Saturday, June 30, 2018

Panadería y Restaurante Salvadoreña

My latest installment in the periodic Latin American restaurants in Charlotte series, which has picked up recently because it's summer so my schedule is much more relaxed. It's my small effort to highlight good food along with the importance of immigrants and their hard work. They are not invaders and they are not bad people, no matter what the President says. Today was the Panadería y Restaurante Salvadoreña on WT Harris, where I went with my 13 year old daughter.

We had cheese pupusas and tamales de elote, which are corn tamales with a cheese dip. It was a lot of food because the pupusas were big (and a plate comes with three). They come with a big bowl of curtido--a tasty Salvarodan slaw--and salsa. We enjoyed it all and were really full. Well, one of us decided she had some room, since the front has a bakery and my daughter stopped to get a cookie.

Note: for reasons unknown to me at least, this place is famous for being slow. And it is. Everyone was really friendly*, but lunch took a while. Since I knew that ahead of time, it was no big deal. But it might not be the best choice if you're in a hurry.

* FYI, I ordered in Spanish, but my impression is that you could get it figured out in English. Definitely give it a try.

My last review was just a few days ago, actually. Funny thing is, at that time we planned to go here, but it was closed on a Tuesday.


Friday, June 29, 2018

Failed Coup Attempt in Venezuela

Bloomberg has the scoop of a failed coup attempt in Venezuela. High level military officials were involved in the plot, which was discovered and squashed.

The plot, code-named Operation Constitution, involved scores of captains, colonels, and generals from all four branches of Venezuela’s armed forces. The goal was straightforward and seismic—to capture President Nicolás Maduro and put him on trial. The plotters, wearing blue armbands marked OC, were supposed to storm the presidential palace and main military base and stop the May 20 presidential election. Some of the planning took place in Bogotá, but Colombian and U.S. officials, who allegedly knew about the plot and winked from the sidelines, declined to provide active support. 
Then something went wrong. In mid-May, several dozen servicemen, including one woman, as well as a couple of civilians, were secretly arrested—some have been accused of treason—and imprisoned by a military court. Many say they’ve been tortured.
From the outside, this is hard to evaluate. It could mean Maduro has strengthened his hold on the military. On the other hand, there was an abortive coup in June 1973 in Chile before the one that worked. We just have no way of knowing what lessons other potential coup plotters have taken from this situation.

But this is where the future lies. In both Nicaragua and Venezuela, unpopular governments are facing intense pressures that they can withstand because they have the military as a backbone. Once that is gone, so are they.


Mike Pence Condescends to Central America

I told myself I wouldn't comment more on Mike Pence but he is leaving a trail of absurdity that I am having a difficult time ignoring. He lectured Central American presidents on immigration.

"This exodus must end," Pence said. "It is a threat to the security to the United States, and just as we respect your borders and your sovereignty, we insist that you respect ours."


"Tell your people that coming to the United States illegally will only result in a hard journey and a harder life," Pence said.
WTF? Everyone knows the damned trip is hard. Do you think prospective migrants don't know that? Everyone talks about it. Organized crime is involved. That's no secret either.

And does anyone actually believe that potential migrants will change their decision because their president asks them to please refrain so that U.S. feelings are not hurt?  Either they feel in danger or they don't. If they do, they're leaving no matter what any president or vice president says.

And finally, the United States respects the sovereignty of Central American countries only when it's in its interests to do so. It violates that sovereignty with some regularity.

This whole exercise is both futile and insulting, a condescending lecture that has countless before it in the sordid history of U.S.-Latin American relations.


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Mike Pence's False Immigration Distinction

Mike Pence visited Venezuelan refugees in Brazil, offering them rhetorical support, along with a small amount of aid for countries receiving them. That's tricky because he is also attacking refugees coming to the United States. Check out how he distinguishes between them:

"Back in our country we face a crisis on our southern border as many seek to come into America for a better life," Pence said. "The families that Karen and I met today who have fled from Venezuela came here to Brazil not to seek a better life; they came here to live, to survive. And the families we spoke to today told us again and again how you desire to return to Venezuela and restore freedom in your land."
Somehow, immigrants in the United States are not trying to "live" or "survive." 

"So I think there is a clear distinction between people in Central America who make an often dangerous journey attempting to enter our country and the people who are literally fleeing from Venezuela to survive," he said.
We know very well that thousands of Latin American migrants are fleeing to survive. The United Nations has documented it. Human Right Watch has documented it. Amnesty International has documented it. (Sarah Bermeo also has a nice blog post on the non-economic reasons for emigration from Central America).

There is no distinction to make. The conditions in Venezuela and, say, Honduras are not exactly the same. But in both cases, individuals and families are making the wrenching decision that they are no longer safe in their country. Jobs are scarce and violence is high. They are all trying to live and survive, and feel they cannot do so at home.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

El Pulgarcito de America

The latest in an occasional food installment I started recently, really intended to highlight Latin American restaurants in Charlotte, which incidentally are small American businesses owned and operated by the same immigrants that the President of the United States demonizes as animals, invaders, and rapists.

My 13 year old daughter and I went for dinner at El Pulgarcito de America, a Salvadoran restaurant on Central Avenue (though the menu also has Honduran and Mexican options). I had a combination of tamales and pupusa, which was great. My daughter got seafood soup, which turned out to be an enormous bowl overflowing with all kinds of seafood, including crab on top (with a crab cracker on the side of the plate) and rice on the side. She loved it (and for the first time in her life, ate a small squid) while I happily ate what she couldn't finish.

The last place I went was Arepas Grill and I already want to get back there.


Public Shaming of Officials is a Dubious Idea

Omar Encarnación has a thought provoking article in Foreign Policy about the escrache, an Argentine term that is a form of Latin American political theater intended to shame public officials. It tends to happen when people feel those officials are not being held accountable. He uses examples from Latin America to show how it can prompt positive political change.

Still, there ought to be a place, in the repertoire of strategies to defend liberal democracy, for shaming and shunning those who implement illiberal policies. This is the point being made by those on the left, such as Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, when defending the right of ordinary Americans to shame their public officials, especially when the policies being implemented are egregiously immoral and when the person atop of the government has so little concern for human rights. After all, the Trump administration’s retreat from the policy on separating immigrant families late last week came only after broad disapproval from the public, condemnation by the media of the policy as cruel and inhumane, and comparisons by historians with some of the ugliest episodes in U.S. history, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. For an administration that hates to lose, this retreat was a rare concession to decency and human rights, and it’s the loudest protesters who deserve the greatest credit.
There are several things to untangle here.

First, we cannot be certain about the causality of the actions. In the most prominent case, it was used in Argentina in the 1990s to protest immunity for the dictatorship. That didn't get changed for many years and it's hard to make a case that the shaming played a significant role (others will know more about this and so feel free to point out any error here).

I don't think Sarah Sanders' treatment at a restaurant is going to move the needle. (BTW, for an interesting take on public shaming of controversial administration officials, see this story about the decision not to shame H.R. Haldeman when in 1974 he took his daughter to Chez Panisse, a famous restaurant in Berkeley). There are other, and in fact more effective, ways to fight back against human rights abuses rather than being abusive yourself.

Second, I wonder about the coarsening of public discourse more generally. My gut reaction is always against the "they do it, so should we" argument. Donald Trump uses disgusting and hateful language, but that doesn't mean I should. I am not at all sure it pushes us closer to our goals, one of which now is to protect the rights of immigrants. There's a little too much schadenfreude here for my taste as well--we may not be achieving our goals, but it sure feels good just to go off on someone. As Michelle Obama said, those who disagree with Trump should go high: "when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level."


Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Radio to Talk Immigration

This morning was on WFAE's Charlotte talks to discuss immigration at a national level (you can listen here). Thanks to Michael Bitzer at Catawba College for doing a good job guest hosting. It's always hard to get at details when you have less than an hour, but I think we did a pretty good job of providing the context and even historical background you need to understand the current situation. If we can bust the soundbite beliefs people have even a little bit, we're doing our jobs.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Central American Immigration and Falsehoods

It is a difficult time to be even somewhat knowledgeable about Latin American immigration to the United States. The number of myths and falsehoods is exponentially greater than at any time I can remember. I feel most frustrated when the national conversation is driven in large part by beliefs that immigration can be understood in episodic rather than structural terms.

I co-authored a book in 2010 on the importance of demography for understanding how Latin American immigration works. I won't rehash that (and of course demography has continued its eternal evolution since then) but it's a reminder that structural forces matter a lot.

History matters a lot too. In the book, we did not spend much time on the history of US-Latin American relations, for example. Joseph Nevins, a geographer at Vassar who has published a lot on immigration, has a post about the impact of decades of U.S. policy toward Honduras. The U.S. response to the 2009 coup had a powerful impact on emigration, which sped up as a result of the chaos the coup and aftermath unleashed, both politically and economically. These are push factors, which were present for many years but the Obama administration made them worse, though not through immigration policy per se. The same is true of the Reagan administration's funding of war in El Salvador. Both of those policies were based on ideology.

Thus, the arguments now about why Hondurans (or indeed other Central Americans) are coming are almost all false. They are not coming because they want to exploit loopholes. DACA didn't make them come. Attacking families will not serve as a deterrent. And certainly their stories of sadness and grief are not fake.

But when the President of the United States and other top officials repeat false claims on a daily basis, people who see themselves as rational and reasonable start believing them too.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Leonardo Padura's Havana Gold

Leonardo Padura's Havana Gold is part of the "Havana Quartet," four novels about Police Lt. Mario Conde. As mysteries go, it's not particularly intricate or surprising, but he's a compelling character, lonely and introspective. The story is about the murder of a young teacher, who taught at the school he attended, which then brings up additional memories and regrets.

Beyond the imagery of Havana and his own musings, I liked the indirect but clear political references. It was written in 1989, the same year Fidel Castro executed a high level military officer and hero, General Arnaldo Ochoa, who stood accused of drug trafficking. In the novel, the young woman's body is found at an apartment with remnants of marijuana, the presence of which surprised and vexed everyone. The vexation stemmed from the fact that whoever dealt drugs had ties to (unnamed) higher ups. Such things could not be done without them knowing.


The Family Separation Contradiction

President Trump's executive order says not to separate families. He also refuses to hire more judges, but the big problem is that there are not enough resources to house people and to hear all the adult cases in anything remotely like a timely manner, and certainly not quickly enough before the children must be released. There is already a court case on the books saying children cannot be held indefinitely.

Those two things are mutually exclusive.

Customs and Border Protection officials forcefully argued that agents who are apprehending migrant families at the border cannot refer all of the adults for prosecution because the Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies do not have the resources to process each case. 
In particular, the border officials expressed concern about the number of prosecutors and judges needed to handle the proceedings, and the lack of space available to detain families while the cases go forward. 
As a result, the officials from Customs and Border Protection told White House and Justice Department officials that they have had to issue fewer prosecution referrals of adults with children despite the president’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration.
Either you hire a crapton (to quote my teenage daughter) of judges or you let the families go. That's why CBP is saying it's not possible. Backlog has been a serious problem for many years and arresting more people means it is getting exponentially worse.

Back in 2010 I wrote about how horrible the backlog was at 261,000 cases. Now it is 714,000. The system literally cannot handle the enforcement.


Friday, June 22, 2018

Chronology of the Family Separation Crisis

The family separation crisis has been confusing, mostly because the Trump administration contradicted itself on a daily basis. Here is a quick and dirty chronology.

--Clinton administration on separating families: no explicit policy. Signed the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which did not mention the issue. It was not common for families to arrive together at that time. It did open the door for more deportations, and thus deportations of parents.

However, every so often separation did happen. Starting in 1993 there was a court case, Reno vs. Flores, where the Supreme Court ruled that children immigrants should be released to family as quickly as possible because of the treatment of a 15 year old Salvadoran girl.

--Bush administration on separating families: created Operation Streamline in 2005 with the phrase "zero tolerance." The idea was to criminalize border crossers. Over time, the federal immigration system could not handle the numbers, and people were often released. As with the Clinton years, parents with children was not common.

--Obama administration on separating families: continued Operation Streamline. When the surge of children occurred in 2014, many of them were unaccompanied, but when there were families they were locked up together. The number of families increased. as did the number of people released. Few families were separated and none were separated as a matter of policy. But the idea of family imprisonment became a real and troubling thing.

--Trump daily during campaign: I hate immigrants and I like leading chants for people who hate immigrants.

--Trump in August 2016 speech: my immigration policy will be zero tolerance.

--Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018: we will separate families.

--Stephen Miller in June 2018: We have a zero tolerance policy. No one is "immune."

--Trump: Family separation is a policy created by Democrats and they have to change that law for the policy to change.

--Attorney General Jeff Sessions says it is the administration's policy and the Bible supports it.

--Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says there is no policy of family separation.

--Nielsen says she will not apologize for the policy, which she had just said was not a policy.

--Trump says the issue cannot be resolved through an executive order.

--Trump then issues an executive order saying that families should be imprisoned together, even indefinitely.

--Congress: we would pass a law of some sort if we were capable, but it's unclear whether we are.

--Border Patrol official: we're not going to prosecute parents who cross the border with children until there are more resources. Department of Justice says that is not true.

--Trump to Congress: stop trying to pass immigration legislation.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Venezuelan Inflation

You want to know what hyperinflation looks like? In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro raised the minimum wage by two million bolívars. It was one million and now it is three million. Food vouchers went up from 1,555,500 to 2,196,000. Pensions went up 3,000,000. If you are wondering, 3,000,000 bolívars is $1.14 at the black market rate.

The National Assembly, of course made up of the opposition, believes the inflation rate to be 24,600%. This crazily high number seems reasonable when a president is throwing around millions of the currency in an effort to keep up with the increases in prices. Tarek El Aissami has decided that another way is to send the army to check prices. Soldiers with rifles stand at the markets.

Remember five years ago when it was 49.4%? That seemed pretty damned bad. Now it is literally more profitable to make purses out of money than to use the money itself.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Podcast on Colombian Presidential Election

Go check out Steven Hyland interviewing Steven Taylor on SECOLAS' Historias podcast. Among many other things, he talks about the Colombian left and offers a less optimistic view than I did. And there's the question of how independent Iván Duque will be from Alvaro Uribe. And of course there's Venezuela.


Dialogue Fail in Nicaragua

Late last week there was at least some hope that dialogue in Nicaragua could show some progress. In particular, the two sides were talking about finding international mediators. The opposition wants the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the European Union. They thought they had agreement, but when they asked the government to show the invitations, there weren't any. The Foreign Minister said there were "bureaucratic" reasons they weren't sent.

After reneging, Rosario Murillo said she wanted peace and reconciliation. She also said there were "malignant spirits" in Nicaragua and everyone needed to believe in Jesus Christ. She made clear that she wants everyone's spirits to be "full of light."

Apparently international mediators are not full of light because they aren't being allowed in. This story is starting to sound familiar. Fraudulent elections, opposition protests, splintered opposition, attempt at dialogue, failure at dialogue. I assume U.S. sanctions are not fall behind. Increasingly in Nicaragua, just as in Venezuela, the big question is how long the government can keep the army on its side.

However, I think one difference is how much more intense the anti-government actions are. Protesters are blocking large chunks of Managua, though elsewhere as well. It's at the point where you can go online for updated maps on where the tranques are. My sense is that there is more intense domestic pressure on Daniel Ortega than on Nicolás Maduro. At the same time, there have been periods of such pressure in Venezuela and the opposition could not keep it up as the government simply dug in and waited them out.

If you haven't already, listen to the podcast I did with Christine Wade last Friday on the crisis.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Venezuela's Refugee Crisis

The UN High Commissioner on Refugees just published a "situational update" on Venezuela. This is a catastrophe of frightening magnitude and it is affecting every country in the entire hemisphere. 1.5 million people and the majority are undocumented.

More than 340.000 Venezuelans have entered Ecuador since the beginning of 2018 (compared to 287,000 arrivals registered for the whole 2017). 
In Brazil, 527 Venezuelan nationals had been relocated from border regions to Brazilian cities in the country (Cuiabá, Manaus and São Paulo). 
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum has risen yearly. Between 2014 and 2018, some 185,783 asylum claims have been lodged. 
More than 1.5 million Venezuelans have moved into neighbouring countries. While some of them have obtained documentation which allows them to stay legally, the majority of Venezuelans who have left their country have no regular status, and are therefore more vulnerable to any form of exploitation, abuse, violence, trafficking and discrimination.
Here is the breakdown of asylum requests:

 Just remember too. If you squeeze the country with sanctions, you are directly contributing to this crisis.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Duque and Latin American Politics

Iván Duque defeated Gustavo Petro in the Colombian runoff election yesterday, 54%-42%. Boz has some good points about the outcome, including the importance of centrists. Adam Isacson also has a post worth your time on how this affects the peace agreement.

I'd like to chime in on the broader view. It will be tempting to view this as part of an overall conservative wave in Latin America, and I fully expect that kind of assertion to spread, especially since this was a clear cut contest between candidates who self-identified as left and right. It has already started, really.

But that is misleading and does not pay sufficient attention to the specific Colombian context. The FARC effectively prevented any real political left from developing in Colombia. It was too hard for the left to convince people it wasn't going to be soft on the FARC, or even tied to it. Look back at 2010, when Antanas Mockus ran and won only 27.5% in a runoff after being clobbered in the first round. It was just too easy to tie the left to the FARC, to Hugo Chávez, to Fidel Castro. Etc.

Petro was openly struggling against this. And the fact that he got 42% of the vote means he succeeded far more than anyone else in the past. Not enough to win, obviously, but enough to breath life into the aspirations of the left. It's fair to say that it won't be long before a leftist can win the presidency, and that's something that just has not been true before.


Immigrant Children as Hostages

The Trump administration is separating children from their parents when they are apprehended, a practice considered too harsh and horrible by previous administrations. There has been considerable public response and the administration's stance is indicative of dysfunction and deceit.

President Trump blames congressional Democrats. His logic is the same as hostage taking. Kidnap someone and demand ransom. If the ransom is not paid, you hurt the hostage and blame the side that would not give you money. The real answer is that the hostage never should have been taken in the first place. You do not need a law or any reform to end it. He can do so right this second.

But it gets worse. Attorney General Jess Sessions contradicted Trump by taking full ownership over separating families and saying the Bible defends the practice. White House advisor Stephen Miller also contradicted Trump and took ownership, saying it was a "simple decision." They happily label it as deterrence--treat people so inhumanely that word will get out and people will stop emigrating. As Steve Bannon says, it is a conscious zero tolerance policy that needs no justification. For xenophobes, it is simply common sense--hurting brown-skinned foreigners is good.

Melania Trump weighed in, saying through a spokesperson that she "hates" the practice and calling immigration reform, echoing the inaccurate assertion that you need a new law to end it.

But one of the truly craziest responses was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who said it's not a policy at all. High level administration officials have already said it is a policy and the increase of the practice has been very public.

And that's where we are in 2018.

Update: the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics labeled it as "child abuse."

New Update: Not long after I posted this, President Trump and other administration officials changed the story a bit, saying that the parents were fake and were in fact criminals posing as parents.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Podcast Episode 54: The Nicaraguan Crisis

In Episode 54 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with Christine Wadewho is 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. We discuss the Nicaraguan crisis. FYI, she mentions an article that just came out at NACLA that she recommended: here is the link. Among other things, we talk about the diffuse nature of the opposition, what's up with security forces, and how much this is all affecting the average Nicaraguan.


NAFTA and North Carolina

Patrick Duddy has an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer about the impact of NAFTA on North Carolina. It just fell flat for me. He argues that NAFTA benefits the state, but he also bends over backward to praise the Trump administration. For example:

In the last quarter century all three economies have evolved in important ways. Hence, the Trump administration’s determination to force improvements on our partners is not unreasonable. The Trump administration’s goal is a better deal for U.S. workers and industry.

Trump is not necessarily wrong when he asserts that much of the world has ridden our coattails to an era of greater prosperity. We would be wrong, however, to ignore the corollary to that assertion: the U.S. has – in the aggregate – become more prosperous as well. The aim of the current negotiations should be to create a better trading regime, one that eliminates distortions without sacrificing benefits.
"Forcing improvements on our partners" means a trade war. It's not clear to me how we can consider that reasonable. And the whole "ridden our coattails" thing is simplistic and implies unreasonably that we are "owed." The United States has benefited massively from the post-World War II economic order. There's no way around that.

The piece seems aimed at the NC congressional delegation but the combined praise of NAFTA and Trump makes it difficult to see precisely what he's advocating.


The Latin Americanist and UNC Press

I am excited to announce that starting January 1, 2019 The Latin Americanist will be published by the University of North Carolina Press. It's a perfect fit, especially since the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies, which owns the journal, is a southern-oriented organization. And it's great to be working with an academic press. If you have a manuscript, you should consider us!


Thursday, June 14, 2018

LASA Resolution on Nicaragua

I know, I know, organization resolutions don't "matter" in a policy way. But I still like having the key organization for Latin American Studies get things right. For a long time it was a muddled morass.

Here is its statement on Nicaragua. For example:

As academics who have spent our careers researching Central America and working with the people of Nicaragua, we want to express our profound concern for the extreme violations of basic human rights that have occurred in Nicaragua. No government should violently repress its own citizens for expressing their opinions, nor should it try to prevent the press from covering such protests.

Nice, clear, declarative. In the past, condemnations of government wrongdoing got all tangled with ideology--you can't really criticize Venezuela because of the 2002 coup, blah blah blah. This statement includes the proper caveat about U.S. policy.

We hasten to add that these measures should be carried out at the initiative of the Nicaraguan people and their constituted representatives. Given the long and tragic history of US imperialism in Central America, and the many regional problems that have their roots in foreign interventions, we are well aware of the need to respect Nicaragua’s sovereignty. That, however, does not preclude criticism of government-condoned violence against unarmed protesters.

Good. U.S. policy has done terrible damage to Nicaragua in its history but that should not give its governments a pass when they're killing their own citizens. And no one wants to give the impression they're asking for U.S. meddling.

Here's one of the worse resolutions, from five years ago.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Venezuela Election Apologists

You see periodic efforts to defend the integrity of elections in Venezuela. John Polga-Hecimovich takes aim at one and breathes fire at it.

Mr. Kovalik professes to support Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution for helping the poor. But 82% of the country is now below the poverty line, which indicates it’s more important for him to blindly follow an ideology than update his priors and criticize a “revolutionary” government.
He delicately concludes:

Venezuela is a dictatorship whose economic problems are the result of irresponsible policymaking. The more Mr. Kovalik and others see conspiracies where there are none, the more they allow themselves to become apologists for a dictator.

I assume his essay will be dismissed as the work of an imperialist pawn.

BTW, see Geoff Ramsey's post just prior to the election as well. Defenders of the election tend to skirt past most of the substance.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Maduro Looks Longingly at the Trump-Kim Summit

I was talking to someone about why Nicolás Maduro was letting political prisoners out and especially Joshua Holt. My basic and not particularly original answer was that he trying to make some sort of gesture to ease pressure and open the door to dialogue (of whatever sort, if only to gain time).

But after seeing the spectacle of Donald Trump meeting Kim Jong-un, I realized I was missing what was in front of my eyes all along. Trump's foreign policy consists in large part of alienating allies and embracing--even bromancing--adversaries. He famously loves Vladimir Putin and now he loves Kim too (he loves his country!). With them, he openly gives concessions without getting anything concrete in return. This summit was pure gold for an isolated Kim.

So Maduro, who also feels isolated, much wonder: how do I get Trump's love? And indeed, why shouldn't he think that way? Kim sets the standard for being a horrible human being who terrorizes his own population, and Trump loves him. Trump excoriates Maduro and calls him a threat. How is that fair?

So maybe Maduro is thinking that if he gives a little with some releases, just like Kim did, he can be bros with Trump too. Maybe even be invited to the White House. Kim has Dennis Rodman as celebrity go-between, and Maduro can use Danny Glover.

I am authoritarian, I am screwing up my country, and my government is responsible serious human rights abuses, so why don't you love me too?


Monday, June 11, 2018

Arepas Grill

In my very occasional reviews of Latin American restaurants in Charlotte, today I had lunch at Arepas Grill, which bills itself as the only place in the city to get Venezuelan arepas*. I was there with my wife and kids, so between us we got several different kinds, including the Pelua (shredded beef), the La del Gato (plantains and avocado), the traditional Queso de Mano, and the Revoltillo (screambled eggs and beef). All of us were in universal agreement that they were delicious, just crispy on the outside, hot and stuffed with food inside. They have a guasacaca sauce that is hot and tasty to add if you want.

Incidentally, it is directly across the street from the Woodlawn train station, perfect if you are on light rail.

* This should not be too surprising because the population is still relatively small. According to Census Bureau estimates, there are about 17,778 people in Mecklenburg County who were born in South America (I don't know offhand how many are Venezuelan but we have quite a few migrants also from Colombia and Ecuador in particular). That constitutes just 11% of all foreign born people in the county and 23.4% of the Latin America-born population. Those numbers have been increasing in recent years and I have to wonder how much the Venezuelan crisis is contributing.

Before, I went to Tamales la Pasadita.


Venezuela's OPEC Problem

OPEC meets on June 22. The Venezuelan government is asking that it denounce sanctions:

“I kindly request solidarity and support from our fellow members,” Venezuelan Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo wrote in a copy of the letter seen by Bloomberg News. OPEC should discuss “the constraining effects of unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States of America, which represent an extraordinary aggression, financially and economically, for our national oil industry’s operations and the stability of the market.”
In particular, Venezuela naturally does not want prices to decrease. Meanwhile, the United States is asking Saudi Arabia to increase production precisely to keep prices down while it sanctions Iran.

But, Saudi Arabia and Russia probably can’t simply allot themselves more production allowances without risking a full-blown revolt from the rest of the group. So, they will likely need to allocate more production to everyone, but even the act of deciding on a formula will also be highly contentious. Still, it will be somewhat of a formality for most members since they can’t increase production anyway.
Nonetheless, Russian output is already increasing. In part, Russia just wants lower prices but it also does not want OPEC's share of output to decrease, which would happen if OPEC went down just as U.S. production continued to increase.

This is pressing for Nicolás Maduro for existential reasons. It is pressing for Donald Trump for political reasons, particularly the midterm elections. This is not new--two years Barack Obama pushed OPEC in the same way, and it ticked Maduro off.

Oil markets think production will indeed increase. This would be bad news for the Venezuelan government, which needs prices to stay as high as possible since output is declining due to incompetence (oh sorry, I meant because of the empire).


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tim Wendel's Summer of '68

Reading Tim Wendel's Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever is a reminder that our current era has parallels for awfulness. The book is the story of a year, but it tends to focus a lot on the Tigers and on the World Series they played (and won) against the Cardinals. Wendel doesn't really come to any particular conclusions--he weaves some different sports in though they don't form part of a broader narrative.

The Tigers are an appropriate subject because their run for the championship helped unite the city to an extent, which has experienced riots the year prior. Baseball didn't fix or heal racial divides, but even the players themselves--black or white--felt like they were truly playing for their city. They were misfits, not smooth and athletic like the Cardinals.

If there is any theme, it's that the "real world" touches on and draws from baseball whether the players know it or not. Politicians from both parties wanted to comment on or attend games. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a sports fan per se but of course understood how race relations in major sports impacted public policy. Football was only just taking off at that point, and it's interested how it has overtaken baseball in terms of political importance. Donald Trump is whining about the NFL and to an extent the NBA, but not MLB.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

John Belohlavek's Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies

I read and reviewed John Belohlavek's Patriots, Prostitutes, and Spies: Women and theMexican-American War for The Americas (2017). Here is my concluding paragraph:

An important contribution of the book is that for the first time it highlights the countless ways women on both sides of the conflict were central to it. For better or worse, the war could not have been waged without them. Women were taking care of business at home, traveling with armies, opening businesses, and working in factories (especially textiles). They were also writing stories, plays, and music. War changed gender roles, though Belohlavek is careful to explain that such transformations were not drastic. Yet the war represented “an incremental step toward advancing greater gender awareness and promoting female involvement within the Mexican and American societies” (243). He succeeded in that effort. Historical studies of U.S.-Latin American relations would benefit from more of this understanding.

If you like histories of U.S.-Latin American relations, you might want to check it out. Women don't tend to have much of a role in those histories so it's a refreshing look.


Friday, June 08, 2018

The Boston Group in Venezuela

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez-Hernáiz look at some of the important issues in post-election Venezuela. One merits special attention because of how much we can generalize it. It's the sometimes hidden importance of informal diplomatic relationships.

However, the Joshua Holt release shows the potential of cross-national, back-channel networks among politicians (see a stellar series of articles by AP’s Josh Goodman who reported on this development in March, and as the Holt release evolved here and here). 
All parties agree that the key player in the Holt release was Senator Bob Corker’s chief of staff Caleb McCarry. McCarry was a member of the Boston Group, a network of US and Venezuelan legislators who engaged each other back during the 2002-04 period. This group included Maduro, then a legislator, his wife Cilia Flores, as well as then politician and now businessman Pedro Díaz Blum. Díaz Blum brought Lacava into the network which brokered Holt’s release. Senator Orin Hatch of Holt’s home state of Utah was also involved in the dialogue and described his experiences in Time Magazine. 
The entire experience shows the power this type of cross-national back channels can have to broker deals. More broadly, the Boston Group and other efforts to open networks with members of the Maduro government could become fundamental conduits for channeling pressure into a transition back to democracy.
This is why the dismantling of diplomacy these days is so devastating. The Boston Group was a legislative initiative intended to promote dialogue and had bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and the Venezuelan government. It involved difficult discussions and was careful not to do anything that might jeopardize its existence. From a leaked cable:

In response to a request from Ortega, McCarry explained the mechanics of NED project funding, emphasizing the organization's bipartisan support within the U.S. After debating the topic, the group members agreed to refrain from making any public statements about GOV accusations that the USG is spending millions of dollars to assist opposition groups since it might affect the Boston Group's own existence. In response to McCarry's outline of the proposed Boston Group television project, Rangel promised support and resources.

These below-the-surface interactions, which really need support from the involved governments to work, can pay enormous dividends. I hope the Trump administration is open to such arrangements in the future, but the treatment of the State Department does not currently offer optimism.

In an interview, former Ambassador Patrick Duddy talks about how the Boston Group's connections persisted well after its members ceased meeting.

Shortly after the April 14 election and Maduro’s investiture as president, the foreign ministry announced that former Chavista legislator Calixto Ortega would be heading to Washington to become Venezuela’s new chargé d’affaires. Ortega had been a part of what was once known as “The Boston Group” which was founded in 2000 to try to promote improved understanding between Venezuelan legislators and their U.S. congressional counterparts. 
So this was formed during the Clinton administration and those relationships resolved a problem 18 years later. Are we building anything now to help solve crises in the future?


Thursday, June 07, 2018

Somoza and Ortega: Brothers in Arms

Nicaragua's La Prensa has an interesting story paralleling the end of Anastasio Somoza's regime with Daniel Ortega's current situation.

Los asesinatos de miles de nicaragüenses en manos de la sanguinaria Guardia Nacional eran el pan de cada día. Nicaragua estaba harta. La formación de una junta con intelectuales y empresarios, la llegada de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, un intento de diálogo con el gobierno de Somoza Debayle, la presión de los Frentes guerrilleros en los departamentos del país. Esto se vivió en los últimos años, meses y días de la dictadura somocista.

But there are major differences. The most important is that the Sandinistas were a well-organized fighting force, whereas the current opposition is not. Right now Nicaragua has protests rather than a guerrilla insurgency. Then the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro threw gasoline on the fire and got the OAS involved.

I think it's more useful to compare Nicaragua today to more recent examples than to its own history. Bolivia in 2003 comes to mind, when Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned after government violence and months of protests. But there is also the Venezuela example, where Nicolás Maduro has weathered protests up to this point and remains in power. Overall, this is about internal regime cohesion (esp. the army) as opposed to losing a civil war.

Nonetheless, Nicaraguans do have their own history in mind, a most ironic one given Ortega's role back then and the way he compares to Somoza now.


Cuba Sonic Thing Gets Bigger and Weirder

We all know about the weird "sonic crisis" with Cuba, which is one of the oddest episodes in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations. Now it's in China too.

But with Americans now exhibiting similar symptoms in Guangzhou, American officials have raised suspicions about whether other countries, perhaps China or Russia, might be to blame.

Back in February I looked at all the players. I had of course included Russia but not China. If this is indeed the same phenomenon, could Russia really be doing it as a third party in two different countries? I don't think there's precedent for this in Russia-China relations, which historically have been rocky. This development doesn't make anything clearer at all.

Meanwhile, scientists can't agree on what's even going on and what's possible. The argument has spilled over into the academic world and academic journals, where it can get really nasty!


Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Review of Francisco Cantú's The Line Becomes a River

You're a hard person if Francisco Cantú's The Line Becomes a River (2018) does not move you. It is a memoir of a sensitive Mexican-American who joined the Border Patrol so that he could understand the border situation better, and was traumatized by the experience.

The book is about his struggle to understand it all. Why are people violent? Why don't people care? How can you successfully struggle against the incarceration/deportation machine of the United States government? And when people do care, why? These questions become especially pressing when someone he knows--a husband, a father--is deported and he tries to help him. He does not come up with firm answers but does a wonderful job of describing what he feels and what he sees, from the Border Patrol, to the prison, to the courthouse, and to Mexico.

It's about helplessness, really, but that's the reality of our current immigration system, not to mention the corruption of the Mexican government, which is also a theme. But it is a reminder to keep humanizing migrants as individuals rather than aggregate numbers, trying to re-connect their lives.

Update 6/12/18: I had been unaware of the controversy surrounding the book. I must say I did not get even the slightest sense he was trying to praise the Border Patrol or in any way profit from suffering. I just didn't.


Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Podcast Episode 53: AMLO in Perspective

In Episode 53 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast, I talk with my good friend and colleague JürgenBuchenau, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at UNC Charlotte. He is an expert on the Mexican Revolution and has published numerous books on the topic. We talk about Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, who is the front runner in the Mexican presidential race. We look at him from a historical perspective to see how he fits into Mexican political history. Jurgen also shows how he can take any topic and show how the Mexican Revolution is relevant to it--if you ever see him, try it out.


Mike Pompeo on Venezuela

Here is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech to the OAS calling for, among other things, Venezuela's suspension. Unlike his predecessor and his boss, he was smart enough not to use inflammatory language. Instead, he stays away from military references and only emphasizes holding elections. What we can't know is how his private interactions went. The administration has indicated that it wants to twist arms pretty hard on this issue. That can only get you so far and veers toward the petty (e.g. literally "we're having a fun party and you can't come"). With Haiti is openly imperial.

There will be a vote today and the ultimate test will be whether the needle moves at all, especially with Caribbean countries. My hunch is that it won't move a lot--chances are pretty good that Haiti ultimately gives in, but there are plenty of Caribbean states who either still get a bit of oil and/or who have lingering positive feelings about Hugo Chávez, if not Nicolás Maduro.

Update (6/7/18): The vote was 19-4, with 11 abstentions, to open the door for an eventual vote on expulsion, which would require 24 in favor. Getting 11 abstentions into 5 more "yes" votes would not be simple. Nonetheless, Nicaragua is an abstention so even some hardcore supporters shifted.


Monday, June 04, 2018

Minor League Migrants and Remittances

I've written about migrants and remittances more times than I can count.* But we don't tend to think of remittances when it comes to baseball. You hear about the players from Latin America who sign big contracts but not so much about the guys in the minor leagues. In this vein, Patrick Cusick has a good post at East Village Times, a site focusing on San Diego sports, especially baseball (East Village is the area where Petco Park is). He writes about Latin American players on the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Padres' A-level minor league team.

What caught my eye in particular was a former player who now works with the team say that since players don't know English and want to send money home, sometimes you might eat less. It's such an ordeal to order in an unfamiliar language.

“You can go to a city, and not be familiar with what they have. So sometimes, you don’t eat because it’s easier,” Pagan revealed. “I wouldn’t eat very well, so I would send that money to my family because it would help them much more.” Pagan would continue, “We would wait for the meal money and send it to our families because it was like an advance and it was easier than having those conversations.”
 Pagan estimates that nearly 80 percent of most Latin American player’s paychecks are going back to their families. Granted, some players have been fortunate enough to see big bonuses on signing day, but that is not the norm. For every big bonus given out by a team, there are many other players signed for much less. That stress can take a toll on a person, let alone a player outside of their comfort zone that is expected to save a franchise.

The vast majority of players will not hit the big contract. Players in the minors earn very little and Latin American immigrants are scraping by to send remittances back, just the same as immigrants in other occupations. Baseball seems glamorous but the money is bad in the minors. Add culture shock and language barriers and it's rough.

*This is not true. I could actually count if I wanted to.


US Policy and Human Rights in Colombia

Paul Angelo, who worked with the Colombian military on Plan Colombia, has a piece up at Global Americans about the scope of the Colombian military's murder of civilians. His argument is that the United States has a positive role to play in implementing the peace agreement but we cannot ignore the need for accountability.

This is a much needed counterweight. James Stavridis, former head of SouthCom, recently had an op-ed at Bloomberg with the rah-rah version of U.S. policy toward Colombia. He does not mention human rights at all. No homicides, no displaced people, no accountability, nothing.

The lessons of Colombia would stand America in good stead as we consider our level of support in Syria, for example. Or how we move forward in Afghanistan.

If you completely ignore human rights, then you will create new problems. Blindly copying Colombia in the Middle East is just dangerous.


Sunday, June 03, 2018

Venezuela From The Left

This is fascinating in its own way. An article in Monthly Review tries to look at the food crisis in Venezuela in a more people-centered and nuanced way. "Nuance" turns out to be largely a combination of inaccuracies, omissions, and odd logic.

For example it begins with:

[t]he three national elections of 2017 demonstrated a strong show of support for the continuation of the revolution under its current leadership. 

To put it mildly, this is difficult to support empirically given the authoritarian moves of the government.

The authors argue that food lines are not nearly as bad as the international press claims because there are at least some things left on the shelves.

For while precooked corn flour has gone missing, corn-based porridge has remained available; milk powder disappeared from the shelves, but fresh dairy products like cheeses can still be found, and so on.

The authors argue that an involuntary diet shift is a positive thing--foodies would be jealous (I am not making that up. It is in there). And of course the source of the shortages is not the Venezuelan government but the United States by "using the revolutionary potential of the masses to frighten the middle class." There are references to "elites" but not much recognition that the government and elites are often one and the same--the article suggests that such elites are just agribusiness leaders rather than Chavistas lining their pockets. There is no discussion about policy making, with a particularly glaring omission of any reference to currency controls.

A more nuanced analysis would start with two assertions. First, first shortages are entirely bad under all circumstances. Second, the government of a given country is primarily responsible for food shortages. Don't rationalize food shortages and people waiting in lines.


Teresa Solana's A Not So Perfect Crime

Teresa Solana is a Spanish mystery novelist whose book was translated from the original Catalan. A Not So Perfect Crime takes place in Barcelona and, like Alicia Giménez Bartlett's novel, look at the upper class, though in this case it is also the political class. The background is also a little more outlandish, as there are twin (but not identical) brothers but one is something of a lovable shyster who brings his brother into an occasionally lucrative detective practice, even while they claim to the world that they are just close friends rather than brothers. It borders on too cute but it does work.

The tone is lighthearted but the more serious issue of social class is pervasive. There is north of Diagonal and south, like the proverbial train tracks. Class and status is central to the reasons why so many people hate the murdered woman, who was the wife of a prominent (and wealthy) Catalan politician. Class is also central to the twist of plot at the end.

It was a good read, perhaps not quite as good as Giménez Bartlett, and particularly good if you want the Barcelona backdrop.


Saturday, June 02, 2018

Race 5: King Tiger 5K

As part of my ongoing year of running (see my initial post here) I did the King Tiger 5K not too far from where I live. It is a hilly course so I was slower than the Barcelona 5K last week but I still got just under an 8 minute mile pace. Fortunately it was not nearly a humid as I thought it might be.

My wife got an award for 5th female overall and my 10 year daughter for third in her age group. We ran this 10 years ago and had all three kids in baby joggers.

Next up: a 4 miler on July 4.


Latino Voters in Charlotte

I was interviewed for Spectrum, a local TV news station, about Latino turnout in last month's primary election. The upshot is that registration and turnout jumped in Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is). It's still small, but moving upward.

Some quick numbers:

May 8, 2018 midterm election: 1.5% of voters in Mecklenburg County were Latino versus 0.64% in the 2014 midterm election

As of today, according to the North Carolina Board of Elections 4.2% of all voters in Mecklenburg County are Latino versus 3.8% for the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, as of today 2.7% of NC voters are Latino.

Mecklenburg County is more urban and votes more Democratic, which makes it more likely to have a greater share of Latino voters. Both the party itself and independent activists have made strides to register voters and get them to the polls. In NC as a whole, 29% of the Latino population is registered, whereas it is 32% in Mecklenburg County.

So this cohort is still a "sleeping giant" but some important advances have been made.


Friday, June 01, 2018

Summing Up Post-Election Venezuela

With some help from Hugo Pérez-Hernáiz, David Smilde writes up a summary of some recent analyses of the post-election situation in Venezuela. I feel a little funny writing a summary of a summary, but it would basically be the following:

High abstention rates, which included Chavistas, weaken Nicolás Maduro, but do not stop him. The opposition needs to get its act together, and unanimity about election fraud could (finally!) provide a first step.

In short, things will limp along. About two weeks ago I wrote:

The most likely outcome is more poverty, more blustering, more emigration, more suffering and disease. Regime insiders will get rich. Maybe the military becomes discontent enough to force change but there is no sign of that now.

At least from what we can see, things have ground to a halt. At this point, the biggest danger to the government is a united opposition. This is more important than sanctions or regional response. One continuing problem is actually uniting around fraud--Henri Falcon called foul on elections but now is asking for...more elections. That is sure to keep the opposition fractured for the time being.


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