and President Obama can nod to Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans in Florida that he's tough. That is particularly appealing as Republicans rail on him for being soft on Russia.

I'm quoted in this Washington Post story, arguing that for now Nicolás Maduro is still in a solid position. What would targeted sanctions do? If you pinch just the right people, maybe his internal position weakens.

With regard to chavistas in general, there is the question of whether sanctions provides new ammunition for the empire argument and thereby strengthens Maduro's position domestically. However, if they are well targeted then they actually won't affect more than a very small number of people, which takes a lot of the steam out of that line. Does the average chavista care that much whether some of the political elites can't access their money? It's not impossible but hard to imagine caring too much.

At least at this point, if there is no dialogue then there is a really good chance we'll see such sanctions. It's just a solid domestic political move for Obama.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Venezuela and Florida Presidential Politics

Once you start mixing Venezuela with Florida presidential politics, logic starts flying out the window. From the Miami Herald:

For Republicans, who have watched the once-reliable Cuban-American GOP vote lean more Democratic, Venezuela provides a fresh way to remind voters about the failures of a socialist-totalitarian state. And Havana’s role in the unrest in Caracas and San Cristóbal provides a new counter to those who want to lift the embargo against Cuba.

Read more here:

The fact that the embargo helped keep Fidel and Raúl Castro in power long enough to have anything to do with Venezuela in 2014 goes unmentioned. Worse, we see politicians stumbling over themselves to talk about "getting tough" with Venezuela in the exact same ways we've talked about getting tough with Cuba. That getting tough with Cuba gave more power and legitimacy to the Castro goes unmentioned.

Scott was far more strident in attacking Obama at the Friday event.
The governor excoriated the president for not pushing sanctions. Scott pointed out he raised the sanctions issue Monday at a governors meeting with Obama.

Read more here:

We can only hope these do not refer to the same type of blanket unilateral sanctions levied against Cuba, which of course don't work even though you can point to them as an example of how good you are at getting tough.

Unfortunately, this is inevitable. The Cuban American vote is not in lockstep with the Republican Party anymore and Venezuela provides a way to give new life to the party in Florida by also bringing Venezuelan-Americans into the fold. They want red meat and so they will likely get it.

So Venezuelans are getting their introduction to the odd contraption we call the Electoral College. The only reason this relatively small group of Venezuelan- and Cuban-Americans matter is that the state of Florida has 29 electoral votes, which is 10.7% of the total needed to win election to the presidency of the United States. If the Venezuelan protests matter to politically active and wealthy Floridians, then it has to matter to presidential candidates as well.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

Congress Resolving Venezuela

Here is the text of the proposed Senate resolution about Venezuela. Its thrust is to "urge" the president to use targeted sanctions against individuals deemed to be contributing to repression. Given its authors, I'm a bit surprised it is not more strongly worded and/or harsh in sanctions.

Looking back, I saw there was a resolution from 2013, which passed. The basic wording was similar but without the sanctions. Go back to 2007 and you find something similar and co-sponsored by Senator Obama.

And then, of course, there is this House Resolution giving the president authority, even up to war, to pursue claims by U.S. citizens against the Venezuelan government. Oh wait, that one is 1872.

Just since Hugo Chávez was first elected, there have been a lot of resolutions--I don't know how many were passed. Eyeballing them through govtrack, I figured most would come from Florida or Bob Menéndez but they are spread out (even Rick Santorum got into the act). One commonality is ideology, couched in terms of caring for the Venezuelan people. Their goal is to do something against chavistas which will then somehow make things better.

I'll be curious to see whether the targeted sanctions strategy gets legs, as it is a new component--for the most part the resolutions call for reports, dialogue, etc. As a political strategy, it sidesteps the question of how effective unilateral sanctions per se are--Cuba makes that problematic--and provides considerable flexibility. I have no idea whether President Obama will bite, but it could be tempting as a way to show he is doing "something."


Saturday, March 01, 2014

15 Annoying Things About the Venezuela Crisis

I'm actually having a very pleasant day, but annoying things about the Venezuelan crisis have been stuck in my head for a while. In no order at all:

1. that Maduro obsessively uses the word "fascist" in a meaningless way

2. that the opposition thinks the majority of Venezuelans are with it

3. that after 15 or so years, the opposition still has no idea how to lead its way out of a paper bag

4. that Maduro claims the opposition is to blame for the state of the economy

5. that the Venezuelan government claims that incredibly bland statements from Juan Manuel Santos, John Kerry, and others should be taken as a sign of meddling

6. that Eva Golinger and Roger Noriega are almost perfect mirrors of each other

7. that anyone believes sanctions would make the situation improve

8. that Leopoldo López is still in prison

9. that anyone continues to cite Chile in 1973 and other distant Cold War crises as comparisons to Venezuela 2014

10. that the opposition uses the word "dictatorship" while simultaneously marching publicly every day against the government

11. that Maduro keeps saying he wants peace while simultaneously ranting and raving about the opposition

12. that people think the media is sweeping Venezuela under the rug

13. that Venezuela keeps expelling U.S. diplomats until nobody's left but the night shift or something

14. that the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias takes itself seriously

15. that English-language media cannot stop writing that Venezuela is "bracing" for protests (just Google Venezuela braces)


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