Monday, June 30, 2014

Screwing Up The U.S. Embassy in Peru

Here's an interesting inside look at how an embassy works (or doesn't) from Diplopundit. It's a discussion of the Peruvian embassy's inspection report. There are two takeaways:

First, an ambassador's management style really matters. The previous ambassador (unnamed but Wikipedia can tell you quicly it is Rose Likins).

For example, many mission staff reported that the former Ambassador occasionally criticized and belittled certain section chiefs and agency heads in front of their peers. Onerous and excessive paperwork processes impeded communication. The amount of time and energy required to move memoranda through the front office, as well as insistence on letter-perfect products—even for materials intended solely for internal use—discouraged initiative and information sharing.

Anyone who works in an office (including academia) can relate to this. Ambassadors are nominated according to criteria--connections to the president especially--that have nothing at all to do with leadership and management skills. I don't think anyone has done work on that topic, but backstabbing (or "frontstabbing" in this case!) can have an impact on relations with the government.

Second, not confirming an ambassador, which is currently the case for Peru, creates a vacuum.

Initially, the chargé and acting DCM adopted caretaker roles in anticipation of the Ambassador-designate’s quick arrival. Neither of them felt empowered to make significant changes, nor did they want to adopt changes only to make additional ones or reverse others after the new Ambassador’s arrival. By November 2013, they realized their new leadership duties would extend for an indeterminate period.

Several months went by before the embassy staff even knew what would happen, so things came to standstill. Even after the realization that the Senate wasn't going to do much of anything, the interim leaders can keep things going but it takes the authority of an ambassador to make substantive changes.

The post ends on a scathing note.

Probably the most impressive item in this report is that the previous ambassador departed post reportedly in September 2013 and four months later during the IG inspection, her ghost still haunted embassy operation.  Since she’s not even named in this report, there is no danger that this OIG report would merit a mention in her Certificate of Competency the next time she is nominated for a chief of mission position. 
Oh, you think things will get better? 
According to the GAO, the OIG is  supposed to inspect each overseas post once every 5 years; however, due to resource constraints, the OIG Office of Inspections has not done so. Thanks Congress!  The OIG Office of Inspections has conducted inspections in an average of 24 countries per year (including all constituent posts within each country) in fiscal years 2010 through 2013. Given their limited resources, according to OIG officials, they have prioritized higher-risk posts — which probably means more NEA, SCA, AF and less EAP, EUR, WHA post inspections.

This is the sort of insight that Congress should pay attention to, and the Senate in particular when it sits on nominations. But they won't.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Five Years Since Honduras Coup

Five years ago today I wrote a post entitled, "Coup in Honduras" and then wrote about the wretched, twisting, and some outright strange saga throughout the summer. It made Hondurans worse off, further damaged an already weak Honduran polyarchy, undermined the Obama administration's rhetorical commitment to democracy, reasserted the military's overtly political role, and opened up more space for drug trafficking organizations.

Sadly, no one mentions the coup in the context of unaccompanied Central American crossing the U.S. border illegally, but it matters. Honduras was already fragile and the coup ripped it up even more, intensifying the incentive to leave. Or at least to find a way to have your children leave. In the United States, though, I don't know how many people even remember it happened, much less what long-term effects it fostered.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Is Maduro Influential on Twitter?

The Venezuelan government is lauding the fact that Nicolás Maduro has been deemed the second most influential leader on Twitter. One small problem is measurement: "influence" is defined as most retweets. With Maduro, I wonder about retweets. I've retweeted him any number of times, but almost entirely in the context of trying to figure out why he's saying something really odd. It is reasonable to believe I am not the only one. Is that the equivalent of influence?


Eastland's Eye of the Red Tsar

I read Sam Eastland's Eye of the Red Tsar, a historical mystery set in the USSR in 1929. I picked it up by chance at a used bookstore (Last Word near campus--they deserve a plug!) just for the topic, which is the whereabouts of the Tsar Nicholas II and his wealth.

The story revolves around Pekkala, a highly trained detective who was a close aide to the Tsar. After the Tsar was overthrown, Pekkala fled and eventually became a prisoner. Then in 1929, Stalin releases him because he's the only person who can solve the mystery of the location of the Tsar's treasure. I found the novel to be a fun (and pretty short) read, though I tend to like these sorts of historical novels. I thought he did a nice job of evoking the era. A lot of people complained about a plot twist toward the end that they found unsatisfying--it didn't bother me much.

If you like mysteries and are generally interested in that era of Russian history, my hunch is that you'll like it.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Immigration Reform is Dead

Immigration reform is dead, so deceased in fact that it likely will not even return as a viable discussion (much less passage of a bill) until after President Obama leaves office.

One irony here is that a key reason cited by Republicans is the current crisis of Central American children coming across the border. In other words, since there is a crisis, we should do nothing. Common sense dictates the opposite, but common sense has long been a casualty of ideology.

From a political standpoint, here's the snapshot. Even though Republicans are fighting pretty ferociously amongst themselves at the moment, Democrats are going to get hit in the midterm elections (how much is obviously hard to tell). That's just what happens to parties whose president is in office, even more so when that president isn't terribly popular. Therefore we look to 2016 and whether or not Latinos are the electoral "sleeping giant" or whatever other catchy phrase you want to use.

Along with tons of other people, I've noted the long-term problems for the Republican Party if it continues to actively alienate the Latino population. But what we don't know is precisely when that constituency (yes, yes, I know it's not a bloc but in presidential elections it tends to vote like one) gets energized. When will that participation rate rise? Especially as Obama becomes a lame duck, there won't be any coattails so the Democratic candidate needs Latinos to get out and vote. Republican voters will be salivating for a chance at returning to the White House and right now they feel it can happen even if the vast majority of Latinos vote for the other side. Will that be true or not?


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Whacking Day in Congress

This is quite a quote in response to the Central American children flooding the U.S. border.

Michigan Republican Representative Candice Miller suggested cutting off aid and repealing free trade agreements with Mexico and the Central American countries involved. 
"We need to whack them, our neighbors, to understand that they are just not going to keep taking our money and we are just going to be sitting here like this - we're not the ATM machine," she said.

This is ignorance on a scale that would be comical if I wasn't concerned that it is widespread. Whacking creates more problems than you already had.

Lisa Simpson knew that logic. So did Barry White.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Odrisamer Despaigne and Cuban Players

VM Nate has an article in Padres Public about Odrisamer Despaigne, a Cuban defector who pitched for the Padres last night (and is an interesting addition to what otherwise has been a miserable team). He absolutely shined with seven shutout innings. It got me thinking about Cuban baseball in general.

The Cuban baseball market is a terrible mess. The players defect in ways that sometimes can be dangerous (at least it seems not to have been that way for Despaigne, who defected in Spain). Since the embargo prohibits teams from signing Cubans directly, they have to defect. Although the Cuban government has allowed for direct contracts as long as they are temporary (I am not sure how that is enforced but it means they have to play for the Cuban national team when needed) they can't just sign directly with U.S. teams.

So you get stories like Yasiel Puig's, which is so dark (and made me like him more). Meanwhile, fat contracts to a fortunate few entice more Cubans to do what they can to get here. Things have not changed much from when I reviewed the book The Duke of Havana almost eight years ago. If anything, human smuggling is even more violent.

Plus, what that book showed were the players that didn't cut the mustard. For every Yasiel Puig there are plenty of others struggling in obscurity, going into debt and facing all kinds of problems in their failed attempt to make the MLB.

One of the interesting insights from the book Raceball is that Mexico doesn't suffer this same fate because from an old agreement MLB teams must pay Mexican teams when they poach a player (Japan has a similar system dating back to 1967). That's really the only way you can stop the human smuggling. This solution is currently impossible for Cuba because the embargo prohibits it--in any case the money would end up directly in the government's hands since unlike elsewhere it owns all teams. I also can't see why MLB would agree to such an arrangement again. The Japan and Mexico deals were struck long before players made tons of money.

I wish MLB would make a formal statement on Cuban defectors. When pushed Bud Selig defers:

"You’re getting into an international political situation," he said. "Commissioners have a lot of power but they don’t have an international power. It [Yasiel Puig's story] was a tough story to read." 
Selig said that there have been internal discussions about trying to do something on the issue but "it gets into a level that is really beyond us."

Well, yes, only Congress can change the law. But he could say that this is a tragedy unfolding with lots of suffering involved and that the players would be much better off with a negotiated solution. But he won't say much beyond platitudes and neither will the player's union. You can be sure the owners won't. Because this is immensely profitable. The losers don't matter to MLB but the money and the exciting stars do.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Economic Outlook in Latin America: Meatballs

The Miami Herald reports on a conference of economists talking about Latin America's short-term economic future. It's not an impressive result. One said that if he were a weatherman he'd say "cloudy with a chance of rain" though I would venture to say the quality of the analyses is such that we can label all of it cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

That same economist, incidentally, had thought that in 2010 the region was about to "overcome the curse of being emerging markets" despite remaining reliant on high commodity prices. Now, of course, low commodity prices are seen as a brake on growth.

Another commented that Ecuador has "exhausted its economic growth model" yet will grow by 4 percent anyway. I guess economists have a different definition of "exhausted."

Yet another said that stagnation is a risk. Great, thanks.

It's all arbitrary, and when you get to the end of the article you realize that you have not learned anything. Variables like public education are posed as the critical obstacle for Brazil yet somehow not in Colombia. Congressional intransigence is a problem in Mexico but somehow not anywhere else.

If you shook a Magic Eight Ball you'd get about as good an idea.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Bashing Obama on Latin America

There seems to be a media formula for describing President Obama's Latin America policy.

1. Assert that he is ignoring Latin America
2. Find someone who agrees, often conservative, as supportive evidence
3. Provide no empirical evidence

This is what we have in the Christian Science Monitor, which states categorically that Vice President Biden's trip offers no specifics of any kind. Yet James Bosworth notes one specific and useful energy policy initiative that Biden discussed with the Dominican Republic. Plus, the Dominican ambassador wrote his own op-ed about all the great things going on between the two countries.

Biden, of course, also went to Brazil. According to the CSM:

Biden’s goodwill agenda is seen as a sign of how little US-Latin American relations have progressed under the Obama administration. 

But then we take a look at concrete numbers from the Pew Research Global Attitude Project, and what do we find? That Brazilians' view of Obama has improved significantly since 2009 and so in 2013 stood at 69 percent. True, this doesn't take the NSA stuff into consideration and there is plenty of mutual skepticism, but the gloom and doom tone seems not to have much empirical basis. Indeed, we also know from several studies that Latin American views of the United States are very positive overall.

I keep coming back to the op-ed I wrote about Obama's low key Latin America policy. Basically, we have a situation where Biden is traveling to hear concerns and discuss at least some new policies, and is bashed as doing nothing. There are literally even complaints that Obama failed because he didn't go himself!

Ultimately, this is all about picking nits. Compare Obama's achievements and lack of stupid decisions in Latin America and he stands up quite well. Compare him only to his predecessor and he is an absolute gem. Compare him to some sort of perfect ideal and he will fail.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Refugees and Rafael Correa

Human Rights Watch calls on Ecuador to revoke a presidential decree that gives asylum seekers less time to make their case.

The brief argues that the presidential decree imposes short, inflexible procedural time limits that make it difficult, if not impossible, for asylum seekers to apply for refugee status and, if necessary, appeal adverse status determinations. The decree also sets a high admissibility standard for applications to be considered for refugee status determination; allows officials broad power to exclude asylum seekers from the asylum procedure; and grants overly broad powers to authorities to revoke refugee status.

The United Nations Refugee Agency concurs. Rafael Correa is between a rock and hard place. Because of Colombia's civil war, Ecuador has over 50,000 registered refugees and even more hoping to achieve that status. It's been hard to deal with logistically, and from a political standpoint a significant majority of Ecuadorians have a negative view of Colombians living there. And for the past several years Correa has framed his decisions accordingly:

"Este año tenemos la mitad de solicitudes de refugio que el año pasado porque 
antes cualquiera presentaba una solicitud de refugio, había muy pocos requisitos", 
expresó el jefe de Estado, quien enfatizó que ahora "es mucho más estricta la 
revisión para otorgar el estatuto de refugiado a alguna persona". "Algunas veces, 
delincuentes pedían refugio y eran refugiados. Esto se está acabando", puntualizó.

If Ecuador's voters feel unsafe as a result of a liberal refugee policy, it gets tightened. The logic is strikingly similar to the U.S. government's treatment of undocumented immigrants.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Colombia Skeptical of FTAs

For all the excitement and claims about free trade agreements, Colombian legislators remain skeptical to the point that they rejected South Korea until the one with the U.S. can be studied more.

Congress of Colombia voted against the free trade agreement, which did not make it past the third debate in the House of Representatives, as it was decided to further study some of the more controversial clauses including one which affected the automobile industry, which would have been one of the hardest hit by the trade agreement, reported El Universal....The FTA was signed by the two countries in February 2013, although the trade pact has been held up in the Colombian Congress three times, and has always faced stiff opposition from different sectors of industry.

The prevailing line in the United States was that the delay in ratifying the free trade agreement was largely the fault of Democrats--the U.S. media rarely reports on the doings of Latin American legislatures. But remember back in 2008 when the Bush administration was insisting that Colombia needed this agreement because it was so awesome and Life As We Know It could not continue without its passage?

Yeah, that was all bogus.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

FIU Poll on Cuban Americans

The Cuban Research Institute at FIU released its annual poll on Cuban-American views of Cuba policy. The results are not particularly surprising. Young people oppose the embargo more than older, a majority oppose it; a strong majority favors re-establishing diplomatic relations and lifting travel restrictions; a large majority say the embargo isn't working very well.

It bears repeating that demography matters a lot for understanding these views. Younger Cuban Americans just don't support the old-style punitive policies.

That's a lot of downward movement in the past 23 years and we can reasonably expect it to continue slowly sloping. There is tremendous lag, though, between those changing views and the response from hardliners in the House and Senate, who are out of step with the majority but still receive a lot of money from the older population. The poll suggests that someday, and maybe not even that far into the future, we'll see the election of a Florida politician (maybe even a Cuban American) who runs with engagement as part of his or her platform.


Monday, June 16, 2014

U.S. and Latin American Relations writing (part 8)

My last update was a bit more than two weeks ago. I made quite a bit of progress since then. I got in the groove of revision, which was especially necessary in the immigration chapter because so much has happened. In the political economy chapter I noticed a similar dynamic, particularly how I mentioned the FTAA several times as it wasn't yet clear back then (at least not to me!) that it was dead.

Progress (Deadline: August 1, 2014)

Chapter 1 (Theory) - Done
Chapter 2 (Historical) - Done
Chapter 3 (Rise of US Hegemony) - Done
Chapter 4 (Intervention/Good Neighbor) - Done
Chapter 5 (Early Cold War) - Done
Chapter 6 (Cuba Revolution)- Done
Chapter 7 (Communist Threat) - revised; need to polish
Chapter 8 (Challenge to US Hegemony)- writing (28 pages out of ~45) Goal: four pages a week
Chapter 9 (Political Economy)- revised; need to polish
Chapter 10 (Immigration) - revised; need to polish
Chapter 11 (Human Rights) - comments written; need to revise Finish by July 4 
Chapter 12 (Drug Trafficking) - starting to write comments Finish by July 23

Chapter 8 writing goals:

May 16 - 12 pages
May 23 - 16 pages
May 30 - 20 pages
June 6 - 24 pages
June 13 - 28 pages
June 20 - 32 pages
June 27 - 36 pages
July 4 - 42 pages
July 11 - 44 pages
July 11-25 - revise and polish

It is June 16 and I've written 29 pages, which means I am right on track (I needed to be at 28 as I started this week).


Tony Gwynn Has Died

Tony Gwynn died today after several years of treating cancer of the salivary glands (which he believes he got from chewing tobacco). This is just awful. He was only 54 years old. As a big Padres fan, Tony was a major part of my childhood. I was 14 years old when he helped take the team to the World Series. He played at San Diego State (then returned there to coach) and played his Hall of Fame entire career with the Padres, so was truly a San Diego phenomenon. Even more importantly, he was universally known as a nice person. As a kid, I had the opportunity to chat very quickly with him a few times while getting his autograph and he couldn't have been more friendly (as was also the case with Jerry Coleman, who also died this year). And just look at these statistics. Only 434 strikeouts in his entire career alongside 3,141 hits. One of the eternal "what ifs" debated among Padres fans is whether he could've batted .400 in 1994 if the strike hadn't ended the season.

I've written before about how I have an autographed print on my office. With Tony Gwynn there really isn't hagiography. He was a great baseball player and a great person.

What terrible news. What a horrible year for the team. On and off the field.

Update: The Padres issued a statement, which includes this. Very true.

There are no words to express what Tony means to this organization and this community. More than just Mr. Padre, Tony was Mr. San Diego. He cared deeply about our city and had a profound impact on our community. He forever will be remembered not only for his tremendous on-field accomplishments, but also for his infectious laugh, warm, outgoing personality and huge heart.


Santos and Obama

Juan Manuel Santos' victory in the second round is not about the United States. But stop for a minute and consider U.S. policy, especially in the context of constant chatter that the Obama administration is ignoring the region and slighting its allies.

In December 2013 President Obama stood with President Santos and praised the FARC negotiations:

I congratulated President Santos on his bold and brave efforts to bring about a lasting and just peace inside of Colombia in his negotiations with the FARC. Obviously, this has been a longstanding conflict within Colombia. It is not easy; there are many challenges ahead. But the fact that he has taken this step I think is right, because it sends a signal to the people of Colombia that it is possible to unleash the enormous potential if we can move beyond this conflict. But obviously, there are going to be some very challenging questions moving forward. I’m pleased to see the President’s strong commitment on that front. The United States is supportive of those efforts.

The Obama administration hitched its horse--wisely in my opinion--to the peace negotiations and so clearly hoped for a Santos victory. Really, really quickly after Santos got over the 50% hump, the State Department issued a congratulatory statement:

We congratulate President Santos on his victory, as well as the Colombian people and electoral officials on a peaceful and orderly election. We look forward to continuing to work with President Santos and his administration to advance our bilateral relationship and to continuing to support the Colombian Government and people as they pursue a negotiated end to the conflict there.

I had argued in a recent op-ed that the Obama administration was engaging a lot with Latin America, but just quietly. This is one example. We got over the militarized Bush-Uribe era and quietly encouraged conflict resolution. It seems the Colombian people chose the same. From the standpoint of U.S. policy toward Latin America, it's refreshing.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Rob Ruck's Raceball

Rob Ruck's Raceball is an entertaining look at the development of black and Latino participation in baseball. He traces this from the Negro Leagues to Cuba to Mexican leagues the academies in the Dominican Republic. For baseball history, it's a great read--lots of interesting tidbits and interviews. Analytically, it falls a bit short.

The subtitle of the book is "How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game." This is obviously provocative and ends up more complicated than that. The essence of his argument about the Negro Leagues was that MLB integration destroyed them, which over time decreased African American interest in baseball. This stands in clear tension to the fact that African Americans were trying very hard to integrate. In other words, this isn't simply one agent acting upon another. As Ruck notes, Jackie Robinson is now considered a national hero--hardly an accomplice in colonization.

The part on Mexico was my favorite, not only for the stories but for the outcome, which unfortunately is less unanalyzed. A fight to attract American players in the 1940s eventually led to MLB agreeing to pay for Mexican players they wanted. That led to strong Mexican leagues, but Ruck jumps straight to Fernando Valenzuela without examining how Mexico succeeded so well.

The book ends with the suggestion that somehow MLB will destroy Latin American baseball: "And if it's lost, the last, best piece of baseball's soul may go with it" (p. 235). Sounds dire, but it comes soon after an interview with Juan Marichal--an icon of both MLB and the DR--says he thinks the Dominican academies are great. So how do we square that?

For a book that emphasizes three Latin American countries, one drawback is that there are virtually no Spanish-language sources at all--books, newspapers, documents, etc. (so that a chapter called "Viva Mexico!" relies on the NYT and WaPo) That is a major drawback for the thesis because it removes the Latin American voice from the equation--to what degree did they believe they were being colonized, or that the experience was negative in some form?


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dollarization in Latin America

A professor of economics at Johns Hopkins makes the case that dollarization in Latin America leads to less misery. Unfortunately, correlation and causation whirl around each other.

The lesson to be learned is clear: The tactics which socialist governments like Venezuela and Argentina employ yield miserable results, whereas dollarization is associated with less misery.

Well, no. Or at best, maybe. The question of dollarization is fascinating and deserves more attention, even in the mainstream media, which for example too often just bashes Rafael Correa without latching on to how Ecuador's economy is fundamentally different from non-dollarized countries.

But you cannot just flip it and say "socialist" (a term left undefined) governments are worse. In fact, you could make a good argument that countries with capitalism and dollar pegs (like Argentina at the time of their crash) create more misery. Further, of the seven most "miserable" countries, four of them are already part of FTAs with the United States, obviously a sign of a) capitalism and b) close economic ties to the U.S.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Brat on Immigration

Tea Partier Dave Brat defeated Eric Cantor in a huge primary upset, which has immediately been labeled as the death knell for immigration reform this year.

Brat is an economic professor, yet his stance on immigration suggests a hazy conception of supply and demand.

When addressing the issue of immigration, we must start by securing our border. An open border is both a national security threat and an economic threat that our country cannot ignore. I reject any proposal that grants amnesty and undermines the fundamental rule of law. Adding millions of workers to the labor market will force wages to fall and jobs to be lost. I support proposals that will secure our border, enforce our current laws, and restore an orderly and fair process to allow law abiding individuals to work towards becoming citizens of this great nation.

Leave out the absurdity of calling the border open. Instead, look at this discussion of amnesty. He says that granting amnesty will add millions of workers to the labor market. But those people are already here, making in some cases illegally low wages! How does giving them legal status make them come here when they're already here?

If you give them legal status, their wages will rise, which will have the opposite effect of what Brat claims. If migrant wages go up, then native wages will either stay the same or go up.

If you take the "enforce our current laws" to its logical conclusion, then at least in theory it means Brat supports massive deportation, which would be unbelievably costly and hurt the economy to boot (just ask farmers).

I guess voters believe these arguments if they come from an economics professor. But they defy common sense.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Targeted Cuba Sanctions

Ricardo Herrero, the Executive Director of Cuba Now (or is it #CubaNow with automatic hashtags?) criticizes the embargo in the Huffington Post. He does a good job in pointing out its numerous problems and how it is counterproductive to U.S. interests and stated U.S. policy goals of helping the Cuban people. One sentence, though, gave me pause:

Any sanctions on Cuba should be targeted toward those individuals directly involved in human rights violations on the Island.

This is all the rage these days for Latin America (Venezuela is the high profile case right now) though it's not a new concept globally. I have yet to see any analysis demonstrating that targeted sanctions are effective. In fact, most of you read suggests the opposite.

Instead, at least in Latin America they're barely even intended to work. I am not sure whether advocates of Venezuela sanctions really believe they're going to have an impact (though maybe they do) but they need to be seen as doing something. In the case of Cuba, these proposals are tossed out there as a bone to appease the more rabid anti-Castro lawmakers that something will still be done. We're not getting rid of sanctions, just doing a little nip and tuck.

Having said that, I would much prefer small failed sanctions than huge failed sanctions, which is what we've got now.


Monday, June 09, 2014

Obama's Low Key Latin America Policy

I just published this op-ed in the Miami Herald. It crystallizes something I had mentioned in a few blog posts about President Obama's Latin America policy. He has no grand strategy but that's a good thing because grand strategies aren't very successful in the region--instead, there is a lot going on under the radar. Plus, if a U.S. president doesn't screw up in Latin America, then historically speaking they're doing quite well.

I also understand this is spitting into the pretty strong wind of conventional wisdom, which holds that Obama is a failure because he's "neglecting" or "ignoring" the region.


Sunday, June 08, 2014

FARC Election Ceasefire

The FARC declared a three week ceasefire and criticized Oscar Iván Zuluaga for being a fascist tool (here is the full text in Spanish on the FARC's website). The runoff election is June 15.

The logical questions: who does this help? Or does it even matter?

My immediate thought relates to power politics. The FARC just made a unilateral concession based largely on credible threats from Zuluaga to mpose much stricter conditions on the peace process. That provides a boost to Zuluaga, who (obviously with Alvaro Uribe whispering in his ear) makes the guerrillas nervous. I could imagine conservative voters in particular liking the idea of making them more nervous. On the other hand, the FARC has declared ceasefires before, even around elections, so this is not unprecedented even absent Zuluaga.

Does it matter? When the polls are neck and neck, it definitely could. One important factor is participation--turnout was not high (40% of eligible voters) in the first round so does this bring out conservatives in higher numbers? I have a harder time thinking of why this would increase turnout from centrists.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

Maduro, Assad and Foreign Policy

Bashar al-Assad's government claims he own 88.7% of votes and won the Syrian presidential election. I don't think any reasonable person could believe Syrian votes actually matter, or that Assad presides over anything other than a dictatorship. Yet Nicolás Maduro issued a statement congratulating Assad and how the vote affirms his leadership and shows how the Syrian people desire peace.

I've written before how Venezuela often seems to define its foreign policy by doing the opposite of what the United States wants, using the language of anti-imperialism. Openly praising dictators takes it just one step further.

This reminds me of how the U.S. government praised clearly venal and dictatorial governments in Latin America during the Cold War. It is really a mirror of the Venezuelan stance now. The United States government didn't really care about El Salvador or Guatemala--it cared about the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Venezuelan government doesn't care about Syria--it cares about the United States.

Praising those who deserve none is geopolitical and primarily about sending signals. In the U.S. case, it was about being firm against Marxism. In the Venezuelan case, it is about being firm against the Empire. Both deserve only scorn.


Friday, June 06, 2014

Latin American Debt

U.S. and Latin American Relations has a simple table showing total amount of external debt in Latin America, so I spent some time updating it. It poses some challenges.

Total External Debt in Latin America, 1980-2012 ($ billions)

Costa Rica
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
*Statistics changed drastically from 2006 report to 2013 report

Source: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Publicaciones Estadísticas,

ECLAC revises data from year to year, which I became really aware of when I was making tables for Understanding Latin American Politics. That complicates reporting when you want to show a long period of time. Typically, though, the numbers are revised only a small amount so that the overall patterns you see still hold, and that's really what the table is for. For debt, however, the most recent (2013) report had drastic upward revisions for a few countries. I think patterns still do hold but the absolute numbers are tricky. I put those cases in asterisks and will have to think about the best way to explain.

What we see is an absolute increase in debt. If you look at it instead as a percentage of GDP, it's not nearly as bad. ECLAC did not report that statistic in 1980 so I can't show it across time. But if you compare 2005 to 2012, most countries look a lot better.

Argentina, for example, went from 62.1% of GDP to 29.6% because it had strong growth. But Argentina also shows the limits of these numbers because there is concern that the rosy side is overstated. The quality of numbers is therefore also an issue.

The upshot is that Latin American countries are borrowing a lot and countries like China have been dishing it out. The problem comes when economic growth slows, as when commodity prices drop, and servicing it eats up a greater share of your capital.


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