Friday, March 31, 2017

Autogolpe in Venezuela

There has been an autogolpe, or self-coup, in Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled that it would govern in the place of the National Assembly, and would feel free to prosecute members of the legislature. Horizontal accountability, already barely there, is now gone entirely. Unlike Peru in 1992 and Guatemala in 1993, the judicial system was part of it, not a target. But the basic idea is the same. In the language of all dictatorships, the government argues that democracy must be attacked in order to be preserved.

I had a lengthy Twitter discussion with Quico Toro yesterday, as he (like others) called on the military to do something. He argued that all other avenues had been exhausted. I argued that hope lay in pushing the splits between hardliners and softliners. Henry Ramos Allsup has said he thinks there plenty of people in the military and in the government who believe this is undemocratic and want elections.

Empowering chavista democrats is the challenge. My own opinion--for now, at least!--is that the best way to do this is for Latin America to close ranks. As I've made clear, I don't think Latin American unity is on the horizon. Maybe the autogolpe changes that. Maybe someone like Rafael Correa, who accepts elections and term limits, says something privately. Something along those lines could give life to the softliners. Peru recalled its ambassador but for now the response is not too strong.

If Latin America abdicates its responsibility, then the situation is more dire. At some point there will be large protests, and those protests will be repressed. Perhaps, as in 1989, a chunk of the military will resent being forced to do the repressing, and push back. Or perhaps a lot of people die and not much changes.

I suppose it's also possible that nothing happens, and everyone waits to see whether a presidential election is held in 2018. Meanwhile, Venezuela becomes more and more like Zimbabwe.

As they say, it's developing.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Postmortem on Venezuela and the OAS

I recommend Geoff Ramsey's post at WOLA's Venezuela blog about five key takeaways from the OAS session. Actually, I find the entire episode almost more interesting for what it says about broader issues than about Venezuela per se.

So, for example, the Trump administration is doing exactly what I would want a U.S. government to do, which is play an active role but one that is quiet and collaborative. As President Obama said several years ago with regard to foreign policy, "Don't do stupid shit." Marco Rubio is falling into that trap, but thus far Trump isn't in the Venezuelan case*. And that's amazing, really.

Next, Mexico playing a lead is quite a development. Remember when Brazil was the presumed hemispheric diplomatic player? Lula cherished that (as did many past Brazilian presidents), Dilma did so less, and now it's entirely dormant. Given its size, its threat from the Trump administration, but also ironically its close connections to the Trump administration, Mexico could be a hemispheric leader.

*Just one 3:00 a.m. tweet could destroy this, but so far, so good.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conservative Take on Cuba

Rep. James Comer, a conservative Republican from Kentucky, just returned from Cuba, where he joined four other members of Congress on a trade mission. He then published an op-ed calling for the end of the embargo. He makes a good case, with essentially the same arguments I (and many others) have been making for years.

The foreign policy position of every American President from Eisenhower to Obama has essentially been to shut off Cuba’s economy through an embargo, thereby starving its people and hoping the people would rise up and overthrow the Castro Regime.  However, what would transpire over the years with the embargo is that the Castro Regime blamed the blunders of the Cuban economy on the American embargo. Thus, the regime remained in power despite horrible economic conditions and standards of living for Cuban citizens.  In other words, U.S. policy toward Cuba actually helped Castro remain in power and keep Cuba a socialist state.
 Lifting the US embargo against Cuba is an overall win-win.  It is a win for foreign policy because countries that the US trades with are countries with which we have good relations. Similarly, countries we ban trade with are the ones where conflict often arises.  Noting Cuba’s proximity to the US, the last thing we need is for China or Russia to establish its own Guantanamo Bay Military Base pointed right at us.  It is also a win for trade, especially agricultural trade.

I'm not concerned about China or Russia establishing a base, which won't happen, but overall I agree.

The big question of course is whether Donald Trump sees Cuba in economic terms or in Cold War terms for his Florida constituency. Comer tries to play to his "make a better deal for Americans" schtick. Bit by bit, Republicans over the years have moved away from support for the embargo, so are ready to accept liberalization.


Marco Rubio's "Bully" Pulpit

One way not to get what you want is to bully other countries publicly.

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a strong warning to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti on Monday, saying that it would be difficult to protect them from possible cuts in U.S. aid if they fail to defend democracy when the Venezuelan government comes up for a possible sanctions vote at the Organization of American States (OAS). 
The Florida Republican, one of the harshest critics of the Venezuelan government in Washington, told El Nuevo Herald that the OAS vote set for Tuesday is exceptionally important for the future of democracy in the region, and of the hemispheric organization itself. 
The vote would even affect the assistance that Washington provides to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, he added.

Read more here:

Read more here:

This made me think immediately of George W. Bush pressuring Chile and Mexico (among others) in 2003 to get their UN votes for the invasion of Iraq. It did not go over well, and poisoned the U.S.-Mexico relationship for a long time.

Even worse in this case is the obvious fact that punishing El Salvador and Haiti will only make migration and other issues worse, which then creates more problems for the U.S. As with so many aspects of U.S. policy, unintended (but foreseeable) consequences hover around. Though I suppose we've been learning that blustering and then not getting what you want is a hallmark of the current administration.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Podcast Episode 29: Venezuela and the OAS

In Episode 29 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I consider the obstacles to the OAS taking some sort of action with regard to Venezuela. My basic argument is that prescriptive analyses aren't terribly useful unless we think about what challenges must first be overcome.

The upshot is that it will take a Herculean effort for anything substantive to happen.

I want to give a shout out to Xanda Lemos, a doctoral student in History at Emory University, alumnus of UNC Charlotte, and musician, for providing the musical clip at the beginning, which was something I had been lacking.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Problems With Implementing Colombia's Peace Agreement

I recommend listening to Adam Isacson's podcast, where in his first episode he discusses challenges to implementing Colombia's peace agreement, especially with regard to measures being delayed. The list of potential reasons is alarmingly long. He also notes that there are precisely 571 "observable, measurable actions" that all the parties to the accords have to complete. Trying to do that much in such a complex environment is daunting.

One point he makes that I found interesting was that one (of the many) potential problems is that the Colombian military might be the state institution with the best logistical capabilities, yet for obvious reasons it cannot be used to help the FARC demobilize. So the logistics suffer badly.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Trump and Soft Power in Latin America

Andrés Oppenheimer brings up a useful point about the Trump administration and Latin America. When floods hit Peru, countries from around Latin America (including Venezuela, which can ill afford it) responded.

The presidents of Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama, among others, had either called Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski or announced humanitarian aid to Peru, the report said. But there was no mention of the United States. 
When I called a senior aide to Kuczynski to ask him whether the United States had been accidentally left out of the news report, he said there was still no official statement from Washington, nor an announcement of U.S. aid.

Read more here:

Read more here:

This is all about soft power. In the article I recently published on the Obama Doctrine and Cuba, soft power was an important component. When you ditch soft power, you lose leverage. If you slice up the State Department and other government agencies, it's harder to respond effectively to crises. Trump is moving in a direction of almost exclusive use of hard power, with threats and bluster leading the way. That will not achieve U.S. policy goals in Latin America, though I suppose we don't have a firm grip of what the administration's policy goals in the region actually are.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Podcast Episode 28: Human Rights in Chile

In Episode 28 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my friend and co-author Silvia Borzutzky, Teaching Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Carnegie Mellon University. She has written extensively on social security and health policies in Chile, as well as Chilean politics. She has a forthcoming book with Palgrave entitled Human Rights Policies in Chile: The Unfinished Struggle for Truth and Justice: 1990-2014, that will be coming out this year. That’s our topic, especially the distinction between truth and justice.


Trump, the IACHR, and Venezuela

The Trump administration refused to attend a meeting of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is looking into the effects of the immigration Executive Orders.

My immediate reaction was that this was great for the Venezuelan government. Hugo Chávez hated the IACHR and even pulled out of it in 2012. It has been, in fact, persistent in highlighting human rights abuses in Venezuela. If there was going to be any sort of hemispheric response to the Venezuelan crisis, the IACHR would have been part of it in some manner. As I've argued, there won't be a unified response, and this is really just another example.

Now Trump has signaled that it does not value the IACHR, which puts him squarely in the same camp as Nicolás Maduro. Every day they seem to have more in common.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gangs in El Salvador

A group of researchers at Florida International University wrote a lengthy report on gangs in El Salvador, based on surveys and interviews. The title is "The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador." I know from talking to one of the authors, Jonathan Rosen, that he personally went into Salvadoran prisons to do the interviews. That's some serious fieldwork (with some serious IRB requirements!).

Some key points:

--contrary to widespread opinion (including mine) there seems to be little connection with migration/deportation. The interviewees were born and raised in El Salvador and had little connection with peers in the U.S. I think this deserves even more attention. The gangs are indeed transnational but the connections are not always clear.

--another transnational connection is the long-term effect of the civil war, which tore families apart. "El Salvador has been left with a broken social fabric as a result of the prolonged civil war" (p. 23).

--leaving gangs does happen, though it's not easy.

--having a religious experience is a major part of leaving gangs.

--kids join gangs for the reasons you would expect, such as economic deprivation. The results strongly suggest that they'd prefer something else. They want education and jobs.

It's well worth a read.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Official Border Wall Requirements

You can go to the list of new contracts for Customs and Border Protection to see what the Trump administration wants for its wall. For example:

That's a screenshot. So it needs to be reinforced concrete, "imposing," and not amenable to ladders. It should resist a sledgehammer for an hour. It should be impervious to a tunnel up to six feet under (is there an implied pun there?).

And of course it should be aesthetically pleasing, with different colors and textures. It does not specify motif.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rick Waddell, Maker of Peace War

Donald Trump named General Rick Waddell as the Western Hemisphere Director on the National Security Council (after his predecessor, Craig Deare, was fired for criticizing Trump). Early in his early military career in the mid-1980s, he served in Honduras and write a book about that experience. The title, In War’s Shadow: Waging Peace in Central America, immediately gives you a feel for Waddell’s proclivities.

Waddell’s intelligence comes through. He’s a really smart individual. But he reveals a rigid vision of the political world that seems untouched by counter-evidence and is accompanied by quite open contempt for those who disagree. This might make him an excellent Trump official.

Early on, Waddell sounds positively Trumpist. Our “wavering allies” are “leeches” (p.36) and as he looks at rich Latin Americans at the Miami airport, he notes that as an “ardent nationalist” (p. 37) he is comforted by the fact that they seem to “have respect for America” (p. 37). Even the education system in the U.S. “declared war on teaching” by not providing enough curriculum on the glories of past battles like Inchon (p. 5). Thankfully, the election of Ronald Reagan brought back flag waving (p. 13). Yes, he specifically mentions flag waving. If you stray from rigid patriotism too far, you produce “drivel” (p. 35) and are beneath his contempt. If you don’t show enough religious fervor, you’re part of “the decline in the spiritual nature of young Americans today” (p. 70). As the book progresses, you hear loud and clear his disdain for the press, which overstates scandal (the “nasty ol’ military [p.81)]) and never gives proper credit for the peace and democracy we were spreading to Central America. Throughout the book he veers off into bitterness about the media. He even attacks CNN for “bald, bold-faced lies” (p. 122). Trump could not have said—or tweeted—it better.

In short, all the way back in 1992, Waddell already dreamed of Making America Great Again.

He takes pains to lambaste the “radicals” who espouse dependency theory, which he says believes the Honduran economy is controlled by the U.S. “for the benefit of overweight housewives who wanted cheap bananas” (p. 49). That is a novel description of dependency theorists, somehow simultaneously inaccurate and sexist. Instead, for Waddell underdevelopment is due in part to “ignorance” (p. 49) A much simpler explanation, to be sure. He was also “depressed” at Congress’ refusal to fund the Contras, which was due to the “typically misinformed, vote-grabbing Democratic congressman” (pp. 117-118). Liberals don’t like protecting the U.S. of A.

For Waddell, the idea that U.S. actions could be considered imperialist is ridiculous. The U.S. government was just protecting its national security, which made it perfectly acceptable to station troops in the country and pour enormous amounts of money into projects the U.S. deemed necessary. He consciously tries to be culturally sensitive, such as condemning the pejorative term “Hondos” for Hondurans, but he is utterly unquestioning of the U.S. presence there in the first place. He expressed bitterness that President Reagan would not get “accolades” for it (p. 67). As an independent entity, Honduras seemed barely to exist. That the U.S. was doing Honduras a big favor by being there goes without saying.

Waddell believed that if U.S. troops were to be stationed in a country, they should work with locals on infrastructure. That collaboration was necessary, he believed, because “[i]t would be no good to create a welfare mentality” (p. 58) by having American soldiers do all the work. And in general he’s dismissive. Noting that the Hondurans wondered why there was so much money for GI entertainment but less for working on projects within Honduras, Waddell just notes that they “refused to understand the legalities of congressional authorizations” (p. 95).

Vietnam seeps into every page. The war was poisonous because it weakened discipline, undermined patriotism, and made the Army soft. At least back in the 1980s, he believed it had not recovered. This is the fault of the 1960s protestors, the liberal media, and the loss of traditional values. This galls him.

Low intensity conflict had a major impact on Waddell, who kept writing about how the Army needed to adapt to new realities of conflict. As he concludes with satisfaction, “all too often freedom still proceeds from the barrel of a gun” (p. 205). And he’s now advising the president on Latin America.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Inaction in Latin America

A few days ago I published my article on how Latin America won't unite, using the Venezuela crisis as one example. Right around the same time, Luis Almagro called for Venezuela to be suspended from the OAS if Nicolás Maduro didn't call elections within thirty days.

So what happened?

--Peru's foreign minister, who serves the most active president in South America right now, said this was "extreme" and there is no consensus for suspension

--Argentine President Mauricio Macri was already undercutting Almagro's efforts in Venezuela before his announcement because he wants support for nominating a UN chief.

--the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, an organization of leftist parties, closed ideological ranks and criticized Almagro.

--Rafael Correa would not let Lilian Tintori (Leopoldo López's wife) into Ecuador to make the case against the Venezuelan government, though she did talk to Brazilian officials.

--the Mexican legislature is discussing the issue.

Taken together, these are not suggestive of action. Leftists close ranks and conservatives don't care enough.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Colombia's Coca Boom

I highly recommend Adam Isacson's article over at the Washington Office on Latin America about the renewed coca boom in Colombia. It is, as you might guess, complicated. The problem is that policy makers too easily view it as simple.

He covers it all, with some great visuals that I will be gratefully be using to discuss Colombian politics next week in class. Here is the crux:

Establishing a functional, low-impunity state presence in vast ungoverned territories is essential if Colombia is ever to lock in permanent reductions in coca cultivation, to halt the terrifying current wave of attacks on social leaders, and to prevent other illegal armed groups from assuming control of previously FARC-dominated areas. Governing abandoned areas is a complicated task, but it should be eased by the historic exit of a hostile insurgent group.

And this map, from the Colombian government itself, shows how big this challenge is.

We need patience, which even in the best of times is not a common trait for politicians. Secretary of State Tillerson has already signaled his disinterest in the peace plan, and so we can only hope that he is as irrelevant to policy-making as he seems to be.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Latin America Will Not Unite

I wrote this piece for Latin America Goes Global about how Latin America won't unite and I'm not particularly nice about it. The region is facing serious threats with regard to Venezuela and to Trump, but no problems seem to have any real unifying force.

I rarely make predictions like this, and I must say I hope I'm hope. I'll be happy to be wrong and explain why I so blithely wrote Latin American leaders off. I don't think that'll happen, though.

By coincidence, David Smilde just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about trying to get a regional response to Venezuela. So read his piece as a counterpart. He sounds a somewhat hopeful note. I'm the sad trombone.

As a side note, some of the genesis for this comes from my undergraduates. In discussion I'll get questions like "Why don't Latin American countries get together?" It's an excellent question.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Podcast Episode 27: How Latin America Views Trump

In episode 27 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my friend Robert Funk, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Instituto de Asuntos Públicos at the Universidad de Chile. He's in the media a lot trying to explain Donald Trump to Latin American audiences. That's what we discuss. For better or worse, schadenfreude is one word that comes up.


More Legal Coca in Bolivia

Evo Morales is increasing the amount of coca that Bolivians can legally grow, from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

"It was time to bury Law 1008, which sought to eliminate coca in Bolivia," President Morales said, referring to a U.S.-led 1988 law which sought to limit production and impose harsh penalties for illegal coca cultivation.

My immediate reaction was to wonder why it took this long--almost 30 years. Morales de-linked from the US drug war years ago. For example, he kicked out the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2011 and worked more with Brazil instead.

Law 1008 has been denounced for a long time, by both Bolivians and scholars in the U.S., and human rights organizations for being U.S.-imposed and draconian. Morales had apparently been sidestepping the law already, but I am curious why it remained on the books.

I assume the Trump administration will denounce this, assuming there is actually someone paying attention.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Podcast Episode 26: Comparing Latin America Media Attacks to Trump

On Episode 26 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talked with Liz Stein, who is the Mark Helmke postdoctoral scholar of global media, development and democracy and a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. The topic is presidential attacks on media in Latin America, with comparison to Donald Trump. Be sure to check out her recent piece in the Monkey Cage with Marisa Kellan on this very topic.


State Department Dysfunction

From The Hill:

The State Department’s acting spokesperson admitted Thursday that he did not know Mexico’s foreign minister was in Washington to meet with senior White House aides.

And it gets worse:

Videgaray met Thursday with President Trump's son-in-law and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, as well as National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, according to the Los Angeles Times.

At this point, the State Department is barely functioning at all. Rex Tillerson appears to have no White House access, no sway, and no clue.

We must come to accept that Jared Kushner is now running a big part of Latin America policy. When Chris Sabatini wrote about the possible Latin America appointees, like everyone else he assumed there would be...appointees. But this is a family affair, run by people who know how to build golf courses.

Morale at the State Department is plummeting and experts at State have no influence of any kind, which is precisely what Trump wants. Experts just make things complicated.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster

I read and thoroughly enjoyed David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays he published in 2006. It's tremendous writing, where erudition, humor, and keen observation all come together in a neat package. It's a massive mind rattling around America.

Wallace is famous for footnotes, and this book gets to the point where footnotes of footnotes are down to something like 2 point font to the point that my middle aged eyes are literally incapable of reading them without a microscope. But anyway.

The essays:

Big Red Son: this is about the porn industry, and specifically the Adult Video News awards ceremony. Wallace's deadpan view of the main players and the ceremony itself lets them become almost parodies of themselves. For some reason I also smiled at his Midwestern dialect as he mentions eating "supper" with porn stars. As someone who does not use the term, for me it conjures up a wholesome scene of homemade food and family talk, so it was jarring to see it used for people with minimal clothing eating terrible buffet food and making lewd jokes.

Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think: a hilariously negative review of John Updike's 1997 novel Toward the End of Time.

Besides distracting us with worries about whether Mr. Updike might be injured or ill, the turgidity of the prose also increases our dislike of the novel’s narrator...

Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed: a short speech from a new edition of some Kafka work. It makes you realize not only how smart and well-read he is, but how lucky undergraduates were at Illinois State when they happened to stumble onto Wallace's literature course.

Authority and American Usage: putatively an essay about a new book on English usage and how political it can be, it becomes Wallace's way of explaining why he's so obsessed with usage. He labels himself as "We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." We learn, among other things, that Wallace was an avid reader of dictionary introductions, which apparently always involve the polemics of language. The core of the article is the never-ending debate between prescriptive and descriptive ways of understanding language, and he even uses a very funny example of men wearing pants or skirts as an illustration. Somehow that organically leads to a discussion of race and class.

The View From Mrs. Thompson: A brief narrative, diary almost, of his 9/11 experience, which becomes largely a description of Bloomington, IN and the Midwestern response in general. Quick but moving in its own way (the narrative, not the Midwest). With a twist.

How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart: Wallace is a huge tennis fan and former player (tennis was a key part of Infinite Jest) so he reviewed Tracy Austin's ghostwritten memoir. Its hard for me to imagine why he looked forward to reading it, but it worked out well because he hated it and enjoyed explaining the genre of ghostwritten books by athletes. There are gems like "there's little sign in this narrator of anything like the frontal-lobe activity required for outright deception."

Up, Simba: Wallace rode around with John McCain in the 2000 primaries for a week or so. Once you get past the now-jarring idea that McCain got people excited by somehow claiming outsider status, you can better enjoy the essay. I didn't connect as much with this essay, both because it seems like fairly uninteresting context now but also because he spends a lot of time detailing tedium. "If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you're getting a bona fide look at the reality of media life on the Trail." Even for such a gifted writer, 80 pages of tedium can become, well, tedious. [Note: if you're wondering "Up, Simba" is what the McCain cameraman would say as he lifted the camera to his shoulder. That the title came from something so mundane gives you a sense of the essay].

Consider the Lobster: "For practical purposes, everyone knows what a lobster is. As usual, though, there's much more to know than most of us care about."  He goes to the Maine Lobster Festival, actually for Gourmet magazine of all outlets. A straightforward description of the festival then veers into the ethics of dropping a live being into a pot of boiling water so you can eat it. The result is both thought-provoking and funny. Wallace questions himself and asks the reader to question his/herself as well. I actually don't eat meat precisely for many of the reasons he (a dedicated carnivore) lays out.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: He reviews the fourth of a five volume literary biography of Dostoevsky. He writes of good characters: "The best of them live inside us, forever, once we've met them." It's interspersed with quick paragraphs reflecting on love, religion, and other Big Issues and I am not really sure how he thought they fit in. As he discussed Dostoevsky's own work (as opposed to the work about his work) I couldn't help but feel Wallace specifically viewed him as a model for his own approach to writing.

Host: Wallace looks at conservative radio talk show host John Ziegler (who I had never heard of). For some reason he does not use regular footnotes, but instead puts what are clearly footnotes into boxes throughout the text with arrows pointing to them. It is not what you'd call an easy way to read. But overall his discussion of lack of accountability is prescient for the age we're in, where the president himself makes up stories in the moments when he's not playing golf. Actually, that ends up making the essay harder to read--we're living the negative effects it describes.


U.S. Aid to Colombia

U.S. diplomats were in Colombia to discuss two issues. The first was the rise in coca cultivation in Colombia and the second was the strong possibility that the U.S. would drastically cut its promised contribution to the Colombian peace process.

The reasons for the increase are complex and in part return us to the age-old supply/demand dispute. Largely because of years of abuse and distrust, farmers are in no mood to be sprayed and don't want the government come in and manually eradicate. The delicate nature of the peace process has meant the Santos administration hasn't pushed back. Budget cuts also play into this. But good old demand in the U.S. is also up, so there is always a strong incentive to stay in the coca industry.

Cutting U.S. aid for the peace process would be counterproductive. However, so is throwing millions of dollars at the Colombian military. In other words, cuts won't necessarily alarm me if what's sent is aimed primarily at confidence building, infrastructure, economic development, and the like. There is a deep divide between the urban and rural Colombia, between those that suffer the most from the potent mix of drug trafficking and the wars against it and those that don't. Rural Colombia needs to be better integrated into the rest of the country, and U.S. aid should focus on achieving that.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Bernard Malamud's The Natural

It's common for baseball fans to have opinions, sometimes intense ones, about baseball movies. So right off the bat (no pun intended) I will admit that I'm a big fan of The Natural. I know it's cheesy and unrealistic in a particular Hollywood sort of way, but the cheese works.

But until now I'd never read Bernard Malamud's The Natural, the 1952 novel on which the movie is based. The core structure is there--the young phenom shot down after striking out The Whammer, the return when he'd older, the corrupt owner, and so on--but it is a tragedy where the movie is a triumph. Roy Hobbs makes poor choices instead of virtuous ones, is petty instead of generous, his life destroyed versus fulfilled.

For me, both work. People have to wade through dirt and grime as they work to achieve their goals, so one is about disappointment while the other is about having it all. Take your pick based on your mood.


Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Venezuela's Oil Fantasy

The Venezuelan state news agency posted a triumphant story today about how exactly 14 years ago, Hugo Chávez appointed new directors to PDVSA, thus defeating the imperialist right. Incredibly, it goes on to say:

A catorce años del sabotaje criminal, y gracias a la consolidación de un sistema democrático, la industria petrolera ha experimentado un proceso de transformación que le ha permitido continuar la exploración, explotación y comercialización de crudo, y contribuir a la vez con el desarrollo de programas sociales para atender las necesidades de la población.

Quick translation: "Fourteen years since the criminal sabotage, and thanks to the consolidation of a democratic system, the oil industry has experienced a transformational process that has allowed it to continue the exploration, exploitation, and commercialization of crude, and to contribute at the same time to the development of social program to address the needs of the people."

Now, do me a favor and Google "PDVSA." There will be a lot there, but just go ahead and click on a few. The Reuters one looks interesting:

Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA, has fallen months behind on shipments of crude and fuel under oil-for-loan deals with China and Russia, according to internal company documents reviewed by Reuters.

Or maybe Bloomberg:
The recent bump in oil prices isn’t enough to help Petroleos de Venezuela SA as it faces its fourth consecutive year of declining production. 
The company’s crude output is expected to fall this year as it failed to raise cash for investments and after Venezuela agreed to cut 95,000 barrels a day for six months as part of a deal struck by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and other non-members to lift oil prices, analysts say. Even the recent increase in oil prices, following the cuts, aren’t enough to ease the company’s financial burden, Lucas Aristizabal, a senior director at FitcTh Ratings, said.
Basically, it's difficult to find anything that provides even a remotely positive view of PDVSA and its future (that Google search even finds criticism from the left). It will soon be financially incapable of contributing to much of anything.


Monday, March 06, 2017

Cuban Human Rights and the Trump Administration

The State Department released its human rights report, though was uninterested in it to the point that State did not have anyone on the record discuss it. I was curious about what it would look like under the Trump administration, so I compared 2015 Cuba to 2016 Cuba.

What I found is that about 90% of the report is copied verbatim from last year. This is not necessarily news since 2014 was very similar to 2015. In fact, 2014, 2015, and 2016 all have the following:

During the year some religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, although most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. 

If indeed that latitude increased every year, there would be real progress, but more likely is that no one bothered ever to update the sentence. This seems like laziness, which afflicted both administrations. If I am missing something here, I am happy to be corrected.

Regardless, there was tweaking here and there, but the tenor of the report didn't change. A quick look suggests the same is true of Venezuela.

One might expect that if the administration was anticipating more aggressive policy, this could be one place to formally lay out the human rights rationale. That isn't happening here. On the other hand, Trump himself has shown zero interest in the State Department and the State Department has shown no interest in this report, so possibly every word I've written here was a waste of time because no one with any power will read/use the report at all.


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Fires and Politics in Chile

An article in the Guardian says Augusto Pinochet's deregulation was partially responsible for the devastating wildfires.

Activists say that the seeds of the problem were sown decades ago, when Chile’s forestry industry was established in the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship. A 1974 government decree subsidised 70% of plantation costs, and over the next 40 years – and after the return to democracy – the sector received around $ 800m in taxpayers’ money. Three-quarters of the cash went to the two companies that dominate the industry: Arauco and CMPC.

Something critical is missing from this picture, namely the 20+ years of Concertación/Nueva Mayoría governments in power after the dictatorship. Yes, of course, Pinochet got all this deregulation going. But continued lack of regulation falls squarely on the shoulders of the center-left, which accepted the inherited model and left much of it untouched.


Friday, March 03, 2017

Podcast Episode 25: Trump and Latinx Political Engagement

In Episode 25 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast*, I switch disciplinary gears a bit and talk with Stephany Slaughter, who is Associate Professor of Spanish at Alma College. She just published an article in The Latin Americanist on the topic: “#TrumpEffects: Creating Rhetorical Spaces for Latinx Political Engagement.” We discuss rhetorical narratives, hashtags, and uses of social media.

*I am experiencing RSS problems so am just linking straight to the file at My production team is working on it.**

**that team consists of me and other people I beg for help.

Update: RSS feed now fixed.


Mexican Clientelism In Action

Handing out goodies in exchange for political support has a long history in Mexico, but fortunately democratization has helped state institutions push back, at least a bit. The Wall Street Journal reports that a plan by Enrique Peña Nieto's government to hand out flat screen TVs backfired. Rather badly, in fact.

Mexico’s congressional audit office has ruled that a controversial government program to give away some 10 million flat-screen TV sets to the poor wasted an estimated $39 million of taxpayers’ money. 
The audit found that some 339,000 of the televisions in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s nearly $1-billion program were defective. The subsidy program was aimed at helping the poor during the country’s 2015 switch from analog to digital signals for television 
Around 12,200 television sets are missing altogether, the audit office said as part of a recently released wide-ranging review of government spending in 2015. Together with the defective sets, the office computed the probable loss to Mexico’s coffers at $39 million.

Doling out TVs is just an update on the practice of giving away consumer goods like washing machines during political campaigns. Plenty of mutual back scratching.

Yet the fact that the legislature is reporting and publicizing is meaningful. Corruption is deep in Mexico but horizontal accountability is not absent.


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Latin America in the Trump State Department

An article in The Atlantic provides a pessimistic picture of a State Department in disarray. Positions are intentionally left unfilled, directives don't come down, lines of communication are cut, and career officials are ignored.

We Latin Americanists always pay attention to who will fill key positions like Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. There currently is an interim, Paco Palmieri. Here's a quick glimpse at what life is like for that position:

A State Department public-affairs officer was on the line with us when we talked. Another public-affairs officer was also on the line when I spoke to Paco Palmieri, a career foreign service officer and the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Palmieri has had plenty to keep him busy, from Tillerson’s meeting with the Brazilian foreign minister in Bonn, Germany to his trip to Mexico, but he is an acting assistant secretary and he doesn’t know how long it will take for a political appointee to take his place. “Sometimes as an administration gets started, it takes some time to get a definitive answer but that just means you work harder to get to it,” he told me. “Every transition is unique.” Then the public affairs officer hustled him off to his next meeting.

Trump has given every indication that the State Department is unimportant and deserves to be chopped by a third (!). Without those committed, day-to-day, on the ground sort of connections, Latin American relations will suffer.


Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Senate Resolution on Venezuela

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution expressing concern about Venezuela. This is the only part urging action by the president:

[The Senate] urges the President of the United States to provide full support for OAS efforts in favor of constitutional and democratic solutions to the political impasse, and to instruct appropriate Federal agencies to hold officials of the Government of Venezuela accountable for violations of United States law and abuses of internationally recognized human rights.

It's really just the same as other resolutions from past years, sometimes to the letter. I don't mean this dismissively. The effort here is to keep Venezuela on Trump's radar and build on the bit of momentum that his visit with Lilian Tintori (Leopoldo López's wife) and sanctions.

As I wrote earlier, the administration is not sending signals of stepping up action very much against Venezuela. Extending sanctions on individuals, however, is cost-free and doesn't require proof that it's actually working. This was the same dynamic even three years ago under President Obama.


Trump Talks Venezuela's and Cuba's Language

From last night's State of the Union Address:

We will respect historic institutions, but we will respect the sovereign rights of all nations. And they have to respect our rights as a nation, also. Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.

I immediately thought this was something that could have come from the mouths of Raúl Castro or Nicolás Maduro. I assume both were relieved to hear it.

Castro last month:

“Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live together in a civilized way, respecting our differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples,”

Read more here:

Maduro last year:

We believe that our world must be based on the rules of international law, without interference in the internal affairs of other countries. We are convinced that the relationship of respect between all the nations is the only path for strengthening peace and coexistence, as well as for ensuring a more just world.

This is a crumb, to be sure, and there is a gap between what Trump says and does. But he's not a democracy promoter, and although he may not engage with Venezuela or Cuba, this is a signal that intervention is not a priority.


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