Monday, October 30, 2017

Commodities Dominate Latin American Exports

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has a new report that is a "glass half-full/half-empty" type of thing. The value of Latin American exports increased 10% in 2017 but it was based almost entirely on commodities. Processed goods and technology seriously lag behind.

The regional export basket is dominated by basic products such as raw cane sugar, coffee (not roasted or decaffeinated), soybeans, soymeal, maize and frozen beef. In contrast, the region shows a poor export performance in processed products. 
According to ECLAC, the current high concentration in raw materials imposes the urgent challenge of “decommoditizing” the export basket, which is also true of other sectors related to natural resources. 

This has been a policy suggestion for about 60-70 years. Mexico and Brazil have shown some success but too little has changed.

Also of interest, and certainly no surprise, is that trade with China and the rest of Asia is growing more rapidly than anywhere else.

the recovery in regional exports in 2017 will be led by shipments to China and the rest of Asia (23% and 17% value increase, respectively) while exports to the United States and within the region will expand at a rate near the average (9% and 10%, respectively). Meanwhile, sales to the European Union will be less dynamic (with a 6% increase).

China is establishing a relationship whereby it exports manufactured goods and imports raw materials. It has been even more active in pursuing such ties after Donald Trump's election, and before that had been focusing on increasing the import of food from Latin America.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Not So New Cuba Documents

The release of JFK declassified documents has included a few related to Cuba, which have been getting some attention. As I skimmed through them, however, they just seemed familiar. So familiar, in fact, that I was sure I had shown one of them in my class last semester.

For example, one of the documents is particularly disgusting, casually (and sometimes jokingly) referring to killing large numbers of innocent people. The following quote is from page 16 of that document:

"We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cubans in the United States, even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicised."

I don't know why this is the case. In any event, it's not a bad thing to have everyone reminded of the background of U.S.-Cuba policy, or the repellent nature of so much of JFK's foreign policy.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Crazy Cuban Cicadas

The Cuban government has issued a rebuttal of U.S. charges about the infamous "sonic attack." This situation had already become weirder before, and now this is just piling on. The first Cuban argument was that this was illegal so couldn't possibly have taken place in Cuba, which frankly is not the most convincing logic.

Then it gets better:

“It’s the same bandwidth and it’s audibly very similar,” said Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Molina, a telecommunications specialist with the Interior Ministry. “We compared the spectrums of the sounds and evidently this common sound is very similar to the sound of a cicada.” 
The program’s narrator said that unnamed “North American researchers” had found that some cicada and cricket noises could be louder than 90-95 decibels, enough to produce hearing loss, irritation and hypertension in situations of prolonged exposure.

This sounds like a 1950s B-Movie.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lessons About Chavismo

Steve Ellner has an article in Monthly Review outlining his ideas about the lessons of the Bolivarian Revolution. It's worth looking at largely to see exactly how Venezuela gets framed from the left. Two things stand out for me.

First, he skates around but does not directly address the tension between "direct democracy" (which is intended to replace representative democracy) and protection of civil liberties. More specifically, does the opposition deserve any rights? He does not say so, but the answer appears to be no. He lauds Nicolás Maduro for playing "hardball" and putting people in prison, saying they deserve it and it is a positive sign of "perseverance." Working with non-Chavistas, in fact, is a bad idea:

if left unchecked, the government’s relationship with sectors of the bourgeoisie will solidify and continue to undermine the leadership’s socialist commitments.
He does not mention nullifying elections when the opposition win them, but clearly that would detract from the mission of socialism as well. Where non-Chavistas fit into Venezuela at all is unclear (is it simply a choice between jail and silent non-representation?).

Second, he notes problems with Chavismo but they tend to be on the margins. Tactical questions. He does not even like the idea of blaming both sides equally:

by censuring the government and opposition in equal terms, the ex-Chavistas obscure the vital fact that the latter is the aggressor, while the former has been relentlessly attacked, compelling it to take emergency measures, with damaging long-term effects.

The causes of the economic crisis are not addressed directly, but the multiple references to the opposition's hostility leaves little doubt where he leans.

All this made me wonder about calls for dialogue. If it is a bad idea to work with capitalists and to give the opposition representation, then what can dialogue ever achieve? By definition, such dialogue is supposed to entail compromise of some sort on both sides, but you cannot allow compromise if it undermines socialism. Where does that leave Venezuela?


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

TPS and Trump

Next month there will be 60,000 Hondurans in the United States who will face eventual deportation unless the Trump administration extends Temporary Protected Status for them. This extends back to Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and TPS has been extended 13 times. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is lobbying on their behalf.

Honduras is not prepared to take people back, both officials and citizens say — and the lack of opportunity there might even prompt some to return to the U.S. illegally. Honduras’ economy is dominated by agriculture, and Honduran Minister of Agriculture Jacobo Paz said that despite government programs to improve agricultural practices, providing training to thousands of returning Hondurans will overtax the country’s abilities.

Does Donald Trump care? He extended TPS for Haitians, but John Kelly said that countries needed to start thinking about their citizens coming back. As far as I can tell, Honduras is just the second case in this hemisphere. El Salvador will come early in 2018. Clearly Trump's base wants immigrants gone but I have not heard him say anything about it.

TPS is a weird thing because clearly more than a decade is not "temporary" but Congress won't provide any more permanent path. Therefore it becomes a limbo, a permanent impermanence. Yet sending people back will likely be counterproductive. Honduras already is poor, underdeveloped, and plagued by organized crime. If you force tens of thousands back into it without any prospects, you're asking for trouble, and trouble in Central America always makes its way to the United States.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pragmatism or Populism in Latin America?

Robert Muggah and Brian Winter argue in Foreign Policy that populism is poised to make a comeback in Latin America. I don't really agree, in large part because "populism" has ceased to mean anything very meaningful anymore in popular discourse (labeling Michelle Bachelet as part of this is problematic, for example). As I've argued before, what we're seeing is not necessarily radicalization or a move to populism, but rather anti-incumbent sentiment. I wrote this in July 2016 and I think it holds up:

What you're really seeing is the development of democratic rule in the region. Too many people have a tendency to see elections as the "death of the left/right" in some way, without taking the larger context in mind. As I've written over and over, Latin American voters are more pragmatic than we give them credit for, and will continue seeking solutions to the problems they face. If the left can't do it, they'll look to the right, and vice versa.

Will anti-incumbent arguments lead to radical populism? Sure, they can, but there is no reason to assume they are going to "set alarm bells ringing," as they argue. I get that the LAPOP data should concern us, but it could also be a blip so in my opinion it's premature to panic.

I don't mean to argue that nothing bad could happen. They note correctly how screwed up Brazil is, and how easily this could lead to radical candidates. But I am not sure how much the Brazilian case can be compared too fruitfully to other Latin American countries. In general, my instinct is to be wary of alarmism.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Academic Kindness

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy story about Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who did research on "power poses," where she argued that standing in a particular position made people feel more powerful. She did TED Talks and became well known for it. Then other researchers said they could not replicate her findings and she was attacked for it.

For me, the story was so much about academic kindness, or rather the lack thereof. Academics seem particularly prone to being mean, condescending, and heartless to each other. We judge everyone else constantly while jealously cultivating our own reputations. You don't have to step back very far to realize how stupid and petty it is. We take ourselves too seriously and cloak meanness in the mantle of "integrity." We're not being mean, we're just pointing out errors so that knowledge moves forward properly.

If someone does TED Talks or major media public appearances, then it gets worse. You get phrases like "media whore" (which, fortunately, I hear less and less) and questions about the person's academic prowess. People even often feel obligated to apologize a bit before saying they've been on TV or other media. They do so because there is a culture--now slowly but definitely changing--that it should be the role of think tanks or journalists, not us pure academics, to talk to the public.

The article does not mention sexism but you have to wonder about how bias, conscious or unconscious, also plays a role. In all, you have a situation where a professor becomes famous and gets attacked in large part because of that. This plays out in many, many other, less visible settings in universities everywhere (including Latin American, as I have occasionally learned).

The answer to all this is so simple that people can't seem to follow it. It's this: when you wake up every morning, tell yourself that on this day you won't be an asshole to your colleagues. That's it. If you have Ph.D. students, add that you will model not being an asshole to them as well. Just doing that would change academia quite a bit.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Evo Morales History Tweeting

Every so often I write a "still fighting the War of the Pacific" post (the first was almost exactly 10 years ago). The case grinds its way through the International Court of Justice, with Chileans (both right and left) arguing that Bolivia has no case for reclaiming territory.* Now Evo Morales is tweeting about it. It's not often that a president starts tweeting about a 1904 treaty.

He's referring to the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which defined the border and gave Bolivia some access to the ocean through Chile. The Bolivians didn't and don't consider it too friendly or peaceful, so we have the president getting up in the morning and tweet ranting about it.

* In fact, Evo Morales recently called Michelle Bachelet a liar about it.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Incentives for International Pressure in Venezuels

Jorge Castañeda has an op-ed on the importance of international pressure on Venezuela. It is better than most such analyses, which tend to show considerable optimism for a united front of international actors. He explains the importance of gathering the votes in the European Union for sanctions.

However, there is a major sticking point that he simply glosses over:

En algún momento, dejará de poder pagar el servicio de su deuda externa, sobre todo si los chinos y los rusos dejan de ayudarle.

If. If. If. Even more forcefully, Moises Rendon at the Center for Strategic & International Studies makes the following case:

When looking at resolving the Venezuelan crisis, we must consider China’s economic and geopolitical interests, along with Russia’s commercial and oil relationships and Cuba’s political assistance. China has given more than $62 billion in loans to Venezuela in the last 10 years, more than all the multilateral institutions combined. Though China might have a strategic interest in continuing to support an anti-U.S. government in the region, it would also benefit from a transition in Venezuela if a new government brings economic stability, the rule of law, and a respect for previous treaties and bilateral loans.
 Venezuelan engagement with Russia ranges from arm deals to visa reciprocity agreements and oil-production agreements. Russia will also play a role when restructuring Venezuela’s sovereign debt. Rosneft, the Russian oil company, owns 49 percent of CITGO, the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) oil subsidiary based in the United States. Despite the fact that Russia doesn’t have the financial flexibility to keep the regime afloat, it plays an important role in the international arena, especially as part of the UN Security Council. Cuba, on the other hand, is the political mentor of the regime and Venezuela’s closest ally. Thousands of Cubans reside in Venezuela, either through medical assistance programs or military and intelligence efforts. Eliminating assistance to the Maduro regime from these three countries is key.

Yes, all three countries could figure out a way to deal with a change of government in Venezuela, but do any of the three have an incentive to push it? I just don't see it. Russia and Cuba in particular have a lot to lose politically if the opposition takes power, and Cuba has even more to lose financially. So why would they go along?


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Venezuelan Government is Stronger Than Ever

Your best guess right now is that the Venezuelan government is in a stronger position than ever. The Trump administration can impose sanctions, Luis Almagro can complain (and, incidentally, even the Venezuelan opposition is telling him to shut up), and the opposition can get protests going, but the regime won. And it won bigly.

The opposition is entirely in tatters, splintered and angry at itself. Some of the losing candidates talk of how the leadership paid no attention to local electoral realities. Running a relentlessly negative anti-Maduro campaign appeared not to resonate with Venezuelans, who wanted more from gubernatorial candidates. There is no opposition leadership. María Corina Machado talks of creating a new "Soy Venezuela" as if a new slogan will do the trick.

The opposition can protest, but everyone knows you can't keep that up forever and they have had no impact up to this point. It could use violence but that is a losing proposition both in PR and practical terms. There is every reason to believe the army and police are firmly behind the government. Fighting when you've just lost an election won't be a winning strategy. You could engage in dialogue but the government will run you in circles because it knows you don't have a firm constituency behind you. You've got no leverage anywhere. Mostly what you can do now is work on a clear, positive, coherent message that goes beyond insulting Maduro and convinces Venezuelans that you're not a bunch of out of touch elites who just want back in power.

With that, you look to the 2018 presidential election. You don't really have any other choice.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cuba and Israel

For the first time, a group of Israeli business leaders is making an official trip to Cuba to talk trade, with the approval (but not endorsement) of the Israeli government. I find this fascinating because not only are there no diplomatic ties between the two countries (Fidel Castro cut them) but the Castro regime has been blistering in its condemnation of Israel and glowing in its relations with Palestinians. Apparently President Obama's thaw inspired Israeli business leaders to push for their own.

It is worth nothing that last year at the annual United Nations vote against the Cuba embargo, Israel switched its traditional "no" vote to an abstain, as did the United States. That vote will be coming up again on November 1, and although I expect the U.S. to go back to "no," it may well be that Israel will not.

This also serves as a stark reminder about how President Trump's foreign policy is often out of step with just about everyone. Even Israel, which he was careful to cultivate, is moving away from the Cold War mentality on Cuba.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's Contentious Elections

Venezuela held gubernatorial elections yesterday. As you might guess, there is plenty of controversy. Here is a good summary from Caracas Chronicles. Some thoughts:

First, the results showed an overwhelming number of wins for the government, which sharply contradicted pre-election polls. Such polls should always be viewed with caution, of course, but all things being equal the results should be regarded with suspicion because a) the election was originally postponed precisely because the government was concerned at how bad it would lose; and b) the country is in tatters and the government is not popular.

Second, new governors will be required to declare allegiance to the Constituent Assembly, which is essentially both legislature and constitution at the same time. I have to wonder how that's going to go because the assembly itself was created to circumvent the opposition-led legitimate legislature.

Third, there was debate in the opposition about whether to vote, but ultimately many people decided it was their right and they should exercise it. Make the government crack down, make it commit fraud, and the international community would respond. Nicaragua, Cuba, and Bolivia all jumped to congratulate the government. TeleSur tries to claim that Honduras did as well, but it's a letter from Mel Zelaya. The smaller OAS states with long ties to Hugo Chávz won't likely budge, so in Latin America it's hard to see this fostering much change.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Losing Jobs to Mexico

Tremendous long-form article in the New York Times profiling a woman in her 40s in Indianapolis who loses her manufacturing job to Mexico. Not metaphorically, but literally--she and her co-workers are asked to train Mexicans. There's a lot here.

--She obviously loved Trump's message about jobs (he mentioned her factory in a tweet) but her support for him was skin deep and she did not bother voting. Clearly existing parties offer her nothing--she felt Democrats talked too much about safety nets instead of jobs. She was nervous when she heard Trump was considering ending the health care program that took care of her disabled granddaughter.

--She is gracious about the training, which is just a barbaric practice. The young Mexican man she trains seems genuinely not to know he is taking her job and that she was losing hers. He seemed stricken when he found out. The human element here is strong. She is not the stereotype of the racist working class and indeed even wants to travel to Mexico. A underlying message here is that workers have a lot in common. No, the article is not Marxist, but it's hard to miss the message about owners and workers.

--The reporter is subtle but blasts the modern business model that reward CEOs with millions as they fire people. It is entirely in the interest of executives to screw people. And they do.

--The broken families and domestic violence are clearly a drag, as they contribute to instability, to lack of education and therefore to fewer opportunities. But health care is front and center--bills eat her up quickly.

--In our consumer society, self-worth is derived from the product you produce and the consumer goods you consume.

--there is still a ray of hope at the end, which is her daughter getting a college scholarship. Higher education gets all kinds of criticism these days but it's still the best way to get and keep a job.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Inflation in Venezuela

The IMF's World Economic Outlook has projections on inflation. See page 252 of the statistical abstract for the specific numbers. For the region as a whole, the 2018 projection is 3.6%, which shows how much inflation has been tamed and how high a priority governments give it regardless of their ideology.

And then, of course, there is Venezuela, which for 2018 may be looking at 2,530%, which is a catastrophe and about double the projected final amount for 2017. In the past, hyperinflation was a scourge in numerous countries, so it's particularly striking to see how badly it hits only one country. And that's why the government stopped releasing inflation data almost two years ago.


Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West is an intriguing and unusual novel. The two main characters, Nadia and Saeed, are two young people who live in an unnamed but certainly Middle Eastern country. They come together and when militants take over their city, they flee through one of the many magic doors popping up around the world, which take you somewhere else.

Migrants are doing this globally, which sets the stage for exploration of migrant experience, displacement, nativism, development of new nationalisms, and even personal relationships. If borders disappeared, what would happen?

It's beautifully written, a pleasure to read really. There is no plot per se--people are fleeing and trying to find new meaning in new places, but there is no narrative arc and definitely no effort to explain more broadly what new international responses there are and what the outcome is. That would be interesting to contemplate but it's not his point. Instead, he tries to sort out what happens to these two people.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Latin Americans Feel Corruption is Worse

Transparency International just released a report on corruption in Latin America. The upshot is that people are reporting more instances of it. The report is based on surveys conducted in conjunction with Latinobarómetro.

62% thought corruption had worsened in the past 12 months. The worst by far (87%) is Venezuela, which should not surprise anyone. But the second worst (80%) is Chile. Even stranger, the best results came largely from Central America (Nicaragua is low!). One bright spot is that Guatemalans feel (or at least felt until the recent crisis) more positive about corruption being combated. It's just another reminder how important transnational efforts like CICIG are.

The worst offenders are police and politicians.

There is a lot of interesting (though sometimes sickening) nuance about where bribes are paid. That varies a lot. The fact that health care is a major area for bribes is particularly egregious. Health care is expensive and difficult enough even without paying bribes to access it.

The conclusions are the same as ever. Latin America needs better institutions. More transparent and impartial judicial system. Rinse, wash, repeat.


Monday, October 09, 2017

The Price of DACA

The Trump administration announced what it wants in return for not shutting down DACA.

Before agreeing to provide legal status for 800,000 young immigrants brought here illegally as children, Mr. Trump will insist on the construction of a wall across the southern border, the hiring of 10,000 immigration agents, tougher laws for those seeking asylum and denial of federal grants to “sanctuary cities,” officials said.
 The White House is also demanding the use of the E-Verify program by companies to keep illegal immigrants from getting jobs, an end to people bringing their extended family into the United States, and a hardening of the border against thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America. Such a move would shut down loopholes that encourage parents from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to send their children illegally into the United States, where many of them melt into American communities and become undocumented immigrants.
The president’s demands include new rules that say children are not considered “unaccompanied” at the border if they have a parent or guardian in the United States. They also propose treating children from Central America the same way they do children from Mexico, who can be repatriated more quickly, with fewer rights to hearings.
 Mr. Trump is also calling for a surge in resources to pay for 370 additional immigration judges, 1,000 government lawyers and more detention space so that children arriving at the border can be held, processed and quickly returned if they do not qualify to stay longer. 

So if this is meant to be a serious proposal rather than a way to claim Democrats are axing DACA by refusing to negotiate, it's a matter of what Democrats can swallow. Obviously, this is a hardliner wish list. Both from ethical and PR perspectives, trading one group of young people for another doesn't seem too likely. I will also be curious if any Republicans balk at what will be a high price tag--I don't know if anything cares about deficit spending anymore.

Trump is also a moving target so it's unclear what his bottom line might be. He had his dinner with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on immigration and has mentioned how he feels compassion for DACA recipients, which made his base howl. So he has lurched back the other direction.

So we'll see what happens. The default prediction on passing immigration bills is failure, but in the past there hasn't been the looming deadline for so many people.


Saturday, October 07, 2017

U.S. Influence in Honduras

As we all know, in 2009 the U.S. government did not want Manuel Zelaya to return to the presidency after he was overthrown, so effectively stalled until regularly scheduled presidential elections took place later in the year. Porfirio Lobo won those elections. His victory was spun as a boost both to democracy and to fighting corruption. We know the opposite to be true.

Now the New York Times has a long and disgustingly fascinating story about the U.S. government's efforts to combat narcotrafficking in Honduras, which boomed after the 2009 chaos the U.S. helped engender. A major drug lord is now helping and it reaches to the former president.

The evidence, a prosecutor said at a hearing on Sept. 5, showed nothing short of “state-sponsored drug trafficking.”
 Investigators have also gathered evidence that Honduras’s former president, Porfirio Lobo, took bribes to protect traffickers, and that drug money may have helped finance the rise of the country’s current president, Juan Orlando Hernández.

Lobo's son was just sentenced to 24 years in U.S. federal prison on cocaine charges as well.

Back to 2009. The country was in turmoil, activists being killed, democracy crumbling, and in the midst of this the drug traffickers go talk to Porfirio Lobo to seek protection in exchange for large amounts of cash. Even as Lobo talked anti-corruption, he happily took the money.

Concerned about the possibility of extradition to the United States, Mr. Rivera said they paid more than $400,000 in bribes to President Porfirio Lobo, before and after his November 2009 election. At President Lobo’s home in early 2010, Mr. Rivera received the assurance he wanted.

Eventually because of the pressure from the U.S. Treasury Department, the drug lord and his brother portrayed in the article decide to talk. The irony here is palpable. The U.S. has both helped encourage and then fight corruption. This points to the trouble with using the term "U.S. government." Investigators do their job on behalf of the U.S. government but don't have anything to do with policy making. Meanwhile, policy makers may well find it convenient to ignore evidence if it suits them. So we feed all sides of the monster.


Friday, October 06, 2017

US-Cuba Relations Get Weirder

About a month ago I wrote about how weird the sonic attack issue was with Cuba. It has become weirder and not in a good way. Examples:

It seems more an excuse for Trump to lash out at Cuba and look tough more than anything else. 

I am stuck with two thoughts. If the Cuban government is not responsible, I don't see how something this important could occur with it knowing who is. On the other hand, the government has nothing to gain and a lot to lose by making such attacks.


Thursday, October 05, 2017

Sebastian Bitar's U.S. Military Bases, Quasi-Bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America

I read Sebatian E. Bitar's US Military Bases, Quasi-Bases, and Domestic Politics in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). It's a good read.

The core argument is that Latin American domestic politics is the key variable for understanding why the United States has pursued more quasi-bases that are secret and not well known. In a democratic era in Latin America, domestic opposition can use electoral or institutional means to block the approval of formal bases. If the government is willing, then the U.S. can pursue more informal "quasi-bases" (use of airports or local bases, etc.). This provides less oversight but it's also suboptimal for the U.S. because a change of government can change the entire arrangement whenever it wants. With formal bases newly elected governments must wait until an agreement ends (like in Ecuador).

I don't agree with the idea that George W. Bush neglected Latin America and that Barack Obama's administration was marked by "excessive neglect" (p. 32) but that doesn't detract from the empirical argument. In fact, he points out that Latin American countries were more autonomous than the past but still welcomed military bases. They were rejected (as in the case of Colombia) only after domestic outcry.

In short, democratization gave opposition groups institutional veto power. He pays particular attention to the judiciary, parties, and civil society. Although he looks at the universe of cases, he has chapters on failed agreements in Ecuador and Colombia.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Venezuela Still Hearts Syria

Iran claims Venezuela is working with it and Syria to build a new oil refinery in...Syria. That will unshackle Venezuela from the economic war and allow revolutionaries to work together. Or some such, I imagine.

There is really nothing to do but chuckle. Venezuela lacks the resources to embark on such a venture. But more importantly, it should be rather obvious to everyone that Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, which makes any investment doomed. The article does a nice job of showing that the announcement is intended primarily as a public statement that Venezuela is not isolated and has allies in other parts of the world. This thing is not going to be built and it is unlikely that the Venezuelan government believes it will be either.


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