Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Gaming Jared Kushner

Following up on my occasional series of posts on the dangers of over-personalizing U.S.-Mexican relations (see here and here) now we learn that Mexico was one of four countries (in addition to UAE, China, and Israel) hoping to take advantage of Jared Kushner's position and lack of experience. In other words, they hoped to game him. White House officials concerned he was "naive and being tricked" as indeed he probably was. Now his security clearance has been downgraded.

What does this mean for U.S.-Mexican relations? Kushner's personal relationship with Luis Videgaray is currently the main channel. I don't know exactly what lack of access to information will mean for that relationship. Donald Trump can still tell Kushner whatever he wants. I assume Videgaray will be on the phone to Kushner, assuring him that this is fake news and that their relationship is genuine. It wouldn't surprise me if Kushner believed it.


Sexual Harassment in the Study of Latin American Politics

Academia is buzzing with this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how Terry Karl was sexually harassed by Jorge Dominguez at Harvard when she was a new professor and he was an established name in the field. It is disgusting to read, both for what he did and for how Harvard did so little.

A former graduate student says she knew, was warned, and warned others. Rest assured that more of such comments will be forthcoming, likely many more because Dominguez has been at Harvard for decades.

These are huge names in my field and I am glad this is getting attention because it should have a positive ripple effect, even if far too late in coming. Of course, you also think about how many similar situations have played out in colleges and universities that fall under the radar and don't get this kind of attention. There are lots of brooms sweeping lots under rugs.

Update 3/5/18: Oh yes, many more women are being forthcoming and now he is on leave.

Update 3/6/18: Now he's retiring. And a bit later in the day the Latin American Studies Association, of which he was once president, issued a statement denouncing him:

The Latin American Studies Association (LASA) recognizes that sexual and gender-based harassment and violence are contrary to its core principles and therefore has zero tolerance for unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive. 
LASA is a diverse organization currently of 16,000 members in up to 90 countries that has been historically committed to equal opportunity, respect for human rights, and the promotion of environments free of discrimination and all forms of coercion and abuse of power that impede the academic freedom, security, or well-being of any member of its community and their associated institutions. 
Over the past four days we have heard about old and new serious sexual harassment complaints against Jorge Domínguez, a professor at Harvard University, who was President of our association in 1982 – 1983. Such behavior has no place in our organization. If harassment occurs within an organization, there must be a reliable and effective channel to make complaints and the authorities must apply public sanctions to the transgressors. We therefore urge the authorities of Harvard University to investigate the new complaints and to act accordingly. 
Most importantly, we extend our solidarity to all who are survivors of Jorge Dominguez’s unacceptable conduct and its apparent long-term tolerance by Harvard University. 
Given the circumstances, the LASA Executive Council considers this as an ideal opportunity to recommit LASA as an association to stand up against all kinds of abuse of power and impunity, both in the political and academic spheres, and throughout all the Americas. And LASA emphasizes its policy of zero tolerance of sexual harassment and impunity. The association is taking a series of measures, including creating a task force, that will be shortly announced to the membership and the broader public to ensure that in the future individuals who engage in such reprehensible behavior will have no place in leadership positions at LASA.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Should Kuczynski Resign?

According to a GfK poll, 55% of Peruvians think Pedro Pablo Kuczynski should resign, 43% do not think so, and 2% do not know. He has the least support in rural areas and among the poor. Right now he faces a disapproval rating of 82% and has only 15% approval.

His corruption scandal, plus the infamous pardon of Alberto Fujimori, seem to be fatal blows to this presidency. If you're wondering, presidential terms in Peru are five years and PPK took office in July 2016. In other words, lame duck status is kicking in awfully early and he will continue to face impeachment pushes from Congress.

Presidents seem always to be unpopular in Peru. Back in 2010 Alan García blamed it on Peruvians being sad. There really is no precedent in the country for bouncing back.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Chilean Student Activism and Florida

Four Chilean Diputados, all of them former student activists, wrote a letter in solidarity with the Floridian students fighting for gun control. The letter noted the history of student activism in Chile.

I am curious to see whether this gets any attention in the United States. My first thought was that I have no idea whether they actually have anything in common with the Floridians because in Chile the struggle is rooted in the quest for greater socio-economic equality in general while in Florida it has nothing to do with socio-economic status and instead is single-issue.

My second thought is that setting that point aside, there is a real model here for how to go from activism to trying to change the system from within by getting elected. And this is a time, I think, where that there is an opening for that in the U.S. Brendan O'Boyle wrote something along these lines in Americas Quarterly just a few days ago.


Personal Over Diplomatic Relations in Mexico

I am quoted in this Business Insider article about the danger of using solely personal rather than diplomatic avenues for bilateral relations, in this case the U.S. and Mexico. I wrote a post on this topic a few weeks ago. Beyond the fact that Jared Kushner does not appear to be a very knowledgeable person, relying on individuals is tenuous. If one of these individuals leaves their position to whatever reason, you have a hole that the State Department is not in a position to fill.

I wonder how many other regional but even national bilateral relations are conducted like this these days?


Friday, February 23, 2018

Rafael Correa and Donald Trump Totally Agree

Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa wrote a column in Granma that was translated into English and then published at TeleSur. It claims to cover the "strategic challenge" of the Latin American left, but he never actually mentions strategy. Instead, it is Correa's list of grievances. Knowing Correa, there should be no surprise that his two main enemies are the media and the current president Lenín Moreno.

His beef with Moreno is well known and mirrors the Uribe-Santos split in Colombia. It's tough when your chosen successor, your person, decides he has his own brain and does not need to blindly copy what you do.

The attacks on the media, though, are more troubling and Correa has always been in the middle of it. Journalists are being harassed and killed across the region because they threaten the powerful. No matter whether you are left or right, when you hold the presidency then you are powerful and the press has the obligation to follow their leads. Of course, we see the exact same dynamic with Donald Trump here. Correa calls the media the "main opposition" to the left, while Trump says it is the "opposition party" of the right.

It's disheartening to see the Latin American left and United States right converge, but there we are. TeleSur and Fox News are two sides of the same coin. Correa and Trump agree wholeheartedly about their disgust with freedom of the press.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Deriding U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

I wrote a new post over at Global Americans on the global response to Rex Tillerson's Latin America trip. I argue that it is a troubling sign of a trend toward the world viewing U.S. policy with derision. First paragraph:

The dust has settled after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Latin America. In itself, it was no disaster, though clearly no success either. The greater significance lies in what it reveals about the basic direction of U.S. engagement with Latin America. The trip shows that U.S. policy is damaging U.S. stature not just in the region, but globally.

Go over there to see the rest. This is not just Latin America responding to U.S. policy toward the region, but the rest of the world as well. Even Australia is explicitly saying it wants to take advantage of U.S. missteps in Latin America.

The U.S. has always been criticized. Widespread derision is new.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fleeing Venezuela

Go check out Adam Isacson's blog, where he is periodically posting updates about his extensive trip to Colombia. In today's post he has photos from a visit to the border with Venezuela. To sum up:

It’s bad. I mean, it’s really bad. People are doing whatever they can to get out of Venezuela.

NPR published a story just yesterday on this issue.

There were more than half a million Venezuelans in Colombia as of December, according to the Colombian immigration department, and many came over in the last two years. Their exodus rivals the number of Syrians in Germany or Rohingya in Bangladesh. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, calls it the world's "least-talked-about" immigration crisis.
 But Colombians are taking notice. In fact, President Juan Manuel Santos is asking for international aid to cope with the large numbers of immigrants, many of whom are impoverished, hungry and desperate.

The story is about the crossing Adam went to. One migrant sold her hair to a wig shop to earn money for food. There are now many news stories in English about the crisis.

The Venezuelan government's response? Create a cryptocurrency and claim it was solve your own mismanagement of the regular currency.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

LGBT Legislation in Argentina vs. Brazil

Omar G. Encarnación, "Gay Rights Landscapes in Argentina and Brazil," Human Rights Quarterly 40, 1 (February 2018): 194-218. Link here but gated.


Why did Latin America’s most famously sexually liberated country, Brazil, fall behind one of its most socially conservative societies, Argentina, in expanding LGBT equality? This essay examines this puzzling question through the lens of the divergent landscapes of gay rights that have erupted in Argentina and Brazil since both countries became liberal democracies in the mid-1980s. Looking beyond differences in support for LGBT legislation by the executive branch, the religious context, the composition of the party system, and levels of social and economic development, this study focuses on the gay rights campaign. While in Brazil the campaign for gay rights followed the model of a conventional political struggle for civil rights, in Argentina it was framed as a human rights crusade, a strategy that, among other things, resonated profoundly with the country’s search for justice, equality and the deepening of democracy.

I think this is really interesting. A bit more:

In Argentina, gay activists waged a “human rights crusade,” animated by a very expansive, even idealistic, notion of gay equality, especially in connection to the issue of same-sex marriage. It regarded the freedom of sexuality as a fundamental human right. Argentina’s influential human rights community served as the campaign’s political anchor. This grounding in the human rights movement helped boost the framing of the campaign for gay rights as a human rights crusade and as part of a larger struggle by civil society for justice, citizenship, and democracy. It also enhanced the campaign’s success in mutually-supporting ways, such as prioritizing changing hearts and minds about homosexuality over enacting LGBT legislation; giving the campaign tremendous resonance within the culture at large (given the prominence of human rights in Argentine politics); and affording the advocacy of gay activists a rare moral significance that worked to undercut societal opposition to gay rights.
 Brazilian gay rights activists, by contrast, engaged for the most part in a “civil rights struggle.” Its overarching goal was to legitimize gay rights under Brazilian law. For instance, there was no marriage equality campaign in Brazil. Instead, gay activists demanded “stable unions,” which are recognized under the Brazilian Constitution. For its political anchor, Brazilian gay activists depended upon an alliance with the Workers’ Party (PT), the first party in Latin America to embrace gay rights. This alliance was a mixed blessing for the gay rights movement. On the one hand, it gave Brazilian activists visibility, organizational expertise, and access to state resources unparalleled in all of Latin America. On the other hand, the close affiliation of gay activists with the PT undermined the ambition of the gay rights movement; discouraged building support for gay rights within civil society by focusing the struggle for gay rights squarely within the legislature and the courts; and solidified opposition to gay rights by foes of the gay community, who were quick to label gay rights as “special rights.”

A key point here is that the struggle in Argentina was conducted outside political institutions, whereas in Brazil is had started within the Worker's Party (despite later being ignored by Lula) and focused primarily on state mechanisms to advance. In Argentina the focus was first on human rights and then on the nuts and bolts of legislation. The lesson: if you're an activist, be careful about hitching your wagon to a political party.


Monday, February 19, 2018

My New Article on Chilean Military

I just published a new academic article that's had a funny life. Here's the link to a PDF.

Gregory Weeks, “Civilian Inattention and Democratization: The Chilean Military and Political Transition in the 1930s.” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 43, 1 (2018): 1-17.

The Chilean political transition that took place in 1932 is commonly viewed as positive for civil-military relations. This article argues that the very means used to restore stable civilian rule in Chile in the 1930s also contributed to the slow decay of civil-military relations, especially with the army. The conceptual lesson for the contemporary period is that civilian control entails much more than avoiding coups or rebellion in the short term. Civil-military institutions and civilian leadership matter for democracy. Although civilian strategies proved highly effective in the short term, the failure to strengthen civil-military institutions ultimately carried with it a high cost in the longer term. Compounded over years, civilian inattention can lead to estrangement, which in turn can gradually erode civilian supremacy and, by extension, democracy itself.

I've been messing with this article off and on for over 10 years. I found it fascinating and fun to research, but of course as anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a big fan of political history. But I found it is too history for political science and too political science for history. I submitted it unsuccessfully to several journals, set it aside, picked it up again, and so on. I liked it enough that I did not want to quit. This particular peer review time was extremely long (several years altogether) which is another difficult aspect of academia.

As for the article itself, I use a historical case study to examine the long term effects of Latin American civilian leaders not paying sufficient attention to their militaries. Short-term "subordination" does not necessarily mean long-term stability.


Not Protesting Venezuela

Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times' resident conservatives, wonders why college students do not protest about Venezuela. Instead of the various obvious answers, he chooses the inaccurate but beloved boogeyman of the right: the academic left is to blame.

So why the relative silence? Part of the reason is that campus activism is a left-wing phenomenon, making it awkward to target left-wing villains.
 A larger reason is that, until a few years ago, the Venezuelan regime was a cause of the left, cheered by people like Naomi Klein, Sean Penn and Danny Glover.

I have taught Latin American Politics and U.S.-Latin American relations regularly for 20 years, and I have something to report: students don't know what's going on in Venezuela.  They have a vague sense that something bad is happening, but not a clear view of what the U.S. can do. To the extent that they even know who Danny Glover is, they are not paying attention to his stance on the issue.

Further, I am not at all sure that students trust the Trump administration to do the right thing. They are therefore less likely to issue a call for the administration to meddle.

This is anecdotal, of course. Maybe there are students at other schools who were thinking about protesting but just are afraid because Hugo Chávez was leftist. But I tend to doubt it. Chávez started his rule many years ago and died before many students were even in college yet. The academic left is a fun and easy target but almost always a gross oversimplification.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

U.S. Meddling in Politics

Here is former CIA Director James Woolsey joking that the U.S. still meddles in elections around the world "only for a very good cause."

And yet we call Latin American leaders paranoid for believing that the United States is going to interfere in their political systems for our own benefit. "Very good cause" rarely means what's best for the country itself, or what the people of that country actually want. It is, as Woolsey says, for the good of the "system." And we are the system.

Ah, exceptionalism. Your average American is likely indignant that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but simultaneously feels confident that if the U.S. government does so abroad, it's for the right reasons because we are the shining example of the world. That our own democracy has been so sharply eroded tends not to register.

Finally, I come back to the joking. It's funny to cause mayhem, illegitimacy, and death.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

PRI Blames AMLO For Violence

Andrés Manuel López Obrador is regularly accused of all sorts of things, but this is the first time I've seen him accused of fomenting violence.

El líder nacional del PRI, Enrique Ochoa Reza, aseguró que la violencia en el país se duplicó luego de que Andrés Manuel López Obrador, propusiera una amnistía a criminales. 

Now, I will say that it would be fascinating to do a study about whether the anticipation of amnesty increases the frequency of whatever thing is currently prohibited.


Violence in Mexico is deeply rooted and not new, and the PRI is responsible for a chunk of it. The party in power obviously has more impact than a candidate, even if that candidate has a good chance of winning. Not a winning move for the PRI.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Podcast Episode 48: What DACA Recipients Deal With

In Episode 48 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Ana Valdez Curiel, who is an undergraduate here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an activist and involved in a lot of different things but for the purposes of this conversation I have to note that she was brought to the United States as a young child and is currently a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

This is a personal look at DACA and we talk about the stress involved, the uncertainty about life, the misperceptions people have, and the debate over the “good” vs. “bad” immigrant. Congress is dealing with the issueright now and the stakes are high.

Thanks to Alex Frizzell for doing the recording, which for the first time we did at a studio here on the UNC Charlotte campus.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Players in the Cuba Sonic Attack Mystery

Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella have a great long read at ProPublic on the Cuba sonic attack mystery. The sounds seem to be non-natural but why is it happening?

The players:

Cuban government: does not want to antagonize the U.S. and appears to be cooperating fully. But what about rogue groups within the government? Could they be doing this without Raul Castro's knowledge? Unlikely but we don't know.

Russia: Has a history of harassing U.S. diplomats. Loves to make trouble. Maybe does not want Cuba getting closer to the U.S. right when Russia is trying to replace Venezuela and get closer to its old friend. But do old friends back stab each other? And how do a bunch of Russian agents go around Havana without the Cuban government knowing?

North Korea: Rogue country, crazy leader, would love to mess with the U.S. But there is no reason Cuba would allow this, and a bunch of North Koreans running around would definitely attract attention.

Venezuela: rogue and all that. But Cuban intelligence taught them everything they know and no way they're hanging around without Cuba knowing.

Donald Trump: showing uncharacteristic restraint, but still used the crisis to kick out some Cubans and bring U.S. diplomats home. Is mostly uninterested in Cuba except as a way to say Obama does bad deals.

Marco Rubio: Wants rapprochement to end, gets all excited on Twitter. Is happy to use the mystery for political ends. Holds hearings that tell us little.

Canadians: some had issues seemingly related to sounds but they were milder and different. Canadians didn't criticize Cuba and didn't bring anyone home. We like the tourism, eh.

Cuba migrants: screwed because there are not enough personnel in the U.S. embassy to process them. No visa for you!

Cicada expert: don't malign the poor creatures! You'd have to shove one in your ear for this to happen.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Podcast Episode 47: Political Change in Venezuela

In Episode 47 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Geoff Ramsey, Assistant Director of the Venezuela Program at the Washington Office on Latin America. As part of that position, he contributes to the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. They discuss what possibilities there are for political change in Venezuela, including dialogue, international pressure, elections, and military actions. Not exactly an uplifting conversation but we try to end on a positive note.


OAS Report on Human Rights Abuses in Venezuela

The OAS' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report on the human rights situation in Venezuela. Here is the press release and here is the report. It is blistering.

The report concludes with 76 recommendations. The ones that go beyond democratization show how far Venezuela has fallen.

Regularly monitor the nutritional state of the population and investigate testimonies of specific cases of food deprivation, foodrelated corruption, and failure to receive assistance due to lack of inputs.

In other words, feed your people. We'll soon hear denunciations of the report and the IACHR more generally, but people are not getting enough calories, enough medicine, and enough social services.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Trump Doesn't Like Latin America Aid

The Congressional Research Service published a report comparing the Trump administration's aid proposal and that of the U.S. Congress. Trump wants to slash it (36% cut) while Congress wants to keep it.

Right off the bat the report says "the Administration’s proposed cuts, combined with other policy shifts, could contribute to a relative decline in U.S. influence in the region." This is stark. It is followed by with several paragraphs later in the report: "In the view of some observers, the Administration’s proposed foreign assistance cuts are part of a broader trend of U.S. disengagement from Latin America and the Caribbean."

Here is the last paragraph of the report:

Over the past year, public approval of U.S. leadership in the Americas has declined from 49% to 24% and disapproval has climbed from 27% to 58%. These relatively high disapproval ratings could constrain the ability of leaders in the hemisphere to work with President Trump, particularly in the six countries preparing to hold presidential elections in 2018.

A fitting and accurate way to conclude. The administration is actively disengaging from Latin America, seemingly as a way to save a little bit of money. This is a penny wise but pound foolish approach.

See also an article on this at InsightCrime.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Trump and Jimmy Morales Have a Convo

Donald Trump met with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, the TV celebrity turned corrupt executive-in-chief. Here is the entire White House statement (h/t Mike Allison). Guatemala's pressing problems right now are corruption and violence.

President Donald J. Trump met today with President James “Jimmy” Morales of Guatemala. President Trump thanked President Morales for supporting the United States and Israel, and for his announced decision to move the Guatemalan embassy to Jerusalem.  The two leaders discussed the situation in Venezuela and agreed to work together to restore democracy to the country.  President Trump also underscored the importance of stopping illegal immigration to the United States from Guatemala and addressing Guatemala’s underlying challenges to security and prosperity.

The upshot: I am not interested in you or your country. We have no plans of developing a strategy to reduce undocumented immigration, so you fix it. Follow our lead on Israel and I'll let you take a picture with me.

To be fair, the meeting is being seen by at least some in Guatemala in a better light and in a larger context, where at least through Rex Tillerson the message is that just moving your embassy doesn't get you off the hook with regard to corruption.


Friday, February 09, 2018

Podcast Episode 46: Latin American Baseball

In Episode 46 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk to Isabelle Minasian, who is an editor at Lookout Landing (a Seattle Mariners site) and a contributor for La Vida Baseball and The Hardball Times. She wrote an article about the Caribbean Winter Leagues for the 2018 Hardball Times Annual, which is the topic of our conversation. Since we're getting close to spring training, it seemed an opportune time to have my first podcast on baseball. It's not focused just on politics, though immigration and the Venezuelan conflict are in there.

I should also note that The Hardball Times has really been focusing more on previously excluded voices, especially women, which is really refreshing in such a male-dominated field. Their podcast is great.


Cuba Defends Blocking Freedom of Expression

The Cuban government never sounds more unhinged than when it defends its right not to allow its citizens to use the internet. Case in point: this article in Granma about U.S. interference in Cuban affairs. It goes back in history to show all the examples of imperialist evil. For example:

Operation Surf, unmasked by State Security agent Raúl - Dalexi González Madruga – consisted of smuggling equipment and software into the country to install illegal antennas to access the internet.
Thank God an intelligence agent was able to stop the free flow of information!

The U.S. Department of State, headed by Condolezza Rice, creates the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, specifically aimed at “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas” in China, Iran and Cuba.

Fortunately this disgusting act of giving people access to the world was stopped!

Of course the U.S. has interfered in Cuba affairs in the past. I've written critically about it more times than I can count, both on the blog and in my own publications. But these examples are just naked authoritarianism, which the Cuban government is typically better at masking.


Thursday, February 08, 2018

Dialogue Failure in Venezuela

The dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition in the Dominican Republic has yielded a proposal from each side. Here is the government's and here is the opposition's.

There are points of agreement but the presidential election in particular keeps them apart. The opposition wants far more guarantees than the government offers. In particular, the opposition does not want a rushed election and needs guarantees that all political rights will not just be respected but will be restored to those who had them stripped for ideological reasons. That's where the government's version remains vague, so the opposition would not sign it. The dialogue is now in "indefinite recess."

So last night the government announced officially that presidential elections will be held April 22. Campaigning will only be allowed between April 2 and April 19. Many potential opposition candidates are either jailed or ruled ineligible. Maduro needs to have these elections quickly and without electoral reform because that's the only way he can win.

And now the opposition must decide whether it participates. Since in fact there is no single opposition, some may run while others boycott. Some may vote while others protest. The Chilean example of 1988 is always on people's minds--see my November 2017 post on that comparison.


Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Stavridis Gently Schools Tillerson

James Stavridis, former head of U.S. Southern Command (and current Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts), has an op-ed damning Rex Tillerson with faint praise, where he's off to a "good start" but basically needs to do everything differently. He says there are six steps the U.S. needs to take, somewhat like telling an addict how to change their ways. Right now we're addicted to failure.

1. Acknowledge how important Latin America is and develop an interagency strategy.
2. Prioritize Mexico and Brazil (including preserving NAFTA).
3. Acknowledge how critical Colombia is.
4. Elevate U.S.-Caribbean relations, especially Puerto Rico.
5. Engage with Cuba
6. Talk softly with Venezuela and let regional allies take the lead

Bonus: he says to stop talking about a "backyard" because it is condescending.

I agree with all of these points and the U.S. is doing poorly on just about every one. I guess Tillerson is doing a bit on #1 (at least traveling there even if showing historical ignorance) and is more solid on #4, but not on the rest.


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Putin Trolls Tillerson in Latin America

First China trolled Rex Tillerson. Now Russia is, with a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

The main takeaway is that the Monroe Doctrine continues to hold sway in Washington, even though it will turn 200 years old fairly soon, in 2023. The world has changed significantly over the years, but the America-for-Americans principle appears to be alive and well. 
Like President James Monroe in his time, Secretary Tillerson cited Russia to justify his conceptual framework, and so we would like to express our view of the region without arguing “by contradiction.”

Boom! The Russians know their history.

There's plenty of flowery nonsense in the statement.

Russia’s relations with Latin American countries are based on substantial shared interests, such as the commitment to the principles of multilateral diplomacy embodied in the UN’s activities, protection and assertion of national sovereignty, and promotion of sustainable development.

Yeah, right. The Russians are not known for their interest in diplomacy and protection of sovereignty, and ideology matters a lot, especially with Cuba and Venezuela, where Russia takes great glee in tweaking the U.S. But the Russians know better than Tillerson what history means in Latin America and they shove his nose in it.

The liberator (as he is referred to in Latin America) Simon Bolivar said that all states have the right to choose their own particular system of government, and other states must respect this choice. The Secretary of State will have the chance to read this eternally relevant quote, when he is in Bogota, at the main entrance to San Carlos Palace, which now houses the Colombian Foreign Ministry. It rings as true as ever today, including in relation to the situation in Venezuela and the dynamics of internal life in Cuba. The experience of half-a-century of US embargo failed to convince only the most obstinate individuals that sanctions pressure will not work against freedom-loving countries and peoples.

Mr. Secretary, make sure you get your historical references straight before the next trip.


Monday, February 05, 2018

Would Trump Sanction Venezuelan Oil?

Rex Tillerson says the U.S. is considering restricting oil imports from Venezuela and U.S. export of refined products back. This had not been on the table in any serious way before because it will impact the U.S. economy directly.

“We are looking at options and we are looking at how to mitigate the impacts on U.S. business interests” and on other countries in the region, Tillerson said.

One thing working in the Trump administration's favor is that Venezuela's inability to produce has decreased the amount of Venezuelan oil that the U.S. consumes. Here's a simple chart you can recreate at the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

You can also see month to month going back to 1993. The drop is drastic. The question is whether the U.S. can find alternatives ahead of time that counterbalance the loss. I assume the administration will not pursue this policy if it means gas prices go up, especially when the midterm elections are dicey already (though interestingly Tillerson only mentioned "business interests" and not "average American" so assumptions are problematic). OPEC is already holding firm and is "over-compliant" because Venezuelan production is at its lowest level since 1989. In short, keeping prices low will be challenging.

I've long ceased trying to predict what Trump will do. But this will be a tricky game to play given its impact on U.S. domestic politics.


Sunday, February 04, 2018

Xi Jinping Trolls Tillerson

As I noted two days ago, Rex Tillerson is trying to spread an unconvincing message of how good the U.S. is versus China. In response, Xi Jinping made a point of celebrating 30 years of relations with Uruguay and promising more.

President Xi Jinping vowed to expand ties with Uruguay in a “comprehensive way” in a message sent to his Uruguayan counterpart Tabare Vasquez on Saturday to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties. 
Relations between China and Uruguay had “witnessed great progress” over the past three decades, Xi said in the message.

He would have sent such a message even without Tillerson's prompt but the Chinese government followed it up:

“What the United States said is entirely against the truth and displayed disrespect to the vast number of Latin American countries,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “China is a major international buyer of Latin American bulk commodities, and imports more and more agricultural and high-value-added products from the region.” 
“The development of China-Latin America ties does not target or reject any third party, nor does it affect the interests of third parties in Latin America,” it added.

This is actually more truthful than Tillerson.

The press has been talking about how Tillerson's message is different than Trump's, which is true to a a degree. The China comments seem very Trumpish, however, with the mix of criticism and self-aggrandizement. Like many Trumpish messages, it is a bad idea and will backfire. Latin America does not need or want the United States to say what's good for everyone. Latin American leaders are perfectly capable of sorting out what kind of ties they want with China.


Saturday, February 03, 2018

Race 2: Gold Rush 5K

The Gold Rush is the 5K on the UNC Charlotte campus, which we have done off and on since it started (years ago it was so small I won awards, but now it's big). Great new look this year, with the biggest change being that all pre and post race stuff was in Belk Gym. Previously everything was on the track and this time of year can be cold (it was in the high 20s at race time). My 9 year old daughter came in second in her age group, with her friend in first (ok, there were only two in the field, but still). So they got a picture with Norm.

Campus is hilly and mile 3 was tough as a result, but it's always a fun race to do.


US Getting Closer to Mexico and That's a Problem

A few days ago I noted how Mexico's exports to the United States had actually increased during the Trump administration. Now Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray says Mexico's relationship with the United States is closer now than it was during Obama or Bush.

“I think in many ways the relationship today is more fluid, it’s closer than it was with previous administrations, which might be surprising to some people but that’s a fact of life,” said Mexico’s top diplomat.

Fluid, yes, no doubt. It's hard to pin down what the U.S. position is on many issues because they change with every tweet. As for closer, I would hazard the guess that given uncertainty and a skeleton staff at the State Department, Mexican diplomats have to work harder to develop personal relationships with Trump's top aides. In fact, Videgaray may be referring specifically to his relationship with Jared Kushner. From last October:

“Jared and Videgaray pretty much run Mexico policy,” the U.S. official told me earlier this year. “It’s all pretty much just between them. There’s not really any interagency relationships going on right now.” In the State Department, he explained, career diplomats were no longer kept informed: “U.S. officials sometimes learn the latest not from their own agencies but from their Mexican counterparts—especially Videgaray.”

The "closer" is therefore not a positive sign. It is not based on broad institutional relationships but solely on personal ones. That makes it weaker.


Friday, February 02, 2018

What to Take From Tillerson's Latin America Vision

Rex Tillerson's laid out a vision of U.S.-Latin American relations yesterday in a speech at UT Austin on the eve of his Latin America trip. Some of the comments were good, and to some degree contradicted Donald Trump. Some of them, though, are cringe-worthy.

Let's starts with the good.

--Trump has been decidedly negative about Colombia and Tillerson was the opposite. He praised Juan Manuel Santos, the peace agreement, and the U.S. role as consumer of drugs.

The problem with the coca production is – it’s a significant problem. It’s a problem to us, it’s a shared problem. As I said in my remarks, we don’t like to admit it, but we’re the market. The United States accounts for the vast, vast, vast majority of illicit drug consumption in the world. And until we address that problem at home, it’s a bit awkward to hold them solely accountable for being the supplier.

He made that point several times and I am glad to hear it.

--His comments on Venezuela and Cuba are measured and he rejects use of force against Venezuela, which Trump infamously said was in the table. This is good. No problematic signals that would lead to more U.S. isolation.

But there is quite a lot of bad.

--His sense of history is awful.

At the beginning of the 20th century, President Teddy Roosevelt visited Panama – the first foreign visit of a U.S. sitting president in our history.
Roosevelt had just basically taken Panama from Colombia for U.S. gain but Tillerson frames it as Pan Americanism. The canal later would become so much a symbol of U.S. disregard for sovereignty that even Henry Kissinger advocated giving it up to Panama.

He thinks the Monroe Doctrine has been a success. Even worse, a historian asking him the question seemed to think the same. The answer showed that Tillerson does not really know what the history of the doctrine is.

Well, I think it clearly has been a success, because as I mentioned at the top, what binds us together in this hemisphere are shared democratic values, and while different countries may express that democracy not precisely the same way we practice democracy in this country, the fundamentals of it – respect for the dignity of the human being, respect for the individual to pursue life, liberty, happiness – those elements do bind us together in this hemisphere.

Since he mentioned TR he should take a look at the Roosevelt Corollary to better see why Latin America considers the Monroe Doctrine in entirely negative terms.

--He is blinded by the idea of U.S. goodness. This is evident when he tries to show that Chinese investment is worse than U.S. investment.

China – as it does in emerging markets throughout the world – offers the appearance of an attractive path to development. But in reality, this often involves trading short-term gains for long-term dependency. 
Just think about the difference between the China model of economic development and the United States version. 
China’s offer always come at a price – usually in the form of state-led investments, carried out by imported Chinese labor, onerous loans, and unsustainable debt. The China model extracts precious resources to feed its own economy, often with disregard for the laws of the land or human rights.

Long-term dependency and disregard for land and human rights are a staple of U.S. economic relations with Latin America. The Chinese labor issue is indeed weird and controversial but U.S. investment has never been somehow ideal.

Latin American – Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people.

Ha ha! They only need one, people!

--He is ignorant about Honduras.

My question is: What is the Trump administration’s policy regarding support for free and fair democratic elections in the Americas, and will it work with the OAS in ensuring that those democratic standards are respected equally across the hemisphere? 
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, our position’s the same in every country. And in the case of the Honduran elections, we also looked at other organizations’ assessment of the election in terms of was it conducted in a free and fair way, was the election legitimate. In terms of why the OAS came to a different conclusion – which was actually different than the original conclusion they came to, they changed their position – I’d refer you to the OAS to ask them. But we did look at the circumstances of the election. We concluded it was conducted fairly. And I think there’s no – and I want to be clear here. There can be no comparison between the election process that was conducted in Honduras and the election process that’s going on in Venezuela. They’re nowhere close to one another. Thank you for the question, though.

This is all bullshit. It is not possible for a rational person to consider the Honduran election to be fair. And yes, you CAN compare it to Venezuela, where an incumbent manipulates state institutions to remain in power.

Now let's see what he says when he arrives.


Thursday, February 01, 2018

Mexican Business Culture

Mexican Business Culture: Essays on Tradition, Ethics, Entrepreneurship and Commerce, and the State is an edited volume by Carlos Coria-Sánchez and John Hyatt that seeks to correct misconceptions and stereotypes about doing business in Mexico. The co-editors are respectively a colleague of mine here at UNC Charlotte (in the Department of Languages and Culture Studies) and a former student of mine who has now lived for years in Mexico. The authors of the chapters are a mix of both Americans and Mexicans from an array of different disciplines.

The upshot is that consulting trade books about doing business in Mexico can be a dicey thing. Corporate culture and entrepreneurship are certainly different than in the United States, but not necessarily for the reasons we assume, and certainly not for the reasons we absorb through stereotypes. Further, the relationship businesses have with the state has evolved after the PRI lost its hegemonic hold on power. Coria argues that too many narrow analyses represent "Mexicanism" where "Mexico and Mexicans are what the authors want them to be, not what they are" (p. 23).

If you're thinking of doing business in Mexico or want to know more, go check it out.


Trump's Cuba Policy

For many, many, many years the United States government banged its head against a wall as it tried to force Latin America to accept its Cuba policy. Years of U.S. intervention had left the region cold to U.S. efforts to dictate what happened in Cuba. Moreover, U.S. insistence made Latin America less likely to do anything for fear of looking like a stooge at home.

That's the policy that Barack Obama started to reverse in late 2014.

Just over three years later, the Trump administration has decided it loves useless head banging and likes isolating the United States from the rest of the western hemisphere. Here is what a State Department official said as Rex Tillerson got ready to leave for his Latin America trip:

"The upcoming undemocratic transition of political authority in Cuba is likely to be raised at multiple stops throughout the secretary's trip," the State Department official said, alluding to President Raul Castro's decision to step down later this year and be replaced by a handpicked successor.

This is mindbogglingly counterproductive. Latin American leaders will immediately take him less seriously and wonder when the hell the Cold War is finally going to end.


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