Thursday, January 31, 2019

Jair Bolsonaro's Inaction With Venezuela

What a difference a decade makes. When Honduran President Mel Zelaya was overthrown in 2009, Brazil under Lula took the Latin American lead. As I wrote at the time, the general Latin American response was weak and disappointing. Lula, however, did the most by far, including protecting Zelaya in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, where they were all subjected to psychological warfare. Lula gave a speech at the UN General Assembly calling for Zelaya's reinstatement. Of course, none of this ended up changing the outcome, but at least he was trying. The Brazilian government prided itself on a more regional and even more global outlook.

Now under Jair Bolsonaro, the opposite is true. He has done so little that we even have Marco Rubio writing that the U.S. should force the Lima Group to give Brazil a larger role. I guess Rubio sees himself like a helicopter parent, trying to interfere with things that in fact shouldn't have anything to do with him. Bolsonaro likes to talk tough, with his equivalent of "all options on the table," but thus far he hasn't done anything besides recognize Juan Guaidó, which is not particularly novel. He clearly does not want to take a lead and prefers to defer to the United States. In fact, he's nervous, and recently said he's concerned about a violent transition (which is why he says he opposed armed intervention). For good reason.

But allowing John Bolton to take the lead on Venezuela is dangerous for Brazil because Bolton has shown us before that violence and instability are all okey dokey with him. Dumb action is far, far, worse than no action. It would be in Brazil's interest for Bolsonaro to take more of an anti-military lead.

I doubt he will. First of all, he doesn't want to contradict his fascistic friend. Further, like Trump he seems both clueless on and uninterested in foreign policy. He is not adept at forming diplomatic alliances. He has his own problems at home. But the Venezuelan stakes for Brazil are significantly higher than for the United States, so inaction could make his life more difficult.


Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What's Not A Threat in Latin America

According to the Director of National Intelligence's World Threat Assessment, here are the threats/not threats to the United States in Latin America.


  • Stagnant growth
  • Economic decline
  • High crime rates
  • Corruption
  • Narcotics trafficking
  • Migration flows (though this is mostly a consequence of the above factors)
  • Strategic competition
  • Infectious disease
  • Climate change

Not Threats

  • U.S.-Mexico border
  • Mexicans
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • Children
  • Middle Eastern terrorists
  • Trade
  • Non-citizens voting
  • Immigrant veterans of the U.S. military
  • Democrats


Nicolás Maduro is Afraid of Juan Guaidó

Nicolás Maduro is spending a lot of time with the military, with plenty of photo ops. A few days ago I wrote about how Maduro is treating Juan Guaidó with kid gloves, which is still true.

He's nervous that if gives an order to take Guaidó, it won't be carried out and he can't be sure what direction the guns will point, especially after a recent revolt.
This is even more evident now. Maduro went to give a speech to the armed forces, exhorting/begging them to stay loyal.
"Esta oportunidad que nos está dando la vida por la agresión imperialista del gobierno de Donald Trump debemos tomarla como una oportunidad para despertar una conciencia superior, un liderazgo militar al que tenemos más articulado, desde el oficial de mayor rango y antigüedad hasta el soldado más nuevo en un liderazgo que mueva la fuerza armada en la defensa de la patria, de la integridad territorial, de la soberanía, de la democracia verdadera, de la Constitución, de las instituciones, de su comandante en Jefe constitucional, un sistema de liderazgo moral, eficiente, efectivo, eficaz, basado en el ejemplo de la palabra, del hacer. Vamos a renovarnos con mucha fuerza", insistió. 
El jefe de Estado subrayó que la nación está enfrentando conspiraciones y derrotándolas todos los días y denunció que "un grupo de desertores militares se han convertido en mercenarios de la oligarquía colombiana y conspiran desde Colombia para dividir la Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana".
Notice who is and who is not mentioned. All enemies are foreign. John Bolton did his blustery thing to warn Maduro about touching Guaidó, but he does not need reminding. He is more afraid of Venezuelans than he is of Bolton. He does not even want to name Guaidó as a threat to the country.

The Venezuelan government did block Guaidó from leaving the country, claiming he is under investigation. But really the government is terrified he will actually get access to Venezuelan accounts in the United States. 

Maduro's primary goal right now is to make this drag out. Every day he remains in power is a day people get tired of protesting and the international reaction looks less decisive. Arresting Guaidó will generate tremendous backlash that Maduro can't afford. If he gets so desperate that he does so, it means he is desperate indeed and the end game is probably in sight.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Understanding U.S. Oil Sanctions Against Venezuela

Yesterday Donald Trump issued an executive order imposing sanctions on PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company. Since oil is state-owned in Venezuela, PDVSA is the only vehicle through which the state imports and exports oil. CITGO (which most Americans are familiar with) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of PDVSA. The proceeds of any U.S. transactions with those companies will be held in escrow until some other government takes power in Venezuela.

Here is my effort to start understanding what's happening and what impact we might see. I am open to any corrections. A lot of this remains speculative.

On its face, this is the equivalent of oil sanctions, which have been long discussed but never implemented (in other words, sales can go on but the revenue cannot reach Nicolás Maduro, who logically therefore would stop selling). The main political risk for a U.S. president is that losing the 500,000 barrels-per-day will push domestic gas prices up. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin claims the shortfall will be made up by allies, especially Saudi Arabia (which owes the Trump administration). I do not know if that is true, though my impression is that threats to oil supplies tend to make prices go up until events play out.

In Venezuela, the impact will be serious, with revenue shortfall and worsening humanitarian crisis. Venezuelan crude is difficult to refine so it is not simple to switch away from the United States. Further, Venezuela cannot just look to Russia and China because right now it sends them oil as debt payments. It does not get revenue from that unless you think of it as collateral for future loans.

But it's even more complicated because of exceptions. For example, some U.S. companies, including Chevron and the infamous Halliburton, have an exception that lasts through July 27, 2019. And the exception includes some exceptions.

So not all revenue will be cut off, at least for six more months. But I don't know how much of current transactions go through those excepted companies. John Bolton claimed Venezuela will lose $11 billion over the next year, but who knows how he arrived at that number.

On the other hand, there are broader implications. Trump's executive order makes PDVSA a Specially Designated National. That is the same category as the already existing individual sanctions dating back to the Obama Administration. From the Treasury Department:
505. If an official of the Government of Venezuela is designated as a Specially Designated National (SDN), does that mean that the Government of Venezuela is blocked? What are the prohibitions on U.S. persons dealing with a designated government official? 
No. The designation of an official of the Government of Venezuela does not mean that the government itself is also blocked. The prohibitions apply to transactions or dealings only with the individuals and entities whose property and interests in property are blocked. However, U.S. persons should be cautious in dealings with the government to ensure that they are not engaged in transactions or dealings, directly or indirectly, with an SDN, for example by entering into contracts that are signed by an SDN, entering into negotiations with an SDN, or by processing transactions, directly or indirectly, on behalf of the SDN, absent authorization or an applicable exemption. [07-19-2018]
What this does is place a high alert globally. U.S. citizens cannot even indirectly engage in transactions, which means foreign businesses need to be very careful, or even stop altogether to avoid potential problems. That ripple effect will likely hurt.

Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó said he is ordering the National Assembly to name new members to PDVSA, who would then take control if Maduro is ousted. Maduro gave a live televised speech last night in response. I watched a bit but it lacked any substance and I felt like it was no different than a bunch of his tweets strung together. He is on his heels.

All of this, all of it, is about the Venezuelan military. U.S. officials are openly saying so. Guaidó is also publicly wooing them with promises of amnesty. I wonder what they think of such blatant calls (and of course there is no unified "they" anyway). It would likely be easier to respond to Guaidó than to the U.S. because of nationalism. But there is so much we don't know.


Monday, January 28, 2019

Studying U.S.-Latin American Relations

I have a new book chapter out on studying U.S.-Latin American relations, arguing that we need to focus more on the Latin America side.

Gregory Weeks, “Latin America and the United States.” In Julie Cupples, Marcela Palomino-Schalscha, and Manuel Prieto (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Latin American Development (Routledge: New York): 168-178.

It's timely since I have been making the same points with regard to how we view the Venezuelan crisis.

Especially in a (mostly) democratic era in Latin America, where so many resources are now publicly available, researchers should maintain and even expand having the Latin American perspective front and center. In large part, this will entail increased use of sources from individual countries, both primary and secondary. Yet especially for U.S. researchers, it requires shedding a long-held belief that U.S. power is overwhelming to the point of losing sight of Latin American agency.
The U.S. is obviously a powerful actor that influences events on the ground, but too easily that slides into assumptions that the U.S. is driving everything.


Would Juan Guaidó Govern Democratically?

Something I've been thinking more about and which gets precious little attention anywhere is what Juan Guaidó would actually do if Nicolás Maduro were toppled and he took over the state (see, for example, comments from yesterday's blog post). There are a lot of contingencies here, which makes the thought process tougher.*

But especially after the 2002 debacle, when the Venezuelan opposition immediately tried to establish its own dictatorship, we need to ask whether the "new" Venezuela will be a democracy.

Guaidó said the following about elections in a recent interview:
Once “the usurper” (Maduro) was gone, Guaidó said free elections needed to be held “as soon as possible” after political prisoners had been freed and members of Venezuela’s swelling diaspora could all be registered. 
“That takes time but we need to take care of these [things] in the shortest period of time,” he said.
They should get a lot more specific about this. There is at least a functioning legislature but there is a strong chance a lot of Chavista judges would be forced out, potentially leaving an ineffective judicial system. If the National Assembly bows to Guaidó (with his mentor Leopoldo López right beside him) then there is little horizontal accountability. In the absence of elections, vertical accountability will consist only of protests (or lack thereof). The Trump administration doesn't care about democracy at all, so where would pressure for it come from?

They will also have to get specific about what they do with former government officials. If the military amnesty is real, that's one thing, but are you going to round up hundreds of officials and toss them in prison? Without a judicial system how will due process be protected?

Maryhen Jimenez Morales, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Oxford, writes that it is a good sign that Guaidó is not the kind of charismatic strongman Venezuela has seen at various times in its history. That does not necessarily mean he is more committed to democratic principles, but she is keeping the cup half-full:
Yet crucially he appears to have an institutional flair like no other opposition figure. He talks about human rights, rule of law, restoring institutional powers in a peaceful manner and stirs away from messianic promises, self-promotion or party politics. Guaido has also ensured he has to reached out to various political groups and stakeholders, including government supporters and the military, reassuring them that a transition does not mean a witch-hunt and it will be a fair institutional process. In his public appearances, he has emphasised unity and has made sure he is surrounded by a cross-partisan group of politicians.
I hope so. He will be pushed hard to seek revenge, to radically reform the economy, and to reshape the state. Doing these things is much harder in a democratic context so he will be faced with the temptation to circumvent it. Can he resist the temptation and a combination of Trump officials and Venezuelan right-wingers telling him Venezuela needs him to act quickly and decisively?

* In particular, is there a lot of resistance and violence? Do outside military forces get involved? Violence in general reduces the chance we see democracy in the short-term.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

U.S.-Centric Views of Venezuela

I've written about the habit in the United States of viewing U.S.-Latin American relations from a U.S.-centric perspective. It is bolstered by leftist Latin American governments, who find it convenient to blame their problems on someone else. This has come fully into view for the Venezuelan crisis so I wanted to respond to the types of arguments I've seen. I was reminded of this because of a letter being circulated by U.S. scholars criticizing the United States while removing all responsibility from Nicolás Maduro himself.

1. The Trump administration is orchestrating a coup. I will leave aside the "coup" concept, which would need more discussion. But this particular framing bothers me because in one fell swoop it relegates millions of Venezuelans, years of protests, countless opposition meetings, etc. into "passive puppets of a few individuals in the White House." I always discuss this with regard to the 1973 Chilean coup as well. The U.S. did not create the coup. Yes, it did everything it could to encourage it and made clear there was a green light of support, but the plans were Chilean. In Venezuela, what we're seeing unfold is Venezuelan.

2. This is all about the U.S. wanting Venezuelan oil. The U.S. already has Venezuelan oil and there is no threat of that changing. Period.

3. U.S. sanctions created the economic crisis. They certainly made it worse very recently by making it much harder for the government to move money internationally, but it was already really bad and had been that way for years because of mismanagement and rampant corruption/theft.

4. This is just like Panama in 1989, Chile in 1973, and Guatemala in 1954. Actually, even those were all different from each other. This is too different from a Central American invasion for those to make much sense. Chile is a better comparison, though Salvador Allende won a fully free and fair election, while Maduro did not (the Chilean opposition did, however, invoke the constitution to bring in the military to give it a veil of legality). Regardless, see #1 above. The critical point is about green lights, not control or imperial puppeteering.

This is a Venezuelan crisis in Venezuela. The U.S. is a powerful country that affects events on the ground, but it did not create them and is not controlling them.

In short, we can be highly critical of U.S. policy while simultaneously denouncing Nicolás Maduro for contributing to the destruction of his own country. Those two can (and in my mind should) co-exist.


Saturday, January 26, 2019

We Should Be Seriously Concerned About Venezuela Invasion

Now is the time to really fear a U.S. invasion. Donald Trump and various hardliners have mentioned it in the past--the infamous "everything on the table" sort of comment--but it seemed more remote. But now we have troubling warning signs.

--Mike Pompeo brought in Elliott Abrams as the point man for Venezuela policy. Abrams has a sordid history of diplomacy, particularly in Central America, and was even convicted as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. This is a bad sign for common sense diplomacy.

--The State Department refuses to have its diplomats leave while Diosdado Cabello says he will cut off electricity. This is a standoff that could easily lead to a spark. A spark becomes an excuse.

--France, Germany, and Spain say Maduro has eight days to call new elections or they recognize Juan Guaidó. That's a very concrete ultimatum. What do they do next? Another potential excuse.

--Along those lines, more developed countries can seriously disrupt financial flows. Already Great Britain is blocking access to Venezuela's gold. What happens if more countries deny Maduro and/or start handing it to Guaidó instead? Maybe a coup, but easily something external.

--Perhaps worst of all, today Pompeo made the following bombastic statement that copies the language of every past half-assed invasion:

"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem"
This sort of talk should make you ill. It always leads to results that are bad for the people in the country in question, and certainly bad for the United States.

The language is ramping up. The ultimatums are ramping up. Start fostering groupthink binaries of "good" and "bad" in an effort to make any skepticism or questioning "bad." We've been here so many times before. Indeed, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams both have long experience with invasion.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Maduro Treats Guaidó With Kid Gloves (For Now)

Nicolás Maduro has been very careful about Juan Guaidó. One could imagine that his deepest desire is to arrest him, as he did with other opposition leaders. But in the odd dueling press conferences the two had today, Maduro referred to him only as the "lawmaker" even as he decried all the actions as a coup. And as far as I know, Guaidó has not been harassed since he was briefly detained two weeks ago. This despite the fact that he is going hard after Maduro on Twitter and elsewhere while offering amnesties to the military in the hope they will overthrow him. He rejected the idea of talks but said he would consider giving Maduro amnesty too(!).

On Twitter he avoids Gauidó entirely, referring only to the United States as the culprit (even a classic #YankeeGoHome hashtag). Even with regard to U.S. references, he hastens to talk about how much he likes the United States itself and wants to travel there.

He's nervous that if gives an order to take Guaidó, it won't be carried out and he can't be sure what direction the guns will point, especially after a recent revolt. He's also nervous that it would accelerate international condemnation, which is already hurting him economically. If it spreads to an oil embargo, he's in deep trouble.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Venezuela's Day After January 23

I am quoted in this Bloomberg article about two presidents in Venezuela. Back in 1994, I finished my MA thesis on US recognition policy toward Latin America, which much later I published in Presidential Studies Quarterly. This gets to the very question of what it means to be "president." I've received some push-back on Twitter, particularly from Venezuelans who insist there is no doubt that Juan Guaidó is president. But it's not so simple.

Thomas Jefferson would have said that Nicolás Maduro was president because he had de facto control over the country. In Latin America, this has really meant the person who managed to get the military's support. For Jefferson, that's all that mattered. Like the Estrada Doctrine, it implied no political judgment by outsiders. That changed over time, of course, as the United States government decided it wanted to exert judgment. We don't talk about "recognition" much at all anymore because it's so rarely in doubt since elections tend to resolve the question to the point that there is no civil unrest that threatens the leader who claims the presidency.

So who is "president" in such a case? For most of Latin America's history, the U.S. was much more able to dictate the answer. There were no outside powers willing to argue the case or to prop up a given government. During the Cold War, the extreme cases became civil wars, and fighting led to the answer. Now, though, U.S. recognition isn't enough. Maduro currently controls the military and the oil supply while maintaining financial relationships with Russia and China. Until those change, you can call Guaidó president if you like, but it will have no concrete impact. If Maduro has monopoly over the use of force, he is de facto the head of government and head of state. That means China and Russia are willing to deal with him. That means he determines where Venezuelan oil is sold. That means he approves military budgets and promotions. Guaidó currently does none of those things.

Yesterday I wrote this and it still holds:

There were no signs of military splintering or regime cracking and they still controlled the oil. As long as those hold, you can call whoever you want to be president. The countries that recognized Guaidó are out there hanging if they keep insisting that someone with no power is in charge.
Maduro wants to wait this out and let it die down, which has happened with previous protests (though certainly none that brought in international actors like this). If he can, then he remains head of state and head of government in all practical terms, no matter who is called "president."


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Venezuela's January 23

This post is my effort to sort out the rapidly unfolding events in Venezuela today, especially for my own future reference.

This is a momentous day in Venezuela.  Juan Guaidó went before the crowd and proclaimed himself to be President of Venezuela. Not long after. Donald Trump soon recognized him as such. Earlier, Guaidó called on the Venezuelan military to stand with him. Just a remarkable shift from someone who was not well known a short time ago.

Following the U.S. example, Canada recognized Guaidó. Not surprisingly, Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States came next, though clearly he can't speak on behalf of the entire organization, which includes Maduro allies. The Lima Group came next, with Brazil, Chile, and Colombia making their own announcements. As with the OAS, this is not a unified group and the Mexican government said it was not recognizing him "for the time being." It joined with Uruguay to call for more negotiation. Argentina, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru then did so. Guyana and Santa Lucia have not declared.

All that happened within only a few hours. Just after 4:00 pm Maduro announced he was breaking all relations with the United States and personnel had 72 hours to leave the country. Guaidó then issued a statement asking all embassies to ignore Maduro. Mike Pompeo said he did not recognize Maduro as president so wouldn't listen. He also threatened to take action if Maduro took any measures inconsistent with diplomatic protection. Maduro also wanted the justice system to "act" against those trying to oust him. Of the time of this writing, nothing had happened to Guaidó.

As he did so, reports of other countries recognizing Guaidó continued, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica. Predictably, Evo Morales expressed support. Honduras and Panama, both Lima Group members, remained mum, but finally signed on later in the day. Sadly, the Trump administration started using language learned in action movies, like they'll "have their days counted" (did they mean numbered??).

Maduro did retain the support of Russia. Meanwhile, Guaidó said he wanted to reach out both to Russia and China, which of course are the key sources of Maduro's loans. The two countries are certainly pragmatic, but have strong incentives to stay in Maduro's court--they have nothing to lose by doing so. Other than that, he has Turkey. The European Union called for elections without recognizing Guaidó.

By evening 13 people were reported dead and pots banged in Caracas. There were no signs of military splintering or regime cracking and they still controlled the oil. As long as those hold, you can call whoever you want to be president. The countries that recognized Guaidó are out there hanging if they keep insisting that someone with no power is in charge.

There is still a lot of night left.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Mike Pence's Statement on Venezuela

Mike Pence made a short statement on Venezuela. Initial thoughts:

1. This is a type of intervention. It is aimed not just at the Venezuelan people but also the Venezuelan military.

2. It's curious that he did it and not Donald Trump. Perhaps recognition that Trump's image is so bad? I am not sure. A week ago it was also Pence, not Trump, who spoke to Guaidó on the phone.

3. He fell short of calling Juan Guaidó the president of the country. The issue of who is actually in charge is not mentioned. This may well just be consistency with what Guaidó himself said. Marco Rubio is trying to get the administration to call him the President of Venezuela but as of now that is not happening.

4. If you can't speak Spanish, just don't. Is it so hard to pronounce "con"?

h/t Michael Bitzer


Monday, January 21, 2019

Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball

Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball is easily seen as a sequel to Michael Lewis' classic Moneyball, which showed how a General Manager (Billy Beane) found a metric (getting on base, especially with walks) that other teams undervalued. With less money, Lewis wrote about how Beane built a winning team (the 2002 A's). Fast forward to 2013, and Pirates' GM Neal Huntington hires people with strong data analytics skills who use new technology (especially PITCHf/x) to find new strategies such as pitch framing and shifts that other teams undervalue. Free agent catcher Russell Martin plays a key role as the diamond in the rough.

But there are important differences between the two books. Unlike Lewis, Sawchik focuses on harmony--Manager Clint Hurdle overcomes skepticism and players see how well the unorthodox strategies work. He shows how important the manager is because he's the gatekeeper to what happens on the field (A's Manager Art Howe was often portrayed as a puppet with no power). Perhaps that just shows how much changed between 2002 and 2013. The baseball traditionalists were strong but minds were opening up everywhere. Nowadays all teams have plenty of data scientists and the best baseball bloggers get snapped up. (In this sense, the tone is far different from Keith Law's Smart Baseball, which tends to be insulting toward skeptics).

Sawchik tells a good story. He also points out some important issues. One is that when a team finds a winning strategy, everyone will copy it and the advantage will disappear quickly. Especially when you can't afford lots of big salaries, you have to keep innovating on a constant basis, and that includes players. That's not easy. Further, one of the critical things we don't know is how to use data to prevent injury. With pitchers throwing harder than ever, arms get blown out easily. Tommy John surgeries are routine, even more than one. How can we use data to avoid that? He suggests the Pirates had some proprietary data, but there's nothing public.

The book was published in 2015 and it's amazing to think about how fast things move now. He mentions the initial development of Statcast, which is now everywhere. Launch angle is all the rage (Like *cough* the Padres' Eric Hosmer). These rapid changes make the game even more fun to watch and read about.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Who Is President of Venezuela?

Juan Guaidó posted a video yesterday on Twitter, referring to the "usurper" and the need to come out on January 23 as a sign of support for change. What I find curious is that the opposition is referring to him as the president of the National Assembly, not of the Republic. He further discusses the need for a transition government. It's curious because the constitution does give the National Assembly president the right to become president of the country while new elections are scheduled, but it does not stipulate anything about a transition government.

The problem is that the constitution never anticipated this sort of situation where the entire government, as opposed simply to the president, is illegitimate. There is mention of the Vice President taking over if the president is out of office (for whatever reason) in the first four years of the term. But right now there is no term--the election was fraudulent. The President of the National Assembly takes over if a president is out after the election but before the inauguration. There is no mention at all of transition governments outside these parameters.

I assume, then, that the opposition figures it is in murky waters and prefers to be cautious right now in order not to scare people. If they can get momentum on January 23, then they can start pushing the idea of a transitional government led by Guaidó, which is close if not exact to the constitution, and get the military's support. Or, at least, get foreign support that might tip the military toward accepting the solution, along with an amnesty pledge.

This seems to mean, however, that the opposition is simultaneously calling Maduro an "usurper" while accepting his position as president, unless they claim there is no president at all, which I guess is possible, though unusual. Someone is conducting foreign affairs, for example, or incurring debt, and the like, and right now that is Maduro.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Charlotte Running Company 13 Mile Trail Race

I ran the Charlotte Running Company 13 Mile Trail Race this morning, and it was perhaps the most challenging race I've ever run. It's on the trails at the U.S. National Whitewater Center here in Charlotte and it was muddy, steep, and slippery, though fortunately the weather was mild. I had to walk numerous times to deal with the hills and although I didn't fall (a guy at the first water stop was calling out, "WHO'S GONNA BE THE FIRST TO BITE IT?") I came close a few times. I can't believe the winner ran it at a 7:30 pace, which means he was running hard up and down slick hills.

Most people do the shorter distances (you can do 4 or 9) and so for the last 4 miles I was alone most of the time. That was actually nice, but my legs were too tired to fully enjoy it.  If I do it again, I may scale back.

Pro tip: this race always gives out a nice hoodie instead of a shirt. It's worth running it for that alone.


Friday, January 18, 2019

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo is a book you won't soon forget after reading. It takes place at the crypt in Washington, DC where Abraham Lincoln's 11-year old son Willie was taken after dying of typhoid fever in 1862. Lincoln went there at night to hold the body right after the funeral.

The story is one day at that crypt, which unbeknownst to Lincoln is full of spirits in the bardo, or Buddhist space between death and rebirth. There is no traditional narrative, but rather dialogue between the spirits (lots of them from all walks of life) as well as excerpts of both real and fictional histories of the time. Your understanding of their plight expands as the novel goes on, and you see how they have not accepted their own deaths. In ways you will have to read to understand, both Lincolns have a huge impact on these suffering souls. It is somehow both a surreal and very human story (years ago I read Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, one of the strangest things I've read, yet also so funny).

Suffering is at the core of the novel, how we all suffer, and how that affects our own actions. Ultimately, too, it is about how we cannot let suffering cripple us. Lincoln needed to save a country. The spirits squabble with each other and live in suffering denial, thinking their coffins are only "sick-boxes" and hoping in vain they might return.


Countering China in Latin America

A member of the Venezuelan opposition, Carlos Vecchio, published an op-ed in The Miami Herald about China. It is a more alarmist view than mine, but I agree with his overall point.
First, the United States’ top priority should be to ensure the triumph of democratic norms, human rights and the rule of law throughout the continent. 
Second, the United States should incentivize economic and social development in the region by leveraging its close technological, cultural and commercial ties with Latin America.
It is notable that the Trump administration is doing neither. Democracy is not a priority and in fact the administration is working against anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala. Meanwhile, Trump publicly calls for cutting development aid. Aid is just not MAGA.
To achieve this, the United States could promote summits and scholarships to attract Latin Americans to Silicon Valley and lean on its private sector to support promising technological enterprises abroad.
Bring in immigrants and promote foreign business? That's not MAGA either.
The United States could also promote social development by sponsoring sports partnerships across the region. 
Trump just said no to that in Cuba.

In short, none of these things will happen under the current administration. It is becoming conventional wisdom that the administration's Latin America policy is giving China a major boost in the region.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

Polarization in Venezuela

María Pilar García-Guadilla and Ana Mallen, "Polarization, Participatory Democracy, and Democratic Erosion in Venezuela’s Twenty-First Century Socialism," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681, 1 (2019): 62-77.


This article analyzes the emergence and consolidation of political polarization in Venezuela during the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, led by Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro from 1999 to 2018. We also examine the conditions under which polarization in Venezuela became pernicious, and contributed to erosion of democracy. Given the underlying class cleavages that were associated with pro- and anti-Chavista identities, we argue that the central dimension of polarization began with a political-ideological rift around competing concepts of democracy—participatory and representative, the rights that each vision privileged (individual civil and political rights vs. collective social and economic rights), and the interpretation of participatory democracy as a complement or substitute for representative democracy. As a result, the inclusion of representative and participatory models of democracy in the 1999 Bolivarian constitution failed to deepen democracy. Instead, they came to be seen as mutually exclusive or incompatible. The result was a polarized democracy that became increasingly authoritarian.
I agree with the idea that cleavages emerge between "participatory democracy" and "representative democracy." The same is true of Cuba and Fidel Castro brought it up all the time to highlight how the U.S. was not really democratic.

However, I don't think we can say that Hugo Chávez created polarization. There is a chicken and egg issue here. Chávez became prominent because of polarization. In a non-polarized society, the leader of failed coups would never become a hero.
Despite Venezuela’s historic high levels of poverty, social inequality, and social class differences, the country did not suffer class warfare or overt polarization before President Hugo Chávez came to power.
This just doesn't jibe for me. Chávez became a hero because he channeled the polarization created by all the problems noted above. The authors actually seem to acknowledge this.
Moreover, in 1989, the acute oil-related economic crisis led the government of Carlos Andrés Perez to apply neoliberal macroeconomic adjustment policies that caused widespread riots and political instability, with high costs for the legitimacy of the entire political party system, which the popular sector viewed as broadly collusive.
In other words, CAP holds a lot of responsibility for polarization. This actually becomes a distraction from the more interesting and relevant points about different definitions of democracy. One reason the opposite can't gain traction is the widespread view that its vision of democracy is not participatory and is entirely elite-centric. It may be "representative" but in the past dominant parties had a stranglehold on how got represented.

In fact, right now the discourse is all about elections and you hear nothing about how the poor and marginalized will be brought into the system.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Considering Oil Sanctions Against Venezuela

Kejal Vyas at The Wall Street Journal says the U.S. government is considering oil sanctions against Venezuela.
The U.S. is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions against Venezuela's military and vital oil industry, a senior White House official said Monday, as it seeks to ratchet up pressure on authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro to hold free and fair elections. 
The Trump administration is considering a range of measures including curtailing the flow of Venezuelan oil to the U.S., the official said, in what could be the harshest blow to the country's money supply. No final decision has been made.
This is the nuclear option. Oil is the ironic tether that binds the U.S. and Venezuela together. Hugo Chávez threatened countless times to cut the U.S. off, but there was no way he could do that without destroying himself. Socialism of the 21st century needed the empire to give it life.

Here is a look at Venezuela's oil exports to the U.S.

As Vyas points out, this is about half of Venezuela's oil exports and it has always been difficult to switch because Venezuela's crude is hard to refine. In short, oil sanctions would be devastating. They would also be damaging to the U.S. economy, but that's a separate issue.

The essential question here is the effect on Venezuelans. Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde just finished recommending that the U.S. refrain from any sanction that exacerbates the country's humanitarian crisis. This nuclear option certainly would do so.

I think their suggestions are preferable to this kind of move. Simply saying "We don't recognize Maduro" is pretty minimal without a broader strategy beyond that. There are a number of options before simply dropping the bomb.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Decade of US-Mexican Relations

President-elect Barack Obama and Felipe Calderón met exactly ten years ago. We can see how little we have accomplished.

  • Obama said he wanted an "upgrade" of NAFTA. Mexican officials said they had no idea what he meant.
  • A U.S. senior aide said Obama was also concerned about how the flow of U.S. guns to the south was exacerbating the drug war. You don't hear that anymore.
  • Obama said he wanted to have a "comprehensive and thoughtful" strategy for immigration that would benefit both countries. Obama was blocked at every turn on that and of course it has now blown up.
  • Obama said he wanted more cooperation with Calderón on climate change. Now that's all unraveled. 
For many presidents, U.S.-Mexican relations are an afterthought, or develop only in secondary manner. Trump changed that by directly linking bilateral relations to the well-being of the U.S. on a constant basis, but in a negative way. What I want to see is a U.S. presidential candidate turning that on its head by making U.S.-Mexican relations a priority and showing that we are all better off by working in a mutually beneficial way. 

As we gear up absurdly early for the U.S. presidential race, I will be looking for U.S.-Mexican relations in the Democratic candidates' platforms. Talking about immigration without putting the issue in a broader context is a mistake.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Constitutional Argument For Ousting Maduro

Juan Guaidó, Venezuela's National Assembly President, said he should be president, citing the Venezuelan constitution. He hopes the military agrees.
"¿Es suficiente apegarnos a la Constitución en (una) dictadura? No. Deben ser el pueblo de Venezuela, la Fuerza Armada y la comunidad internacional las que nos lleven a asumir", expresó Guaidó. Por ello, el diputado llamó a una "gran movilización en todos los rincones de Venezuela". 
Este viernes, mediante un comunicado de prensa, la Asamblea Nacional informó que los artículos 333, 350 y 233 de la Constitución Nacional de Venezuela son los que le permiten asumir la Presidencia.
So what are these articles?

Artículo 333. Esta Constitución no perderá su vigencia si dejare de observarse por acto de fuerza o porque fuere derogada por cualquier otro medio distinto al previsto en ella.

En tal eventualidad, todo ciudadano investido o ciudadana investida o no de autoridad, tendrá el deber de colaborar en el restablecimiento de su efectiva vigencia.

Artículo 350. El pueblo de Venezuela, fiel a su tradición republicana, a su lucha por la independencia, la paz y la libertad, desconocerá cualquier régimen, legislación o autoridad que contraríe los valores, principios y garantías democráticos o menoscabe los derechos humanos.

Artículo 233. Serán faltas absolutas del Presidente o Presidenta de la República: la muerte, su renuncia, la destitución decretada por sentencia del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, la incapacidad física o mental permanente certificada por una junta médica designada por el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia y con aprobación de la Asamblea Nacional, el abandono del cargo, declarado éste por la Asamblea Nacional, así como la revocatoria popular de su mandato.

Cuando se produzca la falta absoluta del Presidente electo o Presidenta electa antes de tomar posesión, se procederá a una nueva elección universal, directa y secreto dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes. Mientras se elige y toma posesión el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta, se encargará de la Presidencia de la República el Presidente o Presidenta de la Asamblea Nacional.

Cuando se produzca la falta absoluta del Presidente o Presidenta de la República durante los primeros cuatro años del período constitucional, se procederá a una nueva elección universal y directa dentro de los treinta días consecutivos siguientes. Mientras se elige y toma posesión el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta, se encargará de la Presidencia de la República el Vicepresidente Ejecutivo o Vicepresidenta Ejecutiva.

En los casos anteriores, el nuevo Presidente o Presidenta completará el período constitucional correspondiente.

Si la falta absoluta se produce durante los últimos dos años del período constitucional, el Vicepresidente Ejecutivo o Vicepresidenta Ejecutiva asumirá la Presidencia de la República hasta completar el mismo.

You may remember Article 233 from almost exactly six years ago, as Venezuelans wondered whether the winning presidential candidate was either unconscious or dead. This time around the idea is that the legislature has the authority to determine that the president is illegitimate by virtue of, among other things, violating human rights and democratic principles and can call new elections.

This is intended to give the military a legal-constitutional means of forcing Maduro out. If they don't want to, then you can talk about the constitution until you're blue in the face. The opposition is calling for national protests on January 23. Combine that with all the international condemnation, and they hope to push the armed forces.

I won't hazard a guess about what will happen. The safe money is on preservation of the status quo but we just don't know the tipping point of the military. This does seem the most propitious moment for the opposition we've seen in a long time, however.

Update (1/13/19) Now Guaidó has been arrested and his whereabouts unknown. As long as the military is on board, the government can act with impunity.

Update later the same day: government claims it was individuals who did this without authority. Who knows what's exactly going on.


Friday, January 11, 2019

Jason Matthews Red Sparrow

I read and liked Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow, the first novel in a trilogy (and also a movie). It is a spy novel about Russia and the U.S., with all the intrigue, double-crossing, and violence you associate with the genre. A Russian woman, Dominika  Egorova, is trained as a sparrow, or a sex spy, and her experiences lead to her being recruited by the CIA, specifically the agent Nate Nash (and then you get a romance there). She can actually see colors around people that indicate their mood, which is an intriguing addition to the narrative. There are American being paid by the Russians to spy as well.

The story moved along well, with plenty of twists and good descriptions of all the places they were. The odd thing about the novel is that there is mention of food in every chapter, then at the end is a short recipe for one of the dishes they ate. It was distracting to begin with, but then I got used to it and liked seeing what these dishes (many of them unfamiliar to me) were like. As you might expect from a spy novel written by a former CIA agent, the U.S. (and its spies) are all good and all the Russians (except those that spy for us) are bad. Indeed, one downside to the book is that the Russians come out much less nuanced.

The CIA itself gave it a favorable review, with this tidbit:

The amount of tradecraft, particularly surveillance and countersurveillance, will make the in-house reader wonder how he got all this past the Publications Review Board.
 I enjoyed it enough that I plan to read the sequel.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Maduro's Illegitimate Inauguration

I'm quoted in this story about the pressures being put on Nicolás Maduro as he is inaugurated for a term widely seen as illegitimate. My basic point is that just talking might not be enough. Illegitimate regimes can go on as long as they have the military's support. (Note that after the inauguration there was a ceremony at the military academy).

And that's the obvious unknown here. We do know there are rumblings from time to time, and that the government periodically feels compelled to punish officers who get out of line. We don't know the full extent of the gap between the rank and file and the generals, a gap that launched Hugo Chávez himself. We don't know what conversations Maduro and the generals have. Given our lack of information, it's equally possible that we wake up tomorrow morning to find Maduro ousted or wake up to find everything just limping along as it was.

I do find it interesting that Maduro is showing how the Lima Group got under his skin. He gave them 48 hours to recognize it or else. He can't really punish them so I don't know what the "else" is, but this shows he cares. Does he care because he feels the military getting edgy or just because he's thin-skinned?


Getting Young People to Vote in Chile

Chile switched from compulsory voting to voluntary in 2011. Claudio Fuentes writes about the support to switch back again. Previously, the vote was required but only if you registered. Younger people therefore stopped registering in the first place. The electorate therefore got older. Now a poll shows support within Congress to make that switch back. That support does not currently seem to be reflected in the general population.

He argues that the current system is worse. Turnout dropped as soon as the system changed. Therefore major decisions are being made by fewer and fewer.

I wrote about this back in 2011. There was hope that young people would start voting once they were registered automatically, but as Claudio points out, that just didn't happen.

His conclusion?

Pero difícilmente las cosas cambiarán. Como resulta altamente impopular retornar al voto obligatorio, ningún sector político se atreverá a plantear esta reforma. El pragmatismo dominará por sobre las convicciones y, mientras tanto, se seguirá vaciando el sistema democrático. Cada vez un menor número de ciudadanos y ciudadanas activos votarán por una élite que gobernará para los muchos.  El gobierno de los pocos, para los pocos y por los pocos será el resultado sub-óptimo de aquella reforma.
The problem here is that young Chileans really don't want to vote. If there is a penalty for not voting, they won't register. If they are automatically registered and it's voluntary, they won't go to the polls. I suppose if you put those together by making registration automatic and the vote required, then they're more likely to participate. When teaching Intro to Comparative Politics, I would often have discussions about whether forcing people to vote when they don't want to is democratic.

So we have to balance the empirical (you do see turnout increase considerably with compulsory voting) with the philosophical (is forced turnout democratic?). You can argue that voluntary voting is more democratic, but if it leads to dominance by only one group, that is clearly less democratic. Meanwhile, compulsory voting may seem less democratic even though it leads to a more democratic outcome (participation by the many rather than the few).


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Taking Aim at CAFTA

As Donald Trump went after NAFTA, I kept wondering why he didn't say much at all about free trade agreements with other Latin America. Now the administration is taking aim at CAFTA-DR. And it's all about China.

“We are very concerned with Nicaragua’s move toward authoritarianism, and El Salvador’s and Dominican Republic’s questionable ties with China,” the official said. “As the United States has made clear, we will not allow our trade agreements, including CAFTA-DR, to become back doors to benefit non-market economies and repressive actors in the region.”
By "questionable" the official means "we told them not to and they did anyway." It's dangerous to view Latin America primarily through a Chinese lens, however. As I've written countless times, the U.S. has to be cognizant of unintended consequences. Punishing Central America at the precise moment you're talking about trying to resolve the immigration issue is counterproductive, to say the least.

Kicking Nicaraguans when they're down will make their lives worse without necessarily hurting the regime enough to prompt any change. In the case of El Salvador, if the economy stagnates then people will come in greater numbers to the United States. One could imagine Nicaraguans eventually doing the same.

Unfortunately, Central America is long accustomed to being a pawn between large powers that don't care about its well-being.


Tuesday, January 08, 2019

U.S. and Russia in Latin America

Ted Galen Carpenter writes in The National Interest that the U.S. needs to "enforce" the Monroe Doctrine with regard to Russia. By this he means the U.S. should "stress to Moscow" that it cannot have any "military ties" to Latin American governments, and in return the U.S. will ignore everything Russia does "deep into Eastern Europe."

Washington’s failure to enforce the Monroe Doctrine during the Cold War when the Soviet Union made Cuba into a client state and military outpost has not encouraged respect for that doctrine in the post-Cold War era. The Trump administration needs to adopt a firmer policy toward Moscow’s intrusions into Latin America. At the same time, U.S. leaders must recognize that U.S. policy has been clumsy and provocative toward Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe, especially regarding Ukraine. Washington needs to adopt a new approach that respects Moscow’s implicit version of a Monroe Doctrine.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First, like all such arguments--and there have been plenty--he never defines "enforce" or "stress." I take it this means threatening Russia somehow. That alone could easily precipitate an unnecessary and unwanted crisis. What does the U.S. do if Russia refuses? Back during the Cold War, do you mean nuclear war? It was close for a while.

Second, do we really want a foreign policy that simply says Russian expansion, even invasion of other countries, is perfectly fine? I am no fan of U.S. intervention, but at the same time publicly handing Eastern Europe to Vladimir Putin does not appeal to me.

Third, this is a stretch even for the ever flexible Monroe Doctrine. I can't recall any version of it that forbade selling things to Latin American countries. Remember too that Latin American governments regardless of ideology dislike the Monroe Doctrine. Formally reviving it would be detrimental to U.S. interests.


Monday, January 07, 2019

AMLO's Border Plan

AMLO has plans to stimulate the economies of Mexican border cities as a way to increase incentives for Mexicans to stay in the country. Immediately I thought of unintended consequences.
Under the plan, Mexico is to cut income and corporate taxes to 20 percent from 30 percent in 43 municipalities in the six Mexico states along the 2,000-mile border with the U.S. Half of that border is along the Rio Grande and Texas. 
Mexico, Lopez Obrador said, will also slash to 8 percent the value-added tax in the region and double the minimum wage for border residents to 176.2 pesos a day, the equivalent of $9.06.
If you raise wages only at the border, you can expect Mexicans from other parts of the country to move there. It is especially problematic because the poorer, more rural, more indigenous areas in southern Mexico have traditionally been ignored in favor of the more developed north. NAFTA exacerbated wage inequality, for example. Even more inequality could strain northern cities that are already struggling to deal with all the asylum seekers waiting there.

Further, it's not clear how this would affect the growing number of Central American migrants already there. Presumably they would not be eligible for the new wage unless the definition of "border resident" is loose. It's not clear what AMLO thinks will happen to them, or what he hopes will happen.


Bolsonaro and Ideology

Jair Bolsonaro and his allies use the word "ideology" a lot. For them, it means "things we don't like." The Ministry of Education suggested that scholarships for postgraduate degrees abroad will be scrutinized (and rejected) for ideological content. Of course, imposing such a rule is a decision based solely on ideology.

The funny thing about ideology is that we all like to think everyone else has one except us. We just follow common sense, while everyone else is being manipulated by ideological overlords of some kind. Using the word "ideology" is quite similar to using "terrorist," which very often also just refers to people we don't like.

At the moment, Bolsonaro refers to ideology largely in terms of feminism, which he hates in large part because he wants everyone to accept rigid definitions of gender. As the Minister of Traditional Family Values says, girls will be princesses and boys will be princes. For them, rigid adherence to a particular rule because of religion is not ideology.

What you can be sure of is that behind every reference to ideology is a desire for control. The government will create rules specifically intended to reject all ideas other than the ones it approves of. Do things our way, or else. Professors in particular are in the cross-hairs.


Sunday, January 06, 2019

Options For U.S. Policy in Venezuela

Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde authored a policy brief for the Washington Office on Latin America making recommendations for U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Productive U.S. policy, that is. Not invasion threats, which is the predilection of many Trump advisers. Their recommendations are based on the following assertion, with which I agree:

Today, the only viable path out of the crisis is for actors in both the government and opposition to reach a political accord that restores democratic governance through some kind of credible negotiations process. 
Unsaid here is that any such accord needs to convince the army, which will then pressure Nicolás Maduro.

I will let you read the details but a few things stand out for me. One is the need to clarify sanctions. In particular, it's important to show what sanctions will be eased by what actions. We've seen for decades in Cuba that they're often just used as bludgeons, when they should be bargaining tools. In my opinion this is an important signal to the army.

Also important is more participation from the European Union and the United Nations. Make this as global as possible. The Lima Group is hampered by how many countries don't belong to it, or in Mexico's case still belong but don't sign on. A more global reach, as opposed to one that can easily be viewed as driven by conservative Latin American governments, will also be an important signal to the army.

I hope some within the administration can show the requisite subtlety, though I am not hopeful. What we've seen (publicly at least) is Mike Pompeo talking about Venezuela to conservative allies, including Jair Bolsonaro, who is unhinged. We see periodic announcements of sanctions without any strategy attached to them. We hear wild statements about invasion and coups. In short, we have yet to see evidence of adults in the room.


Saturday, January 05, 2019

Frosty 25K

I ran the Frosty 25K this morning in Winston-Salem, around Salem Lake. It's a trail race but the path is wide and mostly flat. It's been raining here so the ground was soft but usually not terrible. The exception was the end (which because of looping I had to do twice) which was a sharp uphill in swampy mud.

Last year the race lived up to its name with historically low temperatures, but this year was nice, sunny and low 40s, which is good running weather. I have considered running an ultramarathon but remain undecided. But I would consider the 50K, which is four loops (31 miles). It would be a serious challenge but it's a scenic and pleasant course. Weather is definitely a wild card.


Friday, January 04, 2019

Bolsonaro Bases

So not long after writing about how Iván Duque applauded the Monroe Doctrine, which is not something you hear from Latin America, I read that Jair Bolsonaro says he is open to having a U.S. military base in Brazil.

Say what?

Brazil's foreign policy has been the epitome of autonomy, especially in the postauthoritarian era (i.e. post-1985). Itamaraty has been all about projecting Brazil as an independent force, at times more regional and at times (especially with Lula) as more global. It has been cautious (sometimes even wary) about the U.S. without being hostile. I cannot imagine any past president saying this sort of thing.

I also don't think it will happen. Bolsonaro says he would consider it because of Russia's presence in Venezuela. My impression is also that the interviewer led him in that direction--it's not something he stated on his own, though it is true that he didn't just say "no." He also says he wants Brazil to have  “supremacy here in South America.” By virtue of U.S. troops? He also claimed vaguely that Donald Trump was interested in this sort of thing. I can see the U.S. interest but I don't see how U.S. troops helps Brazil--Russia isn't going to invade from Venezuela.

2019 is going to be a rough ride.


Duque Woos Trump

There is a stir in Colombia stemming from Iván Duque's comment to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the founding the fathers of the United States were "crucial" to Colombian independence (he said the words that he tweeted after the hug). Supporters and critics are going at one another on social media (naturally). The discussion goes into the meaning of neutrality but also the Monroe Doctrine.

Now, it's worth mentioning that at the time many Latin American leaders did view the Monroe Doctrine in a positive light, precisely because they thought the U.S. would protect them from European powers. That soured over time as it became clear first that the U.S. invoked it quite selectively and then expanded it in a decidedly imperial manner.

But let's set that aside to look instead at the optics of Duque's statement right now. These days the Monroe Doctrine is widely--almost universally--viewed in Latin America as negative. It became the foundation for U.S. intervention for decades. Invoking it will get you positive reviews only from the United States government and its closest allies (like Alvaro Uribe, who has been tweeting approvingly). The message was intended for Donald Trump.

Duque wants Trump's approval, which has been slow in coming. Trump cancelled two visits to Colombia in 2018 and periodically emits critical tweets or statements about Colombia's failure to address the flow of narcotics. This is from September 2018:

PRESIDENT TRUMP:  What I want — what I want and what we’ve discussed, and one of the reasons I was so happy to see the President’s victory — that was a great victory and there was a very worldwide, world-renowned victory because of his strong stance on drugs. 
Now, if he comes through, we think he’s the greatest.  If he doesn’t come through, he’s just another President of Colombia.
Duque's simple message (and all messages to Trump must be simple) is that we love you, we love your history, and we will even give you a lot of the credit for our own independence. Just please be my friend.


Thursday, January 03, 2019

Pompeo's Latin America Trip in Six Tweets

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent six tweets in the past 24 hours about his trips to Brazil and Colombia.

The first praised Brazil's "thriving democracy" even as it removed a president by questionable means not so long ago.

The second said he hoped to strengthen "reciprocal" trade with Brazil, as if there was some other kind of trade.

The third was about meeting Jair Bolsonaro to discuss their "shared commitment" to human rights, something both governments are intent on violating.

The fourth was more about Brazil's democracy, which is currently on weak foundations.

The fifth was about meeting Iván Duque to discuss "shared goals" that apparently do not include the peace process.

The sixth inexplicably called attention to the fact that he could not be bothered to spend more than two hours total in Colombia despite it being a "key U.S. partner." Dissing Colombia has become a habit for the administration.


Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Bolsonaro's First Decision

The first action Jair Bolsonaro took after becoming president was to strip the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, the government agency tasked with assisting the Brazilian indigenous population. Its past is checkered but a minimum it servesd as some sort of break on, among other things, the encroachment on indigenous land. This decision shifts its key responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is now under the control of those same encroachers. Some of the other duties will be shifted to the new "family values" ministry, led by a hardcore religious conservative.

Attacking indigenous rights was in fact a campaign promise and Brazilians voted for him anyway, so this is not a surprise. Moreover, it is a signal that Bolsonaro will be looking to fulfill those promises and some of them are truly violent and disturbing.


Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Jane Leavy's The Big Fella

I read Jane Leavy's new biography The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, which takes the perspective of how the Babe changed professional athletes. More to the point, his personal manager Christy Walsh did so for him. The book focuses far more on the barnstorming he did (often with Lou Gehrig) and the many endorsements he did than on his regular play and salary. Walsh managed his money well, forcing him to save, and organizing all the barnstorming. Importantly, Walsh did not negotiate with the teams, which meant he was not quite the modern agent, but a precursor. The Babe made so much of his money outside the regular season.

Ruth's well known larger-than-life life comes out plainly. It's hard not to given how much he craved the spotlight, a product of his youth as one of many in a Catholic boarding school, where his parents dumped him. He didn't know how to be alone. He did just about everything to excess, which included both meanness (cheating all the time) and kindness (he loved children and spent tons of time with them). His inner thoughts are unknown to everyone. Certainly he didn't write them down, and it was not an era for introspection. Leavy was thorough in criss crossing the country to find everyone and every archive that offered clues.

Of particular interest are the rumors about how he might be partially African American because of his facial features and darker complexion (opposing players would even scream the N-word at him, which I didn't know). Leavy suggests this is doubtful, but clearly he went out of his way to play Negro League teams when barnstorming, and the African American community loved him.

If you like baseball, you will like this book. For the sabermetric minded, she even has an appendix discussing how people have worked to translate his performance into modern statistics.


Burning in the New Year 2019

Exactly ten years ago I noted how burning what was bad in the past year is a tradition in Ecuador. Back then the two most popular images to burn were George W. Bush and Hugo Chávez. And now? It's still Venezuela, with Nicolás Maduro the most wanted to burn, followed by Lenín Moreno and Rafael Correa. Donald Trump is not mentioned, so Bush was actually more unpopular in Ecuador at the time.


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