Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spanish Response to State of the Union

One less remarked upon aspect of the State of the Union is the Spanish-language response. While Joe Kennedy gave the regular one, Elizabeth Guzmán, a Peruvian-American Representative from Virginia, gave one in Spanish. Importantly, it is her own, not a translation of his. This is important both from gender and ethnic perspectives. And she is more blunt:

"Él ha remplazado la igualdad por la intolerancia, el respeto mutuo por el racismo", dijo la legisladora estatal, quien acusó al presidente de insultar "a las personas que tengan una ascendencia diferente a la de él".

That's quite different from Kennedy, who didn't even refer to Trump specifically, much less openly call him racist.

At this point, we're asking the same question that's been sitting there for years. At what point will the "sleeping giant" of Latino voters become decisive? The stakes are high in the 2018 midterm elections, though of course they were even higher for the 2016 presidential election, and it didn't happen. Let's see how many leaders like Guzmán get a national stage.

Update: one problem with Kennedy's response: he says he wants to talk directly to DREAMers and then starts speaking a bit in Spanish, giving everyone the impression that they can't speak English.


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mexico's Exports Increase

My former student John Hyatt alerted me to this article in El Universal about how Mexican non-petroleum exports to the United States increased 7.2% in 2017 over 2016. The biggest gain was in the car industry.

They speculate there are two main possible reasons. First, Mexican exporters are jumping to sell what they can before Donald Trump does something to NAFTA. Second, they are just taking advantage of the weak peso, which was caused in no small part by Trump's election.

I actually think the most important aspect of the data is that Mexican exports to other parts of the world grew by 15.8%. What this means it that as NAFTA disaster looms, Mexico is already poised and ready to increase its trade with the rest of the world. Its other major trading partners are Canada, China, Germany, and Japan. Right now Mexico is working to expand trade with the European Union in general.

Not surprisingly in the Trump era, the U.S. loses.


Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015) is a political novel with a fantasy backdrop. When she is a child, the Masquerade Empire takes over Baru Cormorant's homeland, destroying her family in the process. Interestingly, one important way the empire cracks down is on sexuality. In Baru's homeland homosexuality and bisexuality are the norm (for example, she has two fathers) and the Masquerade harshly punishes that. She decides the only way to fight back and protect her home and way of life is to join the empire and wield power within it. She is thus a traitor all the way through and there is constant (and unexpected) treachery throughout the novel.

Imagine House of Cards combined with Game of Thrones. This is totally unlike George R.R. Martin's writing, though, which is long, immersive, and character-driven. Dickinson is sparer and the focus stays on the main character, though you don't really know what she's thinking. There is a lot about the logistics of empire and rebellion: taxes, psychology, military strategy, economic growth, etc. which all flows nicely.

There are two things that get mentioned multiple times that frame the book:

The Traitor's Qualm refers to the idea that potential rebels will stay publicly neutral as long as possible so that if things go bad, they can stay with the empire. There must be something about this in the political psychology literature but I don't know it. Baru spends a lot of time figuring out ways to court such allies.

The Hierarchic Qualm refers to the idea that you cannot sin when you are following a king or emperor's orders because you swore an oath to do so. It is just like Hannah Arendt's argument about the banality of evil. Adolf Eichmann said he wasn't guilty because he was just doing his job. That can justify massive bloodshed, as it does in this novel. And Baru is right in the middle of it.

It appears to be a two-book story and the sequel comes out in October 2018.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Tillerson Off to Latin America

Rex Tillerson is going to Latin America in part to get more attention on the Venezuelan crisis. He'll also be going to Bogotá to talk about the peace mean how Colombia isn't working hard enough for our tastes:

The Secretary will travel to Bogotá on February 6, where he will meet with President Juan Manuel Santos, Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín, and other senior Colombian officials to discuss matters of importance including U.S. support for Colombia’s efforts to address the surge in coca cultivation and cocaine production, economic issues, and the growing refugee population.

No mention at all of the peace process. No mention of Honduras, the second biggest political crisis of the region, because that's all fine and dandy.

Getting Latin America focused productively is a good thing, to the extent that Tillerson has any shred of credibility as a leader. But we're missing the boat in so many other ways.


Saturday, January 27, 2018

Don't Blame the Venezuelan Opposition

A caveat to start. The pronouncements of academic organizations don't matter much in any policy sense. But the Latin American Studies Association is huge and I've been a member for almost 25 years so I pay attention to what it says. Every so often it puts up resolutions about political issues for a vote. In the past, I've noted several times how the resolutions are basically an embarrassment of ideology and poor logic (here's one of the worst).

Then last July LASA finally put a Venezuela resolution up for vote that criticized the government. You'd have thought they had a resolution endorsing Hitler for all the debate about how the opposition deserves its own hate and there was not enough historicizing.

The sucker went up for a vote, though, and was approved. But most members didn't care. Only 18% bothered to vote, perhaps mirroring the least interested portions of the U.S. electorate. A group of academics (which I would've signed had I known about it) signed on to a strongly worded letter. It was just published in LASA Forum:

This experience raises an obvious and troubling question: What is the matter with LASA? In our view, there are at least two core problems. First, the operating mantra of the association is to provide political balance, and on any position to give equal weight to all sides. This may be emotionally satisfying for some but it is not much of a guide to discovering or identifying the truth of a situation. Truth depends on evidence, not on achieving a balance of opposing views. The second and perhaps more critical element is that for a substantial faction in the Association criticism of anything that comes clothed in leftist rhetoric is unacceptable. This conflates political correctness with ideological solidarity. 

This is on point. Further:

The result of the vote on the Venezuela resolution suggests a massive indifference within LASA to the fate of the country. Although the resolution won over 70% of votes cast (1,747 Yes, 463 No, 257 Abstentions) LASA requires that for any resolution to pass, at least 20% of the total membership (13,418) must vote. In this case only 18% bothered to do so. That more than 80% of the members of the Latin American Studies Association are either indifferent to or unaware of the destruction of democracy in Venezuela and the devastation faced by Venezuelans is shocking and shameful. Something is seriously wrong and one can only hope that things change for the better. The undersigned lament this situation and protest the behavior of the previous LASA leadership and EC in the strongest possible terms.

Blaming the opposition for the government's actions is akin to blaming the victim of a police shooting. Further, in authoritarian contexts there is no "on the other hand" when you talk about human rights abuses and democracy. Supporting the Venezuelan government at this point means accepting brutality and venality as normal.


Friday, January 26, 2018

Latin America Outlook Good (Except Venezuela)

In the endless commodity cycle, the International Monetary Fund says Latin America is on an upswing. The post could actually be labeled "except Venezuela." They actually have growth numbers for 2018 and 2019 with and without Venezuela because it drags down the average so much.

That's one hell of a drag. The downside to this otherwise optimistic report is that all the growth and momentum is centered on commodities: copper, other mining, good harvests (of unspecified products), and slight rise in oil prices. We've been here before.

But back to "except Venezuela." The juicy tidbit that the media justifiably picked up on is that inflation is projected to reach 13,000%. Just sit back and let that soak in. I can barely wrap my head around it. To help, here's Hannah Dreier, who until last year was AP's corresponded there.

Back in the worst days of Bolivian hyperinflation, the rate was about 23,000%. The Bolivian example is also a reminder that you need to be careful about how you deal with inflation. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is demonized for his response much more than the military government for its role in creating it.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Latin America Doesn't Like Trump

Gallup shows Donald Trump's approval in Latin America going over a cliff. In the aggregate, 16% of Latin Americans approve of him. The most approval comes from Venezuela and is born of desperation rather than admiration. Only six countries have approval of 20% or higher. As you might guess, it's quite hard to find Mexicans who approve of the job he's doing. I wonder who they are.

With its "America First" foreign policy, the Trump administration has made it clear that it will pursue immigration controls and border security measures. However, this region remains an important partner in trade and security for the United States, and striking a balance in years to come may prove difficult when Latin Americans as a whole disapprove of Trump's job performance in his first year. 
The same is true for how Latin Americans think the president will affect the relationship between their country and the U.S., with far more residents believing Trump will weaken the relationship compared with those who believed the same about Obama. Given Trump's recent actions and alleged comments regarding refugees and immigrants from Haiti and El Salvador, the future of these partnerships remains tenuous.

This is disastrously bad. I think it is safe to say that on the whole, Latin America sees Trump as someone who is likely to screw things up, possibly in ways that could directly hurt them. And there is good reason to think that way.


China's Presence in Latin America

Stephen Kaplan at George Washington University has a post in the Monkey Cage asking whether the U.S. should be concerned about Chinese investment in Latin America. The argument is that Chinese economic activity in Latin America is mostly pragmatic and not ideological.

I agree and it's pretty uncontroversial among Latin Americanists at least (way back in 2009 ECLAC was openly calling for more!). He might downplay Chinese political interests a little too much (Taiwan does matter, for example) but the general point is that the alarmist "China is encroaching on our backyard" message is mostly unfounded. As I've pointed out as well, we need to keep Latin American agency in mind. Latin American leaders are not passively accepting Chinese investment--there are strategies, pushback, etc.

One point he makes that is especially worth noting is that China is actually defending an economic order that the U.S. is now starting to reject. It's been a weird year.

A final note: this seems to be the hot topic for 2018, which I predict we'll all be rather tired of by the end of the year.


Monday, January 22, 2018

The Empty Rebellion in Venezuela

Nicholas Casey at The New York Times had been talking to Óscar Pérez, rogue police officer who was just killed by the Venezuelan government. If you are looking for incipient rebellion, you will not find optimism. For example:

“We wanted there to be a call to the streets that day, there to be big displays, that the people realized there a movement had started,” he said in one of his messages. “But unfortunately, there wasn’t one.”

It was all symbolism and no substance, meaning there is no movement behind his personal rebellion. He just hoped one would materialize. He captured the imagination of Venezuelans (he was, after all, an actor of action movies) and scared the government, but he had no plans for anything to come after. So he's both a symbol of resistance and of the disorganization that has permanently plagued those who oppose the government.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Race 1: Charleston Marathon

The issues of work/life balance and health get deserved attention in academic social media. Over the years running helped me in those regards, but with work and kids my wife and I stopped running for any significant distance. Now that my kids are old enough to watch themselves we're getting back into it and 2018 will be a big running year for us.

The first race of the year was a week ago when we ran the Charleston Marathon. We started training for that around September. Here I am almost at the finish line, where my nine-year old daughter jumped in to greet me and run a few steps.

It was in the 40s, which itself isn't bad when you're running, especially since it was sunny, but at times the wind was brutal. The course is flat, which is great, and at the end there are local craft beers and shrimp and grits waiting for you.

So we started 2018 with a marathon and we're thinking of ending it with another.


TPS and Salvadorans in NC

I'm quoted in this local story for the Salisbury Post about TPS for Salvadorans. Salisbury and Rowan County are just northeast of Charlotte up Interstate 85. The reporter's goal was simply to educate the local population about the impact Trump's decision will have on the area and people who live there.

One thing I try to remind people of, whether it be in class, public talks, or elsewhere, is that these decisions hit home, all around you. Undocumented immigrants, whether they are currently protected or not, are deeply embedded in our communities. The bright student in your class may have undocumented parents and faces imminent upheaval. The owner of the business you like may be dealing with the constant stress of uncertainty. And your government is targeting people you know and like, labeling them as dangerous enemies.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Venezuelans Are Fleeing

For years, Ecuador dealt with large numbers of Colombians fleeing violence. Now Colombia is experiencing the same on its eastern side with staggering numbers of Venezuelans. In 2017, 796,000 Venezuelans obtained a Colombian visa but only 276,000 returned. Many are going to Colombia as a first step toward somewhere else--all over Latin America, the U.S., and Spain. 60% of Venezuelans leaving Colombia were going somewhere other than Venezuela and a chunk of those who return live on the border and have a special visa for free movement.

Put another way, 1.7 percent of the Venezuelan population went to Colombia last year because Venezuela was too unlivable. Many of the receiving countries are not in a good position to receive a large amount of unexpected migrants. Venezuela itself is facing drain of every kind: no capital, brain drain, drop in oil production, food scarcity, and so on. Unless something changes, the exodus will continue.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Reproductive Rights and the Latin American Left

Christina Ewig and Merike Blofield look at reproductive rights from the "left/right" ideological perspective. Just being "leftist" doesn't tell you much about a government's stance on abortion policy. Instead, we have to look at "populist" versus "institutionalized" left.

  • Institutionalized parties – like those in Chile and Uruguay – have channels in place for civil society organizations, including feminist ones, to have bottom-up influence. Given their respect for the rules of the game, however, the institutionalized lefts are also likely to face well-organized conservative opposition, which slow down reform, shape final legislation, or even veto it altogether.  In Uruguay and Chile, feminists had a voice, but conservatives were also are able to block, slow down, and water down liberalization.  This is why the Uruguayan reform took so long and why in both cases the final legislation is less liberal than the original proposals.
  • By contrast, populist governments, like those of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega and Ecuador under Rafael Correa, often see advocates for liberalization as political threats – particularly feminists who also represent more general claims for individual autonomy and pluralism. Moreover, an issue like abortion, where the practical costs of a restrictive stance are born almost exclusively by low-income women, is likely to be used by populist leaders as a pawn in a power struggle with well-organized, influential religious forces.

They find this holds over other reproductive issues as well. The right, of course, is adamantly opposed. I wonder whether this will hold in Ecuador, where Correa actually gave up power and Lenín Moreno seems to act in a less populist manner.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review of Cathedral of the Sea

Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral of the Sea is historical fiction set in 14th century Barcelona, following the life of Arnau Estanyol as he goes from impoverished orphan to wealth and status. I thought the novel would be focused on the building of the Santa María de la Mar cathedral, but it served more as a symbolic backdrop and source of inspiration for Arnau. Of course, this is the Inquisition, which touches on virtually everything. It's an entertaining novel.

The novel is centered in many ways on class differences, the way nobles mistreat everyone else, but how the people can fight back. The unique role of Catalonia is critical to this because there are customs and norms that Castilians must accept. That angle represents some of the most interesting parts of the book, especially when Catalonia and the Inquisition clash.

The words "saga" and "sprawling" are cliches but fit. This becomes difficult at times because there are a lot of characters and periodically I lost track, especially when they reappeared after a long time. The dialogue at times can be rather wooden, though I though both the story and the characters really came to life in last 150 pages or so, which were much better than the beginning. There is even a bit of a twist at the end--not everything is tied up perfectly, which worked well in my opinion.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Challenges of Honduran Dialogue

The Alianza de Oposición in Honduras says it will accept Juan Orlando Hernández's offer of dialogue if there is an international mediator. Further, it called for protests and blocking highways on January 20, which is inauguration day, that would go almost a week.

But where does this go? A statement from the Honduran Bishops' Conference helps explain the dilemma.

In an open letter addressed to both Hernandez and Nasralla, the Honduran episcopate stressed the importance of transparent communication between the parties and all sectors of society. The religious delegation stated “the absence of dialogue” was the actual cause of the nation’s current political crisis.
The congregation of bishops suggested a respectful, earnest and fair exchange between the two politicians to give proof to their love of the Honduran people. This meeting should avoid awarding concessions to either party in order to quell the region's anxiety and settle on a solution which best suits the society.

This does not bear much resemblance to reality. A lawless elite power grab was the actual cause of the crisis, not absence of dialogue. And dialogue that never involves concessions automatically means favoring Juan Orlando Hernández and the status quo.

So what is the point of the dialogue? The protests apply pressure, but for what? The Alianza says that in the short term, it is about examining all the election evidence. In the long term, however, it is the creation of an "Asamblea Nacional Constituyente Originaria" and specifically that JOH is removed from power.

It stands to reason that the dialogue will focus on the election itself. This is an uphill battle since the government and the army currently have no interest in revisiting it.  The army claims the protesters aren't even Honduran!

Inevitably, JOH will be looking for signals from the United States, where he will see John Kelly winking at him in approval (I doubt Kelly is a winking person, but whatever). There is no public regional pressure that I have discerned, and Mexico has already congratulated JOH. The OAS has been loud but it has no leverage.

All the Alianza has right now is protest so it's primary challenge is to avoid protest fatigue. It will be hard enough to convince the army that it should pressure the government, and it will be impossible if the protests fizzle out. Honduras is not Venezuela but it's poor and people cannot afford simply not to work for days on end. Convincing them that real change is possible is tough--that's just not what Honduran political history has taught them.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Impact of John Feeley's Resignation

Juan González, who has served in a number of diplomatic capacities for U.S. policy toward Latin America, has a piece in Americas Quarterly about the resignation of John Feeley, who said he could no longer work for the Trump administration. This particular resignation is creating waves. President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have thoroughly demoralized the State Department and are wrecking our Latin American diplomacy.

The big question now is how much of a chain reaction we see.

Others may also follow Feeley’s lead during the summer foreign service transition season. I’ve heard from more than a few gifted diplomats who – as patriots – cannot in good faith advance policies and views that so clearly undermine and hurt U.S. standing and interests abroad, some in locations the president of the United States considers “shit hole” countries. Combine the brain drain at senior levels with the drop in people taking the foreign service exam, and you start having a serious institutional problem that could take a generation to fix.

These diplomats facilitate U.S. soft power. I don't want the U.S. to act as an imperial power, but neither do I want it to be clueless about Latin America, and that's where we're heading. I want better policy, not no policy. Our policy toward Honduras shows both. As does Mexico policy. As does El Salvador policy. Colombia policy sometimes seems to move in that direction. We're moving in a direction that hurts both Latin America and the United States.


Chile's Capitalist Ranking

There are a variety of indices out there purporting to show how amenable a given country is to capitalism. These are infected with all sorts of biases and political motivations. The news about the World Bank and Chile is just confirmation.

The bank’s chief economist Paul Romer told the Wall Street Journal Friday that Chile’s recent slide in the “Doing Business” index was almost entirely due to methodological changes that could have been politically motivated, and not by deterioration in the country’s business environment. Romer released figures Monday that showed what would have happened to Chile’s ranking without the changes.

This is sensitive in Chile, where Michelle Bachelet's second term was littered with accusations that was practically a communist and the markets breathed a sigh of relief when the right won the presidency again. Political opponents use such rankings to confirm their suspicions of leftist subversion.

We shouldn't need a reminder but perhaps we do: the World Bank is not just an apolitical technocratic organization. Its founding was fundamentally political, as is its functioning. And bias floats all throughout politics.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Julian Assange is Ecuadorian

Rafael Correa first lauded Julian Assange as a warrior against the imperialist United States, then got tired of his political pronouncements and even pulled the plug on his internet when he seemed to be getting negative attention in the U.S. presidential race. Lenín Moreno similarly expressed frustration and Assange even went after him on Twitter.

Yet Ecuador just made him a citizen. I am still wrapping my head around this one. Moreno has nothing to gain politically from the move, but his Foreign Minister talked about increasing the "ring of protection" around him. One possibility is just that Ecuador wants to get him out of their embassy, and this is one way they can facilitate that more easily. In other words, give him what he wants so he gets out of your hair. The problem, of course, is that citizenship means he's in your hair, possibly for the rest of your life.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Politics of Chinese Tourism in Mexico

The Mexican Minister of Tourism said that Mexico must become less dependent on the United States for tourism and find more partners. Given political uncertainty in the U.S. this makes perfect sense.

Can you guess which was the only English-language outlet to report on this? That would be Chinese state media. And, incidentally, that same cabinet minister had traveled to China in 2016 to promote more Chinese tourism in Mexico. I assume he's made more than one such trip.

I do not want to make too much of this, but the shift is real and has been gradually been happening for years. Further, the Trump administration has definitely prompted Latin America in general to find new partners in just about everything. The United States is seen as an unreliable partner, which goes far beyond just policy disagreements.

Chinese tourism will go hand in hand with Chinese investment and trade. Screw around with NAFTA and that will accelerate even more. And remember, the Trump administration actually sees China's presence in Latin America as a security concern, even as its actions promote that presence.


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Marco Rubio Hypes His Cuba Hearing

The Cuba Sonic Attack issue is one of the weirdest things I've heard of in a long time (I posted in September and October if you want some background). Marco Rubio has been hot on this issue and called a hearing that is going on right now. There are three witnesses for the hearing--the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, someone from the State Department's diplomatic security team, and State's medical director.

You can read their testimony here. It will take you approximately two minutes to read all three because they're far more brief than most testimony you see. What they mostly say is that they don't know what's going on. That is to their credit. Senator Rubio wants to make this into a crisis. He went on Fox and Friends to hype it. He issued a statement to claim credit for his tenacity:

Following pressure from Rubio, the State Department expelled a number of Cuban operatives from the U.S. after American diplomats were forced to leave Cuba as a result of the Havana attacks. Rubio has also pushed back on the idea that the Cuban government, which tightly controls and monitors the island, denies knowing anything about the attacks that injured at least 24 American diplomatic personnel.

This is old school "get tough on Cuba" talk, in which Rubio is well versed. It stands in odd contrast to the (thankfully) measured message of Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration, which has not tried to sensationalize it. I can't think of what audience this appeals to beyond the typical hard-line anti-Castro type.


Running Elections in El Salvador

Especially given the fraud by the Electoral Tribunal in Honduras in November, Tim Muth's post on the TSE in El Salvador is thought provoking.

Perhaps the biggest challenge El Salvador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal ("TSE") has right now is to find the more than 94,000 citizens needed to run the vote reception tables across the country.    In previous elections, this was the responsibility of the political parties and the persons at the voting tables could be affiliated with the parties.   The parties recruited, trained and made sure that people showed up  Fairness was ensured by the fact that each of the parties was represented by one of the officials at the tables.   
However, since the last election the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the officials at the voting tables must be non-partisan and unaffiliated with the parties.  Now the TSE must enroll 94,000 nonpartisan officials and train them on a very complicated voting process.   The TSE has gone about this by directly recruiting persons to serve as officials, by using lists proposed by the political parties, and by a citizen draft.

This last part is staggering. The elections are in two months and they need to find 28,000 people, tell them they're working on the election, and fine them if they don't comply! What you'll likely end up with is a mess, with people who don't care and aren't committed to the endeavor. I am not an expert on poll workers, but in the U.S. generally the idea is that opposing parties get some representation. You need as much training and oversight as you can get. Hooking people off the street does not achieve that.


Monday, January 08, 2018

Podcast Episode 45: TPA and DACA

On Episode 45 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I'm on my own today talking about the decision to end Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans and how that connects the debate right now about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (altogether about one million people).


Sunday, January 07, 2018

Profile of John Kelly

Nick Miroff at the Washington Post profiles John Kelly and how his work with Latin America shaped him. We already knew his views were not totally in sync with Trump and that he tended to embrace the alarmist Middle Eastern terrorist threat narrative. But you can see more about how his son's death affected him and prompted him to get out of his military comfort zone. In Latin America he is a man with a mission, and that is fundamentally conservative, sometimes zealously so.

What's still not clear is why he chose the job and stayed in it. Perhaps it's just that sense of mission. As interviewees in the article note, it must eat at him to be defending someone like Trump. There is a strong ideological thread between them, though, and it may well be that Kelly buys into that strongly enough to stay the course.


Friday, January 05, 2018

Richard Nixon Talks to Fidel Castro

The National Security Archive released a large number of documents related to U.S.-Cuba diplomacy. These were the basis for Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande's book Back Channel to Cuba (which I reviewed here). Here's a fun one written by then Vice President Richard Nixon after his conversation with Fidel Castro in 1959.

As so often happens when you read Nixon is that he often has very sound advice that he actually is incapable of taking himself. He talks to Nixon about not abusing power, not "following the mob," to appoint good people, and to learn how to take criticism well. Essentially you have two power hungry leaders who are talking past each other.

And, of course, it has to end with paternalism. Nixon's last sentence is that "we have no choice but at least to try to orient him in the right direction." He wasn't really listening to anything Fidel was saying, and certainly Fidel had no interest in and probably complete contempt for Nixon's opinions.


Dialogue in Honduras and Venezuela

Various groups are calling for dialogue in Honduras. For some reason, the German Embassy is one.  This sounds nice. Dialogue is always good, right? The problem is that the context is the same as Venezuela's. The president wants to have a dialogue with everyone and live in peace. The opposition wants the president removed. There is no compromise position to aim for.

The government has all the leverage, especially if it has the army's support. It simply wants to buy time until the heat of the protests dies down. You may remember that in 2009 there was also dialogue. Here's what I wrote then:

If protests dwindle and most people go back to their daily routines, then the crisis might easily revert to its previous situation of ticking off the days until the election. Just as before, there is little overt international pressure on the coup government, or at least not enough to change its stance.

And that's what happened. The days ticked off and corruption settled in even deeper.

I wrote back in 2014 that one positive aspect of dialogue in Venezuela was simply goodwill. Having people see each other as humans and fellow Venezuelans/Hondurans is an important step and at least can reduce violence. But the fact that I wrote that four years ago (and the Honduras post 9 years ago!) and nothing was achieved is an indicator of how hard it is to make dialogue reduce conflict in the long term. There isn't any reason not to dialogue and negotiated transitions do sometimes happen, but if the army is not on board then it's hard to see much happening.


Thursday, January 04, 2018

Podcast Episode 44: The Election Mess in Honduras

In Episode 44 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk to Christine Wade, Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College. She studies Central America and recently published Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador and also the ninth edition of Latin American Politics and Development. The topic is Honduras and the aftermath of the November 2017 presidential election. We make every effort to end on some sort of high note, with mixed results.

This is her second time on the podcast. I talked with her back in November 2016 about the Nicaraguan election.


U.S. Government Reporting on Latin America

Adam Isacson has links to 17 U.S. government reports on Latin America that he found most useful in 2017. Browsing through was a reminder that there are a lot of very good analysts in the U.S. government. This is the same impression I get when I am periodically invited to give presentations to the State or Defense Departments. These are intelligent and knowledgeable people whose career is dedicated to studying these issues.

As Adam correctly notes, you see the agency blinders they might have on, or disagree with their conclusions, but in my opinion you also see a lot of stuff that would improve U.S. policy if implemented. For example, they call for whole government approaches to drug policy, with a long-term perspective. You see skepticism about Trump's calls for drastically increasing the size of the Border Patrol. You see a greater understanding of the Central American context than any policy maker ever shows.

You certainly see more than Twitter diplomacy could ever capture. It's unfortunate that these voices don't get heard more.


Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Maduro's 12 Victories

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry** posted an article entitled, "The Twelve Victories of President Maduro in 2017." It is literally not possible to read it and not think that Donald Trump ghostwrote it. Just the first sentence alone:

Para empezar, hay que recordar que el Presidente Nicolás Maduro es el mandatario más injustamente acosado, calumniado y agredido de la historia de Venezuela.

And it gets better. Maduro is David, heroically fighting off the Goliath of the enemies who want to destroy him. The people who were elected but then not allowed to have any actual legislative power? They're angry hordes! The essay literally reads like a comic book.

At no point does the author actually list 12 specific accomplishments, which is also why it is so Trumpesque. He did, we are told, save the country and it quotes Che Guevara. So there's that.

Update: **Note: a reader alerted me to the fact that the Foreign Ministry copied this from what appears to be the original article in Mexico's La Jornada.


Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Do Not Invade Venezuela

I don't have answers for Venezuela. I do know, however, that there are some options that will make things worse. Invasion is one example. Ricardo Hausmann is now making that case. Here is the crux of his plan:

As solutions go, why not consider the following one: the National Assembly could impeach Maduro and the OFAC-sanctioned, narco-trafficking vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has had more than $500 million in assets seized by the United States government. The Assembly could constitutionally appoint a new government, which in turn could request military assistance from a coalition of the willing, including Latin American, North American, and European countries. This force would free Venezuela, in the same way Canadians, Australians, Brits, and Americans liberated Europe in 1944-1945. Closer to home, it would be akin to the US liberating Panama from the oppression of Manuel Noriega, ushering in democracy and the fastest economic growth in Latin America.

For starters, this is not Panama and should not be compared to it. Manuel Noriega was far more brutal and despised than Nicolás Maduro. Panama was also a country with a history of U.S. presence, occupation, and intervention. Venezuela is the opposite and so the dynamics will be far more combustible. And this sure as hell isn't World War II so stop with those comparisons already.

But back to Venezuela. Who is going to be proclaimed supreme leader of this new government? Obviously he or she won't be elected and the opposition is not popular. Venezuelans have shown no signs that they want someone Hausmann would approve of. This leader will immediately be illegitimate.

Next, the idea that a Latin American country would send its military into Venezuela is problematic. The long-term diplomatic damage would be huge. Right now, leaders can barely be coaxed to condemn Maduro, much less call for violent overthrow. Which European countries would want to be a part of this? Really? And I have to wonder whether Donald Trump is even crazy enough to send U.S. troops.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this would be civil war. Many Chavistas want change but it is dangerous to assume this is the change they want. Many will likely see this as an oil grab, Maduro's conspiracy theories in real life. Foreign soldiers invited by an unelected government will not be received kindly. Venezuela is awash in weapons, and a lot of people will die.

So I don't claim to have answers, but this is one we should reject.


AMLO's Ordered Change

AMLO published a video message looking forward to 2018. It reflects what assuredly will be a basic strategy for his campaign over the next six months. On the one hand, he made it in southern Mexico (Chichen Itzá) which serves as a visible reminder of his professed commitment to the poorer parts of the country and its indigenous roots.

Critically, however, he adds the idea of "ordered change." He's not talking in revolutionary terms. He's always been careful to keep a safe distance from Hugo Chávez. He even published an op-ed in the Washington Post, about as mainstream a U.S. outlet as you can get, last year setting himself up as the defender of Mexicans in counterpoint both to the PAN and the PRI.

AMLO is a known quantity in Mexico, where he's been running for president for a long time. He's looking for that center-left sweet spot that gathers votes without losing others. "Ordered change" may not be too catchy but it might be his ticket.


Monday, January 01, 2018

Protesting in Honduras

Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, Mel Zelaya tweeted out a letter calling on Hondurans to take to the streets until Juan Orlando Hernández was defeated (whatever that might exactly mean). It's interesting that he did not do so in conjunction with Salvador Nasralla, who gave a video message on Facebook, calling on Hondurans to push for the government to respect the law.

From a purely practical perspective, this raises the question of who would organize and lead large protests, and who would be willing to follow. Zelaya and Nasralla are already rather an odd couple, and Venezuela offers a fresh example of the problems of having multiple leaders who are not necessarily on the same page.

The odds are already stacked against them. The Honduran army is not known, shall we say, for its commitment to democracy. Then you have the fact that the U.S. is in fact committed to Hernández, as are Canada and Mexico. The OAS is on their side but it has no leverage and little influence. Overall, the outlook is grim for 2018.


Latin American Politics A Decade Ago

Ten years ago today, I asked some questions about what would happen in 2008.  Not surprisingly, at the end of the year I forgot to come back to them.

--Can Evo Morales ratify a new constitution without serious violence or even civil war? If that happens, then perhaps there is more hope for Ecuador as well.

Yes. It's easy to forget how much the potential for violence hung over Bolivia. Even with the current controversy over Evo Morales running again, it's noteworthy how much that changed. Same with Ecuador.

--Can Hugo Chávez re-energize his base and move forward with his socialist project? And related, will a real opposition movement emerge?

Yes and no. Of course, the latter problem has never gone away.

--Will South America move in a unifying direction (e.g. expanding the Bank of the South, Mercosur, etc.) or will that remain largely rhetorical?

It remains rhetorical. Latin America hasn't unified.

 --Will scandals catch up to Alvaro Uribe or will he remain a Teflon president? Will he also seek to amend the constitution for yet another term? 

He remained Teflon. And although his supporters tested the waters for another term, fortunately for Colombian democracy it didn't happen.

--The same Teflon question could be asked about Lula, since he has scandals (though dealing with corruption rather than paramilitaries!) swirling around as well.

Ditto. Despite even more serious problems, even a conviction, Lula still polls well for the 2018 election. That's Teflon for you.

--Thinking of Lula, where is the biofuel debate going? The corn-based model seems to be creating serious problems (e.g. higher prices) but can sugar—or other products--represent a viable model of alternative fuel? 

The debate is muted. Ten years ago, it was discussed in the U.S. presidential campaign. Of course, biofuels remain a critical issue in Brazil and in fact the legislature just passed a new law to boost ethanol production and also recently opened its first corn-only ethanol plant. At the time there was considerable debate about whether corn ethanol was making food (esp. tortilla) prices go up, but I haven't heard that argument in quite a while.

--In what direction will Cristina Fernández de Kirchner go? Will she depart at all from her husband’s political and economic strategies? How will she deal with the U.S.? Will the U.S. election matter?

These questions are too broad. Generally, though, she followed a similar model.

--Will the Concertación—and thereby Michelle Bachelet’s chances of getting anything done--hold together in Chile? To be fair, rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated in the past. 

It did for a while longer. It's dead now, though.

--Can the Mexican opposition regroup? Felipe Calderón is popular yet by no means untouchable, but the left is still reeling. 

Actually, no. I was asking the wrong question because it was the PRI that regrouped. 

--With Raúl Castro—whose tone and message are different from Fidel’s--more in charge, will there be substantive political and/or economic reforms in Cuba?

Nope! Now we're asking the same question again. and for now the answer will likely remain no.

--Can Central American countries address drug trafficking and gang violence without also bringing the military back to fighting internal enemies? 

Sadly, no. I assume I knew the answer was going to be no when I wrote the question.

--Once the U.S. presidential candidates are decided, will they say anything intelligent about Latin America and U.S. policy?

Obama did. He issued a document during the campaign that was quite good. Republicans were mostly consistent with George W. Bush's policy. John McCain would eventually make Colombia a part of his campaign, emphasizing how unlike Obama he would stand with our allies.

--Will the immigration debate in the United States reach new lows? Will it be a central issue once the primaries are over?

Oh my. There was so much lower to go.


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