Sunday, December 31, 2017

Latin American Politics in 2018

It's been a while since I looked at so much upcoming uncertainty for Latin American politics at year's end. 2017 was not a good year politically and is not ending well. Looking forward (in only the literal sense) to 2018, here are some questions and thoughts on the upcoming year.

1. Will the left or right win the Brazilian presidential election? We don't know whether Lula will actually be a candidate. Polls right now show him winning in a second round. If I had to bet, I'd put my money on the left winning, though corruption charges can easily hurt both sides in the months to come.

2. Will AMLO win the Mexican presidential election? A recent poll gave him a slight edge over José Antonio Meade, but he just announced his candidacy so voters still need to get to know him. The PAN doesn't even have a candidate yet, but as a party polls just behind AMLO's MORENA. Its intent to run as a broad coalition muddies the water even more and is still developing. My money right now is on AMLO, particularly since no second round benefits him if the rest of the field is too splintered.

3. Will Trump continue his historic disengagement with Latin America? This is the easiest one. Yes. He likely won't bother to attend the Summit of the Americas and recently demonstrated his complete disinterest in Latin American democracy. His National Security Strategy is clueless about the region. He's gutted his own State Department. The possibility of NAFTA ending is even making Republican Senators nervous. And so on. Trump is giving the equivalent of a big middle finger to the region and it will remain heartily extended.

4. How badly will Venezuela's disintegration look over 2018? There is literally no good news in Venezuela. The government ought to call its new cryptocurrency the Chutzpah. The most likely answer is that the economy will continue to suffer but that Nicolás Maduro will remain in power. There will likely be presidential elections but the opposition will barely be allowed to run and other restrictions will ensure a Chavista victory (most likely Maduro, but who knows). As we saw in Zimbabwe, this kind of regime can sometimes stay in power a long time, as long as the army will allow. We won't likely know when/why the army's attitude will shift.

5. Will Cuba change when Raúl Castro steps down? The answer in the short term is not likely, not at least while Raúl is still alive (and indeed, he may remain somewhere in government for now). Once he dies, then we'll see, but there's a good chance he survives 2018. Those are some long-living genes in that family.

6. How will the Colombian peace process fare, especially given presidential elections? Polls currently don't show any clear favorite among many different possible candidates. One thing to keep in mind is that the FARC effectively prevented a center-left candidate from winning in Colombia for many years. Any such candidate had to fight off accusations of collusion. Now the door is more open, and the Santos government is unpopular, which hurts the center-right. There is a good chance that a center-left candidate wins and remains committed to the peace process, which needs help. Legislative elections will also therefore matter a lot.

7. Will pundits and analysts talk endlessly and mostly uselessly about populism, Iran in Latin America, the "decline" of the left, and the "ascent" of the right? Ugh, yes.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Anti-Incumbent Sentiment in Latin America

Andrés Velasco looks at the election of conservative presidents in Latin America and makes inaccurate conclusions from them. First, a straw man.

In much of the international press, the standard narrative runs something like this: Because Latin America has the most unequal income distribution in the world, it tends to elect left-wing reformers. When the reformers keep their word and provide generous social benefits, voters love it and rush to the polls to keep the same person or party in office.

No, this is not what I typically read, and it certainly doesn't reflect anything we know about Latin American politics.Not long after Hugo Chávez was first elected, so was Vicente Fox and Alvaro Uribe, neither of whom promised "generous social benefits." What they promised was change.

What we're seeing in Latin America now is anti-incumbent sentiment. Sometimes that is deepened by concern about corruption and sometimes less so. What Velasco sees instead is an electorate that wants market-driven policies and strong policy makers:

In a country that is much more educated than it was a generation ago, voters have come to expect a minimum level of competence from their leaders. 

This is a dangerous assumption. The U.S. is highly educated and look at who we elect. Further, Velasco undermines his own argument by noting (accurately) that market-driven policies generate significant backlash:

Piñera was the choice of only 36% of voters in the first round. But in the runoff, enough voters viewed him as the lesser of two evils to enable him to win by a comfortable nine-point margin. He will not have a majority in Congress, and students and unions will likely return to the streets shortly after he takes over in March. He is hoping to be like Macri, who has remained popular. But he could end up resembling Michel Temer, who replaced Rousseff, and Kuczynski, both of whom lost whatever public support they had after only a few months in office.

In short, Chileans were voting against--anti incumbent--and not for market-driven or any other type of policy. Blithely assuming otherwise will get you in trouble.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is a haunting book about the end of the Vietnam War and the aftermath that followed, both in expat communities and in Vietnam itself. The narrator is a double agent, a communist working for a general who flees to Los Angeles with the help of the CIA as Saigon falls, and from there tries to set up a new invasion force.

It is both wonderfully written and brutal. Everyone is to blame. The corrupt elite. The clueless and violent Americans, even those who make movies (with clear reference to Apocalypse Now). The revolutionaries who want to steal liberty from everyone. The narrator, himself mixed race, doesn't fit anywhere neatly and therefore tries to see all sides.

"Now that we are the powerful, we don't need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine" (364) sums it up. All sides have their slogans, all meaningless, all meaning nothing. He even kills for these slogans, and those he kills literally haunt him as ghosts in his mind.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

2017 Ending Poorly in Latin America

Politically, 2017 has been a difficult year and I suspect many people will be perfectly happy to have it in the rear view mirror. In Latin America, this year also seems to be ending with bad news. All in the past month or so:

1. The U.S. and Mexico, then also Canada, push hard to solidify an illegitimate government in Honduras.

2. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski pardons Alberto Fujimori in exchange for not getting impeached, prompting Christmas Eve protests. You can't be a regional leader while striking such corrupt bargains at home.

3. Venezuela blocks more opposition candidates from running for president next year, assuming there will even be an election.

4. The Mexican murder rate became the highest ever recorded for one year.

5. Evo Morales succeeded in running for re-election again.

All of these events weaken Latin American democracy and raise questions about political stability. Honduras and Peru will definitely suffer, and in the latter you must add continued investigation into PPK's Odebrecht connection. In Venezuela the government will continue limiting who can run and Venezuelans themselves will suffer more. Mexico will hold elections and we may see major political shifts. In Bolivia, Evo Morales will further weaken the MAS by refusing to groom presidential successors. Unfortunately, he saw how Rafael Correa's model of leaving power backfired on him, which also happened to Alvaro Uribe, and so he may well choose not to try.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Poverty in Latin America

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean released a report that includes discussion of poverty. In the aggregate, poverty decreased from 2002-2014 and then started to increase again in 2015 and 2016.

At the same time, poverty actually continued to decrease almost everywhere. The aggregate trend comes largely from Brazil and Venezuela when their economies tanked. You could reasonably hypothesize that the decreased was attributable in large part to leftist governments that focused on the problem, and the increase was attributable to two long-term leftist governments that did not plan well long-term. Venezuela in particular will skew regional data for years to come.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Trump Sums Up Cuba Policy

Straight from Donald Trump, here is U.S. policy toward Cuba:

“Hopefully everything will normalize with Cuba, but right now, they are not doing the right thing. And when they don’t do the right thing, we’re not going to do the right thing," Trump said. "That’s all there is to it. We have to be strong with Cuba. The Cuban people are incredible people. They support me very strongly. But we’ll get Cuba straightened out.”
Set the Freudian slip aside for a moment. This statement is a combination of colonial-era paternalism and narcissism.

By colonial-era, I don't mean paternalism wasn't part of U.S. policy toward Cuba after U.S. occupation but that it was so evocative of that era. As U.S.-imposed military governor Leonard Wood wrote in 1900, "We are going ahead as fast as we can, but we are dealing with a race that has steadily been going down for a hundred years into which we have got to infuse new life, new principles, and new methods of doing things."* That sentiment quickly led to the Platt Amendment. The United States knew all and would reward the good little Cubans only when they did the right thing. According to us. We'll straighten out those good little people who can't seem to get it done on their own.

The narcissism is a whole new ballgame, however. Theodore Roosevelt had a particularly high opinion of himself and a decidedly low opinion of Cubans, but he didn't assume they loved him. Very likely he did not care. Trump's narcissism is almost unbearable to watch and it cannot have a positive impact on policy decisions.

*Lars Schoultz, That Infernal Little Cuban Republic, p. 23.


Friday, December 22, 2017

PPK's Narrow Escape

Boz has a rundown on Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's narrow escape from impeachment, including how the disagreements between two Fujimoris are driving this, and indeed how it's even linked to their father. Alberto Fujimori resigned 17 years ago but still drives Peruvian politics.

PPK was elected in June 2016. In January 2017 I noted the following:

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's honeymoon may be ending. His approval has dropped sharply down to 35%. I had thought he was one of the more interesting new regional voices in Latin America, and right now he's one of the presidents vocally supporting Mexico against Donald Trump, and from the right no less.
 But Peru is tough on presidents--approval is consistently low. You could quite reasonable argue that problems at home would make it natural for PPK to focus more of his attention abroad. But that can only go so far. We've already seen how domestic problems in Brazil and Venezuela greater shrunk their international presence.

Less than a year later and he's a hair's breadth from being forced out, with low approval ratings and corruption investigation going on as well. Can PPK keep up his high profile international presence? The U.S. is nowhere to be seen. Brazil is nowhere to be seen. He was filling a regional gap and I am not sure who else will step forward.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trump and EPN Agree on Honduras

It turns out that Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto have something in common after all. Their authoritarian leanings lead them to support Juan Orlando Hernández against the suggestion of the Organization of American States.

A State Department official says there is no "credible evidence" of fraud despite the OAS statement citing credible evidence and the large array of credible evidence discovered by reporters (like The Economist) and others.

The Mexican government went even further, offering up an official congratulations.

This is a terrible idea and bad policy. In Honduras it will lead to people dying because Hondurans believe there was fraud and are fighting back against it. A new election was the only way to resolve the crisis. There will be more protests and more repression, and the repercussions will go on for years.

Regionally it cements the notion that the U.S. is not a credible leader. You can't credibly criticize elections in Venezuela while praising them in Honduras. You have to criticize both.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Who's to Blame in Venezuela

Every so often I browse the Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, just as I do Granma. They provide a vision of what the government wants people to believe. Unwittingly, though, the AVN also provides a clear view of how many things are going wrong in Venezuela. Every other article is about a major problem. The government publishes the articles so that there is official blame placed on the opposition, but the overall picture is that of a government acknowledging that it is unable to provide the basics to its citizens.

Any violation of the rights of children? It's because of fascists and media manipulation.

Problems with providing basic public goods and services? The right is disrupting them as part of their economic war.

Problems with blackouts? It was sabotage to ruin Christmas.

Problems with public transportation? It's because of violent groups on the right.

No Christmas bonus this year? It's because of the corrupt practices of the right.

Amazingly enough, drug trafficking was not blamed on the opposition. The writer must not have received the memo, and or maybe the memo didn't arrive because of blackouts.

It's notable that even on a state media site, there is almost no good news. Things are so bad that they can't even manufacture that.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Hugo Chávez Brand is Dying

Lula confirmed that he will will run for president in 2018 and made sure to make one thing clear: he isn't Hugo Chávez.

“Una de las diferencias que tenía con mi compañero Chávez era que me parecía que él no respetaba tanto como yo las instituciones”, aseguró.
 Dijo que nadie es insustituible, “por eso siempre creí que las instituciones sólidas garantizan la continuidad del proceso democrático”, afirmó.

Running away from Hugo Chávez is a thing. The flip side, trying to pin the label of "another Hugo Chávez" on leftists, is also a thing. This will likely continue for years.

The PRI has been trying for years to label AMLO as another Chávez and he denies it. In doing so, he has nothing positive to say about Chávez at all. Sebastián Piñera made the comparison with Alejandro Guillier. Guillermo Lasso did so for Lenín Moreno, who is so unlike Chávez that he angers hardcore leftists. In 2013, Dilma Rousseff carefully noted "differences" she had with Chávez

Rest assured that the right will make the claim for every leftist candidate in a presidential election at some point. And most likely those candidates will be very careful about how they respond if they want to win the election. The only ones who stay pro-Chávez are presidents like Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega, who are popular and have been in power a long time so run far less risk of remaining positive about him.

Given Chávez's iconic status and how popular he was for so many years, this is not a quick or simple evolution of thinking and reflects the fragmentation of the Latin American left right now. There is nothing to rally around anymore. José Mujica, a big supporter, said recently that although he had "an admiration" for Chávez, "there are things I don't understand."


Monday, December 18, 2017

Trump's 2017 National Security Strategy in Latin America

Donald Trump just released his National Security Strategy. Past examples have been useful to get a feel for the signals the administration wants to send. That is only partially true with Trump, who shows the same amount of incoherence on paper as we've seen in policy.

Back in 2010, I wrote a comparison of George W. Bush 2006 version and Barack Obama's in 2010:

--Bush had binary "good vs. bad" whereas Obama emphasized engagement.

--Obama mentioned Brazil more.

--Obama emphasized the importance of immigration reform, which Bush only mentioned briefly.

Obama's 2015 version is similar in those regards.

Trump takes it in a completely different direction and frames the western hemisphere largely in terms of pushing back against Chinese and Russian influence.

Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans. Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens. Both China and Russia support the dictatorship in Venezuela and are seeking to expand military linkages and arms sales across the region. The hemisphere’s democratic states have a shared interest in confronting threats to their sovereignty. 

It argues that "We will catalyze regional efforts to build security and prosperity through strong diplomatic engagement." This is boilerplate stuff that directly contradicts what the administration is currently doing, most notably its failure to nominate key appointees plus inaction and lack of public statements on the election crisis in Honduras. The same goes for "U.S. trade in the region is thriving," even while the administration tries to torpedo NAFTA and has prompted Latin American countries to look precisely toward countries like China for economic partnerships. It does not mention Brazil at all.

Perhaps the main consistent message is restrictionist sentiment, but that's to be expected. Maybe that's also why Mexico isn't mentioned at all. The border and trade discussions are made with no reference to our contiguous neighbor. It mentions Venezuela and Cuba several times but no other country is criticized.

What should we take from this? The short answer is more bad policy. There is no vision for U.S. leadership in the region, no acknowledgment of key players, no recognition of important allies, and no realistic strategy to counter Russian and Chinese influence. If anything, the administration is pursuing policies that will almost achieve almost the opposite of what it claims to want.


Piñera Election Aftermath

Sebastián Piñera was once again elected president of Chile, winning the runoff against Alejandro Guillier, 54.6%-45.4%. The postauthoritarian political landscape has now shifted dramatically. For twenty years of the Concertación, the Christian Democrats anchored a strong center-left coalition that governed decidedly from the center. The binomial system incentivized coalition-building and there were two solid blocs.

That has now fallen apart. The Concertación ceased to exist. The Christian Democrats got 26% of the vote in the 1989 elections and 14% in 2017. The binomial system is gone and there are new wildcards such as no more obligatory voting and voting from abroad. Michelle Bachelet even brought the Communist Party in the coalition. José Mujica even visited Chile a few days ago to emphasize his support for Guillier, which may or may not have been a smart move.

That shift to the left was a key part of the presidential race. The old center-left is gone and there's nothing cohesive yet to replace it. The center was lost in this presidential shuffle--even Piñera felt the need to nod in the far right's direction to get their votes in the runoff. Meanwhile, over the years Chileans have become increasingly disenchanted with political parties and the legislature. This is not new. Some years ago I was part of a group that gave talks for the new U.S. Ambassador to Chile, and I noted that despite lack of faith in parties, there was no sign of populism in Chile. Although Guillier had a bit of that, given how new he was to politics, and although many Chilean conservatives would argue Bachelet was already going too far left, at least for now the political system remains intact. But the center in particular needs something to hold onto politically.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Tamales La Pasadita

Today my 15 year old son and I went to Tamales La Pasadita for lunch. It is very much a hole-in-the-wall type of place on The Plaza. It is small, with booths on the left and stools on the right against a long counter. My son remarked that it looked like a soda fountain and I wonder whether that was its past life.

We each had the specialty plate with three tamales, rice, and beans. He had the chicken and I had cheese and peppers (you can see pictures of the menu at Yelp).

Image may contain: food

They were delicious. I am by no means a tamale expert but they were wonderfully soft and moist without being mushy. There are three sauces you can use--red, green, and cream. I did not try the cream, but the red and green give a nice flavor without being overly hot (the green is a bit hotter than the red). I will definitely be coming back.

I spoke Spanish to interact but you can get by in English. Actually, I was pleased to see two people with strong southern accents come in and do their best to order in Spanish, while the lady behind the counter worked to understand them. They figured it out. These days it's particularly nice to see that.


Friday, December 15, 2017

Trump Complicates Latin America's Economic Outlook

The UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean issued its preliminary report on the economic outlook for 2018, which is mostly positive (less positive if you're in a dictatorship).

But Trump injects some uncertainty into the situation. Increasing uncertainty is a strength of his.

In addition, the tax reform bill now moving through the legislature in the United States could ease the corporate tax burden and bolster capital flows to that country. In addition to the possible redistributive effects of that bill, the cuts in corporate tax rates and the repatriation of capital may not only have a direct effect on capital flows, but may also change the rules of the game in international taxation. This could trigger other reductions in corporate taxes (in what is known as a “race to the bottom”) that could have an impact on the tax systems of other countries, including those of the region (p. 96).
That bill is not 100% set but is extremely close. I had not thought about tax cut contagion but Latin American governments may well decide to chase the money.

The uncertainty surrounding the future trend in trade volumes also has to do with the growing protectionism being observed in some countries. The mounting support for anti-globalization political parties in some European countries and the vote in favour of Brexit in the United Kingdom in 2016 are just two examples. Meanwhile, the rhetoric used by the United States in the latest rounds of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) talks suggests that the dissolution of that treaty is a less remote possibility than it used to be, especially in view of that country’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (p. 95).

This, of course, is an ongoing concern. Even Bernie Sanders is cheering on Donald Trump's effort to radically change NAFTA. Latin American leaders will continue to look outside the region for investment and trading deals.

As so often happens, Latin America is held hostage to intermestic policy, as U.S. domestic politics drives U.S. foreign policy. This puts a question mark on the 2018 outlook.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is Venezuela a Model for Cuba?

One mantra for years with Venezuela is that the Cubans control everything and so the country was moving in a Castro-esque direction. Reality, however, has shown the seemingly hapless Chavistas to be far more subtle and flexible than Fidel's model. Instead, what we may actually eventually see is Cuba learning from Venezuela.

Fidel learned from Guatemala and Chile that co-existence with the empire was impossible, that socialism couldn't be achieved through electoral democracy. But of course that was the Cold War. Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro never lived that experience in Venezuela. Instead, they had lived elections in Venezuela.

In Cuba, elections are funny things that I would joke about in class: Fidel figured that if you only claimed 98% or so of the vote, then that 2% was your veneer of democracy. You think we're so evil but we let 2% oppose us! There was no way the Castros were going to allow a real opposition to wander the country, talk freely, and the like.

Once Hugo Chávez died, oil prices dropped, and the weight of mismanagement and corruption all combined to destroy the economy and undermine confidence in the government, Maduro needed a new strategy for staying in power, but he couldn't use the Cuban model. In this era of (relative) democracy in the region, he needed a bigger fig leaf that Castroism could provide. So they kept having elections, but just carefully controlled who could participate. If the opposition elects a majority in the legislature, just ignore it and cite laws to do so. Then create your own "popular" body to replace it. Maybe you even learned a little gerrymandering from the United States. Now a large chunk of the opposition can no longer even participate in the 2018 presidential election because of their perfectly democratic decision not to participate in Sunday's local elections. Perfect!

All the while, you dialogue. You talk a lot about dialogue, and peace, and the wonders of working together for a unified, prosperous Venezuela. Foreigners hoping for some diplomatic glory sponsor and mediate this dialogue. It can drag on forever. This is a tremendous fig leaf that covers your enormous cojones.

The icing on the cake is the Trump administration, which does squeeze you economically on the one hand but gives you lots of political cover on the other. At least for now, Russia will help you cover the economic part and keep a sufficient number of people paid to keep moving forward. China is a little dicier but is still in the picture. But it's nice to have someone to rail against again because Obama knew much more what he was doing and he was hard to vilify. And now Trump apparently deems Venezuela an equal priority as North Korea and Iran. On this, at least, you can learn from Fidel, who played the U.S. like a fiddle.

Back to my original point, as Raúl Castro fades out, younger Cuban leaders will have to sort out how to move ahead. Over time, it wouldn't surprise me to see some sort of faux democracy that is primarily authoritarian. Venezuela, even more so than Russia, which is so much more heavy-handed, is developing a model to follow. You can have some measure of free speech, some kinds of free elections, and a vocal opposition, yet you can control all the levers and leave the world at a loss.

That model is working like a charm. For now at least. Worse models, like Zimbabwe's, lasted a hell of a long time. It's buying Chavistas time, though, and that's the best they can hope for at the moment. Cuba is watching too, and when there's political change there maybe watch for Venezuelans advising them. 


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Malevolence or Incompetence? Trump in Honduras

With reason, much as been made of the State Department certifying that Honduras was complying with the U.S. requirement of fighting corruption and protecting human rights precisely as election fraud was occurring.

Several times now, I've argued that Trump administration responses to Latin America have appeared either to be malevolent or incompetent--it's like a game show where you hear a scenario and have to choose one. The malevolent option is that the administration wanted to signal its desire for Juan Orlando Hernández to win. But there is always the incompetent option. From the Houston Chronicle:

But two days after the election and in the midst of the protests, the U.S. State Department stunned just about everyone. It sent a document certifying that Honduras had complied with its rule of law and human rights requirements to obtain millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
 Democrats in Congress immediately assumed that President Donald Trump was showing support for Hernández, a conservative who has gained favor with the White House for cracking down on street gangs that have made the country one of the world's most violent.
 But a State Department spokeswoman told reporters the certification was simply sent when it had been completed, saying "This was just something that it was done when it was done. Okay?"
 Okay, we get it. If it wasn't sent to help Hernandez, then it was sent with no thought or knowledge about the delicate situation in Honduras and the effect it could have, which among other things was to add to the confusion.

I actually lean toward incompetence here. The State Department is stripped to the bone and managed by someone who is hostile to its operation. A deadline was coming up so a lower level official generated the statement. This just would not surprise me.

I can't rule out malevolence, and certainly the Honduran opposition is reading Trump administration actions closely and finding them in favor of JOH. Either way, the Trump administration is sending the wrong signals and the region is paying attention.


Friday, December 08, 2017

Ron Chernow's Grant

I greatly enjoyed Ron Chernow's Grant. I knew only the basics about him and the combination of strengths (esp. military genius and commitment to African American rights) and weaknesses (esp. misplaced trust and alcohol) make for good reading. I had not known what an abject failure he was when the civil war broke out (and that part of the book is much less interesting and therefore slower) nor the magnitude of his global image after he left the presidency. He died young, only 62, but that can happen when you smoke 20 cigars a day.

I am not that into military history but Chernow does a nice job of going through Grant's rapid rise through the ranks and the successful battlefield strategies that compelled Lincoln to trust him. The two developed a strong bond. Grant understood Robert E. Lee and outmaneuvered him time and again. Chernow brings out the emotion and stress he (and of course Lincoln as well) were under.

Reconstruction is heartbreaking to read, as Grant supported African Americans enjoying their rights and entering politics, which they did in large numbers. He sent troops to the South numerous times to counter brutal white violence, but his own party and the North in general tired of it, and after he left office whites quickly established apartheid.

Latin America note: Grant fought in the Mexican War and fell in love with the country, even going back later. Chernow is clearly a sympathetic biographer but Grant's own words suggest someone who tried to overcome racism and appreciate the people and culture.


Thursday, December 07, 2017

Latin American Response to Honduras

I write periodically about the lack of unity and cooperation in Latin America, which is detrimental to democracy in the region. In the case of Honduras, we see a partial exception that underlines how difficult unity is to achieve. The Mexican Foreign Ministry issued a statement on behalf of eight countries in support of the TSE's decision to do a recount.

Los gobiernos de Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, México, Paraguay, Perú y Uruguay manifiestan su apoyo a la decisión tomada por las altas autoridades del Tribunal Supremo Electoral de Honduras de proceder al recuento de la totalidad de las actas de votación interpeladas respecto de sus recientes elecciones presidenciales.

Concern about fraud and calls for a recount have come from elsewhere as well, but it seems ideology still gets in the way. Evo Morales might agree with the statement but blames the U.S. Same goes with Nicolás Maduro. The statement lauds the OAS, which they would not want to do. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, where is Brazil? The powerhouse is conspicuous by its absence.


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Latin American Elections Are Boring

I agree with a lot of Jorge Castañeda's op-ed in the New York Times about where Latin America is headed as a series of presidential elections are coming up. We hear a lot of concern about democracy breaking down but it's premature:

Fortunately, Latin American democracy is becoming monotonously normal and resistant to great upheavals. If there is a common thread underlying this sequence of presidential elections, it may reside in a healthy novelty: the humdrum nature of most of the possible outcomes. This is good news for the region.

I've used the word "boring" to describe elections in Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru that were supposed to be ideological battlegrounds that could convulse the region. Or at least they were portrayed that way. Remember back when Ollanta Humala was going to be the next Hugo Chávez and Peru would turn into the Soviet Union if he won?

This doesn't minimize or ignore the crisis in Honduras or the populist temptations in Brazil or Mexico. But in a regional and historical perspective, Latin America is not falling apart. Coups aren't gone but they're far less of a threat now than any other time in Latin American history. Civil wars are ending, not starting. I think of Ecuador, which was so coup prone, and now the elections are interesting politically but also boring in a good way.


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Honduran Cobras Don't Want to Bite

The Honduran special forces group Cobras, which is often cited as "US funded forces attacking people" will not in fact attack anyone. They say they are "not machines or robots" and "before police, we are human beings," and they don't want to be part of killing people (or to be killed) for the sake of this election controversy.

They also make clear they are not taking sides. Instead, they just do not want to be part of domestic repression. They call on the police to do the same. Some police had already been on strike because of not getting paid.

This is groundbreaking stuff. My first thought is that they are indeed taking sides because the government is (presumably, since the president is Commander-in-Chief in Honduras) ordering them and they are saying no. On top of that Salvador Nasralla had called on the army to rebel. But at the same time, they are not calling for one or the other candidate to win, or telling Juan Orlando Hernández that they no longer serve him. Update: I hadn't seen the letter itself, which is actually much more directly aimed at the government.

Where does that go? The Venezuelan armed forces became increasingly resentful at being used to repress their own people, which then politicized them. What starts as "we don't repress" can eventually become "we don't support this government because it represses." Yet the contexts are different--JOH had solid approval ratings earlier this year and is not drastically changing economic policy. In short, we should not jump to too many conclusions. For the armed forces as a whole to shift course would be unprecedented.

It is also a reminder that using "US backed" or "US funded" as an automatic indication of brutality is simplistic because it robs groups of their agency. They are not simple puppets with no brains, which is generally the implication. Puppets tend to be puppets until they're not (remember all the analyses when Juan Manuel Santos became president in Colombia) and US funding alone does not tell us enough.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Fraud in Honduras

The Honduran Tribunal Supremo Electoral shows Juan Orlando Hernández winning 42.98%-41.39% over Salvador Nasralla with 99.96% of votes counted. It is clear that the election was marked by significant fraud. Nasralla had been ahead, then the TSE suddenly stopped issuing results, which days later began trickling in and drastically changed the outcome. I sense that the fraud strategy was incompetent.

At this point there are numerous problems that must be addressed before a winner is announced.

The opposition is questioning ballots from an additional 5,200 polling places, almost 30 percent of the total, and has asked for a recount from three rural departments where turnout was about 20 percent higher than the average in the rest of the country. 
The monitoring group from the Organization of American States said Sunday that the complaints over those 5,200 polling places should be considered.

The problem is that there is too little international pressure to do so. Yes, the OAS monitoring group supports this, but Luis Almagro has only done a few bland retweets. He talked nonstop about Venezuela and needs to come out more strongly about Honduras. The Trump administration remains almost completely silent. With all the noise that both made about Venezuela, the charge of hypocrisy is easy to make.

Meanwhile, the TSE agreed to recount far fewer. No surprise there--recount a few, claim forever that "a recount" was completed, and give JOH his re-election. The TSE is discredited at this point. There is no defense for the delays.

Sadly, the most likely outcome will be more violence and more distrust. It doesn't help that Nasralla calls for military insurrection:

“I call on all members of the armed forces to rebel against your bosses,” Nasralla told a cheering throng of supporters who booed nearby troops. “You all over there, you shouldn’t be there, you should be part of the people.”

The army isn't going to rebel* but this will certainly provide more rationale for repression. Without international pressure, Honduras will continue the political disintegration that began with the 2009 coup.

* Update: Boz notes that I say this with too much certainty. This is true. The army has traditionally been strongly connected with elites, who do not want Zelaya near the presidency. If the army does indeed rebel, then we're in brand new territory.


Sunday, December 03, 2017

AMLO and Amnesty

Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would consider an amnesty for narcos. On social media I immediately saw a lot of mocking his political acumen. I am not so sure. This might not be so dumb politically.

1. The general idea is not so new in Mexico. Vicente Fox has said the drug war is useless and he is on the other side of political spectrum. Therefore the idea of such a trial balloon is not so crazy. Mexicans say drug-related violence is partly why they disapprove of Enrique Peña Nieto.

2. The general idea is not so new in the region either. El Salvador experimented with a truce, which is obviously different but falls under the same category of "trying something other than the current failing policy." So it's not unprecedented (you could perhaps even make a comparison to the concessions Colombia made to the FARC).

3. Perhaps even more importantly, Donald Trump will eventually attack him hard on this issue, which will be great for AMLO. If I were AMLO, I would look to push Trump's buttons as much as possible, which will inevitably lead to disparaging of Mexico and Mexicans. AMLO is in great shape if he becomes the defender of Mexican nationalism.


Friday, December 01, 2017

Trump Policy Toward Honduras

The Trump administration has been very quiet about the Honduran election. We've got one quick mention by the State Department spokesperson and that appears to be it. This screenshot from State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs says it all.

There are two main possible reasons for this. First, the Trump administration wants Juan Orlando Hernández to win so is intentionally ignoring the clear signs of electoral fraud. Because of Salvador Nasralla's alliance with José Manuel Zelaya, there are wild charges of another Hugo Chávez coming. This is an administration that revels in wild charges and there are plenty of people who actually believe this. John Kelly really likes JOH and wild charges.

Second, Trump does not care at all (even if Kelly tries to get his attention) and Rex Tillerson is too incompetent/distracted to bother doing so or even to delegate that duty to his Assistant Secretary. Sorry, I mean his Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary because Trump has not cared enough to nominate an Assistant Secretary. Oh wait, there is no Ambassador to Honduras either. Oops.

So there you have it. Malevolence or incompetence. Take your pick.

I understand that many of you will say, "It's better that the Trump administration do nothing because realistically it would likely just screw this up even more." I lean heavily that direction myself but I do wish we had a government that would call for regional pressure to push for a recount or some other measures to counter fraud. I know that will not happen.


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